Book Review: Grounded! by Chris Claremont

Man, it’s been awhile since I read something with a spaceship on the cover. So, I went rummaging around in my to-read pile, and found a good ol’ dollar-bin paperback. One by famed X-men writer Chris Claremont, no less!

grounded

This cover lies.

Grounded! is actually a sequel to Claremont’s previous novel, First Flight. I’ve got vague memories of seeing ads for the books in random issues of X-men, back in the day. And I even read First Flight a good while before I started this blog (but I still got it out of the dollar bin, even then).

The books center on Lt. Nicole Shea, a space-pilot astronaut. In the first book, she fights some space pirates and makes first contact with a race of alien catpeople. And now, in the second, she has to deal with the fallout, as she’s been taken off of space-duty, and shipped out to Edwards Air Force Base, where she’s to act as a cultural liaison between the alien catpeople and the US Military as they try to merge alien and human technology.

Something I realized reading Grounded! that I didn’t in First Flight was Nicole’s character origins. She’s essentially Carol Danvers, just without the Captain Marvel powers. Which isn’t surprising, considering a depowered Carol Danvers was a supporting character in X-men during Claremont’s run. Likewise, there’s a precociously brilliant teen computer prodigy who reads more or less like a non-mutant Kitty Pryde. There’s a bit of other Claremont-ism in the book, notably in the dude’s obvious enthusiasm for aviation. Thankfully, that’s about as far as that goes– there’s no corsets or mind control kink to worry about. The book passes the Bedchel test– though at the same time the descriptions of women in the book get a little … drool-y. Though that’s honestly not anything specific to Claremont.

first flight

This cover also lies.

With a cover like that, you’d think Grounded! would be a mil-SF adventure, or at least Top Gun in Space(tm), right? And what we get is … not that. On the one hand, I’ll at least give Claremont credit for making Grounded! more of a character study, even though it’s a lot slower paced than a book with an exclamation point in its title should be. So Nicole gets fleshed out, with her various self doubts and a little bit of PTSD from her time getting chased around by space pirates in the previous book.

The problem is, Grounded! is pretty scattershot beyond that. Which, well, may be a bit Claremont-y in and of itself, as he did have a tendency to just kind of introduce plot threads and leave them dangling. Which you can get away with in a monthly comic book, but it’s a lot more glaring in a written novel. Grounded! would be a lot more interesting if it focused on one thing– but as it is, the book is a jumble of ideas about first contact with aliens (who you’d really think would play a bigger part in the book than they do), virtual reality, performance enhancing drugs, and a bunch of other stuff. It’s all something of a jumbled mess, to be honest.

Worse yet, when Claremont finally does introduce what I assume is the main plot, I was able to guess the twist, like, immediately. Which had me skip the last third of the novel or so to see if I was right– and I was. Go figure. I mean, at least it’s something of a novel twist, but it was still predictable. Not to mention the fact that I couldn’t be arsed to push through another 100 pages or so to find out the twist ‘legitimately’ doesn’t do much to recommend the book.

So yeah. For a dollar, Grounded! was an interesting little curiosity– though honestly not much beyond that. I’d only recommend it for the die-hardest of Claremont fans, to be honest. But even then you’d be better off picking up some old X-men issues instead. Still, apparently he wrote a third book in the series, called Sundowner. So, y’know, that’s something else to keep an eye out for next time I dig around in the good ol’ dollar bin.

Book Review: Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir

So I’m kind of getting into the swing of reading for pleasure on a regular basis again. Yay?

In any case, I’d heard a lot of buzz about Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, including Nebula & Hugo nominations. And, more importantly, I had a bunch of friends who enjoyed the book, so I figured I’d take their recommendation to see what all the commotion was about.

Gideon cover

‘Snarky Goth Girl’ is a pretty common trope these days. You’ve probably got an image in your head already: Dark clothes, pale skin, dark hair, heaps of sarcasm. (Also a more than likely chance of being voiced by Tara Strong, if animated).

In Gideon the Ninth, Muir asks “what if every character was a snarky goth girl?”

I’ll admit, I’m being a bit pithy here. As to be honest, Muir does a lot to flesh out her characters and make them sympathetic, even though they’re the sort of skull-facepainted necromantic bad guys that somebody like Flash Gordon would swing by and punch out on a random adventure.

Gideon the Ninth centers on, well, Gideon the Ninth. She’s an orphan, raised by an order of skeleton-commanding necromancers who themselves are in decline. Speaking of character tropes, Gideon herself is a solid example of the ‘sword lesbian’ archetype, though it’s all handled in a matter-of-factly sort of way. Like, Gideon is a gay character, but the book is less about her preferences and more about her punching skeleton monsters in the face.

