BOOK REVIEW: Laurell K. Hamilton’s Guilty Pleasures

Guilty Pleasures is arguably one of the most accurately titled novels ever written.

Confession time: back when I was a kid, before I got into The Dresden Files, before I even knew the term “Urban Fantasy” was A Thing, I read Anita Blake novels. It was roughly around the same time I stumbled across White Wolf’s Werewolf: The Apocalypse RPG, as well as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It also helped that I could get the books for free when my uncle periodically culled his bookshelves. On top of that, the books are set in my hometown of St. Louis, so bonus, right? But, as Laurell K. Hamilton steadily focused more and more on the “sexy” bits, I gave up on them nigh on a decade and a half ago.

Yet, as I browsed through the Overdrive app, I stumbled across Guilty Pleasures, the first book of the series, and I got … curious. Nostalgic, even. And so I figured I’d see how well the first book, written well before the series’ turn towards the porny, holds up.

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The 1993 cover …

And … uh, yeah.

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vs. the 2002 cover. Notice a difference? 

For those who haven’t read the series before, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake novels are the prototypical urban fantasy/paranormal romance series. They center on Anita Blake, freelance necromancer (“animator” is the fancy term for it) and vampire hunter. Over the course of twenty six(!) books, Anita shoots a lot of creepy monsters with silver bullets, and is lusted after by dozens of very, very pretty men with long hair and great abs.

All of these elements are present in Guilty Pleasures, though not quite as defined as they’d become in the later books. For example, Jean-Claude, the oh-so-pretty vampire in a poofy shirt who becomes Anita’s lover (well, one of them) in later books isn’t a huge presence– he shows up to be a “romantic” kind of creepo, but then spends the latter half of the book locked up in a coffin. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The thing about Guilty Pleasures is that the plot … is kind nonsense. For example, in the world of the book, vampires are “out,” having recently revealed themselves to the general public. Hamilton touches on a couple of interesting bits that could come from this, most notably a vampire church promising eternal life … but she never quite delves into the “out of the shadows” idea that later Urban Fantasy writers have played around with. It doesn’t help that her vampires are all shitty and petty and kind of dumb. For example, the plot of Guilty Pleasures kicks off with the local vampire lord trying to hire Anita on to investigate some murdered vampires … but when she turns them down, they immediately blackmail her, knock her out, and throw her in a dungeon with a ravenous wererat who threatens to fuck and/or eat her. This … does not strike me as the most compelling way to get someone to help you.

And on top of that, Jean-Claude (who is the woooorst) also applies his vampiric “mark” to Blake (without her consent, natch), which gives her some power but also binds them together and makes them dream about each other and generally get really horny sometimes. Yeeeah. Which leads me to realize that the whole “magical bond” trope is just a really, really lazy storytelling device. I mean, writing relationships is hard, right? Why not handwave away all that messiness with some magical bullshit? It’s basically the “prophesied hero of destiny” thing, just with more boning involved. Though the “oh no, you are so magic and sexy, I can’t control myself!” thing probably appeals to some people’s kinks, so … yeah?

I’m trying to be charitable, I really am. I realize that some books are just Not For Me. You want to read about a lady in leather pants with a sexy vampire boyfriend? Go for it. It’s just that a lot of the “romantic” stuff in Guilty Pleasures really … isn’t. It’s just skeevy and gross, and Hamilton doesn’t have the gumption to just say “fuck it, I just wanna write some porn” just yet. Which … well, I guess that’s something positive to be said about the later books, at least?

And the thing is, Jean-Claude isn’t even the main love interest of the book. Instead, Blake spends most of the novel paired off with Philip, a vampire-junkie blood-doll stripper (who is is very pretty and has great abs and long hair). Phillip is even worse than Jean-Claude, as he alternates between making clumsy passes at Anita, and being a whimpering, traumatized damsel to rescue and/or comfort. If you drink a few beers and squint, you could look at this as a gender-reversal of the “soiled dove” archetype from old noir novels, but I honestly think Hamilton wanted to just put more pretty mans in there.

Still, all of this takes place over the first third or so of the book, in which Blake doesn’t really do much of anything other than get kicked around. Which is a shame, as one of the things a more compelling Urban Fantasy book does is have fun right off the bat– show the protagonist being cool and powerful, or at least clever and snarky. Anita snarks … a little bit? But it never quite lands.

It doesn’t help that Anita Blake, as a character, is no fun. At least in the first book she isn’t. She doesn’t drink, she doesn’t dance, and she is surprisingly prudish for someone whose job takes her into vampire BDSM clubs on a regular basis. Like, hell, there’s a bit where Anita reacts to another woman flirting with her with the same level of revulsion (if not moreso) than vampires threatening to drink her blood. The term “thighs like beached whales” is used. Yeeeah. I kind of get the feeling that Hamilton had a really bad time at a kink party, and hasn’t forgotten about it since. It’s that particular scandalous-but-not-too-scandalous vibe that seems to be targeted at people who only have the vaguest idea of how kinky stuff actually, er, works. (See also: Fifty Shades of Gray). It all feels rather … repressed.

