Monday, December 23, 2013

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

An Unearthly Podcast: Death's Deal

The Unearthly Podcast crew continues our look at Big Finish's Destiny of the Doctor series.  Can Big Finish do my favorite Doctor justice?

Some NSFW language may occur.

Monday, December 16, 2013

An Unearthly Podcast: Night of the Whisper

The Unearthly Podcast crew continues our look at Big Finish's Destiny of the Doctor series.  The Ninth Doctor finally returns, with two of his most popular companions!

Some NSFW language may occur.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

An Unearthly Podcast: Enemy Aliens

The Unearthly Podcast crew continues our look at Big Finish's Destiny of the Doctor series.  How is Destiny going to be faithful to the 8th Doctor's season?  Perhaps it will be a movie on Fox...

Some NSFW language may occur.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

An Unearthly Podcast: Light at the End feat. Night of the Doctor

We take a break from Destiny of the Doctor to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, with all eight Doctors of the classic era.  But first, the TV series refuses to be outdone, finally giving the classic era closure of its own!

Some  NSFW language may occur.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

An Unearthly Podcast: Shockwave

The Unearthly Podcast crew continues our look at Big Finish's Destiny of the Doctor series.  My favorite classic Doctor and companion are here!

Some NSFW language may occur.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Book Catharsis: An Artificial Night by Seanan McGuire

It’s difficult to start off a review of An Artificial Night, because it was nothing that I expected, and everything that I needed.  An Artificial Night is the third novel in the October Daye series by Seanan McGuire.  The first book, Rosemary and Rue, introduces the universe and the character, while taking the readers on an insane ride and a great mystery.  The second book, A Local Habitation, continues the story, advancing the characters and giving a somewhat less compelling mystery.  I expected An Artificial Night to be somewhere along the lines of Rosemary and Rue, rebounding from what I’ve heard described as the weakest book in the series to bring on a long-term series.  Instead, what I got was pure catharsis.

There are those times in your life when you’ve got to be a big shot, don’t you?  You’ve got to open up your mouth.  Toby had to be a big shot, didn’t she, and her friends were so knocked out.  She had to have the last laugh that night; she knew what everything’s about.  She had to have a white hot spotlight.  She had to be a big shot last night.

I’m fairly certain that Billy Joel meant that with a negative connotation, while this is what I love about An Artificial Night.  Everybody sometimes needs to kick a bully in the teeth and punch him in the kidneys, and that’s what An Artificial Night is about.  It’s not a mystery.  There are questions, but that’s not the point of the story.  The fact that there are more sequels to this implies that October survives, so I hope I’m not spoiling much when I say that Toby accomplishes just that.  The question isn’t who is the bad guy or whether Toby is going to beat him, it’s what the hell Toby is going to do and how she’s going to get out of this.

Every moment was glorious.  Toby is already an extremely cathartic character.  She is a girl whose mixed blood causes her to be initially seen as less than nothing to those that she interacts with, yet this never causes her to still her tongue or her hand.  She earned her way to knighthood, it was damned hard, and there is no way she’s going to let anyone talk down to her.  Just to add to this, An Artificial Night introduces a conflict that is essentially that of a satyr reaching up and punching Zeus in the nose for being a dick - and then doing it again because the message didn’t stick.

An Artificial Night is really one of those stories that should be experienced, rather than explained, but even more than that it should really be experienced when you’re in a foul mood and could use something to bring you back.  Anybody who has ever been bullied, or been out of reach and unable to stop a bully, or witnessed a bully, or known of a bully, can’t help but to love Toby as she goes above and beyond and says “I don’t care if I am an ant standing up to an anteater, this ends here” (that’s not a quote, unfortunately).

I would gladly say that this story stands on its own, but it is also a part of the mythos, and should still be regarded as such.  I don’t know enough about the series yet to say that it must be read in order, but it certainly ought to be read after A Local Habitation, which in turn is best read by somebody who has already read Rosemary and Rue.  This is an expanding universe, one that is taking on new characters and mythical elements with each story, so this is to be expected.  Ultimately, this is a double-edged sword: while I am glad that it appeals to me even more as a sequel to books that I’ve already enjoyed, I am disheartened to think that there might be circumstances in which it is out of place for someone picking it up to read it.  Maybe that’s just another reason for somebody who’s never read Rosemary and Rue to pick it up: when you never know when you’re just going to have to read An Artificial Night and need some background for it.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

An Unearthly Podcast: Trouble in Paradise

The Unearthly Podcast crew continues our look at Big Finish's Destiny of the Doctor series.  Will a series known for being faithful to the era it's imitating faithfully imitate an era known for being the downfall of the classic series?

Some NSFW language may occur.


Saturday, December 07, 2013

Book Review: Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card

Speaker for the Dead was published by Tor Books in March of 1986.  It had one prequel, the novel adaptation of Ender’s Game, originally published as an independent novella.  All three were written by Orson Scott Card, and by the time the two novels were written the third, Xenocide, was on the way.  Speaker for the Dead  won the Nebula Award in 1986 and the Hugo Award in 1987 and starred Ender Wiggin, the star of Ender’s Game.

I’d find it refreshing to continue in this vein, and simply speak the truth about the novel, but I’m either not talented enough to do this book justice in that manner, or it’s simply not the way for me to go about this.  That might be true for yet another reason: the Ender series isn’t dead.

