Friday, 30 October 2020

Silver Surfer, Vol. 4: Citizen of Earth, by Dan Slott and Mike Allred (Marvel) | review by Stephen Theaker

I think Mike Allred is one of the greatest comic book artists of all time, and Laura Allred is my favourite colourist, and Dan Slott here writes a series of stories that suit their work perfectly and give them the chance to illustrate lots of Marvel characters. It feels a bit like Doctor Who, with the Silver Surfer having a companion on his adventures, and his board getting a bit of personality. It’s goofy and fantastical and colourful. Stephen Theaker ****

Friday, 23 October 2020

Judge Dredd, Vol. 1, by Duane Swierczynski and Nelson Daniel (IDW Publishing) | review by Stephen Theaker

My low expectations (inspired perhaps by memories of the underwhelming DC Comics version) were quickly proven wrong. Although this is a reboot series with its own continuity, it is absolutely within the spirit of the 2000 AD strip, with art that perfectly fits the tone. It begins an epic saga of cloning, kidnapping and robot rebellion that continues in subsequent volumes, while also featuring short back-up strips that show us one-off stories taking place against the background of those events. Stephen Theaker ***

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

#OcTBRChallenge: books 34 to 66

Pretty much on target to finish reading a hundred of my short books and quick reads this month as part of #OcTBRChallenge. Some of these books were very quick reads, so reading 66 of them hasn't really been a challenge, but it's still been fun.


New Atlantis, Lavie Tidhar (JABberwocky Literary Agency): Hundreds of years after our time, in a world still trying to recover from the damage we've been doing to it, a relatively small number of humans survive in isolated communities. Mai gets a message from an old flame who lives far away, asking for her help. The tone of this seemed much more sincere than the other Lavie Tidhar books I've read, with none of the usual ironic detachment, but I found it all very interesting. It left me with two questions: which of his other books take place in decaying time vaults (it would explain a lot!), and why do ants let us live? ****

The Alliance of the Curious, Vol. 1: Sapiens, Philippe Riche (Humanoids): An ancient relic gets everyone running around in a tizzy while the son of its erstwhile owner wanders the city, dazed and confused. This took a little while to get going, but I was getting quite interested by the end, when the Alliance of the Curious was officially formed. ***

Spider-Gwen, Vol. 4: Predators, Jason Latour, Robbi Rodriguez and Hannah Blumenreich (Marvel Comics): A dimension where Gwen Stacey was bitten by the radioactive spider instead of Peter Parker. In this book she's trying to get her powers back by working for an apparently evil Matt Murdoch and chasing the Lizard to Madripoor. I didn't really enioy any of this, except for when Mary-Jane beat up a creep. **

Getting Even, Woody Allen (Audible): Not quite as funny as Without Feathers, which I listened to recently. It's humorous rather than hilarious. But the epistolary chess game was superb, anticipating online life better than any science fiction novel I've read. ***

Flywires, Book 1, Chuck Austen (Humanoids): An ex-cop, called a frywire because his link to his Dyson sphere's neural net is permanently busted, gets drawn back into the action when hoodlums blow a hole in his apartment's wall, a kidnapped little kid in their hands. Nothing massively original, but there are worse ways to spend half an hour. ***

Nevertheless, She Persisted, Diana M. Pho (ed.) (Tor Books): A mostly female group of writers respond to Mitch McConnell's infamous words about Elizabeth Warren during the Jeff Sessions confirmation hearings, with very short stories that take his words as their launchpad. I didn't think they were very good, on the whole, but Catherynne Valente's story pulled it up from a two-star rating and I liked the bit in the Charlie Jane Anders story where a man made of ice climbed out of the freezer. One or two of the stories seemed to advise against persisting, if anything. ***

Conscientious Inconsistencies, Nancy Jane Moore (PS Publishing): A short collection of five stories in an expensive format, which made some careless errors stand out: people paying £25 for a 66pp book would expect a bit better. I quite enjoyed "A Mere Escutcheon", a Three Musketeers pastiche. The hero of "Homesteading" was admirable, and "Three O'Clock in the Morning" was interestingly nightmarish. ***

The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood, read by Laural Merlington (Canongate Books): A pointed interrogation of the Odyssey, from the point of view of Penelope, married to Odysseus at fifteen and left behind during his adventures, as well as that of her maids, murdered upon his return. Penelope's rivalry with Helen of Troy, which continues beyond the grave, was amusing, and the book does a good job of persuading us to read between the lines of The Odyssey. Well read by Laural Merlington, but the recording is from 2005 and the sound effect used for the chanting maids sounds very odd, as if they were aliens in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. ****

Daughters of Passion, Julia O'Faolain (Faber & Faber): A terrorist on hunger strike thinks back to her childhood, the friends she had then, and how reconnecting with them as an adult led her to this situation. ***

Solid State Tank Girl, Alan C. Martin (Titan Comics): Her kangaroo boyfriend gets sick so Tank Girl and friends go on a fantastic voyage to his gentlemanly area. Extracting the source of the illness just leads to even more trouble. The story was okay, but I haven't found any of the Tank Girl books very funny, so I think I'm missing out on one of the main things people seem to like about them. My first reaction to the art was not particularly positive, but it grew on me a lot: it's highly expressive and full of character. ***

Side Effects, Woody Allen (Audible): Another very enjoyable book of short stories and humour pieces, with the usual literary, philosophical, romantic and criminal themes. I especially enjoyed his take on UFOs, the death of Socrates, and falling in love with his partner's mother. I'm surprised the latter did not become a film. ****

A River in Egypt, David Means (Faber & Faber): An assistant art director, recently fired from what sounds like a terrible science fiction film, tries to keep his son from crying during a test for cystic fibrosis, and a nurse enters the room at a point where the father seems to have lost control. I liked this a lot. I liked the way he read acres of thought into each expression on the nurse's face, it being part of his job to encourage film viewers to read actors' faces in the same way. I also liked the title: it's not about a river in Egypt, but it is about denial. ****

By The Numbers, Book 1: Traffic in Indochina, Laurent Rullier and Stanislas (Humanoids): An accountant gets dragged into a shady deal and, what's worse, the money he was meant to hand over gets stolen. Rather than doing the sensible thing, he follows the money to French-occupied Vietnam and tries to get it back. A good story with excellent art. ****

Vardoger, Stephen Volk (Gray Friar Press): Sean and Ali check into a luxury hotel but everyone seems to think Sean was there already on his own the previous week, and he didn't behave well at all. He soon becomes convinced that he has an evil twin, one who wears a smart suit and mistreats women, and frustration turns to horror when he sees his wife leaving the hotel on that double's arm. As with the same author's The Little Gift, I'm baffled that this was nominated for a British Fantasy Award; neither feature any fantastical elements. I found the plot fairly interesting – it would have made a good episode of Inside No. 9 – and could share Sean's anguish, but he is an unpleasant character from the off, grabbing female staff by the arm and such, and it's narrated in an artless, blunt style that may reflect the way Sean sees the world but didn't make it enjoyable to read. One mystery remains at the end: what was the Frankie Goes to Hollywood song playing at the wedding party? ***

