Monday, 30 January 2017

Locke & Key, Vol. 6: Alpha & Omega, by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez (IDW Publishing) | review by Stephen Theaker

Since the Locke family moved to the town of Lovecraft, Massachusetts, and began to live in the big old Keyhouse, things have been weird, dangerous and magical. By the time this final collection begins the children have almost got to the point where they can cope with their losses and new responsiblities, but the demon that possessed Luke Caravaggio is hiding among them, gathering keys of power and waiting for the most devastating time to strike: prom night, when the kids are planning to have an afterparty in the cave down by the ocean. Just where he wants them. Luckily Tyler, Kinsey and Bode have found friends and allies since they came to town, so they won’t have to face this fight alone. Writer Joe Hill and artist Gabriel Rodriguez bring their story to a satisfying conclusion. The stakes are high, the heroes are brave, the villain is vile, and thematically it all ties up with where it began, Tyler telling the bad guy, “I wouldn’t underrate the power of regret. It doesn’t feel good… but it’s hard to learn anything important without it.” That’s “Omega”, and in the epilogue, “Alpha”, Tyler makes some kind of peace with his own great regret. It’s a good place for the story to end, though you feel there’s still a lot of space in this world for new stories to be told. ****

Friday, 27 January 2017

Stay Crazy, by Erika L. Satifka (Apex Publications) | review by Stephen Theaker

Emmeline Kalberg, Em for short, is a nineteen-year-old young woman with mental health issues that landed her in a psychiatric hospital a while back. She doesn’t remember quite what happened, but she’s out and living with her mum and younger sister, and hoping to return to college when she’s well enough. For now, though, her mum has set her up with a job at a big chain supermarket, Savertown USA, so that she doesn’t spend too much time cooped up at home. The problem is, once she starts working there, she starts hearing voices. She’s used to that, given that “even alone in her room, drifting off to sleep, Em always kept her music on low, a ward to keep the voices at bay”, but the voice in the supermarket is more persistent than usual, talks to her through the ID chips in the products, and doesn’t follow her home. It warns about bad stuff happening, and as supermarket colleagues begin to meet bad ends she starts to take it seriously. As the situation worsens, the reader can’t be sure what’s really going on, but we do know that Em is experiencing something, and we’re stuck on the sidelines hoping that one way or another she makes it through. It’s a short, direct novel, and one described by some readers as comedic, although for me its portrayal of mental illness seemed too tragically realistic to be all that funny. Its depiction of life working in a supermarket is also spot on, showing very accurately the justifiable pride people take in their hard work, the rivalries between departments, and the expectation that employees will be excited about visits from upper management. As someone who only rarely made it to the dizzy heights of shelf-stacker in my brief supermarket career, I was impressed and convinced by how quickly Em took to it. Comparisons have been made to Philip K. Dick, and there are definite similarities with books like Valis and Radio Free Albemuth, one difference being that Dick’s books uncovered what was really happening, while Stay Crazy leaves everything open to doubt. I was reminded too of Maria Bamford’s Netflix show Lady Dynamite, which also shows a woman leaving a psychiatric hospital and returning to a world that seems as crazy as she ever was. People who like one may well enjoy the other. ***

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

The Bye Bye Man | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Their warning: “Don’t think it, don’t say it.” My warning: Don’t see it. 

When I go to a horror film, I want to feel something. I want the jolt of a good jump scare, or the lingering unease caused by an unidentified malicious presence. I want to get grossed out, to be appalled by violence, or even to laugh with a good horror comedy. With The Bye Bye Man, a horror film whose primary intent seems to be to scare the viewer, I felt disappointed. Oh, it does occasionally incite laughter, but that’s based on the bad acting and illogic.

The film warns that saying or even thinking “the Bye Bye Man” will unleash the monster that bears that name. He is a hooded figure with a penchant for using his E.T.-like fingers to scratch walls for no apparent reason.

Elliot, girlfriend Sasha, and friend John move into an old house off their college campus. After some dull introductions to Elliot’s brother and his family, a dull housewarming party, and a dull séance—are you seeing a trend here?—Elliot stumbles upon the dreaded name and unwittingly resurfaces the figure after a near fifty-year hiatus. For the rest of the film, the Bye Bye Man infects the trio, casting them into a world of hallucinations, jealousy, and mistrust. Elliot’s attempts to mentally expunge the name by chanting “Don’t think it, don’t say it, don’t think it, don’t say it” grow tedious and annoying. And isn’t it true the more you try to fight certain thoughts, the more you have them?

Even the tensest scenes seem silly upon further reflection. For instance, one feels anxiety when Elliot and Sasha look at the black cowl hanging on their bedroom wall. But then, why is there a black cowl hanging on their wall? And why don’t they just take it down? It’s never explained. In another scene, Elliot heads down to the basement to investigate a scratching noise that could be the Bye Bye Man. If it is indeed the hooded fiend, why is he scratching? Again, never explained. Then there are the coins dropping and the sound of trains to signal the Bye Bye Man is coming. But why?

