Wednesday, October 29, 2014

7 Days of Novels: The Child Thief by Brom

Child ThiefPeter was a boy born to a normal mother and an unusual father, at a time when abnormality in an infant could get one killed.  Somehow, he survived long enough to fight for his own survival, but the damage was done - Peter would forever be alone, unique, despite the family he would desperately try to build around him.  But he was never lacking in mortal enemies…

Nick is a young man living in the slums of Brooklyn, the victim of a drug lord that’s taken  over his home and from there much of his life.  He takes some drastic action, has more bad luck, and needs to get away - fast.  He’s saved by a faerie boy who takes him to another place.  But this place isn’t the safe haven Nick was told it would be.  Not anymore…

What hooks me most about Child Thief is the style of writing.  I’m a big fan of the in-depth character studies, the ones that will give you every emotion, thought, and tidbit of history trivia of every character they touch.  My favorite authors with this style are Stephen King, Karen Traviss, Clive Barker and, after Child Thief, Brom.  I love the way this book is written, and if the rest of his work is like this, I will definitely be seeking more of his work out.  It’s the story told by an artist who can tell an epic just by splashing a bit of paint in a character’s eyes.  I haven’t seen much of his art, but again, if Child Thief is any indication, this is how he pans out.

The narrative is told mostly in two parts, that of Nick, and that of Peter.  There are other voices, but they’re telling different parts of Peter’s and Nick’s stories.  As with many stories told in two different parts, Child Thief falls victim to (or takes advantage of) convenient parallel stories.  Each relevant part of Peter’s story just happened to occur in the correct sequence that it’s revealed to us, in sequential order, in the same order that it’s needed to avoid boring exposition in Nick’s story.  Of course, there is some exposition, but not only is it told in an inspiring and subjective way, it’s also countered by the opposite side’s point of view describing the exact same point.  It definitely did a good job, and this gives me an in to explain one of the great strengths of this novel.

One of the most basic literary techniques, probably older than literature itself, is to dehumanize the antagonist.  This allows wanton destruction of the enemy to be cheered by those who would normally mourn the loss of life.  Child Thief does this, to a point.  The Flesh Eaters are no longer human, they’ve become monsters, they kill wantonly and eat the flesh of the dead, their skin is blackened and they have claws, etc.  But then, it throws you for a loop.  It shows you the human side.  The Flesh Eaters, UIfger, Peter, the Witch…they all have their human side, and they all have their side of the story.  Just like no character is perfect - everybody has their flaws, to the point that it’s up to the reader who is truly the protagonist and who isn’t.  This isn’t a perfect grey novel, however, as there are definite villains.  Ulfger, for example, despite his occasionally noble goals, does not commit a single act that is anything less than tyrannical.  Certain Flesh-Eaters are villainous enough to potentially place Brom in the company of such authors as either Stan Nicholls or Clive Barker, depending on how deep the rabbit hole goes.  Suffice it say that the villainous Captain is more Peter’s grey area counterpart than either of them believe, contrary to popular Disney lore.

The plot works nicely around these characters, allowing the characters to control it but moving drastically.  The structure of the story is akin to Highlander.  Rather than experiencing the story from beginning to end, Peter’s story details what might be Act Two of a five act play, introducing the first great changes to Avalon, while Nick in at the start of Act Five, centuries after the war with the Flesh Eaters has dragged on.  The entire story is building to a climax the whole time, and Nick shows up just in time to watch the climax unfolding.  As in the Fifth Act of any great work, the fantasy world of Avalon will never be the same again, and as the novel closes we’re left to imagine what will happen next.

That’s not to say there’s not a whole story.  Nick’s story, for example, includes his meeting Sekeu, who would fill the role of a mentor, as well as Cricket, the closest thing this book has to love interest, not to mention the rival in Leroy, and of course his ongoing conflict with Peter.  Unfortunately, there’s no real climax relating to any of these personal relationships - the climax focuses more on the overarching plots and casts Nick aside much the way Chewbacca was cast aside by the Yuuzhan Vong.

