Naomi Novik is probably best known for her Temeraire series, which basically boil down to “Horatio Hornblower, only with Dragons.” I read the first couple of them awhile back, and they’re … okay? Like, they’re fun enough exercises in adventure and worldbuilding, but at the same time they didn’t quite hook me enough to devour the whole series.
Oh, and a sidenote: apparently Naomi Novik and I both used to play at the same online text-based RPG. Admittedly, I’m pretty sure we didn’t play there at the same time, not to mention the fact that said game no longer exists … but if I ever have the chance to run into her at a book signing, it’s definitely something I plan on bringing up for small talk. But I digress.
In any case, Uprooted is an original, standalone work … and it’s also, really, really good. Really, one can look at Uprooted as a textbook case of an author maturing and gaining skill as their career unfolds. Which isn’t to say the Temeraire books are bad, mind you, it’s just that Uprooted has a lot more to say. Which is probably why it got a Nebula and was nominated for the Hugo when i tcame out.
But it probably helps to know what the book’s about, doesn’t it? Uprooted is the story of Agnieszka, a young (if slightly accident-prone) peasant girl. Angieszka lives in a rural valley– albeit one that’s besieged by The Wood, a foul and corrupting influence, full of gnarly, bloodthirsty horrors. Her valley is protected by a wizard calling himself The Dragon, who takes one of the girls of the valley every ten years as tribute. He lets them go after a decade passes, entirely unharmed … but it’s not exactly something to look forward to.
Agnieszka is convinced her best friend Kasia will be the one chosen, since Kasia’s beautiful and brave (and also blonde). But then, on the day of the choosing, The Dragon chooses Agnieszka instead, and things start spiraling out of control from there. Because it turns out that Agnieszka has magical talents of her own– and soon, she’s drawn into terrible confrontation with The Wood, with the lives of everyone in the valley at stake.
So yeah. If the title of “The Dragon” didn’t tip you off, Uprooted definitely has a fairy-tale aspect to it, albeit with a distinctly Polish lean. The thing about subverting fairy tale tropes is that those subversions can become cliches in and of themselves– it’s pretty easy to go “oh, and the princess wanted to stay with the dragon! She don’t need no man!” and leave it at that. Thankfully, Novik goes a lot deeper than this, playing around with various ideas and such to make who would be cardboard cutouts in a typical fairy tale into actual characters, with their own foibles and motivations.
Chief amongst these characters is Agniezka herself– she’s kind of a disaster, honestly, but she’s also kind and clever and super determined, which makes her a pleasure to read. One of the joys of reading Uprooted is following Agnieszka’s journey from terrified peasant girl to spell-slinging witch. Her magic takes a far different form from the codified spells of The Dragon, though it takes them both awhile to learn it. Still, Agniezka is resourceful– there’s a great sequence early on in the novel in which she fights back an incursion from The Wood with only a few spells and a random handful of magic potions.
The second most important character in Uprooted is The Dragon, though we only see him through Agnieszka’s eyes. He’s … kind of got a “Oh Mr. Darcy!” thing going on, in that he’s snarky (but handsome) and disapproves of most everything Agnieszka does but is also very sexy because of it. Thankfully, the romance aspect is put on the back burner more often than not, as the two of them often have bigger things to worry about. (Like, say, The Wood trying to kill them. Repeatedly).
So yeah. Uprooted is a decidedly feminist take on the fairy tale genre, as well as a rollicking fantasy adventure full of greebly monsters and climactic battles and all that other fun stuff. This said, it’s not perfect– every now and again, the book gets bogged down with flowery and ornate descriptions of just how a magic spell is cast. Still, a little over description is a small price to pay, especially since Novik manages the fine balance between the moon-logic of a fairy tale and the chart-worthy magic systems of a Brandon Sanderson novel.
Really, though, if you like fairy tales and/or fantasy fiction, I’ve got to give Uprooted a hearty recommendation. Which … might not make for the most in-depth of reviews, but still. Go read this book, you won’t regret it.
So how ’bout that new Star Wars trailer?
Personally, I’m just a bit leery. As on the one hand, I’m all for Rey and Co. having cool space adventures. On the other … I’m not sure if I have enough confidence in J.J. Abrams to put together a satisfying ending.
But! That’s not what this blog post is about. Rather, instead of talking about a movie that isn’t out yet, let’s look at a book that just came out! Namely, Boss Fight Books‘ Knights of the Old Republic, which is about the 2003 video game, Knights of the Old Republic.
Widely acclaimed as one of the best Star Wars video games ever made, Knights of the Old Republic is set thousands of years before the events of the Star Wars movies, and follows the adventures of a young Jedi going around and having various space adventures. Knights of the Old Republic was made by Bioware, and established a lot of elements that would go on to be their specialties: quirky NPC’s, solid voice acting (including the ever-wonderful Jennifer Hale), and a good guy/bad guy axis, determined by player choices. There’s a direct line of influence from Knights of the Old Republic to later Bioware games like Jade Empire and Mass Effect. (Sidenote: I don’t think we’ll ever get a Jade Empire sequel and this makes me sad).
In Knights of the Old Republic, Alex Kane presents a comprehrensive history of the production of the game, from how Bioware (at the time, a scrappy young studio) got the license, how they put together the setting and plot (along with the game’s famous twist), the casting of the voice acting, and more. The book is very well researched, featuring interviews and anecdotes from just about everyone who was anyone involved with the production of the game.
In that, Knights of the Old Republic is an essential read for fans of the old video game, as it offers a ton of insight into how such a sprawling and ambitious game was put together.
