Monday, 29 August 2016

The Maze Runner, by Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers and T.S. Nowlin (Twentieth Century Fox) | review

Three years ago Alby (played by Aml Ameen) woke up in a wooded glade surrounded by immense walls, with no memory of who he was or how he got there. He remembered his name after a day or two, but that was it. Each month another boy arrived in the freight elevator, bringing with them some essential supplies, and though it got really bad at times a peaceful community slowly developed with a few simple rules, don’t hurt each other, and, unless you’re a runner, don’t go through the huge gap that opens up in the wall each morning and closes at night, because if you’re stuck in the maze on the other side when night falls, and the maze starts to shift, you won’t ever come back.

The film begins when Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) arrives. By then there are about thirty-two young men living in the glade, going by the cast list, and many others have already died (perhaps they were being vague with the talk of three years, and maybe there were months when more than one boy arrived). Thomas isn’t the kind of guy who’s happy to chill out in a lovely, peaceful glade. No, he wants to get out into the maze and find a way out. Problem is, out there in the maze live the Grievers, immense spider-cyborgs who’ll kill you just for being in their labyrinth. Gally (Will Poulter) thinks they should stay where they are and get on with living their lives. He’s totally right and the main character is an idiot.

The Maze Runner is a well-produced film, with good performances from a lot of talented young actors, but it has a lot of story problems. There is very little maze running, for a start, and it’s over an hour into the film before it begins. The maze was fully explored before our hero ever turned up, and he just leads a couple of short expeditions before getting very lucky. The maze is supposed to be a trial, a test, but for most of the young men that trial has involved a long, pleasant camping trip in a leafy field with bonfires and bacon. The only people who face any danger are those who fancy it. It could have been more aptly entitled The Guy Who Lives in a Nice Field with a Bunch of Dudes and Sometimes Pokes Around in the Maze for a Few Minutes. As part of their brainwashing it seems that the young men have been wiped clean of any desire, since the arrival of a young woman is greeted by many with dismay, as a bad sign. It’s not even suggested that her presence might be dangerous because they’ll begin to fight over her, or any thought given to what the presence of a woman might mean for the future of their colony. Do they not want to hear the noise of little runners’ feet? The monsters are well-designed, but as so often with CGI your heart knows it’s not real and they fail to truly thrill. Not an awful film, though, and it’s good to see this kind of revelatory science fiction on screen. It’s been compared to The Hunger Games a lot, but it’s much more like a little league version of the Riverworld saga. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday, 26 August 2016

Predator vs Judge Dredd vs Aliens: Incubus and Other Stories, by John Wagner, Andy Diggle, Henry Flint, Alcatena and chums (Rebellion/Dark Horse Books) | review by Stephen Theaker

Judge Dredd and his fellow lawmen here face two extraterrestrial threats from the silver screen. In the first story a Predator crashes in the Cursed Earth, and from there makes his or her way to Mega-City One, where four hundred million people are already losing their minds. The Predator quickly realises that the judges are the big game here, and begins to collect its gruesome trophies. A somewhat psychic descendant of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character from the first film is called in to help in the search. Alcatena’s artwork is very appealing, but is maybe a bit cute for this story. The Aliens story that follows is much more memorable, perhaps because the Predator doesn’t offer much of a threat to Mega-City One. It kills a lot of people, but it’s essentially a nuisance – whereas the Aliens are a plague that threatens total extinction. Henry Flint’s art looks a lot like Carlos Ezquerra’s, so this feels like authentic Dredd from the beginning. The Mega-City offers a million dark places for an alien to hide and lay its eggs. A space pirate brought them here to conquer the city, but luckily another idiot thought he could breed them for use in fighting pits and got himself infected – his exploding chest and the thing that comes out of him gets Dredd on the case. Great use of Dredd, the Mega-City, and the aliens. ***

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Contributor news: Charles Wilkinson, Rafe McGregor, Douglas Ogurek

Hope you’ve been enjoying issue fifty-five, which was as ever free to download and as cheap as we could possibly make it in print. We don’t expect anything in return, other than your unquestioning love, but if you want to show your thanks in less romantic fashion, there’s no better way than having a look at our contributors’ other publications.

Charles Wilkinson has a collection of strange tales out now from Egaeus Press, A Twist in the Eye, which includes two stories that first appeared here. In his introduction, Mark Samuels calls it “the most exciting collection of weird fiction … that I have read for many years”. Charles’s work has appeared in Supernatural Tales, Shadows & Tall Trees, Horror Without Victims and Strange Tales V (Tartarus Press) amongst other places. The book is available to buy from the Egaeus Press website.

Rafe McGregor’s seventh book, The Value of Literature, was due for publication by Rowman & Littlefield International in hardback in August 2016 and in paperback in February 2018. Learn more.

Douglas J. Ogurek’s unsplatterpunk extravaganza “Maim Street” was selected for The Best Weird Fiction Vol. 6 (Morpheus Tales Publishing). Prick of the Spindle published his satirical piece “Thomas Sageslush’s Support of the Moronvia Heights Pit Bull Ban”. The Literary Hatchet (PearTree Press) picked up his oft-anthologized (and highly juvenile) “Stool Fool”. The Great Tome of Forgotten Relics and Artifacts (Bards and Sages Publishing) featured “The Binding Agent.”. Learn more.

Finally, check out the current Interzone #265 for my reviews of Hunters & Collectors by M. Suddain and World of Water by James Lovegrove, plus the upcoming Interzone #266 for my review of The Rise of Io by Wesley Chu and – honour of honours! – my guest editorial, where I talk a bit about running the British Fantasy Awards, where I think awards can go awry, and why I love them anyway.

Monday, 22 August 2016

The Cobbler, by Tom McCarthy and Paul Sado (Voltage Pictures and others) | review

Max Simkin has been struggling since his dad left, a long time ago now. He’s angry at the guy for going, a feeling not helped by going to work each day in the shoe repair shop where his father worked, as well as his grandfather and great-grandfather. Max’s mother suffers from dementia, and her well-meaning suggestions to take a nice girl out just drive home the point that all the nice girls he used to know have been married for fifteen years with children. A change in his life is provoked by the appearance in his shop of an obnoxious and aggressive criminal, played by Method Man of the Wu-Tang Clan, who doesn’t want the shop to close till he’s got his shoes. Max’s cobbling machine breaks down and because of the urgency he goes down into the basement and gets out an old machine – a magical machine! He discovers that when he uses it to stitch the soles of a pair of shoes, he turns into a replica of the person to whom they belong. With interesting consequences! Max is played by Adam Sandler, totally convincing in the role of this disappointed, miserable man who doesn’t resent his mother for a minute. The friendly barber next door is played by Steve Buscemi, extremely likeable in the role. The film sets out very clearly (though unobtrusively) the rules of the premise: he looks like the person as they look right now (even if they are dead), he takes on their voice and accent, he has to wear both shoes, and they must fit his size ten and a half feet.

Though I liked the film overall, a few things bugged me. The music tries a bit hard, and Max takes off his shoes in some very daft situations, places, for example, where he wouldn’t want to leave fingerprints. It feels like that’s because we might otherwise go long stretches of the film without seeing its star. Max also seems unbelievably unconcerned about the real-world consequences for the people he impersonates. Fair enough when it’s a gangster, but putting on the shoes of a young teenager or a woman and using them to talk to that gangster? That was appalling. The trailer put me off by making it look like Max would use the shoes to impersonate men to have sex with their girlfriends; while still very unwelcome, this plays a tiny part in the film and he doesn’t go through with it (albeit because he can’t get in the shower without taking off his shoes). The main plot concerns a property developer who wants to get one last tenant out of an old block. As Max disguised himself to help I couldn’t help thinking that this was essentially the same plot as the Daredevil television series. And this film does feel a lot like a television pilot, even if the actors involved give it the heft of a movie. If there isn’t a series currently planned, I’m sure it will happen eventually: easy to imagine the cobbler pulling on a new pair of shoes each week and getting involved in a new set of scrapes. Stephen Theaker ***

Suicide Squad | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Popsicles and lollipops advertised, mostly stale bread delivered.