After an unsuccessful escape attempt, Gideon is shanghaied into playing the bodyguard to a young necromancer woman named Harrow, as the two travel to the center of the necromantic space-empire by order of their immortal lich-emperor. They wind up getting plunked down in an isolated, decaying mansion (that is also probably haunted) along with the other necromancer/swordsman pairs of the other noble houses, and tasked with discovering the secret of true immortality. Swordfights and mystery and murder ensue– all accompanied by various witty quips from various characters.

Gideon the Ninth is a weird book– I dunno if I’d call it New Weird, but it’s definitely unique. It’s a blend of a haunted house mystery with the noble-house politics of Dune, interspersed with big flashy action sequences whenever a horrible monster shows up. It all comes together for a fairly fun combination, if one that’s really swingy in tone. Muir piles on the grim misery in the first part of the novel, almost to an excessive degree. Things lighten up once Gideon reaches the big haunted mansion and starts meeting characters that don’t loathe her. And again, Muir does a great job in fleshing out the eighteen(!) or so characters roaming around said haunted mansion, showing a lot of them to be surprisingly pleasant people for necromancers. Which in turn makes the horror hit all the harder once people start dying.

Really though, for all the strangeness and necromancy of Gideon the Ninth, the book is a fairly straightforward mystery-adventure. This said, it might not be for everyone, especially given the rather bleak first third of the novel, which is primarily occupied with various people abusing Gideon, both physically and emotionally. And, y’know, given all that, I wasn’t 100 percent sold on Gideon’s character arc in which she finally connects with Harrow, her necromancer (who devoted most of her life to fighting with Gideon in various ways). Furthermore, the snarky tone is laid on a little thick– which could be terribly entertaining to some readers, but offputting to others. Like, it’s kind of weird to read a swords-and-ghosts space opera and run into terms like “narc” or “resting bitch face.” It’s sci-fi by way of the internet, I guess.

Once it gets going, Gideon the Ninth is a solid pageturner of a novel. I’d hardly call it ‘deep’ sci-fi by any means, but it’s not trying to be anything other than a rollicking, quip-filled horror flick. And in that, Gideon the Ninth succeeds pretty well. It’s the first in a trilogy– the sequel, Harrow the Ninth comes out in August, with the third novel to follow … eventually. I’m curious to see where the series will go, but I also might wait ’til everything’s out at once before looking into it. But hey, at least I still wanna read more. Just … eventually. Pace it out, and all that.

 

Book Review: Matt Margini’s Red Dead Redemption

Oh hey, Boss Fight Books is back!

This ‘season’ of Boss Fight Books is looking to be a fun one. Previous runs have switched between interesting obscurities like Soft and Cuddly and pop culture phenomena like NBA Jam. However, this time around, Boss Fight Books is sticking to big franchises: Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Zelda, Final Fantasy … and Red Dead Redemption. This is the first time I’ve actually played all the games in a ‘season,’ so naturally I was all about that Kickstarter.

And here we are!

red dead cover

To write about Red Dead Redemption is to write about the Western, and to write about the Western is to write about America. In classic Boss Fight Books fashion, Margini uses the framing of a video game to explore bigger ideas. For example, Margini makes a direct comparison towards the objective-chasing of a ‘map game’ to the manifest destiny philosophy that fueled America’s westward expansion. Throughout the book’s 200-ish pages, Margini does a thoroughly researched deep dive into the Western genre, with comparisons to Leone, Pekinpah, and pretty much every other notable Western director you can think of. Even without the video game comparisons, I learned quite a bit from Red Dead Redemption, such as the existence of sub-genres like the Snow Western and the Mexico Western.

red dead game

Not only does Margini compare Red Dead Redemption to film Westerns, he also explores the game’s storyline specifically. Red Dead Redemption is hardly the first video game to feature a western setting, but it’s arguably the first video game to really be a Western, as opposed to a shooter with cowboy hats.

sunset riders

Remember when Konami actually made good games? 

Red Dead Redemption is a cynical game– though with more of a tragic tone than the “satirical” nihilism of Rockstar’s other cornerstone franchise, Grand Theft Auto. As such, Red Dead Redemption makes some particular choices in its gameplay– most notably, giving the player a lack of choice at several different points. Red Dead Redemption isn’t a game like Mass Effect or Knights of the Old Republic, in which the player can influence the world of the game. Instead, the player is put in the boots of John Marston, a doomed outlaw who gets closer and closer to his ultimate fate with each completed mission.

