Book Review: Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology

Turns out, books that don’t come out of the dollar paperback bin are usually better than those that do. Go figure.

Case in point, Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. I picked it up from the library on a whim, at which point I devoured it over the course of a few days, and now here we are. Gaiman’s an author I’ve enjoyed in the past, even if it’s been quite some time since I’ve read his work, so this seems like a solid place to start!

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As one would expect, Norse Mythology is about, well, Norse mythology. Gaiman gives a brief (I dare say too brief) introduction at the beginning of the book, touching on some of the background behind the myths, how they’ve mutated over the years, and how the surviving stories we have today are a mere fraction of the Norse mythos.

But, before Gaiman can get too academic, he launches into retellings of the Norse Myths themselves. To be honest, most of my Norse mythology knowledge comes from comic books and that one Bugs Bunny Cartoon with the spear and magic helmet. And even then, Thor’s hardly my favorite avenger. And while there’s a distinct lack of an eye-shadowed Jeff Goldblum, Norse Mythology is still a fascinating read, swinging between grim fatalism and flat out hilarious hijinks.

Gaiman writes the stories as if he were telling them in a mead-hall or whatever– it’s not quite structured poetry, but there’s a definite rhythm to it. I’m sure the audiobook is a great listen. Another thing that struck me was that, while things were played in pretty broad strokes, the various characters of Norse mythology are, well, characters. Thor’s a simple-minded brute, Loki is less Tom Hiddleston and more “oh crap I’m making this up as I go along,” and Odin is a big jerk. Seriously, when the whole Ragnarok thing rolls around to kill all the Norse gods, they pretty much have it coming.

The stories in the middle of the sequence were my favorites– they usually follow the same formula of, “Loki does something stupid, Thor threatens him into fixing it, hijinks ensue, and then Thor kills a bunch of giants.” And while I rather doubt we’ll ever see a Marvel version of the story where Thor & Loki have to dress in drag to get Thor’s hammer back, I bet Taika Watiti would have done a great job of it.

I’d hardly call Norse Mythology a first-hand look at mythology the way that, say, The Iliad is. But then again, it’s not supposed to be. Here, Gaiman just collects a bunch of stories and tells them in an entertaining, accessible way, much like the dozens upon dozens of similar books on Greek myth.

Even so, I couldn’t help but wonder how the Norse sagas (or at least Gaiman’s retelling of them) were influenced by other sources. The vikings were known for their wide-ranging trade networks, so it makes sense that they’d pick up characters or elements from other places. For example, one of the stories centers on Loki losing (and having to steal back) the golden apples of immortality– which got me wondering about other ‘fruits of immortality’ in Greek– and even Chinese myths, and probably a lot beyond that. Is ‘magic fruit’ a universal thing in human cultures, or did one source find its way to influence the other on the opposite side of the world?

Gaiman never goes into these sort of tangents– because, again, it’s not that kind of book. Instead, we get a breezy and often funny look at a subject that’s not explored too terribly often. Well worth a read, even if you’re not much of a Chris Hemsworth fan.

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Book Review: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword

I’ve written on this blog long enough to run out of elegant ways to segue from “hey I read a shitty book” to “hey I read a good book.” So I’ll just forgo any attempt at cleverness, and say “Oh hey I just read Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword” and get on with the damn review.

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Ancillary Sword is the sequel to Leckie’s earlier novel, Ancillary Justice. It’s, in fact, a direct sequel, kicking off mere days after the conclusion to the earlier novel. This threw me for a bit of a loop at first, as it’s been three years since I read Ancillary Justice, so it took me a couple of chapters to get my head around some of the book’s central conceits.

For one, the protagonist, Breq, used to be a starship’s AI, until she was downloaded into one of her human bodies (the titular Ancillaries– human bodies used as drones by AI’s) while the rest of her was destroyed. At the beginning of Ancillary Sword, Breq is given a new ship– though this is one she’s supposed to captain, not, uh, be.

Even still, Breq is mentally linked to her new ship, The Mercy of Kalr (which I almost typed as “The Mercy of Karl” just now, which would be hilarious), along with its ridiculously powerful suite of sensors, allowing Breq to observe her crew with ridiculous preciseness– which ultimately comes to something of a cheat in blurring the lines between first and third person POV. Still, it’s a fun gimmick, if a somewhat jarring one at times.

What’s even more jarring, however, is Leckie’s use of language. Y’see, just like in the first book, the language of the Radch Empire (Breq’s home, uh … faction?) doesn’t have gendered pronouns, and so in the English “translation” the default comes out to “she.” On top of that, everyone has weirdo future names, so it becomes something of a little puzzle to figure out who’s which gender (even though this contributes nothing to the plot). Leckie even uses this to somewhat comical effect when Breq travels to a space station in the middle of a phallus-based festival. Seriously, humans love drawing dicks on stuff. But I digress.

