Friday, 18 September 2020
A bluesman in the sixties has a seed in his head, which, if he lets it grow, will let a being from a nearby dimension annihilate or reshape the world. A girl who is also infected finds that quite tempting, because the world she knows is so terrible. This was very good: what you might get if Philip K. Dick and James Baldwin collaborated on a Lovecraftian horror story. I particularly appreciated how it got across the kind of altered mental states that playing or listening to music can produce. ****
Wednesday, 16 September 2020
It gets off to a cracking start. Lizzy Caplan is brilliant as Annie Wilkes, desperate to get hold of anti-psychotics to keep herself on track, and you haven’t lived till you’ve seen what she can do with an ice scream scoop. The story could easily have been mistaken for a new season of Fargo, with the various members of a local family fighting over property and money. The supernatural elements, as they creep in, do not let it down at all. Tim Robbins plays Pop Merrill, while Paul Sparks is chilling as his son “Ace” Merrill – the bully from Stand By Me. Oscar-winner Barkhad Abdi and Yusra Warsama are also very good as Pop’s adopted Somalian children.
The one real problem I had was that some episodes (but not all, so it wasn’t a deliberate artistic choice) were missing the subtitles for their Somalian dialogue. The same problem happened with an episode that had lengthy sections in French, but in that case I was at least able to pause the programme and translate. (We were watching via the Starzplay channel on Amazon Prime Video.)
It feels more like a traditional Stephen King mini-series than season one, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. The first is weird and disorientating, the second has more action and more explicit ties to Stephen King’s work, and both are smashing in their own way. The only disappointment is knowing that we probably won’t see any of these characters again in season three.
And we did get to visit the Overlook Hotel in Doctor Sleep, the director’s cut of which was like the most expensive mini-series ever made. We also loved season one of The Outsider and enjoyed Mr Mercedes too, even if the villain of that one was essentially someone who had re-invented the Phillips Pronto. I saw someone joke recently about setting up a Stephen King television channel. I’d subscribe to any channel necessary to get season three of Castle Rock. Stephen Theaker ****
Friday, 11 September 2020
Athena Voltaire and the Sorcerer Pope, by Steve Bryant and Ismael Canales (Action Lab) | review by Stephen Theaker
Wednesday, 9 September 2020
Elle Fanning is hilarious and sparky as the ambitious and self-possessed 21-year-old journalist whose quest for a good story brings her into contact with a trio of foolish older men in the film industry. (Only an imbecile could watch the film and think Woody Allen approves of these buffoons and their clumsy attempts to woo her.)
Meanwhile Timothée Chalamet noodles around the city while he waits for her, and bumps into the younger sister of an old girlfriend. The actor’s public betrayal of the film’s director works well for him in this role; it made it easier to believe that this boyish chap was, as the film puts it, attracted to the demi-monde.
I thought this film was absolutely charming. Some newspaper reviews have complained about its nostalgic tone, forgetting that the narration begins with Woody Allen playing a much older version of Chalamet’s character; this is 2018 as it might be fondly remembered in 2078 (hence it qualifying, just about, for a review in TQF). I was also somewhat baffled by a reviewer who claimed that for Chalamet’s character to be a poker-player was anachronistic; I hadn’t heard that people had stopped playing.
As usual people who haven’t seen any Woody Allen films except Annie Hall will say it’s not as good as Annie Hall, but personally I tend to prefer his later films.
One trick I liked here was that new characters were rarely introduced with a close-up: we saw them from a distance, meaning that we met the character before realising it was, for example, Jude Law. Stephen Theaker ****
Monday, 7 September 2020
In Strange Weather, a thunderstorm does not just get you wet – it gets you torn apart by crystal nails. And a photograph doesn’t simply capture your image – it steals your memories.
Each of the four short novels in this collection not only testifies to Joe Hill’s inventiveness, but also ratchets up the tension while nimbly doling out character and setting details that firmly root the reader in the action. Whether a scene involves a botched shooting at a mall jewellery store or a man who’s about to jump out of a plane despite a paralyzing fear of heights, the reader will be fully immersed in the experience thanks to Hill’s mastery of the senses.
Moreover, these stories can end on a hopeful note with characters experiencing new insights, or they can end abruptly, leaving the reader with a sense of dread. Kudos to Hill for defying conventions.
In "Snapshot", Silicon Valley adolescent narrator Michael Figlione encounters the Phoenician (for the script tattooed on his arms), a Cadillac-driving, Cuban heel-wearing villain who uses a Polaroid camera that steals memories from its subjects. Michael, who has a penchant for invention, deals with his own weight problems while helping his former bodybuilder neighbour and the neighbour’s longtime wife, now suffering from dementia. The story admirably balances a B movie feel with a thought-provoking exploration of memory and relationships.
The second tale, "Loaded", registers well with today’s focus on the discrimination of people of color. After disgruntled ex-cop George Kellaway takes on a job as a mall security guard, he gets involved at a jewellery store shooting and is eventually hailed as a hero. However, both Kellaway and the reader know what really happened.
Reporter Alicia Lanternglass, who witnessed the unjustified shooting (by a cop) of her friend in her childhood, wants to get to the bottom of the jewellery store incident. The story grows more tense as Kellaway takes increasingly drastic steps to cover up what happened. All the while, raging wildfires grow closer to the characters.
As the only non-speculative entry in the collection, "Loaded" takes a raw look at issues like gun ownership, mental illness, post-traumatic stress, domestic abuse and racial discrimination.