Mixed in with the characters and the plot is the setting.  As fantasy settings go (excluding science fantasy), there are a few well known ones.  There is the fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien, which not only redefined the meaning of “elf“, but also set the precedent that would go on to create the fantasy settings of Dungeons and Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, and countless others.  Then comes the fantasy setting of Harry Potter, which is a more recent blend of the mythology of dozens of cultures taken relatively more directly from the source material.  There’s a little bit of Tolkien in Rowling’s setting (the example that comes easiest to mind is the trolls in the first book), but most of it is admirably precise to the original myths.  After this, you usually get a wide variety of spin-offs of either of the above, either for familiarity or research reasons, or smaller, more exclusive settings that don’t really buy into a more general mythology (such as novels about vampires or the like).  Second and third least common, you get completely original fantasy worlds based on absolutely nothing at all, and more exotic, often non-Euclidean fantasy worlds that have branched off from the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

Finally, you get the fantasy settings that would stand up with Tolkien and Rowling if only enough people were aware of them.  Child Thief is one of these (Stan Nicholls’s Orcs trilogy is another).  These are the ones that separate the humans from the fantasy, and build upward from there, using the same source material that both of the aforementioned well-known authors had.  In the case of Child Thief, the only thing I recognized as “borrowed” from a more modern setting is the Tolkienesque elves which are introduced farther into the novel.  The trolls, the pixies, the witch and her daughters, all of this seems unique… and yet familiar.  It just touches on enough cultures to tell us this is nowhere near the medieval culture of the fantasy we’re familiar with.  It brings out a different feeling, one that works perfectly with the story of Peter Pan and the Devils.

Child Thief mixes these elements of character, plot and setting the way an expert illustrator mixes his paints.  Almost all of the characters are relatable, and all of them are memorable.  The plot is high energy, but difficult to get lost in, flowing like a waterfall until the big plunge.  I heartily recommend this book to any fantasy enthusiast, and even the odd social scientist.  This new look at Peter Pan is worth it.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

7 Days of Novels: A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

AGoTA Game of Thrones is a party that I am late to, albeit it one that I was inevitably going to get to. Actually, it's not that surprising that I'm late to this; I think the only pop culture phenomena I was ever on time for were Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2012 and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Still, that probably means that I'll be expected to have a lot to say about it.

I really don't. It's an okay book. That's not to say that it's mediocre, that's to say that I enjoyed it enough to want to read the sequels...and that's about it. I'm not dying to watch the show, although I will for completionism's sake. I'm not dying to write fan fiction about the show and I'm not on Amazon looking for a copy of A Clash of Kings. To me, that's really all there is to say about the book. It's a good read, but I could have lived my entire life without it and never have felt like I was missing something.

Of course, it's only fair to say more. That description fits a lot of other fantasy novels I've reviewed, after all. It's only because this story has been overly hyped that I feel like “it's overhyped” is enough to say about it. Had I experienced this story in its natural order, before the television show was created, I'd probably feel a lot more enthusiastic singing its praises. Still, there is somebody reading this review who hasn't read the book or watched the show yet, so let's be a little more specific.

A Game of Thrones, the first novel in the Song of Ice and Fire series, is a light fantasy novel. Unlike most fantasy novels, there is no quest, or group of adventurers. It's a group of semi-related characters having their own independent adventures, tied only by the kingdom they take place in. for that reason, I consider the book to be the equivalent of King Arthur, except with modern day writing conventions. Of course, modern writing conventions make a hell of a lot of difference in a story like that, so that comparison in truth might not go any farther than me. Still, the story of lords, knights and their equivalents partaking in training, dangerous adventures, conquering and incest with a touch of light fantasy puts it squarely...on the edge of my interests, in the realm of what I'm sometimes in the mood for.

So perhaps what I should look at is, why do so many other people like it? I'm going to start with the wide range of characters. There is not one character that got appreciable page time (normally I would say screen time, but in the case of this particular story I'd rather not risk being taken literally) that I disliked reading about. The closest thing to a main character is Ned Stark. All of the point of view characters except for one pass through his sphere of influence at least once, with a solid half of them being his children, one being his wife, and one being a short-time guest at his home that we get to know through his interactions with one of Ned's sons. From there we have Ned himself, leaving only one point of view character that's outside his sphere of influence.

So let's talk about the one that only barely has anything to do with Ned at all. Tyrion Lannister is an interesting character. He is directly related to the vast majority of the antagonists of the novel, and is even beloved by some of them. Still, compared to any of the other characters, he is his own man. His ties of family are strong, nearly as strong as they are for every other character in the book, but they are tempered by the fact that nobody wants anything to do with him and he is just as happy to let them stay away. Physically handicapped, Tyrion Lannister is every snarky nerd in the audience, although one with just enough Slytherin in him to be an interesting character. He's a character who is used to having nobody on his side but his own wit, and the end result is that there is never a dull scene with him in it.

While Tyrion has his snark, the other point of view characters either embody the moral traits of the audience or the ones the audience members wish they had. One character interrupts a culture of unjudged raping and pillaging to demand that no more rapes will be perpetrated by members of the group she is part of. Ned's entire arc is about the fact that he is too noble for his own good, which is likely to draw in readers on both sides of the spectrum.

