Wednesday, 28 December 2016

The Savage Sword of Conan, Vol. 14, by Charles Dixon, Gary Kwapisz, Ernie Chan and chums (Dark Horse Books) | review by Stephen Theaker

This reviewer has read several volumes in this series over the last year or so, and this review could pretty much apply to any of them, since The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian was a remarkably consistent magazine. Whichever collection you pick up, you’ll get the same black-and-white mix of a rough but honourable barbarian, extremely attractive women (variously good and evil), mad wizards and kings, and reliably good storytelling and art – all for a bargain price. One improvement is that by the issues collected here, 141 to 150, the black caption boxes that made the earliest books rather a pest to read are long gone, and the creative team of Dixon, Kwapisz and Chan have settled in for a run of consecutive issues that tell a series of consecutive stories in Conan’s life. As ever, each individual story, whether it is teaming up with Red Sonja on a quest for a hidden idol, defending a fort from a Pictish attack, or a struggle in Brythunia to prevent the rising of Oranah, the Stag God, who drives farmers mad with murderlust, has the length and heft of a French album, but this time they also add up to more, a grand saga that takes Conan from a gladiator to a general and beyond. One story, “Blind Vengeance”, features a firm but unfair tyrant who intimidates villagers into handing over their goods, and carves a W into the foreheads of corpses – an inspiration for Negan on The Walking Dead, perhaps? The speech balloon placement is a bit careless, with the correct reading order often counterintuitive and confusing, but the artwork is nearly always top notch, and unusually for a Comixology edition double page spreads are presented as two separate pages, which makes it much easier to read on a tablet. Recommended to anyone who liked any of the other volumes. ****

Monday, 26 December 2016

Chobits Omnibus, Vol. 1, by CLAMP (Dark Horse) | review

Hideki is a college kid who is trying to get into Tokyo university, and he doesn’t have a lot of money. He certainly can’t afford a persocom, a human-shaped computer, so it seems like a stroke of luck when he finds one that’s apparently been thrown out with the trash. She seems to be in good condition, and is, incidentally, very pretty, though Hideki is more focused on spreadsheets, word processing and household accounting (by all of which he means pornography). As he carries her off, a disk falls out, and maybe this is why she has no memories, and not even an operating system. He names her Chi, because at first that’s all she says. She’s a blank slate for Hideki’s lessons, and since he’s a buffoon that doesn’t go well; she ends up unwittingly working for a short spell at a strip club. As the endless pages fly by, she seems to develop feelings for him, while he does for her, even as he is told by himself and others that she’s a machine and such feelings are a waste. Would he be better off spending his time with Yumi Omura, a peppy student with a crush on him? Then there’s Takako Shimizu, a college tutor who turns up at his house for an impromptu sleepover, and Chitose Hibiya, his beautiful landlady, who is keeping a couple of big secrets, and knows a few about Chi, who might be one of the fabled Chobits, persocoms that can learn for themselves. Although this manga translation is presented in the now-traditional right-to-left format, the limited amount of dialogue per page stops it from being too confusing to read. The backgrounds are plain, as little art as possible being used to fill each page – the printing costs that have shaped US comics so much were presumably less of an issue as comics developed in Japan. I’ve never before read a book so long in which so little happens. It only took a couple of hours to read, despite being 740pp long. (This explains those fifteen-year-old Goodreads users with thousands of books read.) The “sexy” elements of it tend to be a bit gross, especially in retrospect after we’re told late in the book the apparent age of Chi’s physical body. It has some interesting ideas about how easily humans would switch their affections to such androids, sidestepping the problems and complexities of human romance. It’s undemanding, occasionally amusing, a bit pompous, and it kept me busy while I drank a cup of tea; if volume two comes up in a sale I might possibly buy it, but otherwise I’d be happy to leave Hideki to perv over his personal computer in private. Stephen Theaker ***

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Kalpa Imperial, by Angela Gorodischer (Small Beer Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

Subtitled “the greatest empire that never was”, this book tells a series of stories about the long-lived empire of Kalpa – or so we presume, since that name only appears in the title. In the book it is just the Empire, and it has a north, and a less easily governed south, and it has lasted (or will last: some stories hint that this is a future empire) so long that emperors and even dynasties may be completely unknown to their successors. Some stories, like “The Old Incense Road”, about an elderly man leading traders across the desert, take place over a shortish span of time, but others are rather more expansive, like the remarkable “And the Streets Deserted”, which follows a city from its founding and shows its many different lives, as an imperial capital, as a home for artists, as a spa for the unwell. Each story brings a majesty to the lives great and small that it examines, and each is equally enjoyable. The rule in the Empire is much like that for the original run of Star Trek films, that emperors will, in general, alternate between the good and the bad, and the book shows us both. The wisdom and determination of the Great Empress Abderjhalda in “Portrait of the Empress” or the emperor who never leaves his bedroom in “The Two Hands” are an example of each. The book was originally published in two volumes in Argentina in 1983, and this translation by Ursula K. Le Guin, which seems, so far as one can tell without reading the original, to be impeccably done, is from 2003. It should appeal to anyone with a taste for the epic, and in particular readers who enjoyed Lucius Shepard’s The Dragon Griaule, with which it shares many similarities: of tone, structure, and indeed quality. *****

Monday, 19 December 2016

Atomic Robo, Vol. 7: The Flying She-Devils of the Pacific, by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener (Tesladyne) | review

Atomic Robo is a cool guy created by Nikolai Tesla, who he calls his dad. He is atomic-powered, generally good-natured, and likes a fight. He’s strong, wry, almost indestructible, and each graphic novel (or mini-series, in their original publication) takes us to a different period of his life, with different friends and colleagues, previous highlights including battles with giant Nazi robots and cthulhoid monsters. If that sounds a lot like Hellboy, that’s because it is a lot like Hellboy – but with blue skies and daylight. Book seven begins with him flying an experimental plane in 1952, and under attack by weird little flying tanks. Not having any weapons and badly outnumbered, he gets shot down and would be destroyed were it not for a squadron of rocket-women. They kept fighting in the Pacific rather than going home to countries where they’d have to hang up their bomber jackets, their enemies mostly mercenaries, but now there’s a bigger threat, and they’re going to need Atomic Robo’s help to stop it. The previous six Atomic Robo books were all very good, and given that this is once again from the same writer and artist it isn’t a surprise that this is too. A few panels left me puzzling a little over what was going on, but when I dawdled it was more often to take it all in. The rectangular panels make it ideal for reading on a tablet. Reading one one Atomic Robo book always makes me want to read all of them again. The only sad thing is that the skipping about in time means we’re not likely to meet the she-devils again for a while, a shame because they’re rather brilliant. Stephen Theaker ****

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #57: now out, in print and ebook!

free epub | free mobi | free pdf | print UK | print USA | Kindle UK | Kindle US

Issue fifty-seven of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction is now out!

It is one hundred and sixty-eight pages long, and features five tales of fantasy, horror and science fiction: “The Elder Secret’s Lair” by Rafe McGregor, “Nold” by Stephen Theaker, “On Loan” by Howard Watts, “The Battle Word” by Antonella Coriander, and “With Echoing Feet He Threaded” by Walt Brunston. The spectacular wraparound cover is by Howard Watts, and the editorial includes exciting news about the magazine’s plans for 2017. The issue also includes forty pages of reviews, and some sneaky interior art from John Greenwood.

In the Quarterly Review, Stephen Theaker, Douglas J. Ogurek, Jacob Edwards and Rafe McGregor consider audios written by Colin Brake, Jonathan Morris, Justin Richards and Marc Platt, books by Cate Gardner, Erika L. Satifka, Harun Siljak, Joe Dever and Karl Edward Wagner, and comics from Joshua Williamson and Fernando Dagnino, G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona, and Erik Larsen, plus the films Don’t Breathe, Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, Ouija: Origin of Evil and Suicide Squad, and the television programmes Preacher season one and The X-Files season ten.



Here are the kindly contributors to this issue:

Antonella Coriander is not so sure about this. “The Battle Word” is the eighth episode of her ongoing Oulippean serial, Les aventures fantastiques de Beatrice et Veronique.

Douglas J. Ogurek’s work has appeared in the BFS Journal, The Literary Review, Morpheus Tales, Gone Lawn, and several anthologies. He lives in a Chicago suburb with the woman whose husband he is and their pit bull Phlegmpus Bilesnot. Douglas’s website can be found at: http://www.douglasjogurek.weebly.com.

Howard Watts is a writer, artist and composer living in Seaford who provides both a story and the amazing wraparound cover art for this issue. His artwork can be seen in its native resolution on his deviantart page: http://hswatts.deviantart.com. His novel The Master of Clouds is now available on Kindle.

