Book Review: The Devil Wives of Li Fong, by E. Hoffman Price

Sometimes, a title just jumps out at you.

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Cover like that, I just had to pick it up.

E. Hoffman Price (1898-1988) was a heck of a guy– he was a contemporary of Howard and Lovecraft, cranking out hundreds of short stories for the pulps. The funny thing is, Price is the sort of guy who would’ve made a great pulp hero himself. He was a West Point graduate who served in WWI– and on top of that, he was a champion fencer, boxer, and marksman. Like any proper pulp explorer, Price had a real sense of adventure and curiosity– things that both come out in The Devil Wives of Li Fong.

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A rare picture of E. Hoffman Price not kicking somebody’s ass. 

The Devil Wives of Li Fong is fantasy– more specifically, it’s Chinese fantasy, set at some point centuries ago. There is a passing mention of the Yellow Turban Rebellion, which would put it at least sometime past the fall of the Han dynasty … which is something I only really know about from playing Dynasty Warriors. But I digress. The important part is, this novel comes from a place of genuine respect and knowledge about Chinese culture and history– it’d be easy for a lesser author to write stuff that comes off as hackneyed and racist, but Price really knows his stuff. This is all reflected in the book’s details about various foods and festivals– as well as Chinese religions such as Taoism and Buddhism. Many characters repeatedly refer to the I Ching: The Book of Change, a book of Chinese divination. Kind of like the Chinese equivalent to a Tarot deck (even though the Book of Change was invented centuries beforehand).

The Devil Wives of Li Fong is about, well, a poor herbalist’s apprentice named Li Fong, and the two beautiful women he falls in with. Technically, that title is a little innacurate. Li Fong only has one wife, Mei Ling, and takes her sister, Meilan, on as a concubine. Though both sisters are snake-devil-women in human form, so there’s that.

While they’re snake demons, Mei Ling and Meilan aren’t evil or malicious. They just want to become fully human. To do so, they decide they need to attach themselves to a human man, and … well, wouldn’t you know, Li Fong fits the bill. Honestly, if the book wasn’t published in 1978, I would’ve thought Price watched too much harem anime.

Li Fong’s marital (or extramarital, in the case of Meilan) bliss doesn’t last for long, as soon they have to deal with a pair of greedy and corrupt Taoist wizards, as well as an overzealous Buddhist abbot who wants to expose the snake-devil-ladies for what they are. Flashy magic battles and such ensue.

The Devil Wives of Li Fong isn’t a perfect book– to be honest, the plot is a little meandering, as the various antagonists of the novel try (and fail) to extort and/or banish the snake-ladies over and over again. It’s kind of episodic, but with most of the episodes retreading the same ground without really blossoming into something crazier. Personally, I would’ve liked it if the book had more kung fu, but I can say that about nearly every book I’ve ever read. Despite these little complaints, Price’s writing is still light and clever enough that it still remains an entertaining read.

The Chinese fantasy setting reminded me of Hughart’s Bridge of Birds. Price doesn’t reach Hughart’s levels of hilarity or melancholy … but that’s alright, since that’s a really high bar to set. Seriously, Hughart’s pushing Pratchett level. Early Pratchett, at least.

In any case, mythic China is a setting that’s ripe for exploration … that not many writers seem to do. That Price was doing such a thing back in 1978 is even more impressive. All and all, I enjoyed The Devil Wives of Li Fong, and would easily recommend it to anybody in the mood for a fun and fluffy bit of adventure that’s set somewhere other than Ye Olde Tolkien-Ripoff Fantasyland.

And as a bonus, I’ve got a new pulp author to read up on, which is always fun.

Book Review: Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell

Rainbow Rowell must have a great agent.

Because really, it’s a ballsy thing to go up to a publisher and go “so, uh, the author I’m representing just wrote six hundred pages of Harry Potter slashfic. Wanna publish it?”

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Author photo, courtesy of Kill Six Billion Demons. You should all be reading it, by the way.

Makes me wonder if I should get ahold of Rowell’s agent to see if anybody wants to buy 60,000 words of Mass Effect/My Little Pony fanfic or something. Or I may just settle for writing GI Joe fanfic for Amazon instead.

Rowell’s work is more than a little outside of my typical wheelhouse. I mean, none of her books have dragons or spaceships on the cover. What gives? But, out of curiosity, I read Fangirl awhile back. It was a pretty standard and fluffy coming of age romance story, only the gimmick was the protagonist, Cath, dealt with her issues by writing novel-length fanfiction. Harry Potter fanfic, basically, just with the serial numbers filed off.

Carry On is that fanfic.

Kind of.

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I’ve been meaning to read Carry On for awhile now, just for the metatextual angle alone. I mean, it’s fanfiction of a series that only exists in the world of another novel. It’s fanfic, free of canon– kind of like a reflection without a mirror, or something similarly zen.

In various interviews and blog posts around the time of Carry On‘s release, Rowell backed away from the fanfic thing a bit, declaring Carry On to be its own story. Which, at times, it is. Even still, the novel couldn’t exist without Harry Potter– or Harry Potter fanfic.