The frustrating thing is, there are tiny hints here and there of a more interesting book that isn’t about people trying to magic-bone the protagonist. Once Blake gets away from all the pretentious and bitchy vampires and actually starts investigating stuff, the book gets kinda fun. She shakes down witnesses, investigates crime scenes, hits up a sleazy dive bar– all the classics. And when she finally gears up to go kill some goddamn vampires with a silver-loaded shotgun, it’s pretty damn gratifying.

Sidenote: Anita could have saved a lot of trouble if she’d just loaded up to go vampire hunting the morning after the vampires started threatening to kill her. It’s funny, as she spends the whole book fretting over whether she should tell Edward (a more interesting vampire hunter who actually Gets Shit Done) where the vampire-lord is hiding … until that’s what she actually does and they go kill all the bad guys.

But yeah, it’s these little bits of halfway interesting action and investigation that make the Anita Blake books interesting … but there just isn’t enough of it. I wanna say that Guilty Pleasures wasn’t the first one I read– which is probably for the best, as even idiot-kid-me probably would’ve given up on that one. Even the St. Louis setting is kind of odd– for one, there’s a whole lot of vampire kink-clubs that aren’t in the real STL, obviously. (And even if there were vampire kink-clubs in town, they’d be on the East Side). The real kicker is that the city itself doesn’t get much in the way of description or flavor … but things get a lot more specific and detailed the further Blake goes into suburbia. Which, well, shows where Hamilton was living in 1993, I guess?

I don’t see myself returning to Anita Blake anytime soon. I just read this one as an exercise in curiosity and nostalgia– theoretically, there might be one or two solid books in the series to catch my attention, but I’m afraid it’ll just boil down to more “romance” with poofy-shirted men with very dubious concepts of little things like ‘consent.’

But hey, that’s what makes them monsters, I guess?

Some folks are into that.

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TAMMY AND THE T-REX: A review.

A couple of weeks ago, my man Jeremy (of A Brew To A Kill) hits me up.

HIM: Wanna drive up to Chicago to go see a really stupid movie?

ME: VERY YES.

I may not have been entirely sober at the time, but damn if I don’t stick to my commitments.

And that was that. What stupid movie, do you ask? Well, ladies and gentlemen of the audience, I present to you … Tammy & the T-Rex. Or, more specifically, the gore cut of Tammy and the T-Rex.

See, back in the way-back time of the 1990’s, somebody told Stewart Rafill (writer/director of “classics” such as The Ice Pirates, and Mac & Me) to make a dinosaur movie. So … he did. Except he made a hilariously gory dinosaur movie as a black comedy … at which point the producers no doubt said “what the fuck is this?” and cut all of the gory bits out, eventually releasing Tammy and the T-Rex as a forgettable (if bizzare) “family” film. Fast forward two and a half decades, to when the original footage is finally found, edited together, and shown at the Cinepocalypse movie festival in Chicago, IL. Monday night’s 35mm showing was the first (and possibly the last, according to the host) public screening of the film.

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Jeremy and I drove for hours to make the showing. Was it worth it?

I’m happy to say “yes.”

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Tammy & the T-Rex (Or Tanny and the Teenage T-Rex, as the opening credits spell it) is fucking weird, but in an … understandable way? It stars Denise Richards as the titular Tammy (or is it Tanny?) a random high school cheerleader-type who’s in love with Michael (as played by a pre-Fast & the Furious Paul Walker). Except that Tammy’s also caught the eye of some punk-looking tough guy out of central casting. A gang of bad guys beats Michael up and throws him to a literal lion (what?) … at which point a mad scientist (played with scenery-chewing gusto by Terry Kiser) puts Michael’s brain into a giant robot tyrannosaurus (what?) which obviously leads to Michael going on a literal roaring rampage of revenge, biting dudes’ heads off and otherwise wreaking havoc.

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It’s pretty much the movie I would’ve made if someone put 6th grade me in the directors chair.

Hell, it’s pretty much the movie I would make if someone put me in the director’s chair right now.

Tammy & the T-Rex is intentionally ridiculous. It’s not on the level of ineptitude of something like The Room, or even the execrable Mac & Me. Rather, Tammy & The T-Rex plays its comedy broad– for better or worse. There are some honestly hilarious gags worked in throughout the flick (have you ever wanted to see a dinosaur use a payphone?) though others don’t land nearly as well (mostly a bunch of lazy homophobic jokes, but that’s the 90’s for you). The slapstick gore fits right in– hell, there’s even a part where a guy is smooshed completely flat, Looney-Tunes style. Just, y’know, with lots and lots of red karo syrup squirting everywhere.