Occasionally, the film flashes back to 1969, when journalist Larry Redmon, the last poor guy who tried to exorcise the name from the minds and lips of humanity, goes on a neighbourhood shooting spree. Not a bad way to start the film. But when a shotgun blows away someone at point-blank range and it just leaves a small smudge on the wall and no blood pool (presumably to meet PG-13 parameters), it seems inauthentic.

Once the Bye Bye Man is revealed in the (mangled) flesh, he loses a lot of his potency. As many of the scariest horror films in recent history have proven, the threat is most frightening when it hasn’t manifested itself, when it’s lurking and just as mysterious to the viewer as it is to the main characters.

If you can think of a horror movie cliché, it’s probably in The Bye Bye Man. Sloppy sketches of frightening creatures, internet research, séances, creepy girl with eye shadow, character with eyes missing, and writing on walls. It’s all in there. And how do the filmmakers substantiate the gravity of the research scene? They have Elliot wear glasses, of course! Additionally, when he searches “The Bye Bye Man”, he gets zero results. That’s surprising, since I just typed in some nonsense (i.e. “lke naea ene eare”) and got 810,000 results. What search engine is he using?!

It says something when the film’s most interesting character is the main villain’s sidekick, a gigantic skulking hellhound with a huge head and skin that looks like toxic sludge.

The Bye Bye Man can’t go bye-bye soon enough. – Douglas J. Ogurek *

Monday, 23 January 2017

Jacaranda, by Cherie Priest (Subterranean Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

Juan Rios is a nineteenth-century padre with a past painted in blood, some of it spilled righteously, most of it not. He has the power to Look and Listen, to see and hear more than others, and his involvement in many queer events, such as the incident at Rose Hill and the rancher at Four Chairs, has given him quite the reputation. That’s why Sister Eileen asks him to come to Galveston, Texas, to investigate the deaths at the Hotel Jacaranda, built against the pleas of the locals on the site of an ancient jacaranda tree. By the time he gets there, everyone else is leaving – there’s a massive storm on the way, one with a fair chance of flattening the hotel altogether. Almost everyone, anyway. There’s a bunch of people still at the hotel, visitors and staff, who couldn’t bring themselves to leave, and the hotel has been talking to some of them. It hasn’t been saying nice things. As the storm draws close and the bodies pile up the book traps the reader in the hotel too, listening to the tiles being ripped from the roof and the whispers from the spiral on the floor. This novella is part of the Clockwork Century series, like Clementine, reviewed here a few years ago, set in an alternative version of old America, but it’s very different. Where that was a rip-roaring tale of airships blasting each other out of the air, this is a tense story of people under siege, physically and psychically, under a roof that’s likely to fall down upon their heads, but it’s it’s just as good. Peculiar Sister Eileen and the padre make an interesting pair of protagonists. ***

Friday, 20 January 2017

Lone Wolf 29: The Storms of Chai, by Joe Dever (Holmgard Press) | review by Rafe McGregor

Note that the following Lone Wolf review was written and supplied before we heard the sad news of Joe Dever’s death. Our commiserations to his family, and to all of his fans.

In my review of Lone Wolf 22: The Buccaneers of Shadaki above I mentioned that Joe Dever is now self-publishing the Lone Wolf series of gamebooks, after close on twenty years of problems with first Red Fox, then Mongoose Publishing, and most recently German publisher Mantikore Verlag. One would have hoped that after all the trials and tribulations suffered by both Dever and his fans at the non-profit Project Aon (, his decision to take charge of the process himself would have run smoothly, but alas this was not the case. The Storms of Chai is book 29 in the Lone Wolf series as a whole and the ninth adventure in the New Order series, which rebooted with a new player persona in Lone Wolf 21: Voyage of the Moonstone (reviewed in #55). The New Order series was published at the rate of two books a year from 1994 to 1998, by which reckoning The Storms of Chai would have been published in 1999. With Dever at the helm after seventeen years, the long-awaited adventure – which had been sold out on pre-orders – was due for release in April 2016. There was a delay with the printers and it seemed as if the Lone Wolf project had stalled yet again. The book was finally released in mid-May and with a stack of further pre-orders to meet, Dever ordered a second edition printed. In yet another improbable twist in the Lone Wolf story, a second first edition was printed and although the books are exactly the same, the difference in paper used by the Turkish (fat) and Lithuanian (thin) printers has resulted in the former being substantially thicker and heavier than the latter (Dever explains the full story on the book order page: There are no copies of the fat edition left and my copy (which is still available at the time of writing) is the later, thin one. As I mentioned in my review of The Buccaneers of Shadaki, I have suffered at the hands of small presses on several occasions, but I had no problems whatsoever with my order, the price (£19.99) includes postage and packaging in the UK, and all copies purchased from Holmgard Press arrive with Dever’s seal and signature.