Most stories involving a character wandering around are terrible. "Aloft", the third and most fantastical story in this collection, is a rare exception. Musician Aubrey Griffin walks around a cloud that materialises a variety of cloudy objects ostensibly to entice him to stay. Aubrey considers how he’s going to return to terra firma, but he also spends time reflecting on whether Harriet will ever love him the way that he loves her. The story flips between Aubrey’s cloud adventure and flashbacks about Harriet and their dying mutual friend. While he comes to discover something about the cloud’s odd source, Aubrey also learns something about himself in this tale that explores the complexity of relationships.
The final story, "Rain", introduces a weather system that makes the typical thunderstorm look like a few drops. Narrator protagonist Honeysuckle Speck – how’s that for a name? – is a lesbian in a fulfilling bi-racial relationship with Yolanda. Then crystal nails pour from the sky and throw Honeysuckle’s life into chaos. Apparently, other parts of the world have fared even worse. Honeysuckle goes on a physical and psychological journey during which it’s hard to distinguish who’s good and who’s bad. Among the characters she encounters are a mixed martial arts fighter with a dying cat, a Russian neighbour who pumps up the volume of a Hugh Grant film, and even an astrological cult that likes to sing Phil Collins and Peter Cetera songs. Despite its destructive downpours, the most piercing elements of "Rain" revolve around love and character.
In the outro, Hill comments on the difficulty of writing shorter novels. Undoubtedly, he has risen to the challenge with stories both terse and tense. This one is a keeper – multiple readings of these stories are likely to unveil new insights. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****
Saturday, 5 September 2020
Each story features a feather of a different colour – black, blue, golden, brown and white – but the stories are far from as charming as that might make them sound. “Black Feathers” takes us back to territory familiar from The Unquiet House, where siblings quarrel and put one another in all too believable danger. There’s a little brother, a rope swing, and a sister who makes him a cloak of feathers… It’s almost too excruciating to read.
“Golden Feathers” is about Azusena, another girl with a little brother. When she threatens to hit him, a golden bird appears in her hand. This power comes to the attention of the Sultan, who realises that she can reveal the intentions of his enemies. “Blue Feathers” is another story of magic: Andy goes to the circus, where he is disappointed at first by the lack of real magic. Then he notices how much attention his grandad pays to a young female magician, and comes to realise that there’s more to his world than meets the untrained eye.
If the book has sold out by the time you read this, “White Feathers”, about a girl who appears to be oddly changed by a feather she places under her pillow, will appear in Best New Horror 28, and for me that’s not even the best story. That would be “Brown Feathers”, an outstanding science fiction or fantasy tale about the dwellers of buildings whose windows are deliberately obscured by the so-called outwallers. Young Mellor takes part in a sortie, but gets stuck out there among his enemies. The image that will stick with readers is of his friend Luce staring at a tiny patch of window, hoping to see a cloud, only for an outwaller to smear muck over it.
Five Feathered Tales is a remarkable collection, the unsettling mood of its stories perfectly enhanced by Serra’s eerily fluid illustrations, which feel as if they might start flowing off the page if you don’t pay enough attention. The book reflects Alison Littlewood’s ability as an author to turn her hand successfully to many genres and styles. That talent might make it hard to identify in the novels a distinct narrative style, but the themes are consistent and compelling: children in danger, broken family relationships, the dangers of the past, and the warnings buried in myths and legends.****
This review originally appeared in Black Static #60.
Friday, 4 September 2020
The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again, by A.C. Wise (Lethe Press) | review by Stephen Theaker
Wednesday, 2 September 2020
The Walking Dead, Vol. 32: Rest in Peace, by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard (Image Comics) | review by Stephen Theaker
Did it run out of steam towards the end? Well, perhaps a bit in previous volumes, but it had travelled a long way before that happened, and it maintained its integrity throughout. It’s almost Racinian how all thirty-two volumes flow from that one source: the dead came back to life, tried to eat us, and some of us survived. It’s not an original premise but it stuck to it, resisting the impulse to add demons, vampires, werewolves, ghosts or aliens, and in the Governor, Negan and Alpha creating three of the best villains comics have ever seen. The one thing that always bothered me a bit is that the survivors never set up abbatoirs to deal with the dead, but I suppose that wouldn’t have been as dramatic as the hand to hand fighting.
There’s no doubt I’ll be reading it all the way through again. Stephen Theaker *****
Friday, 28 August 2020
Wednesday, 26 August 2020
It’s action-packed (the reader is rarely more than a couple of pages away from someone being shot or punched), and feels a bit like a 2000 AD version of Saga, with Matteo Scalera’s art reminding me of Ian Gibson or Mike McMahon. It looks great throughout, especially the alien creatures, and the 1980s theme makes for some wild fashions. So I certainly didn’t dislike the book, but (unusually for a Mark Millar comic) it didn’t really stick with me either. If Netflix make it into a film, I would watch it for the spectacle, but I’ll wait for any comic book sequels to make their way to me, rather than seeking them out. Stephen Theaker ***
Friday, 21 August 2020
Wednesday, 19 August 2020
The Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire, Volume I, by Mike Butterworth and Don Lawrence (Rebellion) | review by Stephen Theaker
This is, essentially, a tale of the Roman Empire, if it had come into contact with more technologically advanced civilisations early in its development and still managed to come out on top, accelerating them through what for us were two thousand years of changes in the space of one man’s lifetime: Trigo, destined to become an emperor. This is adventure in the classic style, as we see the founding of their city, battles with monsters, and the wars they must fight against predatory neighbours.