Speaker for the Dead was conceived independently of Ender’s Game, and it shows, because the two novels are completely different.  Ender Wiggin is the connecting factor, and he’s a big one; as literally both the head and the heart of the novels, his mind and methods are an important piece of why both novels succeed.  Ender Wiggin is, at the core of his person, a genius, from the same ilk that spawned a man who hid his identity until after he had taken the world.  Other than the fact that both Ender and his sister have continued publishing works under their assumed identities for a thousand years in real-time (accounting for the effects of thousands of light-years of travel at relativistic speeds), that’s stopped being relevant long ago.  What’s important is that he’s assertive and compassionate, with all of the people skills learned by a lifetime of officer training condensed into a single childhood, and all of the empathy that made him worthy of all of that training.  Add that to the fact that he’s become close friends with an AI that acts as this universe’s version of the Force, and Ender Wiggin may just be able to solve any problem that’s thrown at him.

But Ender’s a hero, and he’s survived his trials.  Of course we root for him, but what’s truly powerful about this writing is the people who were never intended to be heroes.  When someone like Ender Wiggin or Luke Skywalker, or Odysseus goes through trials, it’s okay.  We grieve with them, we emphasize them, but ultimately as an audience, we’re cheering for them.  Because we know that they have a destiny, that all of this pain is going to serve a purpose, and they’re being prepared to save somebody.  But when regular people, with no special training and no special future, go through the same trials and have nothing in return for it, that’s when it really hurts.

That’s the thing about Fiction, really.  People who decry Fiction for being too dark and people who hate escapism are both missing the point.  Fiction allows a reader to experience things, powerful things, without facing the consequences themselves.  It’s about emotional highs and lows as much as it’s about anything else.  It allows you to experience incredible pain and sadness and anger and relief and acceptance all in a short time, without requiring you to live through the physical or emotional abuse of a lifetime first.  It’s the rush of a race without the risk of impending crash, but in the hands of a dedicated writer, it becomes so much more than that too, because you’re meeting real people, and helping them through their trials just by bearing witness.  And that, more than anything else, is what Speaker for the Dead is about.  Feeling, without being devastated.  Speculating without the consequences of acting on mistakes.

Not that everything is quite so straight-forward as the power of Fiction.  In order to make this a true world, a real world with people living in it, Card by necessity made this a more complicated book. After all, a military organization- any military organization- is simpler than a town with a belief structure.  That’s a large part of the function of the military: to keep everything in the social and power structure as simple and easy to follow in order to eliminate distractions.  On Lusitania you have three competing power structures: the political, the religious, and the intellectual.  In order to subvert the trope of characters from other worlds always having short, simple to pronounce names, the colonials speak Portuguese, each having long, over-blown names in addition to a shorter nickname for the audience.

The Catholic Church is a major player in this novel, which might be a problem for some readers.  As somebody who both disagrees with certain aspects of the church in very strong ways and somebody who came into the novel with certain notions about how I expected the author to handle religion, I struggled with certain scenes.  Early on, the portrayal of the church seemed to alternate between it being a villainous organization and the right way to live.  Ultimately, though, this book doesn’t come out with a lot to definitively say about the church.  The Catholic religion functions exactly as it does, one individual is shown to be pompous and overbearing in the beginning and to have a more open mind toward the end, and the church is portrayed as having the exact amount of power that it would have on a monotheologic colony twenty light years from the nearest other human settlement.  Much like a speaking for the dead, this novel portrays the good along with the bad as part of a more complete truth, and doesn’t cram any belief or intent down the reader’s throat.

Speaker for the Dead is a story about the hard knocks of life.  Through the veneer of Science Fiction and the suspense of interspecies relations, Orson Scott Card writes about dealing with terrible things, and about how good intentions lead several families through misery that might take several generations to work itself out.  It’s also about more mundane miseries, such as the pain you feel when somebody shows affection that you’re used to seeing reserved for yourself to someone else in your stead.  This is balanced out by the xenobiology and anthropology featured in the novel, which makes for some fascinating philosophical debates and great mysteries for the scientific-minded to work out, making this a great book for anybody who desires full immersion in a novel that pulls very few punches and demands you to read with both your mind, and your soul.

Friday, December 06, 2013

An Unearthly Podcast: Smoke and Mirrors

The Unearthly Podcast crew continues our look at Big Finish's Destiny of the Doctor series, this time with an unexpected guest that every Doctor Who fan will be familiar with!

Some NSFW language may occur.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Book Review: Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game might well be the most beloved prequel in all of literature.  Not all versions of the story are the prequel, and it wasn’t released that way, but if not for Speaker of the Dead, the novel form of Ender’s Game that so many of us grew up with would never have come to be.

Ender’s Game tells the story of the Wiggins siblings, Andrew (nicknamed “Ender”), Peter and Valentine.  The story’s not told from Peter’s perspective- it would be difficult to keep the “innocence under duress” tone of the novel if it featured viewpoints of a true sociopath- but there are a good deal of passages of Valentine and Peter working together or at odds.  This is told largely independently of the story of their brother, the titular Ender, but Valentine plays a key role in Ender’s development.