Oh, and if the pronoun thing wasn’t enough, there are passing mentions to characters having darker skin tones– basically, Leckie has a great time manipulating stereotypes so the “default” space opera character is a woman of color, rather than a white dude.

And honestly, that’s one of the less political aspects of the book. Where Ancillary Justice was something of a mystery-adventure, Ancillary Sword is a more personal book, exploring the culture of the Radch Empire. Because while the Radch may be a gender-blind society that explicitly gives out free food, clothing, shelter, and health care to all their citizens, the Radch is also an awful, awful place to live.

Leckie makes sure to focus on the “Empire” part of the Radch Empire in Ancillary Sword, focusing on the many, many ways it grinds people under its heel in service of “civilization.” The book reminded me (no doubt intentionally) of British occupied India, what, with the tea plantations that are worked by an indentured servant underclass who are in turn watched by servants of a “better” ethnicity and so on. And that’s before one gets into the horrifying way that the Radch literally turns human bodies into a commodity to be used as ancillaries, or the occasional genocide, or … yeah.

Breq, being the protagonist, naturally bucks against various societal injustices– though in a realistic way. There’s no part where she just barges in and punches people and says “SPACE COLONIALISM IS OVER!” I will admit I would have found that gratifying, but then again I’ve probably been playing too much Mass Effect.

Really, for a book with “sword” in the title, Ancillary Sword is surprisingly light on the space-action. Which isn’t a bad thing, mind you (I mean, I like 90’s era Star Trek). Breq’s forays into the general shittiness of Radch society are an interesting (if occasionally sobering) reflection of our own culture.

The thing is, Ancillary Sword has a kind of “middle sibling” or “Act Two” problem to it. Where Ancillary Justice worked as a standalone novel, Ancillary Sword doesn’t. Don’t get me wrong– the book is still well worth a read, but you’ve gotta read Ancillary Justice first to have any idea of what the hell is going on. Leckie just gets things running right off the bat with little in the way of recap at the beginning, and by the end she’s still got a bunch of loose plot threads (including ancient, insane AI’s, and a brewing civil war) leading into the final book in the trilogy, Ancillary Mercy. Hopefully I won’t wait a few years to read that last one, so I can remember the details from the first two.

Book Review: Deathlands, Chrono Spasm by James Axler

For 2018, I made it my New Year’s resolution to read at least 52 books.

This … may not have been a good idea. Mostly ’cause, like any New Year’s Resolution, I’m kind of fading on it only a few weeks in. Oops. Though really, it’s not the reading itself, so much as finding, y’know, good stuff to read.

I should probably work on that last part.

See, I was in a hurry, and I wanted to grab a cheap & cheesy paperback to read at lunch, so I grabbed something out of THE BOX, which is how I wound up reading Chrono Spasm. Or is it Deathlands: Chrono Spasm? It’s not like there’s a MLA format to this sort of thing.

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So yeah. Some background. The Deathlands series was published by Gold Eagle– the Men’s Adventure branch of Harlequin. Yes, that Harlequin. It makes sense– crank out bunches of formulaic romances for one half of the population, and formulaic violent adventures for the other. The Deathlands series ran from 1986 to 2015, for a total of 125 novels (131 if one counts the audiobooks released after HarperCollins bought Harlequin and shut the Gold Eagle label down). Crazy stuff.

Sidenote, there apparently was a Deathlands TV movie produced for the Sci Fi channel back in like 2003. I’m sure it was terrible, which means I kind of want to track it down now. Maybe it’s on Netflix?

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I have literally LARPed with people in better post apocalyptic costumes.

And, where the Mack Bolan books cover a vigilante war on “The Mob,” the Deathlands books go for a more gonzo sci-fi take. They’re set some generations after a global nuclear war, detailing the adventures of Ryan Cawdor– I’m guessing he’s the dude wearing the boots on the cover there. Ryan is a tough and gritty anti-hero looking dude with an eyepatch and he’s totally not ripping off Snake Plissken I swear.

Ryan roams around the atomic wastelands, often getting literally teleported from novel to novel by a network of secret transporter stations he apparently knows about? He has a bunch of friends with him, including his hot redheaded girlfriend, Krysty, who has weirdo mutant powers, an albino knife-fighting savage kid, some dude named J.B. who carries a bunch of guns and wears a fedora all the time, a doctor (and olympic level pistol markswoman) who was cryogenically frozen before the nuclear holocaust, and Doc, a country doctor from the Wild West who got teleported through time to the post apocalypse for … uh, some reason.