It’s written by Mike Butterworth (not the Michael Moorcock collaborator of that name), with wonderfully illustrative artwork by Don Lawrence. Every panel looks amazing, like the Ladybird books of the seventies, with a succession of distinctive faces, locations, creatures and vehicles. It doesn’t always read as well as it looks, since it’s not always clear in which order panels and dialogue should be read, but that’s forgivable.
Reading it now, I realise that the stories aren’t perhaps entirely original, or to put it another way, I now understand why Gods of Mars felt so familiar when I read it. There are some slightly old-fashioned aspects to it. And it’s frustrating that the Trigans can be such dunderheads, constantly being conquered or fooled or having their minds controlled. It’s baffling that Trigo ever makes his brother deputy emperor when he knows just how useless he is.
But the yo-yo fortunes of the empire inspire endlessly thrilling escapades – rescues, sneak attacks, plots, plans and desperate searches for allies – so it would be daft to complain about that aspect too much. I loved it from start to finish. And it’s a very solid read: 304 pages long, but it’s like reading an omnibus of French albums rather than whizzing through an American comic. I can’t wait to read the rest of the saga at last. Stephen Theaker *****
Friday, 14 August 2020
Wednesday, 12 August 2020
Friday, 7 August 2020
Wednesday, 5 August 2020
Infinity 8, Vol. 1: Love and Mummies, by Zep, Lewis Trondheim and Dominique Bertail (Magnetic Press) | review by Stephen Theaker
Saturday, 1 August 2020
Our lead is Charlie, the Harbinger of Death, its Silver Surfer, the one who comes before. Unlike poor Norrin Radd, Charlie applied for this job, had to pass an aptitude test to get it, and could resign at any time. (His predecessor is thoroughly enjoying her retirement.) He gets paid, he claims expenses. It's a regular job, albeit one that's harder than most to explain on a date. When Death is coming, Charlie is occasionally (rather than always, as the book's marketing suggests) sent by the Milton Keynes office to meet the imminently deceased.
He never knows why. Sometimes there's a chance to avert an accident; he's allowed to nudge people off-course if he can. He might be sent to hear a language spoken before its last living speaker passes away, or to see a multi-faith orchestra perform before a riot forces it out of action. Sometimes he's sent to pay tribute to a good life, or to mark the passing of an idea. Some people are glad to see him, others angry, and a few hope to bargain. He brings each of them a gift from his employer, not knowing what it means; the effect is always profound.
Perhaps that's enough for you to know whether or not this is a book you would find interesting. I'd had enough by about a third of the way in. Its short, unhappy chapters put me in mind of watching a series of balloons deflate, and it was always hard to summon the enthusiasm to read another. Having said that, it was clear fairly quickly what kind of book it was going to be – a guided tour of the world's most miserable situations, with little in the way of plot beyond the effect it all has on Charlie – and in those circumstances it's perhaps unfair to blame the book if you choose to keep reading.
If anything, I liked it a little more after that point. The book takes us through a period where Charlie starts to struggle with the demands of the job, physically and mentally, and not just because he gets beaten up a lot. He gets involved in increasingly dangerous situations, as criminals and law enforcement agencies begin to take an interest in his destinations, sometimes forcing Death itself to take a hand in protecting him.
But it's hard to understand why, in a world where everyone knows about Charlie's job, this kind of thing hasn't been happening since his first day on the job. You'd expect him to be followed by a news crew at all times. This isn't a book that's interested in exploring the societal ramifications of its central idea, or showing the systems at work in its world, as opposed to ours. Eventually Charlie gets a travelling companion, a chap who wants to return to New York to see his long-lost brother, and that was when I came closest to enjoying the book.
At times it reminded me of Martin Millar's urban fantasies, which raised some similar issues, but it lacked their fun and energy. It feels the weight of its social conscience, and strains so hard for relevance it hurts itself. Chapters often begin with snatches of unattributed dialogue (“I don’t want to generalise, but Mexicans are criminals”, “The schools can’t cope, the hospitals can’t cope”), that hope to give it a ripped-from-the-headlines feel, but it starts to feel like the High School Theatre Show sketch on SNL, where well-meaning teenagers perform their buzzwordy school plays.
Readers I respect have liked the book a lot, so don't necessarily be put off, but for me this was a trudge, a sit down for a few hours and force yourself to finish it kind of book, a four hundred page Observer editorial about everything that's wrong with the world. I think it's the book it wants to be: a sensitive, thoughtful, serious novel with an admirable grasp of the big issues, about how gruelling it must be for those working close to death: doctors, police officers, environmental scientists. I just didn't enjoy reading it. ***
This review originally appeared in Interzone #270.
Wednesday, 29 July 2020
Celeste Walden lost her previous job as a library assistant after being overwhelmed by her mental health issues (variously diagnosed by doctors as anxiety, bipolar disorder and depression), when she stopped taking her medication. We find out later that she didn’t graduate from college, perhaps for similar reasons.
She finds a new position as an image archivist at the Logan Museum, which was once a psychiatric hospital. Her new boss, Abayomi Abiola, is good-looking but cold and secretive, while her direct supervisor, Holly the head librarian, seems nice. Celeste has to work through the night, and lives in an apartment on site, where she begins to have strange dreams of a woman who had a procedure in the hospital long ago.
