Friday, 22 June 2012

Super Dinosaur, Vol. 1, by Robert Kirkman and Jason Howard – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Super Dinosaur, Vol. 1, by Robert Kirkman and Jason Howard (Image Comics, tpb, 128pp). Derek Dynamo is a cocky kid genius whose best friend is Super Dinosaur, a genetically-modified Tyrannosaurus Rex. As Rexes go, he’s quite small—only about 300 cm—but he’s intelligent, tough and wears cybernetic harnesses that provide him with weapons, wings and best of all a decent pair of fists, for punching the dino-men minions of Max Maximus, monsters like Terrordactyl, Dreadasaurus and Breakeosaurus. Derek’s dad, Doctor Dynamo, has been a bit fuzzy-minded since the first great battle with his arch-nemesis, but the boy genius has secretly been taking up the slack.

In this book the status quo is disturbed. First by Bruce and Sarah, mom and pop technicians sent by the army who might discover Derek’s little-cover-up once they arrive at the Dynamo Dome. And how will their two cute daughters affect the relationship between Derek and Super Dinosaur? There aren’t any cute Tyrannosaurus Reginas out there, as far as he knows. And secondly, some of the dino-men (and dino-women) are no longer satisfied to hench for Maximus, and led by The Exile and Tricerachops they are making plans to exterminate humanity.

This neat little comic is perfectly pitched at nine-year-old children, full of the exuberance of kicking butt, a Saturday morning cartoon or toy line from the eighties done right. I’m three decades past my ninth year, but even I appreciated the tight, bright, action-packed art, the intriguing little mysteries, the pure-hearted heroes, the evil-hearted villains, the friendly, joyful atmosphere. Adults will find it disposable but pleasant, kids will love it. Buy it as a birthday present for the Ben 10 fan in your life and they won’t be disappointed.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Monkey vs. Robot by James Kochalka – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Originally published in 2000, Monkey vs. Robot (Top Shelf, digital graphic novel, 150pp), written and drawn by James Kochalka, sees a group of monkeys react angrily to the pollution being caused by a factory and the robots who work for it. The pages are square with one to four panels each. There is very little dialogue—a robot declaring “The future is now” early on, and the factory computer begging for its life towards the end, for example—and that makes it a very quick read (so much so that one feels almost guilty to see it took a year to create). It’s a sad tale: imagine the stormtroopers of Return of the Jedi mounting a comeback against the ewoks, drawn with heartbreaking cuteness. The monkeys are essentially murderous eco-terrorists, but one does want them to win. It looks smashing on the iPad, and is available on Comixology at a remarkably cheap price. Good stuff. I could see myself becoming quite a fan of James Kochalka.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Wolves at the Gate – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

One of my very favourite television programmes continues in comics form in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Eight, Vol. 3: Wolves at the Gate (Dark Horse, tpb, 136pp), collecting issues eleven to fifteen of the comic. Most of this book is written by Drew Goddard, but it opens with a single issue story by Buffy creator Joss Whedon, “A Beautiful Sunset”, in which Buffy encounters the Big Bad for this season, Twilight. He’s a dangerous fellow—he throws a steeple at her!—whose plan is to take away Buffy’s invincible armour: “her moral certainty”. (It would certainly slow her down a bit if she didn’t just assume all vampires were naughty by nature.) There’s a tease of his identity that would have been cleverly tantalising had I not learnt it already from the Amazon description of volume eight.

The four issues written by Drew Goddard give the collection its title. In “Wolves at the Gate” the slayer castle is attacked by vampires sharing the powers of Dracula, who made a brief, bathetic appearance in the TV series. Investigating takes the slayers and the gang—plus Dracula—from Scotland to Japan, where a vampire clan has plans to undo Buffy’s gift of slayerhood. It’s a story with many highlights—actually, scratch that, it’s a story entirely made up of highlights. Xander’s hilarious and oddly touching relationship with Dracula. Everyone bursting in on Buffy’s latest romantic tryst. Giant dawn fighting a giant mechadawn.