Honestly, Red Dead Redemption is one of those books that’s hard to write about, just because it’s so good. Like, I could complain a little about how Margini doesn’t mention the far more videogamey (and decidedly non-canonical) spinoff game Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare, but honestly there’s not much to really be said about another zombie-mode in a video game, y’know? All and all, Red Dead Redemption is an essential read for anyone who’s really gotten into the game, and also for any fans of the Western who are interested in reading about how the genre can be interpreted through 21st century media.

Book Review: Richard Rosenbaum’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

What do you do when you’re way behind on your reading backlog due to … uh, everything in the year 2020?

Read shorter books!

Thankfully, in this case ‘shorter’ doesn’t have any effect on the quality. There should be a particular word for the “short paperback that does a deep-dive into entertainment” format, because I seem to keep finding a lot of them. I mean, Boss Fight Books does video games, 33 1/3 does albums, The New Hong Kong Cinema does Hong Kong new wave cinema, and now I’ve stumbled across Pop Classics. And they do … a little bit of everything, I guess? Other books cover everything from Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, to the career of Nicholas Cage, to cult TV show Twin Peaks, and more. And they even take pitches on their website! (Naturally, I could easily hammer out 40,000 words about the Transformers franchise, but they want people with other published stuff under their belt. Pooh).

IMG_0261

All these books are all SLIGHTLY different sizes, which bothers me to no end. 

Which brings us to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which is about, well, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise. Richard Rosenbaum comes at the franchise from a place of lifelong love, and neatly lays out the history of the TMNT, from its indie comic book beginnings to when creator Peter Laird sold the rights to Nickelodeon, and the subsequent CGI cartoon. Published in 2014, the book comes just before that awful live action TMNT movie— as well as its 2016 sequel which actually didn’t suck? Kind of a pity, as I would’ve loved to read Rosenbaum’s takes on both of them.

tmnt cover

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles isn’t just a history of the franchise, however. It’s also a critical analysis. Rosenbaum digs deep into the underlying themes of alienation and mutation in TMNT, and how it works as a pastiche, rather than a parody. I mean, the dude compares TMNT to the works of Franz Kafka and Salman Rushdie, and it actually makes sense. It’s the kind of thinking about a pop culture franchise that you literally won’t get anywhere else, which makes it fascinating. It’s not a dry read, either, as Rosenbaum isn’t afraid to throw snark at the likes of Image comics or Michael Bay. Easy targets, perhaps, but it’s still funny.

This said, the book does have a couple of gaps here and there. I mean, while TMNT- contemporary indie comic Cerebus is mentioned, Rosenbaum doesn’t talk about the flood of other indie funny animal comics that came out to mimic TMNT’s success, including Stan Sakai’s classic Usagi Yojimbo, which has actually crossed over with TMNT multiple times.

sakai-combo

Is this just an excuse to post rad art? Yes.

Likewise, while Rosenbaum lays out TMNT’s foundation as a riff on Frank Miller’s ninja-filled run on Daredevil, he doesn’t factor in the ninja-craze of the 1980’s that spawned it. He doesn’t address the ninja-backlash, either, like when the show was renamed “Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles” in the UK, because Margaret Thatcher was terrified of nunchucks, I guess. As over time, the franchise got increasingly Bowdlerized, to the point where we get the “The Coming Out of Their Shells” tour. Oof.

shell tour

These guys were even on Oprah. Seriously, look up the clips, if you ever wanted to see what rock bottom on a franchise looks like. 

Still, I only bring up these tiny quibbles because I’m just a super nerd. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles provides a short, readable, and fairly comprehensive look at one of the most popular media franchises of the modern era, and digs into just why something so ridiculous got so popular. I heartily recommend the book for anyone with an interest in the Ninja Turtles, or even anybody who digs nerdy pop culture in general.

I mean, Rosenbaum repeatedly notes that Don is the best turtle, which is how you know he’s done his research.

Book Review: A Conversation in Blood, by Paul S. Kemp

So, uh,  how’s everybody doing?

Me, I’m … alright, all things considered. I’m pretty damn lucky in that. The irony of it is, with all this free time, I haven’t been reading nearly as much as I used to. Though I have figured out how to bake some pretty decent pizza dough and also have been binging on various Netflix shows and also am like 3/4’s of the way through River City Girls, so … that’s … something, right?

blood convo
But hey! Managed to finally finish reading another book, yeeey. Hopefully the first of many.

I actually stumbled across A Conversation in Blood (in hardback!) in a dollar store, of all places. Having read the first two in Kemp’s Egil & Nix series, I figured “why the heck not?” And here we are. I … actually started reading the book before quarantine started, which may have factored into why it took me so long to finish it, as A Conversation in Blood is … rather grim.