The adventure begins in the early spring of MS 5102, seventeen years after the conclusion of Lone Wolf 28: The Hunger of Sejanoz (a conceit that neatly encapsulates the delay between planned and actual publication), which is not a problem for my Kai Grandmaster, True Friend, who only ages one year for every five (albeit at the cost of a silly name). The volume has a unique addition for a Lone Wolf collector’s edition, a “Timeline of notable events in Magnamund”, which covers the interim since True Friend put paid to the Autarch Sejanoz. In summary: various hordes of evil minions have been sallying forth from such fell places as the Doomlands of Naaros, Kraknalorg Chasm, and the Chasm of Gorgoron; the god Kai appeared before Lone Wolf to (somewhat belatedly in my opinion) warn him that Naar is up to his evil tricks again, following which – in MS 5101 – the Grand Brumalmarc of the Icelands and his ice demon allies attempted to invade the homeland of Sommerlund and seismic disturbances opened a gigantic chasm in the Darklands that extended the dreaded Maakengorge. Magnamund is, it seems, literally being rocked, and subterranean denizens that should never see the light of day are pouring onto its surface.

True Friend has spent most of the above years quietly, supervising the construction of the new Kai Monastery on the Isle of Lorn and taking command when Lone Wolf has been absent. The adventure begins with Lone Wolf returning to the monastery to hold a council, where he reveals that Magnamund is indeed under a coordinated attack by an unknown force. There are six armies attacking six different locations and the top six ranking Kai Grandmasters are despatched accordingly. Following True Friend’s slaying of Sejanoz, Chai rallied the New Kingdom armies to inflict a decisive defeat on Bhanar, but after more than a decade of peace, a Nadziranim sorcerer named Bakhasa (who has a nasty habit of raising the dead as unpleasant versions of their former cheery selves) has seized the remote Bhanarian city of Bakhasa. Zashnor is now in command of an Agarashi horde from the Doomlands and appears to have constructed a new Claw of Naar in an attempt to succeed where Sejanoz failed, in invading Chai. True Friend’s mission is to recover the Eye of Agarash from the new Khea-Khan before Zashnor can retrieve it and create a weapon of mass destruction by joining it with the replica Claw. The action begins with an airborne deployment to Chai and True Friend must race against the invading army to reach Pensei, the capital. The bulk of both the action and the story involve a prolonged but nonetheless exciting flight across Chai, from Pensei to Valus. The traditional combat finale of the first twenty-eight books has been replaced by a trio of final combats: first, Klüz, the Doomgah leader; then Xaol the Necromancer, raised from the dead since True Friend last killed him in Lone Wolf 25: Trail of the Wolf; and finally, Zashnor himself – along with his Zlanbeast. Each of these is a tough combat and there is little opportunity to rest between them, which brings me to my only criticism of a gamebook that otherwise meets all seventeen years’ worth of expectations.

This is a very hard game to play and the difficulty is purely attritional: first, Zashnor has amassed a formidable army that is already rampaging around Chai when True Friend arrives in-country; second, once True Friend has the Eye of Agarash it exerts a long-term draining effect that pops up when least expected; third, in my gameplay there was only one opportunity for all of True Friend’s endurance points to be restored and that relatively early on; finally, in my gameplay there were two occasions when two or more items of precious equipment were lost without the opportunity to recover or replace them. All of which to say that I think that The Storms of Chai would be nigh impossible to survive out of order – i.e., without True Friend having reached the rank of Sun Thane (level thirty-two out of a maximum of thirty-six) – and, for that matter, without the Grandmaster skills of both Deliverance and Weaponmastery. The volunteers at Project Aon have, amongst their many other services to Lone Wolf fans worldwide, helpfully provided a flow chart of each of the first twenty-eight books and although I suspect that the narrative of book 29 is no more linear than any of the others, the constant fighting against powerful enemies of all sorts makes it feel like what would be called a “hack and slash” dungeon crawl in Dungeons & Dragons. Certainly, this is one of the gamebooks where brawn (and luck) counts more than brains, although it is an entirely gripping hack and slash. The story ends with two unanswered questions: first, how did Zashnor get hold of the real Claw of Naar, which was supposed to be safe in Dessi? Second, who or what is the power behind the new assault on Magnamund? The first is revealed in the bonus adventure; the second will, one hopes, be at least partially answered in Lone Wolf 30: Dead in the Deep. The bonus adventure is “The Tides of Gorgoron” (written by Dever and Vincent Lazarri), where the reader adopts the persona of Lord Elkamo Doko, a Vakeros warrior-mage, a group of warriors who have been taught some of the skills of magic by the Elder Magi of Dessi. Lord Doko begins as second-in-command of a force sent to defend the Colo Bridge from the advancing Agarashi. The adventure is very entertaining, has a direct link to the narrative of The Storms of Chai, and the warrior-mage player character is perfectly-pitched – neither too similar nor too dissimilar to a Kai Grandmaster, thus making a perfect complement. Rafe McGregor