I quite enjoyed reading this, though it was a long and drawn-out way to tell what in the end is a short and simple story. The art is nice enough, cartoonish and chunky, even if it felt a little odd to have an adult woman drawn as if she were a toddler. Perhaps that was to reflect how she felt.
The most off-putting thing for me was how she treats her long-term boyfriend. I don’t think we are supposed to like him – the first time we meet him he calls her a loser, as a joke at just the wrong time – but I found him a much more sympathetic character than Celeste, doing his best to patiently encourage and support her, while she treats him terribly. That might be a realistic portrayal of how people with mental health issues sometimes treat the people who love them, but the way the story rewards her treatment of him with a new romantic interest felt way off.
I wouldn’t queue up for a sequel, but it may find its fans. Stephen Theaker ***
Sunday, 26 July 2020
This is a show that never met a status quo it liked, and so the situation established at the end of season four is immediately gone: some of the characters have crashed their plane in a new area and all the roads out are blocked. It feels like a typical Fallout DLC adventure, a self-contained location where they have a few situations to resolve before they can escape.
What makes it even more like Fallout is that some areas are dangerous because of high levels of radiation, there are radioactive zombies, and we (briefly) meet some people who seem very much like the Brotherhood of Steel. The second half of the season finds them back where they were at the end of season four, more or less, but their convoy is gathering steam. This storyline introduces an evil version of the Minutemen from Fallout 4.
The zombies in this season really were extraordinarily useless. They flail around ineffectively like the zombies in a children’s programme and (spoiler incoming) we do not see them bite, let alone eat, a single person in the entire sixteen episodes. They do manage to eat a horse at one point. We meet a new guy who got bitten before we meet him. And in a flashback we hear them get a character we never met over the radio. It’s hard to feel fear when the zombies offer so little threat to the protagonists.
Another funny thing is that at one point some kids use zombies to turn a wheel and everyone is like, haha very clever, and then they go back to fighting about petrol, not realising that the kids have created a perpetual motion machine! It could change the world! (It does raise the question of where the energy comes from if the zombies aren’t eating anything. Perhaps they feed on the bugs that crawl into their mouths. Or maybe they start to photosynthesize. Someone should do an experiment to see if zombies lose body mass when they exercise.)
The characters in this programme have always driven me up the wall with their terrible decision-making, and it’s no different this season, where everyone gets a bad case of the fates and faiths and why are we heres and this is our purposes. They do some utterly idiotic things, like wandering off to paint trees while leaving their most important resources virtually unprotected. They make a video of themselves, leave it everywhere for people to watch, and then are completely baffled to discover that their enemies now know their names and weaknesses.
But for all its flaws I loved watching it, like I do every year – I bought it outright because I couldn’t wait for it to appear on Amazon Prime Video for free. I had got to the point where I didn’t want to watch anything else till I had watched it. And after seeing how some people have behaved during the Covid-19 crisis, can we still criticise television characters for stupid, self-defeating behaviour during a crisis? Can I complain about them standing right next to zombies when everyone here seems to think a two-metre distance means two steps away?
And there were some things I liked about this season, such as Morgan’s determination to be a force for good in the world, even if he went on about it a bit too much. I admire Althea’s determination to create a visual record of what has been happening. The relationship between John Dorie and June is genuinely sweet. Colby Hollman and Karen David are very good as newcomers Wes and Grace, and Colman Domingo never met a line he couldn’t deliver in an interesting way. Not a vintage season, then, but still a show I love to watch. Can’t wait to see what communities they leave devastated in season six. Stephen Theaker ***
Thursday, 23 July 2020
Holmgard Press, hardback, £16.99, July 2020, ISBN 9781916268029
In my review of Lone Wolf 24: Rune War, I mentioned that I’d never played books 25 and 26 and although I’ve used Project Aon (see: www.projectaon.org) to play books 27 and 28, it’s particularly gratifying to be able to play 26 using Holmgard Press Collector’s Edition hardback (available at: www.magnamund.com). Lone Wolf 26: The Fall of Blood Mountain is the sixth (of twelve) in the New Order series of the Lone Wolf cycle. I won’t bore regular readers with details of either the cycle or its publication as they are described at length in my reviews of books 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 29, and 30, all of which are available on this blog. The New Order series turns away from protagonist Lone Wolf to focus on a new member of the Kai order, Sommerlund’s warrior elite, combining standalone with campaign adventures. The two standalone adventures are books 23 and 26. Interestingly, anyone who played the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons will probably notice a strong correlation between the shape of these two adventures and the Wilderness Survival Guide (1986) and Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (1986) respectively. The latter was the supplement that introduced the Underdark, a subterranean world consisting of a vast interconnected network of caverns, tunnels, and shafts, as a campaign setting. In the world of Magnamund, the Dwarven Kingdom of Bor has a foot both on and under the earth and the action of The Fall of Blood Mountain takes place in the latter.
The greed of one of King Ryvin’s sons, Prince Leomin, led him to ignore the received wisdom of the Drodarin and mine too deep, releasing an ancient horror called the Shom’zaa. Leomin and his brother, Prince Torfan, are now beneath the capital of Boradon defending the Throne of Andarin against the Shom’zaa and its horde. The Kai have been approached to send a champion to destroy the Shom’zaa with a Sun-crystal while the King leads his army to relieve the siege of the Throne chamber and rescue his sons. Grand Master True Friend (of randomly-generated-name-fame) is assigned the mission by Lone Wolf and the adventure begins with him hitching a ride on a skycraft bound for Bor. King Ryvin offers True Friend the captain of the Royal War-thanes, Vagel, as a guide and the two soon find themselves deep in the Underdark. For a royal champion, Vagel is surprisingly fragile and doesn’t last very long at all, leaving True Friend to complete the mission by means of his wits, Kaistar (his magic sword), and the New Order Kai Grand Master Disciplines (supernatural abilities granted by the gods Kai and Ishir).