Oh, and each hero character has a very specific signature weapon that is mentioned over and over again. It’s weird– things are post apocalyptic enough that guns are referred to as “blasters” for some reason … but then the author never wastes an opportunity to remind you that Ryan packs a Sig Sauer, or that Krysty has a Smith & Wesson .38, or that Doc carries a Lemat Cavalry Revolver, and so on. It’s hardly ever just ‘a pistol’ or ‘a shotgun’ or whatever.

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To be fair, the LeMat is pretty cool. That underslung barrel is a shotgun!

Anyway, Chrono Spasm details Ryan & his well-armed compatriots getting teleported to some stretch of Alaska, where they soon run into a bunch of murderous cannibals descended from a bunch of Russians and Inuit. As you do. Said cannibals also ride around on carnivorous mutant caribou. As you do. Ryan and his friends get captured, and kind of float around for a hundred pages or so until they get an opportunity to escape and shoot a bunch of evil cannibal dudes.

As they make their escape, Ryan and his crew stumble into some kind of ill-explained time anomaly wasteland, complete with spectral “chronovores” that totally aren’t ripped off from The Langoliers or anything no really.

Eventually, it turns out that the big time rift thingie was created by Doc’s time-shadow-clone-twin or something. Y’see, when Doc was inexplicably warped through time, it broke him into two halves or something, and the other half took over some secret government time travel lab in an effort to become whole or go back to his own time or … something? I’ll be honest, in that I wasn’t reading very closely by that point.

Really, Chrono Spasm doesn’t have much of a plot so much as a loosely interconnected series of fight scenes. Of course, Chrono Spasm is Deathlands book #109, so I’m sure they were running out of ideas. Makes me wonder if they ever fought Cthulhu like Mack Bolan did that one time.

So yeah. I wasn’t expecting Chrono Spasm to be a good book– the thing is, it doesn’t quite live up to the kind of gonzo post apocalyptic madness that I was hoping for. The best bad novels (and bad movies, for that matter) have the kind of stuff that make you stare in bafflement and go “what the shit was that?” Instead, Chrono Spasm just reads as … mediocre.

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OH WAIT WRONG FRANCHISE.

Book Review: The Cage by S.M. Stirling and Shirley Meier

Thus far, the books I’ve been reading in 2018 have been, y’know, good. And where’s the fun in that? Because sometimes you’re just in the mood for something cheap and cheesy and ridiculous. And when it comes to that sort of thing, I couldn’t pass up a book by one of my go-to authors for this sort of thing, S.M. Stirling!

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HELLO LADIES

I am, of course, being terribly unfair– this book was co-written by one Shirley Meier, so maybe she’s got an unfortunate author photo as well?

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This’ll have to do.

Anyway! The Cage is not, in fact, about the pilot episode of Star Trek. Rather, it’s a swords & sorcery novel that basically operates on the question “What if Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser were women?” Which brings us to Megan Whitlock, the short and sneaky one with magic, and Shk’aira, the big tall barbarian one. I’m just gonna refer to her as Shakira from now on, ’cause extraneous apostrophes are silly. As to be expected, they tool around and get into trouble and stab dudes.

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Of course, in addition to gender-flipping the swords & sorcery archetypes, Stirling and Meier also pose the question: “What if Farfhrd and the Grey Mouser were women who were also totally gay for each other?” Honestly, that last part isn’t that much of a stretch– I mean, even in the original Lieber, you’ve got the one big and beardy one, and the shorter, fussier one, and you’re really just a drag number away from a production of The Birdcage.

Surprisingly enough, The Cage isn’t nearly as salacious as one would expect. I mean, things get occasionally explicit, but not exploitative, if that makes sense? Megan and Shakira’s relationship is presented as established and healthy– a couple of characters quirk a brow at the same sex aspect, but otherwise it’s not really remarked on. On the other hand, this book was also published in 1989, so it’s not perfect– Megan has the obligatory ‘she prefers women ’cause she was raped by a villain’ background. (Shakira, on the other hand, reads as a sexually omnivorous hedonist).

Really, this is one of those books I imagine some random nerdy kid stumbling across and getting to read unsupervised ’cause their parents thought it was a random Lord of the Rings knockoff, with … uh, interesting results. The Cage even has a bit where Shakira explains menstruation to the girl she’s taken on as her sidekick/apprentice, which … might make it feminist? It’s certainly not what I expected from a Farfhd & The Grey Mouser pastiche.

Now, “swords and sorcery lesbians having adventures” should be a shoe-in for a breezy, rollicking adventure. And that’s where The Cage doesn’t quite deliver. Oh, again, there are swordfights and such, but the thing about The Cage is that it’s actually one of the later books (if not the last one?) in Stirling & Meier’s “Fifth Millenium” series. As a result, the book is chock full of references to past places and past adventures that I had no idea of who or what they were talking about. I mean, look at the first page here.