That’s … about all Kane has to offer in Knights of the Old Republic. Don’t get me wrong, he does what he sets out to do, and he does it well– it’s just that I think I’ve been spoiled by earlier works from Boss Fight Books. The best Boss Fight Books have more to to talk about than ‘just’ a video game. Mega Man 3 talks about speedrunning, and the rise of retro-gaming culture (with an accompanying rise in old cartridge prices). Metal Gear Solid is a personal story about growing up and how nostalgia doesn’t always endure the test of time. Soft and Cuddly paints an unflattering portrait of life in Thatcher-era Britain, and so on. In contrast, Knights of the Old Republic is about … how they made Knights of the Old Republic.
Kane makes a few nods to the game’s legacy in the book, be it through snuck-in cameos in the movies or out and out action figures or whatever. However, I would’ve liked to see Kane go even deeper in this respect, examining where Knights of the Old Republic fit into the grander scheme of the Star Wars franchise. Like, with the amount of control Disney has over the franchise right now, I’m not sure if Knights of the Old Republic would be made today.
Likewise, Kane (or rather, his interviewees) do mention the grueling work schedule they were under to produce the game, often working eighteen hour days under looking deadlines, but he doesn’t editorialize on it. “Crunch time” has long been a crutch and a bane to AAA game development, one that is getting more and more attention, but Kane just kind of passes it off as “the way things are done.” Likewise, EA’s purchase (and vice-like squeezing) of Bioware is brought up, but never really discussed in depth. It just feels like a wasted opportunity, to be honest.
Confession time: I’ve never really played Knights of the Old Republic. Not in depth, at least. As such, I read Knights of the old Republic more from the perspective of a general Star Wars fan, rather than a devotee of the game. As such, those readers who are super-hardcore fans might get a lot more out of the book than I did.
And hey, Knights of the Old Republic is going for ten bucks on Steam these days. Which … I’ll probably bite the bullet and nab it at some point– it’s just that I don’t have the time to sit down and play long-ass video games like I used to. That, and Stardew Valley is freaking addictive, man. You’re lucky I was able to get away from the farm long enough to write this blog post.
There are many (many) contemporary Sci-Fi & Fantasy authors who are better writers than Brandon Sanderson, but I can’t think of any who are nearly as prolific. Factor in the fact that Sanderson’s novels tend to be ridiculously popular, it seems that there’s always something new to take a look at. I don’t begrudge the guy anything personally, as I’ve heard nothing but good things about Sanderson as a person. It’s just that his books are often … flawed. Often in the same ways. And yet, here I am, reviewing yet another Sanderson book (I average about one a year, it seems), because I guess I’m a literary masochist.
In any case, Skyward is Sanderson’s latest novel, a YA Space Opera. Which honestly had me leery, as the last YA-designated book of his I read, Steelheart, was freaking awful. Though on the other hand, Skyward was apparently marketed as a ‘grown up’ novel in the UK– not to mention the book’s premise had me curious. Basically, Sanderson described Skyward as “a boy and his dragon” story, only twisted around into “a girl and her spaceship.”
And I do like me some spaceships.
This said, Skyward is … rough. Particularly in the beginning. The book centers on a girl named Spensa Nightshade (oh come on) who lives on an arid wasteland planet because this is a Brandon Sanderson novel. Seriously, would it hurt the dude to write a book set in a forest? Or maybe on a nice beach? Thankfully, Spensa goes by her pilot callsign “Spin” more often than not.
In any case, humanity on Blasted Wasteland Planet is under siege, living underground in order to hide from the evil aliens who attack any human settlement that gets too large and HEY WAIT THIS IS THE PLOT FROM GURREN LAGANN. Just, y’know, with all the rad stuff like inspirational shouting, giant robots, and bikini girls taken out.
Oh, and also the ship that crash-landed on Blasted Wasteland Planet was called The Defiant, which had my nerdy self arching a brow in turn. (DS9 is the best Star Trek, for the record, but that’s another blog post entirely).
In any case, Spin’s got problems– as apparently her father (a spacefighter pilot) turned tail and ran in the face of the enemy, which got him shot down by his wingmates and branded forever as a “coward.” Which gives means everyone in Spin’s cavern is a huge jerk to her, until she finally aces a placement test to get her into the elite pilot’s academy up on the surface. Aaaand, while on the surface, Spin stumbles across a hyper-advanced, long-abandoned starfighter with its own AI that she dubs “M-Bot.” Short for “Massacrebot,” because Spin is kind of a bloodthirsty weirdo.
In any case, for the rest of the book, Spin must balance learning how to fly with repairing M-bot’s systems while also dealing with her flight-school squadmates, the leader of whom is a stuffy aristocratic jerk but also kind of handsome because this is a YA novel. Things never delve into sappy romance (thankfully), as every couple of chapters Spin and her squadmates have to jump into spaceships to go fight the eeeeevil alien sorties that happen every so often.
On the one hand, the space battles are the highlight of the book. Sanderson is really good at writing deft and punchy action scenes, and in Skyward he applies his usual meticulousness into figuring out how his spaceships work. If The Way of Kings is Sanderson’s take on a Dynasty Warriors game, then Skyward is what happens after he plays Star Fox for twelve hours straight.
The problem with Skyward is, once you start looking past the laser dogfights, things get kind of … dumb. Like, Spin and her squad get sent up into the air during a spaceship raid on their first day of training. Admittedly, they’re just sent up to sort of hover in reserve as decoys, and several characters do mention “hey maybe we should finish training our pilots before they start getting shot at?” buuuut it still reads as pretty dumb. Especially since they mention a starfighter shortage, and you’d think it’d be easier to find somebody who knows what the hell they’re doing, but … eh.