An ironic side effect of reading this book with my particular tastes is the psuedo-incestual vibe this book starts to give off.  That might be slightly disturbing if you don’t know what I’m talking about from having read my past reviews, but that’s okay, because that just makes it more funny.  What’s ironic is that picturing a devout religious individual with certain very traditional values regarding religion writing something with an unintentional incest vibe is just funny to me.  And of course, what’s “psuedo” is the fact that Ender probably hasn’t gone through puberty by the time the book ends, and it’s only his precocious nature that allows an older reader to see his tendencies as anything other than child-like innocence.

Now that I’ve made everybody thoroughly uncomfortable, what is it that elevates this book to such a status, despite the fact that the entirely series has an obvious “written during the heart of the Cold War” vibe?  Maybe it’s the way a “children can save the world” story is told in a way that adults can still find believable and interesting.  It could be the way the aspects of the Hero’s Journey are exaggerated to their most powerful extent, with all of the emotion behind it of a bare child.  Maybe it’s the way a good person could do ethically questionable things in a completely un-questionably ethical way.

All of these elements are present in Ender’s Game, not to mention a twist at the end that makes me hesitant to even discuss the plot for fear of first-time readers seeing this.  There’s a host of characters, with the biggest flaw of the book being that few of the characters are given enough personality to be memorable down the line.  You want to learn more about them, but the story is about Ender.  One of the more mysterious players, an even younger boy nicknamed “Bean”, gets his own series of novels, and my only hope is that some of these side characters get their real moments to shine (and aren’t revealed to have been burnt up in their childhood) in these books.

Ender’s Game is a book that any Science Fiction fan should read- particularly young ones who can handle death in fiction but are still learning their way around the genre.  It’s not hard Sci-Fi, not because it’s Fantasy, but because the writer felt that the book should be easy for everybody to understand.  I personally wouldn’t have minded an extra 1% or so to harden the science, but I can definitely agree that it wouldn’t have been as accessible to me at twelve years old if that were the case.  And that’s the point- the accessibility of this book is what catapulted Ender to the forefront of the young adult genre.  But it’s not the only reason to read it.

And, for the record, I’m not qualified to comment on Card’s life outside of his fiction work, but if you feel you are, this book is crazy easy to find used, so don’t let politics get in the way of enjoying and learning from this piece.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

An Unearthly Podcast: The Day of the Doctor

For those who don't follow us via other channels, on November 24th, the Unearthly Podcast crew discussed the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special: The Day of the Doctor.

My Thoughts About Ender's Game: How Much Thought Went Into It?

I really would have liked a second opportunity to watch Ender's Game before writing about it. In all honesty, I can't consider this a review. I'm of mixed mind on a lot of things, which is why even this took so long to write. That, and the fact that November kept my nose to the grindstone, as it were.

What is Ender's Game, then? Well, for one, it's a film that a lot of people were really interested in seeing. I imagine many schoolchildren were first introduced to Science Fiction by Orson Scott Card. Now, years later for me and decades later for this story, it's on film. Ender's Game was a very cerebral novel, largely taking place in Ender's head, gauging his reactions as he transformed from a boy with potential to a leader with no choice to do anything but.

Writer/Director Gavin Hood's biggest project prior to this was X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a film that, to put it lightly, was not well received. How did this influence his approach to Ender's Game? Well, it seems that Hood was inspired to transform Ender's Game into...a music video.

No, this isn't a movie in the manner of Moonwalker or Heavy Metal. It wears the facade of a regular movie. But it was written like the skit segments of a music video. It had the same feeling of compression, the same depth of plot and character, as a music video. It had the same strange, semi-symbolic-but-mostly-just-surreal imagery as a music video. And it had just the sort of long, drawn-out sequences of walking down a corridor as strange things change for no reason that made me expect David Bowie to step on screen and start twirling his balls...ball. Whatever.

It is clear that Gavin Hood understood a lot of the plot elements that made Ender's Game work. It is just as clear that he either didn't understand why they worked, or he didn't understand how to adapt it into a cohesive movie that still worked. Instead, we get a jumble of plot points thrown at us like a game of plot-point dodgeball, with all of the time that made them work skipped over. We get lingering scenes of the highest paid actor in Hollywood earning his paycheck by talking about what Ender should be doing, which results in his entire schooling seeming to take less than a week, rather than the years of sweat and focus that honed the story in the novel. In Card's original, everything went by quickly, but it slowed down enough to make a logical progression. Ender learned by observing. In Gavin Hood's Ender's Game, Ender learns by simply being a genius. Every tactic that he uses, he knows without seeing anything to allow him to learn. This adds to the fact that he is impetuous, blunt and unable to take a hint.

There are things, however, that make me wonder how much of this is really Hood's fault, and how much of it is the result of attempting to make a story like this in the Hollywood atmosphere of flash and money. I already mentioned one rather obvious example. Here's another.

In Ender's Game, there is one female character of note. I'm not talking about Valentine; she's not a character. She's almost a character, and I would say that by the time Speaker for the Dead comes around, she is one, but here, she largely exists as a motivator for Ender. No, I am speaking about Petra Arkanian, the girl who shows Ender the ins and outs of Battle School (that's not meant as a euphamism, and I'll explain why not in a moment) and, later, becomes the lieutenant that Ender leans on so much that she is the first to have a nervous breakdown.

