Sunday, 9 December 2018

Proof of Concept, by Gwyneth Jones ( | review by Stephen Theaker

Kir is a young woman with an AI embedded in her head, and this was done by her mother, Margrethe Patel, who adopted her precisely for this purpose. Kir was born in one of the heavily irrradiated and ever-growing Dead Zones that cover the Earth while most people cram into overcrowded dictatorial Hives. Mum trained her as a scientist, while touring the world so that people could pay for the use of her onboard computer, and now they have gone deep underground on the Needle Voyager mission, in a massive cavern deep under the Giewont mountain in Poland. There are habitats on Mars and the Moon, but the future is not looking great for humanity, and so the hope is that Margrethe and her team can find a way out. Unfortunately part of the deal is that the scientists are joined in the base by the irritating future equivalent of YouTubers, and as events unfold Kir’s trust in her mother is put under increasing stress. Short novels are one of my favourite things, and at 140pp this hits the sweet spot. Yet even I was wondering, with sixteen minutes of reading to go, how it could possibly wrap up all the (personal, political and criminal) plotlines without at least a few hundred pages more. Somehow it does. There’s room for sequels, and people may be surprised by the suddenness of the ending, but no one could complain that they didn’t get enough story. And it’s an inventive story with strong characterisation. It’s impossible not to sympathise with the difficult situation in which Kir finds herself, to worry for her as she sneaks out of the base to chill out in the black abyss, or to keep one’s fingers crossed as she takes her first tentative steps towards a romantic relationship. ****

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Atomic Robo and the Ring of Fire, by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener (Tesladyne) | review by Stephen Theaker

The tenth volume in the Atomic Robo series is back in the present day, or at least 2015, with the robot hero out of action and his buddies scattered. His adventures in the Wild West (see Atomic Robo and the Knights of the Golden Circle) left him out of power, without a body, and time-travelling the long way round, while the Tesladyne Organisation has been turned into Task Force ULTRA, a nefarious governmental agency. In this book ULTRA decides that the fight against the giant Japanese monsters known as biomegas is too important to be left to Science Team Super Five, while escapees from Tesladyne’s Venezuelan branch try to revive Atomic Robo before it is too late. As the biggest biomegas to date attack, people are going to have to learn to work together, and Atomic Robo will have to go into space.

In an afterword the writer describes this book as a cross between the Jason Bourne films and Pacific Rim, which seems fair; an alternative comparison might be Hellboy meets Neon Genesis Evangelion. Unusually for a long-running comic, Atomic Robo has featured the same writer and artist since the beginning, and it makes for a consistent and reliably entertaining series. The art always looks good, looking not unlike a series of animation cels, and if it’s not always immediately obvious what’s going on, that’s because (again, like Hellboy) the art here needs to be read, not just the words. I first started reading this title because it was one of the few books of interest on the ComiXology iPad app in its early days, and even though Marvel, Dark Horse and DC have since joined the party it continues to hold its ground. A good book, well worth reading. ***

Monday, 3 December 2018

The Wildlands Hunt by Martin Charbonneau and Gary Chalk | review by Rafe McGregor

The Wildlands Hunt is the second instalment of the new Lone Wolf gamebook series, which began with The Pit of Darkness in 2017, and follows the adventures of New Order Kai Konor Autumn Snow. Like its predecessor, The Wildlands Hunt is crowdfunded, with progression from funding to delivery proceeding much quicker and smoother the second time around. The project was launched on 28 January 2017, received the required initial funding of €4000 the following day, received €15,000 within a fortnight, and the volume was published in October 2018. Megara Entertainment was founded in 2007 and director Mikaël Louys appears to have been transparent about the company’s financial situation throughout. In March this year, for example, Megara published a hardback collector’s edition of Grey Star the Wizard. This was the first in a short spin-off series – The World of Lone Wolf – that followed the adventures of Grey Star, a Shianti wizard. The four books were written by Ian Page, illustrated by Paul Bonner, and edited by Joe Dever, creator of Lone Wolf and Lone Wolf’s world, Magnamund. Grey Star the Wizard (1985) was succeeded by The Forbidden City (1985), Beyond the Nightmare Gate (1985) and War of the Wizards (1986), making 1985 the most prolific year for the franchise, with The World of Lone Wolf 1–3 published alongside Lone Wolf 4–6 (The Chasm of Doom, Shadow on the Sand and The Kingdoms of Terror). On the Kickstarter updates, Louys reveals that Megara published Grey Star the Wizard at a loss, selling a disappointing two hundred copies. He seems undeterred, however, and after revision of the production model, launched The Forbidden City project as Grey Star the Wizard was released. The campaign has reached €11,845, exceeding its €8000 goal, although the stated delivery date of December 2018 is likely overambitious. For those who have followed the vicissitudes of Lone Wolf publication (which I related in my reviews of Lone Wolf 21: Voyage of the Moonstone and Lone Wolf 29: The Storms of Chai), it will come as no surprise to hear that Megara are currently in the midst of financial problems. The Wildlands Hunt is printed in the same format as The Pit of Darkness (medium octavo hardback), retails at €40 (delivery included), and is only available from the Megara website (  I ordered my copy on 12 October (the transaction cost me a total of just under £37, but no doubt this will rise in direct proportion to Brexit chaos). On 12 November, I received an email from Louys stating that there had been a delay caused by issues with investors. The book arrived on 24 November, along with a free copy of the collector’s edition of Fabled Lands 1: The War-Torn Kingdom by Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson (first published in 1996; published by Megara in 2014). My assessment is that Megara are scrupulously honest, but that until the publishing uncertainty is resolved, buyers should be wary. On a related note, I must admit to not contributing to either Autumn Snow Kickstarter project – as much as I long for more Lone Wolf gamebooks, past experience has made me wary of paying any small presses upfront.

Like The Pit of Darkness, The Wildlands Hunt has been released in French and English and combines the literary expertise of Martin Charbonneau with the artistic expertise of Gary Chalk. The volume is a perfect companion to The Pit of Darkness, with another wonderful colour cover by Chalk, twenty new full-page black and white illustrations, and several smaller ones that I didn’t recognise from previous publications.  Chalk’s artwork is widely-praised for an instantly-recognisable style that foregrounds clear lines, the use of negative space, and deliberately disproportionate figures. His drawings are also incredibly expressive, as a quick comparison of the illustrations for sections 65, 140 and 318 reveals. The first depicts the Ragadorn city guard, three men oozing so much menace and hostility that the picture alone motivated my decision to avoid the encounter. The Red Mask slaver in 140 looks just as deadly and dangerous, but Chalk’s representation provides a subtle invitation to the player to take up combat. Finally, the stagecoach ticket-seller is depicted with consummate pathos, imprisoned behind the bars of his counter, lending a melancholy mood to what purports to be an occasion for celebration. In keeping with The Pit of Darkness, there is no colour map in The Wildlands Hunt (these have been a mainstay of the Lone Wolf series to date), but my parcel arrived with a separate map (in colour) of the city of Ragadorn (where the second part of the adventure takes place). While I appreciate the gesture from Megara, I thought it detracted from the high production values of the gamebook, a laminated A4 sheet (too big to be slipped inside the book) that is functional rather than artistic and also superfluous to play (I didn’t use it at all). My review of The Pit of Darkness was critical of the number of typos and formatting errors, but there are much fewer of the former and none of the latter in the second instalment of the series (in my gameplay, anyway). There are, however, occasionally unusual turns of phrase and I wonder if this is a consequence of translation from the original French. At times these can simply read a little awkwardly, but one instance seems to make a racial slur against a particular character – which, permissible though it might be in a fantasy world is unnecessarily provocative in the context of publication and incongruous with the humanism that pervades the franchise. (I have not read the French version, though, so it may well be the result of a loss in translation.)

