Monday 28 July 2014

The Buried Life by Carrie Patel, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

In The Buried Life (Angry Robot, ebook, 4443ll) Carrie Patel tells the story of two women. Jane Lin is a laundry woman trusted by the height of high society to deal with their dirtiest and daintiest unmentionables. Liesl Malone is a police officer, currently getting used to a new partner with a theatrical background. They are brought together by a series of murders: Malone is shut out of the investigation – at least officially – but won’t let that stop her getting at the truth, while Jane is knocked unconscious after literally stumbling across the body of a Mr Fitzhugh during a late night laundry run. A conspiracy is afoot!

Mystery builds. Death will strike again. People scurry in the dark after curfew. Secret pasts abound. Motivations emerge from the shadows. Orphans discover how their parents died &c. Jane stays involved in all this at the prompting of Malone, who has no other way in to this world, but also on account of her own attraction, despite herself, to surly, sexy Roman Arnault, reputedly a button man for the council. He takes a shine to her, and literally sweeps her off her feet at a dance before saying, “I could show you who I am, what I do, and why they run. But will you like what you find?”

Roman is the kind of melodramatic anti-hero that seems to be all over fantasy at the moment, thanks maybe to the commercial success of Cullen and Grey, though of course they’re part of a long tradition of literary gits, going back through Mr. Darcy and Pamela’s Mr. B. Whether you find that type appealing may affect your enjoyment of the book. Jane has it bad – “Something in her chest fluttered as she watched him unnoticed” – but he didn’t do much for me. By the end he seems rather less significant and interesting than at first, and rather too many mysteries are resolved by him deciding to explain, just because at last he feels like it.

So far you might think this a Victorian novel, and it rather felt like one. However, it is set in the future, hundreds of years after a disaster. Far enough ahead for time to rub away most of the letters on a copper plaque, but close enough that paper books have survived and can still be read. Events take place, for the most part, in the underground city of Recoletta, but these people aren’t mutated – physically or psychologically – by the centuries underground. This isn’t, say The Caves of Steel: when Malone visits the surface she’s awed by the big sky, but not so much that it stops her climbing on the roof of a moving train.

There is nothing like the sense we get in City of Ember that keeping an underground city going might be difficult – though we do hear briefly about “orphans and unfortunates … working twelve-hour shifts on factory machines and assembly lines” – nor is there any shocking reality-shifting revelation upon emergence like the one in The Hero of Downways. Recoletta felt to me like Victorian London with a roof, its most unusual feature a ruling class who grow their nails slightly long because they can. The discoveries on the surface will feel old hat even to people who haven’t seen Logan’s Run or read Kamandi. It’s hard not to groan at the cheesiness of Roman revealing the collected Shakespeare he keeps in a hidden compartment.

For me, a hurdle the book struggled to clear was its initial similarity to City of Stairs, which also begins with the murder of an academic but heads off in more appealingly fantastical directions. The Buried Life doesn’t have any new science fiction ideas to offer, and for the most part it stays stubbornly away from anyone playing an active role in events. Yet for all that it was an enjoyable enough novel. I had a good time reading it and found the characters appealing. I worried about the danger they were in, hoped they would make it out alive, and was sad when some didn’t. I probably wouldn’t read a sequel, and I don’t expect this one to stick with me, but I’d look out for other books from the same author to see if they had a more interesting premise.

Monday 21 July 2014

Injustice: Gods Among Us, Ultimate Edition, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Injustice: Gods Among Us (Xbox 360) begins in the aftermath of the nuclear destruction of Metropolis by the Joker. He’s in custody, being roughed up by Batman, when Superman turns up and gets uncharacteristically rougher. Then we cut to a scene of the Justice League fighting various villains, and, if we didn’t already know, we discover at last what kind of game this is: a 2D fighter, like The Way of the Exploding Fist without the tranquil backdrops. Each chapter of story mode lets us fight a few bouts as a well-known character, as “our” JLA is thrown into the dark dimension now ruled by a dictatorial Superman.

Fighting games are not usually my bag: I can’t be bothered to stick with one combatant to learn all their moves, which makes for more variety in the short term but holds your skills back. Injustice asked way too much from my fingers – I wasn’t fast enough to pull off many of the special moves – but button mashing produces entertaining results. The main appeal of this game for me was in the variety of DC characters involved, including a decent selection of female heroes and villains. It is always pleasant to see Green Lantern pound Doomsday with a green hammer, and to be at the controls when it happens.