As for the point that I said I would explain, one point that is simultaneously brilliant and frustrating about Ender's Game is the fact that the characters are just young enough to make a sexual relationship all but impossible. Sure, in the right environment, romance and physical love can happen between pre-teens, but when the idea isn't presented, it's not very likely. Particularly in a distraction-rich environment like Battle School. This helps to tone down the potentially incestuous undertones of the story, as well as preventing Petra from growing into a love interest, as much as readers interested in giving the characters a happy ending (or even a respite from Battle School) might wish her to. Still, this allowed Petra to be just “one of the boys”, if one of the smartest and funniest among them, without her sex being used as a means to judge her.

All of which is completely antithetical to the mainstream film-making mentality. Ten and twelve year olds aren't used for a role of this complexity. And films like this don't happen without some sort of love interest. So Petra's role is expanded. She's added in to extra scenes, and has less of her scenes cut than anybody else in the story. In fact, she is the only member of Ender's team that makes sense to share a bond with him in the context of the story; the only one that we really see share any hardships with him, other than his sister. She's then given awkward hand-holding scenes and alone time with him, just enough for the trailers to show a love interest without explicitly denying everything that she was in the original story. The latter issue is resolved when, instead of being a trusted commander that Ender learns too late not to use as a crutch, she becomes an object to be protected. Rather than controlling large swaths of the battlefield, the only woman in the main cast becomes someone who must sit back and let the men protect her until it is time for her to hit a button.

The visuals are where the budget of this film was really placed and, while they don't really fit with the story that needs to be told, they are impressive. While it's impossible to forget that you are watching a trailer, or a music video, or both at times, it's still hard to tear your eyes from the screen. Ender's Game was made for IMAX screens, most likely a way to justify making a Sci-Fi film as different from the standard Hero's Journey model as Ender's Game is.

Ultimately, I need to watch this movie again when it comes out on Netflix. I have a lot of complaints, but the end result was still mostly entertaining to watch. There are a few key scenes that I need to look for, and some other things that I need to look at, before I can make a final decision about this movie. As the very least, it is a fair companion to the book. I could see clips of this movie being played while summarizing the book, or even an edited version being used as a visual novel. No matter what the case, though, it's a far cry from the strength of the original story.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Where I've Been - A Day in the Life of Fantasy & SciFi

Hello readers, passersby, and anybody who's been wondering what's happened to my reviews.  I thought I should make a post to let you know that things are coming soon, and let you know what's up in my life of Fantasy & SciFi.

First of all, I've been reading a couple of review copies and they've been dragging me down.  It's a little hard to describe - I can probably list all of my problems with both of them, and neither of them is normally enough for me to write the book off completely.  I don't know if it's my mood, or the fact that I'm reading them together without something that balances them out, or what, but I've been working on the same books since before I published my last novel review and I haven't reached the halfway mark of either one.

Since then, I actually picked up a book and read it in about 36 hours, just proving how much time flies when you're reading a really good book.  When I get a moment to sit down and write it I will give you a review of that, and if I don't get any farther in the books I'm currently reading, I'll read another review copy.

Time to write, brings me to what I have been writing.  Over the next few weeks I will post some more updates, but I have been working on a tokusatsu story for National Novel Writing Month (better known as NaNoWriMo).  I'm a bit behind on word count due to a cold and some Ny Quil, but I'm working hard to get Not Enough to Be a Ranger done (or at least 50,000 words in) by December 1st.

Finally, Pokemon X and Y were released.  As I've dabbled in some Generation 3 games over the past year, I was more interested than ever in trying out a new Pokemon game.  As of this posting I have completed the main game (up to the Champion and the immediate battles afterward) and am considering a few blog posts on the topic, though I'm uncertain about this as I'm not quite ready to do a full review of a 100 plus hour game, and there are hundreds of Pokemon- and gaming-specific blogs out there.  I will probably post something, but I want to make sure that it is actually something unique first.

But why, you may ask, haven't I reviewed any movies?  Well, to be honest...I've either been exhausted, broke, or sick.  I am getting over bronchitis right now, otherwise I would probably have seen Carrie and Ender's Game by now.  Movie reviews will come (as well as some other reviews related to recent films to help tide you over) in the near future.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Podcasts: Kamen Rider Agito and Babblesphere

First up, on Super Kaiju Podcast we discussed Kamen Rider Agito, the mystery series that established just how different the Heisei era could get:
And of An Unearthly Podcast, we take a look at "Babblesphere", as our 1980 Doctor Who team take a look at...Twitter!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Podcasts: Vengeance of the Stones and Shin Kamen Rider

As usual, there may be some NSFW language in podcast content.

First off, we have the next entry to An Unearthly Podcast, in which we discuss the next entry to Destiny of the Doctor, "Vengeance of the Stones", starring Richard Franklin.

Coming off of that, we have the latest Super Kaiju Podcast, where we discuss Shin Kamen Rider, the horror entry to the Kamen Rider series!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Podcasts: Shadow of Death and Ultraman

First off, in the next episode of An Unearthly Podcast, Mad Matt and I discuss Destiny of the Doctor: Shadow of Death, starring Frasier Hines (as usual, may be some NSFW language):

Also, we have the second episode of Super Kaiju Podcast, featuring Ultraman!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Book Review: Dreams and Shadows by C. Robert Cargill

I almost passed over Dreams and Shadows. The cover and the title give the idea of a world of rainbows and lollipops darkened by the glimmer of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”. Apparently the British cover, distributed by a different publishing house, paints a bit of a darker picture, but I didn't have that on hand at the time. The only thing that drew me to take a chance on what seemed at first glance to be a particularly uninspired children's novel was the publisher's blurb, something that gave no promises but spoke of hidden depths and dangers. The end result is one of my favorite novels of 2013.