The Cinepocalypse crowd was as rowdy as one would expect, which only added to the fun. Honestly one of the best parts of the viewing was the guy in the row behind us going “what the fuck?” every couple of minutes or so.

And that’s probably the best reaction to the film I can think of. It’s a weird, incongruous mess, a combination of hammy acting, over-the-top violence, and cheap jokes, all capped off by some sleazy leering at Denise Richards. Seriously, the movie ends with her doing a sexy dance routine in white lingerie for … reasons? I honestly haven’t seen the “family” cut of Tammy & The T-Rex, but I wonder just how the hell they made this movie PG-13 and still kept it halfway coherent.

In any case, Tammy & The T-Rex is supposed to be get a release on Blu-Ray … eventually. At which point I heartily recommend it to any weird-cinema aficionados out there. The movie is honestly one of those things that has to be seen to be believed.

Book Review: Passing Strange, by Ellen Klages

So I was going to read Marlon James’ Red Wolf Black Leopard, except … it was super cynical and bleak and I barely made it a third of the way through before it was time to return it to the library. Oops.

But! Tor.com put out a collection of LGBQT fantasy novellas as their entry for their ebook of the month club (Happy Pride, BTW), and here we go! I actually read Jy Yang’s The Black Tides of Heaven awhile back, and … uh, it honestly was kind of unfocused. But hey, Passing Strange looked pretty interesting, so here we go!

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I’ll get around to reading those other two novellas … eventually.

Set in 1940 San Fransisco, Passing Strange follows the lives of several lesbians (one of whom happens to be a little bit of a witch), as they try to live their lives as best they can without getting arrested and jailed for “depravity.” Klages has put in a ton of research into Passing Strange, and it shows– both in the little details about the food and geography of San Fransisco, and also in the convoluted methods gays were forced to use in order to simply live the lives they wanted to live. For example, there was a “three piece” rule in which women could be arrested for wearing less than three pieces of ladies clothing– which is one of those little things that’s both ridiculous and depressing.

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But! Don’t let me make Passing Strange sound like a depressing tragedy. The book eventually puts the spotlight on a romance between Haskel, a bohemian artist who makes a living painting lurid covers for pulp magazines, and Emily, a girls-school runaway who ekes out a living as a drag king lounge singer. Their romance is sweet but not saccharine, sexy but not smutty– you get the idea.

The funny thing is, the magic-based elements of Passing Strange are only incidental to the plot (though they do offer a fitting resolution at the end). I’m hesitant to call it Urban Fantasy, as the novella never falls into the “vampire in leather pants” cliches the sub-genre brings with it. Likewise, the magic in the story makes a lot more sense than the vague and inexplicable weirdness that the term “magical realism” brings to mind. The best parts of the novella are the romantic scenes and the loving detail of a pre-Silicon Valley San Fransisco. With just a little tweaking, Passing Strange could just be a queer period romance without any magic spells whatsoever– which is ironic, as then it wouldn’t have been picked up by Tor, and then I wouldn’t be reading it right now. Go figure.

Really though, Passing Strange feels most like an episode of an anthology show. Think one of the rare, optimistic episodes of The Twilight Zone, only gayer. Passing Strange is a compact, complete story that does exactly what it sets out to do. And yet, there’s still plenty of room to play around with the setting and characters that Klages could write plenty of novels about this cast of characters if she really wanted to … but at the same time, everything’s wrapped up neatly enough that it’d be perfectly fine if she didn’t. Really though, Passing Strange has got me curious about Ellen Klage’s other work, so there’s something to look forward to, right?

Book Review: Marissa Meyer’s Renegades

Maybe the latest Avengers flick got me in a superhero-y mood, or maybe I wanted to read something lighter than Arturo Perez-Reverte’s Spanish fatalism, but either way I decided to read something a little outside my wheelhouse, in Marissa Meyer’s Renegades. It kept on popping up in the Overdrive app, so I thought I’d give it a go.

This is my first time reading Meyer– I understand she made something of a stir with her first novel, Cinder, a retelling of Cinderella only with cyborgs on the moon and … described that way, I kind of want to read it now. Huh.

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But! Renegades. It’s a YA Superhero novel. Which … well, considering that the same descriptors can be added to Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart (which remains the worst book of his I’ve ever read) had me … leery. And, to be honest, Renegades almost lost me in the first couple of chapters. Mainly because the book is set in an Obligatory Post-Apocalyptic Young-Adult Dystopia, which had me rolling my eyes accordingly. Y’see, some thirty years before the events of Renegades, a supervillain named Ace Anarchy led a super-powered rebellion, tearing down the governments and institutions of the world … and sort of left things in a crapsack state, with roaming superpowered gangs terrorizing and murdering and stealing and what have you. That is, until a band of superpowered vigilantes, the titular Renegades, banded together, killed a bunch of the bad guys, and started rebuilding civilization.

