Once again, I’ve been slacking! Been working with the whole ‘book a week’ goal, which I’m … well, a little ways behind, but the year’s yet young, so I should hopefully be able to catch up before too terribly long. Should have a few more book reviews coming in the next few weeks, so stay tuned.
But enough whining– onto the review! This time around, I read David Gemmell’s Druss the Legend. Published in 1994, the book is a prequel to Gemmell’s earlier book, Legend (No connection to I Am Legend, or that Legend movie where Tim Curry plays Satan). Legend was a huge hit when it was published, and has been something of a minor classic in the Fantasy genre ever since. I mean, heck, they’ve even got a Gemmell award named in his memory, so that’s a thing.
Unsurprisingly, Druss the Legend is about a dude named Druss, who becomes a legend. In the first Legend, Druss is already an old man who’s already had his rise to glory and fall from grace. In turn, Druss the Legend details Druss’ origin story. It’s honestly pretty simple– Druss would have lived his life in happy obscurity as a simple woodcutter, until the Obligatory Bandit Raider Guys burn down his village and kidnap his wife. And so, Druss takes up his grandfather’s haunted battleaxe, and fights his way across seven levels of danger, including the Ice Castle, the Jungle Castle, and … okay, it’s not QUITE on the level of a SNES game, but it’s close. (Though now that I think of it, I’ve played at least two SNES games with deeper plots than this book, but I’m a terrible nerd-hipster).
Oh, and the last chunk of the book involves Druss fighting in Fantasy-Thermopylae, complete with the Evil Emperor(tm)’s elite guard named “The Immortals.” Though it’s worth noting that Druss the Legend was published in 1994, and Frank Miller’s 300 didn’t come out til 1998. Just saying.
While the plot is shallow, that doesn’t mean it’s not fun (again, like a SNES game). If nothing else, Gemmell is great at writing fight scenes, and Druss the Legend has a LOT of them. Druss is constantly, consistently unstoppable in battle– and he’s got to chop up tons of dudes in like every other chapter. Though Druss doesn’t do all the work (just most of it). Along the way he crosses paths with a Ranger (complete with dual wielding!), a Bard, a Rogue, a Mysterious Priest, and they’re pretty much just a Wizard short of taking on The Tomb of Horrors.
Druss himself reads like a combination of various Swords & Sorcery icons. He’s brawny and charismatic and unstoppable in battle like Conan, but he’s also got a haunted weapon a-la Elric of Melunborne. Which, if you’re in the mood for reading about a big dude chopping up bad guys with an axe, is great! Though if you’re looking for something deeper than that … well, you might want to pick a book that doesn’t have cover art that looks like it could’ve come from a Manowar album.
Additionally, Gemmell’s writing here is … serviceable, though littered with cliches. Not just in the various characters, but also in the phrasing itself. Hell, there’s one part in the book where Gemmell drops “if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride” and “fortune makes for strange bedfellows” ON THE SAME PAGE. It’s lazy writing, to be honest.
Ultimately, Druss the Legend has a very specific audience. It’s written for folks who just want to read about a giant barbarian dude killing all the bad guys, or folks who read Legend and in turn want to read about Druss’ origins (which involved killing all the bad guys). So I guess you’re kind of double-dipping, there. It’s not a bad book, by any means, but it’s not a particularly good one, either. Though now I might go back and read the original Legend at some point … so long as I can find a copy for cheap at a used bookstore or something.
Sometimes, I get Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe mixed up.
Which I imagine will draw cries of indignation from just a few of you, while the rest go ‘huh?’ Though to be fair, they both have a similar, almost dreamy kind of style (though now that I think of it Wolfe is a little more surreal than Vance, at least from the tiny bit I’ve read of both).
Nowadays, Vance’s biggest claim to fame can be his influence on Dungeons & Dragons, of all things. Y’see, where the Thief class was lifted directly from Leiber’s Grey Mouser, the original magic system of D&D where magic users ‘memorize’ a spell in the morning and then ‘lose’ it once it’s used is directly taken from Vance’s Dying Earth series, down to certain spell names like prismatic spray.
With this in mind (plus the ‘oh, I haven’t read much of this classic author’ thing), I nabbed Vance’s Space Opera at the used bookstore. Gotta love the brazenness of the title– that’s just like naming your book Paranormal Romance or Swords and Socrery or directly after some other sub-genre.
Of course, the gag is, Vance Space Opera is a literal title, as it centers on an opera company … IN SPAAAACE. Though as a sidenote, Vance’s Space Opera should not be confused with the recent release of Catherynne M. Valente’s Space Opera, which is basically about Eurovision … IN SPAAAACE.
The fun thing about Vance’s Space Opera is that it touches on a lot of space opera tropes. There are ancient & ruined civilizations, strange aliens, lost planets, and so on. It’s just that instead of focusing on a dashing space-captain, Space Opera views all of these things through the lens of a touring opera company. Vance even gets into some ‘deeper’ ideas, such as describing chord progression as a scientific constant that any civilized creature could appreciate (which turns out not to be the case, but it’s still a fun sci-fi idea).
Space Opera opens with an alien opera troupe coming to Earth and taking the theatrical world by storm. For one night, at least, as they disappear after just one performance. And so, in order to find out the truth behind this, a ludicrously wealthy aristocrat by the name of Dame Isabel (who should be played by like Maggie Smith or maybe Judi Dench in the extremely unlikely case this book is ever made into a movie) decides to fund an opera tour to the stars in order to find the truth of the aliens’ home planet, Rlaru.
It doesn’t go well.
Space Opera is a silly, episodic little adventure. Every few chapters Dame Isabel and her crew touch down on a new planet, and find themselves with new problems. Strange aliens that can’t comprehend human culture. A Space-Australia prison planet full of prisoners who want to escape. An untrustworthy space-captain. A mysterious siren of a stowaway. And, horror of horrors, a spaceship crew that starts a jug band.
