Book Review: S.L. Viehl’s Beyond Varallan

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).

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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.”

Yeeeeah.

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.

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Book Review: Steve Perry’s Shadows of the Empire

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.

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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.

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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.

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And then they started production on The Phantom Menace, and Lucas said “what if we make the Yellow Peril aliens MORE racist?”

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.

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HELLO LADIES

At least Leia snaps herself out of her stupor and knees Xizor in the balls, so that’s gratifying.

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She didn’t flip him off afterward, but she should have.

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?

Book Review: The High Crusade by Poul Anderson

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!

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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?

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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.

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Book Review: Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Deathlands, Chrono Spasm by James Axler

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

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

I should probably work on that last part.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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OH WAIT WRONG FRANCHISE.

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

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

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HELLO LADIES

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

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This’ll have to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hence, Agatha Christie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Previously on X Men, by Eric Lewald

“Previously, on X-Men.”

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

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Dun dun dun dun, dun DUN.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Fonda Lee’s Jade City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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