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Just read the bit in bold aloud. I dare you.

It doesn’t help that The Cage is absolutely filled with Nonsense Fantasy Vocabulary, to the point where there’s an (incomplete) glossary at the back.

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Protip: At no point should your fantasy novel make it look like there’s going to be a vocabulary quiz at the end.

And, on top of that, apparently one of the gimmicks of the Fifth Millennium series is that it’s set in a ostensibly post-apocalyptic milieu. There are very brief bits where this is used cleverly– for example, the seal of the united states and images of Uncle Sam are seen as ill-omens … but on the other hand, apparently global thermonuclear war is enough to make everyone start naming things (and each other) with unessescary apostrophes. And even without the extra punctuation, a lot of the names come off as silly– Megan’s race/people/nation/whatever are known as “The Zak,” which just makes me think of Saved by the Bell. There’s also a character named Rilla Shadows’Shade, which I’m pretty sure was the name of Shirley Meier’s first D&D character. Or maybe it was S.M. Stirling’s.

The dual authorship also leads to some weird stuff– again, I can’t quite pin down who wrote which chapters, but the book has a tendency to swing between horrible violence and good-natured fluff. For example, one chapter features Megan & Shakira’s riverboat crew being attacked by rapey troglodyte cannibals, then the next has them reuniting with some old friends, with the obligatory feasting and dancing and stuff– and then in the next chapter saboteurs burn down their ship and kill a lot of the extras side characters. Yeeeep.

Really, The Cage comes off as a little episodic– when honestly, it shouldn’t. Y’see, the central conceit of the plot is Megan coming home to exact revenge on the dude who sold her into slavery some years earlier, but it takes foreeeeeeevar for her to actually get there. Kill Bill, this is not. As a result, the random digressions into cannibal-fighting or whatever, while properly pulpy, don’t add much to the narrative. And there’s other weird stuff, too, like the part where Shakira psychically bonds with a carnivorous murder-horse for … some reason. I think there was a rule that every female-starring fantasy novel published in the 1980’s had to have a psychic animal companion.

So yeah. On paper, I should love a book about post apocalyptic swords & sorcery lesbians. Unfortunately, The Cage gets bogged down in its own backstory– it’s definitely one of those cases where Stirling and Meier no doubt have reams and reams of meticulous notes on the setting, and damn they’re gonna show you as much of it as possible, plot or no plot. If nothing else, The Cage is at least a uniquely weird read, and that’s what I signed up for when I snagged it. Though now I’m wondering if I should try finding an earlier book in the series for a more swashbuckling adventure.

Book Review: Agatha Christie’s A Pocket Full of Rye

I was in the mood for something a little different (read: something without dragons or spaceships on the cover). Something … respectable. But not too respectable, mind you, ’cause I’m not in the mood to read an experimental prose-poem based on the author’s adolescence growing up in 70’s Nantucket or something.

Hence, Agatha Christie.

Christie is one of those authors whose work I’ve probably watched more than read. Both in the masterfully done BBC adaptations, and also in her work itself– The Alley theater has put on great productions of Christie’s plays like Black Coffee. Which reminds me I still need to see Branaugh’s Murder on the Orient Express, but that’ll probably have to wait ’til the DVD/Netflix release.

And so, in an effort to broaden my horizons, and to look into a master writer at work, I snagged A Pocket Full of Rye from the library, more or less at random.

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A Pocket Full of Rye stars Miss Marple, Christie’s second most (or perhaps first-most, depending on who you ask) famous character. Marple is a fun character: a seemingly harmless little old lady with a keen mind and an inquisitive nature. And even though Miss Marple doesn’t show up ’til page 100 or so, she’s the one who (spoiler alert) solves the mystery at the heart of A Pocket Full of Rye.

To be honest, if you’ve read (or watched) enough Christie, you’ll know exactly what to expect. There’s a big ol’ manor house, populated with a half dozen stock characters: a corrupt businessman, his bickering children, the mysteriously shifty housemaid, and so on. There’s a murder– and then two more, and soon enough a police inspector and Miss Marple are systematically interviewing people and gathering clues to figure out just what the heck’s going on. The ‘gimmick’ in this case is that the murders are very loosely based on the old nursery rhyme ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds.’ The first victim is found poisoned with grains of rye in his pocket, giving the book its title.

Apart from the pretty standard Christie-style mystery, the big thing that struck me about A Pocket Full of Rye was a rather English streak of polite cynicism running through it. I mean, I wouldn’t expect a book about poisoning and murder to be ‘light’ in tone, but Christie has a kind of bemused pity for most of her characters, often highlighting how dumb, ugly, or banal they are.