I’m fairly certain Vance cranked out Space Opera based solely on the title, but damn if he didn’t do a good job of it. It’s a goofy, fun little farce that’s not afraid to take potshots at both ‘high culture’ (sci-fi still being somewhat looked down on in comparison to ‘dramatic’ literature, even today) as well as various sci-fi tropes. I’m not super familiar with the operatic canon, but I imagine Vance tucked some great jokes in there for those folks who are that just went over my head. Even still, there was a little throwaway gag about the St. Louis Browns that had me laughing out loud.
Really, I think the most surprising part about Space Opera is how light it is, compared to a lot of the other Jack Vance work I’ve read. Which is hardly a bad thing, mind you– if you’re in the mood for something quirky and different that still has spaceships in it, Space Opera is definitely worth nabbing if you can find a copy.
Here we go.
My buddy Jeremy (of A Brew to a Kill), is pretty much the best friend a guy could ask for. As we were hanging out a few weeks ago, and he hits me with “I got you a present from the thrift store.” Dude’s got mad Goodwill skills– he once gave me boxed G1 Galvatron he found at a Goodwill for six bucks(!) for Christmas. And, once again, Jeremy delivered. Check it.
And he gave me a fancy beer, too! And it wasn’t even my birthday!
So yeah. If you’ve been paying attention, you should know that a book like this is quite relevant to my interests. And why not? Ninjas are freakin’ sweet, and there aren’t enough ninja novels out there. What makes Eric Van Lustbader’s The Ninja more interesting, however, is that it was released in 1980. This puts it well before the TMNT (1984), the famous Frank Miller run on Daredevil that brought us Elektra and The Hand (1981), or even the classic Cannon film Enter the Ninja, starring the great Sho Kosugi (1981). According to my intarweb research (read: wikipedia, so take it with a grain of salt), The Ninja was released in April 1980– while the Chuck Norris flick The Octogon (which can be seen as one of the first films to really feature the Hollywood Ninja) didn’t come out ’til August of the same year.
Of course, ninjas feature prominently in the 1967 Bond movie, You Only Live Twice, and also in James Clavell’s Shogun novel (which got turned into a miniseries), but Van Lustbader’s The Ninja is arguably the first spark to ignite the ninja craze of the 1980’s.
I have a vague theory that the Hollywood obsession with ninjas is somehow connected to the zeitgeist of the time, in that there was a vague idea that the booming Japanese economy was going to result in Japan literally buying out America. Which … didn’t happen, but hey, people were doing a lot of cocaine back then. Of course, to follow this economic anxiety theory, we should be flooded with wuxia flicks on account of everyone being afraid China’s gonna buy us out, buuuuuut it doesn’t quite work out that neatly. Which is a shame, as I dig me some wuxia flicks.
But I’m rambling. Let’s get back to the book.
The Ninja is about a dude named Nicholas Linnear, who is, spoiler alert, a ninja. Described as “Half Oriental, Half Caucasian” (he’s actually a quarter Chinese, a quarter Japanese, and half British-Jew), Nick is apparently the only dude in all of New York who’s lived in both Japan and the US, as Van Lustbader makes a big deal about how he has a unique view into both Eastern and Western culture. It’s to the point where, after Nick quits his generic advertising job within the first few pages of the book, he’s randomy offered a lecturer’s position at a local college for their “Oriental Studies” program. Yeeeeah.
The whole college lecturer thread is soon forgotten once Nick meets a woman named Justine, and the two commence to boning right away. But, this happiness is not to last, as there’s another ninja (from Nick’s past, of course) who starts running around New York City throwing shurikens into people, and soon enough there’s a whole convoluted plot going on with Justine’s father being the target of ninja assassination and so on. And, since only a ninja can stop a ninja, it falls on Nick to swordfight the bad guy.
When you get down to it, The Ninja is basically a horror novel along the lines of something Grady Hendrix would write about. Only instead of a vampire or a haunted tank or whatever, the monster is … well, a ninja. The Ninja is a very 80’s novel, with tons of lurid sex and gore. Pretty much every female character that’s around for more than three pages is defined by her sexuality. Justine’s a masochist who’s read too much de Sade, Nick’s ex-girlfriend Yukio from his days in Japan is a raging nymphomaniac. The real ‘winner,’ however, is Justine’s sister Gelda, a pill-popping, hard-drinking nihilist who sidelines as a lesbian hooker to movie stars just for kicks. Oh, and Gelda was raped by her father as a kid, too. Hell, even the evil ninja is a depraved, heroin-smoking pedophile who drugged and raped Nick back in Japan.
This was not what I was expecting from a book called The Ninja, let me tell you. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t discover this book back when I was a kid first getting into TMNT.
Kinky sex and sword-murder aside, The Ninja doesn’t really deliver on the promise of ninja mayhem until the last chapter or so, in which Evil Bisexual Heroin Ninja goes up against a bunch of cops before having his final showdown with Nick. Until then, the book’s like 400 pages of various subplots, including:
Various flashbacks to Nick’s childhood in Japan
Something about Nick inheriting a magic emerald necklace?
A gritty police detective investigating the ninja murders (and calling Nick in as a consultant).
A medical examiner who was a medic in WWII reminiscing about how he was captured by a ninja during the Pacific campaign
Various musings about differences in Eastern and Western thought, with how “mysterious” Japan is.
Van Lustbader spices things up ever 50 pages or so with either a kinky sex scene or Evil Bisexual Heroin Ninja murdering somebody … but even then the bad guy’s plot doesn’t make much sense. Supposedly he’s targeting Justine’s asshole millionaire father, but he doesn’t get around to going after him ’til the end of the book. Which … I guess makes it vaguely equivalent to a really crappy 80’s ninja movie that doesn’t get interesting until the last 15 minutes or so?