Likewise, Spin’s backstory and attempts to vindicate her family name are … okay-ish motivations, but in the end a lot of it reads like obfuscation and conspiracy just for secrecy’s sake. It’s really unnecessary– every so often the plot gets bogged down with someone calling Spin a coward for some reason or another, and in turn she overcompensates by being this gung-ho weirdo berserker. There’s some business about Spin being inspired by her Gran-Gran’s stories of ancient heroes, in which the likes of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan are put side by side with the likes of Conan or Tarzan … and y’know, that’s a really cool idea, playing with the blurry lines between legend and history and … Sanderson doesn’t really do anything with it. Argh.
And that’s the thing. Skyward isn’t a particularly complicated novel, but at the same time Sanderson gets bogged down in a lot of stuff that he really doesn’t have to. “Top Gun in SPAAAACE!” is a hell of a hook, one that practically writes itself. Seriously, just throw in some zero-G volleyball and you’re set. Buuuut, for each plot element Sanderson introduces, it just introduces more inconvenient questions. For example, Spin finds M-Bot in a cave within walking distance of her pilot academy. And somehow nobody else has found the ship before? In a more nitpicky (but still telling) detail, it’s stated that most people on Blasted Wasteland Planet subsist on vat-grown algae and rat meat … but at the same time the flight academy has chocolate cake in their cafeteria. I mostly note this because chocolate inappropriately showed up in the last Sanderson book I read. Makes me wonder if he knows where chocolate even comes from. But I digress.
Complain and nitpick as I may, I … didn’t hate Skyward? Admittedly, I went into the novel with the absolute lowest of expectations. The plot and setting are both overthought and not thought out enough, and the dialogue can often come off as flat … but at the same time, there are many little moments where Skyward legitimately shines as a novel. As I mentioned before, the dogfight sequences are genuine page-turners, and in turn there are a couple of smaller, quieter moments with Spin just hanging out with her squaddies that are just as compelling. Honestly, if Sanderson had cut a lot of the nonsense, and instead focused on telling the story of a handful of quirky, desperate pilots in training, Skyward could be a good, perhaps great piece of space opera. As it is, however, I found myself alternating between rolling my eyes at one chapter and devouring the next, so … yeah. Kind of a pendulum, there.
A sequel, Starsight, is due to come out this fall. And so help me, I’m curious enough that I’ll probably read it. Eventually.
Like everybody else with a Netflix account, I rather enjoy Miss Fischer’s Murder Mysteries.
… also like everyone else with a Netflix account, I binged the whole series awhile ago. And so, while I wait for the Mod-era 60’s spinoff to to finally get put on Netflix (seriously, it’s a no brainer, people), I figured I’d go and read Cocaine Blues, the first in the Phryne Fischer detective novels.
Set in swinging 20’s Melbourne, both the TV show and novels follow the exploits of one Phryne Fischer, a stylish adventuress who’s inherited both a noble title and a ludicrous amount of money. Phryne is something of a wish-fulfillment character: she spends money like it’s water, drinks cocktails like they’re also water, is impeccably well dressed at any given time, smokes like a chimney, and gets to flirt with all the handsome men Australia has to offer. She’s basically a female version of James Bond, just without the license to kill and the sociopathy. She fights crime!
Now, there’s bound to be differences between a novel and a TV show, but the thing that really struck me about Cocaine Blues is just how different it is from the TV show.
Part of this is a matter of structure. I re-watched the pilot episode of the miss Fischer TV show to make a comparison, and honestly the show’s more tightly written, integrating characters and plotlines and the like. On top of that, Cocaine Blues focuses on different characters– I imagine Greenwood wasn’t entirely sure what direction the series would take when she started writing Cocaine Blues some 30 years ago. Detective Jack, for example, is introduced in the first ten minutes of the TV show– where in the original novel (novella?) he’s mostly there as a side character, one whose name Phryne forgets at one point. Instead, the ‘hunky potential future love interest’ character is … Bert the Marxist Cab Driver. Kaaaay. Though now that I dig up a pic he’s not all that bad looking of a dude, so hm.
Really, though, the biggest difference between Cocaine Blues and the first ep of the TV show is a matter of tone. Cocaine Blues is more snarky, more cynical than the TV show. It’s not quite noir nihilism, but a book that features back-alley abortionists and drug smuggling can be expected to be somewhat darker in tone. Though the other thing that got me about Cocaine Blues is that it’s more sexual than the TV show. It’s never outright pr0n, but you can get away with a lot more in a book than a TV show. Like, there’s a plot point in which Phryne manages to escape the book’s villain by getting distractingly sexy (with Sascha, the male ballet dancer who didn’t get cut from the TV show).
I keep on coming back to comparing Cocaine Blues to the Miss Fischer TV show, and … well, I don’t mean to make this an exclusively comparative thing, but, well, it just comes down to the fact that the TV show is better. Now, don’t get me wrong, Greenwood writes a perfectly serviceable, slighly-saucy cozy mystery. However, Greenwood devotes a great deal of verbiage to what Phryne Fischer is wearing, or driving, or drinking … but at the same time, the inherently visual medium of TV is a lot better at conveying the lushness of Phyrne’s wardrobe. Especially if you’re not up and up on your period fashioning, and thus don’t have a good mental image of what a Louis heel is, or if you’re not familiar with Hispano-Suiza automobiles. It’s a bit telling that, while Greenwood lavishes detail on every part of Phryne’s (many) outfits, from hat to stockings, Phryne’s pistol is only referred to generically as “a small handgun” and so on. Just goes to show what kind of stuff Greenwood’s interested in writing, y’know?
So yeah. If you’re in the mood for a cozy, disposable mystery, Cocaine Blues works just fine. But at the same time, the TV show is funnier, snappier, and surprisingly light for a show that starts every episode with somebody getting murdered. And y’know, I may wind up binging a couple more episodes now. Go figure.