So Long, Lollipops, Sarah Lyons Fleming, read by Julia Whelan (Podium Publishing): Having, he thinks, sacrificed himself to let the rest of his group escape a zombie attack, Peter is pleasantly surprised to be rescued by a young girl. After spending some time with her group, he sets off to find his own people. It's a fairly bog-standard zombie story, and an awful lot of it is spent telling us how Peter feels about people who aren't in it. He's very sentimental about children. The reading is fairly good. ***

Stumptown, Vol. 1: The Case of the Girl Who Took Her Shampoo (But Left her Mini), Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth (Oni Press): A private eye in Portland gets herself shot, beaten up, cold-cocked and generally mistreated in the course of trying to find and protect a casino owner's missing granddaughter. Pretty good. ***

Fantastic Four by Dan Slott, Vol. 1: Fourever, Dan Slott, Sara Pichelli, Stefano Caselli, Nico Leon and Simone Bianchi (Marvel): Reed Richards and Sue Storm and a bunch of brainy kids are travelling through the dimensions created by their son, while The Thing and the Human Torch are noodling around on Earth and missing them. Felt like a contrived way of ageing up the children without breaking Marvel time, as much as anything. The eventual reunion is nicely done, though. ***

Muse, Vol. 1: Celia, Denis-Pierre Filippi and Terry Dodson (Humanoids): Coraline, a highly attractive woman with a tendency to clotheslessness, takes a job as a governess to a young boy. He turns out to be a steampunk inventor, who (although this is not confirmed by the end of the book) appears to be creating various fantasy scenarios at night in an attempt to seduce her. Overall it's rather like Beauty and the Beast if the Beast were a child. Very weird and deeply iffy. No idea why the book is called Celia. ***

Doctor Who: Short Trips, Volume I, Xanna Eve Chown (ed.) (Big Finish): Not, I think, an audio adaptation of the old BBC print anthology, but a set of new stories, one for each of the first eight Doctors. One about the Doctor and his friends encountering a civilisation for whom time passes more quickly was well done, though very similar to the Star Trek: Voyager episode with the same plot. In the second story a sculptor makes a version of Zoe out of memory meat to help the Doctor. The third Doctor repairs a bicycle. Leela gets herself killed. The story about the fifth Doctor, where Nyssa tries to fix the chameleon circuit and inadvertently creates a new species of giant whale, has a nice Hitch-Hiker's reference and was my favourite in the collection. Colin Baker writes his own story, which involves the Doctor making even more of a muddle of time than usual. Sophie Aldred narrates a story featuring Ace, and India Fisher reads one about a disastrous adventure for the eighth Doctor. I enjoyed this audiobook a lot. It had the exuberance of the old annuals. ***

The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo, Zen Cho (self-published): A young female writer of Chinese descent, originally from British Malaya, is now living in 1920s London. She writes a scathing review that leads her into a relationship with the book's irritatingly handsome author, but is that what she really wants? This novella was self-published, which may explain a slight inelegance in the ebook (a line of space between each paragraph, and two unspaced hyphens instead of dashes throughout), but that's the only way in which it is below par. Geok Huay (or Jade Yeo as she is known to the English) is a highly amusing protagonist, especially in her frustration with her own feelings: she's a wind-up merchant who has wound herself up. The dialogue is funny, the romance romantic. It's a film waiting to be made. ****

Sole Survivor, Vol. 1: Atlanta–Miami, Stephane Louis, Thomas Martinetti, Christophe Martinolli and Jorge Miguel (Humanoids): Max, the only survivor of a coach crash in which his girlfriend died, has been persuaded to board an aeroplane. He recognises the pilot as the drunk driver who caused the coach to crash, and believes it is his mission to deliver justice, regardless of the consequences for anyone else. It's a fairly bog-standard madman on an aeroplane story. We never really understand why Max acts in such a demented way, and the ending seems to be predestined so it's hard to invest in what's happening. ***

Sole Survivor, Vol. 2: Bossa Nova Club, Stephane Louis, Thomas Martinetti, Christophe Martinolli and Jose Malaga (Humanoids): The sole survivor of the disaster that capped the first volume is even more demented than Max. Convinced that she has been saved for a purpose, she latches onto a pregnant girl and makes it her mission to stop the girl getting an abortion at all costs – with disastrous consequences, this time reaching their crescendo in a night club. It's rather like Final Destination, except that it's the survivor who causes all the additional deaths, rather than death's pursuit of them. ***

Sole Survivor, Vol. 3: Rex Antarctica, Stephane Louis, Thomas Martinetti, Christophe Martinolli and Jose Malaga (Humanoids): The third volume is a bit different to the first two, in that here the sole survivor of the last book's climactic disaster is deliberately trying to avoid the curse (as he sees it), rather than leaning into it. Calculating that the curse will only strike when it can kill more people than died in previous events, he only agrees to go on a boat trip since there will only be a handful of people on board. But before too much time has gone, they run into difficulties and are rescued by a cruise ship. And so the curse perks up its ears… This was probably the best of the three books. ***

Aftermath, Vol. 1: Ares, James D. Hudnall and Mark Vigouroux (Humanoids): A group of artifically-enhanced teenagers fought a successful war against alien invaders. Years later, one of them, known as Ares, is trying to write a book about it all. When a former comrade he meets is then murdered, Ares is accused of the crime. This only deepens his determination to bring the truth to light. This book wasn't helped by the kind of computer-effects colouring that made 2000 AD look so plastic a decade or two ago, and the plot feels very similar, so far, to Watchmen. None of the characters really jumped off the page. But it was an okay read. Can't really complain for 79p. ***

Well, they are gone, and here must I remain, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Penguin Classics): It took me three and a half years to finish this 64pp book, so it won't be a surprise to say I didn't enjoy it much. My only way into it was to pretend that it was the work of a pretentious poet character in a Jack Vance book. I did like this line, though, which gets to the root of why we like social media so much: "What no one with us shares, seems scarce our own." ***

Doctor Who: Short Trips, Volume II, Xanna Eve Chown (ed.) (Big Finish Productions): Another set of stories for the first eight Doctors. Barbara and her Tardis crew get stuck in a bubble of frozen 1963, and we learn that Barbara had a lesbian aunt. The second Doctor and Victoria investigate a boy who has reinvented time travel for a science fair. The Brigadier forces the third Doctor to take a break from work, and a visit to the zoo gives Liz Shaw an insight into the Doctor's feelings about being trapped on Earth. Louise Jameson reads a fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith story, where he watches a pound coin roll around on its way to destiny. Peter Davison reads a story about a depressed widow who finds a dancing horse in her home; she quite likes it but it's a sign of a serious problem. A post-Peri sixth Doctor loses his coat, but, unfortunately, finds it again. Sophie Aldred reads a seventh Doctor and Ace adventure, where they try to stop a deadly weapon from being unleashed; she often sounds like Susan Calman when she does the Doctor's voice. Charley and the eighth Doctor visit the family left behind by someone who died during an adventure. This is a more downbeat collection than the first volume, but still enjoyable, and well-read throughout, with era-appropriate incidental music. ***

