Wednesday 31 January 2024

The Unbalancing, by R.B. Lemberg (Tachyon Publications) | review by Stephen Theaker

The star in the ocean off the city of Gelle-Geu has slumbered for almost a thousand years, but now it is beginning to have nightmares. And because that star is tethered to the Mother Mountain, a nearby volcano, the twenty thousand inhabitants of Gelle-Geu are in no small amount of danger. Unfortunately, the previous keeper of the Star of the Tides decided that nothing could be done to stop the disaster, and so kept it secret.

When new starkeeper Ranra Kekeri takes over, and discovers how little time remains, Ranra takes a very different view. If there’s a way to calm the star, Ranra will find it, but before that can be done the new starkeeper may have to figure out what the star actually is – all while dealing with the worries caused by an aggressive former partner, Veruma, a cruel and delusional mother, Adira, and a potential new partner, the poet Erígra Lilún.

Monday 29 January 2024

Badland Hunters | review by Stephen Theaker

Although not a direct sequel, this South Korean film is set in the world of Concrete Utopia, which doesn't seem to have had a UK release. Based on a comic called Pleasant Bullying by Kim Soong-nyung, the previous film apparently showed the aftermath of an earthquake striking Seoul so hard that all the skyscrapers collapsed. People tried their best to survive in a devastated urban environment, to build some kind of order among the chaos, but things went awry: a Sight and Sound review described it as "a Ballardian story set in a post-apocalyptic apartment complex".

I doubt many reviewers will use "Ballardian" to describe Netflix's Badland Hunters, which is a self-consciously pulpy and over-the-top affair. A prologue shows us that, when the earthquake hit, mad scientist Yang Gi-Su was trying to resurrect his daughter. Three years later, by which time a drought has added to everyone's problems, he is still mad-sciencing away, and with the help of soldiers has taken over an apartment block that still stands. With his new experiments, Yang Gi-Su aims to create humans who can survive the extended periods of dehydration and malnutrition that are practically inevitable in this dry new world.

Friday 26 January 2024

Lone Wolf 28: The Hunger of Sejanoz, by Joe Dever | review by Rafe McGregor

Holmgard Press, hardback, £19.99, November 2022, ISBN 9781915586056

I’ve been delaying my review of the most recently published collector’s edition because I was hoping to be able to report that Holmgard Press had achieved at least one of its goals: that either the whole cycle of thirty-two Lone Wolf gamebooks had been published or that a large proportion of the cycle was back in print. Unfortunately, both goals remain in development at the time of writing. Regarding availability, there are now three editions circulating: original (paperback and secondhand only), collector’s (hardback and secondhand only), and definitive (which can be purchased from Holmgard Press, Amazon, and no doubt other online bookstores). The only definitive editions in print at the time of writing are books 1 to 12, 1 to 5 (the Kai series) in hardback and paperback and 6 to 12 (the Magnakai series) in hardback. Books 13 to 20 (the Grand Master series) are relatively easy to find on the secondhand market (and usually not extortionate, for the original editions anyway), but books 21 to 31 (the New Order series) less so. People seem to be hanging on to the Holmgard Press Collector’s Editions pretty tightly and I’ve not seen any copies of books 28 to 31 available for a while now. The original edition of Lone Wolf 28: The Hunger of Sejanoz (which was published by Red Fox in 1998) reached a peak price of £1894 on the secondhand market in February 2022, but both original and collector’s editions are now completely unavailable fourteen months after the publication of the latter. Regarding the completion of the series, Lone Wolf 32: Light of the Kai is going to be released in two parts, which Holmgard aims to publish in October 2024 and October 2025 respectively. I have to ask why. Two parts mean that Joe Dever’s original conception of a thirty-book cycle has been changed to thirty-three, but the press’s stated intention is the posthumous realisation of his vision (Dever sadly passed away in 2016). I am also concerned that the perceived need to publish the final book in two parts is evidence of an exacerbation of the source of my criticism of Lone Wolf 31: The Dusk of Eternal Night, which I reviewed in TQF69. Finally, 2024 is the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Lone Wolf 1: Flight from the Dark (yes, that does make me feel old) and it would have been great to have the cycle completed in such an auspicious year.

