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Book review: Runner by Patrick Lee

Monday, December 16th, 2013

A couple of years ago, I read Patrick Lee’s debut trilogy, consisting of The Breach, Ghost Country, and Deep Sky. It was a new breed of fiction for me: the structure and feel of your run-of-the-mill action/thriller novel, but wrapped around the chewy gooey center of a science-fictional premise/MacGuffin. I enjoyed the heck out of them, and when I heard that he was writing another novel (albeit one unrelated to the trilogy) I was sold, sight-unseen.

Fast-forward to October 2013, and while perusing the latest offerings from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program, what do I stumble across but a new novel from Patrick Lee! I was excited, but even better, I was fortunate enough to land a copy for review.

The blurb was inoffensively generic, bordering on cliché: Ex-military man takes in a girl on the run from bad guys trying to kill her. I wondered if this was to be a straight-up thriller this time, or if Lee would manage to work in a SF angle; I assumed the former, but held out hope for the latter. All the while figuring it would be a wild ride either way.

I love it when I’m right.

Sam Dryden is an ex-special forces operative who lost his wife and child in an accident a while back. Recently he’s been having bouts of insomnia, and has taken up midnight jogs along the boardwalk. One fateful night, he runs into Rachel, a 12-year-old girl being hunted by a squad of armed men. Naturally, Dryden decides to help her. But Rachel is more than she seems: not only does she have the uncanny ability to read minds, but her drug-induced amnesia hides a terrifying secret.

Science fiction it is, then—and Lee even throws some pseudo-scientific explanations for Rachel’s telepathic powers (but then, I’m no biologist.) But beyond that, he teases out the ramifications of such an ability: if telepathy actually existed, how would the military-industrial complex seek to utilize it? Lee’s answer is both horrifying and depressingly realistic. Most importantly, it’s wildly entertaining.

The pace Lee sets for the book is a breathless one. The action starts right on page two, and hardly lets up from there. The entire first chunk of the book is an extended chase sequence, and even when you think you can stop and take a breath, there’s a massive twist or turn on the next page to keep you reading. In fact, the only criticism I have of the book is those sections where the pace actually does slow down: these sequences shift away from Dryden and Rachel to show what is essentially the “bad” guys’ side of things. Much of the insight into the military’s use of telepathic powers is revealed in these sections, and though they all end up tying together at the end, they don’t do a lot to advance the plot at that moment. In any other book, it wouldn’t bother me like it did here; but in a book this relentlessly-paced, such a noticeable slowdown is harder to forgive. But this is a minor gripe for a book that is still nigh-impossible to put down.

Probably what most impressed me, though, was the emotional layer Lee was able to squeeze in. I got a hint of it in his Breach books, but here…well, here it may have seemed a bit manipulative at first (guy loses his own child, then takes in a young girl on the run? Where do you think this could be going?) but Lee totally makes it work. The ending does much of the heavy lifting in this regard: instead of wrapping everything up all happily-ever-after like you might expect, Lee goes for the truer, more realistic approach, and the whole work is the more powerful for it. The last page in particular not only made me mist up a little, but actually had me flipping back to the first page to reread how it all started. Great stuff.

Runner will be out in February. Get it. Read it. And whatever Patrick Lee decides to write next, I’ll be in line for that, too, no questions asked. [4 out of 5 stars]

Book review: Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

Superheroes versus zombies. That’s Ex-Heroes in a nutshell. Don’t like superheroes or zombies? Well…that might not be a problem, actually.

Ex-Heroes is about a group of super-powered heroes trying to protect a last enclave of humanity in a Los Angeles movie studio-turned-fortress following the zombie apocalypse. I will admit that I’m a bit of a superhero guy, but I couldn’t care less about the current zombie trend. It’s okay, though, because the zombie apocalypse featured in Clines’ books is just the setting; the real show is the larger-than-life yet all-too-human characters: St. George, Stealth, Zzzap. Gorgon, Cerberus, Regenerator. You could draw some easy parallels between Clines’ creations and the stable of popular DC and Marvel Comics heroes, but it doesn’t matter because Clines makes his so engaging.