The thing about the setting of Renegades is that a lot of the questions it skirts close to acting have already been asked by, well, superhero comics. “What would a world ruled by superheroes look like?” or “Will people fear and love those born with superpowers?” or even “What if the bad guys won?” Admittedly, it may be a little unfair to compare Renegades to the best works of Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman, but still.

But what’s most frustrating is that Renegades would work perfectly well without the villain-pocalypse angle. See, the book centers Ace Anarchy’s teenage niece, Nova Artino, a.k.a. Nightmare. After an assassination attempt on the leader of the Renegades goes bad, she winds up taking on a new identity in order to infiltrate the Renegades’ hero-recruiting plan, in order to bring them down from the inside. That is, until she starts having feelings for a hunky dude named Adrian Everhart– a.k.a. the hero known as Sketch (he’s got drawing-based superpowers, see), who in turn has another secret identity of his own. Dun dun dun.

And this is when I started enjoying the book. Meyer gets superheroes, and applies the YA teen melodrama stuff really well. After all, ever since Peter Parker missed a date because he was trading punches with Doctor Octopus, emotional teenage bullshit has been a cornerstone of the modern superhero story. On top of that, Meyer is very good at writing action scenes, and even better at creating engaging and interesting characters. There’s an entirely too cute low-simmering romance between two of Nova’s Renegade-teammates that I couldn’t help but smile at. Though the soapy romantic business between Nova & Adrian is obviously the focus of the book. Meyer lays the “oh no, I don’t have feelings for the son of my greatest enemy, do I?” business on pretty thick, but it’s not as if comic books are known for their subtlety. It works, is what I’m saying.

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And yes Monarch and Smokescreen made me picture the Venture Bros. & Transformers characters accordingly. (I still ship Oscar/Ruby, though).

And again, I enjoyed the super-melodrama enough to look past the flimsy setting. For the most part. Though it would’ve been nice if someone sat Nova down and said “no seriously your uncle murdered hundreds of people and also his ‘survival of the fittest’ philosophy is bullshit.” Or, it’s mentioned that the few surviving supervillains are living underground, subsiting off of canned food … but at the same time the creepy mind-controlling Joker analogue has a hot air balloon? Or, well, that’s actually pretty comic-booky too, come to think of it. But honestly the book would probably work better if it were set in the “real” world, one that hadn’t been ripped apart quite so much, y’know?

Renegades is, of course, the first in a trilogy. And as you’d expect, there are plenty of dangling plot threads and cliffhanger revelations to complicate things for later volumes. And … y’know, I’ll probably get around to reading them at some point. Renegades didn’t floor me, but it proved enjoyable enough, and sometimes that’s all you need, right?

Book Review: The Siege, by Arturo Perez-Reverte

The current Transformers toyline, Siege, is surprisingly good– I was a little leery when Hasbro decided to go back to sci-fi future-car altmodes instead of actual vehicles, but the toy design has been top notch, and the character choices have been really solid, ranging from old standbys like Prime and Megatron to more obscure characters like Chromia and Flywheels. That they’ve had the coup of roping in a novelist on the quality of Arturo Perez-Reverte to write the fiction is–

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Oh. Wait.

Perez-Reverte’s The Siege is not about transformers, but I went ahead and read it anyway. It’s a historical novel, set in the Peninsular War of the Napoleonic Wars. The titular siege is the Siege of Cadiz, in which the French surrounded the port city of Cadiz, the seat of Spain’s government-in-exile. The Napoleonic Era has long been a tempting setting for novelists– though now that I think of it, I’ve read English, Russian, and Spanish perspectives on the wars, but I haven’t read any French ones. Well, except for the Waterloo flashback in Les Miserables, I guess?

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In any case, The Siege is Arturo Perez-Reverte’s take on the era. It’s a bit broader in scope than most of his other novels, which have a more focused perspective, limited to one or two viewpoint characters. Instead, The Siege follows the lives of Cadiz’s chief of police, a grim (but dashing) privateer captain, an enterprising and determined merchant woman, a simple illiterate peasant, a Taxidermist spy, and a French physics professor turned artilleryman who’s trying to get just a little extra range out of his cannons so he can bomb the whole of the city.