On top of that, A Pocket Full of Rye isn’t set in an exotic locale like, say, Death on the Nile or Murder on the Orient Express. I’m sure the BBC adaptation has wonderfully lavish sets and costuming, but Christie doesn’t dwell on any of that in the prose.

Still, despite these little notes, A Pocket Full of Rye is a compelling, if disposable mystery. Christie knows what she’s doing, and she does it very well. This said, it’s not the best of her novels– it mostly feels like a mid-season episode on PBS Mystery.

Ultimately, A Pocket Full of Rye is one of those books where there’s not too much to say about it. It’s one of those novels that’s good, but not quite great. I don’t think I’d suggest it for someone’s first exposure to Agatha Christie’s work, but it’s still worth looking into if you’re familiar with Christie’s work, and you’re in the mood for a quick read.

Book Review: Previously on X Men, by Eric Lewald

“Previously, on X-Men.”

If you were a kid in the 90’s, you know exactly how that phrase is supposed to sound.

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Dun dun dun dun, dun DUN.

And, well, I was a kid in the 90’s. X-Men: The Animated Series was one of those cornerstones of my Saturday morning schedule, to the point when I had to go to the doctor on Saturdays, I made it a point to record whatever episode I missed. That VHS full of X-men cartoons is still floating around somewhere– not that I really need it, as I snagged the show on DVD awhile back.

As such, as soon as I found out about Eric Lewald’s Previously on X-Men, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy. Eric Lewald was the lead producer on X-Men: The Animated series, and in his book he provides a first-hand account of how the show was made.

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It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when Marvel comics didn’t dominate the pop culture landscape. There were the comics, sure, but the likes of Wolverine and Gambit never really became known in broader culture until X-Men: The Animated Series came along. X-Men: The Animated Series changed all that– Lewald gets just a bit self congratulatory in places, as he claims credit (in a small way) for kicking off the chain of events that’s lead to an Avengers movie making all the money every summer.

The story of how the X-Men cartoon came to be is a fascinating one. First, the poducers had to convince skeptical Hollywood executives that a cartoon about an obscure comic (albeit one that was one of Marvel’s best sellers) would be worth making. Once they did that, everyone started meddling– ranging from network censors trying to tone down the violence, to guys in marketing who wanted the X-men to wear X-men branded pajamas, to Stan Lee himself insisting that he do a live-action introduction to each episode (nevermind the fact that he hadn’t written the X-men since the 60’s).

Heck, in reading Previously on X Men, I’ve realized that X-Men: The Animated Series could never be made today. Marvel (which is to say, Disney) simply curates their IP too carefully these days. Furthermore, the X-Men cartoon was key to the success of the Fox network (so does that mean we should blame Lewald for Fox news?). Since Fox was an upstart network, they had a more freewheeling approach to content, and thus allowed X-Men: The Animated Series to feature ongoing storylines and actual death and stuff. At first, at least– later seasons would move more towards individual, disconnected stories.

Sometimes, the show’s limitations worked in its favor. For example, to save money, they recorded all the show’s dialogue in Canada, since the Canadian SAG’s rules don’t require residuals on reruns (Haim Saban, one of the show’s producers, is a notoriously cheap bastard). Which in turn led to the casting of stage actors for the cartoon, giving it its unique voice.

Previously on X-Men provides a treasure trove of first-hand material on the cartoon. Lewald includes various memos, character sketches, and storyboards showing just how X-Men: The Animated Series was put together. Heck, there’s even a whole chapter that gives an episode by episode list of every obscure literary quote Beast made over the course of the show. There are tons of other fun bits in there as well: Lewald notes that “Beyond Good & Evil” was originally supposed to be the series finale (until Fox ordered another dozen episodes or so), and admits “Have Yourself a Morlock Little Xmas” wasn’t a very good idea in retrospect.

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The latter half of the book consists of interviews with the cast, crew, writers and executives involved in X-Men: The Animated Series. This part kind of drags, given a lot of the information revealed in the interviews has already been covered. Still, there’s a few really interesting bits in there, like an interview with Len Wein, creator of staple X-men like Wolverine, Colossus, Nightcrawler and Storm.

This said, Previously on X-Men isn’t perfect. Like I mentioned before, Lewald has a mildly self congratulatory tone throughout. On the one hand, I loved the cartoon as a kid, so I suppose I should give Lewald props for his part in creating it. On the other, he keeps mentioning how X-Men: The Animated Series was the forerunner of today’s superhero blockbusters. There’s even a chapter towards the end consisting of fan testimonials about how they loved the show, which feels a bit unnecessary. Or maybe I’m just salty Lewald didn’t ask me for a testimonial.