They Are Really Molluscs, Anna Cathenka (Salo Press): A chapbook of clever, amusing poetry drawing inspiration and sometimes the actual words from The Observer's Book of Sea and Seashore and its brethren. ****

The Girl With The Horizontal Walk, Andrew Hook (Salo Press): A nice little chapbook. Not sure what the title means (is it her hips swaying? or is it that Marilyn Monroe is laid out for her autopsy?), but this was an interesting story that seemed to be about an actor losing her identity through playing the role of a character who lost her identity. ***

The Book of Chaos, Vol. 1: Ante Genesem, Xavier Dorison and Mathieu Lauffray (Humanoids): After losing a colleague in the midst of making a remarkable archaeological discovery, an adventurer writes a book about his experiences. Warned to keep everything secret, he ignores the advice and New York is plunged into a nightmare. It is all very Lovecraftian, like Hellboy without the heft. ***

Warlord Of Io and Other Stories, James Turner (Slave Labor Graphics): A book reviewer asked on Twitter recently if it was a good idea to include the publisher's synopsis in their review. I said no, it's lazy and they aren't always accurate. This is a good example of that. The book's description claims that it's "the story of Jon Jett, a hero in the mold of Flash Gordon who is unstoppable and unopposable", but he doesn't appear in the book at all, except when the lead character of the main story plays a video game he stars in. It's actually the story (or the beginning of the story, since it doesn't get very far) of a young prince who gets the job of emperor when his dad retires to a brothel, told with black and white computer-generated artwork. A second story is about grumbling demons in hell, a third is about a guy who tells the truth at a job interview, and the last is about a chair complaining about the weight of its users and then getting depressed when no one else wants to sit on them. Has the feel of a book that's been scraped together from unfinished projects. **

Retina Vol. 1: Just Another Day, Benoit Riviere and Philippe Scoffoni (Humanoids): A woman is killed on the street; retina scans bring up two matches. Two sets of crooks were planning to kill her. A criminagent sees the shooting and takes the case. ***

Open Earth, Sarah Mirk, Eva Cabrera and Claudia Aguirre (Limerence Press): Scientists sent up into space twenty years ago decided to stay there, because things were getting so bad on Earth. A young woman from the first space-born generation wants to move in with a boyfriend, but is at pains to reassure everyone else that she will remain sexually available to them afterwards. That's basically it. It's really quite appalling how some of the young men respond to her. They treat her as public property, and sound like cult members, but the book seems to regard this behaviour as normal. Sexually explicit. Creepy. Not very good. **

Black Science, Vol. 2: Welcome, Nowhere, Rick Remender, Matteo Scalera and Dean White (Image Comics): A bunch of dimension-hoppers are in a world ruled by giant bugs, and trying to stay alive until the pillar that brought them there is ready to go again. I wouldn't recommend this to anyone who hasn't read the previous volume – I had, and I was still quite lost as to who was who for most of it. The art was beautiful, striking and dynamic, but often quite hard to parse. ***

Friday, 16 October 2020

Iscariot, by S.M. Vidaurri (Archaia) | review by Stephen Theaker

Four hundred years ago, a boy called Iscariot took part in a ritual which granted him magical powers. Now, in a relatively modern-seeming world, his mentor is on the verge of death, and he chooses a student of his own: Carson, a very poorly girl. Usually a sacrifice is required to grant the power, and that’s what his fellows in the Empyr want to do. Iscariot hopes to find a different way. It’s a beautiful book, but I had to flip through it all again to remind myself that things did actually happen in it. Stephen Theaker ***

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

#OcTBRChallenge: the first 33 books


I've been trying this month to read a hundred books as part of the #OcTBRChallenge, which is where people try to reduce the size of their TBR (to-be-read) lists, or get stuck into the books they've been putting off too long. Obviously there's nothing special about reading a hundred books – almost anyone could do it in a single day if the books chosen were short enough! – but it has been good fun to really burrow through my collection. Plus, knowing that I was going to go all out with the short books in October encouraged me to be a bit more patient with longer books the rest of the year. Anyway, here are my short reviews of the first 33 books of the month.

Exo, Vol. 1, Jerry Frissen and Philippe Scoffoni (Humanoids): Aliens come to Earth and the Moon to proactively prevent the colonisation of their own planet. Decent enough, but unremarkable, and it's very much one chapter rather than a story in itself. ***

Giant Days, Vol. 13, John Allison (BOOM! Box): Good fun. Some real wisdom. I'll be sad to read the last volume but it feels like it's coming to a natural end. ****

The Lydia Steptoe Stories, Djuna Barnes (Faber & Faber): Three short stories in diary form about sexual stereotypes and the people they suffocate. I loved this book. I would get the end of a sentence, realise it hadn't said what I was expecting it to say from its shape, then double back and realise how funny it was. *****

My First Little Book of Intersectional Activism, Titania McGrath (Hachette Audio): Hilarious. I nearly fell off my chair during some chapters. You can tell how carefully the (left-wing) writer has been paying attention to the wilder reaches of Twitter, where racism, sexism, homophobia, bullying and authoritarianism thrive in what are supposed to be progressive communities. Many of Titania's most outlandishly offensive statements are things I've seen people say for real, and receive thousands of likes for doing so. Satire often involves exaggeration; here it's more a concatenation. Alice Marshall's reading is perfect. I'd love a sitcom about the character. She's like a modern-day version of Nathan Barley or Rik from The Young Ones. ****

Shaky Kane: Elephantmen and Monsters, Richard Starkings and Shaky Kane (Image): Three short stories about traumatized ex-soldiers investigating crime and horror in the big city, all drawn with verve by Shaky Kane. ***

Robert Sax Tome 01 : Nucleon 58, Rodolphe and Louis Alloing (Delcourt): A dapper Belgian garage owner finds himself drawn into international espionage. It's 1957 and Eastern bloc operatives are after the plans for a nuclear-powered car. I adored the art – it's a bit like Paul Grist drawing Tintin, if that makes sense? – and how tall panels were used throughout to showcase the architecture of Brussels. ****