The pleasures of the Buffy season eight comic are essentially those of the original series: stories with consequences, well-planned plots, laugh-out loud dialogue, relationships that develop naturally in unexpected directions. Pencils throughout are by Georges Jeanty, with inks by Andy Owens, and they prove extremely adept at depicting each of those elements. Panels like those where Willow and Buffy discuss the latter’s latest romance display the comic skills of Kevin Maguire, while the action is always clear and powerful. They manage the tough trick of capturing the actors’ likenesses perfectly without the stiffness that afflicts many licensed comics. They draw a very pretty Buffy, and if she sometimes looks very petite, that’s because she really is; that’s what makes it so impressive when she fights the big monsters.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Interzone and Black Static on Kindle (ft. Theaker)

Three Theaker-tastic magazines from TTA Press are now available on Kindle: Interzone 239, Interzone 240 and Black Static 27. Theaker-less issues are also available!

I joke, as usual, but you cannot imagine how proud I am to have written for these magazines. I first read Interzone when I was at school, long, long decades ago. Having my first review appear in there was the greatest writing achievement of my life so far.

In issue 239 I review Andy Remic's Theme Planet, and in issue 240 there's a Theaker double-bill, reviewing Jane Carver of Waar and The Not Yet by Nathan Long and Moira Crone respectively. In issue 27 of Black Static I review Alison Littlewood's A Cold Season.

The issues also feature fiction, reviews, interviews and columns from Lavie Tidhar, Elizabeth Bourne, Stephen Volk, Jim Steel, Suzanne Palmer, Peter Tennant, Stephen Bacon, Nick Lowe, Ray Cluley, Tony Lee and many more brilliant people.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Cobra Gamble (Cobra War, Book 3) by Timothy Zahn – reviewed by Jacob Edwards

Cobra Gamble (Cobra War, Book 3), by Timothy Zahn (Baen Books, 308pp). The second labour of a latter day Hercules—third head, twice removed.

Timothy Zahn first introduced the concept of Cobras—cybernetically enhanced warriors with built-in weaponry—through the novelette, “When Jonny Comes Marching Home”, in the January 1982 edition of Analog. A trilogy of novels soon followed—Cobra (1985), Cobra Strike (1986), Cobra Bargain (1988)—in which Zahn further explored not only the military but also the social and political implications of mankind’s having created soldiers who are permanently armed; in effect, living weapons. Although Zahn then moved on to other projects—most famously, perhaps, his Thrawn trilogy, which relaunched the Star Wars franchise in written form—he has returned twenty years later with a second Cobra trilogy (Cobra War) and has even set the stage for a third (Cobra Rebellion). With his country (the USA) continuing to embroil itself in a series of political/cultural/military conflicts, Zahn (and his readers) might well regard the Cobras as being even more relevant now to society than they were thirty years ago.

Zahn often narrates his stories from multiple points of view, moving from one to the next with each chapter and effectively weaving together three or four plot lines. The technique is particularly well suited to Cobra Gamble, which follows the exploits of the original Cobra Jonny Moreau’s granddaughter Jin Moreau and great grandchildren Merrick, Lorne and Jody Broom—third and fourth generation Cobras (except for Jody)—as they struggle to fight off one race of aliens (the militarily dominant Trofts) while simultaneously upholding an alliance forged recently with a second (humankind’s longstanding enemies, the downtrodden Qasamans). Zahn’s focus is on action and ingenuity, but the real strength of Cobra Gamble (and other Cobra books) is the pervading xenotopical backdrop, which both defines the conflicts and conspires against the protagonists.