I gave The Pit of Darkness high praise for its balance in terms of gaming: difficult but not impossible; solving the perennial problem of healing and endurance point recovery; and presenting progressively more challenging encounters. The second and third of these hold for The Wildlands Hunt, which adds two more welcome elements. First, the use of the Kai disciplines is perfectly pitched – they all prove useful somewhere and no one in particular is essential for completing the gamebook. Second, there is a clear game (although not narrative) structure: the adventure begins with Autumn Snow held prisoner on a pirate ship; she must then navigate the trials and tribulations of Ragadorn; finally, she ventures out into the Wildlands that separate Ragadorn from her homeland of Sommerlund. My only complaint with respect to the game is that I found it too easy. Granted, my version of Autumn Snow is now an Aspirant, able to use six rather than five Kai disciplines, but as she failed to accrue anything of great value in The Pit of Darkness, she isn’t particularly powerful. I have always equipped my various Kai characters – Lone Wolf, True Friend (in the New Order series), and now Autumn Snow – with a bow and this was especially useful in The Wildlands Hunt. On reflection, I wonder if it was too useful and that without it the Wildlands would have proved much more dangerous than they were in my gameplay. My main criticism of the gamebook is its narrative. Despite the exemplary game structure, the story itself fails to fit the overarching narrative initiated by The Pit of Darkness and to match the internal rigour of the various Lone Wolf series so far. The Pit of Darkness concluded with Autumn Snow losing her Kai mentor and discovering a Nadziranim (evil sorcerer) plot set to unfold in the Maakenmire swamp. The final section saw Autumn Snow on the island of Kirlu, headed for Misty Bay and thence to Sommerlund, where she would report to her Kai superiors in the hope of being dispatched on the mission to the Maakenmire. The title of the second adventure was revealed as Slaves of the Mire, which appeared to reference this mission. When the title was changed to The Wildlands Hunt, I assumed this would chart the journey of the mission from Sommerlund to the Maakenmire through the Wildlands. When I began playing The Wildlands Hunt, it seemed as if the slings and arrows of fortune had taken Autumn Snow off course and the hunt of the Wildlands would feature her as the hunted, attempting to reach Sommerlund by land rather than by sea, fleeing from enemies in Ragadorn. Instead, Autumn Snow is the hunter in the Wildlands, having teamed up with an new ally – Athania, captain of the Valkharim (personal guard to the Overlord of Ragadorn) – and pursuing an exciting but irresponsible digression from her duty to report to her Kai superiors. While in the Wildlands there is a further twist setting the whole campaign in a different direction, although the title of book three is (once again) Slaves of the Mire… so perhaps the overarching plot has not been lost after all. This sense of meandering over mission is replicated internally and while the whole game is fast-paced, much of the action seems incidental or supplementary. This is the first gamebook set in Dever’s Magnamund that has, in consequence of his untimely death in November 2016, been published without his guiding hand. Dever’s influence as a master gamer and accomplished storyteller defied detection, but is revealed in its absence – the lack of the economy, artifice and vision that have underpinned all of the previous gamebooks, including The Pit of Darkness. I concluded my review of the latter by stating that the series could be the best addition to Magnamund since the Magnakai campaign ended in 1988, but I fear that it has, like Autumn Snow herself, lost direction.

Sunday, 2 December 2018

The Whispering Swarm by Michael Moorcock | review by Stephen Theaker

This book (Tor Books ebook, 7569ll) tells the story of Michael Moorcock, a hard-working writer of fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction plagued by the noise of a mysterious swarm. As a teenager, already at work in publishing, Moorcock meets Friar Isidore, who takes him to Alsacia, a magical Sanctuary with connections to all time and space by way of the moonbeam roads. There he meets people like Dick Turpin, Jim Bowie and Buffalo Bill.

At first he thinks them all actors on a film set, and later he comes to think the whole experience must have been a dream, but then comes the whispering, beginning shortly after the birth of his children, at which point it is but the “faintest of distant murmurings”, growing into “a torrent of unfamiliar, whispering voices”, and later becoming so unbearable that he can “barely ignore it for seconds at a time”.

That noise abates only in Alsacia, so he decides to stay there. He eventually becomes friends with the four musketeers and Prince Rupert of the Rhine, and thence involved in the war between the Roundheads and the Cavaliers. Drawn into a desperate plot to save King Charles from Oliver Cromwell and the scaffold, Moorcock must balance principle, friendship and his own responsibilities, choosing to help his new comrades though they must surely fail.

His story is told in the first person, and the reader may find themselves wondering how much credit these adventures are owed. The whispering begins when he has been “worrying what was best for the baby, where we should move and so on”, and much of his time in Alsacia is spent romantically with Moll Midnight, the inspiration for his most popular historical fantasies, while his wife and children believe him to be recuperating at a retreat.

Moorcock married young, to Helena, and they had children when young, and though his love for those children isn’t in question it doesn’t feel like he was ready to have them, and the character’s justifications for his absences fall flat throughout. At times it feels like the whole thing is a tall tale told to his children to explain away the times when he abandoned them, a fanciful excuse for a mundane affair.

He takes them to the cinema and the roof garden of Derry and Toms, but isn’t always there for everyday life. He comes across pretty badly. He takes lots of drugs (“where the coke and the speed met the mary jane and the wine my poor, puny little ego decided that promises were negotiable”), decries “unhappy women who eroticised inequality”, and at times becomes “briefly, a roaring monster with my friends or Helena”.

It is easier to cheer on his successes in publishing, from Tarzan Adventures and Sexton Blake Library to New Worlds, Elric, Jerry Cornelius and American success, “going instantly from work-for-hire hack to literary novelist”. He explains the two strands of his writing career thus: the fantasies are paperbacks and take three days to write, while the literary books appear in hardcover, are reviewed by the mainstream press, and take ten days to write.

His encounters with writers, editors and publishers make the book unmissable for publishing geeks and fans of the new wave, whatever its merits as a novel. He has a “desultory correspondence” with William Burroughs, trusts Barrington J. Bayley with the secret of Alsacia, and goes to the pub with Harry Harrison, Ted Carnell and John Wyndham. He helps “barmy, brilliant, treacherous old Phil” K. Dick get a publishing deal with Jonathan Cape.

E.C. Tubb tries to get off with Moorcock’s mum at a party. John Brunner gets it in the neck – “I tried to tell him he irritated people” – but gets credit for writing “with tremendous brio”. Other names are somewhat familiar, like Jack Allard, Jack Slade and Rex Fisch, though it’s worth remembering that the book tells us: “All of the characters ... are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.”

The narrative is straightforward and linear, so it’s not a difficult book, but it is peculiar. Like The Coming of the Terraphiles it may divide its readership. The autobiographical elements will fascinate fans, but if the book weren’t stretched out to fit those facts it might have felt a bit tighter and less repetitive. Bored readers should skip to chapter forty-one before giving up.

That’s when the book springs to life, with the mission to save King Charles. Moorcock, Rupert and the musketeers sneak into Whitehall with an unwitting impersonator, then try to escape down the frozen Thames at night while hunted by Cromwell’s men. Like his fictional equivalent, our Moorcock has few equals when writing adventure tales, and the last forty thousand words here comprise one of his best. ****

This review originally appeared in Interzone #258.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey ( | review by Stephen Theaker

In March 1857 Albert Broussard proposed the Hippo Act, which would bring hippopotamuses into the United States to be raised for meat. Hippo ranches began to open in August of that year, and by November the Mississippi river was being dammed to create extra marshes for all the hippos to live in. This area was known as the Harriet. Unfortunately, by January the following year hippos were on the loose, ranching in the Harriet became much more difficult, and in time the area came to be dominated by criminals and cutthroats. Nevertheless, pansexual Blackpudlian Winslow Remington Houndstooth tried real hard to get a ranch going, and he was well on the way when malice struck. Some time later, he’s accepting a mission from the federal government. They want the feral hippos cleared out of the Harriet. He gathers a team: heavily pregnant contract killer Adelia Reyes, explosives expert Hero, meteor-hammer wielding Regina “Archie” Archimbault (and her boy assistant Neville), and fastest gun in the West Calhoun Hotchkiss. The government expects them to catch the feral hippos one by one and escort them off the territory. Houndstooth has a rather quicker method in mind, and he’s also hoping to squeeze in some revenge along the way. One problem they’ll face is that the local crime boss rather likes having the wild hippos around, since they keep civilisation out of the area, making it perfect for his needs, and give him a convenient way of disposing of his enemies.

This violent novella feels like a men (and women and Hero) on a mission story, but almost as soon as the team is put together, it begins to fall apart. There’s nothing wrong with subverting expectations, but it does feel unsatisfying. The villain’s plan is hard to understand – he seems to be caught unawares by the completely predictable consequences of his actions – and for the most part the feral hippos function quite similarly to piranha fish, swarming upon anyone they catch in the water. It becomes more interesting on the occasions when individual hippos step into the limelight. It’s got a good cover and a high concept, and that’ll be enough to carry a lot of readers through the book quite happily, but for others it’ll probably feel a bit thin. I found the characters likeable and interesting, especially Houndstooth, Archie, and the enigmatic Hero, whose preferred pronoun is they. The book doesn’t always handle this well: in a sentence like “Hero had grinned and gone back to work, and Archie had caught Houndstooth beaming at them” the reader has no way of knowing whether Houndstooth is beaming only at Hero, which would have romantic implications, or at both Archie and Hero, which would just be jolly. ***

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Attack on Titan, Vol. 1, by Hajime Isayama (Kodansha) | review

For the last hundred years, the world’s last surviving humans (so far as anyone knows) have lived safely in towns protected by a series of concentric walls, built so long ago that a religion has declared them the work of their god. The walls are tall enough to keep out the giants that have devoured the rest of humanity, but smaller towns are used to focus the titans’ attacks in predictable locations. Only the Survey Corps venture outside, in hope of finding a way to reclaim the world from the titans.