Wednesday 24 January 2024

The Lost Village: A Novel by Camilla Sten (Minotaur Books) | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Strong storytelling compensates for tired concept. 

The Lost Village unites stories from two different timelines. The present-day component covers the danger that unfolds while Alice Lindstedt’s crew shoots a teaser for a documentary about the decades-abandoned Swedish village of Silvertjarn. There is a threat out there, and we’re not sure whether it’s human or supernatural. 

The second piece gradually reveals what happened to this mining town in the 1950s, as well as the story of the birth of a mysterious baby that was left when nearly nine hundred people disappeared. 

What happened? Was this a mass suicide? Mass migration? Was it aliens? Russians coming in and kidnapping them? Alice wants to get to the bottom of this mystery. Author Camilla Sten faces the challenge of creating something new in the arguably oversaturated film-crew-encounters-threat-while-documenting-mysterious-setting horror market. The present story, told from Alice’s perspective in first person present, takes a while to get going — there’s a lot of walking around the site and not much happening to suggest the place is dangerous. Where Sten makes up for that, however, is in the conflicts between Alice and Emmy, whose friendship with Alice was shattered by something that happened in college. This tension will mount as Alice continues to make decisions that put her team at risk. Other crew members include Emma’s boyfriend Robert, Max (interested in Alice), and Tone, an amateur photographer about whom Alice withholds critical information from the others.  

The past story unfolds in third-person narration from the perspective of Alice’s great grandmother Elsa. One of Elsa’s daughters, Margarete (also Alice’s grandmother), has already left Silvertjarn when handsome and charismatic Pastor Mattias arrives and captivates many villagers, chief among them Elsa’s younger daughter Aina. Relationships deteriorate as the pastor’s influence intensifies. 

As the climax approaches, Sten steps up the tension by quickly flipping between timelines. 

The Lost Village does not top the charts in terms of scare factor. Rather, its strength lies in its handling of complex relationships and susceptibility to silver-tongued leaders.—Douglas J. Ogurek ***


Monday 22 January 2024

Hanu-Man | review by Stephen Theaker

The first film in what is hoped to be a new superhero universe, Hanu-Man introduces us to Hanumanthu (played with a good deal of charm by Teja Sajja), a feckless young man who amuses himself with petty larceny, and feeds himself by taking the food his sister (Varalaxmi Sarathkumar) makes, and insulting her while he does it. They live in a picturesque mountain village called Anjanadri, which might be a nice place to live were it not for the village champion, who demands a tax and engages those who protest in wrestling bouts to the death.

Hanumanthu is sweet on Meenakshi (Amritha Aiyer), who has returned from the city to spend the summer. After she incurs the wrath of the village champion, skull-wearing bandits attack a coach she is on and brutally murder the other passengers. Hanumanthu, in saving her, gets himself stabbed, kicked off a cliff, and likely to drown, but a kindly god takes note of his heroism. In the water, Hanumanthu is drawn to a pearl, a magic pearl that formed around a drop of the monkey god Hanuman's blood, a pearl which will heal his wounds and grant him the strength to fight.

As long as it's sunny in Anjanadri, that is...

Friday 19 January 2024

Hounds of the Underworld by Dan Rabarts and Lee Murray (Raw Dog Screaming Press) | review by Jacob Edwards

This review originally appeared in TQF64 (March 2019).

New Zealand’s answer to Richard Morgan.

I don’t read as much as I’d like to – life spills over; time seeps away – but there are names from my editing days at Andromeda Spaceways that I still look out for. Dan Rabarts is one of them. I particularly like the way Dan builds his stories, grounding them in both character and setting and then pursuing an idea of real substance. When I heard he’d written a novel – co-authored with Lee Murray – I put it at the top of my short but optimistic “to read” list.

And so: Hounds of the Underworld, a 199pp near-future SF detective piece with lashings of horror.