The playful colours and reckless tone of Suicide Squad advertisements suggest a departure from the typical superhero film. Unfortunately, excepting the antics of one flamboyant couple, the film is too dull and safe to live up to the hype.

Director David Ayers presents a Gotham where one of the most beloved superheroes appears to be dead. The ruthless Dr Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) assembles the worst of the worst criminals as a safety measure. Suicide Squad starts strong, giving viewers a taste of the “metahuman” recruits’ powers, ranging from Deadshot’s (Will Smith) incredible accuracy to the pyrokinesis of remorseful gangster Diablo (Jay Hernandez).

The antiheroes get microchips embedded in their necks – they misbehave, and boom! – then soldier Rick Flag leads them on a mission to rescue an unknown operative. In the meantime, archaeologist Dr June Moone (also Flag’s girlfriend) struggles to subdue Enchantress, the ancient witch who resides within her. Moon fails, so the Enchantress sets in motion a plan to destroy the world.

The squad blasts and pounds away at Enchantress’s faceless, lumpy-skinned henchmen that an eight-year-old girl could defeat. Half of the squad consists of underdeveloped dullards with little to no backstory. For instance, Australian burglar Boomerang adds nothing to the film and swordswoman Katana seems to spend more time posing than fighting. Winning the booby prize for most annoying character, however, is Killer Croc. This sewer-dwelling goon makes comments that make you want to slap your forehead.

Enchantress spends too much time using her magic to swirl garbage in the sky to build a “machine” that will destroy humanity, while her brother, a flaming monster with elastic burning body parts, protects her. How long does it take to build this thing? Also, one has to question why Enchantress, arguably more powerful than any of the Suicide Squad members, would resort to hand-to-hand combat.

An Adorably Idiosyncratic Couple
What makes this film worth seeing is the eccentric duo of the Joker (not a Suicide Squad member) and Harley Quinn. Their effervescent personalities and their vivid costumes echo the vitality of the film’s soundtrack, which ranges from Eminem and Kanye West to Ozzy Osbourne and The Rolling Stones.

Jared Leto’s Joker admirably fills the shoes of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger, but also puts a new spin on the beloved arch villain. This bling- and tattoo-laden Joker retains Ledger’s dramatic gestures and adds a penchant for silver-capped teeth in the style of James Bond’s Jaws.

Then there is Dr Harleen Quinzel (Margot Robbie), who the Joker seduced, then transformed into quirky criminal Harley Quinn. Quinn stands out by far as the Suicide Squad’s most entertaining character. “Huh? What was that? I should kill everyone and escape?” she says
in her Brooklyn accent before an audience of simultaneously attracted and wary law enforcers. “Sorry. The voices. Ahaha, I'm kidding! Jeez! That’s not what they really said.”

Quinn fills a gap in the world of female superheroes. The bubble blowing, the exaggerated swagger, and the cutesy Betty Boopesque sexuality merge with the questionable insanity, plus Quinn is somewhat of a sweetheart. She wields a baseball bat that says “Good Night”. Her necklace – it’s more like a dog collar – that says “PUDDIN” (her nickname for the Joker) in bold gold letters reveals her obsession with the villain.

Suicide Squad offers a couple of iconic raised shots featuring these two. In one, weapons and dolls surround the Joker, who lies on the floor and laughs distinctively. In another, the lovers kiss in a vat of unknown liquid – is that pudding? – surrounded by swirls of the Joker’s colourful paint.

“Would you die for me?” asks the Joker. “No, no, no. That’s too easy. Would you live for me?”

Don’t be surprised to find yourself rooting not so much for the Suicide Squad to succeed, but rather for the Joker and Harley Quinn to reunite. Interesting, isn’t it, that the most entertaining characters in this film really don’t have any super powers? A testimony to the magic of character.

Alas, despite the vibrancy of these two, Suicide Squad doesn’t make the cut when compared to this year’s other superb superhero films like Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse, and especially Deadpool. – Douglas J. Ogurek ***


Friday, 19 August 2016

Goldtiger: The Poseidon Complex, by Guy Adams and Jimmy Broxton (Rebellion) | review by Stephen Theaker

Lily Gold and Jack Tiger are fashion designers at London’s most stylish fashion house, Goldtiger, but have a side project: adventure. In this book, collecting newspaper strips which supposedly appeared in the Maltese Clarion during the sixties, they investigate the disappearance of a number of boats on the Thames. Eventually this will lead them to the carnivorous Mr Sobek, but before then the putative artist of the strip, Antonio Barreti, will get bored of the scripts provided by Louis Schaeffer and begin to draw whatever the heck he likes, to the point of inserting himself into the story. In reality, this is the work of Guy Adams and Jimmy Broxton. The idea of the book is neat, and the strips do a good job of recreating the feel of the actual Modesty Blaise or James Bond strips from that period. But there are so few of them: by my count just eighty-nine finished strips, appearing two to a page, which means they only fill about a third of the book, the rest being substantially padded out with text pieces, photographs and rejigged pieces of art. The Goldtiger adventure is okay, but there’s never time to get into it, while the text pieces spend a lot of time telling us how outrageous and shocking the strips are, which the strips don’t really live up to. It was a potentially interesting project, and you can see why it picked up plenty of backers on Kickstarter before finding a home with Rebellion, but it feels half-finished and scraped together. That may be deliberate, all part of the gimmick, but readers who like the sound of it will probably have more fun with Modesty Blaise herself. **

Monday, 15 August 2016

Superman: Doomed, by Greg Pak and chums (DC Comics) | review

A young Superman is dating Wonder Woman rather than Lois Lane, and maybe that’s a good thing because Lois is currently under the control of Brainiac, who is in deep space, preparing to add the people of Earth to his collection. That would be trouble enough, but what’s more Doomsday, the monstrous product of Kryptonian science, has been resurrected, this time with the brand new ability to drain the life from anything nearby. (It isn’t clear whether Doomsday has killed Superman yet in this new reality.) Superman decides that there’s only one way to stop the monster for good, and rips it to bits, and then, erm, inhales what’s left, and is thus infected himself. He has Doomsday’s rage, strength, bony bits, and tendency to suck the life out of a room. How to fight off Brainiac’s attack when it’s not safe for the Man of Steel to be on Earth any more? This is a chunky five hundred page book on Comixology, though in print it would be even longer because all the double page spreads count as one page each on Comixology. It’s surprising to see so many of them here: they are a pest to read on a tablet (and don’t look much better in a print collection). It’s almost like print issue devotees are deliberately throwing their clogs in the digital works. The book collects material from eight different titles, including five issues each of Action Comics and Superman/Wonder Woman, and there are sections where the art style changes every few pages; it’s a jigsaw where each piece was drawn by a different person, but somehow it hangs together pretty well. It’s quite contrived, since so much of the story hangs on Superman acquiring powers from Doomsday that Doomsday doesn’t usually have. Perhaps it was felt that involving Parasite in the story wouldn’t have had the same heft. The Doomsday angle feels like it’s been bolted on to beef up the Brainiac story, a feeling reinforced by the way it’s eventually resolved, as an afterthought. Many other DC characters make an appearance. Batman, Steel, Lana and Wonder Woman come across very well, and it’s interesting to see the ways that different artists cope with the shame of having to draw Supergirl in her current costume! They cover it up with her cape, draw her from the waist up, or lengthen the sides to turn it into more of a jumpsuit, which is a big improvement. We don’t get to see much of the new young Superman’s personality in this book, what with the Doomsday infection and everything, but his costume looks weirdly unbalanced without the red underpants. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday, 12 August 2016

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride, by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat (2entertain Ltd) | review by Rafe McGregor