Carry On centers around a magical orphan with a great destiny by the name of Harry Potter Simon Snow. Since his eleventh birthday, he’s gone to a magic boarding school called Hogwarts Watford, where he gets into various magical adventures with his brilliant friend Hermione Penny and his girlfriend Ginny Agatha.

(Ron doesn’t get a bootleg doppleganger so I guess Rowell just doesn’t like him).

The problem is, in addition to the various magical mysteries to be unraveled and the occasional monster trying to kill him, Simon must also deal with his villainous-but-sexy arch-nemesis, Draco Malfoy Tyrannus Basilton Pitch. “Baz” for short. Oh, and Baz is also a vampire but one of those bullshit ones who walks around during the day and only feeds off animals. At least he doesn’t sparkle in sunlight, so there’s that? And, y’know, since Simon and Baz are sworn enemies who have tried to kill each other a couple of times, this obviously means they’re in love and they should really make out.

I’ll admit, I’m being a bit pithy and unfair.

On the one hand, I realized long ago that “shipping” is just a game various fandoms play with their characters. I mean, heck, I was downright floored when Korrasami became canon, but that’s just ’cause everything’s better with kung fu lesbians. On the other hand, I’m something of an originalist when I geek out about something, so I at least require the barest hint of subtext to validate a particular fannish tangent. To use The Force Awakens as an example, I can totally see Poe Dameron and Finn being a thing, though I’d be up in arms if somebody started going on about, like, Kylo Ren and Snap Wexley being secretly stupidly in love with each other or something. Or really shipping Kylo Ren with anybody because he’s an intentionally awful character.

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Snap Wexley is also played by the dude from Big Ass Spider, which makes him the greatest Star Wars background character.

So yeah. I’m not a fan of the Harry/Draco thing that’s so prevalent in HP fandom.

Then again, I don’t really read much fanfic to begin with (apart from tie-in novels of debatable quality) so I fully recognize that a good chunk of Carry On isn’t “for me.” Which is why it took me awhile to read this book. It’s written in a very fanficcy style (present tense, with shifting POV chapters), and a lot of words are devoted to goopy angst and stuff. Hell, there’s an entire chapter devoted to Simon & Baz’s first kiss, if that tells you anything. I’m not a fan of “Chosen One” characters, and I’m really not a fan of smarmy bad boy vampires in tight pants, so the first third or so of the novel is kind of a slog.

But.

Rowell isn’t just writing a gay fanfic romance– the whole of Carry On really is a response to the Harry Potter series … and some of its shortfalls. There’s the inclusion of queer characters, for one– not just in the central couple, but also in some passing references to at least one lesbian relationship between some background characters. Additionally, Rowell also makes it a point to include characters of color (Penny, aka Not-Hermione, is half-Indian-British). Most interesting, however, is the magic system Rowell lays out. In Carry On, spells are based on common turns of phrase or cliches– everything from nursery rhymes to Queen lyrics to Star Wars quotes. This is really fun, as it intrinsically ties the magical world to the mundane one, which was always one of the biggest disconnects in the Harry Potter books. Though I kind of wonder what would happen if someone tried a spell called “I’m Batman” or something.

Furthermore, Rowell does a great job with characterization, fleshing out both sides of the book’s conflict. In particular, Baz’s family of Not-Malfoys are portrayed with actual sympathy, instead of just being a bunch of evil dudes in black robes. This said, they’re still snobby magical bigots who are way too concerned about ‘breeding,’ which they’re never really called out on. Still, on more than one occasion (especially at the start of the book), I found myself wishing that Carry On centered around some of the side characters like Hermione Penny, or Baz’s punk-as-fuck aunt (who is Not-Bellatrix Lestrange, maybe?).

So yeah. Despite the goopy slashy romance, Carry On still works really well. Good fanfic isn’t an oxymoron, it’s just rare. There are a bunch of ways to approach Carry On. As a fictional fanfic to a series that doesn’t exist, there’s no canon to compare it to– I’m sure Baz & Simon don’t hook up in the “actual” Simon Snow books. Makes me kind of want to track down a copy of Fangirl again in order to compare the brief passages mentioned there. As a completely original work, Carry On has some fun ideas about magic and how a secret wizard world could operate … but again, I think Rowell’s ideas in the book really become more interesting once you look at them as a response and reflection of Harry Potter fandom.

So yeah. If you’re the kind of person who read (or perhaps even wrote? I won’t judge. Much) a bunch of embarrassing fanfic in your youth, Carry On is worth a read.

Book Review: David Smay’s Swordfishtrombones (which is about Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones)

Oh hey, I still have a blog!

I’ve just been busy lately, so I haven’t been able to read as much as I’d like. On top of that, one of the books I am reading is both really long, and not as engrossing as I’d like, so that’s kind of stalled me a bit. More on that one in … whenever I get around to reading it.

But! I just finished a book that was both short and interesting, so woo! That boo41xbvzuuh4l-_sy344_bo1204203200_k in question is David Smay’s Swordfishtrombones. I’ve covered 33 1/3rd books before– basically, each volume of theirs concentrates on one particular album by one particular artist, and explores the history and ideas behind it. And, as you could expect, Swordfishtrombones is about Tom Waits’ 1983 album Swordfishtrombones.

