Looking back at the books I read in 2021, I read a lot of new releases. Stuff there was even ‘hype’ over, perhaps. Which is fine– except for the fact that, due to the way my schedule usually works out, I can’t finish reading whatever the Hot New Thing™ is until several weeks (or months) after the fact, which makes me a little less inclined to ramble about it on this blog here, as it makes me feel like a Johnny Come Lately. A poser, even.
But! If I read something weird and obscure that’s decades old? No time constraints! Plus, stuff from the dollar bin is what the kids call “on brand.”
Which is what brings us to Jennifer Roberson’s Sword Dancer, a book I honestly don’t remember buying. Like, I think it may have been one of the books included in THE BOX I picked up some years ago, but at the same time it’s the first book in its series, which is either a really nice coincidence or something I made it a point to acquire from some dollar bin somewhere. Or something.
But let’s talk about the book!
Sword Dancer is about not one titular Sword Dancer, but two of them! The book’s narrated in first person by a guy named Sandtiger, who is your typical Swords & Sorcery protagonist in that he has a sword and doesn’t wear a shirt very often. In the first chapter, he meets Del (she’s the other Sword Dancer, and also the lady on the cover), who is also a Swords & Sorcery protagonist in that she’s got a fancy magic sword but wears a shirt more often than Sandtiger does. The thing is, Del is from the vaguely nordic “North,” while Sandtiger hails from the vaguely Middle Eastern “South.” Del needs a guide to find her lost brother, and Sandtiger, being the mercenary sort, winds up acting as her guide. Adventuring ensues. It, uh ‘helps’ that Del is ridiculously hot, and Sandtiger immediately starts fantasizing about how to get into her tunic, and … yeah.
In Sword Dancer, Roberson dives headfirst into the classic Swords & Sorcery tropes. So there are mighty thews and heaving bosoms aplenty. Roberson almost dives into the genre too enthusiastically, as there’s more than a little “oldschool” sexism and racism within its pages. With very few exceptions, every male character in the book immediately lusts after Del and immediately starts plotting to kidnap her away to their harem. And then there’s the fact that the book takes place in a sandy desert populated by various tribes of dark-skinned people who are slavers and/or cannibals.
Now, one would expect that with all the dudes creeping on Del, she’d have ample opportunity (and justification!) to kick a lot of ass. I mean, she’s got a magic sword, right? And sure, Del does get the chance to chop up some jerks, but it’s not as satisfying as it could be. Part of it comes from the fact that Sandtiger, the narrator, keeps up a steady stream of “she was good, but not as good as me” whenever the blades come out. Which, on the one hand, could be ample opportunity to play with an unreliable narrator and/or to give Sandtiger an arc of actually coming to respect Del’s skill … except that Roberson undercuts the idea over and over again, as Sandtiger keeps on having to swoop in and save Del from various monsters and bad guys. Hell, in the first or second chapter, Del winds up getting captured because somebody suckerpunched her when she wasn’t looking, which isn’t the best of introductions to a swords and sorcery protagonist.
And on top of that, towards the last third of the book or so, Sandtiger decides the best way to infiltrate a slaver’s palace is to have Del pose as a harem slave, complete with an iron collar. Which was about when I realized “wait, is the author just into kink?” It was a question I had to ask myself again once Sandtiger’s plan backfired, and he wound up in chains himself. (Though he got himself shackled in a gold mine rather than in a sexy seraglio). I mean, it’s not a Gor novel, or even a Kushiel book, but … like, there’s just enough weird stuff going on in Sword Dancer to make me look at it askance. Like, the book would be better served if it either was honest with itself and went full horny fantasy romance, or if it did the opposite and found ways for the bad guys to be menacing. I’ve read some reviews that claim the book’s sexism is kind of a commentary on Swords & Sorcery tropes, but honestly, it doesn’t quite land like it might have in the 80’s.
Once one gets past the book’s more problematic elements, there’s some good adventuring in there. Sandtiger’s a bit snarkier than the typical Swords & Sorcery protagonist, and Roberson comes up with some cool fantasy background, particularly in the whole master-and-apprentice thing that Sword Dancers do. It’s very reminiscent of kung fu flicks or samurai movies, honestly. Then again, Roberson doesn’t exactly go full Tolkien with worldbuilding, either.
So yeah. Sword Dancer isn’t a “hidden gem” or anything, but it’s not the worst book I’ve ever read, either. Moreover, as the first in a series, it’s got more good stuff than bad, enough to make me curious about the sequels, should I ever see them in the dollar bin or something. Really, I think the most refreshing thing about Sword Dancer was the fact that it’s over 30 years old– just kind of indicative of a different era in the fantasy era, for better or worse.
Holy smokes, it’s 2022 already?