Monday, 16 January 2017

Green Lantern: The Sinestro Corps War, by Geoff Johns and chums (DC Comics) | review

This is a story from what I think of as the “real” DC universe, the time between Crisis on Infinite Earths, to which this book is in many ways a sequel, and Flashpoint, which reset everything for the New 52 universe. For a long time before the crisis the DC heroes lived, like Archie or the Bash Street Kids, in an eternal golden present, but a Teen Titan called Robin wanted to grow up, and he couldn’t do that unless other people got older, and so time began to flow. The hair of Green Lantern Hal Jordan went grey at the temples, and during The Return of Superman he lost his mind, after Mongol and the cyborg Superman destroyed his home Coast City while building a base. He betrayed the Green Lantern Corps, became the villain Parallax, and gave his life to save the world from the Final Night, the attack of a sun-eater. What a life! But it wasn’t over! He then became the new Spectre (god’s spirit of vengeance) but it didn’t stick, and eventually, like so many Silver Age heroes, he too returned from the grave, to lead the Green Lantern Corps once again, his misdeeds as Parallax retconned as a kind of possession by a fear monster by that name.

The problem with Hal is that for all the affection in which he’s held and the tumultuous events of his life, he tends to be quite a dull, flavourless character – presumably the reason they replaced him in the first place. This book surrounds him with other Green Lanterns to prevent that being a problem. Long-time GLs John Stewart, Guy Gardner and Kyle Rayner all play prominent roles, but this is about the Green Lantern Corps as a whole, fighting a huge war against its most terrible threat. Sinestro, once the greatest Green Lantern of them all, has been recruiting his own yellow corps, of villains who have the power to inspire fear. At his side are the cyborg Superman Hank Henshaw, deranged survivor of the Crisis Superboy-Prime, and the Anti-Monitor himself, plus thousands of other recruits.

Even Hal Jordan couldn’t make this book boring. It’s a true epic in the style of the earlier books it draws on, the kind of thing that would usually be a company-wide crossover. There are a hundred things happening on every page, deaths by the dozen, the story taking place in amongst a blizzard of green and yellow rings searching for worthy new owners. The issues collected here are from two titles, Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps, not that you could tell, the story holding together so well. The collection does something that is much too rare in DC’s books – each chapter identifies the original issue it came from, and provides the individual writers and artists and the original title of that story, so you know exactly what you’re reading. The artwork throughout is very good, the amount of work that must have gone into each panel quite staggering. Almost any page of it would make an epic poster. I can’t think of a Green Lantern story I liked more. The battle between the vicious Superman-Prime (as he’s now called) and a Daxamite Green Lantern who can almost match him in strength is brilliantly brutal. I also liked the way that the real Superman shows up in the big battles at the end but doesn’t get to speak, because it isn’t his comic. And yet my very favourite bit, in this interplanetary, intergalactic, interuniversal war, was the littlest: Green Lantern Leezle Pon, a superintelligent smallpox virus. Stephen Theaker ****

Friday, 13 January 2017

Lone Wolf 22: The Buccaneers of Shadaki, by Joe Dever (Mantikore Verlag/Holmgard Press) | review by Rafe McGregor

Note that the following Lone Wolf review was written and supplied before we heard the sad news of Joe Dever’s death. Our commiserations to his family, and to all of his fans.

In #55, I reviewed the collector’s edition of Lone Wolf 21: Voyage of the Moonstone, published in English by Mantikore Verlag in 2015. The review was more of a reflection on the whole series, summarising the thirty years between my first reading of Lone Wolf 1: Flight From the Dark to the point where, after numerous improbable narrative twists, there once again seemed to be a delay in publishing. The short version: Lone Wolf was originally conceived as a series of thirty-two gamebooks, the first of which was published in 1984, stalled – apparently forever – in 1998 at Lone Wolf 28: The Hunger of Sejanoz, and has been the subject of many and varied attempts to both finish the series and return all its instalments to print. I concluded by noting that although Mantikore Verlag’s taking over of the series from Mongoose Publishing in 2013 was an initial success, it seemed to have run into trouble in the second year. On 1 April 2016, shortly after I submitted the review, Joe Dever announced that he was self-publishing the rest of the collector’s edition series, including the previously unpublished four books. I must admit I was disappointed by the news, after the heroic efforts the fans at Project Aon (, a non-profit organisation, had made on Dever’s behalf, but I’m pleased to report that Holmgard Press ( is flourishing. Lone Wolf 29: The Storms of Chai (also reviewed in this issue) was published in June and Dever is also selling the Mantikore Verlag volumes that are still in stock, books 18 and 22. Having suffered at the hands of small presses on several occasions myself, I’ll add that I had no problems whatsoever with my purchase of The Storms of Chai and that the price (£17.95) includes postage and packaging in the UK. In addition, all copies purchased from Holmgard Press arrive with Dever’s seal and signature (for those who set store by such things).