The Four Horsemen: The Discussion that Sparked an Atheist Revolution, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel C. Dennett, foreword by Stephen Fry (Transworld Digital): Fascinating discussion between four prominent atheist thinkers. It's not as if I needed to be persuaded to their point of view – I don't remember ever believing in any of the gods, except Santa Claus – but I was constantly impressed by how well they put things. I suppose that by the time of this discussion they had had a lot of practice. I thought it was interesting how often they interrupted each other, and how often they disagreed, and agreed to disagree without flying off the handle. I also liked Richard Dawkins' shout-out to The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle – I loved that novel too. If I'd read this a few years ago, I'd have been glad that in the UK religious thinking had been in retreat since their discussion took place, on the whole. Reading it now, long stretches of it could have been, with barely a word changed, a discussion between feminists on how to deal with extremists pushing the idea that the female sex doesn't exist and thus requires no protection in law from the male sex. It feels like that kind of thinking never really goes away, especially when it gives men an excuse to control women. Sam Harris makes an interesting point towards the end, that it's easier to find shared ground when focusing on specific problems rather than the broad strokes. ****

Cosmopolitan, Akhil Sharma (Faber & Faber): The attractive neighbour of a lonely retiree asks to borrow his lawnmower. He makes a grab for her in the garage but is fortunate in that she is receptive rather than outraged. A relationship develops between them, and the question is whether it's the kind of relationship he thinks he wants. He is not the most sympathetic of protagonists, but it's a well-written story that reveals his character, and develops it, in a variety of subtle ways. ****

Terres Lointaines, episode 1, Leo and Icar (Dargaud): A young man searching for his father is taken under the claw of an intelligent crustacean, Stepanerk (the chap on the cover). To reach the right continent, they join an archaeological expedition, the goal of which is to discover what happened to the previous inhabitants of this planet. Stepanerk was the character who made this book for me: he considers everything in terms of whether it is interesting or annoying, which was often amusing, and his spidey-sense was a fine way of creating tension, by letting the reader know something bad was about to happen without telling us what it was. ***

Dalek Attack: Blockade and Other Stories, Terry Nation et al. (BBC Audio): Five stories about people who get into trouble with the Daleks, on Earth and elsewhere, plus some other bits and bobs about the trundling terrors. The stories aren't terribly good, but the readings are, and I enjoyed listening to it. Matthew Waterhouse sounds uncannily like Colin Baker, and it was a surprise to learn that Davros can read minds! ***

John Wick, Vol. 1, Greg Pak and Giovanni Valletta (Dynamite Comics): Decent prequel to the films, showing John Wick's introduction to the world of the Continental. ***

Monsieur Jean, Part 1: The Singles Theory, Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian (Humanoids): Imagine Friends, set in Paris, and drawn in the style of H.A. Rey. I thought it was charming. ****

An Elegy for Easterly, Petina Gappah (Faber & Faber): A sad story about the last days of a Zimbabwean shanty town, very well told. ****

Child of the Storm, Vol. 1: Blood Stones, Manuel Bichebois and Didier Poli (Humanoids Inc): A newborn child is found in the forest, still attached by the umbilical cord to his dead mother, who had apparently been struck by lightning. Raised by the hunter who found him, Laith's peculiar reaction to storms draws attention, and once his abilities reveal themselves powerful people beyond the village begin to pay attention. A decent enough book, without being at all remarkable. ***

The Art of the Boys, Darick Robertson (Dynamite Entertainment): The covers for all the issues of The Boys, plus those of the mini-series that came out during the original run, with preliminary sketches for each cover and brief plot synopses. Probably makes more sense as a physical object; with a digital copy you might as well be browsing the covers on Comixology. Interesting to read that Adam McKay was trying to make it into a film but all the studios turned him down. Wonder if they regret that now it's the biggest thing on television? ***

Do Not Pass Go, Joel Lane (Nine Arches Press): Five short stories, all featuring a crime or two, and set in and around Birmingham. They're all pretty short, so there isn't much mystery, it's more about mood, and overall it makes a pretty good argument for staying at home after bedtime. ***

James Bond: Hammerhead, Andy Diggle and Luca Casalanguida (Dynamite Entertainment): A straightforward but reasonably entertaining adventure for a ruthlessly violent Bond, with him getting into bother at an arms fair. ***

The Dynamite Art of Alex Ross, Alex Ross (Dynamite Entertainment): Lots of amazing artwork, some from comics I've read and loved, like Kirby Genesis, others from comics I didn't even know existed. His style is as stunning as ever, and his talent for revitalising old characters is as remarkable as Alan Moore's, but by the end you do wish he would do fewer covers and more interiors. It's as if the world's greatest actor just appeared on film posters rather than appearing in the films. ****

The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television, Koren Shadmi (Life Drawn): An excellent biography of the man who created... The Twilight Zone. Shows us his experiences in World War II, his battles with the network censors, and how unfaithful he was to his wife. Brilliantly drawn. ****

The Fantastic Voyage of Lady Rozenbilt, Vol. 1: The Baxendale Cruise, Pierre Gabus and Romuald Reutimann (Humanoids): A book about the people on an airship, some very rich, others very poor, some human, others not. It's weirdly short, apparently due to it being from a French album that has been sliced in two, and entirely unsatisfying to read on its own. ***

Drifting Dragons, Vol. 1, Taku Kuwabara (Kodansha Comics Digital-First!): A crew hunts dragons in their airship; the similarities to whaling make it a rather uncomfortable read. Some of the characters are quite engaging and the art offers some impressive views of the sky and the dragons that live there – at least until our heroes slaughter them without mercy, even the babies. ***

Black Widow, Volume 1: S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Most Wanted, Mark Waid and Chris Samnee (Marvel): Someone knows Black Widow's secrets and blackmails her into stealing intelligence from SHIELD. A pretty good action adventure that seems (from the trailer) to be the inspiration for Black Widow's first solo film. ***

Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery, Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece (Dark Horse Books): A light-skinned black journalist goes undercover in the American South to gather evidence of lynchings. It's getting too dangerous now people know he's out there, but just as he's getting ready to take a desk job his own brother is thrown in jail for a crime he didn't commit, and a mob is gathering outside. It's a very good book, surprisingly funny in places, that burns with its purpose: making sure those crimes against humanity are never forgotten. ****

Without Feathers, Woody Allen (Audible): A very funny audiobook collecting various humorous pieces by Woody Allen, which begins by announcing that it was to "be published posthumously or after his death, whichever comes first", and continues in a similar vein. A striking feature was how often I would be in the middle of a sentence laughing at one thing, and then a twist at the end of the sentence would send me laughing in a different direction. Terrific. I'm so glad Audible got him to record these audiobooks. ****

Moon Face, Vol. 1: The Wave Tamer, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Francois Boucq (Humanoids): Gigantic waves hit the coastline regularly and various groups of lunatics handle it in different ways. Into this situation comes a young man with a flat face and the ability to heal from bullet wounds. It's okay, but I do get tired of how pretty much every Jodorowsky book features sexual violence against women. ***

Living with the Dead: A Zombie Bromance, Mike Richardson and Ben Stenbeck (Dark Horse Books): Two blokey blokes who survived the zombie apocalypse find their friendship tested when they encounter an attractive and boisterous woman. Quite entertaining but I wasn't sure what to make of the ending. ***