Drawing on the DLC that followed the original game, this Ultimate Edition adds six new characters to the roster: Lobo, Batgirl, General Zod, Martian Manhunter, Zatanna and Mortal Kombat’s Scorpion (I think Injustice is built on the architecture of the recent MK revamp). It also includes lots of special missions – mini-games in which you have to pull off certain moves or achieve special objectives, like blasting asteroids or winning a battle without being hit – and many extra skins, based on classic stories like Superman: Red Son and The Killing Joke.

It’s everything I wanted from a DC universe fighting game, and as well as being a good game it tells a good story, as reflected perhaps in the success of the tie-in comics. The return of voice actors from the DC animated universe was a treat, and though I generally skip cut scenes, those here are well done. It seems daft at first to see Harley Quinn fight Doomsday without being instantly killed, but this is explained in the story mode: a gift from the evil Superman to his lieutenants. Local multiplayer works well, allowing logged-in players to swap in and out with no problems. It’s all good fun. Grim, dark fun.

Friday 18 July 2014

The Winds of Gath by E.C. Tubb (audiobook), reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The Winds of Gath (4 hrs 55, Wildside Press, Audible edition) is the first book in the long-running Dumarest Saga by E.C. Tubb. This is a new audio version produced by Wildside Press, and read by Rish Outfield. It could, however, have been book six or seven just as easily, since when we join Dumarest for this first time he is already an adult, already searching for Earth, already tested by circumstance and hardened by experience. This first novel is the most derivative of those I’ve read – it copies Dune very closely, with its own Bene Gesserit (the Matriarchs of Kund), mentats (the Cybers), a duel with a beautifully sculpted muscle man, a bedroom encounter with a flying assassin, etc. But it’s much shorter than Dune, much less portentous, and subsequent volumes do head off in new directions.

Elements that seemed dated and sexist reading an old paperback are even more striking when appearing in a new audiobook: “Dyne had his cold predictions, based on known data and logical extrapolation, but she had better than that. She had the age-old intuition of her sex, which could confound all logic.” E.C. Tubb writes men well, women less so. A lonely, dangerous brooder who is good at violence but tries to avoid it, Dumarest is worshipped and feared by men, irresistible to women. He’s not far away from being the hero of a romance novel, though here he once again suffers the indignity of an unflattering cover portrait, albeit one not quite as bad as those that (dis)graced the Arrow paperbacks.

It took me a little while to get used to the American narration, by Rish Outfield – I’d always imagined these stories being told in the voice of a stern English headmaster! – but these books were I think originally written for the US market, so it makes some sense. There are a number of long conversations in the book, and Outfield handles the range of characters required very well. The simpering of Seena at the beginning may be a barrier for some listeners, but it’s fair to say that Outfield’s performance fairly reflects the book’s portrayal of her as rather a ninny. The audio production seems a bit inconsistent, as if the reader changes position between chapters, or parts were recorded in different studios, but that doesn’t spoil it: I only read this book a couple of years ago, and listening to it again so soon on audio was still a pleasure.

Monday 14 July 2014

Deliver Us from Evil, reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek

Demonic possession/police procedural mash-up delivers, but doesn’t stand among most hallowed horror films

A mysterious hooded figure hanging out at a zoo coaxes a woman into attempting to kill her child. So begins an investigation that will call into question Bronx cop Ralph Sarchie’s (Eric Bana) faith (or lack thereof) and sanity. 

Deliver Us from Evil (2014), directed by Scott Derrickson, adds a police procedural twist to levitate the film to above par status in the overdone demonic possession subgenre. During Sarchie’s journey, the viewer encounters a horde of proven scare tactics: disturbing video footage, creepy wall text and symbols, basement explorations, toys moving on their own, faces and bodies popping onto the screen, and sinister noises.

Sarchie begins to link the zoo incident footage (which calls to mind M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening (2008)) to three Iraq War veterans. As Sarchie navigates “the sewer” of his precinct, his findings take a toll. His relationship with his wife and child worsens. He starts to see and hear things that others cannot. An event from his past begins to surface. Then there is the more immediate threat of the hooded figure, who grows more dangerous as Sarchie gets closer to the truth.

Eric Bana, known to many as “the first Hulk” (Hulk, 2003), proves a wise casting choice. He offers a hardened cop with a believable lack of introspection. Sarchie’s raw protestations against the supernatural add a bit of humor. I’m paraphrasing here: “I hate it when people blame little fairies for all the bad shit they do,” or “She didn’t try to kill her kid because she’s possessed. She tried to kill her kid because she’s fuckin’ crazy.” The concerned expression that Bana has perfected and his New York accent are bonuses.

Funny man Joel McHale of the TV series Community plays Sarchie’s wise-cracking sidekick Butler. He’s the type of guy who wears a Boston Red Sox hat in Yankees territory to see how people will react. One would expect a little more depth from him. 

