Thursday, 31 December 2020

Lone Wolf 31: The Dusk of Eternal Night | review by Rafe McGregor

Lone Wolf 31: The Dusk of Eternal Night by Vincent Lazzari and Ben Dever

Holmgard Press, hardback, £19.99, December 2020, ISBN 9781916268036


If I enjoy a series and the latest instalment isn’t up to the standard of its predecessors, my usual policy is to avoid reviewing it.  Perhaps that’s what I should do with Lone Wolf 31: The Dusk of Eternal Night, the penultimate instalment of the late Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf cycle of fantasy gamebooks, which was released in time for Christmas by Holmgard Press.  Having invested so much time and energy (and a not inconsiderable amount of money) on the franchise as well as reviewing all of the New Order series (Lone Wolf 21 onwards) to date, however, I feel it would be a cop out.  Also, notwithstanding my criticism below, I will be buying the last in the cycle – Lone Wolf 32: Light of the Kai – on the basis that I am in my fifth decade of playing the books and have a need to know how it all ends (I began shortly after Lone Wolf 1: Flight from the Dark was published in 1984).  For those interested, I’ve discussed the trials and tribulations of the franchise – including why the publication of the cycle has taken so long – here, here, and here.  So let me begin with the bad news and my harshest criticism: Lone Wolf 31 simply has too much dialogue, too much description, and too little gameplay.  It’s as if the authors forgot they were writing a gamebook and wrote an experimental young adult fantasy novel instead.  Now one may think that this hybrid model of gamebook-novel is an improvement on the gamebook-only model or that the change of direction is precisely what the cycle needs for a spectacular conclusion, but I have been playing these books since the eighties because they are games.  If I wanted a novel set in Magnamund I would have collected the Legends of Lone Wolf series (novelisations of gamebooks 1 to 8, published from 1989 to 1994) – and, indeed, I did try the first and decided that they weren’t for me.  I genuinely hope that most if not all readers of this review disagree with my evaluation and if you don’t want to be put off Lone Wolf 31 please don’t read any further.  Just buy the book, read it, and make up your own mind.

The New Order series focuses on a new protagonist (whose name is randomly-generated, leaving me with “True Friend” for mine) and combines campaign and standalone adventures.  The standalone adventures are Lone Wolf 23: Mydnight’s Hero and Lone Wolf 26: The Fall of Blood Mountain.  There are four separate campaigns: books 21 and 22; books 24 and 25; books 27 and 28; and the final four books.  The final campaign began in Lone Wolf 29: The Storms of Chai and was continued in Lone Wolf 30: Dead in the Deep, which was the first gamebook published after Joe Dever’s death and was written by Vincent Lazzari and Ben Dever (Joe’s son), using notes that Joe literally wrote on his deathbed.  (On which note I should add that the story of the creation and publication of the franchise is well worth reading in its own right, even if one has no interest in gamebooks.)  In my two previous reviews of the final campaign, I noted that Lone Wolf 29 seemed to take the saga in a particular direction – the cataclysmic destruction of Magnamund by a hitherto unknown force for evil – from which Lone Wolf 30 then seemed to depart.  First and foremost, what I wanted from Lone Wolf 31 was a contextualisation in which the progress of the interplanar conspiracy was discussed even if the power behind it was not disclosed. In this, the gamebook succeeds, although I was disappointed to discover that the cataclysm is being engineered by two of Lone Wolf’s traditional foes, reincarnated on or resummoned to Magnamund.  Perhaps there is more to the conspiracy, to be revealed in Lone Wolf 32, but I thought the choice of enemies lacked originality.

The refighting of old enemies was a curious choice because in other respects the gamebook is highly original – a more positive spin on my critique is that it is too original – while the gamebook-novel hybrid didn’t work for me, I don’t deny that it is both inventive and innovative.  The first part of the gameplay is also creative and entertaining, with True Friend in command of an army at a full scale battle (reminiscent of AD&D’s Battlesystem, published in 1985).  In addition, Lone Wolf 31 begins to tie the cycle up by gathering together companions and allies from the previous New Order books, from The World of Lone Wolf miniseries, and from the various Bonus Adventures (there is no Bonus Adventure in this book).  This has a climactic feel and one of the successes of Lone Wolf 31 is the way in which it anticipates the end of the cycle, heightening the excitement that long-term fans like me are already experiencing.  Regarding gameplay, however, it is not only that there isn’t enough of it (where there are options, many of them rely on the random number table, i.e. luck) but that as a game it is too easy.  True Friend has of course undertaken every one of the New Order adventures so far, which means that he holds the rank of Sun Prince, has the powers of a demigod, and a very high Combat Skill and Endurance (the mechanics upon which the rules of the game are based).  He has also picked up some impressive weapons and armour on the way and is, especially when in the company of his allies, much harder to kill than his silly name suggests.  He had a much harder time of it in both Lone Wolf 29 and Lone Wolf 30 and invulnerability is not a virtue in player characters.  Let me conclude on the most positive note I can… at the risk of using a cliché I’ve already used once this year, this is the ‘marmite’ Lone Wolf gamebook.  It is distinct from the previous thirty and I suspect that players will either love or hate the novelty.  I hope they will love it and hate this review.  I also hope that Lone Wolf 32 will see a return to the form of Lone Wolf 29 which is, in my opinion, the highlight of the entire cycle.