Tom Waits is an institution these days, and rightly so. However, Swordfishtrombones was a turning point for Waits, the album where he really cut loose to do whatever the hell he wanted, and thusly became the Tom Waits we know today. At least, that’s Smay’s argument throughout the book. He makes a compelling case, bringing in little tidbits and anecdotes concerning Waits’ life. In particular, Smay keeps returning to the unique relationship between Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan, who he married shortly before starting his work on Swordfishtrombones. It’s a fascinating story– though one Smay has to paint in rather broad strokes, given how reclusive Waits can often be about his personal life.

Swordfishtrombones is far more straightforward, far more focused than the last 33 1/3rd book I read, Flood. Smay doesn’t try to tie Swordfishtrombones to any larger subcultures– it is, ultimately, a book about Tom Waits. But then again, given how deep Waits’ music can go (quite literally, in the case of a song like “Underground”), this serves as a rich topic to explore. Smay’s book is peppered with fascinating facts, anecdotes, and half-truths. These cover everything from Waits’ obsession with dwarves (the actual little-people kind, not the Tolkien-ones with axes), to polka bands covering “In the Neighborhood,” and a dozen other random tangents besides.

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Smay manages to write in a dreamy, surrealist way that’s evocative of Waits without becoming imitative. This turns out to be Swordfishtrombones‘ greatest strength, the thing that really distinguishes it from just another musician biography. Really, the tone of Swordfishtrombones can be summed up in a passage early on.

FACT: Tom Waits was born September 8, 1683, during the siege preceding the Battle of Vienna– on the very day that Turkish sappersbreached the Nieder Wall but four days before King Sobieski led the glorious charge of the Polish Hussars and drove the Turks from the field, forever blunting the Ottoman Empire’s ambitions in the West and preserving Christendom. (It is important to clarify that Tom Waits was not born during the better known 1529 Siege of Vienna. That would make him 487 years old today! This confusion stems from the popular depiction of the Siege of Vienna in Robert E. Howard’s short story “The Shadow of the Vulture,” which introduced the character Red Sonja, leter to be adapted into the Conan comics continuity and portrayed onscreen by Brigitte Nielsen, who went on to toy with Flavor Flav’s affections in Season Three of The Surreal Life, but relevant here because Sylvester Stallone is Brigette’s ex-husband.)

This is on page six.

The whole book isn’t written in such a dreamy tone, but Smay delves into it a couple of times just to spice things up. All and all, Swordfishtrombones is worth the read for any Tom Waits fan.

Book Review: Skraelings by Carl Sherrell

Here we go, folks! In case you missed my new year’s resolution post, I talked about how I picked up a big box o’ random sci-fi paperbacks for under ten bucks a bit ago. And, like any proper new year’s resolution, I promptly forgot about it … until now! For, you see, it’s time for a book review from THE BOX.

The great thing about dollar-bin paperbacks like these is that it’s an easy way to find strange and obscure books that you just wouldn’t find anywhere else. Case in point, Carl Sherrell’s Skraelings. It’s even from a publisher I’d never heard of before: New Infinities Productions. Wikipedia tells me that it was the company Gary Gygax formed after he left TSR– and apparently they teamed up with Ace publishing to crank out fantasy adventure novels.

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As if the title wasn’t enough, just look at that cover. LOOK AT IT. Giant man with crazy eyes and no pants menacing some random Indians? It’s like some freaky BDSM roleplay that’s gone terribly, terribly wrong.

Fortunately (or maybe not fortunately, depending on what you’re in the mood for), Skraelings is not a kinky porn novel. Rather, it’s a cheesy, pulpy fantasy, centering around an uber-powerful demon knight by the name of Raum. (He’s the dude with crazy eyes).

Skraelings is actually a sequel to a book called, creatively enough, Raum. And while I haven’t read the first in the series, the plot isn’t really thick enough to make it nessescary. It basically boils down to “a viking kidnaps Raum’s girlfriend, and so Raum goes sailing to North America with some vikings to rescue her.” Sherell ties Raum’s story in with the Vinland Saga, an account of the first Norse settlements in North America. Case in point, the skraelings of the title are the Native Americans Raum and co. run into during their adventuring. Oh, and every so often Raum kills a bunch of dudes in one kind of battle or another. Pretty standard stuff.

Vikings and Native Americans and a big demon guy make for a rather interesting combination– even if the Native Americans come off as a bit … generic. On the one hand, they’re given more characterization and motivation than your typical barbaric horde, which is good. On the other, they don’t get the same kind of characterization or background that any of the Nordic characters do. It would’ve been cool if Sherrell had found a way to work in some more Native American names and folklore in, but that might be expecting a little too much from a cheesy 1987 fantasy novel. Heck, Sherrell probably should get points for putting his fantasy in something other than generic Ye Olde Medieval Tymes(tm).

