www.projectaon.org), the voluntary organisation that has done so much to keep the series alive during its many years in the publishing wilderness, in a bulletin listing the current availability of Lone Wolf products dated 8 July 2016. Megara Entertainment founder Mikaël Louys began crowdfunding for the volume in September 2014, the main purpose of which was to secure the services of the original Lone Wolf illustrator, Gary Chalk, who had an apparently acrimonious split with Dever between the release of Castle Death (#7, 1986) and The Jungle of Horrors (#8, 1987). The gamebook is only available from the Megara website direct (www.megara-entertainment.com) and has been released in both French and English versions. The two are presented distinctly on the website and although the price is quite steep (about £30 at the time of my purchase, no doubt more now), it includes postage and packaging and my copy arrived promptly and in perfect condition. I nonetheless have two small complaints about Megara. First, they don’t seem to advertise very well – I ordered immediately after following the link from Project Aon and the copy I received is already a “THIRD PRINTING, REVISED” – what happened to the first two printings? Second, and this may well be the reason for being in a third printing already (assuming all three were released in 2016), there are quite a few typos and formatting errors in the book (albeit all minor).
The volume itself is entirely pleasing, if printed in a slightly unusual format (a hardback that is either medium octavo in size or extremely close to it) with a wonderful colour cover by Chalk, around double the ten full-page black-and-white illustrations originally intended, and large easy-to-read print. Chalk’s artwork is highly stylised and his clear lines, imaginative use of negative space, and slightly disproportionate figures will be instantly recognisable to his fans from the eighties. His style is especially well-suited to children’s illustrations, in which market he has worked extensively, although I noted that the innocence and simplicity of his original Lone Wolf work has been eclipsed by a vision of Magnamund (the world of Lone Wolf) that is both more sinister and more intricately detailed. Chalk’s Vassagonian pirates are a perfect example, depicted in all their bloodthirsty savagery on the pages adjacent to sections 7 and 256 – not a Pirates-of-the-Caribbean-style comedy character in sight. The Pit of Darkness thus has two major selling points: it is the first Lone Wolf gamebook to unite Dever and Chalk in thirty years (Dever is credited as having “Edited and Augmented” the volume) and it is the first Lone Wolf gamebook to feature a female protagonist. The latter is particularly welcome, although in fairness to Dever the eighties wasn’t exactly a decade known for its equality of opportunity. Nor has the Kai Order eschewed gender discrimination entirely as male and female candidates are required to pursue different paths, the former to become New Order Kai Lords and the latter to become New Order Kai Konor. Autumn Snow is one of the latter, having joined the Konor when she was seven, mastered five of the ten Kai disciplines over the next seven years, and reached the rank of Initiate. The Lords and Konor study the same disciplines and this level of expertise puts Autumn Snow at precisely the same level as Lone Wolf at the beginning of the series, in Flight from the Dark (#1, 1984).
There is no explicit dating, but the story is set a year after Dawn of the Dragons (#18, 1992), presumably in MS 5081, while Lone Wolf is away, presumably on his last mission as a player character, The Curse of Naar (#20, 1993). This is a post-Darklords Magnamund, but is – just like our own post-Cold War world in the nineties – going through more than a few teething troubles. Autumn Snow is invited to join her principal instructor, Kai Lord Silver Flame, on what appears to be a routine investigation of sightings of former Darklands creatures on the Isle of Kirlu, which is part of the Kirlundian archipelago off the coast of Sommerlund. The first part of the gamebook takes place at sea, before Kirlu is reached, as the merchant ship on which Autumn Snow and Silver Flame are travelling is attacked by the aforementioned bloodthirsty savages. The battle involves a series of tough and exciting combats and leaves Autumn Snow the sole survivor of the crew, with Silver Flame missing in action presumed dead. Despite the fatal encounter with the pirates there is still a chance that the main mission is routine, but of course it proves not to be and when Autumn Snow arrives in Misty Bay after a dangerous journey on foot, she learns that Giaks (Magnamund’s orcs) have been sighted in the ruins of Wytch Aieta Nematah’s citadel. Autumn Snow infiltrates the ruins, finds a lot more than Giaks to fight, and the final part of the gamebook switches from a wilderness to a dungeon adventure (to use the old Dungeons & Dragons terminology). The Pit of the title lies beneath the ruins and it quickly becomes evident that the appearance of the Vassagonian pirates was no accident as the Vassagonians and Drakkarim, two of Magnamund’s most evil human races, are in league together.