Penny Yee is a scientific consultant to the police; her adopted brother Matiu is a reformed ne’er-do-well. Where one is upstanding and rational, the other follows his instincts and holds himself to a less rigid code. Written in the third person, present tense, Hounds of the Underworld alternates between their two viewpoints, and it is the dynamic between Penny and Matiu that sets the book apart. The clash of their personalities – of aspects of their shared Maori-Chinese heritage – brings uncertainty to the flow of events, yet is offset by their unshakeable sibling bond. Matiu, sensitive to shades in reality, pushes the narrative forward, and is the more interesting of the two. Penny keeps the story grounded; without her, Matiu would become untethered. They are an unlikely pair and yet their relationship is more than just believable; it is the kernel of a murder investigation that would fail to resonate if carried out by either character on their own.

Hounds of the Underworld takes place in New Zealand in the year 2045 – not a dystopia, as such, but a rundown, shabby sort of future in which problems have outstripped progress. The setting emerges slowly, naturally, and lends the story both a noirish charm and an individuality often found lacking in analogous works. The mystery itself is one that Sherlock Holmes might have described as singular. It creeps up on the reader, hiding at first behind the twin character studies but then breaking loose alongside the Lovecraftian horror. Hounds is well-paced, and in reading feels more substantial than its length would suggest. As a self-contained novel it perhaps flourishes too briefly; but then again, it is also the first book in a series – The Path of Ra – and any small sense of disappointment upon its conclusion quickly gives way to anticipation of what is to come.

A beguiling collaboration, original yet accessible. A must for connoisseurs of small press speculative fiction. Jacob Edwards

Monday 15 January 2024

Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, Season 1 | review by Stephen Theaker

Shortly after the events of the excellent 2014 Godzilla film, a young American woman, Cate Randa (played by Anita Sewai), and a young Japanese man, Kentaro Randa (Ren Watabe) discover that they share the same father: Hiroshi Randa (Takehiro Hira), who disappeared after Godzilla fought the two MUTOs in San Francisco. He didn't die in the fight, he just said he had important things to do and scarpered, a bigamist abandoning both his families to the vagaries of an increasingly dangerous world. Cate's search for answers brings her to Kentaro, then to Lee Shaw (Kurt Russell), a mothballed Monarch monster-hunter with his own agenda, and then brings them eye-to-eye with a monster or two. For Cate and Kentaro it's the adventure of a lifetime, but this isn't Shaw's first monster mash.

Friday 12 January 2024

Star Trek: Picard, Season 3, by Terry Matalas et al. (Paramount) | review by Stephen Theaker

This review originally appeared in TQF75 (November 2023).

The first two seasons of Star Trek: Picard were divisive, to say the least. When it was first announced – with Michael Chabon on board! – I was delighted. The first two seasons of Discovery had been smashing, so I had high hopes. Hopes soon dashed by a programme that seemed to have exactly the same problem as the final film, Star Trek: Nemesis: it had been bent out of shape in order to tempt back its two biggest stars, giving them leaden, actorly storylines.

Patrick Stewart had rejected the proposals for season one several times before finally agreeing to it, and one of the things he didn’t want to do was a mere reunion. And so we had two seasons of a substitute crew running around while Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner got their teeth stuck into some proper acting. There were episodes I enjoyed, there were others I didn’t, but it was disappointing and often quite dull. The lowest point was Picard persuading Guinan to stay on Earth for humanity’s sake, despite World War III being imminent.

Tuesday 9 January 2024

The Final Girl Support Group (Berkley) by Grady Hendrix

Disjointed, drawn-out and dull mystery comments on society’s obsession with violence toward women in film.

The Final Girl Support Group details Lynette Tarkington’s journey from justifiable paranoia and reclusiveness – she’s a two-time survivor of attacks from killers who wiped out people close to her – to a focus on being part of a group and helping others. The novel also explores a collective obsession with films in which women get mutilated and murdered by crazed men, as well as why attractive, able-bodied white women dominate the final girl stereotype.

Lynette, whose best friend is a plant, belongs to the Final Girl Support Group led by therapist Dr Carol Elliot. Each group member is the sole survivor of a killer’s rampage. Their ordeals have also spawned horror films whose storylines echo those of classics such as Scream, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, and Friday the 13th. The most entertaining final girl is the drug-abusing Heather, an abrasive type who drops f-bombs and isn’t beyond flicking a cigarette butt into a swimming pool.