I loved the structure of the book, too. The chapters alternate: two “Now” chapters set in the present day, told from your standard third-person perspective; then one “Then” chapter set in the past and told in the first-person by one of the superhero characters. The Then chapters move forward chronologically, slowly building up the history of the zombie apocalypse (including an ingenious superhero-related origin for the zombies) as well as fleshing out the backstory of the characters involved. And the way they interact with the ongoing plot of the Now chapters works brilliantly.

If there are any real flaws in the book, it would be that one of the heroes seemed way too powerful, and the hasty explanations given for why he wasn’t more effective didn’t really satisfy me. Also, the main bad guy has huge question marks in his background that (thankfully) are mostly cleared up in the sequel, but still drove me nuts for most of this book. Those are minor nitpicks, though. This book is just too much fun. [4 out of 5 stars]

Book review: Lord of Darkness by Robert Silverberg

Thursday, March 28th, 2013

Robert Silverberg is a prolific and award-winning science fiction author, of whom I’ve read only a handful of short stories. They didn’t leave me much impressed, but when I found out he had written an historical fiction novel that was being reprinted for the first time in thirty years, I was intrigued, and I was fortunate enough to win a copy for review.

The new edition of Lord of Darkness by Nonstop Press contains a great introduction by Silverberg about how his book came to be. Long story short, it was inspired by the true story of 16th century English mariner Andrew Battell, who was captured by the Portuguese while pirating in South America and shipped to Africa as a prisoner, where he spent twenty years of his life—including some time living in the African interior with a cannibal tribe and their powerful, dangerous leader, Imbe Calandola, the titular “Lord of Darkness”.

The book did not do well domestically, due to the fact that bookstores shelved it alongside his science fiction works; sci-fi fans weren’t interested in a historical fiction novel, and historical fiction fans (who didn’t know to look for an historical novel in the SF section) never discovered it.

That’s a shame, because it’s an absolutely amazing book.

Much of the appeal comes from Battell’s story, which is fascinating in itself; though obviously by the time Silverberg had expanded it to novel-length, it had become more fiction than fact, but still true to the events detailed in Battell’s original account. But perhaps more than even that, what kept me engaged from the first page to the last was the narrative voice employed by Silverberg. It’s a first-person account, naturally, but Silverberg attempts to present it as if it might have come from the pen of a 16th century English Protestant man, while still keeping it comprehensible to the contemporary reader. It’s done masterfully, with an old-fashioned biblical cadence that is just wonderful. Here’s the opening paragraph:

ALMIGHTY GOD, I thank Thee for my deliverance from the dark land of Africa. Yet am I grateful for all that Thou hast shown me in that land, even for the pain Thou hast inflicted upon me for my deeper instruction. And I thank Thee also for sparing me from the wrath of the Portugals who enslaved me, and from the other foes, black of skin and blacker of soul, with whom I contended. And I give thanks too that Thou let me taste the delight of strange loves in a strange place, so that in these my latter years I may look back with pleasure upon pleasures few Englishmen have known. But most of all I thank Thee for showing me the face of evil and bringing me away whole, and joyous, and unshaken in my love of Thee.

I don’t know a thing about Silverberg’s own beliefs, but Battell’s come through clear as day; his dialogue is full of philosophical asides on almost every conceivable subject. This is a thoughtful book. It’s also not an easy one. Battell makes choices of a questionable moral nature, from working in the employ of his captors and nation’s enemies, to living as a member of a cannibal tribe. This is not a book for the squeamish: there are some disturbing scenes here. At one point Battell, determined to leave nothing out of his narrative, remarks that what he is about to reveal will make the reader hate and condemn him, and certainly that’s an option. Battell’s awareness of his choices and actions, and his analysis of them at the time as well as after fact, add depth both to said scenes and to his character.