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #68: out now in paperback and ebook!


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

Welcome to Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #68, edited by Stephen Theaker and John Greenwood.

This issue of Theaker's Quarterly Fiction features “Network”, a complete novella by Mitchell Edgeworth, the longest entry yet in the adventures of the Black Swan. It’s been four years since the previous episode appeared in TQF53, but it’s been worth the wait. This issue also includes “The Erkeley Shadows”, a new story by Michael Wyndham Thomas, the magazine's first ever real contributor, way back in 2005 with “Valiant Razalia: Prologue” (TQF8), and twenty pages of reviews, where Jacob Edwards, Douglas Ogurek, Rafe McGregor and Stephen Theaker consider the work of Anthony Del Col, Kate McKinnon and Emily Lynne, Christie Golden, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joe Dever, Rhys Hughes, Joe Hill, Julie Travis and Junji Ito, as well as BFS Journal #21, edited by Sean Wilcock and Sarah Deeming.


Here are the magnificent contributors to this issue.

Mitchell Edgeworth lives in Melbourne, Australia. He tweets as @mitchedgeworth and keeps a blog at www.grubstreethack.wordpress.com.

Michael W. Thomas is the author of eleven titles, the latest being a poetry collection, Under Smoky Light (Offa’s Press, 2020). His Valiant Razalia duology, The Mercury Annual and Pilgrims at the White Horizon, is published by Theaker’s Paperback Library. His writing has appeared in such publications as Critical Survey, Magazine Six, The London Magazine and The Times Literary Supplement, as well as in previous issues of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction. Website: www.michaelwthomas.co.uk.

Jacob Edwards also writes 42-word reviews for Derelict Space Sheep. His website is at www.jacobedwards.id.au, his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/JacobEdwardsWriter, and his Twitter account is at www.twitter.com/ToastyVogon.

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.

The cover art is a detail, which we have tinted red, from a piece by Etienne Leopold Trouvelot: “The planet Mars: Observed September 3, 1877, at 11h. 55m. P.M.” From the New York Public Library Digital Collections.


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

Friday, 25 December 2020

Blood on Satan’s Claw, by Mark Morris (Audible) | review by Stephen Theaker

Audio drama produced by Bafflegab. The young people in a eighteenth-century village fall under the sway of a malevolent force. The original film (mysteriously popular with Doctor Who fans) was a product of its time, the year of Charles Manson’s trial, which it echoes. This new version is still about the horror of sexually active women. The cast is excellent, including Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith and Alice Lowe, and it does interesting things with sound, music and effects. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday, 18 December 2020

The Witcher, Season 1, by Lauren Schmidt Hissrich et al. (Netflix) | review by Stephen Theaker

Unashamedly derivative of Elric, right down to calling its main character the White Wolf, this eight episode series was nonetheless very enjoyable. It’s as if they took the time that Henry Cavill reloaded his biceps in Mission: Impossible – Fallout and made it last eight hours. It’s daft as a brush and leans into it. In this series the Witcher runs through a series of entertaining one-off adventures, while we see what a wizard and a princess were getting up to before they met him. Rollicking stuff. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday, 11 December 2020

Preacher, Season 4, by Sam Catlin and chums (Amazon Prime Video) | review by Stephen Theaker

The final season of a show that wasn’t quite the equal of its best moments. Preacher Jesse Custer, his partner in many crimes Tulip and vampire Cass head for Masada to stop the apocalypse, while God and Herr Starr do their best to make it happen. It frequently feels like an extended game of Marco Polo, with episodes often driven by the need to recover whichever member of the gang has gone missing this time, but it’s still entertaining: where else will you see Jesus in a fist fight with Hitler? Stephen Theaker ***

Saturday, 5 December 2020

Provenance by Ann Leckie | review by Stephen Theaker

Ingray Aughskold of the planet Hwae has come up with a daft plan, because she feels obliged to compete with her obnoxious brother Danach for her mother’s approval. Her mother’s affection seems entirely out of the question, but there’s still an outside chance of her selecting Ingray as the inheritor of her name, and names are important on Hwae. So the young woman comes to Tyr Siilas, and hands over everything she owns – and more besides that she has borrowed – to a criminal organisation, Gold Orchid.