As a novel, The Ninja feels unfocused, and never really reaches the heights of WTF mayhem that the best ninja flicks reach. Still, it’s interesting to see Van Lustbader trotting out various tropes that would become hallmarks of the ninja genre, such as the idea of a westerner trained in ninjitsu for whatever reason. Still, I’m glad that the various ninja movies (and video games, and cartoons, and so on) I hoovered up as a kid (and still do today) focused more on the swords and throwing stars rather than the heroin and magic necklaces.
Oh, and it looks like Van Lustbader wrote a whole bunch of sequels to The Ninja, which … well, I may have to track them down now, just to see how ridiculously sleazy they get. It’s good to have goals, I guess?
I’ve been in something of a rut lately, not reading as much as I probably should. I’ve just been busy– though it’s also easy to blame Ready Player One for putting me off the written word in general. But here’s to hoping this is just a temporary slowdown! Or if nothing else maybe I just need to start reading some shorter books.
Enter Martha Wells’ All Systems Red, the first in her Murderbot Diaries series. When the ebook popped up for free on Tor.com a few days ago, I went and scooped that up right away and read it over a couple of days. Fun stuff!
All Systems Red is about a robot that’s named itself Murderbot (but still goes under the designation SecUnit to the outside world). Murderbot has hacked its own governor module, allowing it to ignore the orders its given and otherwise act with free will. The thing is, Murderbot doesn’t use this freedom to murder everyone– it’s more interested in slacking off at its job and watching space-TV. Given I read All Systems Red on my phone during down time at work, I find this to be a ridiculously relatable character motivation. Wryly humorous, Murderbot kind of reads like Marvin the Paranoid Android with a plasma rifle.
Unfortunately, Murderbot doesn’t get much time to catch up on Sanctuary Moon reruns– the book opens up with a giant monster attack, and soon afterward Murderbot finds out that someone’s trying to sabotage the scientific expedition it’s guarding. And so, Murderbot has to protect the delicate, foolish humans (out of professional pride, if nothing else) while still maintaining its secret identity.
While there’s plenty of laser-blasting action, the focus of All Systems Red is centered on Murderbot’s personality. Wells puts a ton of personality into a literal corporate drone, making All Systems Red easy to dig into. Murderbot lives in constant fear of being found out as a ‘free’ drone, giving the robot a constant desire to just be left alone. There are a lot of ways to interpret the novel: you could argue it’s about social anxiety, or that it’s a metaphor for being in the closet (Murderbot does have a repair cubicle), or even make a trans reading of it. Transgender, that is, not Transformer. Though Murderbot has the makings of a halfway decent Autobot (though Optimus Prime would probably ask it to change the name).
And again, while there’s a lot of deeper stuff to unpack, All Systems Red never forgets it’s an adventure story about a killer android with lasers built into its arms. The action is snappy, and the various themes of identity and social anxiety never get too preachy, making All Systems Red a perfect example of science-fiction providing social commentary and rollicking adventure in one neat package. This said, the book isn’t perfect– though I suppose it says something that my main issue is that I would’ve liked to see more of it. All Systems Red is a novella, not a proper novel– which leaves some room for expansion. For example, it might have been fun to get a better look into Murderbot’s tastes in entertainment, and maybe even how the space-TV it watches influences its outlook on things. There are a couple of mentions here and there, true, but I get a kick out of fictional, er, fiction.
The other place where All Systems Red stumbles a little are in its antagonists– they’re just kind of … there. Admittedly, Murderbot is more concerned with how the antagonists want to kill everyone rather than the why, but even when their motive’s revealed, it’s just a bit too pat, and things get wrapped up a bit too easily. I imagine Wells started writing All Systems Red with a shorter length in mind, as ‘TV obsessed vaguely Asperger’s robot’ isn’t the sort of pitch that immediately screams for a novel length.
But, lucky for me, several more installments of The Murderbot Diaries are going to be released in the next couple of months. So I guess this free ebook’s done its job of making me want to read the rest of the series. Go figure.
After reading (and surviving) Ready Player One, I figured I’d go with something ostensibly smarter to cleanse my literary palate, which brings us to George MacDonald Fraser’s Royal Flash. The funny thing is, if you have a couple of beers and squint, the two books are kind of similar. Both of them are littered with references to entertainments of a certain period, and both of them feature asshole protagonists with really, really uncomfortable attitudes towards women. It’s just that, Fraser does it on purpose in Royal Flash.
Royal Flash is the second in the Flashman Papers, one of my favorite series of historical novels. They feature the titular Harry Flashman, decorated hero and unabashed coward, blundering his way through every military fiasco of the 19th century, from the Crimean War to the Battle of Little Bighorn. All of this is presented as Flashman’s own memoirs, ‘discovered’ and annotated by Fraser himself. The mix of snarky narration and meticulously researched footnotes is super fun– if nothing else for the juxtaposition of Flashman going on about whoring or gambling or whatever, while Fraser thoughtfully provides commentary on just which neighborhoods in London that whoring and gambling was done in, and so on.
Royal Flash is a bit different from the rest of the series, however, in that the meat of it focuses on fictional events rather than historical ones. Oh, sure, Flashman runs into a bunch of historical figures– most notably Otto Von Bismark and Lola Montez. And while Flashman does skirt around the edges of the Revolutions of 1848, the meat of the plot revolves around a riff on The Prisoner of Zenda. Even if you haven’t read The Prisoner of Zenda, you already know the plot, since it’s one of those stories that’s been adapted over and over and over again in more versions that I care to count.