A final word of warning: There is a lot of sex in this book, and it’s fairly explicitly described, though couched in sixteenth century language as it is, it loses a little of it’s, shall we say, vulgarity. If that’s the kind of thing that’ll turn you off a book entirely, you might want to give this one a pass.

That said, part of the triumph of the novel is bringing you, the reader, to places that make you uncomfortable (sometimes extremely uncomfortable) and then bringing you through them—not entirely unchanged, but perhaps now seeing the world around you in a different light. That’s one of the marks of Great Literature, and Lord of Darkness is an absolute masterwork. Kudos to Nonstop for bringing it back into print. [5 out of 5 stars]

Book review: Ice Forged by Gail Z. Martin

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

I’ve picked up a number of books through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program over the years. Some have been phenomenal, and some have been pretty good, but a lot of them have been pretty mediocre, if not downright bad. So when I signed up for a chance to win a copy of Gail Z. Martin’s upcoming novel, I had my fingers crossed: all I really wanted was an enjoyable, competently-written fantasy from an established author at a well-known publisher.

Ice Forged delivered exactly that.

The basic premise was an intriguing one: an arctic penal colony gets cut off from the rest of the world after the magical version of nuclear Armageddon. Has the post-apocalyptic scenario been done before in a fantasy world? If so, I haven’t read it yet, which isn’t saying a lot, other than that the idea here was new enough to me to be exciting. Anyway, the main character, a nobleman’s son by the name of Blaine McFadden, gets sentenced to Velant, the aforementioned penal colony at the top of the world. There’s some quick jumps in time as we see Blaine adjusting to his new life, while back on the mainland we’re introduced to a secondary protagonist, a functionary of the royal court named Bevin Connor. It’s through his eyes that we witness the magical strike which lays waste to the country of Donderath, while Connor himself escapes aboard a vessel headed for…Velant.

Martin’s an established author with a couple of published trilogies to her name, and it shows here. There’s nothing flashy, her prose isn’t noteworthy in the slightest, the characters aren’t particularly deep, and the book doesn’t make you think. But it is eminently readable; the pages and the minutes fly by in a blur. If nothing else, Martin shows herself to be a polished and professional storyteller.

Having said that, I can’t help but lament what Ice Forged could have been. Granted, this is just the first book in a series, so Martin’s laying the groundwork for future volumes, here, but. As much as I enjoyed Bevin Connor’s storyline, imagine if events on Donderath went unexplained and unwitnessed by the reader. Suddenly, the supply ships stop showing up in Velant, and Blaine McFadden’s got a mystery on his hands, and the reader is just as bewildered as he is. Suddenly, the mystery of the book becomes “What happened to Donderath?” instead of—well, that would be telling. But I think it could have been pretty amazing.

And while we’re on the subject of Blaine McFadden, one thing with him that bugged me: during his years in Velant, he adopts the nickname “Mick” to hide his true identity. Later on, his true heritage comes back to haunt him, and he’s forced to decide: is he truly “Mick” or is he “Blaine”? But it’s really a false choice, because the narrative has referred to him as “Blaine” for the entirety of the novel, and the only time the reader is reminded of the “Mick” persona is when a character (very rarely) calls him such. Instead, imagine a book that begins with the exile of Blaine McFadden, before switching to The Arctic Adventures Of Mick And Friends, and only after a large portion of the book is it revealed that Mick and Blaine are in fact the same character. Perhaps this is just a side effect of having read too much* of Gene Wolfe and Steven Erikson, two authors who thrive on strategically withholding information from the reader. But sometimes it’s worthwhile not to let the reader in on everything. (*I’m kidding, there’s no such thing!)

