Friday 31 May 2024

Kill Shakespeare, Vol. 1: A Sea of Troubles, by Conor McCreery, Anthony Del Col and Andy Belanger (IDW) | review by Stephen Theaker

This review previously appeared in TQF67 (July 2020).

Written by Canadians Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Col, with art by Andy Belanger, this book collects the first six issues of the comic book.

It begins in Denmark, after Hamlet has mistakenly killed Polonius. As in Act IV of the play, he is sent on a ship to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In this version, Rosencrantz reveals the treacherous letter to Hamlet, but it saves him not since he is killed when the pirates attack and sink the ship. Hamlet washes up in the kingdom of Richard III, who declares him the Shadow King, meant to fulfill a great prophecy. He is supposedly to free all these characters from the tyranny of William Shakespeare, their writer and god, by stealing his quill. In truth, Richard III and his allies – including Iago, Lady Macbeth and the witches – want the bard dead.

Monday 27 May 2024

Stray Pilot, by Douglas Thompson (Elsewhen Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

After World War II, American pilot Thomas Tellman decided to stay in Scotland. He joined RAF Squadron 576, married a Scottish woman, and had a daughter and son with her. They lived in a prefabricated house just outside of Kinburgh, a little place that was hardly much more than a village, up until 1948, when he pursued a UFO high above the clouds and never came back. His seven-year-old daughter, Mary, grew up, had children of her own, and grew old and infirm. His wife died, his son died.

And then, eighty years after he disappeared, he returns, only a year older than when he left. His 87-year-old daughter has dementia. Kinburgh is now a town. Pollution has changed the air, sea and land. All the other prefab houses have long since been demolished, but his daughter still lives in theirs, and when he returns she is delighted. She barely remembers the last half-century anyway, so she’s not asking why he’s so young, she’s wondering why she’s so old.

Friday 24 May 2024

The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem (Ecco) | review by Stephen Theaker

This review originally appeared in Interzone #289 (November–December 2020).

Journeyman used to be a screenwriter, though none of his films ever got made. His name back then was Alexander Duplessis. He spent a long time working with producer Peter Todbaum, a Harvey Weinstein-like friend from college, on a pet science fiction project, Yet Another World. Now he lives in Tinderwick, a small town on an isolated peninsula in what used to be New England, wiping up the blood left by the butcher and delivering the meat.

Wednesday 22 May 2024

The Night Parade by Ronald Malfi (Kensington) | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Plague story infected by lack of action and conflict.

The Night Parade, yet another outbreak story, introduces Wanderer’s Folly, a disease that enrages people, makes them lose their minds and eventually kills them. Moreover, the birds have disappeared, and insects are getting larger. 

English professor David Arlen and his eight-year-old daughter Ellie, holding a shoebox with unhatched bird eggs, hit the road after wife/mother Kathy dies in hospital. David is convinced that Kathy was immune to the disease and that the medical establishment tested her to death. Now, those same individuals want to get their hands on Ellie, who has a blossoming special power. 

David, who may or may not be infected with Wanderer’s Folly, disguises Ellie as a boy, and they drive around aimlessly until David decides he wants to go to a relative’s house. Like many fictional children, Ellie displays unrealistic intelligence and wisdom beyond her years. 

Although there are tense passages and the ending ratchets up the action, the novel suffers from stagnation and meaningless scenes and dialogue. The main characters wander around and converse about uninspiring topics. Their psychological underpinnings are weak, and most goals are short-lived. The Night Parade also includes superfluous backstory about the early days of Wanderer’s Folly and Kathy’s death. Moreover, the novel gets bogged down in details that do not support the plot. We do not need, for instance, a step-by-step explanation of David dyeing his hair black. 

When the characters finally get to a potential conflict, Malfi effectively keeps the reader guessing whether strangers’ hospitality is genuine or feigned for some nefarious purpose. Additionally, some characters’ physical characteristics – droopy eyes or lanky bodies, for instance – add to the realism of scenes. Another creepy detail: when face masks run short, some people resort to cheap plastic Halloween masks, while others wear paper plates with eye holes cut out. 

The Night Parade is just as much about a father’s willingness to accept his daughter’s point of view as it is about a rampant disease. Unfortunately, the novel’s wavering nature detracts from the story. Douglas J. Ogurek **

Monday 20 May 2024

IF | review by Stephen Theaker

After being so excellent in later seasons of The Walking Dead as Judith, the equally capable daughter of Rick Grimes, Cailey Fleming now takes the lead in possibly the worst-titled film of the year, IF – short for Imaginary Friend, and a nod to the infinite possibilities of the imagination. Fleming plays Bea, a twelve-year-old girl who, after losing her mother to illness, could now lose her father too (John Krasinski). While he’s on a long stay in hospital, being prepped for what he assures her will be a routine heart operation, she stays in a cosy apartment with her lovely but (if you ask me!) nigh-on criminally negligent grandma (Fiona Shaw).