C. Robert Cargill's Dreams and Shadows tells the story of two boys linked by the fearless heroism and arguable selfishness of one and the inhuman upbringing of the other and the world that they both grew into. Generally speaking, it is the world that draws you in, taking up the first half of the book, and the plot that delivers in the second half. In the process of doing this it becomes a strange creation; like Ewan (named for Ewan MacGreggor after his parents watched Trainspotting in the opening chapter) and Colby (not named for anything in particular, although this name tends to remind me of cheese), an amalgamation of a myriad of influences and cultures. Joining them among the main cast are supernatural creates of Celtic, Germanic and Arabic mythology, and along for the ride are fae of Christian and Native American origin, among others.

It is these influences that the first half of Dreams and Shadows heaps upon us in abundance (although we don't actually see fallen angels until the second half). After a cringe-worthy opening that almost stretches the perfect fairy tale romance too far (largely in making Ewan a baby that is just so pleasant to have around that it tears willful suspension of disbelief in two), the book takes a dark turn and begins piling tragedy upon tragedy. The baby is replaced with a changeling, the mother kills himself, the father is killed by an underwater faerie in his attempts to drown the changeling. The story of the tragedy that brought the changeling into existence is told, and a further tragedy of an ancient djinn, who just so turns out to have been irreparably cursed by somebody else's attempt to bring happiness to the world. To say that this book is dark would be to imply that the scenes that could be spun off into a slasher film on their own are the least pleasant thing to be found here.

Throughout all of this, each myth is explored, whether through the characters themselves, exposition, or scholarly journals from the book's world that are sampled where relevant. These journals introduce elements of the world such as human speculation on whether a Leanan Sidhe is truly evil or kills out of love, and how even a loving and friendly faerie is likely to kill you for the sake of survival. It is through these segments that we learn that the fae race entered into a pact with Satan, for which its members routinely brainwash and sacrifice human children for the sake of their own longevity.

All of this sets the tone for the abbreviated segment that becomes the actual plot of the novel: the moment when the childhood life and circumstances surrounding Ewan and Colby catches up with them, in the form of the changeling who was sent to imitate Ewan and a faerie who had a crush on him. Colby, who is in some ways the audience proxy and is in other ways impossible for the audience to decipher, is his only line of defense in a world that we have learned is only going to make things hell for those who have been destined to be victims. From there the story is a struggle to avoid terrible fate after terrible fate.

If I had to select one flaw within the pages of Dreams and Shadows to criticize, it is actually something that is associated with the title: the word “dreamstuff”, which is used to describe the energy that makes up everything supernatural about the world of the novel. To be fair this is more than likely a remnant of the manner in which it is introduced: as a physics article describing why the universe has so much more energy than can be accounted for. It is this physicist that coins the term “dreamstuff” in the book, and it just fells so out of place in this passage that each subsequent use of the word echoes that sentiment. If the “particle” was given a slightly less whimsical name or were simply introduced in a way in which this name made more sense (perhaps a sorcerer who first developed the ability to control it through his dreams), it would have been much easier to buy. In its current state, it feels as though Cargill was merely at a loss of how to refer to magic without alienating the mythologies included in the book, and chose an inoffensive name out of a hat.

This is a flaw I can overlook, however, as the name does little to effect the overall story and mythology present. Dreams and Shadows can work equally well in the distinctive worlds of October Daye and Harry Potter (though most efforts to combine them into a single canon would be likely to raise more questions than answers), and is a thoroughly entertaining book that dances across multiples moods and genres. While it is on occasion frustrating to have to travel through a genre you're not particularly in the mood for in order to get to one you are (such as finding yourself in the middle of the aforementioned “slasher” passage after picking up the book for a fantasy romp), it's a minor annoyance and one that doesn't keep you guessing more than is necessary to produce a diverse and interesting book. If you're a fan of authors such as Brom or Seanan McGuire, Dreams and Shadows is a book that I would recommend picking up to slate your thirst for fantasy.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Star Wars Book Review: Empire and Rebellion: Razor's Edge by Martha Wells

Martha Wells is a new author to the Star Wars universe. It's about time for me to pull apart one of her books and see what she's about. Razor's Edge is a part of Empire and Rebellion, a trilogy of novels set during the years of the first Star Wars films. Well I say a trilogy, I mean a trilogy kicked off by an “unrelated” Timothy Zahn book to draw the Expanded Universe audience back to the era. Well, I say a trilogy plus one, I mean an era that has enough comics and novels to definitively prove that Han, Luke and Leia did not have time to sleep between Death Stars. Well, I say that, I mean I like that scene from “Army of Ghosts” a little too much. In any case, Razor's Edge is set in the general vicinity of Splinter of the Mind's Eye, Allegiance, Choices of One and Scoundrels, though I think I can more definitively state that it is set later than Scoundrels but before Allegiance, giving us a freelancer Han who has come to enjoy Leia's company, a Leia who doesn't know what to think about Han and has come to trust Luke, and a Luke who is still a green recruit with something to prove.