The merchant, Lolita Palma, really stood out. She’s an unmarried “spinster” at the age of thirty-two– but she’s also brilliant, multi-lingual, and has something of a scientific streak as she studies botany as a hobby. Considering most other female characters Perez-Reverte writes are either femme fatales or serving wenches, I couldn’t help but notice. So, uh, positive points he’s moving in that direction, though … he probably should’ve done it before? Ah well. Palma gets a (somewhat obligatory) romance subplot with the sea captain, but it’s not the focus of the novel.

As if 70,000 French troops surrounding the city wasn’t problem enough, there’s also a serial killer on the loose in Cadiz, leaving flayed corpses in places where French shells are about to hit. And while Cadiz’s police chief is charged with finding the murderer, The Siege doesn’t quite come together as a murder mystery. Instead of revealing clues and alibis for the reader to follow, the murder subplot of The Siege is more concerned with conversations about philosophy and obsession and the limits of science. It’s … a little frustrating, to be honest.

Which isn’t to say The Siege is a bad read– there are sea battles and night raids and even a duel, as the book is set during a war and all. It’s just that some parts of The Siege can drag, as characters just have lengthy conversations about one subject or another as they sit around and drink and smoke cigars.

The Siege has the same grim, Spanish fatalism that pervades Arturo Perez-Reverte’s work, along with the deliciously detailed prose. Where the Captain Alatriste novels show a Spain in the beginnings of its decline, The Siege is set firmly at a nadir for Spain, with the Spanish king deposed, and the countryside occupied by Napoleon’s troops.

Frank Wynne’s translation occasionally stumbles in places. For example, the term “musket” and “rifle” are used interchangeably, which … eh, that’s me just being nitpicky. A little more egregious is mention of a “double barreled revolver,” which … isn’t a thing, much less something somebody’s going to be toting around in 1811. Which, again, is a dumb little detail– but at the same time one of the appeals of Arturo Perez-Reverte’s novels is how meticulously researched and detailed they are. Like, in the acknowledgments at the back of the book, Perez-Reverte thanks a friend of his for auditing Lolita Palma’s finances to make sure they’re historically accurate. With that kind of detail, a dumb error about a kind of gun just seems all the more glaring, y’know?

So yeah. The Siege is a decent enough read, but it didn’t floor me like the best of Perez-Reverte’s novels can. So if you’ve got a particular interest in the author and/or the Napoleonic Wars, go ahead and give it a read. But if you don’t, you’re not going to miss out on anything mind-blowing.

Some Obligatory Endgame Thoughts

So I don’t have a book review for this week juuust yet (still have a couple hundred pages to go) so, uh … anybody wanna talk about Avengers: Endgame?

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I mean, the flick’s been out for two weeks, but I’ll still be polite and throw out a disclaimer that THIS WILL BE SPOILERY AS ALL HECK.

SERIOUSLY.

ROSEBUD IS A SLED.

YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

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Book Review: Firefly, Big Damn Heroes, by Nancy Holder & James Lovegrove.

HOT TAKE: Getting canceled was the best thing that happened to Firefly.

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And yeah, it sucked for the cast and crew that Fox screwed them over, but that’s Hollywood for you. At least Nathan Fillion’s still getting cast in stuff, right? But the irony is, since Firefly was a scant 13 episodes (and later a movie), Firefly is a really easy show to get into. Add in a ton of quotable dialogue from a talented, charismatic cast, and you’re set. If Firefly had lasted three or four seasons, I dare say it would’ve lapsed into mediocrity– and perhaps obscurity, destined for early-afternoon reruns on Comet TV or something. I mean, there’s a reason nobody goes around quoting Dollhouse.

So whenever somebody starts going “bring back Firefly!” I just kind of shrug and move on– as honestly, I don’t want more episodes of Firefly. Sometimes you just gotta let things go, y’know? Not to mention we’re living in a golden age of sci-fi/fantasy television, to the point where the latest goings on in a swords & dragons TV show is front-page news.

This said, I actually rather enjoyed Firefly, and still have the box-set sitting on my DVD shelf. And when I stumbled across Big Damn Hero (or is it Firefly: Big Damn Hero?) at the library, I got curious. I was in the mood for something light, and … well, here we are.

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And, uh. Here’s the thing.

Big Damn Hero isn’t very good.

A lot of it comes from the fact that the stuff that made Firefly work as a show were things that are really hard to convey in text: cool visuals and chemistry between the cast members. On top of that, the Firefly universe never really bothered explaining itself– just how big is the Verse, exactly? And how does interplanetary travel actually work? If everyone’s swearing in Mandarin, where are the Asian people?  It’s the sort of thing you can sorta handwave away on a short-run TV show, but there are certain questions even the fluffiest of space operas need to figure out.