Although neither alien race is described physically—the Qasamans have sacred leaders and are male dominated; [the Trofts, they come from feudal demesnes and their speech is translated in square brackets; the Trofts, they seem archaic and slightly ponderous]—their cultural differences are manifest and are the source of much bigotry on both sides. To be sure, those who go looking for analogous real-world diplomatic relations will have no difficulty finding them in Cobra Gamble, but if they make such a comparison with patriotic fervour in mind, or with a view to pointing the finger, then they may well be setting themselves up for disappointment. Zahn’s Cobras have their own ethos, their own morals, and are confounded rather than driven by prejudice. Indeed, it is seemingly inevitable in Cobra history that the bravery and triumphs of the individual be subsumed into a dishearteningly Machiavellian big picture that stands guard over the plot and so prevents it from turning, however inventively (or even righteously), to escapism.

Plenty of Timothy Zahn fans from the early days will maintain that his best writing comes in the form of those truly stand-alone pieces that focus more on scientific (or at least speculative) ideas than upon action. Zahn won the 1984 Hugo Award for his novella “Cascade Point”, and subsequently crafted many shorter works and several novels—Spinneret (1985/1987); Triplet (1987); Deadman Switch (1988)—that are more in the vein of scientific intrigue and suspense than the faster moving military science fiction of his Blackcollar or Cobra books. There have been fewer of these ideas-driven works in recent years, and even those that started out that way—Dragon and Thief (2003); Night Train to Rigel (2005)—have tended to become drawn out into overly long series. This being said, Zahn has remained eminently readable and has well and truly mastered the art of creating, hooking the reader on, and then cleverly solving problems that derive their sting from the interaction of humans and aliens through all their (at times allegorical) differences.

One unfortunate facet of the Cobra War trilogy—Cobra Alliance (2009), Cobra Guardian (2011), Cobra Gamble (2012)—is that it carries on a tradition of titular (and cover design) homogeneousness that may befuddle the unwary so far as to have them reading Zahn’s books out of order.[1] And yet, just as the Battle of Waterloo can be studied either as part of or independent from the Napoleonic Wars that it brought to a close, and likewise the Napoleonic Wars as either an extension of or independent from the French Revolutionary battles that preceded them, so too does Zahn present an unfolding series of conflicts with sufficient individual merit to negate any overarching need for chronological fidelity. By focusing very much on the “now” of Cobra history, by acknowledging the past yet always seeking to pull the reader into the urgent flow of current events, Zahn imbues his writing with a certain vitality in both thought and action, ensuring that each Cobra undertaking can stand independent of its fellows.

Wookieepedia shows Zahn as having written nine Star Wars novels to date,[2] and the proposed Cobra Rebellion trilogy will likewise take his Cobra output to nine books—not quite Mills & Boon in quantity (Moreau & Broom?) but enough of a series to leave prospective readers wary of its becoming overly familiar. People who already have acquainted themselves with Timothy Zahn through his Star Wars and Cobra offerings will indeed find Cobra Gamble to contain variations on a theme, but there is a progression, too, and Zahn pays sufficient attention to new scenarios that those who have only belatedly arrived at his writing—should they opt to check in at Cobra War Book 3 rather than somewhere further back along a road that now spans 30+ years—will experience in Cobra Gamble at least some of Zahn’s distinctive alien world-building and narrative pull.

Cobra Gamble ends Zahn’s second labour—for now, at least—but with a pinkie promise of arcthrowers and fingertip lasers (and antiarmour lasers to boot) it seems the Cobras are destined to fight on. Zahn is certainly prolific enough to launch a third Cobra trilogy (and sooner rather than later, too) but as to what comes next from his pen: only the Delphic Oracle—and perhaps a few Baen Bigwigs—can say.

1. Further complicating the increasingly confusing range of Cobra books is that, subsequent to their original publishing but prior to the release of the Cobra War trilogy, Cobra and Cobra Strike were published as a single volume entitled Cobras Two (1992), and then again with Cobra Bargain as the Cobra Trilogy (2004).


Sunday, 10 June 2012

Amazon reviews – even more corrupt than you thought, thanks to Fiverr?!

First, introductions! This reviewer on Amazon and Goodreads seems to be this user on Fiverr, who offers reviews of books at five dollars a pop. And this reviewer on Amazon is, I reckon, this guy on Fiverr, who will for his five dollars produce a video review, for another five add your book to Listmania lists, and, for five dollars more, buy your book so that he shows up as a verified purchaser. Sneaky!