So yeah. Another year gone, another one dawns, etc. I haven’t posted since early December, and I feel kind of bad about it? For all of the whole six of y’all reading this blog on a regular basis, at least. I actually read several books towards the end of 2021 that I didn’t get around to writing reviews for. And, y’know, then I’d read another book, and I’d get even more behind, and … yeah. Add on top of that the typical holiday business, and, well, things fall by the wayside. Though I did wind up reading some interesting stuff that I might return to? (Spoiler note: Fonda Lee’s Jade Legacy is really effin’ good, you guys).
2021 was an … interesting year for me. It wasn’t a shitshow like 2020, at least? Well, not personally, at least. I’m stupidly lucky in that respect. One of the things I’ve been stupidly lucky with is having gotten a Real People Job(tm), after spending most of 2020 unemployed. Which is nice! It’s just that, due to the way my schedule works, by the time I get home, me brain no word so good. However! I’m also getting to a point where I’ve finished certain parts of certain projects, thus freeing up brainpower to look into other things? Maybe?
I’m being vague and rambly here, which may give lie to my statement of having brainpower to spare. But! Still, stay tuned, the whole dozen of you guys still reading, as I’ve got some fun stuff to ramble on about in the coming year. Like, does anyone want to hear me go on about non-book stuff? As I’ve been slowly working my way through Persona 5, which honestly is kind of chill in the way that it provides an anime-flavored friendship simulator, which can be nice in these days of quarantine and so on. Or I could offer some Johnny-come-lately thoughts on genre TV shows on streaming, several months after release, ’cause I’m the only guy on the internet who doesn’t binge watch stuff?
Or, y’know, I could stay in my wheelhouse and talk about books with lasers and dragons on the cover. Cause seriously, I’ve got a pretty solid to-read pile queued up already.
The irony is, the next book I review isn’t in this stack– but that mostly comes from my habit of stockpiling books in the same way a squirrel hides acorns for the winter. This is just the stuff that I’d like to get to sooner rather than later.
Though with that said, are there any titles in that pile you look forward to seeing me tackle? Or heck, is there anything NOT pictured I should take a look at? Or should I just forgoe this “book review” business and ramble on about video games and toy robots instead?
Case in point, Stina Leicht’s Persephone Station.
Looking at that cover, the book looks … well, I don’t want to say “generic,” but it makes it seem like Persephone Station is a thoughtful novel about transhumanism and forward thinking philosophy or something. Respectable, even. Just a future-lady with her face turned towards the upper right corner, which is well known as the most hopeful part of a book cover. Why, if you took away the circuit patterns and the stars, one could be mistaken for thinking this to be one of those boring “literary” novels.
This is a lie.
In a more honest world, I would’ve read Persephone Station sooner. In a more honest world, Persephone Station would still have that future-lady on the cover, but she’d be holding a laser gun, while alien space-bears fight with power-armored mercenaries in the background. There’d be explosions and enough garish gold on the cover to make it look like a Baen novel. Then again, Baen would never publish something like Persephone Station. So I’m glad Saga Press did, honestly.
See, Persephone Station is a pulpy cyberpunk space-western, jam packed with snappy dialogue and hard hitting action scenes. Which, if you’ve been paying attention, you should know is right up my alley. The book centers on a woman named Angel de la Reza, the captain of a small (and broke) mercenary band way out on the space-frontier. After a job goes wrong, Angel and company get hired to protect a village of mysterious aliens from a greedy mega-corporation, and if it wasn’t clear enough what Leicht is riffing on yet, Angel’s ship is literally named the Kurosawa, and a lot of the book’s action takes place in a town called Brynner. It’s fun! Heck, the more I think of it, the more this book feels like something out of one of the better missions in a Mass Effect game.
The thing is, Persephone Station isn’t just a pulpy cyberpunk space-western; it’s also a feminist pulpy cyberpunk space-western. It’s not even in a “planet of the amazon women” sort of way– it just happens that every major character, from the heroes to the villains, is a woman (or sometimes non-binary with they/them pronouns). Men still exist, and men still go do all the space-stuff there is to do in a pulpy cyberpunk space-western, but it just happens that women are the ones shooting the lasers at each other on this particular adventure. Its a subtle inversion of older sci-fi stories that might have only one woman in the cast to be the love interest– if there’s one at all. This is all presented matter of factly– Leicht presents a setting where anyone can be a space-merc or a space-crimeboss or whatever.
In addition to being a gender-flipped and futurized version of the Seven Samurai, Persephone Station also explores some ideas regarding AI– though I’m not quite sure if that part lands. The backgrounds of all the characters all come together in an interesting way, but the climax itself felt a bit of a let down. It’s not quite “oh hey, we just shot the bad guy, we win!” But it’s close. At the same time, one of the reasons the finale feels a little off is because the action leading up to it is so much fun. Though I vaguely remember Angel mentioning a katana early on in the book, but she never gets to sword anybody. Disappointing!