Jacob Edwards also writes 42-word reviews for Derelict Space Sheep. This writer, poet and recovering lexiphanicist’s website is at http://www.jacobedwards.id.au. He has a Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/JacobEdwardsWriter, where he posts poems and the occasional oddity, and he can be found on Twitter too: https://twitter.com/ToastyVogon.

Rafe McGregor is the author of The Value of Literature, The Architect of Murder, five collections of short fiction, and over one hundred magazine articles, journal papers, and review essays. He lectures at the University of York and can be found online at https://twitter.com/rafemcgregor.

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, no longer runs the British Fantasy Awards, and works in legal and medical publishing.

Walt Brunston’s adaptation of the classic television story, Space University Trent: Hyperparasite, is now available on Kindle.



As ever, all back issues of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction are available for free download.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Archivist Wasp, by Nicole Kornher-Stace (Big Mouth House) | review by Stephen Theaker

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the best way to begin a novel is with a fight to the death, and that is how this novel begins. Wasp is the current archivist, her job being to capture ghosts and record what information she can glean from them. This miserable and lonely existence has a downside: each year she is challenged by three upstarts to a knife fight. If one of them wins, they’ll become the archivist, and she’ll become a ghost. If she wins, she has to tie a braid of their hair into her own, making her head heavier by the year, giving her headaches, making it more likely that she will lose to the children.

Wasp is sixteen years old, and doesn’t expect to live much longer. However, she survives the book’s opening duel, just barely, and after a period of convalescence returns to the job. A very strong ghost appears, one who can harm her, speak to her, even heal her bad ankle, and he wants her to come with him to where the ghosts live, in search of a woman he loved in life, and has never been able to find in death.

Good mysteries and good fights are two things I really like in a book, and Archivist Wasp delivers in both respects. Wasp is resilient and resourceful, and likely to win the admiration of all readers, not to mention their sympathy, and the same goes for her ghost, whose pre-apocalyptic story is not quite what I was expecting. Another terrific title from Small Beer Press, and clearly an author to look out for too. ****

Monday, 12 December 2016

Doctor Who: The Angel’s Kiss, by Melody Malone (BBC Books) | review

River Song is in New York, working as a private eye under the name Melody Malone, just as we found her at the beginning of the television episode, “The Angels Take Manhattan”. She takes the case of a minor film star, Rock Railton, who has overheard someone saying that he will die. Then she runs into a fellow who looks like him on the street, dying, and extremely old. At a party she meets him again, young and beautiful but without the slightest idea who she is. Weird stuff is going on and she wants to figure it out whether she gets paid or not. This short book, written in truth by Justin Richards, doesn’t match the passages quoted from it on television, sadly, but it does lead nicely into that story, and it gives River Song a lot of fun things to say and do. The audio version, read by Alex Kingston herself, must be a hoot. Stephen Theaker ***

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse, by Simon Kinberg | review by Stephen Theaker

The events of X-Men: Days of Future Past have changed the timeline, and everyone now knows about mutants. Mystique is a hero to her kind, a civil rights leader who runs an underground railroad to help the less fortunate among them, such as Nightcrawler, forced to fight in a cage match against a very angry Angel. Back in Westchester, Professor Xavier has got his school for the gifted up and running, and when Magneto resurfaces, recruited by Apocalypse during a vulnerable moment, Mystique goes to Xavier for help. Cyclops and Jean Gray are already there, learning to control their powers, and Quicksilver is on his way – he also wants to find Magneto, albeit for different reasons. It’ll take the lot of them to cope with Apocalypse, an ancient body-swapping, power-collecting mutant who has just escaped from his underground prison of thousands of years. He’s a tough cookie and he can be very persuasive. It is time for the X-Men to go into action for the very first time all over again, and that is part of this film’s joy, to see a team very close to that of the Claremont/Byrne years of the comic in action: Cyclops, Jean Gray, Beast, Nightcrawler, Professor Xavier and even Storm, though she’s on the wrong side for much of the film, Apocalypse having found her in this timeline in Cairo before Xavier got around to it. It’s great to see them together, and that contributes to this feeling like the most X-Meny of the X-Men films yet. X2: X-Men United may have been a better film overall, but it felt like a science fiction film based on the idea of the X-Men whereas this feels like the X-Men. The melodrama, the humour, the flips from one side to the other, the bravery and tragedy: it’s all here. Once again Quicksilver comes close to stealing the film. Psylocke is introduced, but her complicated backstory is perhaps wisely left to one side, so there’s no sign of her brother Captain Britain, sadly. Another much-loved character makes an extremely violent five-minute cameo that may leave parents wondering whether it was wise to bring children to the film, as well as wondering how it ties up with the conclusion of the previous film – but continuity has never really been a concern of these films. See how badly the end of The Wolverine lines up with the beginning of Days of Future Past, or the constant recasting of any character not played by Hugh Jackman. By this ninth film in the series, including all spin-offs, that discontinuity must be taken as read. Let’s just assume there are changes to the timeline going on constantly in this movie universe, not just those we see on screen. It’s not perfect by any means – the tears over the lost cast of X-Men: First Class seem insincere given the film-maker’s decision to give them the boot. The post-credits scene is a colossal letdown, leaving the cinema audience audibly deflated (ironic for a film that credits its inflatable audience wranglers). But overall it was probably my favourite X-Men film yet. It rounds off this prequel trilogy nicely, James McAvoy being especially fantastic as Professor Xavier, while setting things up very well for what could be a new set of films featuring the classic line-up in their youth. I’m looking forward to the next film much more than I was looking forward to this one. ***

Arrival | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

The lingo of time: UFO film touches down as one of year’s most impressive cinematic offerings.

I didn’t think that any film this year would stack up to 10 Cloverfield Lane. So much for that. Arrival offers another strong female lead in an equally gripping sci-fi masterpiece.

The latter film, directed by Denis Villeneuve, in many ways transcends its genre to become, in this reviewer’s opinion, an Oscar contender. Inherent in the title is the film’s big idea. This isn’t an Independence Day or War of the Worlds alien invasion action film. It’s merely an arrival of extraterrestrial vessels, and protagonist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) must decode the aliens’ language.

Skilful in its audio and visual manoeuvrings, Arrival plays with our perceptions of language and time, and challenges our tech-driven migration toward impulsive behaviour. The film leaves the patient viewer processing its implications long after the credits roll. It even gets into Tennyson’s “Tis better to have loved and lost” bit.

Adams, along with supporting cast Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, offers a strong performance. All three actors let the film’s innovative premise and underlying mystery, rather than their characters, take centre stage.

The opening scene reveals that Dr Banks experiences a major loss. At the university where she teaches linguistics, she discovers that twelve alien craft have touched down at various points across the Earth. Colonel Weber (Whitaker) recruits Banks (the language expert) and theoretical physicist Dr Ian Donnelly (Renner, the scientist), then brings them to the Montana field over which the North American alien contingent hovers. Weber wants the duo to get into the ship and figure out why the visitors are here and what they want. This objective drives the remainder of the film, which builds to a Shyamalan-like climax that packs an emotional wallop.

Strong Connection with the Protagonist
The filmmakers’ tight focus on Banks keeps the viewer in tune with her feelings. One example is her reaction to the news of the arrival. She (and we) learn of the event not by seeing giant spaceships approaching, but rather via a news report in her quiet and mostly vacant classroom. A student asks her to turn on the TV. Although we hear what the reporter says, the camera focuses on Banks. As the shock registers on her face, we’re right there with her. And isn’t that how it would happen? We’re going about our business, oblivious to the outside, and then… we find out.

The viewer/protagonist connection continues the first time Banks enters the UFO and absorbs her reality. She struggles for breath in her oxygen mask and gazes up a dark passage that leads to a light source. You feel her uncertainty, her trepidation.

The tension carries over to the coal mine-like chamber in which the humans and aliens interact. A bird’s echoing chirps – the bird confirms oxygen levels – create a jarring sensation as Banks and Donnelly first approach the bright transparent screen that separates them from the aliens.

Language Twisting and Time Bending
Many films offer sleek alien craft and creatures that resemble octopuses – this film refers to them as “heptapods” (and Abbott and Costello) – but rarely are these conventions used in such a thematically inventive way.

The film’s first major theme is language and, more broadly, communication. While Banks and Donnelly race to translate the aliens’ complex symbols, some other countries elect to communicate with the visitors via games. Banks points out the flaw in this strategy: games have winners and losers. This human winner/loser or good/bad mentality takes root in certain individuals and nations that have a trigger-happy attitude toward the aliens. It’s sad to think that some people would actually think the Earth would stand a chance: if aliens figure out how to get here, then they’re more advanced than us.

The circular shape of the aliens’ symbols ties into the film’s other major theme: time. We’re accustomed to thinking of time as linear. Arrival, applying that circular concept to its structure, trounces on that tendency and challenges us to see the bigger picture.