From a gaming point of view, I thought the level of difficulty was particularly well-pitched, the mission challenging rather than suicidal. The toughest combat is probably with the Pit itself and players will need one of the disciplines of Mindblast, Mindshield, or a high initial Combat Skill to survive. With regard to disciplines, I found Tracking useful and – as always – Weaponskill and Healing, although Martin Charbonneau has introduced his own take on the latter. With regard to the actual mechanics of play (which follows the Lone Wolf gamebooks exactly and also has the traditional 350 sections), I was very interested to see that a third option is being tried for the Healing discipline. Back when I first came to the series in the mid-eighties Healing allowed one point of Endurance to be restored for each section where one was not involved in combat. When I chose my five disciplines, Healing was my first choice, followed by Weaponskill (the former to restore my character’s Endurance, the latter to boost his Combat Skill) and I can’t imagine how anyone could have managed without both. Dever must have decided that Healing was too powerful – and, in retrospect, with the Sommerswerd, Healing, and a bit of commonsense I don’t think there was too much to challenge Lone Wolf post-Darklords – because in The Voyage of the Moonstone (#21, 1994), which launched the New Order series, a limit was placed on the amount of Endurance the discipline could be used to restore. In The Pit of Darkness, the limit is gone and Endurance is restored at the rate of two points rather than one, but only at selected sections (indicated by a grey rather than black section number). There are naturally never any grey sections around when you need them, but allowing for the fact that I’ve only used this system in a single gameplay I think it is the best so far and part of the reason for the balance I noted – not too easy, like the Kai Grand Master series (books 13 to 20), or too hard, like the tail end of the New Order series (books 21 to 32). Having discovered the secret of the Pit, the adventure ends with Autumn Snow en route to the Maakenmire, a swamp south of the Wildlands. The second Autumn Snow adventure is Slaves of the Mire, but there are no publication details available in The Pit of Darkness or on the Megara website. My worry as I write this is that it will have to be crowdfunded too, in which case we’re unlikely to see it in print for two years (given the rate at which The Pit of Darkness was printed). Hopefully, that’s not the case, especially if the series is reaching new fans with Dever completing the long-awaited final four New Order adventures. I think the Autumn Snow series could be an outstanding addition to Magnamund – the best since the Magnakai series ended with The Masters of Darkness (#12, 1988) – but word will need to spread beyond the Megara website if it is to reach its potential.
Friday, 24 February 2017
Monday, 20 February 2017
Friday, 17 February 2017
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Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #58: Unsplatterpunk! is now out! Guest-edited by Douglas J. Ogurek, this is a special issue, an anthology featuring five founding tales of unsplatterpunk, a brand new genre! Douglas describes it as “extreme horror stories [that] offer a positive message, whether blatant or subtle, within their otherwise vile contents”. So don’t expect any slap-up dinners in this issue!
As Douglas says in his editorial, this isn’t a volume you’d want to pull out on family reading night, and you might want to avoid discussing it in detail with your coworkers. But it is interesting! Here’s what Douglas had to say about the stories in this issue:
In M.S. Swift’s deliberately disjointed “A Desert of Shadow and Bone”, brutality meets philosophy in an extravaganza of limb hacking, gentry slaughtering, and drug use that makes a statement about corporate greed and the repression of women. What starts as an extreme, albeit intimate ritual beside a tree-lined natural pool builds to a climax that is both apocalyptic and indicative of personal growth.
There’s something awry about an impending birth in “Quand les queues s’allongèrent”. When you discover what it is, you’ll get a jolt of humour and revulsion. Antonella Coriander offers a slashing take on misogyny and women’s empowerment.
Drew Tapley’s “The Fisherman’s Ring” delves into the absurd as he unveils what really happens in the secretive ceremony to select the next Pope. You get ringside seats for a series of trials full of pain-tertainment. You also get hope and solidarity.
In “The Armageddon Coat”, the collection’s longest work, Howard Watts (who also supplies the terrifying cover) takes us on a more serious journey of two pre-teens as they try to make sense of their world following an alien attack. The theme of innocence vs experience swirls amid political maneuvering, mass destruction, and vicious fighting to survive.
We also have a handful of reviews this issue, from Douglas himself, Rafe McGregor and Rose M. Rye (yes – after two long years we have once again published a female writer!), and they look at the work of Martin Charbonneau, Joe Dever, Gary Chalk, Neil Gaiman and Daniel Egnéus, as well as the films Arrival and Doctor Strange, and season eleven of the television show Supernatural. The issue concludes with twenty-four pages of notes and ratings for almost everything Stephen Theaker read during 2016 but didn’t review for us.
Here are the munificent contributors to this issue:
Douglas J. Ogurek’s fiction, though banned on Mars, appears in over 40 Earth publications. He is the guest editor of this special issue. Ogurek founded the literary subgenre known as unsplatterpunk, which uses splatterpunk conventions (e.g. extreme violence, gore, taboo subject matter) to deliver a positive message. More at http://www.douglasjogurek.weebly.com.
Drew Tapley is a copywriter and journalist, and has been publishing in Canada, Australia, and his native England for the last decade, both in print magazines and journals, as well as online. He is now based in Toronto, and has been making short films for the last five years. Some of his films have screened at film festivals throughout the world. He was recently published in the UK’s Popshot Magazine, and has two published books: one fiction, and one nonfiction.
Howard Watts is a writer, artist and composer living in Seaford. He provides the wraparound cover art for this issue, as well as a brilliant story. His artwork can be seen in its native resolution on his DeviantArt page: http://hswatts.deviantart.com. His novel The Master of Clouds is available on Kindle.
M.S. Swift writes horror and dark fantasy inspired by the ancient landscapes of the U.K. His contemporary horror tales have been published by Ghostwoods Books, the First United Church of Cthulhu, Schlock! Webzine and Schlock! Bi-monthly. He is currently working on a dark fantasy series inspired by the late medieval witch hunts, the first story of which has been published through Horrified Press. His long-term goal is to write a series of weird tales inspired by the early work of Wordsworth and Coleridge. He is paying off the accumulation of negative karma by working in the English education system.
Rafe McGregor Rafe McGregor is the author of The Value of Literature, The Architect of Murder, six collections of short fiction, and one hundred and fifty magazine articles, journal papers, and review essays. He lectures at the University of York and can be found online at @rafemcgregor.
Rose M. Rye is an actual woman, honestly, but she’s writing for us under a pseudonym because she doesn’t really want to be hassled at work by people who disagree with her opinions about television.
Stephen Theaker’s reviews, interviews and articles have appeared in Interzone, Black Static, Prism and the BFS Journal, as well as clogging up our pages. He shares his home with three slightly smaller Theakers and works in legal and medical publishing.
As ever, all back issues of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction are available for free download.