What Is Existentialism? Simone de Beauvoir (Penguin Classics): Felt like a bait and switch given that "What Is Existentialism?" was only six pages long and basically said it's too hard to explain in so little space. The rest of it was interesting but reminded me of reading a Camille Paglia book a while back – the snappy individual sentences tended towards the aphoristic, but I couldn't tell what they were supposed to add up to. In several places it asserted things that were blatantly untrue in the course of a making an argument. ***

The Arrest, Jonathan Lethem (Ecco): A pleasant post-apocalyptic enclave is disturbed by the arrival of a blowhard in his supercar. Full review to follow. ****

Ms Ice Sandwich, Mieko Kawakami (Pushkin Press): A Japanese boy is fascinated by the ice-cool woman who sells sandwiches in a supermarket. When he becomes friendly with a girl in his class (one so cool she can act out the entire gunfight from Heat) his fascination with Ms Ice Sandwich becomes at first a roadblock and then a joint endeavour. A very sweet and tender portrait of a child who feels adrift. ****

The Originals, Dave Gibbons (Dark Horse): I can't see the art of Dave Gibbons without being six years old again and wowed by his work in Doctor Who Weekly. This story of sci-fi mods and rockers looks as good as his work always does, and if it isn't one of his all-time classic works it's still well worth reading. ***

Brussli: Way of the Dragon Boy, Vol. 1: The Conqueror, Jean-Louis Fonteneau and J. Etienne (Humanoids): A little boy found in an egg is raised by a kindly couple as if he were their own. He's a bit funny-looking and gets teased a lot, but when the village faces danger he will show his bravery. The art is gorgeous, like cells from a hand-drawn animated film, and Brussli and the friends he makes are very charming to read about. ***

The Last Ones, Vol. 1: Exodus, David Munoz and Manuel Garcia (Humanoids): A children's book illustrator found herself in charge of a bunch of children when the apocalypse and then the vampires struck. As they try to reach safety a new ally offers his help, but he's a bit long in the tooth, if you get my meaning. Kind of like The Walking Dead but with vampires, this didn't blow me away but it was a decent start. ***

The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark (Canongate Books): A wonderful book, full of humour and character, about the women living together in a London hostel in the period after World War II. I did not expect such a nerve-wracking ending! It is read to perfection by Juliet Stevenson, who even sings at one point, something I always love in audiobooks. *****

Friday, 9 October 2020

Deadly Class, Vol. 1: Reagan Youth, by Rick Remender and Wes Craig (Image Comics) | review by Stephen Theaker

Despite the skeletons on the cover, not a fantasy or horror book. A homeless young man is given a place at a school for assassins. His classmates are the scions of murderers, gangsters and intelligence operatives, and he makes friends with some, enemies of others. The rules are strict and the penalties for not obeying them are terminal. It looks very good and moves at a fair old lick, and it’s hard not to be moved when the writer talks in an afterword about how it reflects his miserable time at high school. Stephen Theaker ***

Wednesday, 7 October 2020

Shards of the Nightmare, by Joel Cornah (Kristell Ink) | review by Stephen Theaker

The Shards of the Nightmare are magical items; what they are shards of remains a mystery. The title also reflects the book’s structure, which throws fragments of a nightmarish life at the reader and hopes we’ll piece it together. It begins by telling us that Sininen – raised as a (somewhat stereotypical) girl on the advice of a seer named Sear the Seer – was born with blue skin and lived for centuries. Then we’re snapped back to when Sini was fifteen, still living in the fortress of Dun Coille, and the least-loved scion of an expansionist king and queen who come into possession of a magical sea-sword. A personal bodyguard, Merri, offers some friendship, before we are thrown ten years into the Sea King’s reign of terror. Confusingly Sini is still only sixteen, but perhaps I misunderstood. At this point Sini and Merri are on a quest for the shards and major developments have occurred off-screen. It feels like the reader has skipped the film and watched only the deleted scenes, but to be fair there’s zero chance I would have read a five-hundred-page version that took us step by step through each moment. It’s just too run-of-the-mill, in story, prose and ideas. The positives: Sini’s mad mum might have been interesting, if we had spent more than a few pages with her, and Merri the bodyguard was likeable, at least until she confessed to having fallen in love with a child. The conclusion, where the Sea King is effectively stabbed until he stops calling Sini his son, was also rather discomfiting. Not recommended. Stephen Theaker **

Saturday, 3 October 2020

Ex Libris: Stories of Librarians, Libraries & Lore, ed. by Paula Guran | review by Stephen Theaker

This highly entertaining book (Prime Books pb, 384pp, £14.50) is the forty-second anthology edited by Paula Guran, who gathers twenty-three tales of mysterious libraries, courageous librarians, and the awesome books they protect from us (or protect us from). The stories come from twenty-two different sources, and all but three were first published this century. The twentieth century is represented by Ray Bradbury’s “Exchange”, Esther M. Friesner’s “Death and the Librarian”, and Jack McDevitt’s “The Fort Moxie Branch”, all of which fit the theme so perfectly that it’s easy to see why they were included.

Most stories here could be classed as fantasy, but there is also sf such as “The Sigma Structure Symphony” by Gregory Benford (data mining the SETI Library of messages received), “What Books Survive” by Tansy Rayner Roberts (a small community tries to get by after a devastating alien attack), and “The Books” by Kage Baker (a travelling circus in a world where paperbacks are in short supply). In Ken Liu’s “Summer Reading” a robot tries to interest a tourist in the old-fashioned pleasures of a paper book: “Very old, ancient data, preserved at ultra-low density.”

Many stories magnify the everyday concerns of librarians, like “With Tales in Their Teeth, from the Mountain They Came” by A.C. Wise, in which a librarian notices that books are going missing, or “The Last Librarian: Or a Short Account of the End of the World” by Edoardo Albert, about a particularly stressful stock relocation. “The King of the Big Night Hours” by Richard Bowes reflects dealing with depressed and suicidal patrons, and “In the House of the Seven Librarians” by Ellen Klages tells of a group of librarians who chose not to leave a library that closed. Instead, they kept working, “quiet and content. Until the day they found the baby.”

Cthulhu and his friends are surprisingly absent from the collection, given that the library visit is to the mythos tale what the airport dash is to the romantic comedy. The editor has previously published mythos anthologies, so perhaps it felt like ground already covered. “Those Who Watch” by Ruthanna Emrys and “The Inheritance of Barnabas Wilcox” by Sarah Monette are the exceptions, though I read and enjoyed both without making the connection.

The two longest stories in the book are also the most memorable. Scott Lynch’s “In the Stacks” is about fifth year aspirant wizards at the High University of Hazar, who are required to return a book to the Living Library as part of their training. The idea is that this will make them appreciate the sacrifices of the battle-scarred librarians, whose motto is: “Retrieve. Return. Survive.” It’s a Diabloesque quest into a library rendered feral by millions of magical grimoires, and it’s a lot of fun. Look out for vocabuvores. (Elizabeth Bear’s lighter “In Libres” also features a student’s trip into the special collections, this time with a centaur.)