All and all, don’t let the cover fool you. Persephone Station is some of the hardest-hitting sci-fi action I’ve read in a good while. Like, it reads … not quite like the first episode of a space opera TV show, but rather the season finale where Shit Goes Down. The characters are fleshed out and fun to read (Lou the pilot is probably my favorite), and there is literally a scene where alien reptile-bears duke it out with mercenaries in power armor. The book’s not perfect, and I don’t think it’ll be blowing anyone’s minds with its philosophy– but that’s not what it’s trying to do. And heck, those flaws almost make Persephone Station feel even more like a battered sci-fi paperback from the early 90’s.
Still wish it had some spaceships and lasers on the cover, though.
Been reading a lot of 2021 releases lately. Which, you know, doesn’t help my ever-growing to-read pile when new and exciting books keep coming out, and I wanna grab onto the tail-end of that zeitgeist. Were I a faster and more ambitious reader/blogger, I’d stay up all night reading new-releases and hammer out my thoughts in a caffeine-fueled haze the next morning, but … where’s the fun in that? Still, I kinda wonder if I should get back to my roots and start digging through older and more obscure sci-fi/fantasy books dug out of a dollar bin. What do you guys think?
But! Before I dive back into the pulpy and obscure, I’m gonna weigh in on a recent release! Most notably, Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow.
I first heard about this book on Twitter, which is one of the few good things that’s ever happened on that platform. The book started getting buzz before it even came out, in no small part to Zhao jumping feet-first into Youtube in order to offer a Chinese-Canadian perspective on Asian-influenced media like the Mulan reboot or Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Which in turn brings us to Zhao’s debut novel, Iron Widow. It’s a take on the story of Wu Zeitan, the only female Emperor of China, set in a science-fantasy take on Tang era China, where enormous magic powered mecha do battle with hordes of weird kaiju. So, y’know, fucking rad. This said, I can’t claim that the book was written specifically for my tastes, as it’s a YA novel. I don’t mean to be a snob– especially since Zhao often explores some really dark themes and ideas during the book. I mean, heck, they even note in the author’s notes that the original draft of Iron Widow was even more explicit. But when the inevitable “love triangle in a terrible dystopia” storyline got going, I had to roll my eyes. Though I will admit Zhao resolves said love triangle in an unexpected way. The book’s also written in first person second tense, when, again, I don’t think it had to be? Maybe it’s just a stylistic thing, or maybe I’ve just been reading too many second tense novels lately, but it feels a little gimmicky, especially since Iron Widow doesn’t quite move fast enough to warrant the immediacy of present tense.
But enough quibbling, how ‘bout them giant robots? And yes, Zhao delivers on some giant robot mayhem. The mecha in the book, called Chrysalises, are modeled after various creatures of Chinese folklore: the Nine-Tailed Fox, the Headless Warrior, and so on. And, depending on the skill and power-level of their pilots, chrysalises can power up into bigger, more powerful forms. It’s all very “super robot,” for anyone who cares to make the distinction between that and the “real robot” genre of something like a Battletech novel.
The nature of Chrysalises ties directly into the premise of Iron Widow. Y’see, Chrysalises must be piloted by two psychically linked pilots, a-la Pacific Rim. Though Zhao notes they pulled more inspiration from an anime called Darling in the Franxx in the author’s notes. That’s not the only anime Zhao pulls from, as there’s more than a little Evangelion in Iron Widow, and some Zoids, and likely a bunch of other series I’ve never heard of. But all of this is the good kind of influence– it’s not the sort of “hey, remember this?” nostalgia bait that a lesser author would write. (Yes I am still slinging mud at Ernest Cline ‘cause his books suck).
What gives Iron Widow a darker turn is the fact that young women are given to male Chrysalis pilots as ‘concubines,’ only to have their life force consumed in order to fuel the big stompy robot. Zeitan, Iron Widow’s protagonist, is one such woman destined to die young as a living battery– except for the fact that she volunteered to be a concubine, to have a shot at killing the Chrysalis pilot who killed her older sister. But when Zeitan is strapped down into a Chrysalis’ cockpit, it turns out she has the greater power level, which allows her to be the one to survive, thus earning her the moniker “Iron Widow.” And so, with her newfound power, Zeitan starts hatching a plan to overthrow the very society that had once labeled her as expendable.
I mentioned the ‘obligatory YA dystopia’ thing earlier, and this is where it really comes into play. At its most effective, Iron Widow’s dystopia is literally patriarchy. For example, the society practices foot-binding, an actual (and actually horrifying) historical practice. Women are seen as commodities, to be married off or to be strapped into the giant war machines needed to fight the alien kaiju stomping around the border. Though as the book goes on, the setting gets a little shakier. Like, later in the novel, it’s explicitly laid out that the whole ‘girls in the gas tank’ approach is inefficient when it comes to giant robot logistics. Only it seems that the powers that be™ are sticking with it out of sheer bullheaded misogyny. Which, uh, may be a littler closer to reality than one might think these days. Hm. There’s also some business about a sleazy media mogul making Zeitan into a star– but I don’t think the commentary there quite lands in comparison to the other stuff.