Monday, 13 February 2017
Fall of Cthulhu Omnibus, by Michael Alan Nelson, Mateus Santolouco and chums (Boom! Studios) | review by Stephen Theaker
Wednesday, 8 February 2017
The fascination with superhero movies grows: half of the top ten grossing (U.S.) films of 2016 involved crusaders of one kind or another. Overall, last year’s SF/F/H film output brought some disappointments (e.g., Independence Day: Resurgence, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Suicide Squad (excepting the Joker and Harley Quinn)) and some silly yet fun fantasies (e.g. Gods of Egypt, The Huntsman: Winter’s War), as well as some pleasant surprises (e.g. Ouija: Origin of Evil). Though advertisements championed The Witch as the next super-scary horror offering (and critics seemed to agree), the film doesn’t hold a candle next to the last two decades’ masterpieces (i.e. The Blair Witch Project, The Ring, Paranormal Activity). So we horror fans patiently await the next attempt.
With the exception of Arrival, SF/F/H films are absent among major categories in this year’s Oscar nominations. Typical. But… Suicide Squad was nominated, for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. That’s the Joker and Harley Quinn again.
So here you go: my picks for the best SF/F/H films of 2016:
#5: Don’t Breathe – Suspenseful and fast-moving. The victim, a muscular blind veteran, becomes the aggressor when three unwitting thieves break into his home for what they think will be an easy job. There’s something quite unsettling about the thieves’ would-be killer standing feet away and using his enhanced non-visual senses like a predatory animal. Full review.
#4: Dr. Strange – This superhero origin tale details neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange’s transformation from self-absorption to pursuit of a greater purpose. Great acting, strong visual effects (nominated for an Oscar in this category), and quite a bit of humour. Full review.
#3: Deadpool – Entertainment personified. You probably don’t want this superhero on your child’s lunchbox. The wise-cracking Deadpool breaks the fourth wall (i.e. he talks to the viewer), carries a Hello Kitty backpack, gets to his destinations via taxi, and never shuts up . . . and you don’t want him to. Fun (and funny) from start to finish. Like Ferris Bueller, with explosions. Full review.
#2: Arrival – This sci-fi drama does away with the explosions and the ridiculous dialogue of the typical alien invasion film. Instead, it’s a sophisticated exploration of language, perception of time, and human response to the unknown. Full review.
#1: 10 Cloverfield Lane – A play, a horror film, and a sci-fi mystery all rolled into one captivating package. So many great elements, the best of which is John Goodman’s portrayal of Howard. Are his intents in imprisoning the protagonist in his bunker malicious or altruistic? Even the kitchen table scene will have you completely absorbed. Full review.
There you have it: a blind killer, a jerk, a bigmouth, cryptic aliens, and an ineffable antagonist. Let’s see what 2017 brings. – Douglas J. Ogurek
See Douglas’s top five picks from 2015.
Monday, 6 February 2017
Friday, 3 February 2017
However, because all the stories accepted so far for issue 59 are by chaps, we'll remain open to fiction submissions from female writers (as well as new episodes in our ongoing serials).
Wednesday, 1 February 2017
By now, it’s pretty much a sure thing. When I go to an M. Night Shyamalan film, I’m going to enjoy it. I’m going to get odd characters, interesting ideas, an intriguing setting, surprises, and a doozy of a climax, as well as a deeper meaning to reflect upon for years to come.
Split, the next jewel in the underappreciated director’s oeuvre, delivers all these gifts. The film also proves Shyamalan’s strong awareness of the filmgoer’s role in the story. This time, he invites the viewer into the world of antagonist Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), who has a diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder (DID)—they used to call it multiple personality disorder. Crumb imprisons three teenage girls for reasons that gradually come to the fore. It’s a fun story that keeps the viewer locked in for the entirety of the film, but also, in typical Shyamalan fashion, it’s a tribute to those who face trials. This time, he takes on the broken and the abused.
Beauties and the Beast
The inciting incident happens a mere five minutes into the film: Dennis (one of Crumb’s 23 personalities) abducts Marcia and Claire, along with chief protagonist Casey, a third girl he hadn’t anticipated. He brings them to his hideout, then his other personalities, which are aware of each other’s existence, begin to surface. Marcia and Claire try traditional escape routes, whereas the more pensive Casey attempts to manipulate the personalities. The scenes shift between the hideout, flashbacks to Casey’s childhood with her father and uncle, and psychologist Dr. Fletcher’s interactions with Berry (a fashion designer personality of Crumb’s).
Much of the film’s tension stems from a villain the personalities refer to as “the Beast”, who is supposedly coming for the girls. Shyamalan keeps the viewer guessing: Is the Beast a figment of Crumb’s imagination? Another person? Some kind of superhuman creature? Or is it the antagonist’s 24th personality that has yet to surface?
The Mind-Body Connection
The film introduces documentation of DID sufferers altering their body chemistry based on which personality is occupying them. For instance, one personality might need insulin whereas others don’t, or one personality might have a different cholesterol level than the others. Shyamalan takes this mind-body connection to the next level, suggesting that Crumb might be able to use the power of his fragmented mind to achieve exceptional physical abilities.
Dr Fletcher doesn’t give the viewer much reassurance. She argues that the Beast is an impossibility, but also posits that those with DID could be more physically evolved humans due to their ability to manipulate their bodies. It’s like a souped-up version of the philosophy that many of these self-help gurus espouse: if you think hard enough about some state of being, you can achieve it.
A Smash Split
One of the things I’ve always admired about Ozzy Osbourne was his willingness to step back and let his lead guitarists shine. Similarly, Shyamalan, despite his drive to impart a lesson and control his plot, lets James McAvoy do his thing and thus captures a truly riveting performance.