Language and time also played a role in my coming to understand this film. Admittedly, my wife and I didn’t quite grasp the full meaning of what happened right away, but we discussed it – you could say we circled around it – for 45 minutes. Gradually, the pieces came together. And the tool that we used to achieve our arrival? Language. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Monday, 5 December 2016

How a Ghastly Story Was Brought to Light by a Common or Garden Butcher’s Dog, by Johann Peter Hebel (Penguin Classics) | review

This fifty-three page book manages to pack in twenty-six short stories, as told by Your Family Friend. The back cover describes them as “fables, sketches and tall tales”, but it may remind readers of The Real Hustle, which showed BBC viewers how con artists separate the greedy from their money. These stories would have performed a similarly useful duty for the readers of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, stories like “A Stallholder Duped” and “The Weather Man” showing the kind of tricks people might play. Two favourite stories of mine were “One Word Leads to Another”, in which a man asks what has been happening at home, and, as is so often is the case, the answer “Nothing much” turns out to be an understatement, and “A Secret Beheading”, a strange and terrible tale in which an executioner is kidnapped by unknown parties to do his usual work in a private matter. The back cover tells us that one of these twenty-six stories was Franz Kafka’s favourite, but doesn’t say which – that one, or perhaps the title story, about a pair of two-time murderers, would be my guess. Hebel writes, at least as translated here by John Hibberd and Nicholas Jacobs, much like Rhys Hughes, albeit without the fantasy. See especially “Strange Reckoning at the Inn”, where three clever students try to convince a cleverer-than-they-think pub landlady that since time is a circle and they do not have money to pay their bill, she should be patient and wait for them to return in six thousand years with the money they owe. She points out that they still owe her for the meal they ate six thousand years before. Stephen Theaker ****

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Well, that went badly. #nanowrimo

My November novel ran out of steam after about four thousand words this year, then I had the lead character start reading some chapters from another novel of mine (chapters I was writing specially for him to read), and that got me another six thousand words or so, making about ten thousand words in total. Disastrous! So, Stephen Theaker of 2017, here's where I think you went wrong in 2016:

  • You didn't do a chapter plan. This always works very well for you, so why didn't you do it this time? I suspect it's because you knew it would be hard because you didn't have a plot. You knew what the book was going to be about, what its theme would be, but you didn't think about what would actually happen from one chapter to the next. Next time plan the whole thing from start to finish, at least vaguely.
  • You did that thing again, that you do every time, where you begin the novel with a character on their own, with no one to talk to, in a featureless location where nothing is happening! In 2017 start your book with twenty people having an argument in a ghost house or something.
  • You tried to write a novel based on stuff that you were still quite fed up about, so whenever you tried to think about the novel you just got fed up about the thing you were fed up about, all over again. That didn't work. Don't do it next time.
  • You refused to relinquish the hour or so you spend watching tv each evening with your lovely lady wife. Yes, it's been great for your relationship over the last twenty years to have that time together each evening, drinking hot chocolate and laughing, crying, etc depending on the show, but if that had been sacrificed you'd have had another 30 hours or so to write your novel. And it only takes you about 50 hours to write your stupid little novels.
  • You forgot how much your own books make you laugh. Yes, they're terrible, but you should have had a read of one before this month started to remind yourself how hilarious you (if no one else) find them, to encourage you to write another, for your own entertainment if no one else's.
  • Your protagonist and your antagonist were the wrong way around. Yes, you wanted to write a novel about someone making a lot of bad decisions leading to a galactic disaster, but wouldn't you have found it much easier to write about the adventures of the chap being put in a series of tight spots by those bad decisions? There's a reason Spider-Man is the star of the comic book rather than J. Jonah Jameson.
  • You made the classic error of planning to write less Monday to Friday and more over the weekends. November is birthday season! You aren't writing more at the weekends. You're struggling to write anything! In 2017, stick to the plan: 1666 words a day, every day.

Well, Stephen of 2017, I hope you take all of that on board, and do a better job than you did this time. I have my doubts, given that this year you didn't read any of the brilliant advice I left for me in previous years…

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Star Trek: Gold Key Archives, Vol. 1, by Dick Wood, Alberto Giolitti and Nevio Zeccara (IDW Publishing) | review by Stephen Theaker

Back when the William Shatner version of Captain James Kirk first commanded the USS Enterprise, Gold Key published these cheesy but energetic stories about him and his crew; even in those early days for the franchise, half-Vulcan first officer Spock must have been the clear breakout character, since he appears more prominently than the captain on four of the six covers. Tony Isabella explains in the introduction that none of the creators involved in this series saw any episodes before starting work, which may explain why Scotty is in these issues an awkward blonde, and why in “The Planet of No Return” an encounter with a plant civilisation ends with the planet being scoured of all life, on Spock’s urgent recommendation. In “The Devil’s Isle of Space” the crew nonchalantly leaves convicts to be killed in an explosion, simply because it is “the way of their society”. These are big-scale stories where anything goes. In “Invasion of the City Builders”, a planet’s land has been almost completely covered by cities, thanks to automation gone too far, and “The Peril of Planet Quick Change” features missiles being fired into the planet’s core. In “The Ghost Planet” the ship drags the rings away from a planet, and in “When Planets Collide” the ship must somehow stop two worlds from crashing into each other, an impact which would pitch many of the planets of the Alpho galaxy “out of orbit… to burn in space!” Galaxies seem to be quite small here, and the ship seems to visit a new one every issue! Time is measured in lunar hours and galaxy seconds, everyone in the universe speaks Space Esperanto, and Kirk calls aliens “space scum”. So the stories are goofy, but that only makes them more enjoyable. It does capture that sense from the original series that the universe was an incredibly dangerous place where even heroes like Kirk and Spock would only survive if luck was on their side. The newly recoloured art looks great, and the simple six-panel grid layout makes for very easy reading. ***

Monday, 28 November 2016

A Slip Under the Microscope, by H.G. Wells (Penguin Classics) | review

The precise definition of science fiction has always been a matter for debate, the simplest answer being the stuff H.G. Wells wrote about. With books like The Time Machine (time travel), The First Men in the Moon (space travel), The War of the Worlds (alien invasion), The Shape of Things to Come (future history), The Invisible Man (experimentation on oneself) and The Island of Doctor Moreau (experimentation on others) he staked out the territory of a genre that still thrives, still finds new places to go, almost seventy years after his death. This fifty-five page Penguin Little Black Classic contains two of his short stories which don’t quite fit that narrative. The title story, “A Slip Under the Microscope” is science fiction of the other kind, a story about science, where a driven young student, labouring under the pressure of being a working class boy at the College of Science, where pupils on scholarships are not even invited to sit down when meeting their tutors, makes a terrible mistake during an examination. The other story, “The Door in the Wall”, is more fantastical, about a government minister who longs for the secret garden he found as a child, the magical entrance to which only ever presents itself again when he has not the time to enter it. Both stories are very, very good. The first couple of Little Black Classics I read – As Kingfishers Catch Fire by Gerard Manley Hopkins and Aphorisms on Love and Hate by Friedrich Nietzsche – were dreadful, but it’s clear I judged the series too soon. Stephen Theaker ****

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Saturday, 26 November 2016

Journey into Space: Frozen in Time, by Charles Chilton (BBC Audio/Audible) | review

This fifty-seven minute adventure is the fifth Journey into Space. The first three, Operation Luna, The Red Planet and The World in Peril, were long, episodic sagas broadcast in the fifties, while the last three, The Return from Mars, Frozen in Time and The Host were radio plays broadcast in 1981, 2008 and 2009 respectively. All were written by Charles Chilton, except The Host. As this story begins the usual crew of Captain “Jet” Morgan, “Doc” Matthews, Mitch and Lemmy are on their way back from Neptune in the Ares. The cast is all new except David Jacobs, who played several supporting characters in the original trilogy, often in the same scene, and here plays Jet Morgan. A problem with his cryogenic sleep unit meant Jet has been awake for practically the whole thirty-year trip home, and a good thing too or the ship might well have been destroyed. He wakes the others as they approach Mars, long-forgotten and short on fuel. They land near the Saviour 1, itself stuck there after developing a fault. Good thing Mitch is here, since in this distant future of 2013 it’s unusual for a crew to include an actual engineer. The media rep and the health and safety officer aren’t much good at fixing spaceships. The captain is now a “flight manager”, and Doc notes with bemusement how the remaining crew of the Saviour 1 spend all their spare time playing games on their screens. (If Charles Chilton could see us now!) They seem unwell, and there are clues to suggest that they’ve been up to no good... This story keeps the mood of the originals very well, remarkably so given the fifty years that had passed when this was produced, and that’s helped by the use once again of Doc’s diary entries to bridge narrative gaps. The crew all behave in recognisable ways, even down to the flashes of the old irritation with each other at times of stress. It’s just a shame that it stops after one hour, instead of ten. Stephen Theaker ****