It is with this cast that we embark on the story of Razor's Edge, in which Leia's diplomatic mission – with Han Solo as escort – is attacked by both Imperials and pirates, each of which seems to know a lot more about their movements than they have any right to. It's not long from there before Han and Leia become captives of the pirates, and Luke and Chewbacca are dispatched to rescue them.

If this sounds like a standard Star Wars set-up, you're right, but it does deviate from the mold. Where from one of the long-time Star Wars authors, such as Timothy Zahn, Kevin J. Anderson, or Aaron Allston this set up would include a story about Luke and Chewie's exploits up until their rendezvous with Leia's group, in Razor's Edge Well slices this side story off like one might trim the fat from the side of a pork chop. I don't use that analogy by accident – while a skilled chef might be able to use that fat to season the rest of the meat, its loss does not greatly hurt the overall dish, and may result in less unnecessary padding. So it is in Razor's Edge, where Han and Leia have no need for Luke to stumble into information about the enemy; they are perfectly capable of finding it on their own.

Unfortunately, without this side-plot, there's really no reason for Luke to be here. Lando Calrissian would actually have been a better companion, if not for the fact that Leia is not intended to meet him for several more years. Luke shows up about halfway through the book, spends most of the time aboard the Falcon, and has one scene where he does something exciting but not particularly memorable. I can't help but wonder if his inclusion at all wasn't a bit of a marketing decision: Luke, Han, Leia and Chewbacca in each book of the trilogy. Come to think of it, Han got his own book in Scoundrels; there's no reason this couldn't have been Leia's book without her brother or future husband, with later books being dedicated to Chewie and Luke. This would give each of the characters some breathing room for once (I expect once I truly dig into the timeline of this era, I will find that every day of this part of the war has been meticulously plotted), plus the fact that I just gave an opening for a Chewbacca book! Okay, Chewie was in Scoundrels, but isn't it about time for a book from Chewbacca's point of view detailing some of the more important events in his life that we don't normally see to be written? It's high time for the foreign friend no one can understand to have his moment in the sunshine, but I digress.

Luke isn't the only reason I think this book would have been better without the added weight of Leia's traditional companions. She spends much of this book with Han, which is largely a good thing. Each has the opportunity to shine in their own type of story. The problem is where they collide. Razor's Edge is trapped between the era it takes place in and the era in which it was written. That means that even though many readers would find any setup for the relationship between Leia and Han tedious, it's actually needed as it hasn't been explored at this stage yet. On top of that, no matter how far it goes, both the author and the reader are fully aware that the couple's first kiss will not happen for several more years. The result of this odd positioning is that out of nowhere there are a number of really awkward scenes of Han and Leia each acting like borderline sex offenders, staring at one another at really odd moments with no explanation, even a moment where Leia yells at Han for being too sexy while he positions not to get a painful cramp during an important security discussion. There's really no way to win here, as some fans would feel cheated were this mini-sub-plot left out completely, and it's clear that this is not the focus of the book.

Another moment where Han and Leia crashing into one another is a bit more literal. Han has a very specific style of heroism about him most of the time. He is an action-comedy character, the one who accidentally saves the day, or does so intentionally in the most humiliating way possible. Even when there's nothing funny about the act in and of itself, it still tends to come at a particularly opportune moment, such as Han's method of saving Luke from the Death Star. Unfortunately, this clashes with Leia's subplot, which is one that allows her to partake in all the action-adventure heroism that is more frequently associated with male characters while not diminishing her role as a woman and a diplomat. All of this can't help but come across as a commentary, intentional or not, on the state of Science Fiction in general, as the writing and portrayal of heroines is a hotly contested issue across the board at the moment. None of the things I've described are problems on their own, but when you add a bumbling hero with a tendency to save people at the last minute to a heroine who tends to put herself in harm's way and is also attractive to him, it's very simple to send the wrong message by accident. It's easy to see the steps that led up to this mistake, which makes it all that much more understandable, but also all that much more disappointing.

The last minor complaint I have about Razor Edge – and one that keeps it from being the 1970s-1990s era Star Wars book it comes close to being – is the humor. While I mention that Han is a bumbling comedic hero, he is still written here as more of the somber veteran than the noble clown. This book about piracy, slavery, death and betrayal could really use some comic interludes to lighten the tone at times, but the “lean cut” I described earlier keeps everything focused on just how dreary and dark things are. There are a few light-hearted or comedic moments, but for characters that lend themselves so naturally to such moments, there are relatively few. Where's Blue Max when you need him, eh?

Razor's Edge is a good book, with some great action. This might be the first time we really see Han and Leia – correct that, Leia and Han – starring in an action novel of this sort, and while Han pulls out all of the stops that you expect from someone who has done this way too many times now, Leia really shines as she is put to the test in every conceivable way. As somebody who owns and loves a wide variety of Star Wars novels, the negatives I pointed out didn't go a huge way toward dampening my spirits while reading, but they did lead to some raised eyebrows and hold me back from considering this to be one of my favorite Star Wars novels of all time. If Ewoks, Wes Janson and dreadnaughts shaped like a lightsaber are essential to your Star Wars experience this might be one to pass over – ditto if swinging lightsabers and mind tricks are – but if you count Scoundrels, Rogue Squadron and Republic Commando as your cup of tea, you won't regret picking up Razor's Edge.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Podcasts: Big Finish, Gojira and Pacific Rim!