Returning to The Buccaneers of Shadaki, my Kai Grandmaster – True Friend – had put in the kind of performance his wimpy name would lead one to expect in his mission to return the Moonstone to the Isle of Lorn and found himself in the city of Elzian at the end of Voyage of the Moonstone. In my previous review I mentioned that the gamebooks have moved through distinct series as the overarching story progressed: a single campaign in the Kai and Magnakai series (books 1 through 12), followed by a series of standalone adventures in the Grand Master series (13 to 20) all with the same character, Lone Wolf. Voyage of the Moonstone marked the beginning of the fourth series, the New Order, in which the reader adopts the persona of one of Lone Wolf’s acolytes, and it was not clear whether the twelve books of the New Order would take the form of a single campaign or more standalone adventures. Dever seems to be employing a third, hybrid, option, with some New Order missions being standalone and others spanning more than one book (about which I shall have more to say below). The second half of the Moonstone quest takes True Friend “deep into the wild and lawless reaches of southern Magnamund”, which will only be familiar to those readers who played Ian Page’s regrettably short-lived spin-off series, The World of Lone Wolf (four gamebooks were published by Beaver Books from 1985 to 1986, beginning with Grey Star the Wizard).

This survey of the southern continent is the book’s greatest strength and the narrative is a sequence of fascinating explorations of and mini-adventures in the ports between Elzian and Lorn: from the emporium of Zharloum to the junkyard that is Dlash-da Ralzuha to a run-in with Sesketera, the despot of Ghol-Tabras; from the ruined splendour of Caeno, with its famous guanza derby, to the austerity of Nhang, with its eighty stone statues, and finally the Port of Suhn, ruled by the wizard Grey Star (hero of The World of Lone Wolf). The southern continent of Magnamund is every bit as interesting as its northern counterpart, where Lone Wolf cut his teeth, but The Buccaneers of Shadaki is more of a guidebook than a gamebook, even if it is a guidebook no one should be without. The combat finale is with a Zhürc, which might be a sea dragon and might not – one cannot be certain because there is no illustration – and provides an anti-climax either way. The creature on the eye-catching cover, drawn by Manuel Leza Moreno, is a scary sea crocodile called a Nigumu-sa that appears much earlier on, between Ghol-Tabras and Masama, but despite its presence the adventure as a game is altogether too easy.

One of the problems that has emerged in the New Order series was evident in some of the Grandmaster series: when one is playing a single character, who advances in prowess and power with each adventure but who is not involved in a campaign – working his way through increasingly difficult minions of an evil archenemy, for example – it becomes difficult for the author to maintain both the peril factor and a minimal degree of realism. True Friend is a Kai Grandmaster Senior at the beginning of Lone Wolf 21, which means that he is advanced to twenty-five out of a maximum of thirty-six levels of expertise and has several supernatural abilities. If Dever had opted to make The Buccaneers of Shadaki more challenging, he would have had to put some pretty tough opponents in relatively innocuous settings – but it would be stretching the imagination too far if street thugs and hungry animals were capable of taking on one of the most fearsome warriors on the continent. This is one of the reasons that I prefer a campaign to a series of standalone adventures. Speaking of which, like all the other Mantikore Verlag/Holmgard Press collector’s editions, this 574pp volume includes a bonus adventure, “A Wytch’s Nightmare” (written by Vincent Lazzari and Alexander Kühnert). The reader’s persona is the Wytch Yenna, her mission is to find the missing Grey Star, and the writers’ use of a female protagonist makes a very welcome change (true to its eighties origins, the various Lone Wolf protagonists have hitherto been exclusively male).

As my next review will be of Lone Wolf 29, I shall conclude this one with a brief summary of books 23 to 28. The Buccaneers of Shadaki ends with the promise of “a new and sinister threat to the fragile peace of Magnamund”. That threat is Baron Sadanzo and his robber-knights and Mydnight’s Hero (#23, first published in 1995) sees True Friend assisting the exiled Prince of Siyen to reclaim his father’s kingdom. Rune War (#24, 1995) returns the action to the Stornlands, a war-torn region in northern Magnamund where Lord Vandyan of Eldenora has used the Runes of Agarash to raise a reptilian breed of warrior. While Lone Wolf leads the crusade against Eldenora’s army, True Friend must break into the fortress of Skull-Tor to destroy the runes and his success sees him rise to become the second most powerful Kai Grandmaster. Shortly after the victory against Eldenora, Lone Wolf is abducted by a necromancer named Xaol and True Friend rescues him from Gazad Helkona in Trail of the Wolf (#25, 1997). (Unfortunately, the plot of rescuing friends or allies has been a little over-employed in the series, especially if one includes the standalone graphic novel spin-off, The Skull of Agarash, published in 1994, and “A Wytch’s Nightmare”.) Meanwhile, the greedy Dwarves of Bor have dug too deep in search of wealth, released an ancient horror called the Shom’zaa, and require True Friend’s assistance to defend their Throne Chamber in The Fall of Blood Mountain (#26, 1997). (As another aside, I should mention that this is currently the rarest of all the books; a second-hand copy was sold for just over £1000 on Amazon in August.) Vampirium (#27, 1998) takes a slight change of direction in that it initiates a series of events that will (it seems) dominate the remaining five books. The Autarch Sejanoz of Bhanar despatches a mission to excavate the Claw of Naar from the ruin of Naaros and True Friend must intercept the party before it returns to the capital. Sejanoz proceeds with the invasion of Chai without the Claw in The Hunger of Sejanoz (#28, 1998) and True Friend is sent to escort the Khea-Khan to safety. The Hunger of Sejanoz was published with only three hundred (as opposed to the usual three hundred and fifty) gameplay sections – I am not sure why – but Dever has plans to remedy this… all of which will be discussed in my review of The Storms of Chai.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Some rooting, but more eye rolling… Rogue One mostly no fun.