“Magic for Beginners” by Kelly Link is a forty page novella about teenagers obsessed with a TV show, The Library, “in which a renegade librarian and magician named Fox is trying to save her world from thieves, murderers, cabalists, and pirates”. The show appears at random times on random channels, with actors switching roles, and one episode takes place in the top drawer of a card catalogue. It sounds great: the episode descriptions are a highlight of a fascinating story.

Other contributors include Holly Black (“Paper Cuts Scissors”, about a chap whose girlfriend went to live in a book), Kristine Kathryn Rusch (“The Midbury Lake Incident”, about the remnants of the library of Alexandria), E. Saxey (“The Librarian’s Dilemma”: allow open access to a secret collection?), Amal El-Mohtar (“The Green Book”; a book written by many hands, who are still adding new text), Robert Reed (“A Woman’s Best Friend”; a new take on It’s a Wonderful Life) and Xia Jia (“If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler”, about secret fan clubs for an unknown poet).

Though the theme is narrow, the quality of the contributions and the range of approaches maintains attention throughout. Many librarians will receive this as a present, and few will be disappointed. In fact, the librarians in your lives may well say that they’d happily trade the challenges they currently face – budget cuts, closures and book-buying freezes – for monsters, demons and aliens. “Those Who Watch” describes a book that is “bound in calfskin, [with] fine yellow-edged pages typeset save for hand-illuminated letters at the start of chapters”. A similar edition of this would be ideal, but the paperback will do for now. A treat for anyone who loves books and libraries. ****

This review originally appeared in Interzone #271.

Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Westworld, Season 3 | review by Stephen Theaker

Caleb Nichols is a former soldier making a living on the fringe of a society that doesn’t give him any other options. Meeting Dolores Abernathy in the park, a beautiful woman who has just survived an attempted abduction (for which he supplied the car and drugs), will lead him into an adventure that will turn his life upside down. That’s sort of what it’s about, anyway.

Really, Caleb, played by Aaron Paul, has been shoehorned in. It’s less “We have a great character so we need a great actor” and more “We have a famous actor lined up so we need something for him to do”. The character does nothing to explain why android mastermind Dolores would see him as a potential leader, or why we are spending so much time with him. He follows her through the series like a puppy, completely unfazed by all of her murders.

For this is a season where our protagonists are undoubtedly the villains, there’s no two ways about it. They murder tons of people in order to destroy the world for “freedom”. In this it feels very much of the pre-coronavirus era, because it’s much harder to romanticise freedom at the expense of safety these days. For each person they kill on screen, a million more could die as a result of their actions.

During season one, my guess was that their world was heading for a cataclysmic disaster, something that made our transfer into artificial bodies (or creating artificial lifeforms to replace us) an imperative. In this season we find that there has indeed been an apocalypse coming, but it was us. The supposed villain of the season has been holding it back, at great expense, with the help of a supercomputer that keeps us in line.

Which is to say, this season is as much a sequel to Jonathan Nolan’s earlier programme, Person of Interest, as it is to previous seasons of Westworld.

If this had been set years after the previous seasons and the supercomputer had been built with the Westworld data everyone was fighting over in seasons one and two, this might have felt like a more organic development of the story, but instead this computer has been around for ages, based on data handed over decades ago, and the computer is pretty good at its job, making all the fighting over the newer data seem a bit redundant.

Thematically, though, the programme is still very consistent. It focuses once again on the meaning of free will, and this time applies it to the human world outside the theme park. But it’s not quite the same. Being turned down for a job that you want, because the computer knows that you are a violent murderer, would actually be great for those of us who don’t want to work with violent murderers.

And while the show is still frequently spectacular, it feels like there have been budget cuts since season two. There are fewer episodes, only one historical location (briefly used), and many characters are left behind or reduced to guest appearances. While the cast are still excellent, doing their best to imbue it all with the seriousness of previous seasons, the grandeur and sense of wonder is missing, replaced by cheap and pointless fights.

And hardly any of it takes place in Westworld. I liked these characters, but it’s like making a season of Doctor Who without the Doctor. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed watching it. This is a dip rather than a jumping of the mechanical shark, and this is a programme that in season two delivered perhaps my single favourite episode of science fiction television ever in the glorious “Kiksuya”. It gets to have a poor season. Stephen Theaker ***

Monday, 28 September 2020

UNSPLATTERPUNK! 4: Writers and artists have until October 31 to kick us where it counts

Join a literary movement aimed at changing the world, one intestine at a time: extreme horror writers and artists have until October 31, 2020 to contribute to the wildly unpopular UNSPLATTERPUNK! series.

Every once in a while, one encounters a literary work or film so controversial, gruesome, and over the top that one asks one’s self, Why am I reading/ watching this? That’s the type of story that unsplatterpunk embraces, with one caveat: the story also has to have a morally uplifting message.  

The submission window for the fourth unsplatterpunk anthology, cleverly named UNSPLATTERPUNK! 4, closes on October 31, 2020. We’ve already selected several stories whose contents range from the grisly side of Irish and Mexican legends to objects getting crammed into or forced out of uncomfortable places. Good news: we have several openings – in the anthology, we mean – for stories (10,000 words max) that teach readers something positive while also making them cringe, gag, and tense up. We’re also looking for cover art submissions that capture unsplatterpunk themes.

Imagine a horror fanatic who’s jaded by vampires, werewolves, zombies and ghosts. He’s seen every forensic science/serial killer show and every movie in which teens get systematically slaughtered. How can you get this guy’s attention? Give him something more vile and transgressive than he’s ever experienced? Incorporate a positive message? 

Lots of nutritious morsels amid the abhorrence of the first three UNSPLATTERPUNK! volumes.
Lots of nutritious morsels amid the abhorrence of the first three UNSPLATTERPUNK! volumes.

Check out previous installments within the series: UNSPLATTERPUNK!, UNSPLATTERPUNK! 2, and UNSPLATTERPUNK! 3.  

This is a non-professional market – we strive to be as unprofessional as possible. Therefore, no payment on this anthology. We will, however, help get the kinks out of your story and promote it fanatically. 

You have one month to dig up your worst and help us change the world. Get going. See full call for submissions.