The game is quite short in length compared to other New Order adventures and has a curious narrative structure, divided into three unequal parts. The first and longest (about three-fifths of the game) is composed of True Friend’s journey to the Throne chamber. The second and shortest (about a sixth of the game) involves True Friend hunting and killing the Shom’zaa with the aid of a remorseful Prince Leomin. The final part (about a quarter of the game) is concerned with True Friend’s return to assist Prince Torfan in defence of the Throne, which is still under attack from the horde. It would be unfair to say that the structure is anticlimactic because the battle in the Throne chamber provides the most harrowing combat, but the confrontation with the Shom’zaa – and indeed the whole middle section – is disappointing. The anticipation, tension, and ‘pleasing terror’ of the Shom’zaa starts with the cover, the illustration on the front and the blurb on the back, and builds as the game progresses. The revelation that the Shom’zaa is one of the weaker antagonists of the series and that its death has little impact on the game (the most difficult part of which is still to come) makes for an unfortunate dip in the excitement of play. My second criticism is that there wasn’t much description of Drodarin customs, culture, and technology, which is a pity as the Drodarin are the only dwarves on Magnamund, the only society to have mastered the use of gunpowder.
Regarding gameplay, The Fall of Blood Mountain is probably the easiest of the New Order series so far. The combination of this feature with its status as a standalone rather than campaign adventure means that it is probably the only one to date that I would recommend playing on its own. It is, of course, better if you’ve played books 21 to 25 (and even better if you’ve played 1 to 25), but book 26 is an entry into the cycle that is both enjoyable and survivable. For players of the series, no guidance is necessary; if this is your first Lone Wolf adventure you might want to consider choosing Illuminatus (a broadsword) as your Kai weapon and selecting either Elementalism or Kai-alchemy as one of your Grand Master Disciplines. This is Holmgard Press’s sixth publication and maintains the high standard of production values begun with Lone Wolf 29: The Storms of Chai. I did, however, come across four typos, all in the bonus adventure but none so serious as to detract from gameplay (one on the page immediately before section 1, two in section 32, and one in section 124).
The bonus adventure is ‘Destiny Most Dire’, written by August Hahn and especially noteworthy in concluding his Dire mini-series, the only series to run through the bonus adventures. The player character is a Dire, a dead soldier who is now one of the Lifeless, denied death and doomed to walk Magnamund. This is the fifth and final adventure of the character, the previous instalments of which were: ‘Darkness Most Dire’ (in Lone Wolf 14: The Captives of Kaag), ‘A Long and Dire Road’ (in Lone Wolf 16: The Legacy of Vashna), ‘Dire Straights’ (in Lone Wolf 19: Wolf’s Bane), and ‘Dire in the Dark’ (Lone Wolf 25: Trail of the Wolf). ‘The Story So Far…’ opening recaps the entire mini-campaign in detail so the player does not have to seek out the previous instalments to understand the trajectory of the mini-series, which constitutes its own campaign. Although the game has 125 sections as opposed to the standard 350 of Lone Wolf, it has a substantial feel to it and is very well-paced. Hahn writes with flair and proficiency, providing a near-perfect balance of world-building and action throughout the narrative. There are also some interesting and innovative variations on standard combat, which spices up gameplay for regulars. In sum, ‘Destiny Most Dire’ is excellent, a fitting end to the mini-series campaign. As such, there is a sense in which the bonus adventure completes the Collector’s Edition, providing a counterbalance to what is one of the weaker Lone Wolf adventures.
Tuesday, 21 July 2020
Welcome to Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #67, edited by Stephen Theaker and John Greenwood.
This issue features three science fiction stories. In "A Gift for the Young" by Elaine Graham-Leigh, a visitor from Chi!me visits a divided world. "The King of Nod" by Harris Coverley lets us join an extraction team on their way to retrieve a criminal, who was sent long ago to prepare a world for colonisation. And "Broken" by A.T. Sayre introduces us to some robots with significant issues.
In a thirty-page review section Stephen Theaker, Rafe McGregor and Douglas J. Ogurek consider books by Carlton Mellick III, Jessica Rydill, Joe Dever, Kim Stanley Robinson and Joel Cornah.
Plus comics by Ivy Noelle Weir and Steenz; Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook; Zep, Lewis Trondheim and Dominique Bertail; Conor McCreery, Anthony Del Col and Andy Belanger; Sarah Graley; Mike Mignola and Ben Stenbeck; Mike Butterworth and Don Lawrence; Mark Millar and Matteo Scalera; and Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard.
And the films Angel Heart, The Invisible Man and A Rainy Day in New York, and the television programmes Castle Rock season two, Fear the Walking Dead season five and Westworld season three.
This issue's cover features a gouache painting by a 19th century Tibetan artist, of a Tibetan demon devouring a human, from the Europeana Collections (CC BY 4.0).
Here are the tremendous contributors to this issue.
Harris Coverley has short fiction published or forthcoming in Curiosities, Planet Scumm, Horror Magazine and The J.J. Outré Review. He is also a Rhysling-nominated poet and member of the Weird Poets Society, with verse most recently accepted for Star*Line, Utopia Science Fiction, Awen, New Reader Magazine, Clover & White and The Oddville Press, amongst others. He lives in Manchester, England.