Raum is your standard super murdery wandering protagonist, along the lines of Conan or Elric. Not only is he bigger and stronger and more murdery than any mortal man, he’s also got a bunch of dark magic at his disposal … though the gimmick is, by going to the mortal world and falling in love, he’s slowly losing his demonic powers. I get the feeling Sherrell wanted to continue the theme through later novels, but never had the chance to do so, as Skraelings was the last Raum novel. Still, even with his powers reduced, Raum is more than a match for mere mortals– the only reason he winds up tied up and captured like he is on the cover is through somewhat contrived matters of honor and stuff.

While Raum may be (slightly) deeper than the typical ‘I will kill everyone in my way’ protagonist, this doesn’t apply to Vivienne, the woman he spends the book chasing after. Vivienne spends most of the book in damsel mode– which is a shame, as in a flashback she’s shown to be pretty interesting (also evil). See, Vivienne used to be an apprentice to Morgan le Fay, so she apparently was all evil and vampy before she got kidnapped. How cool would it have been if Vivienne and Raum went around being moustache-twirlingly villainous, like a fantasy version of Bonnie & Clyde? But again, that’s just me brainstorming random-ass ideas that I should probably put into a novel of my own or something.

Still, complain as I may, Skraelings is a perfectly serviceable adventure story in the vein of Howard or Moorcock. I wouldn’t put Sherrell on the level of either of those writers, but he’s at least trying. And heck, this book’s got me curious enough to give Raum a read sometime.

Hopefully I won’t have to buy another giant box of paperbacks to find a copy.

Book Review: Star Wars: Scoundrels by Timothy Zahn

When I was a kid, I read entirely too many Star Wars novels. This was back when Star Wars wasn’t quite the omnipresent cultural juggernaut it is today– I mean, sure, there were still video games and comics and stuff, but you didn’t have Disney cranking out a steady deluge of merchandise. This is back when there were only three Star Wars movies to worry about, so if you wanted more of Luke and the gang, the novels were pretty much the only way to go.

Since 1991, a crapload of authors have hammered out a crapload of Star Wars books. And as one would expect, a lot of the time these books were of … dubious quality (looking at you, Kevin J. Anderson). At worst, the books were weird and nonsensical and centered around Han & Leia’s kids getting kidnapped over and over again by whatever new Sith Lord popped up for that book. This said, there were still some diamonds in the rough that served perfectly well as laser-blasting Mil-SF adventures.

The whole franchise, for better or worse, was founded on Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire series. Really, you can point to the success of these novels (which in turn drew a lot from the old Star Wars tabletop RPG) as the thing that kick-started Star Wars into becoming the ridiculously profitable cash cow it is today.

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Scoundrels is Zahn’s chance to play around in the Star Wars sandbox once again, though this time on a far, far smaller scale than his earlier books. Instead of focusing on big fleet battles set however many years after Return of the Jedi, Scoundrels is set between episodes IV and V, focusing on Han and Chewie getting involved in a rollicking crime caper.

One would think I’d be a little leery of a tie in novel about a heist, considering how the last one I read went. But, thankfully, Zahn’s one of the Star Wars writers who’s actually, y’know, good. Plus, all those books I chewed up in middle school have left me with no small degree of nostalgia, so I figured I’d finally give Scoundrels a go.

The smaller scale of Scoundrels works a lot in its favor. It’s pretty straightforward– Han and Chewie get recruited to go do a crime, at which point they recruit a ragtag bunch of specialists including a hacker (sorry, ‘slicer’ in Star Wars lingo), a cat burglar (or ‘ghost thief’) an explosives expert (no Star Warsy name for that, sorry) and so on. A couple of other Star Wars characters pop up, including Lando (he’s on the cover, after all) and Winter, a character that Zahn cooked up in his original Star Wars books to act as an aide and confidant to Princess Leia. She’s the one with the white hair on the cover there.

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Alternate cover?

They recruit a couple of other thieves and grifters into their gang to round out a literal Solo’s Eleven, in order to break into the vault of a Black Sun (the space-mafia from another Star Wars book, basically) crime boss. I figure there are at least a few of you readers who know exactly what I’m talking about there, while the rest of you are just puzzled. Plus, I bet there are even more little throwaway gags that I missed, given how my Star Wars scholarship has slipped. Thankfully, the interconnectedness of Scoundrels never delves into confusing obtuseness– each reference is just thrown in there for fun.

Really, ‘fun’ is a key word here. While I’ve read better heists, and even better Star Wars books, I can definitely tell Zahn enjoyed himself while writing the book. There’s a “he shot first” gag in the first chapter, and the big finale features a scene in which Han Solo is running from a giant ball of rock while waving a whip around. It’s somewhat of a contrived gag, sure, but I can’t fault Zahn for tossing it in.

The book is a little slow at first, laying out the setup, but the crazy finale at the end is pretty entertaining. It doesn’t quite get to the level of twisty heist caper craziness as, say, The Palace Job did, but it’s still a perfectly serviceable adventure (if one lacking in Jedi). Plus, Zahn thinks up a bunch of neat sci-fi security measures based on Star Wars tech– as well as various gadgets to get around them.

Really though, the most interesting part about Scoundrels is the fact that it’s one of the last books of the ‘old’ (or ‘Legends’ as they’re calling it now) Star Wars Expanded Universe. See, when Disney bought out Lucasfilm and started gearing up to print money make new Star Wars movies, they didn’t want to be constrained by over twenty years of convoluted books of questionable readability … so they just swept them all under the rug.