Eren Yeager (who will later develop a dramatically interesting skill), Mikasa Ackerman (who will become an awesome fighter) and Armin Arlert (whose strength lies in his brains) are three children, very close pals, who live in Shinganshina, one of the districts used as titan bait. And they are there when a new type of titan takes that bait: a colossal, intelligent titan who can see over the wall and kicks a hole open for its smaller friends to pile through. This leads to trauma for the three friends, and sets them on a path to the Survey Corps.

Slightly disappointingly, this long-running manga series is not set on Titan, so far as we can tell — Attack on the Titans might have been a more descriptive title. It seems to be set in Europe, going by the names of the children’s future colleagues in the Survey Corps (Jean, Annie, Bertolt, Marco, Reiner, etc), while Mikasa is the only living human of Asian appearance, making this a Japanese property Hollywood could adapt without getting into trouble for whitewashing. Although in theory this is a review of the first book, I’d read the first five volumes before writing it, and by the time this review is published there’s every chance I’ll have read all twenty-two volumes from the Humble Bundle. It’s extremely compelling, and a very quick read. I want to know what happens, where the titans came from, and what was in the secret basement of Eren’s mysterious father?

From page to page it wasn’t always clear to me what was happening, but that may be just because the visual grammar of manga is still pretty new to me, and I didn’t understand what kind of sounds the sound effects were supposed to represent – e.g. whether they were alarms, or a howling from the titans. Frequent recaps, information pages, and character introductions at the start of each book soon caught me up.

What makes the books so uncanny is that the naked titans have such gormless faces, a genius touch which makes it all the more frightening when they chomp on human beings. They are genuinely weird and disruptive. They don’t even digest us, they just seem to do it for fun! Rather like The Walking Dead, the series makes the oppressive sense of danger and frequent deaths of favourite characters bearable by frequently providing the cathartic slaughter of many enemies. Stephen Theaker ****

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Richochet Joe, by Dean Koontz (Amazon Original Stories) | review by Stephen Theaker

Joe lives in a small town called Little City, where he attends Little Junior College, in hopes of one day becoming “an English teacher or an advertising copywriter, or maybe a destitute novelist”. While volunteering for litter-picking in the park and considering whether to ask Portia on a date, he is seized with the urge to say “Corvette!” and to then run off towards one. When he touches the car he shouts “But stop!” and then carries on to that, and thus from one clue to the next till he gets to the source of the trouble. Hence the nickname, Ricochet Joe. It’s a funny idea, and one with obvious potential for television or film, but as a book this would seem a little old-fashioned were it not a Kindle in Motion title. The plot, the writing style, the way Joe talks about Portia (and “her delightfully distracting presence”) make it feel like something from the fifties or sixties, like one of Robert Heinlein’s more fantastical stories. But the Kindle in Motion elements make it feel very modern, Oliver Barrett’s art brought to striking life by Belief Agency. The only downside is that having those media elements enabled also fixes the background colour of regular pages to a grubby white. Worth a download, if only for the novelty of the moving pictures. ***

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Priestess, by Justine Geoffrey (Martian Migraine Press) | review

My first taste of Cthulhu erotica, and I wasn’t left with a shadow over Innsmouth, if you know what I mean. My Dunwich was not fully horrored. The thing remained on the doorstep. Doom did not come to Sarnath. This 2013 ebook brings together four previously published titles: Anicka and Kamil, Red Monolith Frenzy, Yvette’s Interview and Green Fever Dream. It starts with a dedication to “Ramsey Campbell, the first man to render my veils” (sic). Anicka, “teen witch of Stregoicavar and High Priestess of the Black Stone”, is trying to summon Daoloth, from Campbell’s story The Render of the Veils, and she goes about that by having sex with her brother and anyone else she can lay her hands (and inhumanly long tongue) on. Favourite phrase here: “Daoloth activates your hyper-chakras”! The Render puts her on the trail of Justine herself, who might become the next priestess, and does become the protagonist for the rest of the book. The sex is usually gross but consensual, except when Justine breaks out “the Triple Word of Power”; the descriptions of unfortunate people like “the pinheaded mongrel freak” are much more offputting. The dialogue all appears in italics rather than within speech marks, which is a bit distancing, and a lot of apostrophes are missing, which is not at all sexy. The synonyms used for relevant body parts (“dripping vacancy”, “orgone-sheathed cockmeat”) can be quite amusing. Not my kind of thing, but I’m glad I gave it a try, and people in the market for Lovecraftian erotica may well find that it calls their Cthulhu. Stephen Theaker **

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Retief! by Keith Laumer (Baen Books) | review by Stephen Theaker

Retief, a junior member on various ambassadorial teams, clears up the messes of his incompetent superiors with a combination of brains and fists. The stories in this 2002 collection tend to be action-driven comedies, cynical reflections on the madness of the world and what a good man with two good fists could do to sort things out. There’s a very American impatience here with the limitations of diplomacy. Stories of competent men fighting their way out of difficult situations can be brilliant – many Jack Vance books, like the Demon Princes series, fall into this category. But Retief’s world is flimsy, his enemies paper cut-outs, and he tears through them as if the paper in question was single-ply tissue. He is stronger, more intelligent and more sensible than everyone he meets. His opponents are fat, effete and in some cases literally lightweight. A typical story sees Retief visit a world where the workers have overthrown the technological elite, with theoretically hilarious consequences. These stories may well have been based on actual events Keith Laumer himself had witnessed during his foreign postings, but, as written here, it comes across as extremely condescending to the working class. Women tend to be either strict secretaries, or very literal rewards for a good day’s work (with “very fat watchamacallits”). They are very rarely involved in the action, and often entirely absent from stories. The exception to the rule goes by the Bond-esque name of Miss Braswell. None of which is to say that this was entirely unenjoyable. In an undemanding way it’s okay, and it’s the kind of goofball sf I like to try writing myself. But the stories left no impression on me – and not for the first time, since according to my list of books read I’d already read some of them in a previous Retief collection, Envoy to New Worlds. None raised a flash of recollection. The most enjoyable section of the book was the complete novel included, Retief’s War, where an offworlder is encouraging the formation of a police state on a world where robots have evolved to live in anarchy. ***

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Nanowrimo: half-time thoughts

Half-way through Nanowrimo, and for once I’m bang on schedule to finish the novel, at 25,116 words – and during October I finished off my 2016 novel as a warm-up, so I’m feeling pretty happy. Here are a few random thoughts about the whole thing.

I’ve only once written more than this without finishing the novel in November. I've already beaten previous flame-outs Happy When It Rains (3384), I Couldn't See Past the Spider (8341), Triumphs of the Two Husbands (15,991) and Mygret Zend and the Sickening Dinner (21,404), and tomorrow I should overtake Holding Hands Among the Stars (25,552). After that come the five novels I did finish writing during November: The Fear Man, three Howard Phillips novels, and Beatrice et Veronique.

I’ve been off social media since October 21 and that has been very good for my writing. I’m still reading some stuff, looking at interesting Twitter accounts while signed out, but I can’t interact with them, so it just becomes like reading teletext if it were written by friends and people I admire. There's none of the distraction caused by wondering whether what you've posted will get any likes, or if it will be taken the wrong way, or if it’ll go viral. I still can’t believe my tweet about using damp hands to open plastic bags didn’t go big. It’s changed my life!

I’ve absolutely loved using the Freewrite, and I’ve got over my shyness about using it in public. It does have a mechanical keyboard, but it’s nowhere near as loud as the Das Keyboard I use with my PC, and maybe only twice as loud as a regular laptop keyboard anyway. I didn’t hear it at all at our Nanowrimo region’s all-night write-over (although there are some very boisterous members in the group), and I didn’t feel it attracted attention at all in pubs or cafes, except from people who wanted to know what it was. One bartender came back more than once to ask more questions, and I felt kind of reticent since it looks cool but it doesn’t really do anything except let you write, and it’s a bit hard to explain why that’s a good thing in a thirty second conversation! I’ve regularly written a thousand words before my tea has gone cold. I can’t wait for the more portable Freewrite Traveler to arrive. I backed it on Indiegogo the instant it was possible.

