Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Archival Quality, by Ivy Noelle Weir and Steenz (Oni Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

Because I read this 280pp graphic novel without reading the back cover first (“a surprisingly vulnerable, intricate look at mental health”, says Kate Leth), I thought it was going to be the story of someone who discovers weird things going on in a library. That does indeed happen, but this is really about someone who is depressed and doesn’t like the way her boyfriend handles it. For me that was somewhat disappointing, but other readers may feel differently.

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

Fear the Walking Dead, Season 5 | review by Stephen Theaker

Previous seasons of Fear the Walking Dead reminded me of the Fallout games, but this one really goes for it.

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

Lone Wolf 26: The Fall of Blood Mountain | review by Rafe McGregor

Lone Wolf 26: The Fall of Blood Mountain (Collector’s Edition) by Joe Dever
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

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #67: now out in paperback and ebook!

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

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.


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

Monday, 20 July 2020

A Princess of the Linear Jungle, by Paul Di Filippo (PS Publishing) | review by Stephen Theaker

This novella begins with a quotation from A Princess of Mars (a book by Edgar Rice Burroughs), mentions in passing an exhibit called The Diaries of Cadwal Throy (referencing Jack Vance) and the lead character is called Merritt Abraham (a nod, as you might guess, to Abraham Merritt), which gives the reader an idea of what to expect.

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

Joanna Russ, by Gwyneth Jones (University of Illinois Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

A new entry in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction covers the life and work of Joanna Russ in seven fascinating chapters. It also includes thirteen pages of interviews, a useful ten-page bibliography of her work, and an index (not available in the review copy, as is generally the case).

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

The Art of the Tingle, by Chuck Tingle (self-published) | review by Stephen Theaker

A collection of book covers and plot summaries from the world’s leading purveyor of post-modern, metatextual, magical realist erotic literature for homosexual gentlemen. With titles like My Billionaire Triceratops Craves Gay Ass, Pounded in the Butt By My Own Butt, I’m Gay for My Living Billionaire Jet Plane and Angry Man Pounded By the Fear of His Latent Gayness Over a Dinosaur Transitioning into a Unicorn, and hilarious covers to match, this book is joyful and hilarious throughout. Stephen Theaker ****

Monday, 6 July 2020

My Boyfriend Is a Bear, by Pamela Ribon and Cat Farris (Oni Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

A woman falls in love with a 230 kg American black bear and he moves in to live with her. He doesn’t say much, but he’s cute, strong, huggable, and a good listener, and however much of her stuff he breaks, he doesn’t break her heart. But what happens when it’s time for him to hibernate? This sweet, romantic book reflects and models how people who are very different can get along in a relationship, dealing with roadbumps and individual needs. The art by Cat Farris is marvellously expressive. Stephen Theaker ****

Sunday, 5 July 2020

Questions and Answers, 5 July 2020

Here are Stephen's answers to the less urgent questions that the world has been asking this week. Feel free to supply your own answers in the comments!

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

The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood | review by Stephen Theaker

The Hidden People (Jo Fletcher Books) is in my view Littlewood’s best novel yet [mid-2017]. While her earlier books from this publisher seemed to be aimed in part at the thriller market, this is a sustained and convincing work of traditional gothic horror. Posh Albie, who ran into his attractive cousin Elizabeth Thurlston at the Great Exhibition of 1851, is floored years later to hear that she has been murdered by her lower-class husband, and not murdered in any ordinary way, but roasted over an open fire, in the belief that she was a changeling and cooking the creature would bring back his wife. Albie travels to Halfoak (“our folk”) in Yorkshire to attend her funeral, and then, angered by the lack of respect he sees, stays to investigate her death, making the peculiar decision to live in her cottage while her husband and murderer sits in prison.

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

Always North, by Vicki Jarrett (Unsung Stories) | review by Stephen Theaker

In the year 2025, Isobel is on board the Polar Horizon, a ship surveying for oil at the north pole. A nuclear-powered icebreaker joins them, to force a way through what ice remains. This first part of the book is exciting and tense, the atmosphere rather like The Thing on a boat, with a similarly characterful crew, and with a highly focused polar bear as the threat. It feels very grounded in reality, albeit with references to Where the Wild Things Are: “We’ll sail off through night and day, in and out of weeks for almost over a year. Only this time there will be no nights.”

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 ***