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None of this counts anymore! Except the movies, I guess. And even then it’s a close thing.

Not that I can blame them. There’s a lot of chaff mixed in with the proverbial wheat, and I’m sure Disney would prefer to go off in their own direction. Still, it’s kind of a bummer to see a big chunk of my childhood thrown into the non-canon bin (see also: the Star Trek reboot, but that’s another post entirely). Even if Scoundrels is theoretically compatible with the new continuity, as it’s set between the movies, instead of after them. Kind of like Rogue One, only not nearly as grim and gritty. The thing is, while the current Star Wars continuity is using iconic Zahn characters like Grand Admiral Thrawn, that’s because the Thrawn novels have been out for a couple of decades now– with Scoundrels written so recently, most of the new characters Zahn brings in to flesh it out are likely to just earn “who?” reactions from all of the most die-hard of fans. Which is a shame, really, as I would love to see more sci-fi crime hijinks centering around some of these side characters.

Ah well. I guess that’s what fanfic is for, right? Especially considering that books like these are basically ‘official’ fanfic anyway …

 

Book Review: The Prophecy Machine by Neal Barrett Jr.

I’ve been trying to cull my bookshelves as of late.

This is something of a double-edged sword, however. Because invariably, I take a big pile of old books to the used bookstore, at which I trade them in for store credit … which I then use to acquire new books. This is why my to-read pile is frankly somewhat intimidating.

But, here’s the thing. Used bookstores can be somewhat selective in what they take. It’s understandable, as they don’t want piles and piles of stuff that won’t sell. On the other hand, I’m not quite sure just what their criteria for trades are. I mean, these places will take a book like Cathouse without batting an eye, but for whatever reason, several bookstores had no interest whatsoever in anything by Neal Barrett Jr.

This is why Neal Barret Jr’s The Prophecy Machine has been banging around in the back of my car for … quite awhile now. And when I found myself on my lunch break without anything else to read, well … might as well go for the re-read, right? The funny thing is, while I vaguely remember reading the book a long long time ago, it didn’t leave much of an impression then.

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The Prophecy Machine is a weird book. Maybe even a New Weird book, if you wanna nitpick your sub genres. The Prophecy Machine is about the misadventures of a man named Finn, his wife Letitia, and their sarcastic friend Julia Jessica Slagg. Which sounds fairly normal until you note that Finn is a “master lizard maker”– basically an inventor of clockwork lizards that do stuff. Letitia is a “newlie,” which is to say she’s a vaguely anthropomorphic animal (a mouse, to be precise), and Julia Jessica Slagg is Finn’s greatest creation– a mechanical reptile that can think and speak and do lots of other stuff.

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Which reminded me of ANOTHER mechanical reptile with a similar name … 

While attempting to go on vacation, the three of them wind up marooned in a strange town full of murderous religious zealots who believe that hospitality is a sin. Kinda reminds me of that one Dick Blade book I read awhile back. Silly hijinks ensue, at which Finn and co. wind up in one of those big dilapidated manor houses you see in every Tim Burton movie. And, of course, there’s a mad inventor living in said house, working on the titular prophecy machine– a machine that has a tendency to warp time and space around it. So, y’know, standard stuff.

To be honest, I’m making the book sound a lot more straightforward than it really is. The best way I can describe its tone is as “Aggressively Whimsical.” There’s an adventure story there, sure … but for the most part, especially with the odd customs of the land, it’s all pretty silly. The thing is, Neal Barret Jr. isn’t nearly as witty and clever as, say, Terry Pratchett (but then again, who is?). Sometimes the jokes land (a recurring gag about a town militia of ‘lancers’ not allowed to carried lances is pretty fun), and sometimes … they don’t. In particular, the abusiveness and general unpleasantness of Finn’s ‘hosts’ is meant to come off as comical, but I really kept asking myself just how the hell such a weird place would actually function for real people. Which is beside the point, but still.

Another thing that struck me was the “newlies” themselves. They’re basically magically uplifted animals, with races like “Mycers” or “Foxers” and so on– you can pretty much figure it out from there. Newlies are pretty much an underclass, and so Barrett kiiiiiind of uses them as a way to juggle ideas about racism? Maybe? Only the thing is, Letitia is the only newlie who gets much in the way of characterization over the course of the novel. And even then, Letitia plays the role of “spunky damsel” more often than not. Plus, the whole fantasy racism thing just gets a little weirder considering several of the novel’s antagonists spend a great deal of time lechering at the poor girl. Thankfully, it’s nothing as explicit as that one Lieber novel, but it still kind of makes things … odd.

Applying gender and racial criticism to The Prophecy Machine may be a little unfair. There are snags, yes, but nothing that makes it problematic. At least, not problematic to my normally oblivious self. Between the book’s absurd, light tone, along with some snappy dialogue, I get the feeling that Neal Barrett Jr. wrote The Prophecy Machine more for fun than anything. It’s not a great novel, but it’s still kind of entertaining, as far as fluffy bits of entertainment go. And it must have made at least some impression on me a couple years back, as I’ve got the sequel The Treachery of Kings laying around somewhere, too.