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction may seem an unlikely venue for a review of the first full-length Sherlock special, shown on all small screens and some big screens across the UK on New Year’s Day 2016. Three mini-seasons (of three episodes each) and one mini-special (of just over seven minutes) in, however, the world of Sherlock is already brim-full of superhuman beings. The eponymous protagonist refers to himself as “a high-functioning sociopath” (one of the series’ most-repeated phrases, suggesting sociopaths are usually low-functioning), but his superpowers include: reading an entire life history in a glance, disarming sword-wielding assassins without breaking a sweat, destroying international crime syndicates single-handedly, successfully masquerading as an extremist in Karachi, riding a motorbike safely at breakneck speed, instantly recovering from consuming vast quantities of Class A drugs… and returning from the dead. His nemesis, supervillain Moriarty, has his own list of powers: controlling Cockney serial killers, Chinese secret societies, and Eastern European paramilitaries; breaking into the Tower of London, the Bank of England, and Pentonville Prison simultaneously; resisting “enhanced interrogation” indefinitely… and returning from the dead (which is what the special is all about). Even Mycroft, whose powers are intellectual rather than physical, can follow his brother’s clandestine footsteps across Europe, masquerade as a Serbian soldier without detection, and take charge of a Tactical Firearms Command team. In fact, poor old Watson is the foil to at least four superhumans as “His Last Vow” (season 3, episode 3) reveals that Mrs Watson is a (semi-retired) super-villain-turned-hero, able to fire a handgun with one hundred percent accuracy, pass through multiple layers of physical security without trace, evade the joint efforts of NATO’s intelligence services, instantly access information beyond the combined capacity of MI5, MI6, and GCHQ… and waltz in a wedding dress. All of which to say that the BBC’s Sherlock is very much a mix of genres, alternating between detective stories in an urban fantasy setting and high fantasy in a tragic clash of good and evil – not to mention regular dashes of comedy.

The mix of crime and speculative fiction is by no means a flaw (though I hope to have conveyed a mildly disapproving tone) and may well account for the show’s popularity – along with the star qualities Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, and Andrew Scott (recently Bond villain Max Denbigh in Spectre) bring to the small screen. The generic motley also serves, conveniently, to distinguish Sherlock from Elementary, CBS’s contemporary Holmes series, which is pure crime fiction and currently in its fourth season (of twenty-four episodes each). Given the template of detective-story-within-urban-fantasy, The Abominable Bride is exemplary, with murder mystery and high fantasy prised apart for most of the episode. Prior to the original screening, much was made of Cumberbatch and Freeman appearing in Victorian garb, suggesting that the special would be outside the overarching narrative of the series, but the first few seconds drop this pretence and story picks up precisely where “His Last Vow” finished. Minutes after Holmes’ departure into exile (and certain death) for the murder of Charles Augustus Magnussen (a particularly nasty villain), Moriarty’s face appears on all the television screens across the country asking, “Did you miss me?” Holmes is recalled, the plane turns around… and we appear to go back in time to 1895. The (Case of the) Abominable Bride takes its title from Conan Doyle’s “The Musgrave Ritual”, where Holmes mentions “Ricoletti of the club-foot, and his abominable wife” as a case he investigated prior to meeting Watson. Doyle was fond of making these references to unpublished cases in order to give the impression that Holmes had a life beyond the printed page and they are scattered throughout the original short stories and novellas. Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction contributor John Hall (whose stories from issues 23 to 29 were collected in Five Forgotten Stories, published by Theaker’s Paperback Library in 2011) analysed them all in The Abominable Wife and Other Unrecorded Cases of Mr Sherlock Holmes (Calabash Press, 1998). Drawing attention to the fact that Doyle either let his imagination run away with him or was flexing his sense of humour – aside from abominable wives, there are remarkable worms, trained cormorants, red leeches, and flying false teeth – John takes “abominable wife” as a metaphor for all the references. The abominable wife serves a similar supplementary purpose in Sherlock, the idea being that if Holmes can solve the 1895 case he can work out the 2014 case of Moriarty’s resurrection.

Back in 1895, Emelia Ricoletti (made up to resemble Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight in an already over-used trope) fires two six-shooters into a crowded London street from her balcony before blowing her brains out. Her body is removed to the morgue, but that evening she conspicuously gives her husband both barrels of a shotgun in front of a police constable. Holmes, Watson, and a shaken Lestrade arrive at the morgue to find that Mrs Ricoletti’s corpse appears to have written “You” on the wall in blood after the murder of her husband. Holmes doesn’t get very far with the investigation, but a few months later Lady Carmichael hires him to protect her husband from Mrs Ricoletti, whose ghost has been seen walking in the grounds of their estate. Holmes and Watson fail to save Lord Carmichael, giving them two murders to solve. By two-thirds of the way through The Abominable Bride, it becomes clear that the Victorian case is taking place in Holmes’ “mind palace” (where he retrieves information from his near-eidetic memory) and that he is fixating on the (very) cold Ricoletti case because he thinks Moriarty has used the same method to fake his own death in “The Reichenbach Fall” (season 2, episode 3). The solution to the 1895 case is rather disappointing and I disclose no spoilers when I say that Mrs Ricoletti was indeed dead by the time of the second murder (where she was not positively identified), but not the first (where she was). This suggests that Moriarty is actually dead. Holmes shouts “There are no ghosts!” in 1895 and confirms “Moriarty is dead, no question” in 2014, but there are plenty of questions left unanswered, not to mention some ambiguity, at the conclusion of the 2014 case. If Moriarty is indeed dead, then The Abominable Bride is a giant red herring in much the same way as John characterises all of Doyle’s teasers (the references as abominable wives to the admirable husbands of the published stories). More likely it is just that, a teaser of suitable ambiguity aimed at whetting audience appetites for season 4. Unfortunately for fans, filming hasn’t yet begun and Sherlock won’t be on screens until 2017 at the earliest. In the interim, I recommend Elementary for a gritty and realistic contemporary take on the Great Detective. The Abominable Bride DVD contains two discs and if, like me, you are not enticed by the prospect of “over an hour of Bonus Features” there is always the double-sided poster to colour in (advertising Sherlock: The Mind Palace, published by BBC Books last year).

Monday, 8 August 2016

Planetary Brigade, by J.M. DeMatteis, Keith Giffen, Julia Bax and chums (BOOM! Studios) | review

The Planetary Brigade is a team of mismatched superheroes from the writers of Justice League International. Captain Valour, the Grim Knight and Earth Mother are analogues of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, the first two played for laughs, as if the chummy Superman of the fifties teamed up with the Batman of the nineties. Purring Pussycat is a former supervillain who joined the team after becoming disenchanted with mentor Mister Master, two feuding brothers in one body who will destroy the world if he can’t conquer it. Mister Brilliant is an obese genius in a weaponised hoverchair who runs a comic book store in his spare time.

The standout characters are the Third Eye, the team’s female Phantom Stranger/John Constantine/Doctor Strange, and the Mauve Visitor, an ambi-sexual acerbic alien with a taste for the finer things in life.

The book is a bit of a jumble, collecting a two-issue series illustrated by several artists in each issue and a three-issue series that jumps around the group’s timeline. On the whole it works, and though the art styles change from page to page it’s all good. It’s not as funny as the JLI, but I devoured dozens of issues of that comic all at once so there was time for the running jokes to hit top speed. A scene at the end hits a bum note, where a kiss with a trans character is said to be less scandalous because she’s has sex-change surgery. Not my place to forgive it that clumsiness, but at least the book is trying to be progressive and accepting.

A more cohesive follow-up with a longer present-day adventure for the team would be very welcome. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday, 5 August 2016

Fallout 4 (PS4) by Bethesda Softworks (Bethesda) | review by Howard Watts

I didn’t mention this in the editorial to TQF55, but Bethesda are partly responsible for a huge distraction when it came to putting that issue together. Having bought a PS4 with Fallout 4 as part of the package, and being a bit of a Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas vet, I was eager to load the game, having watched various YouTube first playthrough and guide vids. Time exists as an entirely different entity when playing this game, as your perception of the outside world is taken over by this new reality. Crazy!