That's right, it's time for another podcast roundup.  As usual, there may be some NSFW language, so please use discretion.

First up is the first episode of Super Kaiju Podcast, where Mad Matt and I discuss Gojira with Matt Burkett of Monstrosities!

Also brand new is the latest episode of An Unearthly Podcast, with new co-star Eli and discussing our first Big Finish audio adventure: Destiny of the Doctors: Hunters of Earth, featuring the first Doctor.  How does our First Doctor newbie find this story?
If anybody missed it, check out our podcast discussing the strengths and weaknesses of Pacific Rim (although it did eventually devolve into a group of fans enjoying discussing the movie)!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Win an iPad Mini

I have to link to the contest over at Laurie's Non-Paranormal Thoughts and Reviews for a chance to win an iPad Mini. I have a Mini myself and love the darn thing.

Good luck!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Insidious Chapter 2: Is it better to watch without the original?

In 2004, Director James Wan released Saw, a film that used elements of the 1980s slasher craze in a unique way and changed the entire direction of horror for years to come. Seven years later, He released Insidious, a haunting film similar to Poltergeist. Insidious was a visually muted film with a high creep factor and very positive reaction from horror fans and critics. This led to a similar change in thoughts about horror, inspiring such films as 2012's The Woman in Black and 2013's The Conjuring, also directed by James Wan. The Conjuring had a very similar style to Insidious despite having a different writer and production studio, and many viewers saw it as a spiritual successor to Insidious. Fans looked forward to seeing Insidious Chapter 2 several months later, their expectations ramped up by the success of the first film and The Conjuring.

Perhaps it would have been better if The Conjuring had held off – not for its own sake, but for the sake of Chapter 2. In fact, it would probably be better if the audience had not seen the original. Insidious Chapter 2 is not a terrible movie, not by any means, but as a follow-up to Insidious it falls terribly flat. Then again, anybody who watches Insidious Chapter 2 without watching Insidious is likely to have little clue who any of the characters are, or why Josh doesn't remember his past. So let's take a look: is Insidious Chapter 2 better without any knowledge of the original?

Let's start with the visual style. To an even greater extent than The Conjuring, Insidious had a very muted color scheme. In fact, there were two distinct colors that were not desaturated: blue, which represented Josh's son Dalton, and red, which represented the evil spirits that were haunting him. Here, the entire film is in full color with full saturation. On top of this, red is in virtually every scene. Knowing Insidious, I found this incredibly distracting. This might be because there are a pair of spirits that are essentially haunting every scene, but still, there is such a thing as too much of an iconic color. We get it, Bruce Willis is a ghost; we saw that at the end of the first film and new viewers saw it at the beginning of this one. At times, there is so much red lighting that I half expected Freddy Krueger to pop out from around the corner with a one-liner.

Which brings us to the script itself. The Bride in Black (which appeared in the original film but was apparently not the Darth Maul spirit) was actually this film's version of Angela from Sleepaway Camp, who eventually reaches the point where he is rampaging through the house with a bat and the audience expects him to break through a door and yell “here's Johnny!” In other words, the story is entirely unnecessary and reinforces that in every way. There is not enough substance here to fill a film, and it feels as though Leigh Whannell was desperate to have enough material to fill the film, which led to several scenes that made absolutely no sense and had absolutely no payoff. Would this film have been hurt in any way if Josh hadn't spontaneously developed Donnie Darko-like time travel capabilities? The characters are paler versions of their original selves, with little actual character – even the spirit that possesses Josh's body seems rather lost at times. Ultimately, the connections between this film and the previous are rather unnecessary. I mentioned earlier that the original film explains why Josh has no memory of his past, but even knowing that the memories were hypnotized out of him does not explain why they had to time travel in order to access those memories. Wouldn't another session of hypnosis been equally effective, and made a lot more sense?

How about the scares? There are definitely some scares in the film, which is the main reason why I think this might be a good film if it could get some distance from the rest of James Wan's films. The first appearance of Mother Mortis – or rather, the first group of scenes leading up to her actual appearance – carry some genuine suspense and fright. Several of the other scenes featuring her without her son are effective as well. Unfortunately, these scenes aren't enough to hold a candle to what we saw in the first film, and there is just not enough of it amidst some of the confused writing in which the script stumbles about, uncertain of whether or not the audience is fully aware that there is an enemy in their midst. Somehow, all of the tension and possibility for scares was cut out of the possession plotline, which is extremely unfortunate when you consider that plot is entirely the reason why this film got made.

In the end, there are things to recommend Insidious Chapter 2 for, but it's hard to find an audience to recommend them to. I wouldn't watch this after the first, nor would I watch the first after this, but if for some reason you never plan to watch the first, you might enjoy this as its own movie. Still, it's very hard to recommend this with it standing next to The Conjuring in theatres and with Insidious so fresh in the public's memory. If anything, Chapter 2 feels like a sequel produced in the late '90s for a film from the '70s, which is disappointing when you consider that the writer, director and stars returned (even if Ty Simpkins barely appeared due to aging two years). The bottom line is watch this film when it comes out on Netflix, and buy a ticket to The Conjuring.