Elaine Graham-Leigh is a writer and campaigner based in London. When not bringing down the system from within, she writes speculative fiction and has had previous stories published in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, Jupiter SF, Bewildering Stories and The Harrow. Her website can be found at www.redpuffin.co.uk. Her first novel, The Caduca, is planned for publication by the Conrad Press in autumn 2020.
A.T. Sayre has been writing in some form or other for over three-quarters of his life, ever since he was ten years old. His work has previously appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, and StarShipSofa. A more detailed list of his publications can be found at www.atsayre.com/fiction. Born in Kansas City, raised in New Hampshire, he lives in Brooklyn and likes to read in coffeehouses.
Rafe McGregor lectures at Edge Hill University. He is the author of two monographs, two novels, six collections of short fiction, and two hundred articles, essays, and reviews. His most recent work of fiction is The Adventures of Roderick Langham, a collection of occult detective stories.
Douglas J. Ogurek is the pseudonym for a writer living somewhere on Earth. Though banned on Mars, his fiction appears in more than fifty Earth publications. Douglas’s website can be found at www.douglasjogurek.weebly.com and his Twitter account is at www.twitter.com/unsplatter.
Stephen Theaker is known for his watertight style and flamboyant plumbing.
Monday, 20 July 2020
It begins with Merritt, aged twenty-two, on a two-masted sailing boat, upon a river which runs parallel to a very long city. On the boat with her are a small group of colourful characters who are all sleeping with each other whenever they can lay claim to a quiet spot. Merritt has left her home in Stagwitz to start work at Swazeycape University.
She would rather be studying polypolisology there, but can’t afford it. She will at least be able to audit classes (attend without gaining a qualification). Unfortunately, this leads her into a relationship with louche Professor Arturo Scoria, who is planning an expedition into Vayavirunga, a borough that was over-run by plant life, walled off, and best left that way.
The ebook, which is currently available on Kindle Unlimited, as well as directly from the publisher, features some confusing errors that weren’t in the original (and sold-out) print version, such as “then on-threatening” suitor, or “my parent son the River”. There are also places where it seems like both options in a tracked changes document have been typeset.
Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the story of this clearly doomed (as one can tell from them taking a nightclub singer along to pose for photographs!) expedition. The Linear City seems to be an ideal setting for fantastical stories, and the strange Pompatics that float above it lead the story in some startling directions. A strange and vivid book. Stephen Theaker ****
Monday, 13 July 2020
It provides context for the writing, telling us about her life, and doesn’t generally fall into the trap of assuming that there must be a direct connection between the two, though a clear motive is sometimes assigned to negative reviews, both those she wrote and those she received.
The book sensitively addresses some elements of Russ’s work that might prove sticky for present-day readers, such as underage sexuality in The Female Man and And Chaos Died, and what is read as a cure for homosexuality in the latter.
Where it perhaps sets a foot wrong is in asking about The Female Man, “How do you design an ideal, female-ordered world, when all the models of utopia are manmade?” Whileaway is a place where women must spend so much of their adult lives working that there is no time for art. Surely that’s not being put forward as an ideal?
That aside, this will be gold dust for any student planning to write an essay on Joanna Russ or any of her books. It’s the kind of overview that makes your eyes light up when you find it in the library, that helps you properly understand the book you’re studying, and alerts you to other works you should be looking at too.
And of course it is also useful for those of us who have read a few of Joanna Russ’s books and not necessarily felt confident of having grasped their meaning. It encouraged me to read more of her work, though unfortunately much of it is out of print in the UK.
To get The Adventures of Alyx and Extra (Ordinary) People, I had to buy tea-stained secondhand copies of the same Women’s Press editions my mum had when I was a child. Russ didn’t write a colossal amount of science fiction. A Library of America edition gathering it all together would be just the ticket. Stephen Theaker ****
Friday, 10 July 2020
Monday, 6 July 2020
Sunday, 5 July 2020
You've been given the power to instantly greenlight any sequel you want… What are you choosing? – Fandom
So many to choose from. Bacurau 2. Annie Hall 2. Blade 4. Tron 3. John Carter 2. Riddick 4. Charlie's Angels 3. Assassin's Creed 2. The Thing (2021), which would be a sequel to both The Thing (1982) and The Thing (2011). But, if I could only pick one, it would be Spider-Girl, as a sequel to the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy, with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst returning as Peter Parker and Mary Jane.
How often would you say you fall asleep while reading? – A Facebook user
Reading Washington Square by Henry James I fell asleep every forty pages, on the dot. It was bizarre. During the daytime, didn't dislike the book, it just made me sleepy! And if I'm listening to an audiobook and not doing anything else I'll be asleep within ten minutes.
Pick up the book nearest to you. Add 'Harry Potter and' as a prefix to the title of the book. – Various Jams
Harry Potter and Why Women Are Blamed for Everything. Seems quite appropriate! Really was the nearest book to me – still on my desk after opening the parcel and reading the prelims. Runner-up would be Harry Potter and the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers & Editors.
Describe your own novel in as boring a way as possible. – Nikesh Shukla
The one I'm currently writing: an assistant realises that his boss is still alive. Rolnikov the God, coming to TQF in about three years time at our current rate of publishing my novels!
If you could genetically weaponise one part of yourself (Hanna-style), what skill would you pick? – Amazon Prime Video UK
I would want the power of Batroc the Leaper, to jump on things very hard. I have an idea for a more original superpower, but that one is staying in my file of story ideas.