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Star Trek, Vol. 1, by Mike Johnson, Stephen Molnar and Joe Phillips (IDW Publishing) | review by Stephen Theaker

The ongoing Star Trek comic follows the adventures of the Chris Pine version of Captain James Kirk and his crew, as shown in Star Trek XI, XII and XIII. This first volume collects issues one to four, set soon after the eleventh film, with Kirk in charge of the USS Enterprise a good deal sooner than in the previous continuity, and the five year mission off to an early start. Oddly, though, they still run into many of the same situations, since the two stories here are adapted from the television episodes “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, in which crewman Gary Seven acquires the powers of a god after the Enterprise tries to cross the galaxy’s edge , and “The Galileo Seven”, in which a shuttlecraft crew led by an as-yet untrusted Spock is lost and stranded on a dangerous world with aggressive locals. James Blish’s prose adaptations tended to improve on the original programme, so maybe these comics could do the same? Sadly not. Adapting forty-minute episodes to forty-page comics doesn’t leave room for a lot of detail, and although the stories are subtly changed by taking place in the new continuity they feel sketchy and underfed. The artwork is good, the likenesses pretty decent, it’s just that the project itself feels a bit pointless. Perhaps it’s aimed at fans of the new films who haven’t watched the original show? Either way, it’s good to see that subsequent volumes add new, original stories to the mix. **

Monday, 21 November 2016

Wailing Ghosts, by Pu Songling (Penguin Classics) | review

Translated by John Minford, these are fourteen very short fantasy stories and tall tales, written by a Chinese author who lived from 1640 to 1715. They are set in a world of fox spirits, demons and red-headed monsters. The book doesn’t explain its humanoid foxes, but they seem to be like those in The Heavenly Fox by Richard Parks, where foxes who lived to the age of fifty could assume human form, and those who lived to a thousand became immortal. Because the stories are so short, it’s difficult to say much about them without giving away the entire plot, but the highlights include “King of the Nine Mountains”, about a man who rents his back garden out to a party of a thousand fox spirits and promptly betrays them, and “Butterfly”, where a syphilitic horny teenager, Luo Zifu, “breaks out in suppurating sores, which left stains on the bedding” and is thus driven out, eventually to find happiness with Butterfly, a supernatural lady who lives in a grotto. He blows it, of course. Other stories include “The Monster in the Buckwheat”, “Scorched Moth the Taoist”, “The Giant Turtle” and “A Fatal Joke”, which is barely a page long but features the book’s most horrible image. When a book this good costs 80p, you’d be daft not to buy it. Stephen Theaker ****

Friday, 18 November 2016

Doctor Strange | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Top-notch acting meets special effects in world-hopping tale of narcissist’s downfall and rebirth.

Full disclosure: I am not a comic book nerd, and I knew nothing about Doctor Strange before seeing the latest Marvel blockbuster that bears his name. I am, however, quite familiar with the acting talents of Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. So it was with great enthusiasm that I anticipated this superhero origin film. The wait paid off.

Doctor Strange, directed by Scott Derrickson, takes to the next level the twisted cityscapes of Inception (2010) while detailing the collapse and reinvention of a gifted a-hole who loses sight of his own capacity for error. As the protagonist undertakes a journey both physical and spiritual, the themes that emerge include Western versus Eastern values and black-and-white thinking versus contextualism.

He Had It Coming
Doctor Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is a god of Western medicine, a highly demanded neurosurgeon with smooth hands and a photographic memory. He is precise, calm, brilliant, and in control. However, Strange is also a cold-hearted narcissist. He puts down those who question him and turns down patients if helping them won’t bring him recognition. He treats
on-again, off-again love interest and fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) like a pair of latex gloves. He’s also a slave to time because he wants to solidify his name in the annals of medical history.

Then Strange gets in a horrible car accident that ruins his steady hands. On the advice of a fellow who miraculously recovered from a spinal injury, Strange heads to Katmandu, Nepal. He wants to get his hands fixed and get back into the brain game ASAP. He ends up in Kamar-Taj, where Mordor (Ejiofor) introduces him to The Ancient One (Swinton) and her followers, a secretive philosophical warrior group that uses “the mystic arts” to protect the world.

Strange gets sucked into the group’s effort to stop The Ancient One’s wayward protégé Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) from destroying the Earth. Kaecilius has formed an alliance with Dark Dimension ruler Dormammu, who sees the Earth as a trophy in his quest to take over the multiverse. In exchange for eternal life, Kaecilius helps Dormammu.

True to Marvel form, there’s some comic relief. For instance, Strange repeatedly and unsuccessfully attempts to get super-serious librarian Wong to laugh. “Wong?” he asks. “Just Wong? Like Adele?” Then there’s the temperamental Cloak of Levitation that Strange encounters. It tugs Strange around like a child and flaps and twists as it cartoonishly dispatches an enemy.

She’s Complicated
Surely the most enigmatic character in this film is The Ancient One. When Stephen “I do not believe in fairy tales” Strange first encounters her, he’s skeptical of her Eastern approach. He’s seen her spiritual body charts in “gift shops”.

The Ancient One, slow to anger, finds his insults amusing and quickly shows him her capabilities. What makes The Ancient One so captivating is her contextual approach to problems. She’s prone to ask herself what
makes the most sense in a given situation to best serve the greater good. Thus, The Ancient One bends entire cities, but she also bends the rules. Strange eventually sums her up well: “She’s complicated.” Her way of thinking will play a key role in this story and in Strange’s transformation.

In a brilliant reversal, the filmmakers give a nod to The Ancient One’s philosophy by casting a female in a role traditionally depicted by a male.

Change Is Good
During a physical therapy session, Strange contemptuously refers to his therapist as “Bachelor’s Degree”. This is the kind of guy we want to watch! We can’t necessarily relate to a neurosurgeon, but we can relate to selfish behaviour.

Doctor Strange is, at its core, a study in overcoming closedmindedness. “You cannot beat a river into submission,” says The Ancient One. “You have to surrender to its current and use its power as your own.”

Strange’s fall is a big one, and Cumberbatch effectively welcomes the viewer to the protagonist’s journey. The character’s shaking hands and his unyielding determination help achieve viewer empathy; it’s a pleasure to go on this journey with him. You want him to grow, and you want to grow with him. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

The Last Weekend, by Nick Mamatas (PS Publishing) | review by Stephen Theaker

Even before the collapse, Vasilis Kostopolos was not a nice guy, and not a happy guy either. A self-loathing alcoholic who follows an ex-girlfriend to Boston, who follows random women on the subway while abusing them in his mind, who doesn’t mind if the money he spends on drink helps fund the IRA, he ends up in San Francisco, a surprisingly good place to be when the dead start to rise. There are no cemeteries there, and the zombies struggle with the big hills. He’s a writer, and he can prove that with the print-out of his one published story that he keeps in his pocket at all times, but he takes a job as a driller. When the dying seem likely to turn, he gets a call. If he’s lucky, he gets there once they’re dead but before they’ve revived, but he’s rarely lucky. Turns out he’s pretty good at the job, or at least he doesn’t quit or get eaten. He’s a guy who spent his “adult life trying to avoid adult life, living a simplified version of it without dreams of a family”. Before the collapse he would consider killing himself “a dozen times a day, maybe more”. So when everything falls apart for everyone else (at least in the USA; nowhere else seems to be affected) he copes pretty well, his life hasn’t got much worse. (Also a theme of the later show Fear the Walking Dead, where a junkie adapts better to the apocalypse than the rest of his family.) He even starts to meet women: Alexa, who shoots a boy who jumps out at them, pretending to be a zombie; Thunder, a friend of the dead boy who shamelessly steals Vasilis’s stuff; Jaffe, a civil servant who kept on serving after the collapse. Thunder and Alexa share a desire to get to the bottom of things, to uncover the mysteries of the apocalypse, to find out what the government (such as it is) is hiding, and Vassily gets mixed up in their plans despite himself. This is a terrific book, the kind of thing you might expect if McSweeney’s had a horror imprint, intelligent, provoking, self-aware, and full of interesting ideas. You wouldn’t ever want to be this guy, as a writer, or as a human being, but you can understand why he survives, and why it takes the breakdown of human society for him to write his great American novel. ****

Monday, 14 November 2016

Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange, translated by Malcolm C. Lyons (Penguin Classics)