What a treat it is to watch McAvoy’s facial expressions and vocal nuances as the camera lingers on him. Especially enjoyable are those pivotal scenes during which we witness, sometimes gradually and sometimes quickly, a character shift.
McAvoy’s versatility is evident in Dennis and Patricia, the two vastly different “difficult” personalities that have enlisted the others in their “philosophy of the Beast”. The most entertaining personality comes in the form of nine-year-old boy Hedwig. You know he’s going to be fun the moment he utters his first words in the film: “My name’s Hedwig. I have red socks.” Watch for Hedwig’s maniacal dance to Snails’ “Frogbass”.
Though his portrayal of DID is likely way off base, Shyamalan uses our Hollywood-instilled preconceptions about the mental illness to create a compelling story.
Remember that Shyamalan, the conscientious director, may be challenging you, the willing participant in this tale, to fill in the blanks. So as you settle into his dark world, look for the light that may just shine through. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****
Monday, 30 January 2017
Locke & Key, Vol. 6: Alpha & Omega, by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez (IDW Publishing) | review by Stephen Theaker
Friday, 27 January 2017
Tuesday, 24 January 2017
When I go to a horror film, I want to feel something. I want the jolt of a good jump scare, or the lingering unease caused by an unidentified malicious presence. I want to get grossed out, to be appalled by violence, or even to laugh with a good horror comedy. With The Bye Bye Man, a horror film whose primary intent seems to be to scare the viewer, I felt disappointed. Oh, it does occasionally incite laughter, but that’s based on the bad acting and illogic.
The film warns that saying or even thinking “the Bye Bye Man” will unleash the monster that bears that name. He is a hooded figure with a penchant for using his E.T.-like fingers to scratch walls for no apparent reason.
Elliot, girlfriend Sasha, and friend John move into an old house off their college campus. After some dull introductions to Elliot’s brother and his family, a dull housewarming party, and a dull séance—are you seeing a trend here?—Elliot stumbles upon the dreaded name and unwittingly resurfaces the figure after a near fifty-year hiatus. For the rest of the film, the Bye Bye Man infects the trio, casting them into a world of hallucinations, jealousy, and mistrust. Elliot’s attempts to mentally expunge the name by chanting “Don’t think it, don’t say it, don’t think it, don’t say it” grow tedious and annoying. And isn’t it true the more you try to fight certain thoughts, the more you have them?
Even the tensest scenes seem silly upon further reflection. For instance, one feels anxiety when Elliot and Sasha look at the black cowl hanging on their bedroom wall. But then, why is there a black cowl hanging on their wall? And why don’t they just take it down? It’s never explained. In another scene, Elliot heads down to the basement to investigate a scratching noise that could be the Bye Bye Man. If it is indeed the hooded fiend, why is he scratching? Again, never explained. Then there are the coins dropping and the sound of trains to signal the Bye Bye Man is coming. But why?
Occasionally, the film flashes back to 1969, when journalist Larry Redmon, the last poor guy who tried to exorcise the name from the minds and lips of humanity, goes on a neighbourhood shooting spree. Not a bad way to start the film. But when a shotgun blows away someone at point-blank range and it just leaves a small smudge on the wall and no blood pool (presumably to meet PG-13 parameters), it seems inauthentic.
Once the Bye Bye Man is revealed in the (mangled) flesh, he loses a lot of his potency. As many of the scariest horror films in recent history have proven, the threat is most frightening when it hasn’t manifested itself, when it’s lurking and just as mysterious to the viewer as it is to the main characters.
If you can think of a horror movie cliché, it’s probably in The Bye Bye Man. Sloppy sketches of frightening creatures, internet research, séances, creepy girl with eye shadow, character with eyes missing, and writing on walls. It’s all in there. And how do the filmmakers substantiate the gravity of the research scene? They have Elliot wear glasses, of course! Additionally, when he searches “The Bye Bye Man”, he gets zero results. That’s surprising, since I just typed in some nonsense (i.e. “lke naea ene eare”) and got 810,000 results. What search engine is he using?!
It says something when the film’s most interesting character is the main villain’s sidekick, a gigantic skulking hellhound with a huge head and skin that looks like toxic sludge.
The Bye Bye Man can’t go bye-bye soon enough. – Douglas J. Ogurek *
Monday, 23 January 2017
Friday, 20 January 2017
In my review of Lone Wolf 22: The Buccaneers of Shadaki above I mentioned that Joe Dever is now self-publishing the Lone Wolf series of gamebooks, after close on twenty years of problems with first Red Fox, then Mongoose Publishing, and most recently German publisher Mantikore Verlag. One would have hoped that after all the trials and tribulations suffered by both Dever and his fans at the non-profit Project Aon (www.projectaon.org), his decision to take charge of the process himself would have run smoothly, but alas this was not the case. The Storms of Chai is book 29 in the Lone Wolf series as a whole and the ninth adventure in the New Order series, which rebooted with a new player persona in Lone Wolf 21: Voyage of the Moonstone (reviewed in #55). The New Order series was published at the rate of two books a year from 1994 to 1998, by which reckoning The Storms of Chai would have been published in 1999. With Dever at the helm after seventeen years, the long-awaited adventure – which had been sold out on pre-orders – was due for release in April 2016. There was a delay with the printers and it seemed as if the Lone Wolf project had stalled yet again. The book was finally released in mid-May and with a stack of further pre-orders to meet, Dever ordered a second edition printed. In yet another improbable twist in the Lone Wolf story, a second first edition was printed and although the books are exactly the same, the difference in paper used by the Turkish (fat) and Lithuanian (thin) printers has resulted in the former being substantially thicker and heavier than the latter (Dever explains the full story on the book order page: www.mapmagnamund.com/id72.html). There are no copies of the fat edition left and my copy (which is still available at the time of writing) is the later, thin one. As I mentioned in my review of The Buccaneers of Shadaki, I have suffered at the hands of small presses on several occasions, but I had no problems whatsoever with my order, the price (£19.99) includes postage and packaging in the UK, and all copies purchased from Holmgard Press arrive with Dever’s seal and signature.