P.S. Check the epilogue for more of Jimmy's dolls.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

In Theatres: Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters

Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters is like if some low budget hack job from the days of Bruno Mattei were given $90 million and told to make Harry Potter 2.5. Virtually nothing about the film is remotely original, nor does it take any steps to hide that fact, the fact that the Percy Jackson series is itself a series of adaptations of the books with the same name notwithstanding. The result is less a film than a formula for instant film success.

The film begins telling the story of three teens who – stop me if you've heard this before – travel to a secret magical school, the only place where they can be truly safe and learn to use the powers they were born with. They are part of a hidden, magical world which exists alongside our own but is completely invisible unless you know the right way to look. While there, Percy finds out that he is the chosen one, who is responsible for facing an evil half-blood and either saving or dooming the world. From there the trio of heroes call on a form of teleportation that is a cross between the supernatural and the mundane, driven by an eccentric and featuring a living prop. We've just managed to adopt the Harry/Hermione/Ron team and the naming scheme from The Philosopher’s Stone (and all of its sequels), the prophecy from Order of the Phoenix, and the Night Bus from Prisoner of Azkaban. Later in the film, Harry Potter fans will discover that Percy has found his own Neville Longbottom. Besides the multitude of Harry Potter references, the prophecies in this film are done in the same style as Disney's Hercules, and I actually found myself saying out loud at one monster “In its belly you will find a new definition of pain and suffering as you are slowly digested over a thousand years.” Seeing as how this is based on a book series about introducing Greek mythology to new children, it might be overkill for me to mention that the only reason I saw this film was that it was a modern remake of Jason and the Argonauts...except only the MacGuffin itself was actually that.

Despite being a piecemeal film cobbled together from bits of other stories, Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters does more right than I could have possibly guessed. Particularly of note is the sense of scale. Rather than starting small and progressing to physically larger spells the way the Harry Potter series does, the capabilities of these demi-gods are all of a much larger scale. Their abilities range from summoning war-zombies from the Civil War and powerful aquatic beasts to summoning powerful waves to potentially capsize a yacht. Watching Percy Jackson working to control massive waves of water has a mythic feel that I would associate with what a superhero movie should be like – and one that most superhero movies doesn't have. The fact that this exists specifically to emulate Greek mythology only makes it better – it says that this project knew what it wanted, despite not having any original ideas of its own.

That said, I'd be remiss if I left you thinking this film was perfect. The “three heroes”trope is stuck to so hard that the film switches out the third wheel not once, not twice, but three times. It gets to the point that whenever a new adventurer joins the party, you can assume that something is going to to happen to somebody else in the group. For all that the character group hearkens back to the trio that made Harry Potter so accessible, Percy Jackson cut out one of the key elements of that formula: Hermione. Yes, there's a girl, but she's not so much a nerd as...a girl. In and of itself, including a girl who knows how to use a javelin and lends support to the main character is not a particularly noteworthy decision. Annabeth isn't a particularly good character any more than she is a particularly bad character. This goes for almost everybody in the film – Percy, Clarisse, Tyson – but doubly here, as she is in some ways taking the place of the character who was the most ground-breaking in Harry Potter: the knowledge-obsessed nerd who learned to tone it down while learning of magic and friendship. This isn't to say that the exact same trope should be copied from franchise to franchise, but given the choice between a complex, flawed, driven, intelligent character and a character with no particular interesting qualities other than a bias that she has a reason for and learns to see past at the end, I'd go with a Hermione clone. It worked for My Little Pony, didn't it?

I said that “most” of the characters fall into this bland, semi-interesting category. The one exception to this is Grover. I could not stand this character. What is it with fictional universes that need to combine all of the minorities into as few characters as possible so everybody else can be your standard white male? I was able to easily look past the “white, female and ginger” grouping in Harry Potter, if partially because I had never heard the word “ginger” used in any way to describe a red-headed individual prior to reading the Harry Potter books, but that tendency has stepped up to extreme in modern days. Gay superheroes are often minorities or ethnic in some way (Spider-man, Bunker), and while I don't believe most writers are intentionally writing them to say that “gay people don't look like us”, it still embodies a disturbing trend to keep as many characters “default” (straight white male) as possible while still including an acceptable amount of tokens. In Percy Jackson, the token tends to shift from black satyr, to Cyclops, to militaristic aggressive woman...let's not read to much into that last one and treat it like the lazy, accidental symbolism it is, shall we? Rather, let's look at the cowardly half-black man, half-goat comic relief, and see where the real problem lies: lazy stereotypes substituting for writing. Was Grover this bad in novel form? I'd like to give Rick Riordan more credit for this, but that is only because of my clinging to my last hopes that a shred of human decency exists in the world than actually knowing anything about what the novels are like.

Another comment that I'm not sure whether to consider a flaw or not is the fact that this film is clearly self-aware. Anthony Head plays Rupert Giles, except as a centaur. Nathan Fillion plays a half-serious, half-comic relief character, who gives a monologue about how “the best show ever” was canceled. I enjoyed these things, but I had to groan at the same time.

With all of these elements, I would be hard-pressed to call Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters a good film, but I can certainly call it an enjoyable one. It has an epic scale and borrows a lot of the ideas that made Harry Potter fun. The characters show some growth, which warms you up to them, and the writers manage to restrain themselves from making the competitive rival into a complete unbearable bitch a la the anime version of Gary Oak. It's fun to sit back with a bowl of popcorn and point out things that came from other movies, but probably not worth shelling out $12 for a ticket and $15 for popcorn and soda.