I haven’t mentioned it yet, but one of the other conceits of Ice Forged that was new to me in the genre was its use vampires. To the best of my knowledge, vampires have traditionally been used as a fantastical element in otherwise-contemporary settings. Here, Martin deploys more-or-less traditional vampires in a fantasy setting. Apparently, this is also true of her other series(es). I found out about this beforehand via the Author Q&A in the back of the book, and went in expecting to hate them. To the contrary, the vampire characters made for one of the more intriguing aspects of the book. Although I should say, Martin may have taken too much of her readers’ knowledge of vampires for granted, and not have explained them as thoroughly as she could or should have: I remember being jarred out of the story at one point when one of them was implied to be flying, and I couldn’t figure how that was possible, and certainly couldn’t remember it having been mentioned before.

But those are minor nitpicks. When you get right down to it, the end result is that Ice Forged is a well-written, enjoyable fantasy. Sometimes, that’s all you want. [3.5 out of 5 stars]

2013 Reading List

Monday, January 7th, 2013

Books read in 2013, listed by month finished. Books in italics are still in progress. As always, you can follow along with my reading journal @ LibraryThing, where you can also see my complete reading list, or just my 2013 reads.

January

Shardik by Richard Adams
Ice Forged by Gail Z. Martin

February

Pogo: Through the Wild Blue Yonder by Walt Kelly
The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli
Blood and Bone by Ian C. Esslemont
Cold Days by Jim Butcher
The Devil Delivered by Steven Erikson
Fishin’ With Grandma Matchie by Steven Erikson
Revolvo by Steven Erikson

March

American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett
Archimedes’ Claw by Theodore Morrison Homa
Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines
Lord of Darkness by Robert Silverberg
The War Hound and the World’s Pain by Michael Moorcock
Return of the Crimson Guard by Ian C. Esslemont

April

The City in the Autumn Stars by Michael Moorcock
Ex-Patriots by Peter Clines
The Dragon in the Sword by Michael Moorcock
Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

May

Star Wars: Apocalypse by Troy Denning
The Chosen by Ricardo Pinto
Pandora by Holly Hollander by Gene Wolfe

June

The Standing Dead by Ricardo Pinto
The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

July

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
Ex-Communication by Peter Clines

August

King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
The Book of Sand by Jorge Luis Borges
Shakespeare’s Memory by Jorge Luis Borges
This River Awakens by Steven Erikson
Star Wars: Crucible by Troy Denning
Emperor of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

September

Toll the Hounds by Steven Erikson

October

The Third God by Ricardo Pinto
Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson

November

Runner by Patrick Lee
The Illearth War by Stephen R. Donaldson

December

The Power That Preserves by Stephen R. Donaldson
The Lurking Fear & Other Stories by H. P. Lovecraft

The 2012 Salty Awards!

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

I was quite pleased with how last year’s Salty Awards turned out, so let’s do it again! Again, this is stuff that I read for the first time last year, even if it was published earlier (and usually it was.) Here’s a link to my 2012 reading list for reference.


Statistics

Look out, here come some stats! Quickly now:

Total books read: 41
Re-reads: 8
Non-series reads: 8
Novels by female authors: 1
Short story collections: 4
Ebooks: 2
Reads that were also acquired in 2012: 13
Borrowed (unowned): 0


Best Short Story Collection 2012:

I only read four short story collections last year, and only two of them would even be worthy of a top five list. But I have to give props to:

Endangered Species by Gene Wolfe
Another year, another Gene Wolfe short story collection. This one is particularly large, with 30 stories. Some of them didn’t quite grab me, but there are still plenty of amazing stories in here. It’s been close to a year since I read them, so I don’t remember much, but just looking over the table of contents, I can recall the following as being standout stories: “The Map” (taking place after The Book of the New Sun), “The HORARS of War”, “All the Hues of Hell”, “Procreation” (very Borgesian), “The Tale of the Rose and the Nightingale” (this one has lingered the most), and “Silhouette”. I’ve got one more collection left to read this year, and I can’t wait!