The Wetherspoon’s app is brilliant. I can see my daughter off on her school bus, go in the pub, order my jam on toast and tea, and get straight on with writing. In all the years of my co-editor and I going out for TQF editorial meetings, I doubt I’ve gone to the bar more than ten times. I find it really awkward. The Wetherspoon’s app is making me like pubs. Shame about all the Brexit stuff in there, but it's like any pub with a daft theme, you tune it out pretty quickly.

Getting my chapter done first thing in the morning is terrific. It stops me stressing about it and lets me get to bed at a decent time. But I do have to get out of the habit of patting myself on the back for the subsequent hour.

However, going to the pub or a cafe every morning isn't sustainable long-term. I've been home by ten with the rest of the day clear for paid work, so that hasn't been a problem (in fact I've been really productive this month, and I've had a lot of innovative new ideas), but a few pounds a day for tea and bus fare builds up over time. I have to find a way to create that early morning cafe feel at home.

I’d really like to keep going after this. I have a bunch of other unfinished novels that could do with reaching a conclusion (see above, and that's just those I began during Nanowrimo), plus last year I said I would write a Doctor Who parody for a charity range, and I would still really like to do that. You can buy the others here. It’s for a good cause! Even if it ends up being too late for that range, I had a nice idea for a book and put quite a lot of preparatory work into it, and it would be a shame to waste that. It would make for a fun issue of TQF if nothing else.

Anyway, hope you're having a good November. I am reading submissions at the moment, and should have replied to everyone by the end of the first week of December. Our next issue will be out later that month, and is already shaping up nicely.

PS. Please consider buying Interzone #278 or even better subscribing. It contains my reviews of Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar and Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates but you know that's going to be the least of its treasures.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Lost Souls, by Kelley Armstrong (Subterranean Press) | review

Gabriel Walsh is a thirty-year-old defence attorney who would be feeling bored if he wasn’t so down in the dumps. He finds his day-to-day work rather too easy, and about a month ago he had a row with a key employee, his firm’s investigator, Olivia. What’s more, she is also his chief crush, they both have fae blood, and they had recently discovered a big secret about their joint destiny. Gabriel hasn’t yet discovered that the handsome hobgoblin hanging around his office is actually his father, but the old, old man is looking out for him all the same, and brings a potential case to Gabriel’s attention in hopes that it’ll be enough to tempt Olivia back onto the team. A horny middle-aged guy picked up a dripping wet braless hitchhiker in the middle of the night, and she led him deep into the countryside before disappearing. It sounds like an over-familiar scenario to the two investigators, an urban legend doing the rounds for the umpteenth time, but it becomes a bit more serious when they realise that people have been dying. This was a fairly enjoyable novella, a part of the author’s Cainsville series. A Goodreads user asked whether people who hadn’t read the other books in the series would be able to follow it, and my answer was that I think they can, because it sets out the background very clearly. However, new readers may not care very much about it, because it does for the most part read like an extended epilogue to (and recovery from) the previous story, with the investigation only really beginning in earnest about two-thirds through the short book. Gabriel and Olivia are a good romantic pair, well-suited and both with enough jagged edges to make their reluctance to get together believable. Stephen Theaker ***

Saturday, 10 November 2018

The Jack Vance Treasury, by Jack Vance (Subterranean Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

This was my favourite book I read in 2017, and maybe my favourite book ever. Edited by Terry Dowling and Jonathan Strahan, this collection of short stories and novellas was originally published as an expensive six hundred page hardback in 2006, and unfortunately the ebook isn’t generally available in the United Kingdom, but I was able to acquire it in a Subterranean Press Humble Bundle (every one of which has been an essential purchase). It contains several of my favourite stories of all time, for example “The Moon Moth”, about the hunt for a murderer on a world where everyone wears masks and speech must be accompanied by the appropriate musical instrument; “The Dragon Masters”, where Joaz Banbeck of Aerlith must lead the fight when aliens return to Banbeck Vale; or “The Overworld”, where Cugel the Clever encounters a village of people surrounded by filth but delighted to live in such luxury. Though I had read many of the stories before, either in short story collections or fix-up novels, it was a sheer treat to read them again, and there were many interesting stories with which I was not familiar, such as “The New Prime”, “Sail” and “The Men Return”, a very strange tale of a world where causality had gone away. The language is always a delight: stories begin with lines like “The archveult Xexamedes, digging gentian roots in Were Wood, became warm with exhertion” (“Morreion”) and are full of new vocabulary. Its weakness is that there are not a lot of female protagonists, and the supporting female characters can be caricaturishly simpering. “The Mitr” is an exception, the terribly sad story of a shipwrecked young woman, which reads like it could have been written yesterday. There are eighteen stories in all, each with an afterword extracted by the editors from Vance’s writings about his work. These don’t always comment directly on the story itself, but always add to our understanding of his work. The afterword to “The Dragon Masters”, for example, quotes him considering in 1977 the science behind the worlds of Rigel in the Demon Princes, which might surprise those who think of him primarily as a fantasist. You may not be able to buy this book. If you can, I recommend doing so! If not, seek out these stories in whatever editions are available in your country. *****

Sunday, 4 November 2018

The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord | review by Stephen Theaker

Rafi Abowen Delarua, Moo to his friends, also known as Rafidelarua, lives on the planet Cygnus Beta. For the last year he has attended the Tlaxce National Lyceum, and he’s getting bored, even though it’s a school for training “rogue and random psi gifted” to use their powers wisely. He is only fourteen when the book begins, but everyone is worried about him: his notorious father was immensely powerful, and did not use his powers for good.

Staff at the Lyceum leverage Rafi’s interest in the sport of wallrunning to persuade him to wear a cap, which will let them monitor the development of his powers more closely. The results are worrying: his psi powers manifest when he dreams about sex, and the dreams come with “a truly astonishing amount of fear”. He sneaks away from school over the weekend, and heads offworld, to the planet Punartam, where he’ll wallrun for shady Baranngaithe.

The galactic background to all of this is that the planet Sadira was devastated by a surprise biological attack, leaving “its biosphere locked in toxic regeneration for centuries to come” and its people scattered. Old Sadira had been the “leader of the galaxy… or at least policeman and judge and occasional executioner”, in part thanks to the psychic abilities of its people. Their absence from galactic affairs leaves a power vacuum and opportunities for the ruthless.

The government of New Sadira is desperate to bring female survivors to their new world. As a result “Sadiri women are now the galaxy’s rarest and most valuable commodity”, whether they like it or not, including those in a community of Sadiri recently established on Cygnus Beta. Meanwhile, Terra is out there, until now cut off from all these shenanigans, to allow us time to reach full maturity. The myths claim that endangered branches of humanity were brought long ago from Earth to Cygnus Beta to thrive in safety.

This was a disappointing book, for reasons that are a bit difficult to explain: it has what should be a satisfying array of mysteries, interplanetary politics, future sports, and interesting societal structures. Being lost for the first tenth of it didn’t help. The prologue is five thousand words long, a flood of information that simply serves to obscure the book’s main plot: a boy who leaves his home planet to play sports just as the galaxy gets crazy; it’s like the beginning of the Alan Smithee Dune, if each planet had names in three different languages.

That’s not the only aspect of the book that felt unnecessarily obfuscatory and foggy. For example, certain passages about a minor supporting character, Ntenman, and only him, are in the first person. The novel explains itself as a compilation of information recovered from datachips, audioplugs, data vaults and filigree, so perhaps the in-story explanation is there, but why him and no one else? It leads to the confusing assumption that he will be much more important to the plot than he really is.

Stories of future sports can be thrilling – they feature for example in Ben Bova’s The Duelling Machine and Jack Vance’s Trullion: Alastor 2262 – but wallrunning doesn’t sound particularly compelling. Two teams of players must run from the bottom of a wall to the top, guided by a strategist’s signals, conveyed through grav-bands on their wrists. Rafi plays as a booby, a deliberately useless player who lets everyone else practise how to handle team-mates’ mistakes. His skills don’t improve, but the teams around him do, almost preternaturally so.

Though the walls can sometimes be tilted by the players’ concerted movements, and some courses feature gravity twists, it sounds pretty much like bulldog’s charge with everyone running in the same direction, which is hard to imagine being much fun to play or watch. That the sport is also known as Forerunner is perhaps too big a clue to where the book will take it, and this heavy-handed hint is offered long before the reader has had a chance to start caring about the sport or its secret purpose.