This is a collection of medieval Arabian fantasy, or at least half of it, the other half being lost to the sands of time. Malcolm C. Lyons provides a new translation, rendering the book rather more readable than the excellent and informative (but spoiler-heavy – read it after the rest of the book) introduction by Robert Irwin suggests the original to be. On Goodreads a potential reader has asked whether the book is suitable for children, and the answer is most definitely no. Grimdark a thousand years before George R.R. Martin or Joe Abercrombie, this is brutal, horrible and cruel, stories of terrible people doing awful things in a world ruled by capricious and sentimental tyrants. Racists, rapists and murderers, these characters lie, cheat and steal their way to happy endings, often saved by a last-minute religious conversion or appeal to a deity. That the stories are about such awful people wouldn’t be so jarring if it weren’t for the religiosity of it all. Irwin cautions against “the enormous condescension of posterity”, quoting E.P. Thompson, and that’s a fair point, but it’s hard to really enjoy stories in which slavery and sexual aggression are so positively portrayed. For example, in “The Story of Sakhr and Al-Khansa’ and of Miqdam and Haifa’”, Sakhr sneaks into a girl’s tent and draws his sword, saying “if you utter a word I shall make you into a lesson to be talked of amongst all peoples breaking your joints and your bones”. The girl “saw that he was handsome as well as eloquent; she weakened and looked down bashfully as he got into bed with her”. That’s fairly typical, and that story gets worse. The book is also quite repetitive, with everyone who is half-decent to look at being described as like the moon, Indian swords all over the place, people hitting themselves in the face all the time, and every man being “delighted” to discover that his copulative partners are still virgins. (In one case, that’s even though they slept together earlier in the story.) That’s not to say there’s nothing to enjoy here. Though women are generally shown in a terrible light and treated horribly – for example, a king is told the story of ‘Arus al-’Ara’is to make him glad his daughter died! – several are shown to live independently and drink wine very happily. It was surprising to see an acknowledgment of the existence of gays and lesbians, even if it was to discourage such romances, and in the story of the Foundling and Harun al-Rashid there are heavy hints of male romance. “No one is going to rub him down except me,” says the executioner Masrur in a bath-house. The story of Miqdad and Mayasa shows the former killing enemies like a supercharged Conan the Barbarian and the desert being rolled up for the latter. In the story of Julnar of the Sea a king says of a gorgeous woman, “Praise be to God, Who created you from a vile drop in a secure place!” A nice way of putting it. The story of Abu Disa is amusing: a browbeaten weaver is pushed into posing as an astrologer, and through various turns of fortune makes a series of astonishing and lucrative predictions. The story of Sa’id Son of Hatim al-Bahili is a fascinatingly curious attempt to retcon the Bible. Overall, though, I found the book such a struggle to get through that I wouldn’t recommend it on its own merits as a collection of stories; they’re just not very good; but as a curiosity, as a glimpse into the storytelling of the past, as a translation and as a historical artefact it may find appreciative readers. Stephen Theaker ***

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

The Zombies That Ate the World, Vol. 1: An Unbearable Smell! by Jerry Frissen and Guy Davis (Humanoids) | review by Stephen Theaker

This digital album tells four of the “everyday occurrences that happen in the twilight of Los Angeles”, to quote the line that ends them all. It is 2064 and the dead have been coming back to life. They aren’t violent, at least no more than they were when they were alive, and so the government has decreed that the living and the dead must live peacefully together. That’s going pretty well until Otto Maddox, a filthy rich man with extremely expensive hobbies, has an actor disinterred, Franza Kozik. When alive, she starred in such films as Queen of the Zombies and Flesh Feast, and once out of her coffin she picks up where she left off, eating brains, but for real this time, and that inspires other zombies to try it too. The other stories here include a historian of the twentieth century who wants his reanimated father-in-law peacefully disposed of, and a Nazi type who wants the brain of a particular zombie rewired to restore its intelligence. All four stories feature, to a greater or lesser extent, Karl Heard, who with his sister Maggie and their hulking associate The Belgian, makes a barely legal living as a zombie catcher. Elsewhere, Christians are executing thousands of people in the Holy Land in hopes of persuading Jesus to return, and a scientist has reanimated a dinosaur. This is an odd book, with a humorous tone that sits a bit uneasily with the tawdry and horrible stories it is telling, but it is worth reading, especially for the art of Guy Davis, who readers might know from Sandman Mystery Theatre or The Marquis. His style of drawing is exceptionally well-suited to the portrayal of the rotting undead, not to mention the other sleazy types in the book. ***

Monday, 7 November 2016

Ouija: Origin of Evil | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Will this prequel overcome its predecessor’s mediocrity? Yes.

This Halloween season, horror film fans had slim pickings at the theatre. And I wouldn’t be surprised if, like me, they felt disappointed when they learned about the season’s feature offering: Ouija: Origin of Evil.

Last year, Ouija had a few scares, but overall, it wasn’t memorable. Thus, one would think that when filmmakers questioned whether they should do another one, surely the planchette would slide to “no”. But that wasn’t the case. A new writer/director (Mike Flanagan) and co-writer (Jeff Howard) came on board – pun intended – and, surprisingly, they pulled off a much better film.

Ouija: Origin of Evil doesn’t offer much that the horror aficionado hasn’t seen before. However, this story of a Hasbro classic gone haywire effectively uses the tools at its disposal, offering an intimate and creepy take, replete with nerve-wracking scenes and jump scares, on how the game wreaks havoc on a small family living in 1960s Los Angeles.

Alice Zander and daughters Lina and Doris use rigged séances not so much as a money-making scheme, but rather as a means of bringing solace to those who’ve lost loved ones. Then they add a Ouija board to spice up their routine. Things get dicey when a spirit starts communicating with youngest daughter Doris via the board. Is it deceased husband/father Roger, or is it something more malicious? Father Tom Hogan, the priest/headmaster at the girls’ school, gets involved and the spiritual threat intensifies.

The Ouija rules are simple: 1) never play alone; 2) never play in a graveyard; and 3) always say goodbye. But if you’re going to show rules in a movie, you better break them! And Ouija: Origin of Evil does.

The characters in Ouija: Origin of Evil are more fully developed than those in Ouija. Widow Alice struggles to make ends meet, yet she genuinely wants to use her machinations to help people. She even declines payment from a client who nearly has a heart attack. Teenager Lina is bright and well-behaved, but her interest in classmate Mikey gets jeopardized by all the spiritual mischief going on. Yet it’s young Doris, bullied by her classmates, who undergoes the biggest change under the spell of the spirits. Watch for a particularly satisfying scene in which one of Doris’s tormentors gets a taste of his own medicine. In another scene, Doris asks Mikey if he wants “to hear something cool”, then proceeds to describe in intricate detail what it feels like to be strangled.

Flanagan and company use several techniques to jiggle the nerves. For instance, when the camera lingers on ordinary objects, one cringes with uncertainty: will something pop onto the screen? In the opening scene, the only sound that fills the séance parlour is that of the clock. Done before, but still effective.

Still, nothing jacks up the heart rate more than when a character peers through the planchette’s glass opening, which helps identify any spiritual entities that might be present. As the panning camera shows a warped view of a room, there’s always the chance that something will appear. It’s intense!

The fear potency gets stronger with a host of other horror film tricks: ceiling walking, wall crawling, milky eyes, impossible facial contortions, and getting yanked around by unseen entities.

Ouija: Origin of Evil may not have broken new ground in the horror genre, but it did entertain consistently. In an age of Candy Crush Saga, Minecraft, and other smartphone games, it’s refreshing to see people come together around a board game-inspired film for some good old-fashioned scares. – Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Arrow, Season 2, by Marc Guggenheim and many others (Warner Bros Television) | review

Oliver Queen was a sleazy rich kid who took his girlfriend’s sister away on a disastrous yacht trip, leaving him marooned on an island, from which he was rescued five years later. He returned with a new set of skills, and a new sense of purpose, determined to use his archery and acrobatics to take down the wealthy one percenters who have been bleeding the city dry. Unfortunately, the first season of Arrow was in its early stretches often indistinguishable from stablemate Gossip Girl, but as its roster of costumed characters built up it improved, an episode with the Huntress attacking her father’s compound being particularly good, and it ended well, with a serious threat that pushed the fledgling hero to his limits. Season two is even better, putting Oliver and his night-time nom de guerre under an ever-tightening screw, as a friend from the past returns with a grudge. Flashbacks to the island continue, moving more or less in pace with current-day events, creating an unusual effect whereby the viewer must constantly rethink the Oliver we met in the programme’s first episode. DC fans will appreciate the introduction of a certain group of villains sent on deadly missions by (the remarkably slim) Amanda Waller, and by the end Black Canary is in it so much they could have put her name in the titles. Supporting characters Diggle and Felicity are also given plenty to do, though Oliver’s family and friends, especially his mother and Laurel, tend to zig and zag rather randomly whenever the plot requires it. The season draws on classic New Teen Titans, and from there brings us one of the best villains yet in a television superhero series. Despite Felicity’s best efforts, there isn’t much humour, and the dialogue is rarely more than functional; the thrilling story just about makes up for it, but one hopes John B. Arrowman plays a bigger part in seasons to come. In his few scenes here he displays a totally welcome cheekiness that was rather buried in season one. Stephen Theaker ***

