Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Lovecraft Country

Lovecraft Country 2

“I do love them,” George agreed.  “But stories are like people, Atticus.  Loving them doesn’t make them perfect.  You try to cherish their virtues and overlook their flaws.  The flaws are still there, though.”

“But you don’t get mad.  Not like Pop does.”

“No, that’s true, I don’t get mad.  Not at stories.  They do disappoint me sometimes.”  He looked at the shelves.  “Sometimes, they stab me in the heart.”

H.P Lovecraft was one of the masters of twentieth-century horror.

He was also, to be blunt, a huge fucking racist.

We sometimes tend to let the authors of past decades off the hook  with pat excuses like, “Well, he was just a product of his time,”  but Lovecraft’s racism goes way beyond that.  It was extreme even for America in the 1920’s, and it is so bound up in every aspect of his writing it is impossible to ignore.  His stories are loaded with sinister foreigners and bestial “half breeds,” and many of the fears and anxieties he explores are rooted in an intense xenophobia and obsession with racial purity.  That’s why just last year the World Fantasy Awards changed their trophy from a bust of Lovecraft.  For anyone–like me–who reads and enjoys Lovecraft, this fundamental racism is a serious issue.

That’s why Lovecraft Country, the new novel by Matt Ruff, feels so fresh and important.  It takes a hard look at the racism of Lovecraft’s stories, but nevertheless finds something worthwhile in them.  Then it uses those same stories, themes, and ideas as a way of talking about race and racism in the United States.

Lovecraft Country 3

The story centers on two black families living in Chicago in 1954.  When Atticus Turner’s father disappears, his search takes him to a mysterious town controlled a very Lovecraftian cult, “the Adamite Order of the Ancient Dawn.”  From here, the story expands to explore how the cult touches the lives of Atticus’ friends and family, and includes ghosts, haunted houses, interdimensional travel, magic potions, and possessed dolls.  Each chapter focuses on a separate character, and they range from frightening to funny, adventurous to thought-provoking.

Using Lovecraft’s ideas and motifs to talk about black lives under Jim Crow seems like a strange choice.  However, in Ruff’s hands this combination works surprisingly well.    After all, the central theme of Lovecraft’s writing is “cosmic horror”:  the idea that we are trapped in a vast unfeeling universe, the victim of forces we cannot control or even understand.  This is not so different from the daily life of many African Americans in the 1950’s.  In fact, when a cult leader warns Atticus and his friends that they are doomed to be hounded and persecuted, to never know moment’s peace or safety, they simply laugh at him.  Atticus responds, “What is it you’re trying to scare me with?  You think I don’t know what country I live in?  I know.  We all do.  We always have.  You’re the one who doesn’t understand.”

Atticus’ meaning is clear:  they are already living in Lovecraft Country.  America is Lovecraft Country.  Racism, segregation, and hate turn life into a horror story, and the only way to understand it is through the language of horror.  This is what makes Lovecraft Country so special:  it revitalizes Lovecraftian horror by making it relevant, using supernatural evil as a way of talking about more prosaic everyday evils.  In doing so, it allows us to use Lovecraft’s deeply racist stories as tools for thinking critically about race.

Rating:  5 out of 5 stars

Review: A Darker Shade of Magic

A Darker Shade final for Irene

When V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic opens, Kell is on his way to deliver a message to King George III.  The world he moves through is recognizable as the city of London in the early 1800s—until he uses magic to open a door to an entirely different London, one where magic is real and the lifeblood of the city.  And there are other Londons, too—one in a constant state of war and chaos, and one where magic has destroyed everything.  Kell acts as a messenger (and sometimes smuggler) between these different worlds.  But when he finds himself wrapped up in an evil conspiracy, he and his new friend Lilah Bard, a thief from our world, must journey across all the worlds to set things right.

I am always a sucker for good world-building, and in A Darker Shade of Magic, Schwab convincingly creates not one, but three different worlds.  My favorite is “Red London,” a city where magic runs through every part of life, and whose beauty and pageantry contrasts sharply with our own “Grey London.”  Much more frightening is “White London,” a violent world of predators, the most dangerous its pale twin rulers.  All three cities are vibrant and fully realized, full of interesting characters and locales.

The book starts a bit slowly as Schwab introduces us to the characters, the worlds, and the ways they use magic to travel between them; but once the plot kicks into high gear, it never lets up.  Kell and Lilah dash from world to world, facing near escapes, deadly battles, and dark magic.  The pace is relentless and exciting, and I often found myself flipping pages, unable to wait to see what happens next.

A Darker Shade of Magic 2

When travelling between worlds, always bring your badass magical coat.