Possessed by Possession Tropes

There really isn’t anything groundbreaking about Deliver Us from Evil. Still, like a slew of other recent horror films, especially James Wan films like Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring (2013), it effectively packages horror film tropes. I was engaged throughout.

One of Deliver Us from Evil’s greatest strengths is its use of sound. For instance, there are times when Sarchie’s flashlight searches—remember, he’s a cop so there’s a justification for doing so—go silent to ratchet up the tension. Additionally, a leitmotif of static and children’s laughter builds and connects with an incident from Sarchie’s past.

An invisible entity likes to make noises in Sarchie’s daughter’s room. Though they are not adequately explained, the loud scratching and her toy owl’s unprompted “haha hoo haha hoo” are admirably nerve-racking. And no matter how many times we hear it, the “Pop Goes the Weasel” song that accompanies the jack-in-the-box continues to build tension.

The inevitable exorcism in this film is theatrical and a bit lengthy, yet entertaining in a “how far will they take this?” kind of way. There’s even humor: a cop, viewing the event through one-way glass, occasionally makes overly dramatic comments rife with profanity.

Deliver Us from Evil gives a fix to horror aficionados, but they will find its scares short-lived. So continues the quest to outdo the abiding terror that Paranormal Activity brought in 2007. – Douglas J. Ogurek

Friday 11 July 2014

Terra Obscura: S.M.A.S.H. of Two Worlds, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Terra Obscura: S.M.A.S.H. of Two Worlds (Vertigo, tpb, 336pp), written by Peter Hogan, collects two mini-series set on Earth, though not our Earth, nor the Earth of Tom Strong, although he has visited. He dubbed this Terra Obscura. It mimics his home in many ways, and provides a home to super-heroes from the forties who have fallen out of copyright and trade mark protection, like the atomic-powered American Crusader, The Liberator, The Woman in Red, The Green Ghost and the Scarab.

Some of these characters were familiar to me from the use to which other publishers have put them, for example Project Superpowers, supervised by Alex Ross, which gave the characters their own comics universe to inhabit. That was a more serious, epic book in the vein of Kingdom Come, but this pulpier take was fun too. These stories focus mainly on Carol, the daughter of the Fighting Yank, frustrated by the loss of her powers since her father’s death, and Ms Masque, who had no powers in the first place.

The first story picks up some time after Tom Strong’s most recent visit. A field which nullifies electrical devices is expanding from a canyon near Vegas, with refugees pouring out of the zone “babbling nonsense about monsters and demons”. Surviving members of S.M.A.S.H. (the Society of Major American Science Heroes) are sent to investigate. In the second story timeslips are being caused across the world by the return of long-lost hero Captain Future and his bizarrely distorted spaceship.

The background to both stories is the rising influence of the Terror: a dead Batman survived by a potentially malign copy of his intelligence and a half-mad Robin.

The artwork by Yanick Paquette is bold and attractive throughout – maybe too much so in some distractingly cheesecakey panels! – and the colours are a treat. A clever feature of Tom Strong is the way letterer Todd Klein makes Strong’s dialogue a bit bigger than everyone else’s, subtly enhancing his heroic aura, a trick repeated here for Tom Strange. If I were a comics artist, this would be a dream assignment: cool stuff happens on every page. This art team makes it look every bit as cool as it should.

Peter Hogan’s foreword explains how DC declined to publish the first mini-series unless Alan Moore was involved, but Hogan wrote the actual scripts, and I’m much keener now to read the two Tom Strong mini-series he has written. This book clearly sets up future series that did not materialise, but the stories stand well enough alone that this doesn’t spoil things. This may not be the very best work pubished in the America’s Best Comics setting, but it’s a good chunky read, in page count and story content, and it was a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

Monday 7 July 2014

A.B.C. Warriors: The Mek Files 01, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The stories in A.B.C. Warriors: The Mek Files 01 (Rebellion, tpb, 308pp) are all written by Pat Mills, with artwork from a superstar cast of artists that includes Kevin O’Neill (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), Dave Gibbons (Watchmen), Brendan McCarthy, Mick McMahon, Carlos Ezquerra, Brett Ewins, and Simon Bisley (the only one I hadn’t heard of before is the mysterious S.M.S.). With a line-up like that you’d expect the book to be much better than it is, but it’s still pretty good.