Furthermore, Lewald kind of glosses over the decline of the show– he pretty much attributes the gradual loss of quality to Saban farming the animation out to a cheaper, crappier studio, and generic “executives” decreeing that there be no more ongoing storylines, outside of multi-part episodes. Given how hard Lewald & co fought to get the first season made the way they wanted, it’s kind of disappointing to see that, once the show was successful, they just kind of shrugged and went with it. Though I’m pretty sure Wolverine never wore pajamas with his own face on them, so that’s something.

All and all, Previously on X-Men is a must read for fans of the 90’s cartoon– though with its detailed account of TV production, I dare say it could be an interesting read for anybody with a general interest in how an animated TV show is made.

Book Review: Fonda Lee’s Jade City

And it’s time to hit the ground running in 2018!

Technically this is a book I started reading in 2017, but just finished today, so … yeah. Still, it should say something that I got this book for Christmas and devoured it in under a week. It’s that good. I every book I read in 2018 was this interesting, I’d be a happy man.

Jade City is a rare case of advertising actually, well, working– I saw an ad for the book pop up on my facebook feed awhile back, and, well, onto my Amazon wish list it went. I’m not going to say that Fonda Lee wrote Jade City specifically for me (I mean, it doesn’t have any giant robots), but it’s pretty damn close. The elevator pitch is basically “The Godfather, only with magic kung fu,” which is a heck of an attention grabber.

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Lee has created a vibrant– and moreover original novel that draws equally from mobster movies and kung fu flicks. The novel is set in what’s basically fantasy Hong Kong (I mean, heck, most of the action takes place in a city named Janloon, which is only a couple letters away from Kowloon). The world of Jade City isn’t just “China only the Kung Fu movies are real,” bur rather its own fleshed out thing, complete with slang, religions, politics, and all the other stuff that makes life complicated. I’ve also gotta give Lee bonus points for setting her fantasy world in a vaguely post WWII setting, complete with cars, guns, and television, rather than just another retread of ‘the middle ages, only with wizards.’

The novel’s plot focuses on the scions of the No Peak Clan, a magic-powered crime family, as they butt up against their drug-slinging rivals, The Mountain Clan. Secrets, intrigue, and jade-powered magic kung fu duels ensue. A trope-savvy reader can easily identify a lot of the characters and plot points in Jade City: there’s one sibling who just wants to live a ‘normal life,’ free of the ‘family business,’ there’s an aging patriarch well past his glory days, and there’s even a fight-happy brawler who cherishes loyalty and could probably star in his own shonen anime. The thing is, Jade City is more than the sum of its parts– Lee plays around with these disparate ideas, playing some straight, and subverting others.

Heck, the jade-magic itself is pretty interesting in its own right. Basically, certain people have the ability to wear jade– which gives you the ability to fly around and punch through walls like you’re in a Tsui Hark movie. There are various disciplines– Lightness lets you fly, Steel hardens your skin, Deflection, Strength, and Perception do exactly what they say on the tin, and so on. The magic’s not quite as laid out as something Brandon Sanderson would do– but that’s a good thing. Though there’s a fun little quirk in that the more jade you carry, the more powerful you are– so calling somebody ‘green’ is a compliment, not an implication they’re a rookie.

All of these ingredients are bound together in a twisty but fast-paced plot– the sort of book to keep the reader saying ‘just one more chapter’ to see how things play out. Lee strikes a great balance between the crazy action and explorations of her original fantasy setting. Things occasionally get a little exposition-y from time to time, but Lee manages to make things interesting enough so that it’s worth reading.

Honestly, my biggest complaint about Jade City is there isn’t enough of it. Don’t get me wrong: the novel tells a complete story (though with an appropriate number of dangling plot threads to mine in sequels), but … well, there’s just the one book. For now. I’d love to read more stories set in this setting– not just to see what’s next for the characters (even though that’d be great). The world of Janloon just begs for further development. Lee could easily write a war story prequel to Jade City, or, better yet, a sequel set a few decades later, detailing the adventures of a Jackie Chan-esque policeman trying to take down the kung fu mafia clans. I mean, Jade Cop is pretty much a shoe-in of a title, right?

My only other big complaint about reading Jade City is that since it’s a new, obscure book … I don’t have anyone else I can geek out over it with. Which, I suppose, is what this blog’s for, huh? Seriously, go get a copy of Jade City and read it so I can tell you about how Gont should be played by either Benedict Wong or Bolo Yeung.

Seriously, though– if you’re looking for something fresh and new on your bookshelf, give Jade City a read.

2018! Goals and stuff!

Survived another year. Whew.

Man, 2017 just rushed by entirely too fast, didn’t it? Huh. It was one of those years where I just sort of ‘got by’– I mean, I didn’t have any major disasters or anything, but I also fell into something of a routine as well. Huh.