But yeah. In case you didn’t feel like going back and reading my reviews of Kemp’s other work, I’ll sum things up. The Egil & Nix books are basically Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser fanfiction– and purposefully so. Nix is scrappy thief-y guy in a cloak, and Egil is the big burly guy on the cover there. They fight monsters! Pretty standard Swords & Sorcery kinda stuff.

In any case, the two of them naturally get into trouble involving a magical macguffin and a horrible unstoppable monster that’s inexorably drawn to it. And so, Egil & Nix must rush across a fantasy city (whose name escapes me, sadly) dodging angry wizards and the local Thieves Guild and various other nasty sorts. It’s fairly standard Swords & Sorcery fare, even though Kemp busts out a fairly interesting twist at the very end.

Honestly, though, my issue with A Conversation in Blood is that it’s a bit … grim. Of course, Swords & Sorcery is a genre that’s always had a great deal of blood and violence, but there’s just a sense of melancholy, especially in the first third or so of the novel, that kind of slows down what should be a fun and rollicking pace. Additionally, Egil & Nix spend a lot of time reacting to the various things chasing them around, scrambling on the defensive, which makes the narrative less interesting than it could be. Again, the ending has an interesting enough twist to make things interesting, but at the same time the book could probably cut a couple chapters of “Oh no, we need to run away from the monster!” in the middle.

Overall, A Conversation in Blood is … fine. It didn’t wow me, but at the same time it didn’t piss me off, either? Really, looking at the series as a whole, I’d say that the second one, A Discourse in Steel is the best. A Discourse in Steel is faster paced than the third book in the series, and has far less weird sex stuff than the first. So, y’know, read the second one sometime if you’re in the mood for something about two dudes who swordfight lizard-men, but I’d only really recommend the others unless you really, really wanted more of the series.

Book Review: A Hero Born, by Jin Yong

Oh hey, I still have a blog, don’t I?

First off, I should note that I Am Fine(tm). So if you were wondering if my sudden lack of posting was on account of medical stuff, rest easy. I’m lucky in that I’m in a place where I can just hunker down and ride things out ’til things go back to some semblance of normal. Which, uh, may be awhile.

hero born

But! The irony is, while I’ve got more free time nowadays, I … haven’t been reading as much. Go figure. I suppose a lot of it comes from the fact that I’ve got a bunch of OTHER distractions close at hand. So, y’know, if anybody wants to hear my thoughts on JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, or my misadventures in bread-baking, or why Pyre is just the most fun I’ve had with a video game in a long time, lemme know. It probably didn’t help that the books I was reading before things started getting dicey were … not all that enthralling. Mmf.

So! In an effort to get myself out of that rut, I went ahead and bought some NEW books– one of which was Jin Yong’s A Hero Born, translated by Anna Holmwood.

Though technically, A Hero Born isn’t a complete novel. In fact, it’s just the first part of the multi volume “Legend of the Condor Heroes” series, first serialized from 1957 to 1959 in a Hong Kong newspaper. The Legend of the Condor Heroes (or Condor Trilogy, as it’s sometimes called) is pretty much THE seminal modern wuxia novel. It’s been directly adapted into dozens of kung fu movies over the years, and its influence stretches even longer than that in establishing tropes and character types that’s been drawn on by literal thousands of other works. Secret techniques, wily old kung fu masters, training montages, it’s all there. Basically, it’s The Lord of the Rings of getting kicked in the head.

archer

A Shaw Bros adaptation! I actually have this on DVD.

A Hero Born is ostensibly a historical novel, set during the late 12th/Early 13th century, and centered on the conflict between the Jin Dynasty, the Song Dynasty, and the rise of a dude named Genghis Khan. The titular hero being born is a guy by the name of Guo Jing, the son of Chinese patriots who, after various convoluted shenanigans, winds up being raised in the house (well, yurt) of Genghis Khan, and trained in various styles of kung fu by a ragtag band of martial artists known as the Seven Freaks of the South. The Seven Freaks were my favorite characters of the bunch– they’ve got this ‘quirky D&D party’ aspect to them. There’s the blind master, a sneaky pickpocket who fights with an iron fan, a dwarf who’s the greatest horseman alive, and so on, and so forth.