On top of that, James Lovegrove doesn’t put his best foot forward with the writing. The prose is clunky and cliche ridden, and the authors make it a point to work in references to the TV show in just about every chapter. So they mention Jayne’s hat (repeatedly), Kaylee’s dress (repeatedly), and work in other none-too-subtle bits that refer to every episode of Firefly. Well, except for that one ep where space-rednecks capture Simon and try to burn River as a witch– or, wait, that’s the ep the book’s title comes from. Dang. And the real kicker is, Lovegrove can write better than this– his xenophobic vampire novel Redlaw wasn’t exactly good, but at least it had a whole bunch of novel ideas.

Sidenote: Big Damn Hero is notably set between the end of the Firefly TV show, but before the movie, so certain characters are still alive and kicking. Which is fine, I guess, especially if you like those characters– but it also means the book doesn’t really have anywhere to go.

Though to their credit, Lovegrove & Holder try to add a little bit to the Firefly canon– in a couple of flashbacks to Mal Reynolds’ teenage years. Yeeeah. Oh, and spoiler alert, but there’s a dead love interest in there. Because of course there is. Go ahead and roll your eyes in unison with me now.

In any case, the plot of Big Damn Hero revolves around Mal getting captured by a bunch of other former Browncoats who accuse him of treason for, uh … reasons. The rest of the crew faffs around trying to find him for most of the book, until they finally do, and rescue him. Weee. There’s also some business with a load of volatile space-nitroglycerin, mostly thrown in so there’s a big explosion at the end.

One of my biggest problems with Big Damn Hero is that it keeps separating the characters– Mal gets captured and spends most of the book with a bag over his head and/or inside a jail cell, and the rest of the crew splits up in ones and twos as they go in various directions to track him down. Considering the reason people love Firefly is because they love to watch the characters bounce off of each other, this is a huge mistake. Sure, there’s nine main characters to juggle, which is a challenge for an author, but at least they all fall into neat archetypes so they’re easy to work with, y’know?

It’s easy to write off books like Big Damn Hero as ‘glorified fanfiction,’ but … well, that’s kind of what tie-in fiction is. But honestly, the terrible irony is, I am dead certain that you could find far better, far more entertaining Firefly fanfiction without too much trouble. And not just the sexy kind of fanfics where Inara and Kaylee have a slumber party or something.

But yeah. Unless you are the hardest-core of Browncoats, avoid Big Damn Hero. It doesn’t capture the magic of the show– and heck, it’s not even cringingly bad in the manner of a lot of the schlock I’ve read. It’s just … boring.

And sometimes “boring” is worse than “awful.”

Book Review: The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley

A friend of mine recommended The Rook to me some while ago– and when I stumbled across it via the Overdrive library app, (which I should note is the best thing ever) I figured “why not?”

Also, if a completely different friend of mine is reading this, Overdrive doesn’t have that spooky Sabrina graphic novel on it. Sorry.

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But yeah! It’s always nice to see my friends have good taste. Especially since The Rook probably wouldn’t have popped up on my radar beforehand. Which is surprising, as it’s a pretty solid Urban Fantasy/Spooky Conspiracy kind of book, it’s just that I hadn’t heard of Daniel O’Malley before. But let’s fix that!

In any case, The Rook is about a woman by the name of Myfawny (rhymes with “Tiffany.” It’s Welsh) Thomas, who wakes up one evening with two black eyes, a circle of gloved corpses surrounding her, and absolutely no idea who she is. Lucky for Myfanwy, she planned for this … or, well, the previous Myfanwy did. You see, Myfanwy is a member of The Checquy, one of those secret English organizations devoted to protecting the world from various strange and supernatural threats. And, when the previous Myfanwy found out she was going to have all her memories erased, she made it a point to set up a contingency plan for … herself, consisting of a whole bunch of handwritten letters to, well, herself. So you have a (supernatural) spy with no memory trying to escape the conspiracy that gave her amnesia in the first place– it’s basically The Bourne Identity meets Charles Stross‘ Laundry novels.

Though to be honest, describing The Rook that way is a bit derivative, as it stands quite well on its own. For one, in a somewhat refreshing take on things, the world of the Checquy feels fresh and original. Sure, there are some inevitable critters like dragons or vampires– but these are strange and exceedingly rare. Instead of being something that’s easily ‘defined’ like the standard Urban Fantasy boyfriends menagerie, or even Lovecraftian squeebliness, much of the weirdness in The Rook is … well, weird. In particular, many Checquy agents manifest strange and unique powers as children (or sometimes later as adults)– which honestly feels more X-men than anything. Heck, there’s even an American operative with Colossus-esque living metal powers– but O’Malley is a skilled enough writer to make this more of a clever homage rather than a derivative imitation.