Friday 17 May 2024

How to Mars by David Ebenbach (Tachyon Publications) | review by Stephen Theaker

This review previously appeared in Interzone #290-291 (March-June 2021).

Two years ago, a small colony was established on Mars, funded by a reality show, Destination Mars! Unfortunately, the show was cancelled once life on Mars turned out to be extremely boring. Even the Martian water was dull, with not a microbe nor a minibeast in sight. Fortunately, the production company continued to send supply rockets, so life goes on.

Friday 10 May 2024

Machine by Elizabeth Bear (Saga Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

This review originally appeared in Interzone #289 (November–December 2020).

Dr Brookllyn Jens (Llyn for short) is the rescue co-ordination specialist on the Core General-affiliated medical vessel I Race to Seek the Living. The current mission: Big Rock Candy Mountain, a very old generation ship, has been found hurtling through space at high speed in the wrong location and the wrong direction. Its crew was placed in rickety frozen hibernation by an insane captain and a buxom AI named Helen Alloy (a pun, apparently, on Helen of Troy). Helen has spent the subsequent lonely years upcycling the ship into new components for an intelligent machine, one that looks as if it is made of Tinkertoys (a colourful, wooden, American equivalent of Meccano). But that might not be the machine of the title: the police-issue exosuit that makes it possible for pain-ridden Llyn to live life as she does is just as important to the plot.

Tuesday 7 May 2024

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas (Swoon Reads) | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Young adult novel muddies message of acceptance with lackluster writing.

Sixteen-year-old Yadriel, a trans gay boy (born female, identifies as male, attracted to males) and member of a Latinx family, wants more than anything for his East Los Angeles brujx (a gender-nonconforming variant of the Spanish bruja/o, meaning “witch” or “sorcerer”) community to accept him as a brujo (a male who finds lost spirits and sends them to the afterlife). He plans to do this by summoning the ghost of his murdered cousin Miguel, then guiding him to the afterworld. Alas, Yadriel’s father holds firm to tradition, which prohibits people born female from becoming brujos — they must develop into brujas. The only two who seem to wholeheartedly embrace Yadriel’s identity are his cousin and friend Maritza and his uncle.

Thus, Cemetery Boys is a young adult novel about transitioning, from the spirit world to the afterlife, from female to male, and from one mindset to another.

The trouble begins when Yadriel, accompanied by Maritza, inadvertently summons the ghost of high school classmate and reputed gang member Julian Diaz. Yadriel wants to use his special knife to cut the magical thread that binds Julian’s spirit to Earth and therefore send him to the afterlife. But Julian begs for Yadriel to hold off so he can make sure his friends are okay. Yadriel relents, flaunts the brujx rules, and takes the “reckless and beautiful” Julian through various obstacles while attempting to avoid detection by most people (who can’t see Julian) and Yadriel’s magical kin (who can). 

Yadriel and Julian get to know each other and their shared inner struggles. Clearly, Yadriel is attracted to Julian, who, despite his immaturity, unconditionally accepts Yadriel as a boy. But it seems the feelings aren’t necessarily mutual. Author Aiden Thomas adds tension by setting a deadline: if Yadriel doesn’t send Julian over by Día de Muertos (the Day of the Dead) in just a few days, Julian’s spirit might turn maligno.

The message that this book attempts to convey is a good one. The story, however, falters. It suffers from several repeating elements that become grating. Examples include physical gestures (lip biting, arm crossing, hand raising) intended solely to punctuate dialogue, an obsession with Julian’s dark eyes, meaningless chatter, and frequent mentions of Yadriel’s binder to remind the reader he was born female. Thomas’s excursions into the rituals and foods of Día de Muertos also cause the story to drag, and melodramatic speeches worsen an ending that stretches out too long. Douglas J. Ogurek ** 

Friday 3 May 2024

These Lifeless Things by Premee Mohamed (Solaris) | review by Stephen Theaker

This review previously appeared in Interzone #290–291 (March-June 2021).

These Lifeless Things is a novella published as part of the new Solaris Satellites series.

Fifty years ago, ninety-nine per cent of our species died during "the Setback". It lasted three years, and yet no one is sure what it was, even those who survived. Or at least no one believes what they have to say. Until a student on a field trip to an abandoned Ukrainian city discovers an old poetry book that might change everything: Eva, a woman who survived the initial disaster, kept a journal in its generous margins.