Maybe that is what makes it a hard book to like: it assumes from the beginning that the reader is fully invested, in all its information, in all its characters and planets, in their multitude of names, in everything it wants to say. The plot takes a while to get going, and starts winding down with a quarter of the book still to go. However, the plot pieces do fall into place neatly towards the end, and a later scene where Rafi watches Dllenahkh, a Sadiri, return briefly to his home planet was extremely moving. I wouldn’t mind reading more from the author, but I’d want to start with the first in the series. ***

This review originally appeared in Interzone #258.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor ( | review by Stephen Theaker

To be the first from your family to go to university is a curious experience, and, although Binti’s family is exceptionally talented, she is the first of the whole Himba tribe to attend a very special university: it’s on another planet. She’s made friends there with Okwu, a Meduse who was present at an event in the first book that left Binti badly traumatised – and, more positively, left her with alien head tentacles that wave around when she gets mad instead of braids. A year later, she is still getting used to those, to everything, and, even though she’s a dab hand at using maths to calm herself down, she decides to return home during the holidays, to Earth, to go on a traditional pilgrimage and sort herself out. When she gets there, there’ll be some comfort, some pain, and a new, unexpected and revelatory adventure. Binti is a fascinating character with a fascinating background who is living a fascinating life, and what more do you need for a great book? Though this is the middle story in a trilogy, and at the end things are set up for the third book rather than concluded, there is plenty going on. It is easy to sympathise with her feelings about it all. It’s a book with lots of fun ideas, like spaceships that are giant pregnant fish, and when Binti dances she can “manifest mathematical current within me, harmonising it with my muscles, skin, sinew, and bones”. However, she’s forbidden from dancing, from going in the water, from being seen in public without otjize, the happiness of returning home tempered, as it is for so many people, by the need to fit back into the metaphorical cocoon. An old friend, Dele, tells her sadly why he doesn’t want to hang with her while she’s back: “You’re too complex.” But as she comes to realise, “Change was my destiny.”

Note that the Kindle edition can only be downloaded on a limited number of devices, which seems odd for a DRM-free title. We ran out quickly, because everyone in the family wanted it on their Kindles. ****

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Good luck for Nanowrimo!

November is here! The month when I head to the word mines and dig up the golden words that form the backbone of our magazine!

I feel quite well-prepared this time. I haven’t done any actual planning, but I have a title (The Administrator of Tultrax), a theme (duty and betrayal) and a little sketch of a city nestling within a mountain range.

Also, I spent October finishing one of my previous November novels, Holding Hands Among the Stars, from 2015 (which we have been serialising in recent issues of TQF), and I think that’s given me a good idea of what's likely to work this time around:

Using a large squared moleskine cahier devoted to the novel, with pages for brainstorms, character sketches, maps, questions that still need answering, things worth remembering and notes for each chapter (made while I’m writing as much as before, to remember key points, names, places, species, etc). And if I fail? Having all my 2015 notes in a cahier made it infinitely easier to pick up the novel years later and finish it.

Starting to write at 9.00 pm, when Mrs Theaker goes to sleep. The idea of writing first thing in the morning always appeals to me, but whenever I try that I keep putting it off and it delays my whole day. If I write at nine, I’m usually done by eleven, and I can carry on till twelve or one in a pinch.

Doing everything I could to make sure my work for the day was done by the evening, not leaving anything to be mopped up after everyone else has gone to bed — my worst habit.

Going up to our spare room, writing on my Freewrite, and not coming out until I’ve finished. The living room might be cosier and Alexa might be there to keep me company, but so is the Xbox and the TV and Netflix and a pile of comics and way too many distractions. There’s nothing to do in the spare room except get on with writing my novel.

Allowing space in my novel for improvisation. It helps to know roughly where I’m going, but the fun bit is getting there in the barmiest possible way. I kept saying “Yes, and…” to myself, like they do in improv groups.

Rewarding myself with a food treat every hundred words. Ritz biscuits at first, but that was quite a lot of Ritz biscuits, so then Smarties.

Using a water bottle with a screwtop lid. The one I got came from Paperchase. The unscrewing, sipping and screwing it back on is a good, ritualistic time filler while I wait for sentences to come.

Using an old Kindle Keyboard to play MP3s. No way to select tracks, no other distractions, it just plays a bunch of songs and that’s it.

Getting someone to lock my phone and any other distracting devices with a PIN. I’m going to have to buy an Apple phone next time, because the parental controls on Android phones are no use for parents who need controlling.

Going directly to bed after I’ve finished. A good night’s sleep is always a good idea.

Writing in libraries and coffee shops worked well too. (Not something that will be a revelation to anyone!) While out and about in October I wrote on my Chromebook using John Watson’s Writer, the Internet Typewriter. It was well worth paying for the Pro version. I love the green text on a black background, and being able to export an epub on my Chromebook and add it straight to Play Books is brilliant.

If you want to read more of my tips for completing the challenge, here are a few of the articles from past years. Just remember that it's all advice for writing a novel in a month, not advice for writing a novel that anyone else will want to read.

Anyway, good luck with your November novels, and more importantly good luck to me with mine! The first chapter is now done.

Here's how I'm doing:

Sunday, 28 October 2018

I Hate Fairyland, Vol. 1: Madly Ever After, by Skottie Young (Image Comics) | review by Stephen Theaker

Imagine if Dorothy was totally rubbish at quests, got stuck in Oz for twenty-seven years, and it drove her around the bend. That’s what happened to Gertrude, much to the dismay and misfortune of everyone in Fairyland. This book collects the first five issues of the series. When Gertrude first arrived as a six-year-old girl, good queen Cloudia told her that there was a door back to her world, and she just needed to find the key, “a quest that should only take two shakes of a bogglezig”. The girl sets off with greenfly guide Larrigon Wentsworth III and a map of all the known lands, but never finds her way out. Years later, after Gertrude blows out the brains of the moon and shoots down the stars, the queen has had enough, and starts looking for a way to be rid of the troublesome brat. The rules don’t allow her to harm any guest of Fairyland, but there’s nothing to stop her hiring someone else to do it. This is a fun, raucous, ultraviolent spoof of books like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Whereas Catherynne Valente’s similarly inspired (in both senses) The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making tried to reinvent the genre for modern girls, this comic overinflates it till it bursts, leaving bloody entrails everywhere. On Comixology it is rated 17+, but presumably that’s for the over the top ridiculous cartoon violence (the moon getting its brains blasted out, the girl eating mushroom people, that kind of thing), and I think it would appeal much more to younger teenagers. It’s bright, quick-paced, and appealingly grotesque, and I certainly enjoyed it. ****

Saturday, 27 October 2018

The Apex Book of World SF 4, by Mahvesh Murad (ed.) (Apex Publications) | review by Stephen Theaker

This is a terrifically varied selection of previously published stories from writers all over the world, originally published in 2015. People often declare that individual quality is the only thing that matters when selecting stories for anthologies, which is nonsense: if the ten best stories submitted all had exactly the same plot, only a very poor anthologist would still include them all. The alchemy of an anthology is not just about the quality of the stories – though in the case of this particular book the stories are almost without exception astonishingly good – it is also about flow, and pace, and, as this book demonstrates so brilliantly, variety, which contributes to an anthology at the most fundamental level, by making it interesting. Editor Mahvesh Murad, writing in Karachi, states that “this is not a book of diverse stories”, but the stories are very diverse, in style, subject matter and setting. Those that stood out include Zen Cho’s “The Four Generations of Chang E”, about a woman who moves to the moon and her descendants, and “In Her Head, In Her Eyes” by Yukimi Ogawa, about Hase, a strange new servant who wears a pot to cover her head. “The Boy Who Cast No Shadow”, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (and translated by Laura Vroomen), was unforgettable, about the romance between the boy of the title and another boy made of glass – an absurd premise, treated completely seriously. “First, Bite Just a Finger”, by Johann Thorsson, about a woman who gets a taste for her own flesh, will also stick with readers, but you could say that about many of the stories in the anthology. For my taste, like most modern anthologies, it’s perhaps a bit on the long side, but it would be silly to complain about that when there aren’t any stories I would have had them leave out. Highly recommended. ****

Sunday, 21 October 2018

British Fantasy Awards 2018: the winners (and my guesses!)