For equally convoluted reasons, the Seven Freaks train Guo Jing (for twelve years!) to fight the student of one of their rivals, a wily old Taoist priest. And eventually, they send Guo Jing southward in order to face his opponent and prove who has the best kung fu. This … is honestly oversimplifying the plot, as A Hero Born deals with dozens of different characters all interconnected in a web of family ties and sworn brotherhoods and rivalries and so on. Though honestly once you get past that kind of thing, A Hero Born is your typical ‘boy gets trained, goes out on an adventure, and gets into all kinds of trouble on the way’ kind of story. It’s just that instead of wizards teaching spells, it’s kung fu masters throwing around techniques with names like “Nine Yin Skeleton Claw.”

Those technique names are part of the fun– though one of the odd things about A Hero Born is that Yong tosses around terms like “Branch Beats the White Chimpanzee” or “Protector Skanda Defends Evil” fairly willy-nilly. Unfortunately, I’m not familiar enough with Chinese idioms and/or martial arts to know if these names are just tossed in for flavor, or if the intended Chinese audience would be expected to know them, or what. Still kind of fun, either way. And that’s BEFORE one gets into the difference between “external” and “internal” kung fu. Basically, A Hero Born more or less is set in a mythical China where “kung fu” is more or less magic (and that’s before you get into weird immortality potions or whatever).

 

(Okay, so that’s a movie adaptation of a later book in the series, but it’s still freakin’ bonkers).

Holmwood’s translation of A Hero Born is solid and straightforward, though not too terribly dry. Working with this kind of subject matter has got to be challenging, and Holmwood does her best to keep things moving. Then again, the appeal of a work like A Hero Born isn’t in the lyrical prose (though I wonder what it’s like in the original Chinese), so much as the multiple turnabouts and cliffhangers and such.

Although, speaking of which, A Hero Born just kind of … ends. As again, this is just the first part of a multi-volume series, so I guess it had to end somewhere? It’s funny, as the book keeps building up to Guo Jing’s destined confrontation, but it veers away at the last second. In fact, the last quarter or so of the book is mostly various characters chasing each other around a palace, yet still somehow manages to drag a bit. It feels a bit anti-climactic, but then again, a lot of old Shaw Bros movies will just immediately stop after the final kung fu fight.

So yeah. I’m looking forward to reading more of Holmwood’s translations as they come out. This said, I dare say that at least a passing familiarity with Chinese literature and/or pulp kung fu cinema will definitely help the reader have some idea of just what the hell is going on. So, y’know, maybe watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon before you pick this book up.

Or heck, watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon anyway, ’cause it’s just so stupidly good.

Something tells me you might have the time.

Book Review: The Rise of Kyoshi, by F.C. Yee

Avatar: The Last Airbender first aired (har har) on Nickelodeon something like 15 years ago. And while it took some time to get rolling, it soon carved out its place amongst various “best animated TV show” lists. It’s pretty easy point to Avatar: The Last Airbender as the precursor to a lot of the story and character heavy cartoons that are being released today.

kyoshi

We won’t talk about the M. Night Shaymalan movie.

One of the appeals to the Avatar cartoon was the fleshed out fantasy world the heroes went around adventuring in. It’s a deep enough setting to spawn a whole sequel series, The Legend of Korra (which I personally love for the Asian dieselpunk aesthetic even if the second season is terrible), as well as a variety of graphic novel miniseries–

–and now an outright novel.

 The Rise of Kyoshi is a prequel, detailing, well, the rise of Kyoshi, an earlier incarnation of, well, The Avatar, link between the spirit world and the only person who can master all four styles of elemental kung-fu called bending. Kyoshi starts the novel as an orphaned servant girl who doesn’t even know she’s the Avatar, until tragedy (naturally) strikes, and she’s forced to fall in with a ragtag group of bandits as she tries to learn how to be The Avatar. Normally I tend to be a little leery of prequels, but The Rise of Kyoshi is set centuries before the cartoon show, so Yee has a lot of wiggle room to play with.

avatars

Various Avatars, doing spooky spirit stuff.

And since The Rise of Kyoshi is a novel, Yee can get away with a LOT more than the show ever did. Namely: people die in this book. It’s not a grimdark bloodbath, but Yee is able to get away with showing the logical consequences of people kung-fu kicking giant rocks or razor sharp icicles at each other. Where the cartoon had to dance around words like “die,” The Rise of Kyoshi has people getting straight up stabbed and burned and poisoned and so on. It does a lot to raise the stakes of the story.

Despite the escalated level of violence, The Rise of Kyoshi still feels like an Avatar show. There’s the setting, of course– while the book takes place centuries before the cartoon, there are still enough place names and character names peppered in throughout to link it to the shows. Yee still manages to play around with things, however. In particular, the book is peppered with references to everything from Buddhist koans to classic kung fu flicks. Hell, there’s even a cameo by a flying guillotine, which had my Hong Kong film-nerd self just cackling. Heck, even the plot where a disgraced Kyoshi takes up with a small gang of bandits reminded me of old wuxia novel plots.