Of course, the general horribleness of the setting is what makes it okay for Zeitan to tear it all down. Though it’s notable that Zeitan is hardly a noble crusader. She’s righteous, perhaps– but she’s also bitter and spiteful and ruthless in her pursuit of her goals. By the end of the book, she’s more or less gone full-on conquering supervillain. Which honestly isn’t something I expected from a YA novel. Of course, Zeitan never quite falls into place as a ‘villain protagonist’ because the society she’s railing against is so much worse. It’s not exactly nuanced, but this is also a book about skyscraper-sized robots punching each other.
So yeah. Iron Widow has a lot going for it– like, a weird sort of angry enthusiasm. The last act kind of wraps things up a bit too easily, however, with some deus-ex-machina action going on that could’ve been foreshadowed earlier. Likewise, Zeitan … doesn’t scheme as much as she could? Which, again, there’s only so many pages in the book, and the more words devoted to clandestine plotting would’ve been less words about a giant bird-robot fighting a big metal spider-monster-thing.
Still, the book has an open enough ending for a sequel (to the point where I’ve even got predictions as to its general themes and plot beats), and I enjoyed Iron Widow enough to read a sequel, whenever it comes out.
Once again, I find myself too busy to read as much as I’d like, much less tell you guys (the whole dozen of you reading this blog) about what I’m reading. But hey, maybe with the holiday I’ll have some time to catch up a little? I’ve been reading some fairly fun books as of late, so I look forward to rambling about them in the near future. But hey, why not ramble about a book right now?
I started reading Christopher Buehlman’s The Blacktongue Thief back in October, as it actually came up under the ‘horror’ tag as I was browsing through my library app, though it also had the ‘fantasy’ tag listed as well. It’s actually not a very common combination nowadays (not that I’ve seen, anyway), despite the pulpy foundations of both genres in old magazines like Weird Tales. That pulpy influence pervades The Blacktongue Thief, most notably in the central characters. The book is snarkily narrated in first person by Kinch Na Shannack, the titular black-tongued thief. He’s a hood-wearing, dagger-toting, magic-tinkering thief in the vein of Lieber’s Grey Mouser (just without the problematic sex bits). And, of course, Kinch soon finds himself partnering with Galva, a wandering swordswoman who’s not quite as direct a mirror of Fahfrd.
Kinch is a desperate man– he’s basically got magical student loans to pay to the kingdom spanning Thieves Guild, which gives the book a depressingly relatable hook right off the bat. Kinch finds himself assigned to accompany Galva as she goes on A Quest™, and so the two of them roam across the land, getting into and out of trouble along the way.
And there is a lot of trouble. The Blacktongue Thief definitely falls into the ‘grimdark’ category, as it’s a bloody, violent book, where the default setting of any given character is “cold, half-starved, and miserable.” I’m honestly not super into the grimdark aesthetic, but Buehlman tempers The Blacktongue Thief with lots of snarky, dark humor as well as the occasional bit of genuine softness. Kinch’s relationship with a young witch who falls in with their crew is a particular highlight. Another thing that distinguishes The Blacktongue Thief is the fact that while it’s certainly dark, it’s not misogynistic. Too many bad fantasy novels abuse their female characters in a way to add cheap drama and a (false) veneer of being ‘historical.’ (Lookin’ at you, George R.R. Martin). Buehlman avoids this deftly not only by populating the book with plenty of female characters, but he also writes a setting where years and years of war have killed a large part of the male population, forcing the surviving women to step up as soldiers, rulers, blacksmiths, and so on.
It’s worth noting those wars were fought against goblins– which sounds cliché, but again, Buehlman puts his own spin on it. Where decades of fantasy books and video games have turned the humble goblin into comic relief cannon fodder, Buelhman makes them legitimately terrifying, and easily earns the ‘horror’ tag that the library put on the book. In particular, the chapter called “The Pull” is going to linger at the back of my brain even when I’ve forgotten much of the book’s other details.
The goblins aren’t the only unique take Buehlman has to offer, either. The Blacktongue Thief is stuffed to the gills with worldbuilding– though not of the royal lineages and great heroes sort. Instead, Buehlman paints his world through drinking songs and dirty jokes and card games and bawdy plays and old grudges. Every chapter reveals some new little detail that shows the depth (and often the darkness) of the world.
This said, the book’s not perfect. The Blacktongue Thief is episodic and occasionally disjointed. Which, honestly, is about par for the course for swords and sorcery fiction. More about the journey than the destination, and all that. I mean, if The Blacktongue Thief had been published in Weird Tales it’d probably be a series of loosely connected short stories. Of course, if The Blacktongue Thief had been published in weird tales, it probably wouldn’t have as many kick-ass female characters as it does. Probably not as many fart jokes, either.
So yeah. The Blacktongue Thief is a solid swords and sorcery adventure. I’m not quite sure if it does anything particularly new with the fantasy genre– but Buehlman puts a unique enough spin on it to make the book worth reading. It might not be for everyone, but if you don’t mind some blood and spit and grime in your fantasy, The Blacktongue Thief might be worth a read.
Chuck Tingle is an absolute treasure.