The adventure begins in the early spring of MS 5102, seventeen years after the conclusion of Lone Wolf 28: The Hunger of Sejanoz (a conceit that neatly encapsulates the delay between planned and actual publication), which is not a problem for my Kai Grandmaster, True Friend, who only ages one year for every five (albeit at the cost of a silly name). The volume has a unique addition for a Lone Wolf collector’s edition, a “Timeline of notable events in Magnamund”, which covers the interim since True Friend put paid to the Autarch Sejanoz. In summary: various hordes of evil minions have been sallying forth from such fell places as the Doomlands of Naaros, Kraknalorg Chasm, and the Chasm of Gorgoron; the god Kai appeared before Lone Wolf to (somewhat belatedly in my opinion) warn him that Naar is up to his evil tricks again, following which – in MS 5101 – the Grand Brumalmarc of the Icelands and his ice demon allies attempted to invade the homeland of Sommerlund and seismic disturbances opened a gigantic chasm in the Darklands that extended the dreaded Maakengorge. Magnamund is, it seems, literally being rocked, and subterranean denizens that should never see the light of day are pouring onto its surface.
True Friend has spent most of the above years quietly, supervising the construction of the new Kai Monastery on the Isle of Lorn and taking command when Lone Wolf has been absent. The adventure begins with Lone Wolf returning to the monastery to hold a council, where he reveals that Magnamund is indeed under a coordinated attack by an unknown force. There are six armies attacking six different locations and the top six ranking Kai Grandmasters are despatched accordingly. Following True Friend’s slaying of Sejanoz, Chai rallied the New Kingdom armies to inflict a decisive defeat on Bhanar, but after more than a decade of peace, a Nadziranim sorcerer named Bakhasa (who has a nasty habit of raising the dead as unpleasant versions of their former cheery selves) has seized the remote Bhanarian city of Bakhasa. Zashnor is now in command of an Agarashi horde from the Doomlands and appears to have constructed a new Claw of Naar in an attempt to succeed where Sejanoz failed, in invading Chai. True Friend’s mission is to recover the Eye of Agarash from the new Khea-Khan before Zashnor can retrieve it and create a weapon of mass destruction by joining it with the replica Claw. The action begins with an airborne deployment to Chai and True Friend must race against the invading army to reach Pensei, the capital. The bulk of both the action and the story involve a prolonged but nonetheless exciting flight across Chai, from Pensei to Valus. The traditional combat finale of the first twenty-eight books has been replaced by a trio of final combats: first, Klüz, the Doomgah leader; then Xaol the Necromancer, raised from the dead since True Friend last killed him in Lone Wolf 25: Trail of the Wolf; and finally, Zashnor himself – along with his Zlanbeast. Each of these is a tough combat and there is little opportunity to rest between them, which brings me to my only criticism of a gamebook that otherwise meets all seventeen years’ worth of expectations.
This is a very hard game to play and the difficulty is purely attritional: first, Zashnor has amassed a formidable army that is already rampaging around Chai when True Friend arrives in-country; second, once True Friend has the Eye of Agarash it exerts a long-term draining effect that pops up when least expected; third, in my gameplay there was only one opportunity for all of True Friend’s endurance points to be restored and that relatively early on; finally, in my gameplay there were two occasions when two or more items of precious equipment were lost without the opportunity to recover or replace them. All of which to say that I think that The Storms of Chai would be nigh impossible to survive out of order – i.e., without True Friend having reached the rank of Sun Thane (level thirty-two out of a maximum of thirty-six) – and, for that matter, without the Grandmaster skills of both Deliverance and Weaponmastery. The volunteers at Project Aon have, amongst their many other services to Lone Wolf fans worldwide, helpfully provided a flow chart of each of the first twenty-eight books and although I suspect that the narrative of book 29 is no more linear than any of the others, the constant fighting against powerful enemies of all sorts makes it feel like what would be called a “hack and slash” dungeon crawl in Dungeons & Dragons. Certainly, this is one of the gamebooks where brawn (and luck) counts more than brains, although it is an entirely gripping hack and slash. The story ends with two unanswered questions: first, how did Zashnor get hold of the real Claw of Naar, which was supposed to be safe in Dessi? Second, who or what is the power behind the new assault on Magnamund? The first is revealed in the bonus adventure; the second will, one hopes, be at least partially answered in Lone Wolf 30: Dead in the Deep. The bonus adventure is “The Tides of Gorgoron” (written by Dever and Vincent Lazarri), where the reader adopts the persona of Lord Elkamo Doko, a Vakeros warrior-mage, a group of warriors who have been taught some of the skills of magic by the Elder Magi of Dessi. Lord Doko begins as second-in-command of a force sent to defend the Colo Bridge from the advancing Agarashi. The adventure is very entertaining, has a direct link to the narrative of The Storms of Chai, and the warrior-mage player character is perfectly-pitched – neither too similar nor too dissimilar to a Kai Grandmaster, thus making a perfect complement. Rafe McGregor
Monday, 16 January 2017
The problem with Hal is that for all the affection in which he’s held and the tumultuous events of his life, he tends to be quite a dull, flavourless character – presumably the reason they replaced him in the first place. This book surrounds him with other Green Lanterns to prevent that being a problem. Long-time GLs John Stewart, Guy Gardner and Kyle Rayner all play prominent roles, but this is about the Green Lantern Corps as a whole, fighting a huge war against its most terrible threat. Sinestro, once the greatest Green Lantern of them all, has been recruiting his own yellow corps, of villains who have the power to inspire fear. At his side are the cyborg Superman Hank Henshaw, deranged survivor of the Crisis Superboy-Prime, and the Anti-Monitor himself, plus thousands of other recruits.