Best Comic Book 2012:

I didn’t read a ton of graphic novels this year, besides the collections of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8 that I got for my wife (which were very good, by the way.) But no self-respecting Best Of list can omit this:

Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons
This book is considered such a classic in the field that it’s a miracle I put off reading it for so long. And it’s so absolutely mind-blowingly amazing that I actually feel bad for not having read it years ago. It is not a light undertaking (I was all but useless for two days straight) but it is so very, very worth it. The absolute pinnacle of superhero comics.


Best Novel 2012:

It was a down year for me, for novels, probably on account of how a few of them were quite long (I’m looking at you, George R. R. Martin) but also because of a number of weeks that saw me spending my nights playing video games, instead of reading. Of course, when I say “a down year”, I’m talking quantity, not quality; it was a very good year for those books that I did manage to read, and here are the best of them:

Runners-up:

5. Caine’s Law by Matthew Stover
I’ve loved all of Stover’s previous Acts of Caine novels, and this was the long-awaited fourth and (for the foreseeable future) final installment. Like the books before it, it is totally unlike any of its predecessors. Stover abandons entirely the conventional linear narrative and goes for something Completely Different, and the result is almost incomprehensible. And unequivocally kickass. As always.

4. Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
Kinda funny that this made the list, when I had to set it aside for a month because I just couldn’t get it into it. But when I dove back in again, I was surprised how it felt like I hadn’t been away from it at all. In a good way. It’s a slow burn of a novel, but it’s very worth it. There’s a beauty to the thing that I have a hard time putting words to. And the end caught me quite by surprise. I will definitely be reading more of Kay’s work in the (hopefully near) future.

3. The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien
I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings back when I was 10 or 11, and then again in my early 20s, but I was always wary of this one. It was supposed to be dry, textbook-like. Boring, in other words. So I avoided it. But this year, when I decided to do a full Middle-earth re-read, I planned for The Silmarillion, and was both excited and apprehensive to try tackling it. The full re-read never happened, but I did read The Silmarillion, and wow. Now granted, my reading tastes have evolved considerably over the past dozen years, but why did I never read this before? Yes, it was a little slow in a couple of spots, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a work of staggering imagination and beauty.

2. A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin
Yep, I’m slow, I finally got around to reading the Song of Ice and Fire series just now. (Funnily enough, the waiting list at the library for a fifteen-year-old book is hundreds of people long, thanks to the current TV show.) Anyway, the first book in the series was great, but it didn’t quite make the cut for this list; it was well-written and engrossing, but it was just one downer after another. The second book, though…oh, this book. Besides the fact that it doesn’t have a proper beginning or end, this book is practically flawless. It was hard to imagine how Martin could even improve on this installment, but…

The best novel I read in 2012 was…

1. A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin
I suppose it might not seem fair for Martin to take the top two spots, but shoot, he almost had three books make my top five. Up to the very end, I didn’t think there was any way this book could surpass A Clash of Kings, but then Martin started tying some arcs up in such satisfying ways. And then the epilogue hit, and left me breathless; I still get chills thinking about it. It was the perfect spot to end the book: at a place where the story can pause and take a breath, but with that edge that leaves you thinking, “Holy crap, what happens next?!” Absolutely brilliant.

Honorable mentions: A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin, The Eternal Champion by Michael Moorcock, Ghost Ocean by S. M. Peters, When She’s Gone by Steven Erikson


Book review: Vale of Stars by Sean O’Brien

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

I’ll come right out and say it: Vale of Stars is a frustrating book. It’s not well-written. It’s heavy-handed. It tries to do to much. The characters are obnoxious. The science is laughable.

And yet.

In a nutshell, the story follows four generations of women, with each woman being the protagonist of her quarter of the book. It begins aboard a generation ship as it approaches its destination world, skips ahead in time to the planetbound colonies, and then expands out from there to the wider world beyond the colony domes.