Ultimately, the Avatar series has three main cornerstones: cool elemental kung fu fights, a fantasy-Asian setting, and … shipping. And y’know what? The Rise of Kyoshi has got that, too. The novel sets up the beginnings of a love triangle early on– only to kill off one of the ‘corners’ a little ways in. Kyoshi still winds up falling hopelessly in love with a girl named Rangi, her firey-tempered firebender bodyguard. (It’s an Avatar thing. There’s always an angsty firebender in there). So right off the bat, we’ve got a bisexual protagonist– though one of the bandits even makes a “you’re ‘just friends’” joke to Kyoshi and Rangi when they get together. It’s all fairly cute– and canonical, as a tossed-off line in one of the Legend of Korra sequel-comics established Kyoshi loved both men & women. Though now, between Kyoshi and Korra, that’s the last two female Avatars who are canonically bi, while the last three male Avatars were noted to be in heterosexual relationships. And yes I am thinking way too much about this because I am a nerd. Alternately, maybe it’s just Avatars with names that start with “k?”

But yeah. I devoured  The Rise of Kyoshi over the span of just two days, which is something I haven’t done in awhile. Yee’s biggest accomplishment in the book is expertly capturing the feel of the cartoon, to the point where it’s like a ‘lost’ season or spinoff or something. Yet at the same time, he still manages to put his own spin on things so it doesn’t read like awkward fanfiction. Really, my only complaint is the book has a lack of non-bender characters– mostly because the ‘badass normal’ characters like Sokka or Asami were always my favorites in the cartoons.

Now, this is all coming from an admitted fan of the TV show it’s based on. The Rise of Kyoshi probably works well enough as a standalone fantasy novel? Though it does make a couple of assumptions that you know what bending is, what the Fire Nation is like, and so on, and so forth. So, y’know, I guess you could just go watch some of Avatar: the Last Airbender or Avatar: The Legend of Korra first, just to get a feel for how things work? Or at least watch the show’s opening narration.

Or really you should go watch those shows anyway, and then go read this book so I’ve got somebody else to nerd out over it with.

Book Review: All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, by James Alan Gardner

You guys, that title.

Even if I wasn’t already a fan of James Alan Gardner’s work via his League of Peoples series, I probably would’ve picked up All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault just based on the title alone. It’s a bit goofier than the space opera of other Gardner books I’ve read in the past, but at the same time, with a title like that, you know exactly what you’re getting into.

asplode

All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault is a superhero novel, centering on a quartet of Canadian college students who, after a freak mad science accident, are given superpowers. Standard stuff, really. Though at the same time, Gardner makes it a point to put his own spin on things, making sure that the four newly minted superheroes are notably diverse instead of just a bunch of white guys named Chris. In particular, the book is narrated by Kim, a genderqueer Asian-Canadian geologist. So, uh, probably won’t see somebody like that in the next Avengers movie.

All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault is also a Urban Fantasy novel– kind of. As not only are there caped superheroes and mad scientists running around, but also vampires and werewolves and demons and stuff, too. As, y’see, one of the novel’s conceits is that the various Forces of Darkness came out of the coffin awhile back, and started offering demonic immortality to anybody with a couple million dollars to buy it. “One-Percenters as Literal Bloodsucking Vampires” is a theme Gardner leans on pretty hard– but it’s not like superhero comics are exactly known for their subtlety, either. Likewise, Kim’s newfound identity as the superhero Zircon really plays into various ideas about masks and identity and which ones you get to pick, and so on. Again, not subtle, but it’s not supposed to be?

So yeah. Kim (aka Zircon) an company get swept up into all kinds of crazy business, and wind up punching a lot of greebly monsters along the way as they try to foil a supervillain’s evil plot. Gardner can write a solid action scene, and there’s certainly a lot of those throughout the book. So as a lighthearted comedy adventure, All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault is solid enough.