The first batch of stories, drawn in a relatively straightforward and readable style, date from 2000AD’s early days – issues 119 to 139, from 1979. Here we see a group of eccentric robots joining Sergeant Hammer-stein for a special mission: Happy Shrapnel, Joe Pineapples, Deadlock (Grand Wizard of the Knights Martial), immense, vengeful Mongrol, reprogrammed Volgan war criminal General Blackblood, and molten monster The Mess. It’s gleefully violent: you wouldn’t give it to a child nowadays without asking a parent first. Once the team are assembled, they are packed off to tame Mars, the devil planet! The premise sets them up for a long run, but after dealing with cyboons, mutants, the red death, robot tyrannosaurs, and big George with five brains (none of which work properly), it wraps up very suddenly with a declaration that “we’ve straightened out this side of Mars now”. I enjoyed all of these stories, though they’re not so memorable that I didn’t realise until later that I’d already read them in the 2002 Titan collection The Mek-Nificent Seven.

The strip returned to 2000AD in 1988, nine years and four hundred issues later, the long gap perhaps explained by the problems that had “plagued the strip from beginning to end” (according to Kevin O’Neill, speaking in a reprint volume from 1983): “Group stories are like breaking rocks for writer and artist alike. Pat Mills broke the biggest rocks and the splinters flew off in all directions.”

The new setting – the future Earth known as Termight – suggests that in the interval the warriors have been involved in the adventures of Nemesis the Warlock. Joined by Ro-Jaws, Hammer-stein’s old friend from the Ro-Busters, and then Terri, a human who thinks of herself as a robot, the team battles foes including The Monad, the quintessence of human evil from the end of the world, who causes havoc after escaping into the time wastes. The art in this half of the book by Simon Bisley and S.M.S. is admirable in many ways – it’s challenging, energetic and expressive – but it’s difficult to tell what is going on, especially when events take place in one tunnel after another, with backgrounds often entirely white or entirely black. It’s trying very hard to be grown up and significant, and though the stories are still being written by Pat Mills, these aren’t half as much fun. I would probably pass on volume 02 if it took the same approach.

But even though the two parts are so different that it’s like reading a book that’s half Curt Swan, half recent Frank Miller, I liked it overall. Its best ideas are brilliant – poor old George staggering across the surface of Mars while his hands and feet argue with his head! – and it still comes as a surprise to see robot heroes killing humans, when mainstream entertainment so often goes out of its way to give human heroes zombies or robots to murder. I wouldn’t say that appealed, exactly (you’d worry about me if it did), but it still feels fresh and honest.

Friday 4 July 2014

Justice League of America, Vol. 1, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Justice League of America, Vol. 1 (DC Comics, tpb, 192pp) is mostly written by Geoff Johns, with most art by David Finch. It presents us with an all-new JLA B-team in the post-Flashpoint DC Universe, where, on the evidence of this book at least, continuity has quickly become as knotty as it was in the old one. The team is led by Steve Trevor, apparently fresh from romantic disentanglement with Wonder Woman, and also features Green Arrow, Katana, Vibe, Martian Manhunter, Stargirl, Hawkman, a ludicrously undressed Catwoman and a new (to me) Green Lantern.

Aside from Grant Morrison’s batbooks (which seem to pretty much ignore the universal continuity change) and the first few issues of Justice League Dark, I haven’t read much of the New 52, but it was easy enough to jump in. Green Arrow hasn’t grown his beard yet, the Martian Manhunter isn’t munching on Oreo cookies, and it seems that Hawkman hasn’t yet found his Hawkgirl, but most comic readers, even those who no longer read them month to month, are so used to alternate worlds and elseworlds and what-ifs that a whole new universe doesn’t take much getting used to.

The biggest surprise here, given that the introduction of the New 52 was the point at which DC went day-and-date digital, is that absolutely no consideration has been given in the comic to making it suitable for reading in digital formats, with double-page spreads used as enthusiastically as ever. No one expects every comic to be arranged in nine-panel grids like the Baxter format Legion of Super-Heroes, but that’d be a lot easier to read in guided view than any of this.

This review is based on an pre-release pdf, so the final edition may have changed to some extent, but this book is rather a mess. It begins reasonably enough with a story of the new Justice League of substitute heroes being formed by Amanda Waller (who has lost a lot of weight since the last time I saw her) and Steve Trevor, and then going on their first adventure: fighting Professor Ivo’s android versions of the real Justice League.

It’s not very good, but at least I understood what was going on. Then we seem to be thrown into the back end of a crossover, with some crucial events skipped over, and I was reminded why I don’t read many DC Comics these days. The next chapter is something called Trinity War Chapter Four with no information about the content of chapters one to three – and then that story will be continued in Justice League Dark!

A missed opportunity. Digital comics encourage asynchronous reading – people now, more than ever, will plough through an individual series rather than reading several comics that happen to be out in a particular month. On this showing, DC are still so focused on monthly sales, on crossovers and events, that the comics are hobbled. There was a glimmer of something good here, and these are characters I like and have been reading for thirty years, but I didn’t enjoy this enough to want to read volume two.