I mean that completely un-ironically.
In case you’re not familiar with the oeuvre of two-time Hugo nominated author Chuck Tingle, well … there’s a lot going on here. He found a niche in the e-publishing marketplace producing works of satirical surrealist erotica, with names like Space Raptor Butt Invasion, Bigfoot Pirates Haunt My Balls, or even Pounded By the Pound: Turned Gay by the Socioeconomic Implications of Leaving the European Union, to name a few. Tingle has more to offer than just smut, to boot. For one, he’s great at trolling various right-wing CHUDS (most notably the Sad/Mad Puppies crew who nominated him for his first Hugo– it’s complicated). Or there’s also the more meta concept of the “tingleverse,” which is revealed in bits and pieces over Tingle’s social media feeds, which in turn are surprisingly positive and inspirational. Heck, I even saw a live recording of his podcast, way back in the early days of 2020 before everything went to shit. Dude’s got a brand, is what I’m saying. A weird one, but that’s why it’s fun.
The through-line of nearly everything Tingle has written is deliberate, flagrant surrealism. As again, he’s written over 350(!) books, most of which have titles like My Librarian is a Beautiful Lesbian Ice Cream Cone and She Tastes Amazing or Trans Wizard Harriet Porber and the Bad Boy Parasaurolophus. Honestly, I could have a lot of fun just listing the titles, because that’s the point. They grab your attention (and your butt, if you’re into that sort of thing).
But what happens when Chuck Tingle decides to stop telling jokes?
Which brings us to Tingle’s recent novella, Straight. It’s a pun of a title, since Tingle is writing ‘straight’ and traditional fiction for once. Or, well, at least as traditional as a zombie apocalypse/slasher tale can be. Though given Tingle is drawing from horror tropes that are decades old, there’s plenty of tradition to work in there.
The other part of Straight’s title refers to its antagonists: straight people. See, in the world of the novella, there’s a strange cosmic void that passes over the Earth once a year, and drives cisgender straight people into a murderous rage, prompting them to hunt down and murder any queer people (who are immune to the cosmic void, naturally) in their path.
Horror is not a subtle genre.
Straight is set a few years into the rage-cosmos-thing, and focuses on a quartet of friends across the queer spectrum as they drive out to an isolated cabin in the desert to ride out the annual disaster. Because even though there’s a vaccine available to stop straight people from turning into murder-zombies, not everyone has taken it, and there’s some debate about how efficient it is. And yes, this book was written in 2021.
Again, Horror is not a subtle genre.
The trip out into the desert goes … about as well as one would expect from a book like this. Mayhem ensues. Though Tingle does put some interesting spins on the setting– people getting ‘outed’ by zombies trying to kill them, for example. Furthermore, the book’s first-person narrator, Issac, is a bisexual man with a notable pacifistic streak– he always wants to resolve things without hurting anyone, including the murderous straight-zombies. Through Issac’s voice, Tingle explores a surprising number of queer issues in Straight, most notably in the difficulty some people have in finding a place for themselves, even in the LGQBTA+ community.
Of course, things aren’t all reflections on community, as again– things go gory before long. It’s all modeled closely after old slasher movies and zombie flicks, as mentioned before. Which means that in the first act, the characters do some really dumb things. It’s not skinny dipping and smoking weed or anything, but at the same time I kind of expected the characters to be a little more prepared for the entire world trying to kill them? Like, protip: if you know the world is going to go to hell, maybe fill up your gas tank first. Though if I carp on things too much I’m afraid I’m gonna start sounding like Max Brooks or something.
The flipside of this is, of course, when things do go to hell, it’s all in an escalatingly entertaining way. Issac and his friends go through hell– but at the same time, it’s not sleazy or exploitative. A lot of queer characters in horror movies/novels are either hapless victims, or serve to highlight themes of being the monster/other/etc. Which is ripe for storytelling, true (Horror is not a subtle genre), but at the same time it can be a little problematic to basically say “yeah vampires are basically the same as gay people,” considering the fact that, y’know, gay people don’t drink blood or combust in sunlight. What makes Straight so interesting is that Tingle consciously inverts this trope– instead of the queer-as-outsider-as-monster, it’s instead society as a whole that’s the horrifying monster. Which, uh, is honestly a little closer to the actual state of affairs than anything else.
So yeah. All and all, Straight has some genuinely compelling ideas– though those never get in the way of some gory mayhem. As a novella, it’s short enough to never outstay its welcome, even though it’s got a solid enough foundation (once one gets past the initial premise) to sustain a longer novel. It’s not perfect, and occasionally the self-publishing thing shows: I found at least one typo of “where” being used instead of “we’re,” but that’s a minor quibble.
Straight is an entertaining piece of queer horror, and proof that Chuck Tingle can write more than dinosaur billionaire pornography. Not that there’s anything wrong with dinosaur billionaire pornography, for those who like that sort of thing, but I’m personally looking forward to reading Tingle’s next ‘normal’ horror novel. Though it may be a little while before that comes out, so maybe I’ll just try reading Trans Wizard Harriet Porber and the Bad Boy Parasaurolophus sometime. I hear it’s pretty good.