From the very beginning, the characters drove me crazy. The bad guy(s) are bad guys just to be bad guys; sure, we get more insight to their motivations as the book progresses, but it turns out to be nothing more sophisticated than “I hate these people, so I’m going to be evil.” The good guys (or gals, as it were) are just as unsubtle, always interpreting every action or opinion taken by the bad guys as this totally evil thing—not because it would make any sense to do so, but simply because these are the good guys, those are the bad guys, and this is the thing that needs to happen for the plot to go, and also because the author has his points that he needs to hit you over the head with as unsubtly as possible.

There is so much in this book that doesn’t make any sense, beyond the non-existent character motivations. At one point, there’s a biological transformation that’s completely ridiculous. A little girl gets banished to the planet’s surface, where she somehow founds a complete society including technology and infrastructure.

But buried inside all of the ridiculousness are some genuinely-interesting sci-fi novel concepts, including a halfway-decent first contact story, and the exploration of the worship of more advanced beings as divinities. And that’s the most frustrating thing about this book: it takes three-quarters of the novel to get to the truly interesting stuff, but those ideas feel like distractions simply because of the way they’re shoehorned into the rest of the story.

I would love to see some of these concepts expanded into their own proper novel (or novels) but I can’t actually recommend this one. [2 out of 5 stars]

Book review: Scourge of the Betrayer by Jeff Salyards

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

I’ve received, read, and reviewed review copies of books before, either won via random internet giveaways, or through dedicated early reviewer programs. But Scourge of the Betrayer marks the first time an author has personally reached out to me and said, “Hey, would you like a copy of my new book to review?” Normally, I’d be flattered, but also a little wary, having been burned more than a couple of times doing advance reviews of fantasy debuts. In this case, however, by the time Jeff Salyards had emailed me, I had already seen a handful of glowing reviews for the first book in the Bloodsounder’s Arc series, and so in this instance I was flattered and immediately said, “Yes, please!”

And I’m glad I did.

The first thing that jumped out at me when I removed the dust jacket (as I do before reading) was that Night Shade Books went all-out in making this a gorgeous-looking book. The silver inlay on the blue hardcover looks fantastic, and in addition to printing the author name and title on the spine, as per usual, they’re also printed on the front cover, along with the swipe from the dust jacket and a splatter of silver blood in the corner; a second splatter adorns the back cover. It just looks fantastic and immediately makes you think you’re holding something special in your hands.

The story inside is related in the first-person by Arkamondos (“Arki”), an archivist who’s been hired by the Syldoon captain Braylar Killcoin to chronicle the exploits of his mercenary company. The novel starts off with the bookish Arki first meeting Braylar and his crew, and assumes a leisurely pace as the gang gears up for their mission while Arki gets a handle on the company and his place in it. Some might say “slow” instead of “leisurely”—very little happens for the first half or so of the book; it’s mostly downtime at inns or travel across a wide sea of grasslands—but it’s never sluggish; Salyards spends this time developing his handful of characters and the world they inhabit, most of which is just as foreign to Arki as it is to the reader. There are some moments of action, certainly, but the far more numerous and quieter moments are just as compelling. It’s a wise choice by Salyards, I think: by the time the real plot kicks in with all the action and excitement you could hope for, you’ve become invested in these characters and the mysteries of their world. And when death comes—and this being the type of book that it is, death will come—I was surprised by just how hard it hits. That kind of emotional connection in a book that runs a scant 250 pages is a rare thing; kudos to Salyards for making each of those pages count.

I’ve seen a number of comparisons to Glen Cook’s Black Company books, and…I dunno, getting compared to Cook is kind of the default thing when you’re talking about first-person military fantasy. Salyards’ book is gritty and bloody and grunt-level and narrated by an archivist, yes, but it has a very different feel for a few reasons. First is Arki’s perspective as an outsider to the Syldoon group: he’s out of his depth in this new world of soldiery and intrigue right alongside the reader. Secondly, although this is very much a fantasy novel, the fantastical elements play little to no role in this book (though presumably they’ll be far more important later in the series.) There are no mages wielding powerful magic in battle here—it’s just swords and crossbows and shields, prowess and guts and determination, and luck. The action is decidedly mundane, and feels that much more visceral and real for it. Finally, though the Black Company is ground-level in scope, there’s still an epic war going on in the background; Scourge of the Betrayer is much more intimate, and though there are, in fact, long-range machinations going on behind the scenes, they feel far more subtle and less immediate.