She wants them to extract the notorious criminal Pahlad Budrakim from Compassionate Removal. E was left there to rot for stealing eir own family’s prestigious relics, or vestiges as they are called, and replacing them with fakes. She assumes that e knows where they are, and that once e’s out and feeling grateful enough to disclose their location, she’ll be able to use the vestiges as leverage to earn her mother the position of Prolocutor of the Third Assembly, which Ingray would hope to subsequently inherit.

Ingray knows it’s a long shot, but she doesn’t expect her plan to go off the rails quite so spectacularly or quite so quickly. Pahlad is delivered to her unconscious in a box. Captain Uisine, owner of her getaway ship, refuses to allow em on board in that condition, in case it’s a kidnapping. And once woken, the person she has rescued denies even being Pahlad. What’s more, after she manages to get em back home e becomes a suspect in a case of murder.

The author’s debut Ancillary Justice, a rare publishing success to emerge from the thousands of novels written during NaNoWriMo, was the first book to win the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke and BSFA awards for best novel, as well as best newcomer awards from Locus, the Kitschies and the British Fantasy Awards. Knowing all that, but not having read that book or its two sequels, I was a bit surprised by how straightforward Provenance (Orbit hb, 448pp, £16.99) turned out to be. It is in the same territory as other sf adventures I’ve reviewed recently for Interzone, such as The Collapsing Empire, or going back a bit further, the juvenile novels of Robert Heinlein, albeit with modern social attitudes.

One such aspect is how e is used as a personal pronoun, and everyone in the book respects its use. This isn’t explained to the reader, but eventually the book describes one of the people for whom it is used as a neman. Again, it isn’t explained whether this means non-binary, gender neutral, a third sex, or possibly something else altogether. This is science fiction, after all – and it is a fertile place to try new words out, or to popularise existing but obscure words. This is a good example of that, even if it sometimes has the effect of making it seem as if everyone’s from Yorkshire: “E said e’d searched the kitchen.”

Where the book excels is in its remarkable and thoughtful degree of thematic unity, the title Provenance being reflected throughout. Its hero is an adopted orphan of unknown origin from a public crèche, putting her at a disadvantage compared to her ambitious sibling. The provenance of the relics being fought over is in question, and there are questions about the origins of the people of Hwae themselves. The murder involves an archaeologist who wanted to investigate Hwae’s ancient ruins. And where did the friendly captain get his spaceship and spider-like mechs, which resemble so much those of the alien Geck? It’s all about provenance.

The conclusion is very tidy, almost Harry Potterish, right down to a spell in the infirmary to recover from the injuries incurred in the course of the adventure. Perhaps it’s a bit too tidy, its murder plot and surrounding shenanigans being slightly too simple to hold the reader’s attention, but the sweetness of the relationships between Ingray and her understanding and supportive allies – Captain Uisine, her Nuncle Lak, Garel Ket and romantic interest Officer Taucris Ithesta – make it a pleasant and enjoyable read.

It works fine as a standalone novel, though there is a suggestion of sequels to come: a conclave is being convened, in an attempt to keep the peace between humans, aliens and AIs with a taste for revolution, and it doesn’t take place in this book. One other unresolved issue concerns Ingray’s problems with hairpins, mentioned so frequently that it feels like heavy-handed foreshadowing, though it isn’t. Perhaps the difficulty she has keeping them in place reflects how she is for the first time striking out on her own, and struggling, metaphorically, to keep her hair straight. ***

This review originally appeared in Interzone #273.

Friday, 4 December 2020

Legion, Season 3, by Noah Hawley and chums (Fox) | review by Stephen Theaker

The third and final season of Legion makes no effort to cater to those who found previous seasons obscure and self-indulgent, and is all the better for it: beautiful, unique and innovative. It introduces time traveller Switch, as David Haller tries to fix what went wrong in his life, but stops caring about right and wrong as he does it, assuming that everything will be undone when he is successful. We also meet the Legion universe Professor X, played perfectly by Harry Lloyd. Stephen Theaker ****