And on the nerd side of things, I wrote 44 book reviews over the course of 2018. (I think there were at least three books I read that I wound up not reviewing out of laziness/scheduling, but still). Which is … not as many as I anticipated? Hm. It might be interesting to break things down by genre or whatever but I honestly don’t quite feel like going through that much effort at the moment.

With this in mind, a friend of mine invited me to a facebook group with the stated goal of reading 52 books in a year, which is something I’m sure I’ve done at some point or another. (If nothing else, they count graphic novels as half, which would be enough to pad me out to the full 52 in a pinch).

It also helps I’ve got a rather massive to-read list. There’s still THE BOX, which I snagged a year ago and still haven’t made a real dent in yet. There’s also the massive pile of old Sci-Fi novels my brother in law foisted on me when he was culling his bookshelves …

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… or there’s my ever-growing to-read pile, built up higher and higher by random trips to the used bookstore. I’m gonna be good and try to buy fewer books in 2018 so I can focus on whittling my to-read pile down … but I make no promises.

So yeah! I’m gonna give this 52 book resolution a shot, aaaaand I’m going to try to write more fiction (which may or may not get previewed here, who knows) aaaand I may even go on an adventure or two once it gets warmer.

Of course, I have to wonder– is there anything that YOU guys would like to see featured on this blog? Authors I should check out? Bad cartoons I should watch? Old action figures I should nostalgize about? Let me know in the comments!

Book Review: Jim Butcher’s Storm Front

Here’s another book I read (well, re-read) during my Twelve Days of Crimmus, but have only gotten around to reviewing now– Jim Butcher’s Storm Front.

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Storm Front is the first novel in the Dresden Files, arguably the most popular and successful Urban Fantasy series going today. The premise is (initially) simple: Harry Dresden is the only wizard in Chicago’s phone book. He solves mysteries and throws fireballs– it’s basically “What if Harry Potter grew up to be Sam Spade?”

Butcher was hardly the first to put magic into a modern setting, nor was he even the best at doing so, but his books came around at the right time and the right place to kick things off. I had the book laying around ever since I first read it, many a year ago, so I thought I’d return to it to see exactly just what Butcher did right … and what he did wrong.

Even fans of the Dresden Files will admit that the first few books are flawed, and that the series doesn’t really get going until the third or fourth in the series. But even then, Storm Front lays the foundation, both good and bad, that you can see going through the whole series.

The first thing that struck me about Storm Front was its weird streak of conservatism. According to the rules of Butcher’s setting, magic and technology don’t mix. As a result, Harry is constantly grumbling about how old-timey craftsmanship is hard to find in the modern age. So he drives an old car, doesn’t have a computer … and uses a wood stove. Because apparently using a gas stove would be too ‘modern,’ given that sort of technology has been around, what, 150 years, at least? Heck, the very fact that Dresden’s in the phone book kind of dates the novel (it was published in 2000, for the record). “Magic and technology are incompatible” is a safe enough path to take with an urban fantasy novel, but on the other hand I know White Wolf’s Mage: The Ascension RPG included magical hackers and mad scientists back in 1993, so you know they cribbed those from somebody else.

Now, Dresden’s grumpy old man attitude towards modern appliances can be written off as a character quirk (if you’re feeling optimistic). The way Storm Front handles its female characters … isn’t. Some of my friends (who are likely saying “I told you so” right now) have told me on multiple occasions that Butcher is really, really bad at writing women. Choice quotes include “(Harry Dresden)’s def part of the MRA starter package,” or “Harry Dresden is to noir as Anita Blake is to romance.” At first, I was like “nah, it’s a noir pastiche, it’s supposed to have femme fatales!”

Re-reading Storm Front made me realize how wrong I was.

To be fair, I first read this book back when I was an idiot teenager, so I wasn’t exactly reading things very critically all the time. I was just like ‘hey cool, noir wizard!’ and that was that. And, to be fair, Butcher writes a great action sequence, and Dresden himself has a lot of cool toys to play with.

But.

As to be expected in a noir-ish mystery, Dresden runs into a whole bunch of beautiful women. What I didn’t expect was how hung up Butcher is on the theme of “sexuality as a threat.” I mean, the book’s central mystery revolves around a couple who got magically murdered mid-coitus. And then there’s the eeeeevil bisexual vampire lady, or the sex-addict bisexual call girl, or even the fact that the evil wizard is using, you guessed it, sex rituals to power his evil murder spells.

In the Dresden Files, sex is, at best, a distraction, if not something that’s going to get someone killed outright. I’ve seen slasher movies with more progressive attitudes towards doin’ it. I can see now why people look at Storm Front askance. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Butcher is intentionally misogynistic– it just reads like something written by a man in his mid twenties who still has a lot of shit to figure out about women.