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Marshals, Book 1: Darkness and Light, by Dennis-Pierre Filippi and Jean-Florian Tello (Humanoids) | review by Stephen Theaker

Hisaya is a marshal on the planet Iriu, working in an area under the control of the air consortium. Her robot partner is wrecked during the apprehension of a former robo-trafficker, but her grandad can’t supply her with a replacement this time: he’s switched to making buxom humanoid pleasure bots (though they can fight when needed, and it will be needed). Instead he introduces her to Tetsu, a young mechanic with a passion for robotics who has built a nifty new defence bot – and she can have it if she will take Tetsu on as an apprentice. A five-page naked sauna scene with the pleasure bots later, and Marshal Hisaya returns to the city with her new apprentice and her new bot, just in time for a series of treacherous attacks that will leave everyone running for their lives. Darkness and Light is the first of four digital albums, also collected in a single hardcover book from the same publisher. It does a good job of setting up this steampunky, Final Fantasyesque world, and Marshal Hisaya is quite the badass. The nude scenes feel a bit redundant and pandering, and it isn’t always easy to follow the action, but in general the art is very appealing and characterful, a bit reminiscent of Ian Gibson’s 200AD work, with the extra detail that working on an album rather than weekly pages can allow. The colours, by Studio Bad@ss, do a great job of picking out all that detail and letting the eye make sense of it all. A good start to the series. ***

Monday, 31 October 2016

The Flash, Season 1, by Andrew Kreisberg and many others (Warner Bros Television) | review

The Flash is a name that has been used by a series of DC Comics characters: Jay Garrick in the forties, Barry Allen from the late fifties, Wally West from the late eighties, and probably a couple more since. The Flash of this television series is Barry Allen, a police scientist who is struck by lightning and becomes the fastest man alive. Before that happened Barry appeared in episodes of Arrow, and so, like the forthcoming Legends of Tomorrow and Vixen animated series this is part of what’s sometimes called the Arrowverse. Gotham probably isn’t a part of this continuity, nor was Smallville, nor are any of the planned DC films, but Supergirl is in a nearby dimension, and Constantine was added after-the-fact once he had appeared in Arrow. That’s quite the little universe that has grown out of Arrow, a show with such unpromising beginnings. The Flash gets off to a much better start than its big brother. The big change from the comics (or at least the comics I’ve read) is that the lightning storm is brought on by an explosion at STAR Labs, after Harrison Wells turns on his particle accelerator against the advice of his colleagues. This explosion acts much like the meteor crash in Smallville, providing an origin for most of the superpowered beings we meet in the programme. (One whose powers don’t come from there is Captain Cold, played brilliantly by Wentworth Miller in several episodes.) Wells, along with high-flying assistants Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes) and Caitlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker), helps Barry to master his powers, as step by step he becomes the Flash we know and love. Grant Gustin is likeable as Barry Allen, determined to clear his father for the murder of his mother (he saw red and yellow blurs flashing around her in the room that night...), and in love with journalist Iris West, daughter of the police officer who became his guardian once dad was in jail. There is so much to like about the show: its confident handling of story arcs and mysteries, its excellent special effects, the speed with which it builds up a roster of great supporting characters, the diversity of its cast and characters, and how it draws on all the riches of the character’s history. This is Barry Allen, but there’s a lot of the Wally West stories in here too: fingers crossed for Chunk in season two! For those who have read Flashpoint, the risk that this Barry might create that dark universe looms over the season’s events. The main villain is properly scary, with his glowing red eyes and readiness to kill. I could live with less mooning over Iris in season two, but the programme originates on The CW so that rather goes with the territory. Stephen Theaker ****

Friday, 28 October 2016

Y: The Last Man, Vol. 4: Safeword, by Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, Goran Parlov, and José Marzań, Jr (Vertigo) | review by Stephen Theaker

Yorrick Brown is left alive after a plague killed every other man in the world – and every male creature but one, his monkey Ampersand. In this fourth book, collecting issues 18 to 23 of the original series, he is still travelling across America with Dr Allison Mann and Agent 355. They hope to reach Mann’s lab and figure out his immunity, and find a way for the human race to start reproducing again. That’s the long-term plan, but right now Ampersand is ailing from the cut he picked up in the previous book. While Agent 355 and Dr Mann go off to get medicine, they leave Yorick with one of 355’s retired colleagues, Agent 711. His experiences in her log cabin are eye-opening, to say the least, and we learn that Yorick isn’t quite the happy-go-lucky type we had imagined. In the book’s second story, “Widow’s Pass”, the interstate route is blocked by a small but heavily-armed militia, convinced the government is behind the plague and ready to beat any government employees to death until they confess. It’s another terrific volume of this series. The story is gripping, both in the day to day events and the ongoing mysteries. The artwork and colouring is perfect, the action always totally understandable without giving up any dynamism. And this book gives us many more layers to Yorick’s character, as we learn more about his life both before and immediately after the disaster. Best of all is the thoughtful storytelling of the sort that gives us Dr Mann explaining which animal species will die out first, because of their short life cycles: the apocalypse isn’t yet over. Very good indeed. Stephen Theaker ****

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

The Hounds of Hell, Book 1: The Eagle’s Companions, by Philippe Thirault and Christian Højgaard (Humanoids) | review by Stephen Theaker

During the sixth century CE, the Emperor Justinian reigns in Byzantium, but dreams of reclaiming the western Roman empire, which has fallen to the barbarians. Angles and Saxons here in the UK, Vandals in Corsica and North Africa, Visigoths in Spain, and Ostrogoths in Italy: Theodoric, king of the Goths, has been named imperial regent. Justinian’s young wife, Theodora Augusta, a worshipper of Pluto, sets in motion a plan. Epidamnos, the warrior-magus, also called Avian, is tasked with reuniting his colleagues, the most fearsome band of mercenaries to ever exist. Or at least those of them that survive: there was a reason they split up. Camarina the Panther, deposed princess of Thrace; Triada, an Amazonian archer (called here the archeress); the Eagle, a scarred general: he summons them all by means of their Edessa stones. Khorsabad Three-Hands he recovers from a prison in the district of thieves. Their mission: to recover the treasure offered by the Roman emperors to the old gods as an apology for ditching them in favour of Christianity. Or at least that’s what they think. This digital album is the first in a series of four (all of which are also available in a single paperback collection), and it does a good job of drawing the team together, showing us what is special about each of them, and getting them started on their adventures, as well as dipping back into their histories. There’s some unpleasant sexual violence, but otherwise it’s an exciting, intriguing adventure that is impeccably drawn and coloured. ***

Monday, 24 October 2016

Y: The Last Man, Vol. 1: Unmanned, by Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra and José Marzán, Jr (Vertigo) | review

Every man and boy in the world starts throwing up blood and drops down dead, all at the same time. Is it because the Amulet of Helene has been taken out of Jordan, bringing on an ancient prophecy of catastrophe? Or because Doctor Mann gave birth to her own clone? Or because Yorick Brown proposed to his best friend with a ring he bought in a magic shop for half the money he had? The only man who might find out is Yorick himself, because he’s the only man to survive (at least so far as we know from this book). All the male non-humans died too, except for his capuchin monkey Ampersand. Others might have seen the resulting situation as a golden opportunity for a healthy young man, but not Yorick, he’s in love with Beth, and she’s in Australia, so like James Garner in Support Your Local Sheriff that’s where he’s heading, whatever else distracts him in the meantime. It’s a dangerous world for a man, where anyone he meets could want to sell, kill or enslave him, but his mother asks him to go with the awesome Agent 355 to find Dr Mann – together they might be the best hope for the world, especially if they can figure out why Yorick survived. This is an excellent book. It has a great premise, and this volume begins to explore the ramifications of that premise in fascinating ways. For example, Yorick’s mother is a representative in Congress, and because the Democrats have more female representatives there than the Republican, they become a majority when the men die. Pia Guerra and José Marzán, Jr’s art is perfect, reminiscent in its clarity and structure of Steve Dillon’s work on Preacher for the same publisher, but with character all of its own. The book’s weakest link is probably Yorick himself, who isn’t half as interesting and charismatic as the female characters that surround him. Stephen Theaker ****

Friday, 21 October 2016

Jessica Jones, Season 1, by Melissa Rosenberg and chums (Marvel/Netflix) | review by Stephen Theaker

Jessica Jones is a private eye, and she’s down on her luck, doing jobs for a shady lawyer that don’t always bring out her best side. Traumatised by having fallen under the mental control of a powerful psychic for a long period, and the things he forced her to do during that time, she’s drinking too much and not looking after herself. She has a couple of things going for her: superstrength (though no more invulnerability than is required to punch people very hard without breaking your own arm) and a good friend, former child star Patsy Walker. (Their friendship and its history is one of my favourite things about the programme.) Sadly, we’re not joining Jessica at the point where things start to pick up for her. She does meet a new guy, Luke Cage, who seems able to deal with the worst drunks in Hell’s Kitchen without taking a scratch, but it’s not one of those relationships built on mutual trust, at least at first. And she’s beginning to think that Kilgrave, her psychic tormentor, might be back, and it’s impossible to make anyone believe her when he can just order people to forget that they’ve ever seen him. He is back (and played with a gleefully childish lack of conscience by David Tennant), and he’s going to cause a lot of trouble before the thirteen-episode series is over.