The used bookstores didn’t want that one either.

Book Review: The Con Job, by Matt Forbeck

I love a good heist.

One could imagine, then, my enthusiasm upon discovering Leverage, a TV show that’s basically five seasons of heist stories. Snappy dialogue, fun characters, a new crime every episode– plus, Gina Bellman. Seriously. Rowr.

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But, all good things come to an end– I paced myself as best I could, but eventually I ran out of new Leverage episodes on Netflix. It probably doesn’t help that Ion TV does a Leverage marathon like every Sunday, either. I’m not saying that I’ve watched every episode multiple times … just, y’know, the good ones.

But! Courtesy of Amazon’s recommendations, I just learned that there are Leverage novels. And, y’know, I needed something to pad out my order of Christmas presents so I could get free shipping, and, well, here we are.

Tie-in fiction is a tricky beast. For one, it’s pretty much ‘official fanfic.’ Which isn’t a bad thing, per se, but it’s an odd one. What makes a particular TV show (or movie, or video game, or whatever) work may not translate well into prose. Plus, there’s the simple matter that a lot of tie-in fiction is really, really shitty, and just hammered out to make a quick buck. Not that there’s anything wrong with that– writers gotta pay rent too. Still, with all these reservations in mind, I went ahead and gave The Con Job a read.

This … may have been a mistake.

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For those who aren’t as obsessive about a basic-cable TV series that ended five years ago, lemme give you a quick rundown. Leverage centers around a quirky quintet of criminals who play Robin Hood, stealing from rich jerks in order to stand up for the little guy. Each one in the gang has their own specialty– working from left to right, we’ve got Sophie (the Grifter), Eliot (the Hitter), Nate (the Mastermind), Hardison (the Hacker) and Parker (the Thief). Each episode, they take on a new ‘client,’ helping them get money and justice off of whatever rich & powerful asshole that’s done them wrong.

In The Con Job, the gang’s client is a fictional comic book artist who’s been scammed by a crooked pop-art dealer. And, as it would happen, the best shot they have at the crooked art dealer is at San Diego Comic Con. I wish I could say ‘hijinks ensue’ at this point, but the book never quite gets to that level.

If nothing else, I can tell Matt Forbeck is a super nerd. With the way he describes the controlled chaos of SDCC, I can definitely tell he’s been there before. Hell, I kind of hope that he got his publisher to bankroll a SDCC visit as ‘research,’ or that he at least wrote it off on his taxes. That’s the kind of loophole the Leverage gang would be proud of.

The Con Job kind of reminded me of Annie Bellet’s Twenty Sided Sorceress series. Both of them come from a place of genuine nerd-love … but at the same time, they tend to get a little self-satisfied in their nerdery. Forbeck name-drops everybody from Jim Lee to Stan Lee in The Con Job, to an almost grating effect. The problem is, Forbeck wastes so many words on talking about the 501st Imperial Legion or Wootstock that the whole crime caper gets set on the backburner. More often than not, it feels like Forbeck keeps dropping names just to prove his nerd cred, without realizing that all the references in and of themselves aren’t all that clever. I mean, any nerd can say ‘STAR WARS!’ but it takes at least some degree of effort to weave that into a narrative. Unfortunately, The Con Job gets bogged down in numerous digressions explaining various comic books or writers or whatever. It’s a classic case of telling and not showing. But hey, maybe Forbeck was on a deadline and had a word count to pad out.

The most glaring example of The Con Job‘s obsession with nerdery (at expense of the plot) comes with one segment where the gang disguises Eliot … as Warren Ellis.

WHAT AN UNCANNY RESEMBLANCE.

Occasionally, The Con Job comes close to the sort of smooth cons and crackling dialogue that made me love the Leverage TV show, but it never quite ‘clicks.’ It probably doesn’t help that the characters never come off as particularly clever or cunning over the course of the novel. In the most damning example, Hardison is lured into a trap by his literal archenemy saying “hey, wanna play D&D with Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day?”

What makes things even more frustrating is that Hardison’s archenemy is actually played by Wil Wheaton, which a more ambitious writer could do all kinds of things with. (Star Trek alumni Brett Spiner and Jeri Ryan also showed up on the Leverage TV show as well, which Forbeck ignores).

So yeah, inbetween the near-constant stream of nerd references, The Con Job has an evil (possibly Yakuza-influenced? I forget) manga publisher trying to destroy San Diego Comic Con, and then some other stuff happens (including Parker disguising herself in a Princess Leia Metal Bikini Cosplay Outfit for slightly contrived reasons) but then the Leverage gang saves the day. Yay?

Honestly, the biggest thing that galls me about The Con Job is wasted potential. I mean, heck, enormous multimedia franchises scamming ‘for hire’ artists and creators out of royalties for their work is an actual thing that happens in the comic industry. Plus, “let’s go steal a superhero” is a great line … that Forbeck doesn’t use. Instead, he’s more concerned with having characters inexplicably talk about the comics-bubble bursting with Jim Lee’s X-Men #1 instead of the actual witty banter and twisty plots that made Leverage a show worth watching to begin with. At best, The Con Job comes off as a bad episode of a good TV show.