Another group of sombre characters flying from planet to planet, another father-child relationship, another bad guy turned good, another sky swarming with spacecraft. Isn’t all this Star Wars stuff starting to get a little old? I did root for the protagonists in Rogue One, but I also rolled my eyes quite a bit.

But then there’s the guy at the theatre who told me he’s seen the film four times. And what about all the critics and laymen who gave it glowing reviews? How can they look past the sappiness, the expository dialogue, the lukewarm characters? Could it be that they’re all still under the spell of the first three films (Episodes IV–VI)?

Rogue One bridges Episodes III and IV. Like Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Rogue One features a female protagonist. This time it’s Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones). Accompanied by Alliance Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO, Jyn undertakes a journey to find her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), a scientist forced by the Imperial Army to design a weapon of mass destruction. Then the heroes and their growing crew set out to get the digital plans for a flaw that Galen programmed into said weapon.

Rogue One isn’t without strengths. A tense opening scene, for instance, shows a young Jyn escaping after chief antagonist Director Krennic (Ben Mendolsohn) and his Imperial henchmen capture her father. Krennic’s spotless white uniform – it sets him apart throughout the film – flapping in the wind and his cocksure attitude propel the scene.

Moreover, a strong narrative arc follows all the conventions of a good story. Characters have clear-cut goals and rising obstacles impede their efforts. Still, an overly clinical approach to storytelling may have weakened the magic.

A couple of characters make a somewhat memorable impression. The verbally unrestrained K-2SO makes some rather snide remarks that may induce a chuckle. To Jyn, he offers this gem: “I’ll be there for you,” then, after a pause, “The Captain said I had to.” And it’s a pleasure to watch Chirrut Îmwe, a monkish blind warrior with a near-religious devotion to the Force, use his staff to speedily dispatch the bad guys. In the film’s most emotionally stirring scene, Îmwe chants “The Force is with me and I am one with the Force” while walking through a battlefield. And it’s hard to not perk up every time Darth Vader gets mentioned or appears. Though Vader’s screen time is limited, he does regale the viewer with a demonstration of his fighting talents.

Still, the film offers no standout character, no Han Solo.

As usual, Forest Whitaker puts his all into his performance. Saw Gerrera is a mountain man type who saves and trains Jyn. However, his minimal screen time isn’t enough to create an emotional connection with the viewer; anything that happens to him feels anticlimactic. It’s like having a side dish from a five-star restaurant with a fast food meal: it just doesn’t fit.

Another shortcoming of Rogue One: the opposition never dominates, so protagonists are never truly against the ropes. It all seems so easy.

The film builds to a major battle between the Rebel Alliance and Imperial Army. Yes, it’s cool to see the Imperial Army’s imposing structures amid sunny beaches and palm trees on the tropical planet of Scarif, but the chaos of the battle and the heavy reliance on special effects leaves the viewer feeling a bit uninvested in what unfolds. Today’s adolescent would surely scoff at the special effects of Episodes IV–VI, but didn’t the lack of technology in the ’70s and ’80s propel George Lucas and company to create solutions that led to the timelessness of those characters and stories?

Though I’m far from a Star Wars fanatic, I (like just about everyone) think episodes IV through VI are brilliant and that Episode VII: The Force Awakens captures the magic. Also, that quiet Darth Maul (Episode I) is a blast to watch. It is hard to believe that, without the strength of its predecessors, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story would have received the same critical acclaim.