I had an email chat today with someone who seems to have been a client of both people. The writer acknowledged that they had made a mistake, being desperate to draw attention to a rewritten, re-edited version of their book following an extremely critical review, and so I asked if they would let me interview them about it, there being a lot of interest in – and bafflement concerning – the business of paid-for reviews at the moment. (We've just had the big flap about SFcrowsnest offering to review for a £300 fee, for example.)

Unfortunately the writer in question declined to be interviewed, and seemed quite distraught (and, I think, naive) about the whole thing, so I won't name names here, but these are the questions I wanted to ask:

  • How did you hear about the review services being offered?
  • What made you want to hire this reviewer?
  • Had you tried to find reviewers in the usual ways, submitting to magazines, blogs, etc? Did you try Goodreads giveaways or anything similar?
  • Why are you so desperate to get reviews?
  • Did you understand, when placing your order, that hiring people to write reviews of your book is unethical? Did you know that for a reviewer to post such reviews on Amazon was against Amazon’s rules?
  • Were you happy with the reviews that the reviewer produced for you?
  • When I read the reviews of your book, two things struck me. Firstly, that the reviewer said (on Goodreads) that she’d read your 600pp book in a couple of hours. And secondly that there is very little detail in her review. Do you think she actually read it? How much review do you think five dollars would buy?
  • Have you bought other reviews? And have you paid for other services on Fiverr?
  • Are you happier with the five-star reviews that you paid for, or the one-star review you got for free from a real reader? Which do you think you should trust?
  • Did you realise that if these shenanigans came to light you would look like a complete fraud?
  • You seem to admit fairly readily that you struggle with grammar and spelling, and so on. You hired an editor to work on your book, and then hired a second editor when the bad reviews came in. If you aren’t very good at it, why do you want to be a writer? What are your goals?

So I'm still waiting on the answers, but I can guess at most of them. The moral of all this: don't trust anything you read on Amazon, especially about self-published books. Assume it's all bollocks that someone's been paid to write and you won't go far wrong.

I spoke briefly to one of the reviewers too: she suggested I might want to start accepting money for reviews too. Hmm. I'll have to think about that.

And she explained that the review she was paid for was the one on her blog, not the one on Amazon. That one was just for free! I guess that's how they wriggle around Amazon's rules against this kind of thing.

(Why the picture of Superman super-smoking? Because this post is all about bad habits!)

Friday, 8 June 2012

Giant Thief by David Tallerman – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Stories by the author of Giant Thief (Angry Robot, ebook, 4314ll), David Tallerman, have appeared twice in our magazine, and twice more in my issues of Dark Horizons, so of course you must bear my potential bias in mind when reading this review. That said, on to the book. Easie Damasco is the thief of the title, who finds himself dragooned into the army of ruthless warlord Moaradred, who’s on his way to capture the crown of Castoval. Key to Moaradred’s plans are his contingent of giants, kept under his evil thumb by his possession of an object just small enough to be accidentally stolen by a thief hustling his way into the tent. Riding Saltlick, the giant to which he has been assigned, straight off the battlefield and into the hills, Easie is somewhat surprised by the persistence with which he is pursued—and subsequently, the keenness with which he and his huge new friend are courted by the resistance, particularly Estrada, female mayor of Muena Palaiya.

Easie Damasco is not a particularly nice guy. He’s a thief, of course, and he’s selfish—for example in abandoning friends to delay his own capture—and something of a sexist, as revealed by his having assumed Estrada’s appointment as mayor to be a prank of some kind. He assumes Saltlick to be an idiot and exploits him with barely a wince of conscience. Where he has to choose between himself and others, or between virtue and wealth, he’ll make the selfish, greedy choice. The book doesn’t apologise for that. One of its most admirable, likeable characters, Alvantes, brave captain of the Altapasaedan City Guard, utterly detests him, and you can see his point of view. But Easie isn’t too bad: where the chances of survival and financial gain are equal either way, he’ll choose good over evil. As the book goes on, the question is whether the good influences in his life—Estrada, Saltlick, Alvantes—will rub off on him; can he be encouraged to consider his self-interest in more than just the short term. Can this rascal be socialised by contact with upright citizens?