Even Hal Jordan couldn’t make this book boring. It’s a true epic in the style of the earlier books it draws on, the kind of thing that would usually be a company-wide crossover. There are a hundred things happening on every page, deaths by the dozen, the story taking place in amongst a blizzard of green and yellow rings searching for worthy new owners. The issues collected here are from two titles, Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps, not that you could tell, the story holding together so well. The collection does something that is much too rare in DC’s books – each chapter identifies the original issue it came from, and provides the individual writers and artists and the original title of that story, so you know exactly what you’re reading. The artwork throughout is very good, the amount of work that must have gone into each panel quite staggering. Almost any page of it would make an epic poster. I can’t think of a Green Lantern story I liked more. The battle between the vicious Superman-Prime (as he’s now called) and a Daxamite Green Lantern who can almost match him in strength is brilliantly brutal. I also liked the way that the real Superman shows up in the big battles at the end but doesn’t get to speak, because it isn’t his comic. And yet my very favourite bit, in this interplanetary, intergalactic, interuniversal war, was the littlest: Green Lantern Leezle Pon, a superintelligent smallpox virus. Stephen Theaker ****
Friday, 13 January 2017
Lone Wolf 22: The Buccaneers of Shadaki, by Joe Dever (Mantikore Verlag/Holmgard Press) | review by Rafe McGregor
In #55, I reviewed the collector’s edition of Lone Wolf 21: Voyage of the Moonstone, published in English by Mantikore Verlag in 2015. The review was more of a reflection on the whole series, summarising the thirty years between my first reading of Lone Wolf 1: Flight From the Dark to the point where, after numerous improbable narrative twists, there once again seemed to be a delay in publishing. The short version: Lone Wolf was originally conceived as a series of thirty-two gamebooks, the first of which was published in 1984, stalled – apparently forever – in 1998 at Lone Wolf 28: The Hunger of Sejanoz, and has been the subject of many and varied attempts to both finish the series and return all its instalments to print. I concluded by noting that although Mantikore Verlag’s taking over of the series from Mongoose Publishing in 2013 was an initial success, it seemed to have run into trouble in the second year. On 1 April 2016, shortly after I submitted the review, Joe Dever announced that he was self-publishing the rest of the collector’s edition series, including the previously unpublished four books. I must admit I was disappointed by the news, after the heroic efforts the fans at Project Aon (www.projectaon.org), a non-profit organisation, had made on Dever’s behalf, but I’m pleased to report that Holmgard Press (www.mapmagnamund.com) is flourishing. Lone Wolf 29: The Storms of Chai (also reviewed in this issue) was published in June and Dever is also selling the Mantikore Verlag volumes that are still in stock, books 18 and 22. Having suffered at the hands of small presses on several occasions myself, I’ll add that I had no problems whatsoever with my purchase of The Storms of Chai and that the price (£17.95) includes postage and packaging in the UK. In addition, all copies purchased from Holmgard Press arrive with Dever’s seal and signature (for those who set store by such things).
Returning to The Buccaneers of Shadaki, my Kai Grandmaster – True Friend – had put in the kind of performance his wimpy name would lead one to expect in his mission to return the Moonstone to the Isle of Lorn and found himself in the city of Elzian at the end of Voyage of the Moonstone. In my previous review I mentioned that the gamebooks have moved through distinct series as the overarching story progressed: a single campaign in the Kai and Magnakai series (books 1 through 12), followed by a series of standalone adventures in the Grand Master series (13 to 20) all with the same character, Lone Wolf. Voyage of the Moonstone marked the beginning of the fourth series, the New Order, in which the reader adopts the persona of one of Lone Wolf’s acolytes, and it was not clear whether the twelve books of the New Order would take the form of a single campaign or more standalone adventures. Dever seems to be employing a third, hybrid, option, with some New Order missions being standalone and others spanning more than one book (about which I shall have more to say below). The second half of the Moonstone quest takes True Friend “deep into the wild and lawless reaches of southern Magnamund”, which will only be familiar to those readers who played Ian Page’s regrettably short-lived spin-off series, The World of Lone Wolf (four gamebooks were published by Beaver Books from 1985 to 1986, beginning with Grey Star the Wizard).
This survey of the southern continent is the book’s greatest strength and the narrative is a sequence of fascinating explorations of and mini-adventures in the ports between Elzian and Lorn: from the emporium of Zharloum to the junkyard that is Dlash-da Ralzuha to a run-in with Sesketera, the despot of Ghol-Tabras; from the ruined splendour of Caeno, with its famous guanza derby, to the austerity of Nhang, with its eighty stone statues, and finally the Port of Suhn, ruled by the wizard Grey Star (hero of The World of Lone Wolf). The southern continent of Magnamund is every bit as interesting as its northern counterpart, where Lone Wolf cut his teeth, but The Buccaneers of Shadaki is more of a guidebook than a gamebook, even if it is a guidebook no one should be without. The combat finale is with a Zhürc, which might be a sea dragon and might not – one cannot be certain because there is no illustration – and provides an anti-climax either way. The creature on the eye-catching cover, drawn by Manuel Leza Moreno, is a scary sea crocodile called a Nigumu-sa that appears much earlier on, between Ghol-Tabras and Masama, but despite its presence the adventure as a game is altogether too easy.