Remember what the 40-year-old Peyton Manning did after he led the underdog Denver Broncos to victory in Super Bowl 50 last year? He retired. Perhaps Star Wars should have followed his example. – Douglas J. Ogurek **

Monday, 9 January 2017

Forever Evil, by Geoff Johns, David Finch and Richard Friend (DC Comics) | review

After the superheroes get sucked into Firestorm, that leaves just Batman and the supervillains, led by Lex Luthor in his seventies-chic power-armour, to fight off an invasion from another dimension! It’s the Crime Syndicate of America, evil mirrors of the Justice League like Ultraman and Superwoman, fleeing the destruction of their own world. Most of the villains are happy to join the Crime Syndicate in ruling the world, but Captain Cold, Black Manta, Sinestro, Catwoman and Lex’s newly decanted Bizarro will join Lex (and Batman) in taking them down. For a big DC event this has a tight focus for the most part, the confrontation taking place within a downed JLA watchtower by the sea. The art to my eyes isn’t very attractive, a bit rougher than I prefer, but I suppose that fits with us seeing the world from a villain’s point of view. Batman looks good. Sinestro comes across very well, his method of dealing with the cowardly Power Ring being particularly decisive. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday, 6 January 2017

Ghostbusters: Answer the Call | review by Jacob Edwards

There’s déjà vu in the neighbourhood.

Ivan Reitman, speaking of the development of the original Ghostbusters film,[1] recalls Dan Aykroyd’s first treatment as featuring many groups of futuristic ghostbusters and about fifty large-scale monsters (of which the marshmallow man was just one), with an estimated production cost of (only half-jokingly) $300 million. This is not the movie that ended up being made in 1984; nor, sadly, is it the film that rebooted in 2016.

Ghostbusters: Answer the Call is by no means a bad production (objectively, it’s better than Ghostbusters II), but it’s the same as the original: neither reboot nor remake but rather a shadow; a “based on” in much the same way that Blues Brothers 2000 changed the details but followed exactly the same blueprint as The Blues Brothers. Not unlike covering a song that was near-perfect to begin with, the results of such mimicry can only be disappointing. It’s nobody’s fault. If not for nostalgia tipping the scales the lead cast (all women, all comedians) would near enough match up to that of the original movie. Likewise much of the dialogue, which is funny and well-delivered, just not as etched-in-stone memorable as those bon mots that have been quoted so often these last thirty-plus years. Chris Hemsworth differs from Rick Moranis in the quirkiness of his supporting role. Karan Soni brings something as the takeaway delivery man. But really, what else is there to talk about?

Yes, there are cameos, but these are mostly counterproductive. The bust of Harold Ramis brings home the sad truth that he’s no longer with us. Bill Murray’s appearance leaves us to question his refusal to be involved in countless other proposed Ghostbusters projects. Dan Aykroyd shows that he could easily still have answered the call. Ernie Hudson comes in late – still the token fourth member – while the less said about Sigourney Weaver’s effort the better. Only Moranis had the good sense not to return, which is how it should be. If continuity is to be thrown out (which after all is the liberty afforded by a reboot) then what value the cameo except to assuage the misgivings of old-time fans, yet in the process stirring their unfulfilled hunger for past glories? Even the brief snatch of Ray Parker Jnr’s classic Ghostbusters song isn’t so much paying homage as twisting the knife.

When the big scary evil comes to its flaccid end, Ghostbusters: Answer the Call is neither here nor there, nor anywhere else for that matter: not a shot-for-shot remake; not a sequel; and – let’s be honest – not really much of a reboot. By all means cast Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones. They’re very good, so why not? But pour some juice into the script! Cross the streams and go for something new, not merely: “Who you gonna call? Er, 1984.” Wake up, Hollywood: three decades later, the future is here; so why not go further into the future? Why not reboot from Dan Aykroyd’s at-the-time unrealisable first concept and have several competing ghostbusting groups and a threat that’s been in some way escalated, if only by inflation?

With a blank slate Ghostbusters: Answer the Call could have been anything. It could have been just as good as its classic forerunner, perhaps even (and here’s a thought the writers, producers and director seem not to have considered) better. Instead, we got more of the same: merely ripples of reprise. We got half-heartedly slimed. Again.

1. Audio commentary, 12:10-12:30.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Shadow Moths, by Cate Gardner (Frightful Horrors) | review by Stephen Theaker

This little collection of two stories by Cate Gardner is the first in a planned line of ebooks from a new digital-only micro-press, Frightful Horrors. Its short length is reflected in its price (and it is available in the Kindle lending library and Kindle Unlimited to the respective subscribers). “We Make Our Own Monsters Here” follows Check Harding on his pilgrimage to the United Kingdom’s best puppeteer, in hope of being his apprentice. On the way he checks into the peculiar Palmerston Hotel, where guests are provided with ladders to reach the light switches. “Blood Moth Kiss” is about Nola, who lives on a Royal Air Force base with partner Pete during a time of war. While he seems to go on missions, she is apparently beset by intangible exploding moths as atrocities loom. The book’s description describes the author as an “award-nominated genre author”, without specifying which genre that is – perhaps that’s appropriate given that neither story falls neatly into any category. They’re not westerns, that much is clear, but one could identify elements of fantasy, horror, sf and literary fiction in both, plus a dash of doomed, gothic romance in the second. Both are good. On my Kindle an unnecessary line of blank space appears after every paragraph, but in such a quick read that doesn’t have time to become the mind-frazzling irritation it can be in a long novel. ***