Another item that seems to draw a lot of people in are the stakes, and I will be the first to agree that they are real. The fact that I tend to read a lot of materials with real stakes might imply me to care a little less about this, but that does seem to be a huge draw for much of the audience that Game of Thrones has. The show does not shy away from child-murder, though it might be giving too much away to say exactly how young of an age that extends to. It's not just death either. The culture in this book extends completely to actions and their consequences.

Perhaps the biggest flaw in the book is that it is impossible to see where this leads. A Game of Thrones has no ending. To be fair, it's not completely abrupt in the sense that most of the plotlines are moved to drastically new places toward the end of the novel. Still, while this sets up a new book very well, it doesn't end the first one. The end feeling is a bit of an anticlimax after a strong novel, and a bit of disorientation if you don't have the second book to pick up afterward.

It goes without saying that I would recommend A Game of Thrones to most adult audiences. I would probably recommend the reader be a bit older than I would for Lord of the Rings, as you might imagine, but that falls on personal taste and is related to things I've already described. If the subject material isn't too dark or mature for you, though, there's a lot to enjoy, though you probably need to be in it for the long haul to truly enjoy it. If a light fantasy novel series with high stakes is your cup of tea, though, there is no reason not to give A Game of Thrones a try.

Monday, October 20, 2014

7 Days of Novels: The Shape Stealer by Lee Carroll

Shape Stealer
The Shape Stealer is something of a conundrum for me. I can describe it in ways that make it sound like my dream come true: A story featuring a Master Vampire at odds with one of his creations, multiple time travelers including a sort of Earth-based Time Lords (though more like the Round Table) as the heroes try to fix damage that has been done to the timestream and thwart the time-traveling Master Vampire and his human colleague in their plans. I can also describe it in ways that would turn me entirely off of it and make me never consider picking it up: A story that treats explanations and time travel mechanics as such unnecessary window dressing that streams and dimensions are considered mutually exclusive concepts and the very idea of attempting to understand is considered a harmful exercise, causality plays a backseat to participating in a love triangle with oneself, and new powers and plot points are seemingly added at random and with only a slight possibility of being caused by the previous entry in this series.

In other words, The Shape Stealer features an aesthetic that appeals to one idea of storytelling while operating almost entirely in another. One difference that some cite as what separates Science Fiction and Fantasy is the fact that Science Fiction focuses largely on ideas, technology, causes and effects and tools, while Fantasy focuses largely on emotions, results, reactions and spectacle. On that spectrum, The Shape Stealer falls entirely in the realm of Fantasy. The entire story is built around the way things relate to Garet. Okay, there are some other pieces focusing on Marduk, but at this point I don't really consider dedicating a fraction to the book to the villains for the sake of world-building and raising tension as anything but good writing sense.

It's worth noting that none of the Marduk/Dee sequences really go toward explaining anything. They do give the first look at the new group of villains, who are essentially temporal anarchic terrorists that – like any other eco-terrorist – see themselves as holding the moral high ground, and are therefore just as motivated to destroy an ancient demon/vampire as anybody else. This adds dimension to Garet's story, but tellingly doesn't really explain the temporal landscape we're dealing with. It gives some understanding to why it's shifting, but trying to use that as an explanation of the universe would be like taking the statement that tectonic plates are shifting to teach a geography class. No, these sequences go primarily toward making the world stranger and more inexplicable, all the more to advance the idea that trying to understand the nitty-gritty details is futile and you're just along for the ride.

The other purpose the Marduk sequences serves is to build up Will, the love interests of this story. The 400 year old vampire Will Hughes has undergone a transformation to an 800 year old vampire who has lived the same history twice, which means he is better than everybody at everything, and more moral too. He is kept offscreen through much of the story, focusing instead on building up the mystery of what he does day to day – the mystery that is pretty much explored by Marduk.
Speaking of Will, he embodies a lot of the things that this story does that are generally considered the realm of bad fan fiction. By preventing his younger self from becoming a vampire, he essentially breaks causality for the sole purpose of having two versions of himself to form a love triangle with Garret. Some attention is paid to this, but it is mostly for the purpose of demonstrating that Garet must pick one version of Will to be with...eventually. Other than that, he is the perfect Mary Sue character. Not the self-insert one that the audience can relate with – that belongs to the Chosen One who randomly picked up the ability to read minds at some point – but the Tuxedo Mask figure who can always rescue the heroine at the appropriate moment to make him as attractive as possible. Despite losing an unquantifiable amount of his vampire powers for reasons that cannot be adequately explained if you apply logic, he retains his signature ability to never be harmed by anything ever due to the ability to control every atom in his body.