Jessica is played by Krysten Ritter, from Don’t Trust the B– in Apartment 23 and Veronica Mars (fans of that show may also enjoy this darker take on the same genre). It’s not the most obvious casting, since she’s best known for comedy, but she’s very good, conveying all the moods and troubles of her character perfectly. Everyone in the programme is equally well cast, and it’s well directed, and always interesting. Overall, I enjoyed it, but it drove me up the wall, the longer it went on. Some people might see the problems I had with it as nitpicking, but to me they were fundamental flaws. Jessica and her friends are trying to defeat an enemy who can order anyone to follow his instructions, but they don’t use earplugs, they don’t wear noise-cancelling headphones, they don’t do any of the perfectly obvious things you would do to cope with someone who has those powers. And they can’t convince anyone to believe he has powers, even though SHIELD, at the very least, know of an Asgardian with the same gimmick, and everyone would know about the superpowers of Thor and the Hulk. It might have been better if Kilgrave and his powers had been brought to the fore a bit later in the series, coming in for the finale rather than being the main antagonist for the whole thing, because, much as I like David Tennant and love his portrayal of this repellent character, his powers don’t stand up to twelve hours of scrutiny – even if the show does find interesting ways to use them. I’m looking forward to season two, though. ***

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, by Thomas Ligotti (Penguin Classics) | review by Rafe McGregor

In issue forty-nine I reviewed Thomas Ligotti’s The Spectral Link (2014) and described him as the most accomplished practitioner of weird fiction today. As such, it is satisfying to see that he has finally been admitted to the canon of twentieth century horror fiction by inclusion in the Penguin Classics series, which has recently taken an interesting turn with the publication of relatively obscure works of classic pulp horror fiction, like Clark Ashton Smith’s The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies (2014). This is particularly satisfying in Ligotti’s case as although he is in his fourth decade of publishing to great critical acclaim, he has failed to achieve mainstream success – understood in terms of mass market paperback sales. I think there are two reasons for this: although he has published sixteen books to date (excluding the Penguin release, but not The Spectral Link), they have all been collections of short stories, short novellas, or poetry rather than the novel so beloved by commercial publishers. Second, there is the – and I know no better term – weirdness of the stories themselves, which I imagine will not have an appeal beyond horror aficionados in the way that, for example, Stephen King’s work does. Ligotti has nonetheless remained a firm favourite of a limited audience and I was lucky enough to pick up Volume 9, Number 1 (1989) of the long-abandoned Crypt of Cthulhu magazine, with nine short pieces by him, at a recent book fair. The price was very reasonable – too reasonable – and I wish there was more demand for his work.

Penguin have overcome the problem of the public’s preference for substantial volumes by compiling Ligotti’s first two short story collections for their series. Songs of a Dead Dreamer was first published in 1985 and contains nineteen stories and a curious (but fascinating) lecture; Grimscribe was first published in 1991 and contains thirteen stories and an (also curious but fascinating) introduction for a total of thirty-four short works preceded by a foreword from Jeff VanderMeer. VanderMeer is best known for his Ambergris and Southern Reach series and, with his wife Ann, as the foremost anthologist of weird fiction in the twenty-first century. The foreword is everything one would hope from a preface: laudatory without being slavish and informative without being pedantic. VanderMeer is quick to mention “the author’s unique way of seeing the world”, which is precisely the reason I differ from him in my description of Ligotti as a writer of weird tales. VanderMeer sees Ligotti as “always passing through” the weird to the literary, but I do not consider classification as both weird (understood as a subgenre of horror) and literary as incompatible, even if Ligotti’s work is uniquely classified as such.

In my previous review, I focused on two themes explored by Ligotti: the difference between things as they really are and things as we perceive them and the sinister implications of the meaning of “demoralization”. The first story in the collection, “The Frolic”, evinces both of these, but it is the former that has the greater resonance in Ligotti’s oeuvre. In my review of David Tallerman’s The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories (2016) in issue fifty-five, I mentioned S.T. Joshi’s definition of weird fiction as embodying a distinctive world-view by the author. There is a sense in which Ligotti’s distinctive world-view is one that explores the deconstructive criticism that was so popular and so infamous towards the end of the last century. There has been a great deal of nonsense written about (and some would say by) Jacques Derrida, who popularised the approach in the sixties, but the basic idea behind deconstruction is simple: human beings (subjective experience) can only gain access to the real world (objective reality) through concepts, which are articulated through language. The worry, which stems from curiosities such as the fact that languages not only use different words for the same concept, but have different concepts that cannot be translated in their entirety, is that no human language and therefore no human conception maps perfectly on to reality. There is obviously plenty of overlap – otherwise we would not be able to build bridges, cure diseases, invent the internet, and fly to the moon – but there is no identity relation between concept and reality. The space that this opens up is the difference between the world as we think it is and the world as it really is, where aspects of the latter are understood to remain permanently inaccessible to us. Ligotti takes this difference and scrapes away at it, making it larger and more frightening. In “The Frolic”, a prison psychologist states of his paedophile patient: “He says he just made the evidence look that way for the dull masses, that what he really means by ‘frolicking’ is a type of activity quite different from, even opposed to, the crimes for which he was convicted.” The actions of the patient are even more horrific than they initially appear for they are not only a form of torture, but a reminder that we live in a world that we are incapable of fully understanding.

One of the features of deconstructive criticism is that it undermines commonly accepted logic and Ligotti’s tales follow suit. A basic principle of logic, for example, is the law of noncontradiction, which states that something cannot be both true and false at the same time, but the narrator of “The Frolic” demurs: ‘“It’s as if I know something and don’t know it at the same time.”‘ He is subsequently shown to both know and not know – knowing where the evidence points and also knowing that his grasp of reality is subjective rather than objective. And later, from “Dream of a Manikin”: “Accredited studies notwithstanding – as I’m sure you would contest – suppose the dreamer is not a man or butterfly, but both … or neither, something else altogether.” This is the most distinctive and the most disturbing element of Ligotti’s horror, the way it deconstructs reality in the philosophical sense. Even if we have good mental health, reality is revealed only through fallible conceptions and this lack of fit between words and world is a frightening subject of contemplation, a gap through which monsters of all kinds can enter. It is not that Ligotti’s monsters are more frightening than those of other authors, but that he exposes our world as a place that remains essentially – necessarily – unknown to us and, as H.P. Lovecraft proclaimed in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927), there is nothing more frightening than the unknown.

The influence of Lovecraft is strongly felt in many, if not most, of these stories – but this is a genuine influence, of his cosmic futilitarianism rather than his strangely named gods and books. Occasionally, it is explicit: the end of “The Last Feast of Harlequin” reveals the story’s dedication to Lovecraft and is a re-writing of “The Festival” (1925) without that story’s flaws (and also acknowledges the influence of Edgar Allan Poe with mention of “the Conqueror Worm”). Mostly, the influence is implicit, from the suggestion of an alien presence in “The Frolic” to the distant similarities between “The Dreaming in Nortown” and “The Shadow Out of Time” (1936) and the more obvious similarities between “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World” and “The Colour Out of Space” (1927). The latter story by Ligotti, the last in Grimscribe, is particularly interesting in that it throws up one of the two major differences between Ligotti and his predecessor: Ligotti is not only a much better writer than Lovecraft, but where Lovecraft was fascinated by rural and far-flung locales, Ligotti’s focus is on urban settings. This choice makes his writing even more unnerving for it is in the towns and cities, where we have self-evidently shaped reality to our own ends, that we should feel most at home in the world – but where the cracks between perception and reality are at their widest.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Doctor Who, Season 9, by Steven Moffat and friends (BBC) | review

Peter Capaldi returns for a second season as the Doctor, Jenna Coleman for a third as Clara, and Steven Moffat for his fifth as head writer. Not a surprise then that this feels like the work of people who really know what they are doing with these characters. The Doctor at first is travelling alone, having the party of his life in medieval times because he knows there’s trouble up ahead, while Clara is teaching at Coal Hill, where it all began. They are brought back together by Missy, Davros and the Daleks, and by the end of the year they’ll have encountered Odin, the Zygons, ghosts in an undersea base, an immortal girl running a sanctuary for aliens, and the creatures that grow from the sleep in your eyes if you leave it unwashed for too long. They’ll travel to the very end of the universe and back, while ending every other episode on a cliffhanger.