When Lynette, whose own brutal Christmastime trial inspired Slay the Halls (invented by the author), suspects someone is trying to kill everyone in her group, she goes on high alert and tries to warn the others. As the talky first-person narrator gets closer to unveiling the killer, the danger intensifies. 

Throughout the novel, author Grady Hendrix interweaves snippets from different fictitious sources such as horror fanzine articles, scholarly film critiques, text from the back cover of a VHS tape, and police interview transcripts. Despite their attempts to create a commentary on the horror genre’s fixation with harming women, these asides detract too much from the main story. All this shifting about makes it hard to get invested in Lynette or the other characters. 

Several drawn-out scenes lack compelling content. When Lynette is in a car with a teenage girl, for instance, nothing happens to advance the story. The two seem to repeat the same basic ideas just to keep the story going. 

The novel’s saving grace is its focus on women uniting to combat male aggression. Another aspect worth commendation is the juxtaposition of the quick, violent deaths of horror films with the slow, exhausting deaths of reality.—Douglas J. Ogurek **


Monday 8 January 2024

Invasion, Season 2 by Simon Kinberg, Dan Dietz, et al (Apple TV+) | review by Stephen Theaker

As season two of Invasion begins, it is 121 days since the alien invasion began (though you would think it at least a year or three from how much the children have grown), and humanity is losing the war. Benya Mabote, World Defense Coalition President (played by Moshidi Motshegwa), leads the war effort. The aliens, of whom we've seen nothing but their killing machines, have already transformed a quarter of the planet to suit themselves and show no signs of stopping. Weird new plants are growing and their spores make the air unbreathable for humans. Millions are dead.

In season one our Japanese, English and American protagonists reached their various destinations, and helped to bring down an alien ship. Unfortunately an even larger ship arrived soon after, and so they must return to the fray. The most significant character is Mitsuki (Shioli Kutsuna), who is abducted to the Amazon jungle to communicate with a downed alien ship. The man responsible is tech bro Nikhil Kapoor. Apple TV+ shows often seem to feature a Steve Jobs visionary type, and this one is played by Shane Zaza, whose line readings are peculiarly reminiscent of Commandant Lassard at the podium.

Friday 5 January 2024

Apocalypse Nyx by Kameron Hurley (Tachyon Publications) | review by Stephen Theaker

This review originally appeared in Interzone #276 (July–August 2018).

Nyxnissa so Dasheem, Nyx for short, is a mean-spirited mercenary who might have a heart of gold – if you catch her on the right day, and it won’t interfere with the job she’s on, and she hasn’t already sold the heart. She isn’t quite as irredeemable as Lavie Tidhar’s Gorel or Karl Edward Wagner’s immortal Kane, but she’s no saint: she murders law enforcement officials if they get in her way and at one point she remembers ordering sappers, back in the war, to blow up a Chenjan city, “kids, cats, and all”. She carries a pistol and a scattergun, wears a whip, and has razor blades in her sandals and poisoned needles in her hair, and she is much more ready to use them than most science fiction heroes. Think Conan at his selfish worst: like him she drinks and screws away the money she earns, leaving her in dire need of each new adventure.

Monday 1 January 2024

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom | review by Stephen Theaker

It’s a shame that Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, Jason Momoa’s sixth appearance as Aquaman, seems likely to be his last for now. In his cameos, in Batman vs Superman, Peacemaker and The Flash, and his full appearances in Justice League and Aquaman, his exuberance and commitment to the role made him a joy to watch. I wish there were more films to come, but at least we got more of his Aquaman than we did of his equally enjoyable Conan the Barbarian.

Whether this film takes place after the multiverse-changing events of The Flash or not isn't established, but doesn't make a great deal of difference. Sensibly, it's a direct sequel to the first Aquaman film, continuing its storylines and themes. Many of its actors return. As this film begins, Aquaman is thoroughly bored of his job as king of Atlantis. He is nodding off during audiences, and frustrated by the constraints on his power. He has much more fun playing with his baby son and battering pirates.