Now, if The Rook were just a novel about weird secret adventures, told in a wry English (or Austrailian, I guess, given O’Malley’s nationality) tone that varies between drolly hilarious and darkly horrifying, it’d be an entertaining enough read. But the great part is, there’s more to the book than that. While most Urban Fantasy I’ve read is mostly an excuse for various magical critters to beat the snot out of each other (and/or get sexy with each other, depending on if there’s a lady wearing leather pants on the cover or not). Not so in The Rook. As Myfanwy’s amnesia (and subsequent efforts to hide it from her co-workers at the Checquy) is a spot-on metaphor for impostor syndrome. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s a definite feminist tilt to The Rook as Myfanwy is forced to make herself heard– The Checquy, being a centuries-old English institution, definitely has an “old boy’s club” air about it. This thematic depth is what pushes The Rook from good to great. Though it’s also worth noting that O’Malley never clubs you over the head with this, as Myfanwy is forced to deal with more immediate problems like a secret society of body-horror Belgian alchemists. It makes sense in context. Mostly.

This isn’t to say The Rook is perfect– Myfanwy’s letters to herself are a clever enough means of delivering exposition, but sometimes they get a bit bogged down and break up the pace of the novel. Which possibly could be construed as a good thing, as it just meant I was eager to find out what happened in the main storyline. My only other real quibble is that, while most of the book is written from Myfanwy’s point of view (albeit not in first-person narration), there are a few occasional cheats to other perspectives that honestly could’ve been cut out without losing anything, as well as maintaining narrative cohesion. But again, this is a minor quibble because I’m a nerd.

So yeah. The Rook was one of those books I kept on finding excuses to go back and read, which is always a good sign. There’s even a sequel, Stiletto, which I’m looking forward to reading, but I’m not getting to just quite yet ’cause I like to pace things out. Which is also why I don’t binge-watch Netflix shows all in one sitting, but that’s another matter entirely.

Book Review: Leviathan Wakes, by James S.A. Corey

If I’d planned ahead, I would’ve read a Star Wars novel to post a review of today, buuuuut most Star Wars novels are kind of terrible. But hey, space opera’s still kind of close, right?

While not the merchandising juggernaut that is Star Wars, The Expanse (of which Leviathan Wakes is the first novel) is popular enough that the Sci-Fi channel (I’m not calling it SyFy, dangit) optioned it into a TV series (which I have not watched). Plus, it was on a long waiting list in the library, so that means it’s popular, right? Other than that, I went into Leviathan Wakes pretty much blind.

lev wakes

And it’s … okay?

Probably on account of the hype, I was expecting Leviathan Wakes to be an Important Science Fiction Novel(tm). And at the beginning, when you’re still trying to get your head around the intricately detailed setting and slowly developing plot, it seems that way. I think part of it comes from the fact that Leviathan Wakes is hard-ish science fiction. It takes place in a future where man has colonized the solar system (but not yet beyond), and spaceships have to worry about stuff like gravity and acceleration and simple physics and stuff. So you’ve got railguns instead of phasers, armor plating instead of shields, that sort of thing.

expanse

Like one of its spaceships slowly building up speed, Leviathan Wakes takes awhile to get going. It’s a bit grim, especially at the beginning. This isn’t surprising, as Corey (or, rather, Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank, the two authors using James S.A. Corey as a nom-de-plume) is friends with George R.R. Martin. It’s not quite “Game of Thrones IN SPAAAACE,” but at the same time the book deals with war and genocide and greebly body-horror space monsters, so … yeah. Corey has put a lot of thought into the setting of Leviathan Wakes, and sometimes gets a little too exposition-happy, but at least the setting details tend to be interesting.

One thing that really stands out is how Corey makes the solar system of Leviathan Wakes into a thoroughly diverse one, a sprawling melange of various world cultures all merged together in space, often in anachronistically entertaining ways, such as the Indian-descended space pilot who picked up a Texan accent growing up on Mars.

This said, it’s almost kind of disappointing that the main protagonists of Leviathan Wakes are straight out of sci-fi central casting. There’s Joe Miller, the space-noir detective (he even has a hat!) and James Holden, an idealistic space-captain. This isn’t a bad thing, mind you, as these ‘traditional’ sci-fi plots are done pretty well. But if you’re looking for something mind-blowing along the lines of, say, a Culture novel, you’re gonna be disappointed.

Things get more interesting once Corey establishes the setting and the stakes, and both Miller and Holden have the opportunity to do stuff, as opposed to getting yanked around while horrible things happen all around them. So about a third of the way into the novel, things get underway, and the resulting adventure keeps on getting faster and faster. There are starship battles and narrow escapes and evil corporations and soon enough the fate of all mankind hangs in the balance. Fun stuff, all around.

So yeah. All and all, Leviathan Wakes is good, but not great. Which sometimes is exactly what you’re looking for in a book. So if you’re up for some spaceships-based adventure, give Leviathan Wakes a go– but at the same time don’t expect it to blow your mind, either. Though Leviathan Wakes was solid enough to make me curious about where the series goes next, so I guess it did its job there, right?