These days, I typically don’t have the time or the patience for big sprawling fantasy series. It takes a lot to convince me to dig through thousands of pages of Map Fantasy, especially if the series hasn’t concluded yet. (Insert Game of Thrones joke here).
Of course, there are, however, exceptions.
Sethra Lavode is the third volume of The Viscount of Adrilankha (the prior books being The Paths of the Dead and The Lord of Castle Black), which in turn is the third novel of the Khaavren romances, which in turn is basically what you would get if Alexandre Dumas wrote the Silmarillion.
These books are delicious.
They also have some of the most generically boring cover art I’ve seen in a long while. I mean, so much happens in these books, written in such an entertaining manner … and most of the covers look like glamor photos from your local renaissance festival. Kind of frustrating, to be honest– even if the covers are technically accurate in depicting the titular characters in the latter two volumes.
But hey, let’s not judge the books by their cover– what are they about?
The Khaarven Romances are Steven Brust’s fantasy-tinged take on The Three Musketeers, down to direct parallels between D’Artagnan & Co. and Khaavren and his sworn brothers. Tazendra, the bombastic sorceress-swordswoman, is my favorite, for the record. But they’re not the only characters in the book by a long shot– one need only look at the three-page Cast o’ Characters at the beginning of each book to keep track of who’s who.
In Sethra Lavode, Brust ties all the various plot points together, laying out a plot that’s gone on for thousands of years (did I mention Khaavren & co are incredibly long-lived elves? Because they are). Empires fall and rise, lost heirs make claims to the throne, dark gods attempt to exert their will on the world … but at the same time, it’s all told in a breezy, rollicking style, presented as a “historical romance” by the narrator, one Paarfi of Roundwood, an academic who occasionally rambles off on a tangent to defend one particular historical claim or another. It’s all wonderfully metatextual, which is just another layer of enjoyment to be had between the scandals and swordfights and what not. And on top of that, many of the historical figures swashbuckling around these novels actually feature in Brust’s other books, the Vlad Taltos series, which are set in the ‘modern day’ of the magical elf empire– though those books are more traditionally swords & sorcery in tone, as opposed to being a direct pastiche. It’s been a long time since I read any of the Vlad Taltos series, so I’m sure there are even more little jokes and nods and whatnot that the hardcore Brust fans would absolutely love.
As far as endings go, Sethra Lavode does well in bringing things to a satisfying (if bittersweet) end. Admittedly, it probably helps that Brust gets to crib notes off of Dumas, but there are worse people to pay homage to. That, and again, the magic and floating castles and whatnot do quite a bit to distinguish Brust’s work as their own thing.
So yeah. While I absolutely loved reading Sethra Lavode, I honestly can’t recommend it. At least, not as one’s first exposure to Brust, since the book is predicated on reading the previous four novels. (Or, well, two and two-thirds, technically). Heck, for the longest time I couldn’t find a copy of The Lord of Castle Black, and I’m glad I held out to read that book before Sethra Lavode, as if I didn’t I’d be even more clueless. “Who’s in love with who again? And why is Khaavren’s son a bandit now? And who’s this bad guy trying to take over the empire?” and so on.
This said, I absolutely recommend tracking down a copy of The Phoenix Guards so you can start from the beginning. My only real complaint is that, well, the Khaavren Romances are now officially over, meaning there’s nothing left to read …
… well, until Brust gets a new Paarfi of Roundwood book published. He’s hinted at such, and the rumor is that the next one will draw inspiration from The Count of Monte Cristo.
Might just snag that in hardback.
Reboots are pretty much par for the course in comic books these days. In fact, it’s probably a sign of a franchise’s general health– if it sticks around long enough to get rebooted, that means SOMEBODY must like it, right?
Which brings us to the current Transformers comic book.
See, back in 2005, IDW picked up the rights to publish Transformers comic books, after the previous publisher, Devil’s Due, collapsed due to various shenanigans that I won’t go into at the moment. The real thing here is that, in 2005, the Transformers brand … wasn’t exactly making much of a splash. It was two years before Michael Bay’s big stupid blockbuster movie would come out, while the transformers cartoons on TV (dubbed-over anime versions), along with the accompanying toys, were of … variable quality.
As such, IDW was able to pretty much do whatever the hell they wanted. Which, honestly, was fairly unremarkable for awhile. They got classic TF writer Simon Furman to do some stuff, which mostly came down to the same ol’ robot punching. (And, uh, the less said about Furman’s origin story for Arcee, the better). But, the funny thing is, eventually IDW’s writers started branching out in new directions– most notably, in 2011, they ended the war between the Autobots and Decepticons, and set up a new status quo of the survivors from both sides attempting to build a new society after eons of conflict. New writers started focusing on new characters– and new ideas.
Oh, and IDW also had Tom Scioli do Transformers vs. GI Joe and it was the greatest thing ever (even if/especially since it wasn’t part of the main IDW continuity. Confused yet?)
While the “Bayverse” movies kept Transformers in summer-blockbuster territory, IDW just kept on doing their thing, eventually turning out to have the longest continuing continuity the franchise had ever had, by far. Writers like James Roberts and John Barber turned a toy-commercial franchise into legitimate serialized science fiction. It was great! … for the most part. Like, Roberts has a tendency to put too much of a spotlight on his original characters. The term “Mary Sue” comes to mind, if you’re feeling uncharitable (even if Roberts did toss in a fun throwaway gag about it in one issue). And then there’s also IDW’s Megatron– but more on him in a bit.