This said, the book’s not without its flaws. For one, the way superheroes work as masked servants of “The Light” (to oppose “The Dark,” naturally) is … squishy. It’s kind of presented in a winking, metatextual manner. Basically, Light-based superheroes can do … almost anything they want to? So long as they, like, believe, man. Seriously, it’s the kind of thing that makes Guardians of the Galaxy look like it was written by Asimov. Furthermore, Zircon’s powers are … weird. As in Zircon can shrink to microscopic levels– and they get diamond hard skin in the process. Fair enough– except for the part where Zircon can also project their consciousness outward for some reason? Which is handy enough for narrative purposes, but it doesn’t really seem to fit with a shrinking-based powerset. And that’s before you even get into the trio of cursed magic daggers Zircon winds up carrying around for … some reason. It all comes off as kind of a mess– but then again, I’m of the opinion that the best superheroes have powers that can be pithily summed up in a single line: Hulk is the strongest one there is, The Flash is the fastest man alive, Black Widow is the world’s most badass spy, and so on, and so forth. Which is funny, considering the other three heroes on Zircon’s erstwhile team have fairly more cohesive powersets. Or, well, except for the bit where one of them summons up a magic hockey stick made of glowing green energy, but that might just be a power inherent to any Canadian.

Furthermore, the structure of the book is a little off. It’s choppy, in a way, as Gardner often goes on various tangents about the background of the world (and/or Kim’s personal history), which can throw off the rhythm of the chapter. Like, I kind of get that Gardner was going for a punchy, action oriented feel, but honestly it’s a bit exhausting. By the end of the book, I found myself not really caring nearly enough about the characters to find out what happened next. Don’t get me wrong, I still finished All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, but the finale wasn’t nearly the page turner it should have been. Still, I enjoyed the book well enough, and apparently there’s a sequel, They Promised Me The Gun Wasn’t Loaded, which … well, that’s another one of those titles that just draws me in, I guess.

Book Review: Wild Cards, Volume One

Ever since Marvel made, like, all the money with the Avengers movies, just about everybody has been trying (and usually failing) to jump-start one of their own. Similarly, ever since HBO made almost all the money with Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin has become one of the most famous living sci-fi/fantasy authors in the world.

So why not combine the two?

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Wild Cards is … well, I guess you could call it a franchise? It’s a project started and edited by George R.R. Martin, a sort of shared-superhero universe he started back in the 80’s, loosely based on a superhero tabletop RPG campaign he cooked up. It’s kind of a shared sandbox, a premise in which an alien virus-bomb goes off in 1946, spreading the “Wild Card” virus around the globe. Ninety percent of the people it infects die outright– nine percent of the infected in turn are horribly mutated into “Jokers,” and the final one percent receive various kinds of amazing superpowers. The series is up to twenty seven(!) collections so far, with dozens of different authors dipping their toe in over the years. Volume I in particular has notable names like Martin, Victor Milan, and Roger Zelazny, just to name a few.

And so, in order to see what the hubbub was about, I went ahead and gave Wild Cards: Volume I a read. The thing about anthologies is that they can be a little … swingy. Inconsistent, even. As you can go from a really good story to a really bad one with the turn of a page, or vice versa. Just depends on how much you like a particular author or not.

Wild Cards definitely starts strong, at least, with the more interesting stories being the ones that lay the groundwork of the setting, with the initial spread of the Wild Card virus, the rise of superhero aces, and so on. There are a lot of origin stories in the first volume of Wild Cards, debuting characters like the pulp-aviator Jetboy, the telekinetic nerd who calls himself The Turtle, a sellout would-be movie star ace who goes by Golden Boy, and so on, and so on.

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Unfortunately, the anthology can’t keep this momentum up, as the stories in the later half of the anthology are definitely the weaker ones. Part of it might be the ongoing divergence from actual history– Wild Cards kind of functions as a sort of gonzo alt history that asks “what would the world look like if superheroes were a thing?” So you’ve got aces fighting in the Korean war, and so on. Unfortunately, once the timeline hits the 60’s and 70’s, the stories start asking … less interesting questions. Like, “what if there was a superhero … WHO DID DRUGS?” or “what if there was a superhero … who was a pimp who got his powers from super-tantric sex?”

 

 

And then, Stephen Leigh’s “Strings,” one of the later stories in the anthology, starts like this:

“The death of Andrea Whitman was entirely Puppetman’s doing. Without his powers, the sullen lust that a retarded boy of fourteen felt for a younger neighbor girl would never have been fired into a molten white fury.”

… and it gets worse from there. I made it all of like two pages in before I said “this shit is gross, I’m out.” Which may have been unfair to some of the other authors I skipped, but hey.