See, as Flash’s luck would have it, he’s the spitting image of an obscure Danish prince. And, when said Prince gets sick before an important political wedding to the Duchess of a small city-state, Otto Von Bismark blackmails Flashman into taking the missing prince’s place. Suffice it to say, things go badly. The gimmick here is that Flashman claims that his embellished and drunken retelling of his adventure (minus all the cowardice and womanizing) served as the inspiration for Anthony Hope’s novel.
The riff on fiction in Royal Flash is interesting, especially given the book’s role as second in the series. The first novel was actually mistaken by some reviewers as a historical document on its initial publication, so I suppose Fraser wanted to make it clear that this was a work of fiction. The next one in the series, Flash for Freedom, also features a nod to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but Fraser focuses more on the historical adventures rather than fictional ones as the series goes on (though Flashman crosses paths with Sherlock Holmes in a later short story). It’s kind of interesting to see Fraser still feeling out just what he wants to do with the series.
Another thing that struck me was just how much of a bastard Flashman is in Royal Flash. I knew he was an anti-hero, sure– but it’s also been over a decade since I last read Royal Flash. In later books, Flashman is a coward and lech, sure, but he’s got some more roguish charm. Here, Fraser makes it a point to highlight what a bastard Flashman is at every opportunity. Which, admittedly, is kind of the point, but still.
What probably skewed my take on it was having tracked down a copy of the 1975 movie adaptation (again, titled Royal Flash), starring Malcolm MacDowell as Flashman. It’s got the same-ish plot, but it’s … considerably sillier, as you might guess from the trailer here.
In any case, Royal Flash (the book, that is), is a fun, swashbuckly adventure, and well worth a read– so long as you know what you’re getting into. Even then, it’s not the best of the Flashman novels, lacking the (ostensibly educational) looks into Victorian history that the others do. If you’re reading the series for the first time, I’d recommend starting with Flashman at the Charge— or even something later than that one, picking out a novel that covers a period or conflict that you’re already interested in.
Whenever I read something outside my wheelhouse, like a romance novel, or a YA novel, or a YA romance or whatever, I try to step back and remember that some books (or heck, some whole genres) are Not For Me. As a result, it can be a fine line to walk between “this book sucks because it’s a genre I don’t like!” and “this book sucks because it’s legitimately bad.” It takes some self-awareness.
On the other side of things, if there ever was a book written “for” me, it’s Ready Player One. I’m a nerd who grew up in the 1980’s, playing video games and reading D&D manuals and watching cartoons and so on. I was (and still occasionally am) weird and awkward around people, and I spend too much time on the internet (as evidenced by me writing out this blog right now). Demographically, I’m pretty much the exact targeted audience of this book, and the upcoming movie (with the trailers getting me interested enough to read Ready Player One and crank out a hot take on the book before the movie came out).
And with this in mind, I can confidently say that Ready Player One is absolutely terrible.
In case you haven’t seen the trailer, or if you’re lucky enough not to have read the book, here’s the gist of the plot: in the 2040’s, the world has run out of fossil fuels and everything is terrible. As a result, most of the world’s population is obsessed with a VR network game called OASIS as a means of escapism. The thing is, the dude who designed OASIS was obsessed with 80’s nerd shit, so upon his death he launched a treasure hunt inside the OASIS to determine who would be his successor (and get a bajillionty dollars). It’s basically Willy Wonka + The Matrix, which is a comparison I can’t claim credit for ’cause it’s one of the ad copy quotes on the back cover. In the midst of all this is one Wade Watts, a total nerd loser who sets out on this virtual treasure hunt, and succeeds, by virtue of … being a total nerd loser.
(Oh, and there are some vague spoilers to come, if you care about that sort of thing).
The ‘draw’ to Ready Player One is the references– hardly a page goes by before someone starts spouting off wikipedia-like facts on some 80’s song, or movie, or video game. The whole purpose of the book is just to shove in as much “oh hey, remember that?” bits as possible. Weaponized nostalgia. Done well, throwing in little bits and Easter Eggs in a work (be it book, video game, movie, whatever) can be a fun “aha!” moment for the sharp-eyed fan. Thing is, Cline does not do it well. There’s an annoying sense of smug nerdiness throughout the novel, like the stereotypical Comic Book Guy who calls you a “fake geek” because you don’t know Aquaman’s real name or something.
Really, my biggest issue with Ready Player One is that the unflattering portrait it presents of “nerd culture.” In the book, nerd cred is based on repetition, and nothing else. The OASIS is filled with exact replicas of pretty much every nerdy thing Cline can think of, and the way to progress in the Easter Egg Quest is only through the recitation of various nerdy quotes and facts, and occasionally playing some 80’s era arcade game perfectly. There’s no room for original ideas or alternate solutions to the “puzzles” put forth in Ready Player One. For example, fairly early one, Wade must clear a challenge by reciting every one of Matthew Broderick’s lines from Wargames in a virtual re-creation of the movie. Instead of saying “man, that’s screwed up,” Wade just throws himself into it, ’cause he’s already memorized Wargames ahead of time, for fun. On top of that, Cline mentions that these virtual movie-recitation-sims become a new and popular form of entertainment, ’cause who wants to just watch a movie when you can live in it? (But only if you say the designated lines at the designated times to get points).
The kind of nerdery Cline presents in Ready Player One borders on a religion– the sort of thing where monks spend their whole lives memorizing and transcribing holy texts. Cline (through Wade) even describes movies like Star Wars or Indiana Jones as “Holy Trilogies,” and a guide to the Easter Egg hunt as his “bible.”
As a sidenote, I think the most ‘recent’ reference in the book is name-dropping John Scalzi, whose first novel came out in like 2005, I think? Though really Cline’s nerdery focuses more on 1980’s video games from before the big video game crash (which is never mentioned).