In any case, the big takeaway here is that IDW published an ongoing Transformers comic for thirteen years. Until they ended it all with Unicron blowing things up last year. As you do.
IDW still has the reins/rights to Transformers comic books, and now they’re publishing a biweekly comic, written by Brian Ruckley, that’s a fresh reboot of the franchise. I had meant to write up this blog post when issue #1 came out two weeks ago, buuuut the comic store had sold out, and when I finally did get my hands on a copy a few days later … not much of anything happened in it. Like, for a book called ‘Transformers,’ only one robot, y’know … transformed. Go figure.
Issue #2 came out just today, however! And thankfully, it’s more interesting than the first. The new Transformers comic starts before the dawn of the Great War, portraying Cybertron as a technological utopia, as seen through the eyes of a freshly-forged (and entirely new) character named Rubble. However, when Rubble stumbles across the first murder on Cybertron in living memory, it’s the first step towards the inevitable conflict the franchise is built on.
The new Transformers comic is interesting in that one can see Hasbro’s influence on it. Transformers is one of their flagship franchises, after all. Most notably, most of the cast (at least seen so far) take their character designs directly from the current “Siege” toyline. Which is fine, I suppose– but it’s interesting to see more obscure characters like Chromia get featured on the cover, as opposed to “regulars” like Soundwave or Bumblebee. Heck, the inclusion of female transformers like Chromia and Windblade in the first couple issues is kind of a big deal, as it took IDW a couple of years to introduce lady-robots to their comics. (Again, I blame Simon Furman). Though to IDW’s credit, they eventually used the conceit of a primarily mono-gendered robot species to play with some heady concepts about love and gender and so on. (Read: things got pretty gay sometimes. It was great!).
There’s not quite as much going on in the new Transformers comic just yet– but again, I’m comparing something only two issues old to over a decade of built up serialized storytelling from a whole mess of different artists. There’s kind of an underlying theme in the comic about choice, in that Rubble hasn’t decided on a function– or even an alternate mode yet, so that’s an interesting thing to explore.
Though on the other hand, the comic’s also detailing the rise of Megatron, which I am … a little leery of. See, one of my biggest criticisms of the ‘old’ IDW run was that it bent over backwards to give Megatron a redemption arc, and I’m like … eeeeh? Like, Megatron started as a justified rebel against an oppressive regime … but then somewhere along the line the Decepticons went straight into “LET’S DO SOME WAR CRIMES!” Fast forward a few million years, at which point Megatron has personally done a couple of genocides or so … but then once he loses the war and is taken prisoner he finally starts feeling really bad about it, but as atonement he jets off with Rodimus Prime (well, just ‘Rodimus.’ It’s complicated) to have whacky space adventures? (While taking a break every two or three issues to get really sad and angsty, you guys).
But yeah. Two issues in, Megatron is leading rallies and protests against … stuff? Like he and his “Ascenticon” followers decry that they’re being held back by society in various ways, but the comic … doesn’t show this? Which, again, we’re only two issues in, here. Still, I’m a bit leery of making Megatron too sympathetic. Admittedly, I grew up on the old cartoon in which he’s a cackling, Frank Welker-voiced madman. Or there’s also Tom Scioli’s “Megatron as Darkseid” take which is even more insane fun. Maybe I just prefer my villains, y’know, villainous?
Still, perhaps I’m being an optimist, as IDW could honestly make a pretty ballsy choice in out and out saying “No, Megatron is a fascist demagogue who wants to rule everything with an iron fist.” Have him rise to power by lying to the people (er, robots) and constructing false crises, and … HEY LOOK IT’S A POLITICAL METAPHOR! GET IT!?
Okay, maybe there’s a reason IDW didn’t tap me to write their new comic. But, as things are going thus far, I’m at least curious enough to keep reading the next few issues. And heck, if there’s enough demand for it, maybe I’ll ramble on about it in another blog entry in a couple of weeks. What do you guys think?
Science fiction is a genre for asking questions. What if we’re not alone in the universe? What if we are? How will new technology change us? Will we even be around in a thousand years? And so on. And in the case of W. Michael Gear’s Outpost, the question is: what if James Cameron’s Avatar movie didn’t suck?
Okay, I’m being a bit unfair. It’s not a perfect analogy.
Outpost doesn’t have any blue catpeople in it.
(Which is why it doesn’t suck).
What Outpost does have, however, is a lush and verdant jungle planet that is absolutely full of horrible alien monsters that will kill a human in an instant. The planet’s named Donovan– after the first man to set foot on it– and also the first man to die on the planet when he was eaten by a horrible alien carnivore two hours later. And yet, despite the deadly nature of Donovan, a hardy, scrappy band of colonists set up shop on the death-world, eking out a meager existence. Complicating matters is the fact that it’s been six years since the last supply ship arrived, so they’re forced to get by through recycling, improvisation, and just plain grit.
At least, until a ship does finally show up, carrying supplies– as well as four hundred new ‘colonists,’ a dozen heavily armed space marines, and a corporate supervisor who wants to know just what the hell is going on. And if that doesn’t complicate matters enough, one of the previously lost supply ships shows up … only as a derelict ghost ship that’s somehow been in warp-space for over a hundred years, despite it only being a two year trip from Earth.
Gear draws on a lot of different sources in Outpost. The deadly Space-Australia planet reminds me of Avatar (as well as a bunch of other death-worlds in sci-fi novels), but there’s also bits of Firefly, Predator, Event Horizon, and even Deadwood in the novel. Thankfully, apart from a throwaway reference to Alien as “an ancient movie,” Gear never gets cutesy with the references. Basically, he’s inspired by previous work instead of slavishly replicating it.