One of the problems that has emerged in the New Order series was evident in some of the Grandmaster series: when one is playing a single character, who advances in prowess and power with each adventure but who is not involved in a campaign – working his way through increasingly difficult minions of an evil archenemy, for example – it becomes difficult for the author to maintain both the peril factor and a minimal degree of realism. True Friend is a Kai Grandmaster Senior at the beginning of Lone Wolf 21, which means that he is advanced to twenty-five out of a maximum of thirty-six levels of expertise and has several supernatural abilities. If Dever had opted to make The Buccaneers of Shadaki more challenging, he would have had to put some pretty tough opponents in relatively innocuous settings – but it would be stretching the imagination too far if street thugs and hungry animals were capable of taking on one of the most fearsome warriors on the continent. This is one of the reasons that I prefer a campaign to a series of standalone adventures. Speaking of which, like all the other Mantikore Verlag/Holmgard Press collector’s editions, this 574pp volume includes a bonus adventure, “A Wytch’s Nightmare” (written by Vincent Lazzari and Alexander Kühnert). The reader’s persona is the Wytch Yenna, her mission is to find the missing Grey Star, and the writers’ use of a female protagonist makes a very welcome change (true to its eighties origins, the various Lone Wolf protagonists have hitherto been exclusively male).
As my next review will be of Lone Wolf 29, I shall conclude this one with a brief summary of books 23 to 28. The Buccaneers of Shadaki ends with the promise of “a new and sinister threat to the fragile peace of Magnamund”. That threat is Baron Sadanzo and his robber-knights and Mydnight’s Hero (#23, first published in 1995) sees True Friend assisting the exiled Prince of Siyen to reclaim his father’s kingdom. Rune War (#24, 1995) returns the action to the Stornlands, a war-torn region in northern Magnamund where Lord Vandyan of Eldenora has used the Runes of Agarash to raise a reptilian breed of warrior. While Lone Wolf leads the crusade against Eldenora’s army, True Friend must break into the fortress of Skull-Tor to destroy the runes and his success sees him rise to become the second most powerful Kai Grandmaster. Shortly after the victory against Eldenora, Lone Wolf is abducted by a necromancer named Xaol and True Friend rescues him from Gazad Helkona in Trail of the Wolf (#25, 1997). (Unfortunately, the plot of rescuing friends or allies has been a little over-employed in the series, especially if one includes the standalone graphic novel spin-off, The Skull of Agarash, published in 1994, and “A Wytch’s Nightmare”.) Meanwhile, the greedy Dwarves of Bor have dug too deep in search of wealth, released an ancient horror called the Shom’zaa, and require True Friend’s assistance to defend their Throne Chamber in The Fall of Blood Mountain (#26, 1997). (As another aside, I should mention that this is currently the rarest of all the books; a second-hand copy was sold for just over £1000 on Amazon in August.) Vampirium (#27, 1998) takes a slight change of direction in that it initiates a series of events that will (it seems) dominate the remaining five books. The Autarch Sejanoz of Bhanar despatches a mission to excavate the Claw of Naar from the ruin of Naaros and True Friend must intercept the party before it returns to the capital. Sejanoz proceeds with the invasion of Chai without the Claw in The Hunger of Sejanoz (#28, 1998) and True Friend is sent to escort the Khea-Khan to safety. The Hunger of Sejanoz was published with only three hundred (as opposed to the usual three hundred and fifty) gameplay sections – I am not sure why – but Dever has plans to remedy this… all of which will be discussed in my review of The Storms of Chai.
Wednesday, 11 January 2017
Another group of sombre characters flying from planet to planet, another father-child relationship, another bad guy turned good, another sky swarming with spacecraft. Isn’t all this Star Wars stuff starting to get a little old? I did root for the protagonists in Rogue One, but I also rolled my eyes quite a bit.
But then there’s the guy at the theatre who told me he’s seen the film four times. And what about all the critics and laymen who gave it glowing reviews? How can they look past the sappiness, the expository dialogue, the lukewarm characters? Could it be that they’re all still under the spell of the first three films (Episodes IV–VI)?
Rogue One bridges Episodes III and IV. Like Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Rogue One features a female protagonist. This time it’s Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones). Accompanied by Alliance Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO, Jyn undertakes a journey to find her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), a scientist forced by the Imperial Army to design a weapon of mass destruction. Then the heroes and their growing crew set out to get the digital plans for a flaw that Galen programmed into said weapon.
Rogue One isn’t without strengths. A tense opening scene, for instance, shows a young Jyn escaping after chief antagonist Director Krennic (Ben Mendolsohn) and his Imperial henchmen capture her father. Krennic’s spotless white uniform – it sets him apart throughout the film – flapping in the wind and his cocksure attitude propel the scene.
Moreover, a strong narrative arc follows all the conventions of a good story. Characters have clear-cut goals and rising obstacles impede their efforts. Still, an overly clinical approach to storytelling may have weakened the magic.
A couple of characters make a somewhat memorable impression. The verbally unrestrained K-2SO makes some rather snide remarks that may induce a chuckle. To Jyn, he offers this gem: “I’ll be there for you,” then, after a pause, “The Captain said I had to.” And it’s a pleasure to watch Chirrut Îmwe, a monkish blind warrior with a near-religious devotion to the Force, use his staff to speedily dispatch the bad guys. In the film’s most emotionally stirring scene, Îmwe chants “The Force is with me and I am one with the Force” while walking through a battlefield. And it’s hard to not perk up every time Darth Vader gets mentioned or appears. Though Vader’s screen time is limited, he does regale the viewer with a demonstration of his fighting talents.