Compare this to another work of 80’s mashup nostalgia: Tom Scioli’s Transformers vs. GI Joe. (I will never pass up an opportunity to goob about this comic because it is awesome). On the surface, Scioli does something similar, dredging up as many obscure characters and plot points as he can think of … but then he takes all of them and does something different. His twist of the familiar into something new (and frankly insane) is what makes Transformers vs. GI Joe so much better than it has any right to be.
Y’see, one of my favorite things about modern, internet-enabled nerdery is that it’s creative. It’s participatory. There’s cosplay. There’s fanart. There’s fan fiction. There’s even people writing book reviews and amateur analysis of various books just because they like to think about this sort of thing. Even something so simple as asking “Could Superman beat up The Hulk?” is a transformative act of fandom, inviting further discussion.
Ready Player One never touches on that. Cline just banks on the little thrill of recognition over and over and over again, contriving the plot so that remembering lyrics to a Schoolhouse Rock song will help you win the game. Heck, there’s even a part where the moustache-twirlingly-evil cyber-corp bad guys get mocked for trying to think of deeper references to a clue, instead of knowing those aforementioned Schoolhouse Rock lyrics.
There are a couple of places where Ready Player One comes marginally close to something resembling a deeper thought, only to veer away again to make a Star Wars reference. Admittedly, most of these deeper thoughts (such as “you can be whoever you want to be on the internet” and/or “sometimes you can make internet friends who you’ll never meet in real life”) have been addressed in far better ways by far better authors. It doesn’t help that, as described, OASIS is kind of a shitty game. There’s the whole ‘cyberspace’ thing with people running around and doing business and even going to on-line virtual schools … but at the same time it’s also tied to a clunky MMO structure, complete with levels and experience points and so on. And apparently Wade is able to play the game for years, only getting his character level to three ’cause he doesn’t have the money to access the actually fun parts … but then once he actually gets things going he’s able to reach level 99 without much in the way of actual effort.
It doesn’t help that Cline’s prose is … unremarkable at best, clunky and amateurish at worst. One could argue that this is him getting into the “voice” of an antisocial teenage nerd, but even then it’s not a particularly enticing concept. It doesn’t help that the occasional action scenes within OASIS have no stakes whatsoever, since they’re in a video game. It’s not even one of those dystopian cyberpunk things where if you die in the game, you die in real life– all that happens is you lose some virtual XP and items. How tragic.
The most telling thing about Ready Player One is that, by the end, there’s a goddamn giant robot fight between a Gundam, Japanese Spiderman’s Leopardon, Voltron, Mechagodzilla, and a mess of other anime mecha … and Cline manages to make it boring. What could have been a slam dunk of an epic final battle is just … meh.
Oh, and then Cline spends about an equal number of pages on Wade trying to play a perfect game of Tempest. Yuuuuup.
I haven’t even touched on Cline’s attitude towards women (spoiler: he’s got something of a fetish for “Rubenesque” brunettes), or race (spoiler: he’s a clueless white nerd)– and honestly I’ll leave such discussions for smarter, more qualified writers than I.
If nothing else, Ready Player One vaguely inspires me as one of those “If this guy can get published … “ sort of deals, though that inspiration can turn to dejected cynicism pretty quickly. Unless you have a high pain reference tolerance, I can’t honestly recommend Ready Player One for anything beyond a hate-read.
… I’m still kind of curious about the movie, though. I mean, it’s Spielberg. When’s the last time he made a bad movie?
Oh hey, I’m vaguely topical for once! As today’s book review covers some vaguely Irish-flavored Urban Fantasy. I mean, I make it a point not to drink green beer, so I guess this review will be most of how I celebrate St. Patrick’s day.
Anyway, a friend of mine absolutely loves Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid series (though even then she admits they’re not very deep), so I figured I’d check it out. That the timing worked out for the holiday is entirely accidental, however.
Hounded is the first in the series, centering on the Atticus O’Sullivan, the titular Iron Druid. Atticus can do the typical druid stuff: he talks to animals, shapeshifts, draws power from the earth, and all the other stuff that makes that character class overpowered in D&D. He stole a magic sword from Aenghus Og, the Irish god of love, way back when the Roman Empire was still a thing, and some centuries later he’s holed up running a bookstore in Tempe Arizona, because, well, this is an Urban Fantasy book.
The book kicks off with Aenghus Og finally figuring out Atticus’ location, at which point Atticus has to deal with various monsters and gods of Irish mythology coming for him. He also has to deal with the cops as well, which honestly you don’t see too often in a lot of Urban Fantasy books that have demons or whatever conveniently disintegrating once you kill them. Still, Atticus at least has some help in the form of a vampire lawyer (who’s part of a firm owned by a werewolf), the spirit of an Indian (south-Asian Indian, that is– not Navajo) witch possessing a sexy bartender, and Atticus’ talking (well, psychically talking) dog Oberon.
Hounded is one of those ‘kitchen sink’ kinds of Urban Fantasies– this time with a little more emphasis on various pantheons, name-dropping everyone from Coyote to Apollo to Thor. Almost like American Gods without nearly as much thought or research put into it. But again, most of the emphasis is on the Celtic pantheon. Seeing as of how unlocking Morrigan in Marvel vs. Capcom 2 is the extent of my knowledge on the subject, I pretty much went into the book blind. Hearne never gets bogged down in wikipedia-esque explanations of just who does what. Basically it boils down to “the Irish pagan gods are jerks who use mortals as pawns.” Which … is about standard for any mythology, honestly.
Apart from the Arizonan Irish-ness, Hounded comes off like a pretty standard Urban Fantasy adventure. Atticus does some spells, fights some monsters, flirts with sexy naked goddesses, and so on. I do have just a few quibbles, though– for one, Atticus is supposed to be over two thousand years old, but he still narrates like the typically snarky, media-savy Urban Fantasy protagonist. On top of that, he still gets flustered by sexy ladies trying to seduce him– which … well, I dunno. You’d think someone would learn to keep it in their pants after the second century or so.