The term “Master of Horror” gets bandied about any time the marketing department needs to sell more movie tickets/DVD’s/lurid paperbacks, but if anybody deserves that kind of title, it’s manga artist Junji Ito. Through his gruesomely-detailed art, Ito makes things as innocuous as a chair, a hole in a cliffside, or even the shape of a spiral into objects of existential horror. I’ve talked about him briefly in the past, but far smarter people than I have explored his work in-depth.
But hey, that doesn’t stop me from reading something for October, right?
The English translation of Remina came out last year, and I’m only now getting to it ‘cause I’m a slacker. Though I’m a little disappointed to learn that Remina was originally published in 2005. Don’t get me wrong, I’m stoked to have more Ito in translation, it’s just I had originally thought it was a brand-new work. Also, since I’m making silly complains, VIZ media changed Ito’s hardbacks from grayscale to red, which means that they don’t make a nice matched set on the bookshelf. Harrumph, I say.
In any case, the plot: when a Japanese astronomer discovers a new star in the sky, he names it after his daughter, Remina. This inexplicably catapults her to stardom (oh hey, a pun! I just got that), which soon takes a turn for the worse once it becomes clear that the strange discovery isn’t a star at all, but an enormous … thing. Something with eyes. And a mouth. Soon, the “hellstar” is hurtling towards Earth at impossible speeds, consuming multiple planets along the way. Eat your heart out, Unicron. As this cosmic consumer approaches, humanity goes mad with terror, at which point someone decides that it’s Remina (the girl’s) fault that Remina (the killer planet) is coming.
And then things get weird.
While his work is far separated from that of Lovecraft, Ito is no stranger to the cosmic horror genre. What makes Remina different from a lot of other Ito that I’ve read is that it takes a bit more of a sci-fi bent. Not only is there a planet-sized cosmic space monster, but every so often a spaceship or hovercar or jetpack will pop up. These little bits come as something of a surprise whenever they do pop up, as Ito draws the characters more or less like normal people, instead of sci-fi anime future folk. This is all, of course, drawn in Ito’s wonderfully dark and detailed style, with several huge splash pages showing the terrifying cosmic scale of the killer planet.
Remina is a very Japanese book– not surprising, considering it’s from a Japanese artist. This said, a lot of Ito’s work has a creepy universality to it, as most audiences are familiar with the concept of a creepy old town, a ghost lurking in an old house, and so on. Fear of the unknown and all that. And the ‘existentially terrifying killer planet’ parts of Remina are understandably great and easy to grasp. Though I will also note that some of the characters make some of the dumbest decisions I’ve ever seen in horror media. Which, y’know, I guess they’re all driven mad by terror or something, but still. ‘Let’s use all the spaceship fuel to land on the gnarly alien planet’ is rarely the foundation of a good plan.
This said, I think Remina would have hit harder if I was, y’know, from Japan. As in addition to the sci-fi plot of the killer planet, Ito also explores some ideas about obsession and celebrity culture through the lens of corporate-backed J-idols. Which is … fine, I guess? Though ‘hey, some astronomer named something after his daughter, let’s make her famous!’ is kind of an odd plot contrivance. Though then again, ‘hey, the killer planet is going to get us, let’s kill the girl it’s named after, because that will save us!’ follows the same kind of illogic, so … yeah. Likewise, towards the end, there are some shenanigans around physics that make the average episode of Star Trek look like a Steven Hawking lecture.
Remina herself is a purely reactive character– she gets made into a celebrity by outside forces over the course of a scant few pages, and then spends the rest of the book fleeing from angry mobs and being protected by various male characters. Which is a shame, because the story could’ve been made even more interesting if Remina had the ambition to want to become a celebrity, and the grit and resourcefulness to survive when literal worlds are trying to kill her.
Still, quibble as I may, the cosmic horror parts of Remina hit exactly the way they should. The story is bleak to the point of nihilism, focusing on people’s ability to fool themselves on a global scale. It’s like a Roland Emmerich movie without a happy ending. I don’t know if it’s for everyone– but for fans of horror comics, I’d say it’s definitely worth a read. Then again, if you’re into horror comics, you’ve probably read some Ito already– or at least you should.
Oh hey, it’s October, isn’t it? Which is a good excuse as any to read (and subsequently review) some horror novels!
I decided to start things off with a bang, which brings us to Grady Hendrix’s The Final Girl Support Group. The guy is one of my favorite modern horror writers, and most everything I’ve read of his delivers. I actually finished this book a couple days ago, but I’m a bit behind on my reviews these days on account of having a Real People Job keeping me fairly busy. But hey, we’re back on track now! Maybe!