All this adventure would be meaningless if we didn’t care about the characters; fortunately both Kell and Lilah are strong characters in their own right, and even stronger together.  Kell was adopted by the royal family of Red London, but he feels more like a hostage than a member of the family.  Lilah has had to struggle for everything in her life.  Privileged Kell vs. Poor Lilah suggests the cliché “Prince and the Pauper” relationship we have seen so many times before, but Schwab challenges and complicates this idea at every turn:  Kell embraces the power and responsibility of his position despite its restrictions, and Lilah doesn’t want to be rich—she wants nothing more than to be a pirate captain.  It helps that both characters are equally capable in their own ways, and frequently rescuing one another.

I was also impressed by the way the book treats magic.  All too often in fantasy novels, magic is either a deus ex machina that can do anything the plot requires, or bogged down in intricate rules that make it seem more like algebra than alchemy.  While the magic in A Darker Shade of Magic is capable of great wonders, it always comes with a price—whether this price is taken from the characters’ bodies, their minds, or even their souls.  Whether they choose to pay this price, and what they stand to lose, makes magic constantly fascinating.

Many recent YA books and movies are more concerned with setting up a sequel or starting a franchise than telling a complete story; and indeed, a sequel to A Darker Shade of Magic, called A Gathering of Shadows, was just released last month.  Knowing this, I was pleasantly surprised by how satisfying the book’s ending was.  The major plot was resolved, and most loose ends were tied up.  I’m excited to read more not because of an ending teaser or plot twist, but because these are great characters living in a fascinating world, and I want to hear more about their further adventures. I wish more books could end so well!

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

The Real World: Middle Earth (Thoughts on MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles)

Shannara 1

When I saw the first commercials for MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles, which just finished up its first season last week, I dismissed it as a cheap Game of Thrones knock-off.  But I couldn’t have been more wrong:  it was actually more of a Lord of the Rings knock-off!  Still, the bizarre mash-up of epic fantasy and MTV made for a show that was consistently interesting, even when it wasn’t really very good.

First, a disclaimer:  I have, and will always have, a soft spot in my heart for Terry Brooks’ Shannara books.  Many people dismiss them as carbon-copies of Tolkien, and yeah, it’s pretty hard to argue with that—especially the first book, The Sword of Shannara, which is pretty much a beat-for-beat recreation of The Lord of the Rings.  However, these books were my gateway drug to reading fantasy—Brooks’ Magic Kingdom for Sale—Sold! was the first adult book I ever read—and I will always be thankful for that.  Besides, Brooks has grown a lot as a writer, and his novels are reliably fun and exciting adventures.

So it was probably a good decision for MTV to skip over Sword and adapt Brooks’ second book, The Elfstones of Shannara.  A lot of the basic elements are still familiar—the farm boy with a destiny, the mysterious mentor, the rebellious princess, the powerful magical artifact, the army of ugly monsters—but there’s enough difference that it doesn’t feel like The Lord of the Rings 2.0.  Besides, much of the fantasy genre has been playing in Tolkien’s sandbox for a long time now, and other books and movies have remixed these same elements effectively.

If 300 has taught us anything, it is that facial piercings=pure evil.

If 300 has taught us anything, it is that facial piercings=pure evil.

In fairness, The Shannara Chronicles has a lot going for it.  The series was filmed in New Zealand, and it looks beautiful.  It’s full of those sweeping landscape shots we loved in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, and in its better moments, it captures some of the feel of those films (and even in its worse, it at least feels like Hercules or Xena).  Adding to this impression is John Rhys-Davies, who plays the elven king—and let me tell you, it is weird seeing Gimli wearing elf ears.  For a basic cable production the costumes and sets are surprisingly impressive, although some of the makeup effects are a bit dodgy:  the gnomes look like they are wearing half-melted Halloween masks.  One thing that makes the Shannara books unique is the twist that this fantasy world is (dun dun dun!) actually our world, centuries after a nuclear holocaust, and the show has fun with this idea in some of its better moments—and also some of its worst.

For example, take my pick for the series’ worst episode, “Utopia.”  In this episode, our intrepid adventurers find themselves in a mysterious village where the inhabitants seem to be cosplaying as Mennonites (everyone else in The Shannara Chronicles is cosplaying as characters from Lord of the Rings).  These villagers have apparently found a source of electricity (?!), which they use to power an ancient movie projector (??!!) and music player (???!!!),  so they can hold an impromptu hoedown/rave (????!!!!).  It comes completely out of left field, and is never mentioned again.

Just what television needs:  more pretty white people.

Just what television needs: more pretty white people.

This is typical of the weird tension between MTV teen drama and epic fantasy that runs throughout the series.  It’s trying for this epic, serious tone in the vein of Lord of the Rings, but almost every character talks like they just stepped off of a teen soap opera.  The worst offender is protagonist Wil Ohmsford (Austin Butler).  The character is almost painfully bland and generic, and the writers seem to have overcompensated by trying desperately to make him relatable to modern teens.  He dresses in what I can only describe as a medieval version of a hoodie, complete with skullcap and fingerless gloves—he looks like he is on his way to Ye Olde Skate Park.  He attempts witty banter with his mentor, the druid Allanon (whom I can only describe as “Jacked Gandalf”), but most of this falls completely flat.  He is part of an unnecessary love triangle that never develops or really goes anywhere, I think because MTV dramas are legally required to have at least one forced love triangle.