The game is an astonishing achievement, certainly a leap far beyond that of Fallout 3 and the latter Fallout New Vegas. Obviously the visual and audio aspects are superior due to the PS4’s processors, but Bethesda have built upon the unique gaming concept of the previous Fallout offerings and improved upon the idea superbly. Not that Fallout 4 is without its minor faults – but these can be excused as the game is just so damn good, and looks absolutely beautiful. Reading back through this review, I can honestly say that I’m only scratching the surface of the whole experience – to go into great depth would be impossible within these pages, and any attempt by me to do so would only serve to spoil the game. I’m just gonna stick to some of the core aspects, just to give you a flavour.

The backstory is simple: In a 1950sesque U.S. / future alternate history mashup, atomic war begins. You run with your family to a Vault where you will be protected from the devastation. You awake early to witness your (in my case) wife being killed in her hypersleep chamber and your infant son kidnapped. Escaping the vault to track down your son, you are greeted by an atomic wasteland. Various mutated beasts and creatures inhabit this wasteland, and as the story unfolds you – as per previous Fallout outings into the wasteland – establish yourself with the many and varied inhabitants and factions you encounter. There’s a great depth here. The game’s narrative provides a convincing array of human and non-human groups and settlements, all with their own unique take on life in the wasteland. It’s easy to get caught up in the dialog of these characters – where before with Fallout 3, I found myself skipping a lot of the dialog and interactive conversation choices to just get on with it. With 4, I find myself listening more, taking in all the information, interacting more with the characters. This is down not only to the visuals, but also the voice acting. There’s a lot of info dumping here, but it all knits together to form this vast tapestry which is the wasteland. Bethesda have removed the You’re good for doing / saying this / that, you’re bad for doing / saying this / that / idea which could instantly stall the game as you hit pause to consider the ramifications of your actions. New Vegas suffered from being bogged down with so many choices of which character or group to befriend, it became a real problem, taking away from the enjoyment of actually moving around the environment and, well, playing. Saying this, Fallout 4 is hardly a “game” as such – it’s more of a simulation. You’re out there in the wilderness, trying to find your son, trying to stay alive. On the way you’ll be offered companionship, but I chose to stick with my first companion offering, an Alsatian called Dogmeat. He helps you through tough spots, sniffs gear out for you to pick up, and provides a few lighter moments as he rolls around in the dirt, or finds a teddy bear to play with. All this love for a digital dog, from a cat man!

This survival concept is but a small part of the whole. As before with Bethesda’s Skyrim, you can craft weapons, harvest food to cook potions for healing and power-ups. But the experience is far more than just that. Now you can build settlements, encourage settlers to be part of your community, but hey – if you don’t provide basics such as food, water, shelter, electricity, defence, a bed to sleep in and a roof over their heads, they get grumpy. This is where the “game” really sets itself apart. Suddenly you the participant have changed the pace. You can ignore a mission asking you to defend another farm or plant nursery from rampaging raiders, and build, slow the game down and enjoy the addictive pleasure of constructing a community and looking after these poor souls that have chosen to join you, and at your pace. Shacks, small houses, animal pens, bridge walkways, fenced off gardens can be built to name a few. This is where the “game” sets itself above others, as practically every item in the wasteland has a value – not only monetary, but also (and more importantly for this aspect) as a material commodity. Steel, plastic, wood, oil, glass, electronics, you name it, they can all be scavenged and stored to be utilised to build your settlement. These materials can also be used to upgrade weapons and power armour. Once a settlement thrives, you can move on to another, help them, plant more food to attract more settlers and then set up trade routes between them to provide income for yourself. It’s a bonkers concept, but one we can all identify with. No player settlement will be identical to another’s. My daughter decided for her game, the most important aspect of her settlement are small “personal” shacks with just two beds, rather than my large dormitory building holding 17 beds. Opposite her curved metal bedrooms she built toilets, replete with “his” and “hers” signs, and if I know her, to follow will probably be a bloody great white picket fenced garden, growing corn, potatoes, melons, gourds, defended by a couple of machine gun turrets.

If this all sounds a little too twee, then the options are there to just go out and explore and pick up missions to up your XP and level up. Set a marker on your map and you’ll come across beautiful vistas of devastation. Towns and cities you cannot refuse to explore, as exploration’s in our nature. And in these highly detailed locations, when the sun’s going down and the rain courses through the streets, lightning momentarily illuminating the damp bricks and rusted cars as the thunder booms, you’ll round a corner and find…

Well, absolutely anything really. It’s up to you to find out.

Recommended.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Authors: One Month Left to Submit to TQF Unsplatterpunk Anthology

It’s gore… for goodness’ sake! 

We’re looking for writers with the most demented imaginations to be part of the first anthology in the festering subgenre of unsplatterpunk. However, you only have one month: the submission window closes on August 31.

NB: TQF is a non-paying hobby zine, so if writing fiction is your job, this isn’t the project for you; this is for the dilettantes, the hobbyists, the Saturday afternoon softball players and Sunday morning footballers.

Check out the submission guidelines, then get your head into the gutter and start writing. Just remember the one thing that distinguishes an unsplatterpunk story from a splatterpunk story: a positive message.

Plot, character, setting… they’re all important, but they’re all peripheral to gore and violence. And the message. Don’t forget the message!

So write something that would make readers of pop fiction cringe… something that would make the sword and sorcery geeks gag and the sci-fi nerds squirm.

Not gore for gore’s sake, but gore for goodness’ sake. See guidelines here.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Rare Replay, by Rare (Microsoft Studios) | review

When I bought the Xbox One, I never imagined – or dared to dream! – that one day I would use it to play Atic Atac. But sometimes dreams come true, even the ones you never dreamt! Rare Replay is a collection of thirty of Rare’s games, going all the way back to their days as the fabled gods of ZX Spectrum, Ultimate Play the Game. Their name was a guarantee of quality in those days where the hottest new titles would cost just £5.50. The oldest game here is the evergreen Jetpac, still as good as ever. A few titles at either end of the Spectrum era don’t make the cut – like Psst!, Trans Am and Alien 8 – and one can only hope that DLC will be forthcoming, but the stone cold classics are, like Lunar Jetman, still as rock hard as ever, till you realise this collection adds a rewind button that turns you into Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow, magically anticipating enemies before they even materialise. It never occurred to me, playing that game thirty years ago, that there might be so many more aliens in the game than I had ever seen. Destroying one alien base still feels like a great achievement, but with the rewind button in play I managed eight! Then there are the games that dared to cost ten pounds: Sabre Wulf, rope-swinging Underworlde and isometric werewolf adventure Knight Lore, and the less fun Gunfright which still impresses by replacing the traditional “rooms” with a scrolling three-dimensional environment. Ultimate then became Rare, and began to produce games for Nintendo, games that were always out of my price range. I was still playing on my Spectrum the day I saw WipEout and the PlayStation on Gamesmaster with Patrick Moore! So there are several titles here that are completely new to me: Battletoads, Slalom, Blast Corps, Killer Instinct, and most excitingly (for me at least) Solar Jetman, which turns out to be a clone of Thrust, albeit with enough new features to make it well worth playing. Some of their notable games from this period are inevitably missing, for rights reasons, like Donkey Kong Country and Goldeneye. Others, like Perfect Dark and Banjo-Kazooie, appear in the form of their Xbox 360 remakes, produced after Rare became part of Microsoft. Rather than being part of the Rare Replay game proper (at least in the digital version), these are downloaded to the Xbox One in their Xbox 360 versions, and can be run separately too. (It doesn’t look like they become part of your Xbox 360 library, though, which is a shame.) Here too are the Xbox 360 originals, like Kameo: Elements of Power, Perfect Dark Zero, Viva Pinata and Jetpac Refuelled, all a bit underappreciated upon their original release but sure to find their fans now. I love that Perfect Dark Zero includes a bot multiplayer mode; I wish more games did. From the fact that I’ve written quite a lot of review without saying a great deal about any of the individual games, and not even mentioning half of them, you can tell what a huge package this is. I’ve barely scratched the surface, both here and while playing it. I haven’t yet mentioned the special features that can be unlocked, or the snapshots that let you play strangely altered versions of those classic Spectrum games (Underworlde without the creatures!), the ten thousand gamer points (there is an achievement just for playing most of the games!), or the price: amazingly, it costs just twenty pounds. Rare Replay is an essential purchase for Xbox One owners, and goes a long way towards making the Xbox One an essential purchase too. It’s an instant games collection, and they are some of the best games ever made. Stephen Theaker *****