Though this is a very modern series of Doctor Who in most ways, the special effects, writing, sound design, direction and acting always excellent – I’d say film quality at times, if more films were actually this good – it feels like Steven Moffat’s stab at writing a traditional season of the original show: split these episodes in two and you could have five four-part stories, a two-parter, and a six-parter. It’s exciting throughout, different again to Moffat’s previous seasons, always looking for new ways to test the format, expand its possibilities, and hammer at the Doctor’s weaknesses, while also giving children new playground games to play and good advice for life: next season may well focus on the ramifications of the Doctor’s mistakes this time around, but an episode in there about the importance of brushing your teeth would be very helpful. And it is immensely generous, leaving galaxies of room for future writers of novels, comics and audio adventures to explore. Moffat’s plots wind up into tight little knots, but there’s always a thread left for others to follow.

That the new programme is still going a decade on is an incredible achievement, that’s it’s still so brilliant is unbelievable. A credit to everyone who worked on it. Stephen Theaker *****

Friday, 14 October 2016

Fear the Walking Dead, Season 1, by Robert Kirkman and chums (AMC) | review by Stephen Theaker

Travis Manawa (played by Cliff Curtis) and Madison Clark (Kim Dickens) are a married couple trying without much luck to blend a family. He is divorced, she is a widow. Travis has a son who lives with his ex and doesn’t want to see him at the weekends, Madison has a son, Nicky, who loves heroin and a daughter, Alicia, who hates long trousers. When Nicky wakes up in a drug den to find his girlfriend eating someone’s face, he thinks he’s gone mad, and so does his family, but it won’t be long before everyone is caught up in that madness. When a riot breaks out in the city centre, Travis and his son take refuge in a hairdressers with a family of three, emigrants from El Salvador, not realising that from now on, all refuge will be temporary.

American television has a lamentable tendency to suck the vitality out of any successful television programme by creating licensed rip-offs and copycats. For every worthwhile Xena or Angel there are a dozen NCISes: LA or CSIs: New York that overstretch the premise or divide the writing staff. Fear the Walking Dead spins out of a programme that itself has sometimes been spread a little thin, despite its quality, having to ration the appearances of some cast members. But this spin-off has one big selling point: where the usual colonates just show us slightly different people doing a slightly different job under a slightly different colour filter, Fear the Walking Dead can show us a crucial part of its parent’s story, one that viewers missed while Rick Grimes was sleeping in hospital: how the apocalypse went down. Part of the reason we didn’t see that before was that it had been shown in so many films, so why repeat it? Get to the stuff we don’t know! But that world means more to us now. We know how bad it is going to get for these people, we shout at the screen as they waste batteries, and cringe at their pitifully small fences!

As slowly becomes clear, there is another difference: while the characters on The Walking Dead have generally made the right decisions, have usually been the good guys, these people aren’t. They aren’t the kind of people who think to close the door behind them after they escape a zombie hideout, not all of them would rush out to warn people in danger, and some of them don’t care about the consequences of their actions at all. This first season is only six episodes long, and while the first couple are more about junkies and family drama than the undead, it gets better as it goes on, and from the beginning it has a undeniable heft, borrowed from its parent show, admittedly, but very real nevertheless. It doesn’t yet have a central performance to match Andrew Lincoln’s in The Walking Dead, but neither do any other programmes, and these characters haven’t yet been stripped so raw as Rick Grimes. It will come. ***

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

A Song of Shadows, by John Connolly (Hodder & Stoughton) | review by Rafe McGregor

A Song of Shadows (464pp, £3.85) is the thirteenth “Charlie Parker thriller”, as the series is described by Hodder & Stoughton, first published in hardback in 2015. First and foremost – and quite possibly because of rather than in spite of the criticisms I shall make – the series is extremely successful, regularly ranking high on various bestseller lists and regularly receiving rave ratings from the most trusted crime fiction reviewers. I must confess to not having read all of Parker’s cases, which began with Every Dead Thing in 1999 (and was, as an example of my previous claim, the L.A. Times Book of the Year), but I have read the first two and most recent two and can confirm that there has been no fluctuation in quality. Connolly is not one of those writers who rests on his laurels, resorts to repeated uses of the same formula, or tires of his protagonist. My gripe, and I think it is more than mere whimsy on my part, is the idiosyncratic mix of crime and horror Connolly has weaved around Parker.

In his helpful guide to the series on the Crime Fiction Lover website, David Prestidge writes that: “The books are peopled with genuinely mean human criminal types, but Connolly introduces supernatural foes in the novels as well.” The books are billed as dark crime fiction in the same way that dark fantasy is now a distinct subcategory of the fantasy genre. To sacrifice accuracy for brevity, dark crime fiction is crime fiction written by a horror writer or a mystery told as a horror story or crime fiction that gestures towards but does not quite cross over into horror fiction… basically, a crime fiction series that is situated just this side of the crime–horror border. The two genres are, of course, complementary to a great extent and it is no surprise that Edgar Allan Poe was such an important figure for both, that Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles is billed as both a great crime story and a great horror story, or that may of H.P. Lovecraft’s weird tales take investigators of some sort as their protagonists. Prestidge continues: “Yet he never uses the paranormal to explain away loopholes in the plot.”

The issue isn’t using the para-normal to fill normal loopholes in the plot, but rather integrating the mystery and horror elements of the narrative such that they complement rather than counteract one another and this is where several weaknesses emerge. First, the books are longer than most mystery novels, the length exacerbated by the often slow and leisurely build-up to the main plot. This would not be problematic were the denouement worth the wait, i.e. a clever or original mix of mystery and magic, sleuthing and the supernatural. But, as Prestidge correctly notes: “There aren’t any [loopholes], and the Charlie Parker books all offer solid and original mysteries. He is a PI, after all.” Crime fiction readers, particularly those who prefer “thrillers” to “mysteries” are accustomed to fast-paced plots and the slower the action, the more drama they demand in the climax. The fact that all supernatural elements are always (at least in the four I have read and according to Prestidge) peripheral to the main plot – always, in other words, a subplot at best – makes me think of the series as crime-dressed-up-as-horror – in a pejorative sheep-in-wolf’s-clothing sense. Parker’s living daughter (Sam) can see the dead and sense evil and the spirit of his dead daughter (Jennifer) communicates with both him and Sam in A Song of Shadows. There are at least two events in the novel – a young girl sleepwalking and the earth opening up under a villain – that are presented as supernatural, but then quickly rationalised (as the dream of a young girl with a neurological disease and as a rare but not improbable geological phenomenon respectively). I found the subsequent debunking of these at times gripping supernatural scenes something of an anti-climax and that term really sums up my whole experience of the book.

Connolly takes a big risk with his villains in using war criminals from the Second World War. Assuming that the events of the narrative are supposed to be contemporary (there is nothing to suggest otherwise) and that National Socialist Germany in extremis may have used sixteen-year-olds as concentration camp guards – and granting that the camps were maintained until the very end of the war – the youngest possible war criminal would be eighty-six. Given the separation of the supernatural from the main plot, the criminals involved are men rather than demons and eighty-six-year-old men are not very frightening – unless, of course, they are million- or billion-aires at the head of a new evil empire. The Nazi-turned-businessman is something of a cliché, but in avoiding the cliché Connolly presents his readers with a group of evil old men doddering around New England, unworthy antagonists for super-sleuth Parker even if he is recovering from the multiple wounds sustained in his previous case. What makes this even worse for me is that the revelation of the main villain occurs relatively early on (for a mystery, that is), which once again creates a sense of… anti-climax.

Connolly’s fans – and there are dozens, probably hundreds, of thousands of them – may well think I haven’t read the book because Goodreads (to name but one forum) has many reviewers writing about the suspense being maintained to the last page and the jaw-dropping conclusion. I think I know what they have in mind, but I am baffled that it should generate such excitement. And yes, I have read all four books carefully from first page to last. Parker is a likeable sort of chap who leads an interesting sort of life, but neither Parker nor his life justifies the many hundreds of pages that each case generates. As mystery stories, the series is far too slow-paced; as horror stories, the continual and continued relegation of the supernatural to the side-line is disappointing; as a combination of mystery and horror, I can’t help but feel that a writer of Connolly’s undoubted skill could have merged a hardboiled PI with a setting that is both gritty and realistic on the one hand and populated by the angels and demons which the series often promises but never delivers on the other. It is only the worry that I have missed some obvious virtue of the novels that kept me coming back, but I’m afraid I’ve decided that life is too short to attempt a fifth… I’m sure Parker and Connolly will both do fine without me.