Can you describe your favourite movie as boring as possible? – Romina
A dog gets sick at night-time.
Are you the same person in real life as you are on Twitter? – Super Mark
I would have said yes about myself, more or less, but then I created a private Twitter account for making review notes and the contrast made it obvious how polite (relatively) I am on Twitter about the stuff I don't like.
Shall we do our first official #TrueReadingName since reopening? Using your current book: AUTHOR'S SURNAME, followed by FIRST WORD OF THE TITLE (ignore 'the', 'a' etc). – Waterstones Swansea
Dworkin Pornography? I think not. Far too disrespectful! It's a good book, though.
Saturday, 4 July 2020
Albie might have married Lizzie himself if she hadn’t been of a slightly lower class, and he thoroughly regrets it. Such class differences play a major role in the book: telling the story in the first person, he obsessively apostrophizes each time an interlocutor fails to enunciate a letter, and upon eventually reading Lizzie’s hidden journal, he has “some small gratitude that although she may have neglected in life to pronounce her aitches, she had not forgotten to write them”. On the train to Halfoak, he ruminates on “the unease … between progress and country, rationalism and superstition”, and the book is all about his attitude to those superstitions, how beneath him these ideas (and these people) are, even as he arrives step by step at believing them himself. This creates a maddening tension in him, and when his wife comes to join him at the cottage, things only get worse.
One of the book’s most terrifying scenes shows him dashing frantically around the cottage on a stormy night, stuffing pages torn from her copy of Wuthering Heights into every nook and cranny in hopes of stopping “the hidden folk” from entering. We feel his fear, but we also know how much the book means to his wife, and for all we know he might be ripping it up for nothing. By this point he has become an unreliable narrator, and the book refuses to confirm for us whether Albie lives in a supernatural universe or not, so readers are forced into the same situation as him, unable to know what has really happened, not knowing who can be trusted, and not knowing the right decision.****
This review originally appeared in Black Static #60.
Friday, 3 July 2020
Then something big and devastating happens, and we move into a new phase of the book, showing the consequences of a story we only half-know and taking us to some weirder places. Eventually the book returns to telling the original story, but in a more fractured way, and it’s a little bit frustrating – as if someone cracked the television screen halfway through watching a film. Another consequence is that from this point on the reader has reason to doubt what we are being told is happening, which inevitably places a barrier between the story and our emotions. But it’s still a good story, even told this way.
The ending was disappointing at first, then a bit less disappointing after thinking about what it meant for earlier parts of the book, and then disappointing again when I started to ask myself what the plan was ever meant to be. But as a warning of environmental catastrophe, the book is very effective, and its portrayal of social breakdown is convincing. And I loved its depiction of the high-pressure situation on board the Polar Horizon, the effect that loneliness, lack of sleep, secrets, money and sex would have on people spending far too long together in close quarters. Stephen Theaker ***
Monday, 29 June 2020
It is a book of two halves. The first is described with a wink as Stories for Her and is entitled “Ciao, Fantastique!” For the most part this takes the point of view of Officer Flaherty, who gets involved with Fantastique, a Diabolik-style thief in a white rubber costume, whose uncles are trapped in a painting. The Stories for Him half of the book is from the point of view of a villain, who is very fond of the frogmen he sends out to pillage. He tells us about his disastrous encounters with Señor 105 and his allies. These are “The Iguana Diaries”.
It’s worth acknowledging that a few years have passed since the book was first sent in for review, and the goal posts have moved: one could imagine the book being eviscerated today by reviewers who would have lauded its diversity a few years ago. But I enjoyed it very much. What I love about the Señor 105 stories (and similar titles from Obverse Books, Manleigh Books being their ebook imprint) is their immense sense of fun, their high spirits, their anything goes energy, and that’s all abundant in this book too. The answer to what happens next is always the same: whatever would be most interesting. Stephen Theaker ***
Sunday, 28 June 2020
What is a pop-culture reference you assume everyone else gets but you find yourself repeatedly having to explain? – Duncan Jones
"I know what goes where, and why" — Gene Wilder in Silver Streak.
What do you think about lower than 5-star reviews? Would you be happy with 4 stars or 3? – Ulane V.
I'm happy with one star, as long as they've read it. When your novels are as little-read as mine, you celebrate even when people are hate-reading them!
When I'm rating books myself, three stars is my default rating for a book that was good, and my most common rating by far. Four stars is for something special. Five stars for all-time favourites. Two stars for sub-par books. One star for terrible books (and sometimes that might mean well-written but morally repugnant). Or to put it another way: bad, not very good, good, very good, excellent.
I've only given one star to 27 books in my life. 435 books got five stars from me, 1574 books got four stars, 1857 books got three stars, 270 got two stars, and there are 179 books I haven't rated, usually because I worked on them, or because they weren't out yet when I marked them as read.
In general, I love star ratings. As a reader, I like them because they stop reviewers who don't like a book from dodging the most important question (is it good?) because they don't want to upset their social group.
And as a reviewer, it frees me to spend the review talking about what I liked, or what I didn't like, without worrying that I'll be misunderstood as to how good I think the book is. I once saw a chap on Twitter complaining about a book he thought I had raved about in an Interzone review, but I had just said what I liked about it. So now I'll sometimes work the words "a three-star book" into my reviews for venues that don't have star ratings, to avoid that kind of confusion. I can have lots of positive things to say about a book without thinking, overall, that it's an all-time classic.