Friday, 29 July 2016

Patchwerk, by David Tallerman (Tor.com) | review by Stephen Theaker

Scientist Dran Florrian has sneaked on to the TransContinental, in the cargo hold of which is his great invention, Palimpsest. The result of five years of work and a lifetime of thought, it is too powerful to be in the hands of a ruthless weapons man like Harlan Dorric, who is waiting for him in the hold. Also there, two hired guns, a technician who blocks Florrian’s neural connection to his clever machine, and Karen, the wife he lost while buried in work. Hang on, no, that’s not right. He’s D’ren Florein, on a queenship, an intelligent insect trying to counter the Nachtswarm, entomological engineering gone mad, and Halann D’rik is the one trying to take control of Palimpsest. No, wait, that’s not right either… This is a good novella that could easily have sprung from one of the Baen collections of classic science fiction by Poul Anderson or Murray Leinster, but instead it’s from David Tallerman, one of our own past contributors. He thinks up lots of neat tricks for the protagonist, whatever his name at any given time, to play with the Palimpsest, weaving a sharp little thriller through the middle of it. So far, the Tor.com line of ebook novellas is living up to expectations, and my expectations were high. ***

Monday, 25 July 2016

Saints Row IV: Re-Elected, by Volition Software (Deep Silver) | review

An Xbox One re-release of the lovably reprehensible Xbox 360 game, including two expansions, Enter the Dominatrix and How the Saints Saved Christmas, this picks up in gameplay terms from where the Saints Row: The Third expansions went: superpowers. Jumping over (small) buildings in a single bound, almost as fast as a speeding bullet, and throwing blasts of ice and fire like Spider-Man’s amazing friends. When the game begins you are president of the United States of America, and Keith David is vice-president. Luckily the tedium of governing the nation is broken by an alien invasion, who abduct you and your staff and at least some of the human race before blowing up the planet and sticking you all in a computer simulation of your home town. Yes, this series may have begun as a cheap knock-off of Grand Theft Auto but it’s carved out territory of its very own in the places other grown-up games don’t go: the ludicrous, the unrealistic, the absurd, the capricious. It’s post-modern, metatextual, and constantly self-referential. The Enter the Dominatrix expansion, for example, is presented as a series of deleted scenes from the main game, with the characters from the game commenting on their portrayal in the scenes and their performances, and climactic sequences shown as pre-vis rather than expensive cut-scenes. There are aspects I don’t much like: search for the game on Google Images and you’re likely to see unflattering snapshots of strippers, bondage gear and giant dildo bats. However, the option to customise your main character means that this can be (and was for me) a game about the amazing brown-skinned female president who saved humanity. While wearing nifty costumes, like a pirate suit or a superhero costume or pretty much anything else you can think of, up to and including a giant Barack Obama head. And then she makes friends with a race of dinosaurs! This may not ever be a series of games that I’ll buy on release day, but when the DLC is bundled in and you can get it for a good price it becomes an essential purchase. There is a deep well of nonsensical fun and intelligent idiocy here that other games would do well to draw on. The item I’d like to take from this game into others: the Christmas dubstep gun, that makes everyone bounce around to a Yuletide jingle. Stephen Theaker ****


Friday, 22 July 2016

The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories, by David Tallerman (Digital Horror Fiction) | review by Rafe McGregor

David Tallerman has achieved not only remarkable but rare success with his short fiction. In the space of nine years, he has had more than seventy-five stories published in venues such as Clarkesworld, Interzone, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Lightspeed, Nightmare, AE, Chiaroscuro… and of course Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction. This is his first short story collection – the appearance of which is itself an achievement given the reluctance of publishers to take on such projects. The short story came into its own with the rise of literacy in Europe and North America during the nineteenth century, but declined dramatically with the rise of domestic television ownership during the twentieth century. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, it is easy to forget that many of the most famous speculative fiction writers – Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, and even Stephen King – began their careers as writers of short fiction. The notion of supporting oneself financially by short fiction alone is already archaic and authors like David (and publications like Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction) breathe life into what might otherwise be a dying art form. I must interject a disclosure (or perhaps disclaimer) before I proceed: I met David while he was living in York and was surprised to discover that he had been kind enough to dedicate The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories to me in memory of the small assistance I was able to give him with the initial drafts of some of the stories. Our acquaintance has not prevented me from writing this review, however, because my primary concern is not the quality of the stories. That has already been judged by others: thirteen of the fourteen have been previously published – in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Nightmare, Flash Fiction Online, Necrotic Tissue, Bull Spec, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Angry Robot’s blog, and three anthologies – with “War of the Rats” appearing for the first time.

The collection makes several hard to acquire or out of print publications available again, most notably “The Facts in the Case of Algernon Whisper’s Karma” from The Willows and Spectral Press’s “The Way of the Leaves”. For this, Digital Horror Fiction (which is an imprint of the Digital Fiction Publishing Corp) should be praised, as well as for selling both the digital and paperback editions at reasonable prices. The publisher is nonetheless the target of my main criticism, which is that the paperback appears to have been deliberately extended across as many pages as possible. The font is on the large side of medium and the lines are double-spaced, so that even a work of flash fiction (the excellent “The Desert Cold”) is stretched over four pages (six if one counts the illustration). Each story has its own black and white illustration, by the talented Duncan Kay, on a verso page but the respective recto pages have been left blank and there is altogether too much white space between front and back cover. What puzzles me is that if there was a need to increase the page count – and I understand that there often is for a variety of reasons – the publisher didn’t include more of David’s stories. There are plenty to choose from – “Devilry at the Hanging Tree Inn”, published in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #37 (2011), to take just one example. Kay’s illustrations provide an impeccable complement to the stories, from first (“The Burning Room”) to last (“The Way of the Leaves”) with no exceptions. Where they are particularly successful is in the pictorial representation of the way in which David mixes the literary with the pulp uses of language. Kay offers David’s readers a mirror in which the pitch of each story is perfectly reflected, from the humour and self-conscious playfulness of “My Friend Fishfinger by Daisy, Aged 7” to the sophistication and seriousness of “Prisoner of Peace”. Kay has also pulled off another balancing act, revealing enough of each tale to tease his audience while expertly avoiding spoilers in a completely harmonious match between illustrator and author.

The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories is introduced by Adrian Tchaikovsky of Shadows of the Apt and insect-kinden fame. Commenting on the theme of the volume, he writes: “Every story here opens a door onto some human trauma: loss, grief, death, murder and madness, encounters with the horrors of the supernatural and perhaps the worse horrors that simple mundane world can inflict” (p. 2). I’m not sure whether his description is accurate. If it is meant to indicate a distinctive world-view, in the sense that S.T. Joshi takes as definitive of the weird tale as opposed to other categories of speculative fiction, then not because there is no consistent gestalt that underpins these stories. If it is meant to indicate that all of the collected stories belong to the horror rather than fantasy or science fiction genres, then Tchaikovsky is correct and whatever else they achieve, they inspire the right combination of the fear and disgust that one demands from the tale of terror traditional or contemporary. The absence of underlying world-view does not detract from the unity of the volume; one of its strengths is the way the stories criss-cross the style and substance of subdivisions within the genre – gothic romanticism, the English ghost story, and the cosmic weird to name but three. The collection is to my mind well-named: “The Sign in the Moonlight” is my favourite story, where fact and fiction combine to produce a tensely entertaining tale inspired by – rather than a slavish pastiche of – the themes explored by H.P. Lovecraft. My only disappointment is “A Twist Too Far”. The narrative is accomplished enough on its own, and was no doubt an asset to the issue of Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine in which it appeared, but is eclipsed by “The Facts in the Case of Algernon Whisper’s Karma” here. The stories are quite similar and the latter is superior in both intrigue and ingenuity. A minor complaint in a collection that is a major success.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Invincible, Vol. 18: The Death of Everyone, by Robert Kirkman, Ryan Ottley and Cliff Rathburn (Image Comics/Skybound) | review