Again, Hounded isn’t a very deep novel– nor is it trying to be. There’s a little bit of interesting business about how Atticus likes living out in the desert ’cause there aren’t very many Old World gods hanging around, but it’s never really developed that much. Atticus is supposed to be super old, which lets him make references to knowing Genghis Khan or Shakespeare, but I think it could have been more interesting to tie him into other stuff– working with Irish immigrants building the First Transcontinental Railroad, or something. But that might just be me being a history nerd.
Really though, the biggest strike against Hounded is that Atticus is a pretty passive character. Oh sure, he can throw down when he needs to, but the book’s plot centers on people coming to him, rather than vice versa. In comparison, the Dresden Files books (despite their flaws) usually hang the book’s action on a central mystery for Harry to solve, which drives the narrative forward. Without that kind of stuff, Atticus never really comes off as particularly clever or interesting. In turn, the relative ease with which he defeats his various foes (which, I should note, include literal gods) makes things feel kind of cheap. Heck, Aenghus Og doesn’t even show up until the last few chapters, where he’s just a ranting magic bad guy in armor. Again, I’m no expert in Celtic mythology, but you’d think throwing down with a guy that important would come down to more than just a swordfight.
Still, Hounded isn’t a BAD novel. It’s just not a particularly noteworthy one, either. Still, if you’re in the mood to read about a druid and his talking dog fighting monsters in Arizona, go ahead and give it a go. Hounded is an amusing little adventure: no more, no less.
Sometimes, you want to like a book, but it just doesn’t work out.
Case in point: S.L. Viehl’s Beyond Varallan. As with a lot of the stuff I read, I stumbled across a bunch of Viehl’s books in a (sadly closing) used bookstore fairly recently, and they caught my interest. I mean, hey, if Viehl wrote all these books, that means there’s a market for them or something, right? Beyond Varallan is actually the second book in her “Stardoc” series (which, due to weird fonts, looks kind of like “Stardog” if you just glance at it, which sounds like a bootleg Star Fox ripoff).
The series centers on one Dr. Cherijo Grey Veil, a surgeon who jets around having space adventures. Solid setup, right there. The focus on a doctor rather than a pilot or a mercenary or a mercenary pilot sounded pretty interesting. Especially since there aren’t many space-doctors in Sci-fi, except for the obligatory Medical Officer in Star Trek shows, or maybe Dr. Simon Tam in Firefly. So I went in geared up for something new and different in my reading … and, uh. I got something different, all right. I guess I went in expecting Space-M*A*S*H*, and got Space-Grey’s Anatomy instead. That last comparison may be a bit unfair, as I don’t actually watch Grey’s Anatomy, but it really comes down to the fact that Beyond Varallan is split between space-medicine and horrible, horrible romance.
To Viehl’s credit, the medicinal parts of the novel are really, really good. She captures the chaos of disaster triage and treatment with the kind of disturbingly accurate voice that can only come with experience. On top of that, she occasionally plays around with cool applications of sci-fi medical technology– or even new and horrible ways for people to get hurt in space. For example, the book opens with Cherijo treating a patient who has been riddled with invisible, undetectable “sound alloy” shrapnel. It’s certainly hand-wavey science fiction, but I watch Star Trek on a regular basis. I know what I’m getting into.
It’s the bits between surgeries where Beyond Varallan falters. I had kind of hoped I could jump into the second book without missing too much– I mean, Cherijo’s a doctor IN SPAAAACE, that’s easy enough to figure out, right? Buuuuuut, there’s more than that.
Y’see, Cherijo is a genetically engineered human, which means The League of Worlds has declared her non-sapient, and the property of her “father” whose genetic material she was made from. And so, she has taken refuge on a ship of giant blue-skinned aliens called Jorenians. Said ship is also crewed by the ‘clan’ of Cherijo’s presumably sexy lover (who died in the first book). Told you this was soapy.
But it gets better! And by better, I mean worse. As it’s understandable that Cherijo is an outlaw, sure … but apparently the League of Worlds has enough resources to send entire fleets and threaten war with multiple alien species, just to get Cherijo back. For … reasons, I guess? Oh, and there’s a saboteur running around the Jorenian ship, armed with a weapon that liquifies people’s insides.
Based on this synopsis, you’re probably envisioning Beyond Varallan as a pulpy space adventure … and, there are parts where it certainly delivers on that. The problem is, as the book goes on, it gets more and more bogged down in romantic garbage. On the one hand, I’m self aware enough to be a little leery of throwing shade at a woman author for putting in romantic subplots, knowing full well that not all books are “for me” (being just some random nerd dude, after all). It’s just … both choices Cherijo has for her romantic triangle are goddamn AWFUL.
To start, there’s Reever, the only other human on the ship. So I guess “Only if you were the last man on Earth” comparisons come to mind here. Reever is also psychic, and he was raised by aliens or something? As a result he’s got absolutely zero social skills, and he’s obsessed with Cherijo for … uh, reasons. And for whatever reason Cherijo kinda-sorta digs him back, nearly sleeping with him pretty early on in the novel until she realizes that somebody’s drugged her with an aphrodisiac. Uuuh. Kay? Reever never comes off as particularly witty, charming, or sexy– he’s just sort of awkwardly obsessive.
The one thing Reever has going for him is that he’s better than the alternative, which is a really, really low bar to set. As on the other corner of this triangle is Cherijo’s dead alien boyfriend’s brother, Xonea. And, uh, Xonea is tall and blue and presumably sexy if you dig that? That’s about all he has going for him, as he is ridiculously abusive– both physically and emotionally. Y’see, Jorenians have this thing called “Choosing” in which one of them picks a mate, and then everyone’s obliged to go along with it due to honor or something. And so, Xonea basically tells Cherijo “I have Chosen you and now we have to get space married and you will do everything I say or I will kill myself.”