As mentioned, this is a pretty short book. A lot happens, but not a whole lot happens, if you get my meaning. This is very much just the first act in what should end up at least a trilogy. The book itself doesn’t come to much of a resolution, and the ending is less a cliffhanger than it is “To be continued…” Had this been a 600-page doorstopper, I’d take issue with that; but you know what? I’m perfectly willing to accept it from a tautly-written, shorter book. Two or three more volumes like Scourge should make for a highly-satisyfing series, and should have people saying Salyards’ name like they do Abercrombie’s now. Sign me on for Book Two, because I can’t wait to see where he takes this story. [3.5 out of 5 stars]

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Scourge of the Betrayer

In which I urge you to go see John Carter

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

I don’t usually write about movies. Which mostly has to do with the fact that I don’t see a lot of movies. Even the ones I see, my thoughts can usually be summed up in a Twitter post and don’t warrant a blog entry.

This past weekend, though, I went and saw John Carter. I loved it. It was great. Not perfect by any means, but perfectly enjoyable despite its flaws, and a lot of fun. I want to see it again, a rare feat.

When it opened, though, the critics quickly went in for the kill, and now Disney has declared the movie a flop that it lost $200 million on. The film cost $250 million to make, but apparently they also ran a marketing campaign that cost around $100 million. The surprising bit is that they spent so much on advertising, when the overwhelming opinion seems to be that Disney did the worst possible marketing job that they possibly could have.

I mean, here you have the first big-screen production of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ precisely-100-year-old science fiction saga that inspired an entire century of sci-fi and fantasy. Not once did Disney go to the historical and literary importance of the source material. Imagine a trailer that starts out with the following text:

Before STAR WARS
Before THE LORD OF THE RINGS
Before CONAN THE BARBARIAN
There was
JOHN CARTER
From the creator of TARZAN
And the director of WALL-E and FINDING NEMO

Come on, right? But no, nobody could possibly want to know about any of that stuff. And then Disney adds insult to injury by giving it the blandest, let’s-convey-the-least-information-possible title they could come up with. It was originally “John Carter of Mars” (the title card actually shows up as such at the end of the film) but because apparently movies with “Mars” in the title have historically done so poorly, they decided to leave that part off, even though the entire point of the movie is John Carter’s adventures on Mars! Heck, just use the instory native name of “Barsoom”. Something—anything—else! When the Super Bowl trailer aired, my friend Tara asked, perhaps only half-jokingly, “Why are they making a movie about Noah Wyle’s ER character?” (She would be amused to find out, as I later did, that ER‘s creator, Michael Crichton, was a big Edgar Rice Burroughs fan, and named the TV character after ERB’s hero.) The point is, the average modern moviegoer had no knowledge of John Carter or his pedigree, and Disney spent $100 million doing their best to not tell them. Is it any wonder it failed so miserably?

But it doesn’t deserve to. It’s maybe a little overlong, and unevenly paced, but it’s compellingly enjoyable. It’s complicated and sometimes less than easy to follow, but it doesn’t dumb anything down; it respects its audience enough to expect them to keep up and piece things together, and by and large, by the end, you will. It takes large and numerous deviations from the original text, but is somehow still unfailingly faithful to the spirit of the source material; how often does that happen? It’s gorgeous to look at, it has heart, and it’s just plain fun.

So I say: Screw the critics. Screw Disney declaring it a flop. If you like having any fun at the movies, you need to go see this movie while it’s still in theaters.