Maybe I’m being a little over-critical, as I honestly had the vaguest urge to write Leverage fanfic along the same lines before I even learned The Con Job even existed. (I would’ve called my cheesy fanfic “The Comic Con,” by the way). From poking around on google, it looks like Forbeck’s actually written a couple of murder thrillers set at Gen Con, along with a whole mess of other tie-in works. It makes me wonder how much of the word count’s devoted to plot, and how much is just having people argue over which edition of D&D is better than the others.

Ah well. Maybe I’ll just go write some terrible Leverage/Batman crossover fanfic instead. Imma call it “The Gotham Job.” It just about writes itself, I tell you.

Book Review: Soft & Cuddly by Jarett Korbek

To put it simply, Soft & Cuddly is punk as fuck.

So is the game it’s written about.

Most of Boss Fight Books‘ library (at least the ones I’ve read so far) come from a place of nostalgia, if not outright love for the original games. Soft & Cuddly is markedly different, as it has absolutely no time for that shit. It’s easily the least personal of the Boss Fight Books library– Kobek doesn’t offer any childhood memories of playing Soft & Cuddly as a kid.

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I’ve never played the deceptively named Soft & Cuddly. I’d never even heard of it until Boss Fight Books’ Season 3 announcement. Hell, I never even heard of the ZX Spectrum, the microcomputer Soft & Cuddly was written and played on. Upon digging up some gameplay footage on YouTube, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to play it, either. Seriously, what the fuck is going on here?

The thing is, Soft & Cuddly (the book) isn’t entirely about Soft & Cuddly (the game). In fact, about two thirds of Kobek’s book covers other, tangentially related topics such as the “Video Nasty” scare that got a bunch of horror movies on VHS banned in the UK, the general shittiness of Thatcher-era England, and a brief history of Sinclair Research, the company that produced the ZX Spectrum.

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The ZX Spectrum is kind of like Jellied Eels or early seasons of Dr. Who in that it’s unmistakably English, ridiculously popular, and also kind of terrible. Despite (or perhaps because of) its flaws, the ZX Spectrum sold millions of units in the 80s. It was the first widely available computer in the UK, and various licensed and unlicensed clones soon spread across the world. The ZX Spectrum even used the most 80’s of memory formats: the audio cassette.

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Pictured: The 80’s.

The cassette format made programming (and pirating) software for the ZX Spectrum a big thing, which finally brings us to Soft & Cuddly. It was surreal and gruesome game programmed entirely by a teenager named John George Jones. Kobek explores Soft & Cuddly less like a game (seeing as of how the game verges on the incoherent) and more as a piece of provocative art. Describing it like that makes Soft & Cuddly sound a lot more pretentious than it really is, as Kobek writes his book with the same kind of smartassed anarchism (verging on nihilism) that permeates Jones’ game. Considering Kobek wrote a novel called I Hate the Internet, such a tone’s to be expected. Soft & Cuddly‘s snark is darkly cynical, yet all the more entertaining for it. Hell, Kobek’s smartassery even extends to the bibliography.

Ironically enough, the obscurity and incomprehensibility of Soft & Cuddly (the game) make Soft & Cuddly (the book) one of the more accessible titles from Boss Fight Books. You don’t need to play the game to understand what’s going on in the book– mostly ’cause the game was never really meant to be understood in the first place.

Book Review: The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Time to hit the ground running with the first book review of 2017!

I am cheating a little bit, as I started reading The Long Way To a Small Angry Planet in December, but I finished it yesterday, so that still counts, right?

I remember hearing a little bit of buzz about Chambers’ debut novel. Apparently, she actually kickstarted the book to self-publish it, which got her enough attention and popularity for it to get picked up by HarperCollins. Good on her.

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The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet centers on a young woman named Rosemary Harper as she signs on aboard a the Wayfarer, a wormhole-tunnelling ship (basically intergalactic road crew), in order to escape her tragic past. And, of course, The Wayfarer is crewed by a quirky crew of misfits. In general terms, it’s the kind of setup that’s the foundation of all kinds of space opera sci-fi. The ragtag crew and their banter reminded me of Firefly, while the multitude of strange alien species is a lot like Mass Effect or Star Wars.

The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet is a lot different from those classics of space opera. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call it pacifist space opera like James Alan Gardner’s League of Peoples series, but the crew of the Wayfarer are non-combatants, full stop. They’re not even the shady, Han Solo kind of spacers– everything they do is above board. In turn, Rosemary’s not a hotshot pilot or mercenary or anything– she’s a clerk. And while there are occasional bits of danger (space pirates!), Rosemary saves the day time and time again through negotiation and bureaucracy. It’s kind of an interesting response to the typical super-blasty space opera, and a definite change from that ultra violent Deathstalker book I reviewed last time.

You could almost label Chambers’ relationship & character focused sci-fi as “space soap opera” rather than space opera, but … even that label doesn’t quite fit, as The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet doesn’t have the ridiculously convoluted plotlines and high melodrama of, say, The Young and the Restless. No evil twins, no secret heirs, no kidnappings.