Space-seppku (spaceuppku?) is not a good foundation for a relationship, folks. And, for contrived reasons, Cherijo is forced to accept Xonea’s choosing when he’s accused of trying to kill her. Which naturally means they have to stay in the same quarters, and … ugh. Really, the weakest part of the book is anything that has to do with Jorenian culture– they’re supposedly pacifists, except when their clans are threatened, which turns them into passionately bloodthirsty warriors … and yet they still get their asses kicked by the dozens of Earth-empire spaceships chasing them all because of one woman, and … yeah.
Again, I don’t read too many romance novels, but isn’t part of the point being that the potential suitors are, y’know, appealing? Neither Xonea nor Reever have anything to really bring to a relationship besides obsession. Neither one even has that “Mr. Darcy” thing going on where they’re the snarky and/or brooding type. The both of them are manipulative, abusive, controlling assholes. It’s probably not a good sign when the most interesting character in the book is the arrogant, one-legged, squid-faced alien surgeon who develops a grudging mutual respect with Cherijo over the course of the novel.
Anyway, the love triangulation goes on waaaay too far, and the book just sort of meanders without the sense of urgency one would expect when you’re getting chased across the galaxy and there’s a murderous saboteur on board. I wound up skipping the last hundred pages or so to the end, where … surprise surprise, more shitty things happen to Cherijo. Beyond Varallan reminds me of Laura Reeve’s Peacekeeper, in that the book mostly seems to exist to pile suffering onto its main character, who I guess we’re supposed to view as a martyr or something?
In any case, in the last chapter or so, Cherijo is betrayed and sold to a race of horrible carnivorous lizard-people aliens. For … reasons. Beyond Varallan ends on a a cliffhanger– it’s just a shame the characters and relationships are grating enough that I’ve got absolutely no desire to read the next book, much less the other nine in the series. Which is a shame, as the actual medical drama stuff is legitimately interesting.
I’m probably showing my age here, but I remember a time when every Wal-Mart didn’t have a whole “Star Wars” aisle. It was a simpler, nobler era, when you only had three Star Wars movies to keep track of (for better or worse).
And so, if you wanted to see more adventures of Luke Skywalker & company, the main way of getting your hands on those were the “Expanded Universe” Star Wars novels. One could be unkind and label a lot of these books as “official fanfiction,” and … you’d arguably be right. The whole issue of authors playing around in someone else’s sandbox (much less one of a big market property like Star Wars) is an interesting one, however, as authors have to stick close to the canon material, yet somehow put a new spin on new adventures to make them worth reading. Given the dozens of authors who’ve written Star Wars over the years, some did this better than others.
As a sidenote, Steve Perry is something of an odd choice for a Star Wars novel, as he’d not written any before. Though he did write Aliens vs. Predator: Prey, a cheesy, gory sci-fi horror adventure that blew 7th-grade-me’s mind, as it was like the second book I’d ever read that used the word “fuck.” (The first, of course, was Jurassic Park).
Nobody drops the f-bomb in Shadows of the Empire, though. Sorry to disappoint.
Shadows of the Empire is something of an outlier when it comes to Star Wars tie-in novels, however. Y’see, Shadows of the Empire wasn’t just a book: it was an event. In addition to the novel, Shadows of the Empire had a full on marketing blitz: there were toys, action figures, trading cards, comic books, a soundtrack, and (most visibly) a video game for Nintendo’s latest system, the Nintendo 64. Basically all the marketing of a movie release without the movie.
I had an initial idea to pitch Boss Fight Books about looking into the Shadows of the Empire game as a way to look into the development of the Star Wars franchise … until I sat down and played the game after who knows how many years, only to realize … it wasn’t very good.
Really, the best part of the N64 game is the first level, in which you get to fly around on Hoth and tie up AT-AT’s. But once it starts going into its own story, things get less exciting. There are a couple of cool spaceship dogfight levels, but anything where you have to get out of your spaceship is frustrating as all heck. You’re better off tracking down a copy of Rogue Squadron 64 instead. But I digress.
The gimmick of Shadows of the Empire is that it fits between The Empire Strikes Back & Return of the Jedi, filling in the little gaps there. So we get to see Luke building his new lightsaber, Leia getting her bounty hunter disguise, many Bothans dying to get the new Death Star plans, and so on.
But just watching our heroes quietly lay plans and run errands would make for a pretty dull franchise, so we get some new characters in there to spice things up. On the Rebel side, there’s a dude named Dash Rendar (the dude with the shoulderpads on the left there), who’s basically Han Solo with the serial numbers filed off, since the real Han was in carbonite, and people like reading about smugglers, dangit.
Things get a bit more out there for antagonists. For one, there’s Guri– a ‘Human Replica Droid.’ Star Wars usually doesn’t do human-lookalike Androids, so Guri is a rather interesting addition. Unfortunately, Guri is mostly around to make her boss, Prince Xizor, look important. Shadows of the Empire devotes a lot of focus to Prince Xizor, an alien crime boss who is “Emperor Palpantine’s Left Hand.” (He’s the big face in the middle on the N64 box).
I don’t know if it was Perry’s writing, or just mandate from the execs running this event, but Xizor keeps on getting portrayed as SO COOL YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW YOU GUYS, which gets annoying fast. He’s super rich, he bosses Jabba the Hutt around, he sass-talks Darth Vader without getting force-choked, and so on. Oh, and he’s also got kiiiiiiind of a Space-Fu-Manchu thing going on, in that he does martial arts, he’s got a topknot, and he even has a space-bonsai he trims in one scene.