Instead, Outpost is a space western in the truest sense of the term. Not in the aesthetics of space-rustlers with blasters in hip holsters, but rather, it’s a novel about a dangerous (but lucrative) frontier, and people trying to profit from it as best they can. Port Authority, the titular colony of Outpost, is basically a gold-rush boomtown, only with people coming from Earth instead of ‘back east.’ And like any proper western town, order in Port Authority is maintained by a sheriff: a woman named Talina Perez, who’s basically Hispanic Ellen Ripley, and is therefore kick-ass. Talina’s not the only viewpoint character, however– honestly, with the multiple intertwining storylines, Outpost has the makings of a HBO-esque miniseries. Just, uh, not like the Outpost show they had on the CW for like half a season.
There’s plenty of adventure in Outpost— but there’s just as much politicking between the desperate people trying to lay claim to Donovan and its riches. The addition of the ghost-ship (and the distinct possibility the first supply ship may not make it back home) only makes things more convoluted. It’s all well-paced and engrossing enough that I devoured Outpost over the course of a few days, finding excuses to read just another chapter. What makes this even better is that Outpost was a random library find, so the whole thing came together to be a rather pleasant surprise.
This said, Outpost isn’t a perfect novel. For one, Gear has a habit of repeating certain turns of phrase– at least three or four characters are described as “brittle” in one way or another. Oh, and on the one hand, the book’s full of kick-ass female characters … but most of them are described in varying levels of hotness. Which … sometimes is through the eyes of a viewpoint character, but other times not? It’s a bit weird. Oh, and speaking of viewpoint characters, one of them, Dan Wirth, is a murderous, misogynistic sociopath who carves out a niche for himself in running vice in Port Authority. On the one hand, Talina and several other characters instantly recognize Dan as a piece of shit (albeit a dangerous one), but on the other … Dan never gets his proper comeuppance. Like, I was waiting the whole book for some horrible monster to eat him, but … nope. In fact, Gear’s written three of these novels (the third comes out in May) and Dan is still alive in the third one, which just sounds frustrating.
Oh, and did I mention Outpost is the first in a trilogy? Because it is. And sure, it has plenty of dangling plot threads– but at the same time it doesn’t quite suffer from first-in-a-series-itis like some other books do. It works well as its own novel– the expanded plotlines are just icing on the proverbial cake. I imagine I’ll read the sequel novels soon enough– if nothing else, it’s fun to have a new author & series to follow, so here’s to that, right?
I’ve been reading a lot of Fantasy lately, so I figured I’d balance things out with some Sci-Fi. I was in the mood for something different (or at least from a new author), at which point I stumbled across W.C. Bauers’ Unbreakable. Not related to the the M. Night Shamaylan flick, thankfully.
Unbreakable is a Military Science Fiction novel, centering on the adventures of Lieutenant Promise Paen, of the Republic of Allied Worlds Marine Corps. Between Promise Paen and Honor Harrington, I’m wondering if there’s a rule somewhere that Mil-SF women should be named like Pilgrim women. It’s definitely something I’ll keep in mind when I write my own Mil-SF novel starring one Captain Charity Constance. Which … has something of a ring to it, when you say it out loud. Hm.
So yeah. Promise is your typical Mil-SF protagonist; dutiful, determined, and deadly. Though Bauers does differentiate her just a bit, by making Promise more than a little crazy. As in ‘regularly hallucinating and having conversations with her dead mother’ crazy. Huh.
Still, the arguable insanity doesn’t seem to hold back Promise’s career. After working her way up through the enlisted ranks to become a sergeant, Promise soon finds herself promoted to officer-grade soon after that. Which is just in time for the unprepared Promise to take command of a company of power-armored marines (no not that kind) in order to defend the frontier world (and the planet she was born on) of … Montana.
No, really. The planet’s called Montana. And it looks like Montana, too, complete with mountains and ranches and sexy cowboys. Which, well, I suppose I’d rather live on Planet Montana than Planet New Jersey. Still, Bauers doesn’t do much to really distinguish Planet Montana as a unique, alien environment– which is kind of a shame, really. It could’ve been fun to toss in Space-Grizziles, or maybe have a regiment of space-cowboy cavalry, or … something you could only do in a sci-fi novel, you know?
The whole “Space Montana” thing (whose pistol-packing president I wound up visualizing as Space-Sarah Palin) is just the first of the many, many right-leaning elements of the book. Which is fine, I guess– Bauers never goes into all-out Alex Jones conspiracy theory madness, but it was enough for me to quirk an eyebrow. For example, everybody (or almost everybody, except for Promise’s space-Amish dad) on Planet Montana loves guns, wearing sidearms all over the place because they’re cowboys. Promise herself packs an antique Glock (always capitalized as GLOCK– I’m fairly certain it’s not an acronym) that the women of her family passed down for generations. The GLOCK is lovingly described, oohed and aaahed over by many Montanans, as are many other weapons throughout the book.
It’s to the point that Planet Montana doesn’t have a proper police department– but rather, a volunteer “Rotary” that’s also the local gun club. I mean, I enjoy target shooting from time to time, but even I can see this to be a terrifyingly bad idea. I kept on waiting for the other shoe to drop, for “maybe we shouldn’t give the civilian space cowboys laser rifles?” to be brought up, but … it never lands. Bauers just plays the whole thing completely straight. Though to his credit, he at least makes it a point to include a variety of different peoples and nationalities on both sides of the inevitable conflict, so it’s not straight-out “white people vs. the swarthy spacemen” business. Which is a low bar to set, but still.
So yeah. Promise first has to deal with some space-pirates, and then her tiny company of 40 marines (with the support of the Rotary Militia) has to defend the planet from an invading fleet from the Space-English Empire Monarchists. Standard Mil-SF stuff ensues, with tactics and planning and overwhelming odds and a whole lot of explosions. And if you’re in the mood for some cheesy space adventure, that’s fine.