I described aspects of this story as “the realm of bad fan fiction”, and I mean it. More specifically, it is proof of why bad fan fiction will always be popular, no matter how the more detail-oriented writers of the world try to stamp it out. I'm not trying to say that this story is bad, although for me (and presumably a lot of people like me) it is incredibly frustrating. Still, there's something appealing about not focusing on the hows and the whats and focusing entirely on the way things affect the main character. After all, having a character with too many powers who faces no harm no matter what happens is no stranger to the genres of Sci-Fi and Fantasy; making it explicit is just cutting out the middle man. The same with the audience-identifying female character with impossible insight into the other characters. The specifics of how time travel works are seen by some as only a distraction from the “real” story – the way it impacts the characters. More than anything, The Shape Stealer emphasizes this approach. That's not to say that it wouldn't have benefited from a good editor focusing specifically on those aspects, but for what the goal of the novel appeared to be, that was the lesser priority.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

7 Days of Novels: Maul: Lockdown by Joe Schreiber

MaulLockdownCover

For a long time, I’ve wanted novels that are less about the fact that they are in the Star Wars Legends universe and more drawing from the universe’s mythology and settings to tell interesting stories of another nature. I’ve long suggested that a story about a detective from CorSec investigating a murder or a daikaiju battle that was instigated by a Sith Lords would be things I would lay my money down for in a heartbeat. That’s why my interest was immediately grabbed when Maul: Lockdown was released.

Lockdown is two different types of stories: it is a prison drama and it is a martial arts story. Regarding the latter, if a fighting game hasn’t been made out of this novel, Lucasfilm Ltd was missing the point. Whether you read the prison drama as the story mode of a Tekken-style game, or the fight scenes as plot-light breaks within Maul’s investigation, the novel works.

This is accomplished by a variety of factors. Darth Maul is a very adaptable character as the Star Wars universe goes, in that there is not a whole lot to him and everything that he is draws from other genres. Maul was casted as a martial arts character, performs the plot role of an action movie villain, is made-up to be the killer from a horror movie, and in his comics and novels takes on the role of an action/spy movie anti-hero. There’s nothing innately Star Wars about any of this, and yet one cannot deny that the Sith Marauder (I have more than enough reasons not to consider him a Sith Lord, but then I’m not familiar with any of his canonical post-death stories) is clearly a part of the Star Wars universe.

For these reasons, Maul was the perfect character for this novel, and he demonstrates it in every scene. The Jason-esque stalker from Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter, the spy from Darth Maul: Saboteur, and the martial artist from The Phantom Menace are all given their time to shine in this novel. The book is told through the Zabrak’s point of view, allowing events to unfold themselves as a mystery as Maul continues to piece together the puzzle in order to accomplish his mission. The supporting cast pales in comparison, but they all complement the story nicely and I would not mind seeing any of them again in “Rise of the Empire” era media.

Lockdown is different from anything I’ve seen from Joe Schreiber to date, and that’s not a bad thing. Prior to Lockdown, Schreiber was known to Star Wars fans as “the zombie guy”. He wrote Death Troopers and Red Harvest, two novels that I enjoyed but found things to be disappointed by that essentially added up to “Schreiber is running out of ideas to use these zombies for”. In a brand new environment completely without zombies, Schreiber truly lives up to his potential, writing a story with horror elements but not as solidly in what appears to be his comfort zone as his previous Star Wars novels were. This gives the author room to explore, and explore he does, with plenty of elements for the long-time Star Wars fan to enjoy the extra work.

While I wouldn’t recommend you buy Lockdown for any children that aren’t already fans of Mortal Kombat, I heartily recommend it to any adult looking for a Star Wars-related novel that veers into other genres. Fans of the Darth Maul books to date are likely to love this book (I personally found it to be his best yet), as will most fans of exploration- and mystery-based novels. You don’t even need to be a Star Wars fan to enjoy the book, as long as you don’t mind the fact that it’s populated by aliens.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

An Unearthly Podcast #65: The Impossible Astronaut

 

Continuing where we left off on Friday, an Unearthly Podcast’s Mind of Moffat continues with “The Impossible Astronaut” and “Day of the Moon”!

An Unearthly Podcast: Mummy on the Orient Express

Rather than just continuing on with early Season 3, from here on I thought you might be interested in seeing the most recent episodes of the Unearthly Podcast as well. Here is our look at the latest episode of Doctor Who: Mummy on the Orient Express!

Friday, October 17, 2014

7 Days of Moffat: A Christmas Carol

"The Mind of Moffat" continues with Moffat's first Christmas special.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

7 Days of Moffat: The Time of Angels

"The Mind of Moffat" continues with all all of Moffat's returning characters in one maze.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

7 Days of Moffat: The Beast Below

"The Mind of Moffat" continues with Amy Pond's first outing in the TARDIS.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

7 Days of Moffat: Silence in the Library

"The Mind of Moffat" continues with River Song's first appearance and Moffat's last episode as a staff writer.