Really though, the one thing that really makes Xizor stand out is his pheremones. No, really. Y’see, it’d be really dumb to just wedge ANOTHER dark-side force user inbetween the movies (that’s what the post-Jedi books are for!) so instead, Xizor apparently is from some weirdo alien race that can exude pheremones that will make any humanoid female want to bone them. Uuuuh. Kay. Thankfully, things never get too explicit, but one of Xizor’s motivations (apart from “Dethrone Vader”) is “sex up Princess Leia.” To the point where “The Seduction of Princess Leia” is one of the songs on the soundtrack. Yeeeeeah.
At least Leia snaps herself out of her stupor and knees Xizor in the balls, so that’s gratifying.
Shadows of the Empire has a somewhat meandering plot, in which Luke, Leia, Lando & Chewie zip around various planets, going on various adventures. It’s not nearly as tightly paced as the movies themselves, and a lot of the sidequests feel like they’re only in there because they’re in the video game, or because they needed to show some event that was mentioned in passing in the movies themselves. There’s a big space battle at the end, in which (spoiler alert), Rendar and Xizor both get arbitrarily exploded so they can be declared dead, explaining why they don’t show up in Return of the Jedi, yet also their deaths are vague enough that they could theoretically show up again. I mean, shoot, they brought back Boba Fett, so they have no shame. Thankfully, Xizor never really caught on so (as far as I’m aware) he never showed up again. Dash Rendar did pop up in a Dark Horse comics series also written by Steve Perry, but I really doubt you’ll see the dude hanging out with Rey and Finn.
Ultimately, Shadows of the Empire is something of a curiosity– the book itself isn’t particularly compelling, even coming off as a bit juvenile from time to time (which is probably why 7th grade me ate these up). The only real contributions it had to the Star Wars canon have been mostly swept under the rug (even more so than the rest of the now-abandoned EU). Though as a multimedia project, I suppose it could be viewed as a success, as it showed Lucasarts just how much marketing potential there was in a new set of movies and the subsequent merchandising. So, if you’re looking for an interesting footnote in the history of the Star Wars brand, go ahead and scrounge up a copy of Shadows of the Empire— otherwise, you’d be better off just watching Return of the Jedi again. I mean, if any of this stuff was really important, it’d be in the movie, right? Who wants to fill in the gaps between every little event in the history of Star Wars?
Poul Anderson is another of those classic sci-fi writers who I’ve read before, but not recently– so here we are! The High Crusade was in the big pile o’ books my brother in law foisted on me a few months ago, and so here we are!
Published in 1960 (first serialized in Astounding magazine, and later as a stand-alone volume), The High Crusade is a pretty standard book of that era. It’s a short and punchy adventure with a heck of a premise.
Told from the perspective of a Brother Pavrus, a Fransiscan monk, The High Crusade starts in 14th century England. Sir Roger, a feudal baron, is mustering his troops to go help invade France (which is about as English of a pastime as watching Dr. Who reruns). But, the process is interrupted when weird blue-skinned aliens land their spaceship nearby. And so, Sir Roger and his various knights and men at arms go to investigate. When the little blue men start shooting rayguns, the Englishmen respond with a hail of arrows and a cavalry charge. The aliens are quickly overwhelmed, since the aliens (called the Wesgorix) are so technologically advanced, they’re not trained in hand to hand combat. So Sir Roger captures the spaceship fairly easily … at which point he loads up all his troops, not to mention the entire population of his town (around 2,000 people or so) with the intent of flying over to France for conquest. As you do. Unfortunately, the one surviving Wesgorix turns the ship’s autopilot on instead, and whisks everyone across the galaxy to another planet! Sir Roger, being a practical kind of guy, decides to make lemons from the proverbial lemonade, and sets out to conquer the galaxy with his small army.
And he does.
See, the central gimmick of The High Crusade is human superiority– first in the thing about hand to hand combat, and then in various matters of strategy or espionage, because apparently the Wesgorix have reached such a point of technological and military superiority that they’ve gotten lazy, allowing Sir Roger & company to kick their asses over and over again. It’s contrived, yes, but the whole point of the book is “Knights vs. Space Aliens,” and Anderson delivers on that part. There are a few rather amusing mashups of medieval and sci-fi technology, such as a part where the knights use a trebuchet to chuck small atomic bombs at the Wesgorix. This in turn throws the aliens off since the trebuchet’s made of mostly wood, and is therefore invisible to their magnetic-based sensors.
Really, with the whole high-concept historical/sci-fi matchup going on here, The High Crusade is the sort of thing you’d expect from Baen books … except for the fact that Baen Books didn’t become a thing until 1980. Naturally, Baen went ahead and re-published the book some years later, which is where the edition I read came from. Whoo?
So yeah, The High Crusade is on the one hand a straightforward (and often surprisingly funny) adventure. On the other hand, as something written in 1960 (not to mention published by Baen), it has some problematic aspects as well. The only female character to speak of is Sir Roger’s wife, Lady Catherine, and she spends most of the book being cold and shrewish until she finally takes her place at her conquering husband’s side. Or, there’s the whole “crusade” aspect, in which one could easily read the whole “Humans conquer the galaxy!” thing with a colonialist bent. And, unsurprisingly, The High Crusade ends with space-feudalism and space-monarchy being portrayed as a Good Thing(tm), in that Sir Roger’s space-empire endures with its vaguely knightly trappings for centuries to come.
Still, while these undercurrents are certainly there, they don’t dominate the book: Anderson is less interested in socio-political commentary than coming up with ways for knights to get in swordfights with aliens. And sometimes, that’s enough.
Oh, and apparently they made a goofy-ass movie of The High Crusade in 1994, starring John Rhys-Davies, of all people. It looks terrible.
I must watch it someday.