Military Science Fiction isn’t necessarily a conservative genre. I mean, one can just look at the work of Eric Flint, Tanya Huff, or John Scalzi to name a few authors who write lefty Mil-SF. This said, the more I think about it, the more Unbreakable comes off as a fantasy– the Libertarian Utopia, fending off an attack by the Space-Redcoats, re-fighting the Revolutionary War centuries later (in space). This isn’t a bad thing, per-se, and Bauers never gets into weird and problematic territory like some authors do. It’s just Bauers doesn’t bring much new to Unbreakable, except for the ‘protagonist hallucinating her mother’ bit. Which almost serves more as a way for Promise’s mom to provide snarky commentary and/or dispense matronly advice than anything. So I guess Unbreakable is a decent read if you’re up for an adventure about space marines in cool power armor, but honestly it doesn’t bring much to the table beyond that.
And just to wrap things up, let’s take a look at how it scores in Mil-SF bingo! That’ll probably give you a good idea of what to expect.
Maybe it’s because of all the Kung Fu movies, or maybe it’s because I’ve had enough of the standard “swords and elves” stuff, but I absolutely love Asian-themed fantasy novels. Lucky for me, there’s a bunch of writers (many of whom are Asian-American themselves) writing stuff exactly along these lines. Fonda Lee, Ken Liu, Jy Yang … and now R.F. Kuang, with her debut novel, The Poppy War.
The Poppy War centers on Rin, a young orphan girl who, after acing the Imperial Examination, earns herself admission to Nikan’s (read: Fantasy-China) most prestigious military academy. But where Rin took the test as a way to escape an arranged marriage and a life of misery, her problems are only beginning. The other, noble-born students at the academy aren’t particularly welcoming to a dark-skinned peasant girl, nor are several of the teachers. And soon thereafter she finds she’s a shaman: someone with the dangerous magic ability to draw power from the gods– the Phoenix, in her case. And the Phoenix likes to burn stuff. Before Rin can finish her studies (or master her power), war breaks out, and she’s drafted into a black-ops crew of other oddball shamans in order to fight a war that cannot be won.
Outlining the plot in the most general of ways makes The Poppy War sound like a pulpy kung-fu adventure … which it assuredly is not. Kuang deals with a lot of heavy themes like drug addiction and genocide, making The Poppy War pretty grim. Grimdark, even, as the book’s even marketed that way. The first third or so of the novel is pretty standard school-based stuff, but once the Not-Japanese invade, things get very ugly, very quickly. Which … well, I guess if you’re in the mood for that sort of thing, it works?
The Poppy War never revels in its violence, instead just showing war as an ugly, brutal, hellish thing. Except … things get to be a little too on the nose. For instance, a major plot point late in the novel revolves around a fantasy version of the Nanking Massacre. It’s rightfully portrayed as terrible, but at the same time I’m just a bit leery of using real life tragedies from living memory as the basis of a fantasy book. Like, I would look really askance at a book that had Ye Olde Dark Lord round up all the elves and make them wear yellow stars on their tunics, you know? Though at the same time, Kuang makes a compelling point on her blog, noting that the Nanking Massacre is something that a lot of people honestly have never heard of, and some hard-line Japanese academics still deny to this day.
The best Sci Fi and Fantasy can be used to reflect and comment on own world– but the thing is, The Poppy War doesn’t quite manage to get that reflection just right. I think a lot of this comes from the setting, which Kuang doesn’t quite nail down. In the broad strokes, it works. Not-China is broken up into twelve provinces, each named after part of the Chinese Zodiac, and Kuang works in plenty of history and legends and such. However, it’s the little details that stood out to me as a bit anachronistic. For example, if you look at the map below, note the inclusion of the Wudang Mountains. Which, I should note, are an actual place. It’d be like if you were reading Lord of the Rings and Gandalf started leading the hobbits to “mysterious Appalachia.” Likewise, one of Rin’s squadmates is a guy named Baji who wields a rake and channels a pig-god and hey haven’t I heard of this guy before? To use the Tolkien reference again, imagine Hercules or Thor just showing up to chill at Rivendell. It’s almost like there’s a draft of The Poppy War that was set in actual-China, and Kuang forgot to tweak the details.
Am I being nitpicky? Maybe. But at the same time, tiny details like this can make a heck of a difference in how a book reads. The biggest thing is a matter of technology– Kuang writes The Poppy War with a vaguely pre-industrial tone, with a throwaway line about how other countries are centuries more advanced than not-China … but she rarely shows us how. Like, the not-Japanese have poison gas and vivisection labs … but at the same time their soldiers still fight with swords and spears. Now, weird mixes of anachronistic tech can be really fun to play with in a novel, but Kuang never really leans into this. Which is especially weird when characters mention stuff like barbed wire (which wasn’t invented ’til the 19th century) or talking about other characters “being good in a firefight.” (Despite the setting not actually having guns in it). Honestly, I think The Poppy War could’ve been a lot more interesting if Kuang was more explicit with the tech disparity between not-China and not-Japan. Ranks of riflemen gunning down kung-fu masters, airships bombing ancient palaces, that sort of thing. It’d definitely be in line with the anti-Imperialist themes of the book.
Quibble as I may, I did enjoy reading The Poppy War, even if the grimdark bits came in as something of a surprise. This is supposed to be the first in a series, which I’m … curious about, but I’m not a hundred percent sure if I want to go on reading it. The Poppy War‘s ending is pretty bleak, which … leaves more room for things to get better? But I’m fairly certain things’ll get even worse before too terribly long. It’s never a grand tragedy along the lines of a wuxia flick– instead, it’s a more ‘realistic’ take on things, where war (and really, life) is terrible and senseless and ultimately futile.