Wild Cards was started well before George R.R. Martin published the first Game of Thrones book, but Martin was still Martin, even then, I guess? It’s a tricky thing, balancing ‘mature’ subject matter without veering into edgelord territory. Ironically, Martin writes one of the better interludes that deals with that sort of thing: a Hunter S. Thompson travelogue through the anarchic mutant-ghetto called Jokertown. Only the problem is, for every actually interesting bit like that, you have stories like the ones I’ve already mentioned that are ugly just for the sake of ‘shock value,’ to the point where you can almost hear the trollish giggling from the writer as they peck away at their typewriter. It really, really doesn’t age well. Martin even mentions the “PC Police” in the little “Making of Wild Cards” segment at the back of the anthology, so … yeah.

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Another thing about Wild Cards: Volume I is that a lot of the themes it talks about … had already been done by the very comic books they’re inspired by. I mean, the first volume came out in 1987– at the same time Alan Moore wrote Watchmen, and a year after Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Both of those works addressed the issue of superhero politics with far more focus than the short stories of the Wild Card series. Which, admittedly, is a bit unfair, as one can cram a hell of a lot more into a graphic novel than a 40 page prose story, but still. Likewise, the “Jokers as a metaphor for minorities” theme is laid on pretty thick– but at the same time that’s what the X-men comics had been doing for years at that point. And finally, while some of the stories do reference each other, they tend to be fairly separate, so you never get that “team-up!” feel of interconnectedness that’s been part of the superhero comic experience ever since the Human Torch and Namor started throwing things at each other.

I suppose you could say that an anthology is like a chain: only as strong as its weakest link. So while the early stories of Wild Cards: Volume I are entertaining enough, the later ones lose focus and just get dull. It’s also worth noting that I read the 2001 edition– apparently there was a 2010 release that featured some additions by new authors,Carrie Vaughn among them. Maybe the more modern stories kind of temper the more ‘x-treeeem!’ stuff from earlier authors? I dunno.

So yeah. Depending on who’s doing the writing, I … might poke around some of the other Wild Cards anthologies, but at the same time I’d probably only do so if I knew there were authors who I really liked playing around in that particular sandbox.

Or maybe the rumored Wild Cards TV show will tie it all together in a way that fun and interesting, and I can just watch that instead.

Book Review: Anthony Bourdain’s Bone in the Throat

There aren’t many authors I’d describe as “inspirational,” mostly because that runs the risk of sounding trite, lapsing into self-help snake-oil positive-thinking nonsense like The Secret. But on the other hand, I can honestly say that Anthony Bourdain’s work has inspired me. It’s the inspiration to travel, to try new things, to understand people on the other side of the globe, and the inspiration to never ever ever work in the food industry. In both his TV shows and books like Kitchen Confidential or A Cook’s Tour, Bourdain has a unique combination of New York snark and a genuine love of world cuisine that’s simply irresistible.

So I thought I’d give his fiction a go.

And … eh?

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Bone in the Throat centers around a small, failing restaurant in Manhattan’s Little Italy. The owner’s in debt to the mob (and wearing a wire for the FBI), the chef’s trying to break his heroin addiction, and the sous-chef, Tommy, winds up witnessing his mobster uncle murdering a guy in the kitchen after hours.

“Write what you know” is a common enough bit of writing advice. And the best parts of Bone in the Throat stem directly from Bourdain’s own life experience. Bourdain seems to break himself down into two autobiographical characters. There’s Tommy, who’s young and ambitious and generally a lover of fine food, and “The chef,” who’s there to depict Bourdain’s struggles with drug abuse. It’s all very personal– though there are some passages that read like they’ve been lifted directly from Kitchen Confidential.

While Bourdain certainly captures the methodic artistry of cooking as well as the shame and depravity of heroin, the crime related parts of the book are … less well written. Which I suppose just shows that Bourdain never murdered anyone and chopped the body up with kitchen knives, so … that’s a plus? Still, most of the gangsters in the book speak with cartoony “youse fuckin’ guys” mobster-dialect, which makes things kinda hard to take seriously.

Really, a lot of the crime stuff in the book kind of drags along– the copy on the back of the book had me thinking this would be a madcap crime caper, and the book … is not that. Really, most of Bone in the Throat consists of a lot of middle aged men doing drugs and swearing at each other and cheating on their wives– at which point I realized “holy crap, is this a literary novel?”

So yeah. Bone in the Throat never gets into the convoluted hijinks of a proper crime comedy, and any deeper themes about food or drugs or whatever are covered much better in Bourdain’s non-fiction work. And, uh, there really aren’t any three-dimensional women characters, either, so there’s another strike for anyone keeping track. I hate to say it, but Bone in the Throat is ultimately a skippable novel. But hey, I guess not everyone can be good at everything, right? Also, google tells me the book got adapted into a movie back in 2015– might give it a watch sometime to see if it’s any good.

But for now, I’m gonna go see if No Reservations is still on Netflix.