Still, the film offers no standout character, no Han Solo.
As usual, Forest Whitaker puts his all into his performance. Saw Gerrera is a mountain man type who saves and trains Jyn. However, his minimal screen time isn’t enough to create an emotional connection with the viewer; anything that happens to him feels anticlimactic. It’s like having a side dish from a five-star restaurant with a fast food meal: it just doesn’t fit.
Another shortcoming of Rogue One: the opposition never dominates, so protagonists are never truly against the ropes. It all seems so easy.
The film builds to a major battle between the Rebel Alliance and Imperial Army. Yes, it’s cool to see the Imperial Army’s imposing structures amid sunny beaches and palm trees on the tropical planet of Scarif, but the chaos of the battle and the heavy reliance on special effects leaves the viewer feeling a bit uninvested in what unfolds. Today’s adolescent would surely scoff at the special effects of Episodes IV–VI, but didn’t the lack of technology in the ’70s and ’80s propel George Lucas and company to create solutions that led to the timelessness of those characters and stories?
Though I’m far from a Star Wars fanatic, I (like just about everyone) think episodes IV through VI are brilliant and that Episode VII: The Force Awakens captures the magic. Also, that quiet Darth Maul (Episode I) is a blast to watch. It is hard to believe that, without the strength of its predecessors, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story would have received the same critical acclaim.
Remember what the 40-year-old Peyton Manning did after he led the underdog Denver Broncos to victory in Super Bowl 50 last year? He retired. Perhaps Star Wars should have followed his example. – Douglas J. Ogurek **
Monday, 9 January 2017
After the superheroes get sucked into Firestorm, that leaves just Batman and the supervillains, led by Lex Luthor in his seventies-chic power-armour, to fight off an invasion from another dimension! It’s the Crime Syndicate of America, evil mirrors of the Justice League like Ultraman and Superwoman, fleeing the destruction of their own world. Most of the villains are happy to join the Crime Syndicate in ruling the world, but Captain Cold, Black Manta, Sinestro, Catwoman and Lex’s newly decanted Bizarro will join Lex (and Batman) in taking them down. For a big DC event this has a tight focus for the most part, the confrontation taking place within a downed JLA watchtower by the sea. The art to my eyes isn’t very attractive, a bit rougher than I prefer, but I suppose that fits with us seeing the world from a villain’s point of view. Batman looks good. Sinestro comes across very well, his method of dealing with the cowardly Power Ring being particularly decisive. Stephen Theaker ***
Friday, 6 January 2017
Ivan Reitman, speaking of the development of the original Ghostbusters film, recalls Dan Aykroyd’s first treatment as featuring many groups of futuristic ghostbusters and about fifty large-scale monsters (of which the marshmallow man was just one), with an estimated production cost of (only half-jokingly) $300 million. This is not the movie that ended up being made in 1984; nor, sadly, is it the film that rebooted in 2016.
Ghostbusters: Answer the Call is by no means a bad production (objectively, it’s better than Ghostbusters II), but it’s the same as the original: neither reboot nor remake but rather a shadow; a “based on” in much the same way that Blues Brothers 2000 changed the details but followed exactly the same blueprint as The Blues Brothers. Not unlike covering a song that was near-perfect to begin with, the results of such mimicry can only be disappointing. It’s nobody’s fault. If not for nostalgia tipping the scales the lead cast (all women, all comedians) would near enough match up to that of the original movie. Likewise much of the dialogue, which is funny and well-delivered, just not as etched-in-stone memorable as those bon mots that have been quoted so often these last thirty-plus years. Chris Hemsworth differs from Rick Moranis in the quirkiness of his supporting role. Karan Soni brings something as the takeaway delivery man. But really, what else is there to talk about?
Yes, there are cameos, but these are mostly counterproductive. The bust of Harold Ramis brings home the sad truth that he’s no longer with us. Bill Murray’s appearance leaves us to question his refusal to be involved in countless other proposed Ghostbusters projects. Dan Aykroyd shows that he could easily still have answered the call. Ernie Hudson comes in late – still the token fourth member – while the less said about Sigourney Weaver’s effort the better. Only Moranis had the good sense not to return, which is how it should be. If continuity is to be thrown out (which after all is the liberty afforded by a reboot) then what value the cameo except to assuage the misgivings of old-time fans, yet in the process stirring their unfulfilled hunger for past glories? Even the brief snatch of Ray Parker Jnr’s classic Ghostbusters song isn’t so much paying homage as twisting the knife.
When the big scary evil comes to its flaccid end, Ghostbusters: Answer the Call is neither here nor there, nor anywhere else for that matter: not a shot-for-shot remake; not a sequel; and – let’s be honest – not really much of a reboot. By all means cast Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones. They’re very good, so why not? But pour some juice into the script! Cross the streams and go for something new, not merely: “Who you gonna call? Er, 1984.” Wake up, Hollywood: three decades later, the future is here; so why not go further into the future? Why not reboot from Dan Aykroyd’s at-the-time unrealisable first concept and have several competing ghostbusting groups and a threat that’s been in some way escalated, if only by inflation?
With a blank slate Ghostbusters: Answer the Call could have been anything. It could have been just as good as its classic forerunner, perhaps even (and here’s a thought the writers, producers and director seem not to have considered) better. Instead, we got more of the same: merely ripples of reprise. We got half-heartedly slimed. Again.
1. Audio commentary, 12:10-12:30.
Thursday, 5 January 2017