Mark Grayson, aka Invincible, is an extremely strong and durable (albeit not indestructible) superhero who inherited his powers from his father, an alien who was originally hanging around on Earth with a view to making it a part of his people’s empire. As this volume begins, Invincible’s powers are on the blink, and Zandale, the hero formerly known as Bulletproof, has been keeping his costume warm. But Zandale is about to make the mistake of telling his parents his astonishing origin story, and Mark will discover that sometime ally, more often enemy Dinosaurus has been making big plans. It’s a shocking book from start to finish, as you might expect from the collection that spans this comic’s hundredth issue. That’s one of the things I love about this comic, its scope for telling those huge stories: it’s as if Crisis on Infinite Earths, Civil War, Infinite Crisis, The Death of Superman and Zero Hour all happened in the same ongoing series. The status quo can be completely upended in Invincible – and in this volume it does, a good half dozen times – without concern for the effect upon twenty other books that feature the same character. This isn’t the remixed version of a story I’ve read three times already, and when Mark’s friends are in danger there’s every chance that they could really die. That’s why I’m up to volume eighteen of this when I haven’t even reached issue eighteen of a new DC or Marvel universe book in years. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday, 15 July 2016

Lone Wolf 21: Voyage of the Moonstone Collector’s Edition, by Joe Dever (Mantikore Verlag) | review by Rafe McGregor

I wonder if (m)any readers remember the thrill of picking up The Warlock of Firetop Mountain for the first time? Of realising that they hadn’t lost their thread in the real world, but were lost in the maze under the mountain? Or of not realising they were in the maze until the appearance of the deadly Minotaur? Firetop Mountain, the brainchild of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, was the first Fighting Fantasy gamebook, published by Puffin in August 1982. The series was a great success, with fifty-nine books available by 1995. The first instalment nonetheless remained the most popular, spawning two sequels – Return to Firetop Mountain (#50, 1992) and Legend of Zagor (#54, 1993) – various spin-off products, and reprinting as late as 2010. I find it difficult to convey the excitement of Fighting Fantasy to twenty-first century readers, but one must remember that they appeared in a decade without the internet or household computers, where “TV games” (for those who could afford them) were restricted to Pac-Man and Space Invaders. Unlike the Choose Your Own Adventure series, which was well underway when Firetop Mountain appeared, Fighting Fantasy was aimed at young adults rather than children, with the best adventures combining compelling storytelling with pleasing terror at what awaited in the next numbered section. I must have played Firetop Mountain for the first time in 1985 or 1986, but quickly left Fighting Fantasy for a newer series. Lone Wolf was written by Joe Dever and launched with Flight from the Dark, first published by Sparrow in 1984. Where Fighting Fantasy were all standalone adventures, some of which took place in different universes, Lone Wolf adventures were self-contained but constituted an extended quest by a single character who progressed to new levels of expertise in a vividly-drawn and complex world called Magnamund. The epic began with the extermination of the Kai – an order of warriors dedicated to protecting the nation of Sommerlund as well as the rest of the free (medievally-speaking) world – at the hands of the demonic Darklords of Helgedad. Readers adopted the persona of Kor-Skarn (Lone Wolf), the sole survivor of the Darklord attack, and his first mission was to convey the bad news to the king. The missions became gradually more challenging as Lone Wolf advanced in power and ended up with the destruction of the Darklords in The Masters of Darkness (#12, 1988). The road to Helgedad and beyond was a rocky one, however, no more so than for Dever himself.

The first sign of the troubles ahead began between books 7 and 8, Castle Death (1986) and The Jungle of Horrors (1987), when Dever had an acrimonious split with his illustrator. Once the Darklords were destroyed and the (New Order of the) Kai re-established, there seemed little work left for Kor-Skarn, but Dever launched the Grand Master series with The Plague Lords of Ruel in 1990. Although readers continue with the same character, who had by now reached unprecedented levels of power, there was no overarching epic quest and each new adventure saw Lone Wolf troubleshooting evil in a previously unexplored region of Magnamund. I must admit my interest flagged a little at this stage – partly due to my age, no doubt, but also because I found the individual missions something of an anti-climax after the extended campaign of the first dozen. If some, like me, left the fold temporarily, replacements must have been pouring in as the Grand Master series raced to its conclusion in The Curse of Naar (#20, 1993). Kor-Skarn’s powers were now demigod-like and Dever did something risky but astute, introducing a new persona for readers. Twelve books were planned for the New Order series, beginning with Voyage of the Moonstone in 1994. The second New Order adventure, The Buccaneers of Shadakai, was published in the same year, but Red Fox had concerns about the internet-technology-inspired loss of interest in gamebooks and dropped Dever after The Hunger of Sejanoz (#28, 1998).

Dever then made another wise decision, authorising a group of enthusiasts calling themselves “Project Aon” to upload all of the gamebooks as free ebooks in various platforms, i.e. used precisely the technology that had killed the series to maintain interest. Such was the fan base that all twenty-eight books were made available over the next fifteen years (Project Aon completed in 2014 and can be found at www.projectaon.org). In the interim, the secondhand market for Lone Wolf paperbacks went berserk. There had been some problem with the publication of The Buccaneers of Shadakai, the result of which was that it sold out almost immediately in 1994. Five years later, copies were selling for hundreds of pounds. I confess to spending the most I have ever spent on a book (£200) at a time when I really couldn’t afford it (1999) to acquire a copy (left on my town centre doorstep by the postman). A new copy of the same paperback is now going for £999 on Amazon. The final instalment is currently the most sought after: The Hunger of Sejanoz varies between £699 and £999 for used copies.

The gamble with Project Aon seemed to pay off in 2004 when Mongoose Publishing launched a Lone Wolf Role Playing Game. The following year, however, Dever underwent surgery for cancer and was out of the public eye for some time. In 2010, with Dever fully-recovered, Mongoose announced that they would republish all the Lone Wolf books in a hardback Collector’s Edition, with new illustrations and fresh revisions by Dever. The books were priced at about £15, very reasonable given the quality of the covers, paper, and binding, and Mongoose furthermore offered a Megadeal: all twenty-eight plus the previously unpublished books 29 to 32 for something like £300 (a substantial saving). Despite my previous profligacy I was wary, having been burned by small presses before (and since). I was initially proved wrong, with seventeen books released in three years, but there was a lull of a few months in 2012 and the following February Dever announced (via Project Aon) that he and Mongoose had split by mutual consent. Two further announcements followed in quick succession: the German Mantikore Verlag would be publishing books 18 to 28 (in English) in the same Collector’s Edition format (March) as well as the final four volumes (April).

Mantikore published book 18, Dawn of the Dragons, in May 2013 and began the New Order series with the Collector’s Edition of Voyage of the Moonstone – which this review is supposed to be about – last year. The Buccaneers of Shadakai was also published in 2015 and I have found them easiest to acquire via Amazon (rather than the publisher). The books appear to automatically revert to “unavailable” on the publication date, but can be bought at the same price (still £15-odd) via secondhand sellers (at least one of which is based in Germany). Regardless of what’s going on behind the scenes, all my Mantikore edition purchases have been entirely satisfactory – purchased more for support than anything else as the first gap in my collection is book 25. I’m not completely convinced I’ll ever hold a copy of Trail of the Wolf as publication appears to have slowed down again, although cover artwork is available for Mydnight’s Hero (#23) and The Storms of Chai (#29). According to Wikipedia, the series (published in numerous languages – there are three on Project Aon alone – and including numerous spin-offs) has sold eleven and a half million copies worldwide, but the real figure must be considerably higher given all the craziness on the secondhand market.