But hey, if you’re in the mood for something heavy, go for it.
After reading Witchmark, I kind of wanted to get back to something a little more in my wheelhouse: which is to say, something pulpy and gritty and more than a little ridiculous. Which brings us to Myke Cole’s Fortress Frontier. Cole absolutely floored me with The Armored Saint not too long ago, so I figured I’d give his other series a go.
Military Sci-Fi books are a dime a dozen (sometimes literally, if you find the right used bookstore), but Military Fantasy isn’t nearly as an established genre. There are a bunch of reasons for this– Sci Fi being slightly older than the modern Fantasy genre, for one. Furthermore, while big classic epics like, say, The Lord of the Rings do feature grand armies and battles, they’re not the focus of the book, but rather an opportunity for the heroes to look cool. Especially since a lot of Tolkien-derived fantasy in turn is set in Ye Olde Medieval Tymes(tm), well before modern-style professional armies were a thing.
Capping it all off, there’s never been a seminal work of Military Fantasy, as Starship Troopers is to Military Sci-Fi. Which isn’t to say that folks haven’t tried– Mary Gentle’s Grunts comes to mind, or even the gritty mercenary adventures of The Black Company. Or, well, Cole’s Shadow Ops series should definitely be put on that list.
Technically, you could argue that the Shadow Ops series is Military Urban Fantasy, almost? As the premise of the series is that one day in the near future, something called the Great Reawakening started giving people magic powers more or less at random. Naturally, this causes a great deal of chaos, at which point the US government decides to deal with the problem by simply drafting all Americans with magic into a special branch of the military … and arresting anybody who doesn’t comply. More on that in a bit.
While Fortress Frontier is the second in the series, I was able to jump in without too much trouble. That, in and of itself, is pretty impressive– a lot of book series can get pretty dense, pretty fast, if you haven’t started from the beginning. It helps that most of the book centers on a fresh protagonist: Col. Alan Bookbinder, a career Army officer and lifelong paper-pusher. When he manifests magic powers, however, he finds himself getting re-assigned and shipped out to F.O.B. Frontier, a besieged military base set up in the magic dimension. And before long, the base winds up cut off from the home dimension, and a surprise goblin attack (oh yeah, did I mention there are goblins?) kills the base’s actual commander, leaving Bookbinder the highest ranking officer in the whole dimension. Bookbinder is an interesting character, often overwhelmed– but constantly pushing himself further. Pretty standard stuff, but Cole does it well, without ever delving into “war is the only way to become a man” macho BS you see in a lot of Mil-SF.
And so, Bookbinder has to figure out not only how to get his people home, but also how to master his new magic powers, which are of a sort that nobody’s seen before. There’s also some other stuff in the middle about the protagonist of the last book, a fugitive spellcaster (and former soldier) trying to escape and/or clean up the mess he made in the first novel. Like, apparently he freed some big evil murderous witch when he was trying to break out? Ooops.
As a pulpy adventure, Fortress Frontier delivers. Cole’s action scenes are visceral and well paced, capturing the sheer chaos and brutality of war. Though at the same time, there’s the magic side of things, too, as Cole throws in various monsters, ranging from goblins to small dragons to fire-minotaur-things (who are naturally weak to ice spells). It’s very D&D– which is entirely intentional, given how Cole gives a shout out to Gary Gygax in the dedication. So if you’re in the mood to read about army dudes shooting goblins with M-16’s, you’re set.
The thing about the Shadow Ops series (or at least the one book I’ve read of them) is that they’re definitely one of those series where the world is shaped to fit the plot of the books, rather than vice versa. For example, there’s the whole ‘draft all the wizards!’ thing, which … doesn’t strike me as the best of plans. There’s a brief mention of “hey, don’t we have a better use for these magic powers than throwing fireballs? Couldn’t we use this to revolutionize medicine or agriculture or something?” but it’s not really the focus of the book. There’s also, of course, an evil corporation manipulating the government and doing magic stuff for their own profit, so that plays into it.
One thing that’s not addressed as much is that the whole ‘military magic’ branch can be … well, really, really stupid. I suppose you could argue this is just part of the whole ‘corrupt corporation pulling the strings’ thing, but … well, it’s really dumb. Namely, F.O.B. Frontier is a base that’s nearly thirty square kilometers, garrisoned by nearly fifteen thousand soldiers and contractors, in the middle of what’s essentially Goblin-Afghanistan. And yet, with thousands of lives and millions of dollars of equipment put out in the open, there are two people who have the magic needed to take people and materiel from one dimension to the other. Two. And one of them is that fugitive guy I mentioned earlier, pressed into service.
You’d think somebody, at some point would realize this is a bad idea, but somehow nobody really mentions it ’til the one guy’s gone rogue and killed the other one. This is what you call “bad planning.” Which has got me wondering just what the point of setting up a base in the middle of magic fantasyland is supposed to accomplish, but that
Fortress Frontier wears its influences on its sleeve. There’s a lot of X-men in there, along with the obvious D&D nods and a bit of Avatar-style elemental magic, all wrapped up in authentic military jargon and attitude. Cole served in the Coast Guard, and was stationed in a bunch of different places, so he knows his shit. Fortress Frontier is well worth a read if you’ve ever wanted to give your D&D character an assault rifle. If you’re looking for anything deeper than that, however … well, you might want to look for a book that doesn’t feature a dude with a shotgun on the cover. I might track down some of the other books in the series at some point, but to be honest I’m more interested in reading sequels to The Armored Saint first.