This novel isn’t a startling reinvention of heroic fantasy (although its portrayal of principled civil servants is somewhat novel), and the plot—mostly a long chase seen from a single character’s point of view—isn’t terribly complex, but the book is as much fun as you’d expect the story of a thief who steals a giant to be. It’s a pleasure to read, the author always at pains to give the reader a clear idea of what’s going on and where people are in relation to the action. If I say the book reminded me of an RPG scenario in that sense, I mean it as a compliment. It reminded me of one of the other fun things about playing pen and paper games: if you can do anything, you might as well do the most entertaining thing, and that’s the route this book takes. David Tallerman will almost certainly go on to write more complex, substantial novels, but I hope he gives us a few more like this first.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Doctor Who: The Invasion of E-Space – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

In Doctor Who: The Invasion of E-Space (Big Finish, 60 mins plus extras) Romana tells a story that happened somewhere between Full Circle (where the Tardis acquired an Adric) and Warriors’ Gate (where the Doctor and Adric escaped E-Space, leaving Romana and a K-9 to fight for Tharil liberation). Lalla Ward is helped in her narrative duties by Suanne Brown, playing Marni Tellis, who has been investigating a series of murders on her home planet Ballustra. Those deaths were the prelude to an attack by Farrian raiders, who are invading from our universe by way of an artificial charged vaccum emboitment.

Both performances are good, although the similarity of the actresses’ voices sometimes makes for a moment or two of confusion when the narrative switches between them. Both are entertaining in the nine minutes of extras at the end, Lalla Ward obviously having not the slightest idea which stories she’s done in the past, or what she has signed up to do in the future.

The story is a decent enough invasion tale, but I can’t find a great deal to say about it. It’s not complete rubbish, but it’s nowhere near brilliant, coming and going without making much of an impression. Andrew Smith, writer of the aforementioned television adventure Full Circle, packs quite a lot into his two episodes, but there isn’t much to think about, nor much to care about. Eight billion people may live on Ballustra, but it’s hard to worry about them when you’ve only ever heard one of them speaking; the story doesn’t do enough to make them feel real.

Overall, not really recommended except to super-fans of Lalla Ward.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Reasons why we will review your self-published book (maybe)

Inspired by a post on Gav Reads, giving his reasons why “Reviewers Won’t Read Your Self-Published Book”, here are a few (sometimes overlapping) reasons why we might well review your self-published (or self-published by proxy) book:
  1. It’s not too long.
  2. It’s the kind of thing we like.
  3. It’s the kind of thing our readers might like.
  4. The concept is interesting.
  5. The approach seems novel.
  6. It doesn’t look like a knock-off of something else.
  7. The first few pages weren’t boring.
  8. Your prose isn’t utterly pedestrian.
  9. We read something else you wrote and it was good.
  10. It looks rubbish, but in an interesting or amusing way.
  11. We haven’t had to deal with a nutter lately and we’ve begun to forget what a minefield reviewing self-published authors can be.
  12. You haven’t had a public meltdown over previous reviews.
  13. You, your publisher and your friends don’t harass reviewers on Goodreads and Amazon.
  14. The reviews on Amazon and Goodreads aren’t by your publisher, friends and family pretending they don’t know you.
  15. You know how to use punctuation.
  16. The first few pages of your book are not so full of errors that reading the book would clearly be something of a trial.
  17. We’re not in the right mood for any of the hundreds of books we’ve previously been sent (or the thousands that we own).
  18. Your Twitter, Facebook or blog posts are funny, intelligent or engaging, and that made us wonder what your books are like.
  19. You don’t use a pseudonym on forums to recommend your own books, or generally get up to scuzzy, underhand behaviour.
  20. We haven’t seen you swearing on Facebook every time you get a bad (or even mildly critical) review.
  21. You’re not pretending that the book was “traditionally published”, when your “publisher” is simply a paid provider of publishing services.
  22. Your email was polite, well-written and not full of daft claims about your book.
  23. It’s not book 5 in a series of 13.
  24. You’re not just in it for the money.
  25. You haven’t made a huge financial investment in the book that you're desperate to recoup.
  26. You sent us a proper ebook or a pdf of the typeset book, not just a pdf printed out from a Word file.
  27. You supplied the version of the book that is actually on sale, not an early draft.
  28. You didn't send us the book at all, but we bought it. 
  29. Having read it, we thought of something to say about it.
Pretty much the same reasons we decide to review (or read) anything… The chances of us reviewing any particular self-published book are pretty low, given the number of books we receive, but I think there tends to be at least one reviewed in each issue. If your book looks interesting, and you're not a complete jerk, we don't care who published it. Give us a try.