Voyage of the Moonstone begins thirty-three years after Flight from the Dark and readers must create a new character by use of the series’ standard method, a random number table. I’m afraid my New Order warrior has the rather delicate name of True Friend, but he is a Kai Grand Master, can kill you with his bare hands, live off the land indefinitely, and move small objects by looking at them, so you’d better not tease him about it. True Friend’s first mission is to return the magical artifact called the Moonstone (with which readers of the series will be familiar) to its rightful owners on the Isle of Lorne. One of the reasons Dever’s decision to reboot with True Friend was shrewd is because it does away with the only consistent criticism of books 3 to 20: that they are either too easy or too hard, depending upon the combination of whether one acquired the Sommerswerd (the broadsword to end all broadswords) at the end of Fire on the Water (#2, 1984) and one’s Kai level (determined by the number of books one has previously completed). I think the critique is overly harsh because I picked up the Sommerswerd on cue, but remained far from invulnerable – aside from which there are various other magic weapons to be found in unlikely places. Notwithstanding, True Friend has no such problems, carrying no Sommerswerd and with no previous adventures counting towards his skills.

Given my emotional and financial investment in Lone Wolf, I can hardly do anything other than recommend Voyage of the Moonstone. I shall, however, say that although the first New Order adventure is as good as many of the originals (and perhaps better than several of the Grand Master series), the finale – always a single combat with a particularly nasty denizen of Magnamund (or the Daziarn Plane) – is a little disappointing. The Otokh is a giant lightning-spinning sea-spider (depicted on the cover), which sounds sinister as I type, but wasn’t quite as menacing as some of the antagonists I’ve dispatched with the Sommerswerd. A regular feature of the Mantikore editions has been the inclusion of a bonus mini-adventure and the first New Order Collector’s Edition continues this practice with a return to Kor-Skarn entitled “Echoes of the Moonstone” (written by Eberhard Eschwe and Swen Harder). This is an unusual choice, subject to the problems noted above despite having a strategy for dealing with them, but is close to the main adventure in length so the reader at least gets two for one. Voyage of the Moonstone ends midway through the mission such that it is not clear whether True Friend will end up on an epic quest of the likes of his master’s early years or take over as Magnamund’s chief troubleshooter. The mission continues in The Buccaneers of Shadaki – going for a song at £13.71.

Monday, 11 July 2016

The Legend of Tarzan | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

New take on classic story swings engagingly between action, setting, and character.

Whether you’ve confronted Tarzan in a comic book, a Disney cartoon, or Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels, chances are you don’t envision the iconic jungle-dwelling adventurer as a tea drinker.

However, sipping tea among British diplomats is exactly what the now civilized hero (Alexander Skarsgård) is doing when we meet him in The Legend of Tarzan, directed by David Yates. The man raised by apes wants his colleagues to address him not as Tarzan, but rather as John Clayton III, Lord of Greystoke. But that’s not what we viewers want!

So comes the call to adventure. Tarzan sets out to his motherland, the African Congo, with wife Jane (Margot Robbie) and gun slinger George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) to save his countrymen from slavery at the hand of Belgium’s King Leopold, who’s exploiting the land for his own gain.

Unbeknownst to Tarzan, Leopold’s chief envoy Leon Rom, masterfully played by Christoph Waltz, has promised Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) that he will deliver Tarzan in exchange for the coveted diamonds of Opar. To up his odds, Rom captures Jane to lure Tarzan. Thus begins our ultra-ripped hero’s swinging, hollering, brawling quest punctuated by flashbacks to his jungle upbringing.

If you’re a huge fan of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) type nonstop zany action, then The Legend of Tarzan probably isn’t for you. However, if you approach this film with the same patience and reverence with which Tarzan approaches a cup of tea (or a lion), then you can walk away more than satisfied. Tarzan is, at its core, a damsel in distress story that shows the lengths to which an alpha male will go to save his mate (and his friends). It offers a sufficient dose of action including jungle acrobatics, battling troops and tribes, and attempting to escape the jungle’s deadliest creatures. Tarzan even takes on his gorilla brother in an attempt to regain his standing within the band. Sure, the film is rife with Hollywoodisms – watch for a gorilla waving on a herd of stampeding wildebeests – but isn’t that part of the Tarzan charm?

The film’s true strength lies more in its devotion to setting. The Legend of Tarzan is, above all, a milieu story about exploring a world much different than ours. This Tarzan isn’t an eccentric or complicated guy, but then again, he never was. Tarzan and the jungle are indelibly linked, and this film shows that relationship in his interactions with the natives and with the majestic creatures that today hover on the brink of extinction.

Another strength is the always entertaining Christoph Waltz, who tones down his typical verbosity with a more reserved Leon Rom. Though his panama suit and hat and the rosary he constantly clutches suggest a pious individual, Rom is anything but. He uses that rosary, made of super strong material, to strangle those who stand in his way.

Despite the outdoors focus, the film’s most entertaining scene occurs in the dining quarters of Rom’s boat, where we get to see Waltz in his element… table talk, that is (see Inglorious Basterds (2009) or Django Unchained (2012) for shining examples). Here Rom attempts to host a cordial meal with his captive Jane. While his outward civility masks his true intent of testing Jane, Rom’s facial expressions, smiles, diction, and attentiveness to his guest serve up a delicacy at this cinematic feast. He even reaches over the table to reposition one of Jane’s utensils on her plate after she leaves.

Comedy relief sidekicks have the potential to be annoying, but Samuel L. Jackson makes it work as George Washington Williams. Williams spends most of this film trying to keep up with the hero, expressing shock, and commenting on Tarzan’s abilities. It’s as if he’s nudging the viewer and saying, “Can you believe this guy?”

Tarzan swings through the jungle. He cuddles with lions. He takes on gorillas and small armies. That is hard to believe. It’s also the stuff of legends. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Like the first one… just much worse.

Although President Whitmore’s (Bill Pullman) rousing speech in Independence Day (1996) is clichéd and overly dramatic, people can’t help but love it. It makes them feel something.

The makers of Independence Day: Resurgence had to make sure that Whitmore gave another speech. This time, the motley, over-medicated has-been attempts to do so in an airport hangar. Music plays. People gather. At the end, David Levinson’s (Jeff Goldblum) smirk seems to say, “Yeah, nowhere near as good as your first one.” Such is the sentiment that summarizes this film.

Independence Day, though far from a masterpiece, gained many fans. It showed nations uniting for a common cause. It revealed Will Smith’s emerging talent. It gave us the zaniness of Dr Brackish Okun, as well as Whitmore’s “Nuke ‘em. Let’s nuke the bastards.” It even started this whole monument destruction thing.

Roland Emmerich returns to direct a Smith-less (and witless) sequel that tries too hard to be like its predecessor. Major characters make sacrifices that fizzle, excessive pilot whooping gets annoying, skies filled with aircraft and lasers grow tedious, and attempts to stir emotion fall flat. In fact, the big idea of this film (i.e. aliens attack Earth, humans fight back) duplicates that of the first. Why even make this sequel?

The film takes place in a rainbows and butterflies (e.g. no terrorism, peace between nations) alternate present twenty years after the alien attack. You will hear that twenty years have elapsed again and again and again: two decades ago, 1996, twenty years ago, 7,000 days. Enough already!

It’s easy to see very early in the film why critics ripped this one apart: shallow characters, sub-par to abysmal acting, and expository dialogue.

Since this is an event movie, it presents no clearly defined protagonist. Instead, we are left with a stumbling cast of new characters, including dull pilots, a not-so-funny comic relief, Whitmore’s forgettable daughter, a sabre-wielding, scowling African warlord whose attempts at drama are laughable, and a psychiatrist who specializes in alien mind control. Then there are all the returning characters stuffed into the film.