The funny thing is, this doesn’t mean the galaxy of The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet is a peaceful one, as there are all kinds of sweeping space opera conflicts that are referred to in passing. Heck, the captain’s hot alien girlfriend is the kind of gun-toting space opera heroine we’re used to– it’s just that she’s got her own ship to captain, so she spends most of her time off doing her own thing.

Instead of going on about blasting space aliens or having laser swordfights, Chambers focuses on character, almost to a ridiculous degree. The plot is rather … loose, as the Wayfarer takes on a job that will take them nearly a year to complete. And so, they chug their way across the galaxy, stopping at various planets along the way so each member of the crew can have a little moment in the spotlight as we learn more about them.

How much you’ll like this gimmick will determine how much you like the novel. Chambers is a solid writer, and she’s built herself a really interesting sandbox to play in. Puzzling out just what various terms mean and what various alien species are is part of the fun. This said, there were times over the course of the book where even I began to find things a little grating– some of the societies Chambers includes in the novel are just shy of becoming gratingly “this is what’s wrong with modern society!” utopian.

I almost want to label this book as “tumblr sci-fi,” based on the characters. The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet is an unabashedly queer book, using sci-fi to explore various themes about sexuality and culture and stuff. And if that’s not enough, the whole crew of the Wayfarer has … issues. The obligatory quirky engineer is borderline manic depressive, the other engineer is in love with the ship’s AI, the captain’s in a taboo relationship with an alien space babe (heck of an ‘in the closet’ metaphor), the alien navigator reads as kinda-sorta having Asperger’s, and the polyamorous reptilian alien pilot (who Rosemary falls for, natch) keeps on getting frustrated with how screwed up human society is.

The thing is, with is episodic nature (and almost tacked-on plot resolution at the end), The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet never really delves too deep into one idea or another. Some of the stories have the seeds of a plot that could support a whole novel, while others … don’t. It’s a bit ramshackle, to be honest, but it’s the sort of thing that could work really well if someone wanted to option the book to make a TV show.

“Firefly, just without the guns and cowboy boots” might be a bit of a hard sell, though.

2017 Resolutions! Also introducing, THE BOX!

Alright! New year, and that fleeting sense of optimism until things get rolling and we’re all reminded we’re living in the crappy cyberpunk future now. Ehem.

In any case, I thought I’d take a little time to take stock of things, looking back on 2016, and plan ahead for the future. 2016 was honestly kind of an odd year for me– I did some cool (read: nerdy) stuff, traveled a little bit (though possibly not as much as I should have), and hammered out some blog posts along the way. With any luck, I’ll be able to make 2017 an even better year, so here’s to hoping! But yeah, here are a couple of resolutions that I hope to work on over the course of the year.

Resolution 1: Read More

Pretty simple, right? According to my ‘Books I read in 2016’ tag, I read 53 books over the course of 2016. This is not counting comics/graphic novels, reference books, RPG manuals, and so on. A book a week is a respectable number, but I here’s to hoping I can beat that as 2017 goes on.

Resolution 2: Buy fewer books.

At a glance, this flies in the face of resolution #1. Except for the fact that I’ve got a heck of a backlog in my to-read pile as is. The dollar bin at the used bookstore has always been my weakness, and as a result, I’ve got plenty of random-ass old sci-fi novels to work through. I suppose I could have worse habits, though I really should put in some more shelving at some point.

In any case, I think I’m good on random-ass dollar books for the time being, as a few weeks ago, I found … THE BOX.

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At 9.99 for 29 books, that’s about 34 cents a book. And, assuming that each book takes a couple hours to read, well … that’s a heck of a entertainment-to-time ratio, right there. Here’s a quick peek at some of the books inside (not all 29 are shown ’cause I had to take the first layer out to get a good shot). Don’t suppose any of you have any requests at what I should take a crack at first?

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And this is on top of the pile of unread books I currently have on my shelf. And the real funny thing is, I can think of at least a half dozen new releases that I’d like to pick up … but that’s what the library’s for, right? So we’ll see how well I can stick to this buying less stuff resolution.

Resolution 3: Write more stuff.

A side note thing I’ve mentioned in passing before, but I dabble in writing of the non-review variety. Go figure, right? I’ve been pretty good-ish the last couple of weeks on getting stuff written (even though the election really threw me into a non-productive tailspin in November). Still, good news is, I’ve gotten back on track, though at the moment I’m just dabbling with a few shorter projects instead of one big one. Still, I have a couple of ideas for a proper novel (or at least a novella)– I’ve taken a couple of cracks at it thus far, and always seem to peter out around 10,000 words … I’m gonna have to try to work past that this year. Oh, and I need to think of a video game to write about for a Boss Fight Books pitch. I’m thinking maaaaybe a Zelda? Though that seems like a tall order. Maybe Double Dragon II, instead? Wild Arms? Space Westerns are the shit, after all. Who knows! Boss Fight Books’ submissions usually open up in the summer, so I’ve got a couple of months to figure it out.

So yeah. There’s a couple of resolutions for 2017! Let’s see how well I can stick with them. Feel free to prod and pester me along the way.