Empowered, Deluxe Edition, Volume I – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Empowered, Deluxe Edition, Volume I (Dark Horse, hb, 712pp), written and drawn by Adam Warren, collects three previously released paperbacks together with a selection of bonus materials. Empowered—or Emp for short—is a novice hero whose tendency to get captured by villains—and tied up, usually with a ball gag in her mouth—has made her a laughing stock in the superhero community. Not to mention the subject of many, many embarrassing photos and internet videos. She’s not completely useless, it’s just that her figure-clinging suit’s power declines sharply as it gets damaged, and it is a very, very delicate suit. Early strips have little more than that to them, but Emp soon makes two good friends and one good enemy who improve the book immensely. Thugboy is a professional henchman with a dangerous history of ripping off super-villains—he falls for Emp and vice versa while he’s tying her up. Ninjette is a sexy bad girl with her name on the bum of her shorts. The fourth member of their little gang is the funniest, Emp’s one great conquest, the Caged Demonwolf, captured in an alien bondage belt and now given to issuing dire threats from the coffee table, frustrated by the reluctance of the dirty mammals to let him watch their filthy coupling. While the addition of these characters doesn’t lessen the saucy elements of the book, it does create a much nicer vibe and introduces some slow-burning plots. One of the book’s sweetest moments is when Thugboy says to Emp, following one of her many humiliations, that she’s the bravest of superheroes, because she goes out to fight despite knowing how vulnerable she is.

The book does rather have its cheesecake and eat it by commenting on its own sauciness, most obviously on the chapter heading pages, where Emp addresses the reader directly, even explaining that the earlier stories grew out of “special commissions” for customers with particular tastes. For me the discomfort I might have felt at reading a book so dedicated to tied-up, semi-naked women was lessened by the absence of any sexual threat. The thugs, villains and super-villains all know the “unwritten code” of the capes: any impropriety and they die, which makes much of what goes on here almost as innocent as a game of kiss-catch. Emp’s anxieties relate to how poor she is at her job, how big her bum looks in that outfit, why her work colleagues (the Superhomeys) show her so little respect, and whether she can believe her boyfriend when he says she’s fantastic.

Empowered presents the reviewer with a dilemma, similar to that involved in reviewing Conan comics: how to approach a book whose main appeal stems from its saucy pictures of sexy ladies, when one doesn’t want to be thought a complete sexist? I can’t deny that my favourite thing about the book was that Empowered and Ninjette are extraordinarily attractive and sexy, but it is also funny, very knowing about its sauciness, and Adam Warren’s manga-style art is very appealing. It looked to me as if the pages were pencilled but not fully inked; that might be my ignorance showing, but whatever technique was used it gave the comic a very casual, warm, friendly feel. The last hundred pages were absent from my review pdf, so I can’t comment on all of the bonus materials, or indeed on whether the ongoing plots reach any kind of resolution, but the first six hundred pages were smashing.