One of the cast’s two saving graces is Jeff Goldblum, whose quirky walk and idiosyncratic speaking style always entertain. I’m paraphrasing here: “There’s a queen in there… a very… big… queen.” Goldblum’s professorial demeanor makes the film’s juvenile objective (i.e. blow up the bad guy) seem like a brilliant scientific deduction.

The raggedy Dr Brackish Okun (Brent Spiner), who springs up after a 20-year coma with his mind teeming with alien formulae, is another favorite. However, even his maniacal approach doesn’t have the same oomph as it did in Independence Day. Okun does manage to pull off the film’s one scene that transfers emotion to the viewer.

Where are the filmmakers trying to go with this movie? Are they trying to be silly-serious in the vein of Ghost Rider (2007)? They don’t succeed. Are they trying to tap into viewers’ emotions? They’re way off base: the film has too many palm-slapped-against-forehead failed attempts to wring out emotion. Ultimately, Independence Day: Resurgence, hovering somewhere between sci-fi drama and comedy, doesn’t know what it wants to be.

When I saw Independence Day twenty years ago, my fellow theatregoers responded with an intensity of clapping that I’ve never seen matched. After Independence Day: Resurgence, the theatre, though full, was silent. Do yourself a favour: just watch the original again. – Douglas J. Ogurek ***

Friday, 8 July 2016

Life, the Universe and Everything, by Douglas Adams (MacMillan Audio) | review by Jacob Edwards

Laughter beyond fits.

Life, the Universe and Everything is a remarkable book, and not just for the cosmic pull-tab placed so aptly on its front cover. Like its predecessors it is an existential satire with vast and brilliant ideas. Like its predecessors it projects human foibles onto the whole of creation, thence to bounce back in a fatalistic and absurdly funny manner. And like its predecessors it indulges in a digressive, facetious and distinctly Adamsey disregard for the sanctity of traditional prose narrative. Unlike its predecessors it isn’t really a Hitchhiker’s novel.

Capturing the internal zeitgeist of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is, of course, impossible. Almost everyone who’s read Adams has attempted at some stage to do so, and in almost all instances the attempt has proven at least moderately unwise. The person who came closest was – perhaps unsurprisingly, but then again perhaps not, given that he’d written Hitchhiker’s as a duology and that the story wrapped up rather neatly at the end of the second book – Douglas Adams. But even the man himself found it something of a strain to replicate the freewheeling, towel-toting, mind-blowing hoopiness of what he’d set down previously. Less a continuation, more an inspired adlib sucked into the ravenous vacuum of unfulfilled publishing contracts, Life, the Universe and Everything is nothing short of a jump-started series reboot; a greatly laboured-over extemporisation that nevertheless is, as mentioned, quite remarkable.

The full scope of Life, the Universe and Everything is difficult to impart without going into the sort of detail best served by reading the book. The basic storyline, however – the threads of plot used by Adams to connect the various dots and squiggles he’d laid down – is that of the people of Krikkit, a peaceful and isolated race whose sudden introduction to the wider universe provoked in them a xenophobic resolve to wipe out everyone who wasn’t them. Thus came the Krikkit Wars, at bloody culmination of which they and their planet were locked away in a Slo-Time envelope until the end of days. Unfortunately, a cohort of bat-wielding Krikkit robots escaped incarceration and have been roaming the galaxy, ruthlessly reassembling the Wikkit Gate, which is the key to releasing Krikkit from its temporal prison. Should they succeed, the aforementioned end of days will take place somewhat earlier than the rest of the universe would like…

Even for those who know nothing of a Doctor Who pitch that Adams wrote for the BBC during Tom Baker’s ascendency, entitled Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen, this underlying concern of Life, the Universe and Everything seems rather more like a problem in need of solving, Doctor Who style, than the sort of thorny bewilderment that Hitchhiker’s regularly put out there for its quasi-heroes to blunder through, run away from or fail utterly to comprehend or even notice. Adams himself admitted to a certain frustration upon finding that none of his Hitchhiker’s characters were remotely qualified to play the part of the Doctor; yet he persisted and – remarkably – found a way to compensate for and even make a virtue of the dearth of players. Ever the innovator, Adams told the story almost exclusively by way of digressions. More on this shortly.

At the conclusion of the first two Hitchhiker’s books – and also the TV series – Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect are left stranded on prehistoric Earth, wistfully resigned both to the future destruction of the planet and to never finding a satisfactory question to complement the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything. This is the natural endpoint of Arthur’s journey, and from the unused draft chapters collected in Jem Roberts’ Adams biography The Frood (Preface, 2014) it seems that Adams had tremendous difficulty writing him back into the story. He had, admittedly, done so once previously in Fit the Eighth of the radio series, but only through recourse to a second lightning strike from the infinite improbability drive. Having judged this unsatisfactory, Adams laboured until he came up with a wholly different deus ex machina solution, extricating Arthur and Ford from the antediluvian bathtub of prehistory and dropping them into the middle of Lord’s Cricket Ground just in time for the Krikkit robots’ first explosive appearance. Arthur subsequently travels in the Starship Bistromath (which is powered by restaurant physics), is abducted by Agrajag (a crazed bat-like incarnation of a creature whom Arthur has inadvertently killed many times over on the circle of life), learns how to fly (by throwing himself at the ground and missing), and faces off with a Norse god at an airborne party, none of which virtuoso pieces of Hitchhiker’s lore seem immediately germane to the subject of Krikkit. In fact, Adams appears almost resentful of Arthur’s lack of usefulness, and thus to be punishing him through a barrage of inventiveness that serves only to emphasise the qualities fostering that resentment. Arthur Dent, one of literature’s most passive protagonists, becomes also one of its most passive-aggressive antagonists. Meanwhile, the story itself refuses to unfold. Except…

Somehow, it does. Amidst digressions that seem merely nostalgic, digressions that loop about themselves and come back together like tied shoelaces, digressions within digressions, which transpire to be not just digressions but indeed crucial plot points hiding in brazen anticipation of the big reveal, somehow the story of Krikkit is told. (And by this we mean not just the backdrop of Krikkit – which Slartibartfast exposits shamelessly – but the actual story; the saga of Krikkit once wrested away from the Doctor Who canon and repurposed for Hitchhiker’s.) Arthur Dent remains totally ineffectual, Ford Prefect feckless and hedonistic, Zaphod a restless gadabout, yet through their free-floating conduit and surging by way of discursive slingshot, Life, the Universe and Everything takes on its own unique character. Adams, after dedicating the book, writes that it is “freely adapted” from the radio programme. The two words form at best an infelicitous understatement. In truth, and under cover of its irrepressibly zany content and an overly deliberate, at times predictable stylistic enunciation, the third Hitchhiker’s novel was entirely retrofitted.

Nowadays, there are several different manifestations of Life, the Universe and Everything to choose from, not least of all an audiobook read by Adams himself (from which was taken his outrageously apoplectic posthumous contribution to the third Hitchhiker’s radio series, voicing Agrajag with lisping, fang-tearing relish in Fit the Sixteenth). One such rendition that adds definitive nuance to Adams’ text is the 2006 audiobook read by Martin Freeman, who in 2005 had played Arthur Dent in the film version of Hitchhiker’s. Not only does Freeman exhibit a well-pitched array of character voices, he brings also a dash of his more assertive film persona to the narration, the story thus coming across almost as if filtered through the perceptions of a more rounded, more self-assured Arthur Dent. If Life, the Universe and Everything has garnered one particular criticism it is that, unlike the seat-of-the-pants exuberance of its much-vaunted predecessors, its word follies, for all their careful construction, feel inexplicably piecemeal. Freeman’s contribution goes a long way towards plastering over the cracks in the façade.

All told (and as frequently related in this review) Life, the Universe and Everything is a remarkable book. Perhaps not wholly remarkable – perhaps not reaching the fanciful heights of perhaps the most remarkable book ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor – but remarkable nonetheless, and even more so as read by Martin Freeman. Thirty-four years on, pulling the ring-tab will still open to readers a novel of largely unparalleled zest.