Friday, 25 September 2020

Susurrus on Mars, by Hal Duncan (Lethe Press) | review by Stephen Theaker


An experimental, gay, fantastical book that one could easily imagine as a Penguin Modern Classic, described by the publisher as a “novella-length collection of ... idylls”. It’s the densely allusive (to myths, legends and botany) story of two chaps who meet on a Mars where plants seem to be conscious of their history back on Earth, and where people can change their own sexuality with a quick mindhack. I was glad to be reading it on Kindle, so that I could look up all the words I didn’t know. *****

Friday, 18 September 2020

A Song for Quiet, by Cassandra Khaw (Tor.com) | review by Stephen Theaker


A bluesman in the sixties has a seed in his head, which, if he lets it grow, will let a being from a nearby dimension annihilate or reshape the world. A girl who is also infected finds that quite tempting, because the world she knows is so terrible. This was very good: what you might get if Philip K. Dick and James Baldwin collaborated on a Lovecraftian horror story. I particularly appreciated how it got across the kind of altered mental states that playing or listening to music can produce. ****

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Castle Rock, Season 2 | review by Stephen Theaker

Season one of Castle Rock was one of my favourite shows of 2019. It told the story of a weird young man found in a prison basement, whose presence distorted the world around him. Though it ended with hints that we might next be taken to the Overlook Hotel, season two instead puts a thirty-something Annie Wilkes, travelling under an assumed name with her daughter Joy, in the town of Jerusalem’s Lot.

It gets off to a cracking start. Lizzy Caplan is brilliant as Annie Wilkes, desperate to get hold of anti-psychotics to keep herself on track, and you haven’t lived till you’ve seen what she can do with an ice scream scoop. The story could easily have been mistaken for a new season of Fargo, with the various members of a local family fighting over property and money. The supernatural elements, as they creep in, do not let it down at all. Tim Robbins plays Pop Merrill, while Paul Sparks is chilling as his son “Ace” Merrill – the bully from Stand By Me. Oscar-winner Barkhad Abdi and Yusra Warsama are also very good as Pop’s adopted Somalian children.

The one real problem I had was that some episodes (but not all, so it wasn’t a deliberate artistic choice) were missing the subtitles for their Somalian dialogue. The same problem happened with an episode that had lengthy sections in French, but in that case I was at least able to pause the programme and translate. (We were watching via the Starzplay channel on Amazon Prime Video.)

It feels more like a traditional Stephen King mini-series than season one, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. The first is weird and disorientating, the second has more action and more explicit ties to Stephen King’s work, and both are smashing in their own way. The only disappointment is knowing that we probably won’t see any of these characters again in season three.

And we did get to visit the Overlook Hotel in Doctor Sleep, the director’s cut of which was like the most expensive mini-series ever made. We also loved season one of The Outsider and enjoyed Mr Mercedes too, even if the villain of that one was essentially someone who had re-invented the Phillips Pronto. I saw someone joke recently about setting up a Stephen King television channel. I’d subscribe to any channel necessary to get season three of Castle Rock. Stephen Theaker ****

Friday, 11 September 2020

Athena Voltaire and the Sorcerer Pope, by Steve Bryant and Ismael Canales (Action Lab) | review by Stephen Theaker

Two British Special Intelligence agents are assigned missions in 1936. One agent is to assist a pair of archaelogists and Athena Voltaire in their quest for a relic, while the other will operate behind the scenes and try to nab the treasure first. Both are hindered by Nazis. It’s an Indiana Jones adventure with decent art, though it’s hard to tell some of the men apart. Sadly, the sorcerer pope of the title is the creator of the relic, rather than (so far as we know) an active character in this story. Stephen Theaker ***

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

A Rainy Day in New York | review by Stephen Theaker

This is effectively an English-language remake of the To Rome With Love storyline about a young couple who get separated for the day, the woman meeting a film star, the man inadvertently meeting an escort. And it does for New York and its tourist board what To Rome With Love did for that city, giving those of us in lockdown a vicarious holiday in the process.

Elle Fanning is hilarious and sparky as the ambitious and self-possessed 21-year-old journalist whose quest for a good story brings her into contact with a trio of foolish older men in the film industry. (Only an imbecile could watch the film and think Woody Allen approves of these buffoons and their clumsy attempts to woo her.)

Meanwhile Timothée Chalamet noodles around the city while he waits for her, and bumps into the younger sister of an old girlfriend. The actor’s public betrayal of the film’s director works well for him in this role; it made it easier to believe that this boyish chap was, as the film puts it, attracted to the demi-monde.

I thought this film was absolutely charming. Some newspaper reviews have complained about its nostalgic tone, forgetting that the narration begins with Woody Allen playing a much older version of Chalamet’s character; this is 2018 as it might be fondly remembered in 2078 (hence it qualifying, just about, for a review in TQF). I was also somewhat baffled by a reviewer who claimed that for Chalamet’s character to be a poker-player was anachronistic; I hadn’t heard that people had stopped playing.

As usual people who haven’t seen any Woody Allen films except Annie Hall will say it’s not as good as Annie Hall, but personally I tend to prefer his later films.

One trick I liked here was that new characters were rarely introduced with a close-up: we saw them from a distance, meaning that we met the character before realising it was, for example, Jude Law. Stephen Theaker ****

Monday, 7 September 2020

Strange Weather, by Joe Hill (William Morrow) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Lightning strikes repeatedly in quartet of tales rich in character and sensory details.

In Strange Weather, a thunderstorm does not just get you wet – it gets you torn apart by crystal nails. And a photograph doesn’t simply capture your image – it steals your memories. 

Each of the four short novels in this collection not only testifies to Joe Hill’s inventiveness, but also ratchets up the tension while nimbly doling out character and setting details that firmly root the reader in the action. Whether a scene involves a botched shooting at a mall jewellery store or a man who’s about to jump out of a plane despite a paralyzing fear of heights, the reader will be fully immersed in the experience thanks to Hill’s mastery of the senses. 

Moreover, these stories can end on a hopeful note with characters experiencing new insights, or they can end abruptly, leaving the reader with a sense of dread. Kudos to Hill for defying conventions.

In "Snapshot", Silicon Valley adolescent narrator Michael Figlione encounters the Phoenician (for the script tattooed on his arms), a Cadillac-driving, Cuban heel-wearing villain who uses a Polaroid camera that steals memories from its subjects. Michael, who has a penchant for invention, deals with his own weight problems while helping his former bodybuilder neighbour and the neighbour’s longtime wife, now suffering from dementia. The story admirably balances a B movie feel with a thought-provoking exploration of memory and relationships. 

The second tale, "Loaded", registers well with today’s focus on the discrimination of people of color. After disgruntled ex-cop George Kellaway takes on a job as a mall security guard, he gets involved at a jewellery store shooting and is eventually hailed as a hero. However, both Kellaway and the reader know what really happened. 

Reporter Alicia Lanternglass, who witnessed the unjustified shooting (by a cop) of her friend in her childhood, wants to get to the bottom of the jewellery store incident. The story grows more tense as Kellaway takes increasingly drastic steps to cover up what happened. All the while, raging wildfires grow closer to the characters. 

As the only non-speculative entry in the collection, "Loaded" takes a raw look at issues like gun ownership, mental illness, post-traumatic stress, domestic abuse and racial discrimination.  