The thing is, reading some of the later books makes it apparent that Butcher still has a lot of shit to figure out, all these years later. (Seriously, the ending to Skin Game is bullshit). He’s also even better at writing action scenes, so I’ll probably read the next one (whenever it comes out) anyway. I’m already this far in. But at least I know what I’ll be getting into.

Keep Calm and Fire Lasers: David Weber’s The Honor of the Queen

And we’re back to our regularly scheduled book reviews, as I catch up with stuff I put off while I was watching Christmas cartoons. Yay?

The Honor of the Queen is the second Honor Harrington novel– I’ve read and reviewed the first and the third, so I figured I’d fill in that gap. I snagged a copy at a random used bookstore awhile back– though the fun part is, the previous owner left a bookmark full of little notes in there. Neat!

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“The silent fury of deep space death” is gonna be the lead track on my next prog rock album.

Anyway, the Honor Harrington novels are straight up “Horatio Hornblower IN SPAAAACE,” so you know exactly what to expect. Dashing and brilliant officers, giant spaceships exchanging broadsides, and that sort of thing. Weber’s great at writing action, and The Honor of the Queen gets the ball rolling (and the missiles flying) without wasting too much time.

Of course, the whole “Sci-Fi Horatio Hornblower” thing has its drawbacks, too. As again, Harrington is a captain of the Space-British-Empire, which means The Honor of The Queen is colonialist as all get out. Which is a ripe setting for a space opera (Ann Leike’s Ancillary series really get a lot out of it), but Weber constantly portrays Space-Colonialism as a Good Thing.

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Is it just me, or does it look like the guy in the back of the hovercar is fishing?

It’s not quite as overt as the business with the “Aboriginal” aliens in the previous novel, but The Honor of the Queen looks really, really weird when you look at it with a little bit of awareness about history and politics.

The plot centers around Honor Harrington leading a small squadron of ships to a planed called Grayson on a diplomatic mission. Turns out, the Space-British need to set up a military base there to get ready for the impending war with the eeeeeevil socialist Space-French. Except Planet Grayson was founded by a bunch of religious fundamentalists who practice polygamy and keep their women veiled and waaaaait a second this is looking a lot like Space-Islam now, isn’t it? At least they have European names and listen to country music, so maybe they’re just Space-Mormons?

Seeing as of how Harrington’s a woman, this inevitably leads to some conflict as the Graysonians don’t take her seriously as an officer. Which becomes something of a problem when the Graysonian’s even more fanatical, even more misogynistic archenemies (with support from the socialist Space-French) attack. Because, you know, it’s not the Space-British taking advantage of an ethnic conflict for their own ends, nooooope. The Space-British are helping! Really.

It’s just a quirk of Weber’s (or at least these Harrington books I’ve read) that they’re really, really laid out in black and white. Furthermore, competence is directly tied to morality– the better person you are, the better you are at your job. So you’ve got the brilliant and, er, honorable Honor Harrington on one side, and then a bunch of craven scheming bastards that don’t know what they’re doing on the other. At least this time around there’s a Space-French captain who ditches the Religious Fanatic Bad Guys once they’ve gone Too Far, which at least implies there’s good people on the other side of the war. Of course, this leaves the Religious Fanatic Bad Guys with even less of an idea of what they’re doing, so, uh, yeah.

There’s also an ongoing thing (at least early in the novel) where diplomacy is seen as useless, to the point where Harrington has to literally slap a craven and cowardly ambassador around before she can get to defending Grayson. Which, well, this is a Baen book.

The thing is, the real meat of the novel is all about big spaceship battles, and Weber is really good at writing action sequences. Furthermore, the nice thing about The Honor of the Queen is that it finds a sweet spot in scaling up from the single-ship combat from the previous novel, without getting into the crazy galaxy-spanning fleet actions in later ones. Oh, and Honor gets shot in the face while defending Grayson’s president from evil assassins, so she spends the rest of the book rocking a piratical eyepatch. Arr.

So yeah, The Honor of the Queen is your typical mil-SF novel (or maybe it’s just a typical Baen novel) in which the reader has to figure out their own tolerance for right-wing politics vs. slam-bang space action. To be fair, I never get the impression that Weber himself is a royalist– rather, he’s just kind of written himself into a corner with the way the Space-British-Empire is set up. And heck, The Honor of the Queen doesn’t even score nearly as well on Mil-Sci-Fi Bingo as I thought it would.

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There’s a Sun Tzu reference but not a quote. So close!

 

Still, there was enough space-action to keep me reading, so there’s that. I’ve heard the later books in the series aren’t as good, however, so we’ll see if I go back to this series or not.