The British Fantasy Awards have just been announced, at FantasyCon 2018 in Chester. I kept my thoughts about what might win to myself until now, since I might be thought to have inside knowledge about the juries I wasn't on. I didn't – there was no crossover between the jury I was on and any of the others – but better safe than sorry. Note that the jurors given below are those that were originally announced; I haven't seen any announcements that anyone dropped out or was replaced, but it is possible. So here, after the fact, are the guesses I made, and more importantly the actual winners:

Winner: New Fears, ed. Mark Morris (Titan Books)
My guess: New Fears, ed. Mark Morris (Titan Books)
Jurors: Adam Baxter, Pauline Morgan, Pete Sutton, Maz Wilberforce, Virginia Wynn-Jones

Winner: Jeffrey Alan Love
My guess: Victo Ngai
Jurors: Ruth Booth, Alex Gushurst-Moore, Helen Scott, Catherine Sullivan, Tania Walker

Winner: Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman, adapted by Dirk Maggs for Radio 4
My guess: Tea & Jeopardy (Emma Newman and Peter Newman)
Jurors: Susie Prichard-Casey, William Shaw, Allen Stroud

Winner: Strange Weather, by Joe Hill (Gollancz)
My guess: Tender: Stories, by Sofia Samatar (Small Beer Press)
Jurors: Richard Barber, Peter Coleborn, Katherine Inskip, Shona Kinsella, Laura Langrish

Comic/Graphic Novel
Winner: Monstress, Vol. 2, by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda (Image)
My guess: Tomorrow, by Jack Lothian and Garry Mac (BHP Comics)
Jurors: Ed Fortune, Emily Hayes, Elaine Hillson, Kiwi Tokoeka, Susan Tarrier

Fantasy Novel (the Robert Holdstock Award)
Winner: The Ninth Rain, by Jen Williams (Headline)
My guess: The Ninth Rain, by Jen Williams (Headline)
Jurors: David Allan, Rebecca Davis, Michaela Gray, Caroline Hooton, Kirsty Stanley

Film/Television Production
Winner: Get Out, by Jordan Peele (Universal Pictures)
My guess: The Good Place, Season 1, by Michael Schur et al. (Netflix)
Jurors: Kimberley Fain, Theresa Derwin, Craig Sinclair, Gareth Spark, Paul Yates

Horror Novel (the August Derleth Award)
Winner: The Changeling, by Victor LaValle (Spiegel & Grau)
My guess: The Changeling, by Victor LaValle (Spiegel & Grau)
Jurors: Charlotte Bond, Sarah Carter, Amy Chevis-Bruce, Ross Warren, Mark West

Independent Press
Winner: Unsung Stories
My guess: Unsung Stories (George Sandison)
Jurors: Stewart Hotston, Georgina Kamsika, Aleksandra Kesek, Joni Walker

Winner: Shoreline of Infinity, ed. Noel Chidwick
My guess: Black Static, ed. Andy Cox (TTA Press)
Jurors: Colleen Anderson, Helen Armfield, Dave Jeffery, Alasdair Stuart, Chloë Yates

Newcomer (the Sydney J. Bounds Award)
Winner: Jeanette Ng, for Under the Pendulum Sun (Angry Robot)
My guess: R.J. Barker, for Age of Assassins (Orbit)
Jurors: Eliza Chan-Ma, Elloise Hopkins, Steven Poore, Erica Satifka, Neil Williamson

Winner: Gender Identity and Sexuality in Science Fiction and Fantasy, ed. F.T. Barbini (Luna Press)
My guess: No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, by Ursula K. Le Guin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Jurors: Laura Carroll, Lee Fletcher, D Franklin, Emeline Morin, Graeme K. Talboys

Winner: Passing Strange, by Ellen Klages (
No guessing required, I was on this jury, and it was a very enjoyable experience!
Jurors: Joel Cook, Alicia Fitton, Susan Oke, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Stephen Theaker

Short Fiction
Winner: Looking for Laika, by Laura Mauro (Interzone #273)
My guess: Four Abstracts, by Nina Allan (New Fears)
Jurors: Andrew Hook, Terry Jackman, Juliet Kemp, Tim Major, Sam Mohsen

The Special Award (the Karl Edward Wagner Award)
Winner: N.K. Jemisin
My guess: I had no idea.
Jurors: the BFS committee (currently Katherine Fowler (BFA admin), James Barclay, Phil Lunt, Andy Marsden, Lee Harris, Shona Kinsella, Tim Major, Allen Stroud, Helen Armfield, Neil Ford, Karen Fishwick, Allen Ashley and Christopher Teague; though not everyone necessarily takes part and the committee can change over the course of the year).

A Legends of FantasyCon award was also announced. This isn't a British Fantasy Award; it's awarded by the FantasyCon committee. The winners this year were Alasdair Stuart and Marguerite Kenner.

I haven't read N.K. Jemisin's work yet, but she seems like a perfect choice for the Karl Edward Wagner Award. I do think it's a problem, though, that the BFS membership wasn't invited to make suggestions, contrary to the award rules.

Last year I guessed six right, this time only four. The current system is based on people, usually BFS members or FantasyCon attendees but perhaps less so this year, sitting down to read the nominees and deciding the awards on that basis, and that makes it hard to predict (and indeed quibble with) the results unless you've read all of them too. And this year there were more jurors than usual that I didn't know, making it even harder than usual to predict what they would like. Next year I'm going to try reading a few of the categories: it'll be interesting to see if that helps my guesswork!

Anyway, congratulations to all the winners, and all the nominees, and as a BFS member, thank you to the jurors who devoted so much of their summers to helping out with our society's awards, and also to Katherine Fowler, the awards administrator, who once again pulled it all together. I think it is a very respectable list.

Valerian: Shingouzlooz Inc., by Wilfrid Lupano and Mathieu Lauffray (Europe Comics) | review by Stephen Theaker

The Valerian and Laureline series of albums, created by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, lasted for twenty-two volumes, but many have only recently been released in English. The Dargaud French editions I collected include both of them in the title, but like the recent film, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (based closely on L’Ambassadeur des Ombres), this volume reverts to just the dude, which is misleading when hot-tempered, ultra-capable, politically-engaged Laureline is clearly the star of the show. The original creators having wrapped up their story, they have now allowed others to take a spin in the Astroship XB982. The artwork is a little different, but still good, and it’s recognisably the same characters and the same universe. There is a lot going on: the Shingouz, little aliens with a nose for information, are being pursued by an old friend of Valerian’s. Valerian and Laureline are trying to catch a class 1 android, Mr Zi-Pone, parts of whose brain are being used as tax havens, and the android is trying to catch a quantum migration tuna from Vahamine that it can sell for two thousand times Valerian’s salary. Laureline is as spunky as ever, Valerian as much of a dork. It’s a fun and frisky adventure. And for me at least, reading these in English turns out to be much easier than reading them in French. ***

Saturday, 20 October 2018

What happened when I (tried to) read 300 books in 300 days

An article was doing the rounds on social media earlier this year, called "What happened when I (tried to) read 30 books in 30 days". I'd already done that, so I thought I'd have a go at reading 300 in 300 days.

I did pretty well: I read (or listened to) 300 books in 292 days. But I did make it easy for myself – whereas the writer of the 30 books article tried to read improving books that she didn't really enjoy, and so she ran out of steam, I deliberately focused on short books, graphic novels and short audiobooks that I really wanted to read.

You can tell how short the books I read this year were, because in 2016 I reached 300 books after 51,355 pages (and twelve months), but it only took 43,040 pages this year.

Some of the people responding to the 30 books in 30 days article thought it was impossible to do even that, or only possible if you only read bad books, but short or quick to read doesn't equal bad: I gave 25 books five stars on Goodreads this year, twice as many as the most I've ever given before.

One of those was to Chicken Licken by Vera Southgate. I thought it would be nice for my 4000th book read, more or less, to go back to the first fiction author I read on my own, and she didn't disappoint. I also gave five stars to all four omnibus volumes of BPRD: Plague of Frogs and to lots of Usagi Yojimbo collections, and of course to Down the Badger Hole by my inspiration R. Lionel Fanthorpe.

I did take quite a liberal view of what counted as a book for this, but, so far as anyone would care enough to quibble, I spend about half my working day proofreading, so even if all the Doctor Who audios were discounted I reckon I've still read over 300 books.

I should say that the books at the bottom of the picture are unrated, not zero rated. They're either books I've read for review, where the review hasn't been published yet, or books I read in the course of judging the BFA best novella award, which hasn't been announced yet.

Legion, Season 1, by Noah Hawley and chums (FX) | review by Stephen Theaker

It’s astonishing that after creating season two of Fargo, probably my favourite programme of that year, Noah Hawley went straight on to creating this remarkable show, bringing Jean Smart and Rachel Keller with him. Some viewers took strongly against the slight science fiction elements of Fargo, but no complaints here since this is set in the X-Men universe. When exactly it is set has been a talking point, since of the X-Men films its design looks most like X-Men: First Class, set during the Cuban missile crisis, and the technology seems quite retro. Eventually an adult character, Ptonomy Wallace (Jeremie Harris), mentions hearing 99 Red Balloons on the radio when he was five years old. So my guess is that this is taking place in the present day, or slightly in the future when the wheels of retro fashion have rotated once again.