I don't insist on other reviewers using them in TQF, though, and I don't tell the ones who do use them what scale they should use. The rating is just one aspect of the review as a whole, and if the review as a whole conveys their honest response to the work in question, I'm not fussed if they use that particular tool or not.
Buying books as gifts, reading them and then regifting 'as new' is acceptable, according to @WhichPennySmith. We're conflicted. Please advise. – Scala Radio
It's a bit like when you buy a CD for someone and receive the Amazon Auto-Rip MP3s yourself. I think it only counts as half a present…
What are you reading? – Reading Glasses Facebook group
Driftwood by Marie Brennan, about a place where what seem to be the ghosts of dead planets cluster before disappearing forever. Very good.
What's the best TV show with the worst pilot episode? – Amazon Prime Video UK
What are your favorite book adaptations? – NetGalley
The Thing. Dune. Lord of the Rings / The Hobbit. Starship Troopers. Blade Runner. The Godfather. The Silence of the Lambs. Bosch. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I'll watch any Stephen King miniseries. I am really looking forward to Foundation. Least favourite adaptation: maybe the Riverworld tv movie? Talk about wasting a great premise.
What’s the worst movie you’ve ever seen in theaters? – Chris
I won't say any of those I walked out of, like Thunderbirds or Sweet November, because that wouldn't be fair. I didn't see them to the end and they might have improved. I asked to leave The Age of Innocence but Mrs Theaker wasn't having it. And was it as excruciatingly boring as I remember, or was that feeling caused by the two people whispering behind us and a projector problem that made my eyes ache every time the camera panned? There are lots of other things that I'm less keen on now, like Batman and Robin and Lost in Space, but I didn't hate them at the time. I think it's got to be The Nut Job, one of many, many unremarkable CGI films I watched with the children over the last decade.
If you had 6 minutes left to live, what's the last song you'd listen to? – Fred the Fish
My choice would be Time to Pretend by MGMT. It's one of my favourite songs, I'll never tire of hearing that keyboard riff, and it's always felt like an apocalyptic goodbye song to me. It's a big influence on the novels of Howard Phillips.
What's the longest amount of time past publication date you've taken to read and review a NetGalley ARC? – Roxanne Michelle
Just reviewed Kim Reaper and Archival Quality, both from March 2018. The oldest book still on my list is from 2013, Hell to Pay by Matthew Hughes. I've reviewed several of his other books, though. My worst example is Bitch Planet Triple Feature, which I think was from Edelweiss. I sat down to review it a week or two ago, and realised it had been 837 days since I read it. I'm going to read it again before trying to write a review.
Friday, 26 June 2020
Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds: The Musical Drama, by H.G. Wells (Audible) | review by Stephen Theaker
But once I began to listen to this version (adapted by Doreen Wayne, Richard Curtie and Bev Doyle), I came around very quickly. Because what could be better than a two-hour musical version of The War of the Worlds? A five-hour version! Starring Michael Sheen! He is, as ever, perfectly brilliant as the journalist, giving his voice here some rich, deep notes that make him sound rather like Tom Baker at times. Taron Egerton of Rocketman is good too, as the artilleryman.
Unfortunately neither of them get to sing. The music is instrumental, extended versions of the tracks from the original album. There are ull-ahs, of course. And some dubstep elements! There are great sound effects, and the whole effect is much more dramatic and less cheesy than I expected. Much more of the original story is included, and that the narrative follows the journalist’s wife Carrie (played by Anna-Marie Wayne) as well as the narrator is very welcome.
It’s all very well done, and I’ll be certain to listen to it more than once. What could possibly be better than a book you can dance to? Stephen Theaker *****
Wednesday, 24 June 2020
The story of the occult detective is the tale of a turn of two centuries. In the late nineteenth century, magazine contributors on both sides of the Atlantic began to explore ways in which the relatively new and incredibly popular figure of the private detective could be merged with the much older but still entertaining milieu of the ghost story. One of the progenitors of this exploration was Sheridan Le Fanu (1872), with Dr Martin Hesselius. The combination of detective protagonist and ghostly setting saw the initial blossoming of the subgenre of ghost-finders, paranormal physicians, and occult psychologists with notable contributions by Arthur Machen (1894) with Mr Dyson, L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace (1898) with John Bell, E. and H. Heron (1899) with Flaxman Low, Algernon Blackwood (1908) with Dr John Silence, William Hope Hodgson (1913) with Thomas Carnacki, and Aleister Crowley (1917) with Simon Iff. The occult detective became a staple of the cheaper weekly and monthly magazines of the Golden Age of the Pulp era, particularly Cassell’s Magazine and Weird Tales. The first female occult detective was most likely Ella Scrymsour’s (1920) Sheila Crerar, whose adventures appeared in The Blue Magazine. As the pulp era came to an end, interest in the subgenre waned, being sustained through the nineteen fifties, sixties, and seventies by three main sources: Dennis Wheatley’s series of eleven novels featuring the Duke De Richleau (published from 1933 to 1970 and including The Devil Rides Out in 1934); the dogged persistence of short story writers such as Seabury Quinn, whose Jules de Grandin appeared in Weird Tales from 1925 (“The Horror on the Links”) to 1951 (“The Ring of Bastet”) and were frequently reprinted and collected during the nineteen sixties and seventies; and the successful migration from short story to small screen evinced by the popularity of Adam Adamant Lives! (1966–1967), Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (1969–1971, remade in 2000–2001), and Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974–1975).