As one might from the title, The Final Girl Support Group draws on the concept of the “final girl” from horror movies. Much smarter people than I have written thousands of words of analysis on the trope of a lone (usually white) woman being the last one to survive the rampage of a mask-wearing, knife-wielding maniac. In The Final Girl Support Group, Hendrix explores the idea of what that woman does after the credits roll.
Of course, you need more than one woman to create a whole support group. And so, Hendrix creates a grisly history of massacres, with riffs on Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, and other, more obscure slasher flicks. A lot of the background info is presented through ephemera like newspaper clippings, movie reviews, and interview transcripts. Which would have been a lot easier to read if I opted for a hardcopy of the book instead of the e-book version, but hey. Guess I should’ve learned my lesson after Horrorstor.
In any case, more plot stuff. Decades after surviving their respective nightmares, these women meet for a weekly support group– but when one of them doesn’t make it in, it soon becomes clear that somebody’s trying to kill them off, one by one. Taut action and gory mayhem ensues.
The book’s narrated by Lynnette Tarkington, who, years after surviving a Santa-Suit wearing maniac’s rampage, copes with the trauma through hypervigilant paranoia. Lynnette narrates the book in first person, present tense– which, combined with Lynnette’s point of view, makes for an exhausting read. I mean that in the best possible way. The novel is an exercise in tension, which only gets more and more prevalent as the book goes on. As, despite Lynnette’s exhaustive preparations, things just keep getting worse and worse. Lynette’s paranoia makes her something of an unreliable narrator, and I soon found myself second (and third) guessing her motivations, which was a fun way to spend the book. Though thankfully things never go too far into left field, which is nice.
Where Horrorstor is about the soul-crushing banality of work, and We Sold Our Souls is about the brutality of the modern world, The Final Girl Support Group is about trauma and misogyny. You know, light reading. The most notable difference between The Final Girl Support Group and Hendrix’s other novels is that the antagonists are 100 percent human, which paints things in a far different light.
The Final Girl Support Group focuses on the slasher genre– and on slasher fans. As there’s some business in the world of the novel where the Final Girls also have sold their stories to have million dollar film franchises built around them. This makes Lynette and the rest of her support group equivalent to Scream Queen actresses, complete with fans and stuff. It’s a weird choice, and arguably a bit contrived, but it still serves as a commentary on slasher movie fandom. Though with that said, I wonder how the book might read for someone who’s not familiar enough with the slasher genre to have opinions about whether Black Christmas is better than Silent Night, Deadly Night or not.
It’s hard to review Hendrix’s books, honestly, because they’re, y’know. Good. I kept finding time to open up my phones’s e-reader app to devour another tautly written chapter, which is always a sign of a good chapter. As far as Hendrix novels I’ve read, I’d rank The Final Girl Support Group as better than Horrorstor, but not as hell-yeah-awesome as We Sold Our Souls.
I admit it, I picked this book up off the shelf based entirely on the pun of the title. However, the blurb on the back was what pushed Sean Grigsby’s Ash Kickers into impulse buy territory.
“Firefighters vs. Dragons vs. A Phoenix.”
Not exactly a premise you see every day.
The firefighter thing in particular got my attention, as I honestly most Urban Fantasy books center on a spooky private detective of some stripe, if not an outright “magic cop” who’s part of an official police organization that hunts monsters. Because honestly, there’s a lot of thematic stuff to dig into once the “thin blue line” is protecting the world from literal bloodsucking monsters. Which in turn butts up against the common thematic reading of vampires and werewolves and whatnot being metaphors for the “other” in our society, and … yeah. Honestly if I were of a more academic bent I could probably write a whole research paper on this sort of thing. But at the moment I’ll settle for rambling about it on the internets. Lucky you?
So yeah. Kind of surprised firefighters + monsters hasn’t been used before. I mean, as Snoop Dogg said, “No one ever made a song called Fuck the Fire Department.” Although, firefighter thing aside, Ash Kickers isn’t exactly your standard Urban Fantasy novel. For one, it’s set about a century in the future, so the main characters have hover-trucks and laser cannons and power armor. And past that, there’s also the fact that the world has been devastated by an inexplicable dragon invasion, so there’s also a post-apocalyptic vibe of bastions of civilization being protected by power armored firefighters-turned-dragonslayers. Honestly, between the various cool toys and the monsters they’re used on, the world of Ash Kickers has a very 80’s Saturday Morning Cartoon vibe to it, a-la Inhumanoids or Ghostbusters (just with a lot more swearing). I mean, they even have to deal with the fact that anyone a dragon kills comes back as a wraith– which they deal with by trapping them in a little electronic gizmo, and … yeah. Though thankfully, outside of a few little nerdy references here and there (including an obligatory Anne McCaffrey reference), things never get too derivative.
A lot of this comes from the fact that Gigsby is a professional firefighter himself, and thus brings his first-hand experience to the book. There’s a genuine authenticity to the attitudes (and colorful vocabulary) of the dragonslayers, even though I’m fairly certain that Grigsby hasn’t slain any dragons recently.