Most stories involving a character wandering around are terrible. "Aloft", the third and most fantastical story in this collection, is a rare exception. Musician Aubrey Griffin walks around a cloud that materialises a variety of cloudy objects ostensibly to entice him to stay. Aubrey considers how he’s going to return to terra firma, but he also spends time reflecting on whether Harriet will ever love him the way that he loves her. The story flips between Aubrey’s cloud adventure and flashbacks about Harriet and their dying mutual friend. While he comes to discover something about the cloud’s odd source, Aubrey also learns something about himself in this tale that explores the complexity of relationships. 

The final story, "Rain", introduces a weather system that makes the typical thunderstorm look like a few drops. Narrator protagonist Honeysuckle Speck – how’s that for a name? – is a lesbian in a fulfilling bi-racial relationship with Yolanda. Then crystal nails pour from the sky and throw Honeysuckle’s life into chaos. Apparently, other parts of the world have fared even worse. Honeysuckle goes on a physical and psychological journey during which it’s hard to distinguish who’s good and who’s bad. Among the characters she encounters are a mixed martial arts fighter with a dying cat, a Russian neighbour who pumps up the volume of a Hugh Grant film, and even an astrological cult that likes to sing Phil Collins and Peter Cetera songs. Despite its destructive downpours, the most piercing elements of "Rain" revolve around love and character. 

In the outro, Hill comments on the difficulty of writing shorter novels. Undoubtedly, he has risen to the challenge with stories both terse and tense. This one is a keeper – multiple readings of these stories are likely to unveil new insights. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Saturday, 5 September 2020

Five Feathered Tales by Alison Littlewood and Daniele Serra | review by Stephen Theaker

Five Feathered Tales (Short, Scary Tales Publications) is a collaboration between Alison Littlewood and the award-winning artist Daniele Serra. A luxurious picture book for adults, rather like the Dave McKean edition of Ray Bradbury’s The Homecoming, it publishes five of Littlewood’s excellent short stories with over two dozen fully-painted illustrations by Serra. What’s more, there is also an introduction by the highly esteemed Peter Tennant, a name perhaps familiar to Black Static readers.

Each story features a feather of a different colour – black, blue, golden, brown and white – but the stories are far from as charming as that might make them sound. “Black Feathers” takes us back to territory familiar from The Unquiet House, where siblings quarrel and put one another in all too believable danger. There’s a little brother, a rope swing, and a sister who makes him a cloak of feathers… It’s almost too excruciating to read.

“Golden Feathers” is about Azusena, another girl with a little brother. When she threatens to hit him, a golden bird appears in her hand. This power comes to the attention of the Sultan, who realises that she can reveal the intentions of his enemies. “Blue Feathers” is another story of magic: Andy goes to the circus, where he is disappointed at first by the lack of real magic. Then he notices how much attention his grandad pays to a young female magician, and comes to realise that there’s more to his world than meets the untrained eye.

If the book has sold out by the time you read this, “White Feathers”, about a girl who appears to be oddly changed by a feather she places under her pillow, will appear in Best New Horror 28, and for me that’s not even the best story. That would be “Brown Feathers”, an outstanding science fiction or fantasy tale about the dwellers of buildings whose windows are deliberately obscured by the so-called outwallers. Young Mellor takes part in a sortie, but gets stuck out there among his enemies. The image that will stick with readers is of his friend Luce staring at a tiny patch of window, hoping to see a cloud, only for an outwaller to smear muck over it.

Five Feathered Tales is a remarkable collection, the unsettling mood of its stories perfectly enhanced by Serra’s eerily fluid illustrations, which feel as if they might start flowing off the page if you don’t pay enough attention. The book reflects Alison Littlewood’s ability as an author to turn her hand successfully to many genres and styles. That talent might make it hard to identify in the novels a distinct narrative style, but the themes are consistent and compelling: children in danger, broken family relationships, the dangers of the past, and the warnings buried in myths and legends.****

This review originally appeared in Black Static #60.

Friday, 4 September 2020

The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again, by A.C. Wise (Lethe Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron is a glamorous superhero/secret agent team, which includes a mixture of women, drag queens, trans women, the mysterious M (described as an animate slab of leather) and their leader Bunny, the superheroic alter-ego of Phillip Howard Craft the Third, who like Kid Miracleman prefers to live as the alter-ego full-time. It’s not entirely fair to judge a book against the expectations you had for it, but here I was expecting something rather like the Senor 105 or Iris Wildthyme books, and while it has a similar tone and sensibility, I was disappointed by how little of this book saw the team in action, most of it being side stories or flashbacks or recruitments. Nevertheless, the stories it does tell are sensitive and moving. It doesn’t present joining the team as a cure-all for the personal problems everyone faces, but it gives them a supportive place to work things out. The final story does give us a fully-fledged adventure for the team as a whole, but it’s a bit of a let-down, being a perfunctory fight against a pair of mad scientists who have created giant insects. Overall, though, I thought it was a good book. Stephen Theaker ***

Wednesday, 2 September 2020

The Walking Dead, Vol. 32: Rest in Peace, by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard (Image Comics) | review by Stephen Theaker

And so this astonishing comic comes to an end, having inspired multiple hit games and tv shows, and no doubt hit films to come. It is a difficult to discuss the content of the book, since pretty much anything I could say – including the names of the characters involved in it – would be a spoiler for the previous thirty-one volumes and their constant twists and turns. Even knowing that it is the last book is a mild spoiler, given that when the final issue was published, no one knew it was all over till they read it. Essentially, though, this book is about a possible civil war in the largest settlement we’ve seen to date, and then we get a lengthy epilogue showing what the future holds for the survivors. I found it to be a satisfying and moving end to the saga.

Did it run out of steam towards the end? Well, perhaps a bit in previous volumes, but it had travelled a long way before that happened, and it maintained its integrity throughout. It’s almost Racinian how all thirty-two volumes flow from that one source: the dead came back to life, tried to eat us, and some of us survived. It’s not an original premise but it stuck to it, resisting the impulse to add demons, vampires, werewolves, ghosts or aliens, and in the Governor, Negan and Alpha creating three of the best villains comics have ever seen. The one thing that always bothered me a bit is that the survivors never set up abbatoirs to deal with the dead, but I suppose that wouldn’t have been as dramatic as the hand to hand fighting.

There’s no doubt I’ll be reading it all the way through again. Stephen Theaker *****

Friday, 28 August 2020

The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang (Harper Voyager) | review by Stephen Theaker

Rin, a girl living in a horribly sexist society, realises that she only has one way out of the marriage arranged by her drug-dealing foster parents: painful sacrifice and round-the-clock study to get into a prestigious military academy. She succeeds, but further sacrifice will be required and war is on the horizon. It won’t wait for her to finish her studies. This was quite slow and long-winded, and none of it felt at all new, but I enjoyed it. Rin reminded me of Jack Vance’s capable heroes. Stephen Theaker ***