There is another possibility, that we can’t trust anything on screen, that this is how our protagonist sees the world. As in the comic which clearly inspired the show, X-Men: Legacy (reviewed in TQF59), our protagonist is David Haller (Dan Stevens, so good in The Guest), son of a powerful mutant, with a head full of powers. In the comic, the powers are his, each of his separate personalities having a different ability (like Crazy Jane of the Doom Patrol), and the powers activate either when he gets control of the split personality, or when the split personality gets control of his body. Things aren’t so straightforward (if that’s the word) in the programme. David is seen wielding immense power in moments of great stress, but whether the powers are his to control is unclear. He’s been brought up to think that he is mentally ill, and he has been institutionalized ever since a particularly low point in his life. But at the institution he meets Syd Barrett, played by Keller, and their tentative, sweet romance will lead him out of the institution and into the middle of a war between mutants led by Dr Melanie Bird (Smart) and a mysterious, militaristic governmental department, while trying to cope with his burgeoning powers and mental health problems – if that indeed is what they are. Not everyone thinks so.

In the world of superhero adaptations, this programme stands apart. Much as I enjoy The Flash and Supergirl, no one would consider them a work of art, and that’s what Legion is. Visually it is astounding, as stylish as the work of Mike Allred or Jack Kirby. It is probably the most self-indulgent programme I’ve seen this side of Hannibal, but I think it is exactly the programme it wants to be, and it trusts the viewer to go along for the ride – or perhaps trip would be a better word.

It is absolutely terrifying in places (what’s that at the edge of David’s memories?), but funny in others, and the experienced cast handle every turn of mood with aplomb. It reminded me at times of Patrick (H) Willem’s short film, What if Wes Anderson Directed X-Men?, and I loved that about it. The words “best television ever” were uttered in our living room during the penultimate episode. Between this, Dirk Gently and Preacher it really does feel like they are making television programmes specifically for me these days. I hope other people are enjoying them too so I get plenty more of the same. *****

Monday, 15 October 2018

Venom | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Losers unite! Defrocked reporter and brazen alien team up in latest superhero venture.

The alien Venom has a tar-like muscular body, humongous jaws, and a tongue that would put Gene Simmons to shame. One would think that Sony Pictures would be foolish to launch its Marvel Universe with such a character, who seems better suited as a Scooby Doo villain. Not so fast.

Rather than settling on a one-dimensional action film star, Sony gives the role to Oscar-nominated method actor Tom Hardy. And instead of wallowing in apocalyptic solemnity, the film embraces its own ridiculousness. The result is that Venom, directed by Ruben Fleischer, delivers an amusing story that combines a picturesque setting (San Francisco), heart-pounding action (with lots of explosions!), and a likable protagonist strengthened by Hardy’s commitment to character.

Disgraced investigative reporter Eddie Brock (Hardy) discovers that wildly successful entrepreneur (and psychopath) Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) is using the disadvantaged to carry out biomedical research. Drake wants to find suitable human hosts for the amorphous blobs called “symbiotes” that his company Life Foundation has harvested from another planet. Unfortunately, symbiotes are picky, and if the match isn’t right, the prospective host dies. Eddie happens to be a perfect match for the symbiote Venom (voiced by Hardy). When Riot, another symbiote in Drake’s collection, decides to take over the earth, Eddie and Venom must stop him.

One of the most entertaining aspects of Venom is Eddie’s reaction to the gradual revelation that the alien has “infected” him. Venom first reveals himself as a disembodied voice, which leads to plenty of jittery confusion on Eddie’s part. Hardy’s physicality and facial expressions make his reactions believable. Watch for the restaurant scene in which a ravenous Eddie reaches the peak of his distress about his “parasite” – a word that Venom hates. 

Another refreshing aspect of the film is the normalcy of its protagonist. Viewers identify with Eddie because he’s an ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances.

The contrast between Venom’s deep, diabolical voice and his colloquial dialogue heightens the film’s humour. Venom speaks casually about his dietary preferences (humans, that is) and even taunts Eddie when the latter refuses to jump out a window.

It’s a pleasure to watch the tenuous relationship between Eddie and Venom develop. “On my planet I was a loser like you,” says Venom. People love to root for losers – how much better when there are two of them! – Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Sunday, 14 October 2018

The Metabaron, Episode 1: The Techno-Admiral, by Alexandro Jodorowsky, Jerry Frissen and Valentin Secher (Humanoids) | review by Stephen Theaker

The first of eight volumes, with a story by original Incal writer Jodorowsky, written by Jerry Frissen, translated by Quinn and Katia Donoghue, and then given a polish by Hardware director Richard Stanley. A lot of writers involved but they don’t spoil the metabroth. The first four pages suggest that events won’t go terribly well for our hero, before the book shows us how it all began. The Metabaron, coolest character in the first Incal saga, has pledged to kill no more, and for months has stayed in his quarters. He doesn’t eat, sleep, drink or presumably go to the toilet. But eventually his spaceship, the metabunker, requires a replenishment of its fuel, epyphite, currently being mined by slaves on the Metabaron’s home planet of Marmola. This will it seems bring the Metabaron into conflict with the resurgent Techno-Techno Empire, its Technopope and Techno-Vatican, and its greatest Techno-Admiral, Wilhelm-100, whose giant robot arms, also powered by epyphite, can cut a man in half with a single blow. The overuse of techno as a prefix in this album becomes rather comical, but the story is played seriously, and although sexual assault is for once in a Humanoids book kept offstage the horrors inflicted on the losers in the techno-tussles are still extremely unpleasant. The villains are truly despicable, and one is left hoping that the Metabaron will abandon his vow sooner rather than later. As ever with Humanoids books, the artwork is stunning: detailed, full-colour and expressive. The volume is available on its own digitally, or together with volume two (The Anti-Baron) in an oversized deluxe hardback. ***

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Humanz (Deluxe), by Gorillaz (Parlophone) | review by Stephen Theaker

The Gorillaz have produced a series of innovative, experimental and listener-friendly albums, and being cartoon characters has undoubtedly helped, freeing them from many of the expectations and audience-imposed boundaries that often plague bands. Think of the pushback to Radiohead going electronic on Kid A or to David Bowie dabbling in jungle on the underrated Earthling. All we expect from Gorillaz is that they will give us something new every time – new collaborators, new sounds, new approaches – and that’s exactly what we get from them on Humanz. It’s like a top twenty from the future, a stylish album that in its variety sounds to me like a tenth generation descendant of the Beatmasters’ Anywayawanna (someone reissue that, please!), especially on tracks like Sex Murder Party, combined with a techno crispness that reminded me of Inner City’s marvellous debut album, all those years ago. There are twenty-six tracks in total, although seven are (brief) interludes. Highlights include “Momentz” featuring a turbo-charged De La Soul, “Ascension”, with an angry Vince Staples, and “Charger”, in which Grace Jones slowly uncurls, regal, like an aural version of the Alien queen. “Provocative!” It’s a joy that this song exists in the world. Apparently Grace Jones was in the studio for hours improvising her lyrics, and if there’s a four hour version of this track I’d love to hear it. It also features 2D at his most delightfully feeble. Conversely, “Andromeda” features one of 2D’s strongest vocal performances, on a track that could almost have been drawn from the Pet Shop Boys’ sleek and groovy work with Stuart Price. “Submission” contrasts Kelela’s gorgeous vocals with Danny Brown’s hyperactive cartoon rap in a way that seems inexplicably perfect. “We Got the Power” is bottled inspiration, just when we all need it. The deluxe edition (surely the version most people will want) adds six tracks (one of them an interlude) to the twenty on the standard version, including another of the very best songs, “Out of Body”, a herky-jerky dance number featuring Kilo Kish. The album is unpredictable but consistent, every song a novelty, full of weird noises and unexpected movements, with a multiplicity of voices woven into a whole by virtue of a consistently funky, tight sound. ****

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Manfried the Man, by Caitlin Major and Kelly Bastow (Quirk Books) | review by Stephen Theaker