Another neat way in which Ash Kickers differs from the standard Urban Fantasy novel (or a lot of nerdy fiction in general) is how diverse it is. Instead of a snarky white guy in a trenchcoat, the book is narrated by a black woman named Tamerica Williams. The rest of the book has a fairly diverse cast as well– not to mention the fact that the smoke-eaters find themselves butting up against a bunch of ignorant xenophobes lead by a rabble-rousing demogogue. According to the blurb inside the cover, Ash Kickers was published in 2019, but is still sadly entirely too relevant today. Ain’t exactly subtle, but hey.
So yeah. Ash Kickers has an original premise and just enough social bite to it to make it a notable read. This said, it’s not quite a perfect book– it kind of drags a little in the middle, and the ending is a bit abrupt. Admittedly, Ash Kickers is the second in a trilogy. The book works fairly well as a standalone, I might have enjoyed it a little more if I’d read the first one beforehand in order to get a better feel for the setting. Likewise, the cliffhanger of an ending is there to make the reader want to track down the third book, Flame Riders. And since it does a fairly good job of that, well, I guess I can’t complain too much.
For awhile now, I’ve been reading more ebooks than paper ones. It’s something I never would have thought of years ago, but honestly the convenience offered by library apps like Libby and Overdrive make it wonderfully easy to snag an ebook or audiobook to read at my convenience. A phone takes up even less space than most paperbacks, and I almost always have it on me. That’s the 21st century for you.
However, one thing that ebooks haven’t quite managed to duplicate is that feeling of browsing the shelves at the library or bookstore, and picking out a random book on the shelf … just ‘cause. It’s just easier to take a book off the shelf and read the back blurb than it is to wait a couple seconds for a book’s page to load up on the library app, though that loading time probably just means I should upgrade my phone and/or wifi router.
This said, I still try to capture that feeling of randomness when browsing through Overdrive, which is what brought me to Michael Mammay’s Colonyside. It’s actually the third of Mammay’s -side novels, preceded by Planetside and Spaceside. So, y’know, points for a consistent title gimmick, at least.
As one could expect from those titles, Mammay’s books are pulpy ‘boots and lasers’ sci-fi. They center on Col. Carl Butler, a former space-army officer who gets pulled out of quiet retirement to get sent on various space adventures. As you do. In Colonyside, the daughter of an ultra-rich space-businessman goes missing on an isolated, deadly jungle planet, so Butler gets hired on to investigate.
While Colonyside was the third in the series (and the library didn’t have the first two available for some reason), it’s not completely inaccessible. Most of the book’s action takes place on a single planet, and centers on Butler’s investigation. There are some nods to Butler’s background and what he got up to in previous books (including nuking a hostile alien species of some sort?) but it doesn’t get in the way of the plot.
From the description and the cover, one might think Colonyside to be a mil-sci-fi shoot ‘em up, but Mammay makes things more complicated than that. As while there are indeed a couple of fun action scenes (including giant carnivorous space-apes), most of the book is devoted to Butler’s investigation. He interviews people, chases leads, gets into trouble, and so on. Honestly, the whole thing reminded me more of a noir mystery than anything, down to Butler’s snarky first-person narration and penchant for whiskey. Though it’s also worth noting that Mammay doesn’t go full noir, either; nobody wears a fedora, and there’s not a single femme fatale in the whole book.
The mashup of mil-sci-fi and noir is a fun one, but Colonyside never quite gels as a story. Again, I haven’t read the two books before it, so I may have missed some important backstory or character development for context. But even if I were familiar with the previous books, a lot of the setting and action feels … vaguely generic. Like, I can’t even remember the name of the colony or planet in a book called Colonyside, which … hm. It’s a jungle planet with a toxic atmosphere that forces the colonists to live in big domes, which I’m gonna be nice about and not compare to James Cameron’s Avatar movie. (Also there aren’t any blue catpeople).
The thing is, I never got the reason why the colonists were, uh, colonizing the planet, apart from the fact that it was apparently along some potentially lucrative space-trade routes? It just strikes me that, by adding something like Spice or Unobtanium or some other kind of super-valuable sci-fi MacGuffin resource, Mammay could have easily raised the stakes and given the setting a lot more flavor. As it is, there’s just sort of a vague conflict between people who want to develop the weirdo-deadly jungle planet, and some environmentalists who want to leave it alone. Thankfully, things never get into making fun of Strawman-Greenpeace space-hippies, so that’s nice. Still, the bad guy’s plan– not to mention how Butler foils it, never quite clicks as a thing. Which is a shame, as it makes a big fighty battle against a horde of carnivorous alien apes feel kind of tacked on?
All and all, I enjoyed Colonyside well enough– and I might have enjoyed it more if I’d read the prior two books. But at the same time, some tighter plotting and a more engaging setting could have made the book into a real page-turner, instead of a mildly amusing distraction to read on my lunchbreak. This said, I might at least give the first book, Planetside a read, just to see if there’s some key aspect of the setting that I’ve missed that brings the whole thing together.
That is, if it ever pops up on my library app.