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Doctor Who: The Guardian of the Solar System, by Simon Guerrier (Big Finish) | review

The first story in the fifth series of the Companion Chronicles sees the return for seventy-one minutes of Sara Kingdom (Jean Marsh). Well, sort of. On television she helped the first Doctor defeat the Daleks’ master-plan, and paid the ultimate price. Here, what appears to be a digital copy of her mind has lived on for a thousand years as the host of a guest house with remarkable properties. As the house Sara healed the sick daughter of a man named Robert (Niall MacGregor), and in return he promised to stay there forever, not realising perhaps that forever in that house would be a long time indeed. He has one last thing to ask of her, but before she will hear his request she wants to tell him one last story, a side-quest during her time with the Doctor and space pilot Steven Tyler, when they travelled back in time to discover the dark secret at the heart of the human empire, what powers their flight to the stars. Along the way, she got the chance to meet Bret Vyon, the brother she would betray, when he was still alive. It’s a good story with tender, emotional performances, and a melancholy, downbeat feel, about people caught in the wheels of time, trying to escape the inevitable, trying to escape the past. Stephen Theaker ***

Monday, 2 January 2017

Jago and Litefoot, Series 5, by Jonathan Morris, Marc Platt, Colin Brake and Justin Richards (Big Finish) | review by Stephen Theaker

Professor Litefoot (played by Trevor Baxter) and theatre impressario Henry Gordon Jago (Christopher Benjamin) first appeared in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”, a popular Doctor Who story starring Tom Baker as the fourth Doctor, and made such an impression that a spin-off was reportedly considered. Good ideas never die, they just wait for their moment, and eventually Big Finish began this series of audio stories for these Victorian “investigators of infernal incidents”. Best of all, their stories are now available on Audible, along with many other Big Finish titles. (This one was supplied for review, but I had already spent my monthly tokens on UNIT: Dominion and the fourth Doctor Lost Stories box set.) Season five puts a new spin on the format, thanks to the Doctor’s useless navigational skills. After taking the pair from 1893 to the New World and to Venus in a pair of very entertaining specials, the sixth Doctor dropped them off at home, but in the wrong century: they are now in 1968. These stories deliberately (as the special features explain) skip over their initial acclimatisation to the swinging sixties, to show them settled in their new lives, and ready for new adventures. Litefoot is working in an antiquarian bookshop, bought for him by Ellie Higson (Lisa Bowerman), a friend from the old days who has made the most of her vampiric longevity. Jago is on the verge of becoming a television personality, presenting an old-time talent show. Each of the four episodes lasts about an hour. All are by male writers, but Lisa Bowerman directs. Jonathan Morris writes “The Age of Revolution”, about a TV star, “Timothy Vee off the TV!”, and his peculiarly hypnotic statue. “The Case of the Gluttonous Guru” by Marc Platt is about the swami Sanjaya Starr, leader of the temple of Transcendental Meditation, who is looking for a host for Mama, the Great Birth Mother… “The Bloodchild Codex” by Colin Brake sees Ellie get skittish as another vampire shows up on the scene, looking for a book in Litefoot’s collection. “The Final Act” by Justin Richards confronts the pair with old enemies. Connections to the past are present throughout the stories thanks to the grand-daughter of the Great Godiva, Guinevere Godiva, who takes an uncommon interest in the crystal they brought back from Venus, and Detective Sergeant Dave Sacker, dogged descendant of another old friend. The four stories are all equally enjoyable, providing terrific dialogue for the two leads to wrap their wonderful voices around, with a sound mix that works just as well whether one is listening on earphones, a pillow speaker or a surround sound system – though obviously the latter was best. The audiobook also includes seventy minutes of special features. Stephen Theaker ****

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Vote in the Theaker's Quarterly Awards 2017!

Welcome to the inaugural THEAKER'S QUARTERLY AWARDS!

For the last four years, and a couple of other years a bit further back, I ran the British Fantasy Awards, which was absolutely fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable. I stepped down last September, but I loved doing it, so to innoculate myself against volunteering to run any other awards, and also to give myself the chance to experiment with voting systems in a way that wasn't possible with the BFAs, I have decided to introduce our own Theaker's Quarterly awards.

The only items eligible are those that have been reviewed in our pages (regardless of when they were published – and whether we liked them!), and the only categories are those that have appeared in the Quarterly Review, plus three about our own magazine: best story, cover art and issue. Voting is open to everyone, and you can vote for as many items in each category as you want.

If you aren’t sure what to vote for, click the links below to be taken directly to our original reviews of each item. Voting will continue until March 1, with the winners being announced in issue fifty-nine, out that month.








TQF cover art

TQF fiction

TQF issues