In a world where human-sized cats keep cat-sized men as pets, Steve the cat is struggling a bit. His home is a mess, he isn’t happy at his call centre job, his relationships with female felines are not purring at all, and his little man Manfried is lovable, but lazy, and doesn’t get on well with other little men. One day Steve leaves his window open and Manfried gets out. Steve’s life totally collapses, though maybe it’s necessary, since that’ll give him the chance to rebuild a better version. The relationship between Steve and Manfried is sweet, and Manfried is very cute, although the chubby little bearded fellow looks quite a lot like this reviewer so I would think that. Unlike him, I wear clothes, at least most of the day, and he looks very comical running around with his gentlemanly parts dangling around. There are no female pets in this book, and no reason is provided in the story; perhaps that’s being saved for the sequel, planned for 2019, or maybe it’s just that it would feel like a different kind of book with lots of naked women running around. The book defamiliarises our relationships with pets: it makes the reader consider just how similar our behaviour in that situation might be to theirs, how odd it is that people keep pets at all, and how much those animals mean to people, especially people who don’t have others to care for them. The cartooning is very cute, but never fails to provoke sympathy for Steve’s distress as his life goes terribly wrong, or little Manfried’s when he gets into a fix outside the house. ****

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, by James Gunn (Marvel Studios) | review by Stephen Theaker

The writer of the slightly shocking (but mostly fun) video game Lollipop Chainsaw seemed a brave choice to direct a family-friendly space blockbuster, but as so often seems to have been the case Marvel were rewarded for their confidence, the first Guardians of the Galaxy being very entertaining, with lots of jokes, a likeable bunch of leads, and a vibrant corner of the Marvel universe to play in. Now the same director and the same cast are back for Vol. 2, thus named for the second Awesome Mix tape that Peter Quill, Star-Lord, received at the end of the first film. Music again plays an important role in the film: the opening sequence shows us Baby Groot trying to dance to ELO’s Mr Blue Sky while his colleagues battle a space monster in the background, for example. Unusually for a super-hero movie, this film doesn’t set up an ultimate villain right away. It’s refreshing for a blockbuster film to have the confidence to do that, knowing our attention won’t drift because we’re happy to hang out with these characters even if they’re just getting into everyday (for them) scrapes and getting to know long-lost family members. Kurt Russell appears as Ego, though Marvel readers will know there’s usually a few more words in that name. It’s a very pleasant film, just like its predecessor, again with plenty of laughs, though it perhaps missteps a little in not giving as many of them to Star-Lord this time – if Chris Pratt is starring in your space comedy, you need to give him a handful of jokes, even when the focus is mainly on what makes him unhappy. My overriding memory of the film is how beautifully colourful it is. When so many super-hero films of the past have been painted in shades of black, that makes a big impression. ***

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

The Predator | review by Rafe McGregor

Two lonely men too many…

Alien vs. Predator (2004, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson) confirmed that the Alien and Predator franchises (of four and two films respectively, at the time) were set in the same universe.  Although the first crossover and its sequel were both commercial successes, they were rightly panned by critics and Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007, directed by Colin and Greg Strause) is the lowest-grossing film in both franchises (when adjusted for inflation).  I remember my initial reaction to news of the release of Alien vs. Predator being what’s the point, quickly followed by who are we supposed to root for?  There are deeper problems with the intersection of the two franchises, however, an essential incompatibility that may explain some of the artistic failures of both films. First, Alien (1979, directed by Ridley Scott) is a paradigmatic work of cinematic art, part of the canon of not just great science fiction, but great film. While the quality may have varied, all five of its sequels have retained the thematic complexity and stylistic sophistication of the original. In contrast, Predator (1987, directed by John McTiernan) is essentially an action spectacular, a testosterone-fuelled charge through the jungle terminating in an Arnie vs. alien duel to the death.  Second, the Alien franchise has employed a wide range of cinematic effects and techniques to represent a species at the very limits of human conception whereas the predators in the Predator franchise have (up until now) clearly been men in monster suits (Kevin Peter Hall, who stood at seven feet two inches, for the first two), an updated creature from the Black Lagoon with an anthropodic mandible that looks like it would be able to hold food as effectively as a dog’s dewclaw.

In other words, the Predator franchise has, at best, been the superficial, juvenile, and action-obsessed relative to the Alien franchise, neither striving for nor achieving the latter’s artistic or technical excellence. For all its simplicity, Predator was nonetheless very entertaining, deserving of its 80% on the Tomatometer with a narrative as strong and toned as Arnold Schwarzenegger and his musclebound henchmen. Predator 2 (1990, directed by Stephen Hopkins) brought the predator to the urban jungle, which seemed like a good idea, but was poorly-executed with curious decisions to use a dystopian futuristic Los Angeles as its setting and to replace Arnie with Danny Glover. Glover was an unlikely and unconvincing action hero, in the middle of his appearances as Roger Murtaugh – whose catchphrase was I’m too old for this shit – in the Lethal Weapon franchise. In consequence Predator 2 was also deserving of its Tomatometer score, a deplorable 27%.  The third film, Predators (2010, directed by Nimród Antal) returned to the rural jungle and the hunter-turned-hunted storyline of the first. Critical responses were better, with the Tomatometer raised to an acceptable 65%, but the plot was improbable, a duplication of the original that made little or no sense. Neither the belated decision to accord a female character a significant part (Isabelle, played by Alice Braga) nor the acting talents of Adrien Brody and Laurence Fishburne were sufficient to overcome Predators’ B-movie presentation, consolidated by a disappointing climax that was also a pale imitation of Predator.

20th Century Fox kept prospective audiences of The Predator in suspense pre-release, providing very little information beyond a return to Earth (true), another tough-guy protagonist (in a manner of speaking), and a promise to fill in the gaps between Predator 2 and Predators (false). The film is directed by Shane Black, who played the part of Rick Hawkins in Predator.  Black has previously directed the underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), the well-received Iron Man 3 (2013), and the entertaining but morally problematic The Nice Guys (2016). Perhaps Black was too comfortable with his multiple roles within the franchise – starring in the first and co-writing (with Fred Dekker) and directing the fourth – but after three successful outings as a director, he has crashed and burned on the fourth. The Predator is by far the worst film of the franchise to date, including the disastrous crossovers (scoring 20% and 11% on the Tomatometer respectively). Crashing and burning is where the narrative begins, with a premise that is plausible if not particularly imaginative. The predator species is evolving such that an internecine conflict is raging between their equivalents of Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons. At an unspecified time, which seems close to the near-future of Predator 2, one of the former crash-lands on earth in the middle of a US special forces team’s hostage rescue operation in an unspecified Latin American country. The team’s captain, Quinn McKenna (played by Boyd Holbrook), is the sole survivor of the encounter, escaping, evading, and mailing the alien’s helmet to his estranged wife in order to provide evidence for the inquiry to come.  The story then switches to Quinn’s young son, Rory (played by Jacob Tremblay), who is on the autistic spectrum but has an eidetic memory and a genius for languages. Despite the segue facilitated by the mailing of the helmet, I did wonder why anyone thought a depiction of troubled childhood had a place in a science fiction thriller and the scene does indeed herald some of the many problems that follow.

There is nothing wrong with genre braiding, blending, or bending, but a film that tries to be all things to all audiences runs the risk of substantive incoherence. Black has mixed science fiction, action adventure, family drama, gross-out horror, and comedy and the mélange is as messy and self-contradictory as the list implies. The comedy is especially poor and the fact that it is initiated when Quinn is placed on a bus full of mentally-disabled veterans is indicative of its taste and wit. It is also indicative of the many inconsistencies of the film: we are invited to sympathise with some mentally disabled people (Rory), but to laugh at others (the five veterans).  The comedy is further diminished by numerous in-jokes (many of which were lost on me), but the film also fails as a parody. Aside from the genre chaos, The Predator stages a shocking waste of talent. Trevante Rhodes, Sterling K. Brown, Keegan-Michael Key, and Thomas Jayne are all accomplished actors yet they deliver dialogue that aspires to be cringeworthy. There is also an apparently appalling absence of expert advice on subjects crucial to the plot (I use the term loosely), including (but unfortunately not limited to) biology, linguistics, aerodynamics, and military hardware and etiquette. Yes, I know it’s fiction and science fiction at that, but one cannot choose what does and doesn’t pass through one’s bowels and university professors are not trained to use automatic weapons. Dr Casey Bracket (played by Olivia Munn) is not only handy in a gunfight, but can survive a tranquiliser dose designed for a predator and run as fast as a spaceship can crash-land. I must have missed those courses on the last staff training day. Somehow, The Predator has managed a wildly exaggerated 34% on the Tomatometer. A far better indication of its artistic and entertainment value is that my fellow film nerd and I were the only two people in the movie theatre… we were two lonely men too many*