Book Review: Cenotaph Road, by Robert E. Vardeman

Indulge me, dear reader, because I’m gonna get nostalgic.

See, back when I was a kid, my high school library had a somewhat … eclectic science fiction section. I imagine a lot of it was just hand-me-downs or ‘donations’ from some alumni or faculty member. There was some classic stuff like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in there, and Tad Williams’ The Dragonbone Chair, I think … but there was also some battered old paperbacks on those shelves that probably shouldn’t have been there. For example, I’m fairly certain I found The Wolf’s Hour on the same battered paperback rack as a couple of Robert E. Vardeman’s Cenotaph Road novels. And, like The Wolf’s Hour, these novels are chock full of sex and violence, which made teenage-me gobble them up like so much candy. For example, there’s a moment in one of the later books in which some Evil Queen Lady watches some gladiators murder each other in an arena, which gets her so worked up that she plants a sword in the sand of the arena, and then uses the hilt of the weapon as a sex toy. Which, y’know, strikes me as unsanitary and uncomfortable. Ew.

High literature this is not, folks.

But! When I stumbled across the first novel, Cenotaph Road, in the dollar bin, I knew I had to pick it up. And, sure enough, it’s just as trashy and violent as I remember. The funny thing is, I don’t think I actually read the first book in the series (true to form, the library only had like half of the six Cenotaph Road books), so this is … technically new to me?

cenotaph road

Anyway, Cenotaph Road centers on a dude named Lan Martak, who’s supposed to be a dashing swords and sorcery style hero, but he just comes off as generic and boring. He’s a woodsman who’s also a great swordsman and also does a little bit of magic, because why not? He lacks Conan’s charisma, or the broodiness of Elric– he’s just pretty much ‘there’ because you need a dude with a sword to fight a bunch of guys.

Lan lives in a weird mashup world where people tote around wheel-lock pistols and drive in Maxwell’s Demon powered steam-cars. Oooo-kay? Right off the bat, Vardeman throws a lot of setting stuff at the reader, but it never really comes together. Like, one can have a lot of fun mixing genres and settings and stuff, but Vardeman never really steps up to the task.

By the end of the first chapter, not one, but two different women (a brothel-madam who Lan’s in love with and Lan’s half-sister who we meet for all of like three pages) are sexually assaulted and murdered so Lan has a motive to get REVEEEENGE. Told you this stuff was trashy. But Lan is framed for the crime (through honestly dumb circumstances), so he must flee along the Cenotaph Road– a connection between worlds, with the gateways manifesting over the graves of great heroes. Kay.

Lan hops between a couple more dimensions, where he meets the actual, y’know, interesting characters. There’s Inyx, your typical warrior-woman archetype, and Krek, the enormous talking spider on the cover there.

Krek is great.

Krek is weird and alien and a bit manic-depressive, and honestly one of the few things I remember from reading these books. He’s even got a fun backstory: he’s traveling the Cenotaph Road in order to escape his mate, who wants to cocoon him up for their thousands of giant-spider babies to eat when they hatch. Arachnid deadbeat dad. Go figure. But at least that makes him more entertaining and interesting than Lan– which honestly isn’t that hard of a thing to do.

So yeah. Lan blunders around from one fight scene to another, fighting both generic mooks and weirder monsters (like, there’s a random killer robot at one point). For the first half of the book, he’s out for REVEEEENGE, and then later he falls under the spell of some sexy blonde damsel with mind control tears, or something? It honestly gets pretty annoying, as Lan keeps on throwing himself into fights to ‘rescue’ her, even though it’s pretty clear damsel-girl is ditching him for the big evil warlord guy. At least Krek and Inyx spend most of the book going “seriously, dude?” and making fun of Lan for it.

skull

And yes the evil skull dude has eye lasers.

Suffice it to say, Cenotaph Road does not hold up very well. Which is unsurprising, but still pretty disappointing. The real kicker is, Cenotaph Road doesn’t even get into the real meat of the series– y’see, in the later novels, Lan does battle with an evil sorcerer. Or, well, a sorcerer’s talking, disembodied skull, that’s trying to reassemble the pieces of his body that have been spread across the multiverse. It’s a fun premise, with a neat and gruesome bunch of MacGuffins. Or, at least, that’s what I vaguely remember from reading a handful of these books decades ago.

So yeah. If I stumble across more of these books in the dollar bin, I’ll give ’em a go, but I don’t think I’m gonna go out of my way to track them down. And if the premise of a generic sword-guy world-hopping alongside his talking spider sidekick sounds interesting, you’d do well to just skip ahead to the second or third book in the series. I mean, that’s what I did.