Sunday, 9 December 2018

Proof of Concept, by Gwyneth Jones (Tor.com) | 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 (www.megara-entertainment.com).  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 (Tor.com) | 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. ***