Book review: Test of Metal by Matthew Stover

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

I’m not overly familiar with Magic: The Gathering. I know that it’s a fantasy card game in which players battle each other using custom-constructed decks. And it was a big deal back in high school. It originated the term to “tap”, or rotate, a card in play. And it was a huge influence on one of my favorite card games. That’s the extent of my knowledge.

I am, however, very much familiar with Matthew Stover. He happens to be one of my all-time favorite authors, and is the sole reason I picked up Test of Metal.

Now, tie-in fiction is a tricky animal: most of it just isn’t that good. I read a lot of Star Wars novels, but I enjoy them because they’re Star Wars, not because they’re necessarily well-written—and if I’m being honest, most of them really aren’t. So I read tie-in fiction primarily because I’m a fan of the larger shared universe it’s set in. But what about when I’m not? Can a favorite author make me care about a franchise I know nothing about?

Well, yes. And no.

From the (minimal) research I did after reading this book, I know that Test of Metal follows up directly on events in Agents of Artifice by Ari Marmell, another book in the Planeswalkers subseries. At the end of that book, the planeswalker (basically a type of wizard who can hop between different dimensions) Jace Beleren killed fellow planeswalker Tezzeret, ostensibly the “bad guy” of that novel. In Test of Metal, Tezzeret is not only resurrected, but is made the main viewpoint character. This is his story.

We start in media res with Tezzeret on an island made entirely of the magical metal, etherium. He is soon confronted by the powerful dragon Nicol Bolas, who, as it turns out, was responsible for recreating Tezzeret and sending him on a quest, of which this metal island is the end. Bolas then proceeds to trawl Tezzeret’s memories; subsequent chapters are the result of this mind-link, where the bulk of the novel’s story plays out in flashback, with Tezzeret as narrator.

Stover has loved playing with viewpoint and linearity in his Acts of Caine novels, and Test of Metal is no different. In addition to most of the chapters being flashbacks and narrated in the first-person by Tezzeret, we get additional first-person perspectives (one chapter each) from the other featured planeswalkers, Jace Beleren and Baltrice. And interspersed between those are the “present” goings-on at the metal island, related in standard third-person, from the POVs of both Tezzeret and Bolas. Alternating between the third- and first-persons is something Stover does extremely well, and its use suits the story perfectly. What I enjoyed perhaps the most, though, was how the book effectively begins at the end of the story. In fact, before I read the final chapter, I flipped back and reread the first chapter and had a couple of those great “Aha!” moments where the puzzle pieces start fitting together. But beyond just the structure of the novel, the story itself makes use of a limited amount of time travel in the form of a type of magic called “clockworking”; there’s a very nonlinear feel to entire book that’s simultaneously refreshing and bewildering, but Stover’s successful in keeping it all tightly under control.

If I had a main complaint, it would be that the story mostly boils down to a fairly-straightforward MacGuffin quest with powerful wizards throwing a bunch of magic at each other. And some of the dialogue is laughably juvenile—though as it more often that not also made me laugh in the good sense, I can overlook any quibbles there. In the end, it’s Stover’s handling of Tezzeret’s character and the internal journey he undertakes that elevate the book above the level of “mere” tie-in fiction. We get a bit of Tezzeret’s backstory, we come to understand his motivations, and watch as he undergoes both physical and internal transformations. He’s a fascinating character: highly intelligent, but not physically or magically overpowering, so he has to rely on his wits to get by. Plus, he’s also a bit of a smartass. Very much in Stover’s wheelhouse.

In fact, I enjoyed reading about Tezzeret so much that I really want to pick up Agents of Artifice just to get the first half (as it were) of the story. But I don’t think I really care enough about the Magic universe to bother doing so. Rather, I think I’ll just savor Stover’s contribution to it.

It’s not great literature, but it’s still better than most tie-in genre fiction deserves to be. It makes you use your brain. And it’s got all the classic Stover touches (warning: violence and strong language), plus plenty of twists and turns and double-, triple-, and quadruple-crosses. It’s great fun, and I’d recommend it to any fan of fantasy. [3.5 out of 5 stars]