This is all very silly—but it is also kind of what makes the show entertaining.  It would just be another cookie-cutter fantasy, but its constant war with itself—MTV vs. epic fantasy—lends it an absurd and unpredictable quality that I haven’t really seen before.  It’s often not good, but it is frequently so-bad-it’s good.  It’s definitely a guilty pleasure, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t hope it got picked up for a second season.

Review: This Census-Taker

This Census-Taker

“Kafkaesque,” despite being a great word for Scrabble, is not a word I would use to describe very many books.  It expresses something ambiguous but unsettling, something dark and perplexing and vaguely ominous.  It is also the perfect descriptor for China Miéville’s most recent novella, This Census-Taker.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot, because much of the pleasure of the book lies in figuring out exactly what has happened, what is happening, and why.  But I can say this:  the story begins with a young boy running down a mountain to the city below, screaming, having witnessed something terrible.  What follows is a sort of existential horror story, about what happens to the boy and how he copes with the nightmarish situation in which he finds himself.

One of the most interesting aspects of This Census-Taker is its setting.  This setting is extremely small in scope, focusing on the unnamed boy’s house on the mountain and the small village below it.  But every now and again, Miéville lets slip a tantalizing glimpse of the world outside this village, and the history behind it.  Similarly, small details slowly reveal that the world this boy inhabits is very different from our own.

There are two main methods of worldbuilding in fantasy works like this.  One method, practiced by authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin, is explication.  Every location, every character, every word has a lengthy backstory, and readers with enough time and patience can connect it all.  The other method, seen in works like this and many of Neil Gaiman’s stories, is implication.  The world is not fully fleshed out, but only hinted at through sly suggestions and veiled references.  It is up to the reader to fill in the gaps with her own imagination.  This power to evoke a lot with a little is one of This Census-Taker’s greatest strengths.

Mieville

China Miéville always looks like he wants to beat you up.

China Miéville is a stylistic chameleon.  In his baroque, sprawling New Crobuzon novels he adopts a similarly flowery and excessive writing style; in the noir-ish The City and The City, he takes up a more straightforward and almost hard-boiled prose.  In This Census-Taker, he slips into the voice of someone clearly not comfortable with language, both as a traumatized boy and as an adult writing about his youth in a language not his own.  The narrator slips between the first and third person at key moments, sometimes even referring to himself as “you.”  Names and proper nouns are in scarce supply, and outside of a few friends people are called by their functions—mother, father, the hunter, and of course the census-taker.  This ambiguity and even confusion at the level of language contributes to the unsettling and off-kilter tone of the book:  nothing feels safe, nothing feels known.

Overall, this was not one of my favorite books by China Miéville.  Not much happens—this is a book that focuses in on a single event and its repercussions instead of following a clear narrative—and despite some intriguing hints, the world feels a bit sparse compared to the overflowing Perdido Street Station.  However, I do think it is a successful book.  From the first page to the last, it gave me a profound sense of unease and discomfort, of entering an unsettling world full of ominous and unknowable authorities.  If that isn’t Kafkaesque, I don’t know what is.

.Rating:  3 out of 5 stars

Review: Star Wars: Shattered Empire #1

Shattered Empire

When I heard about a new comics miniseries connecting the Star Wars Original Trilogy to The Force Awakens, I got excited.  Seeing all my favorite characters again in a new story?  Building up to the new Star Wars film, and maybe dropping a few secrets and clues in the process?  Sign me up!  I rushed to the comics shop to pick up Shattered Empire the day it hit the stands.  Alas, it did not live up to my expectations.

Shattered Empire #1 begins not after Return of the Jedi, but right at the climax of the story.  After an introduction in the classic trapezoidal scrawl, we are dropped right into the battle around the second Death Star, and we immediately see the comic’s greatest strength (the art) and its greatest weakness (the story).  Marco Checcheto’s dynamic art captures the breathless excitement of the space battles, and his character work is recognizable but stylized.  The comic is almost worth picking up for the art alone.  However, the script lets him down.  The comic’s first line is “Green Six, two coming in three-mark-seven!”  This dialogue is true to the space battles in the films, but it’s also a terrible way to introduce us to the story and characters.  When Luke attacks the Death Star at the climax of A New Hope, we have some sense of who he and his team are and what motivates them.  Here, we’re introduced to new characters with a confusing  jumble of names and callsigns.

Emphasis on new characters.  After the battle, the story focuses in on two of the pilots for the Rebel Alliance, Shara Bey and her husband Kes Dameron.  I’d been hoping for a story about Luke and Leia, Han and Chewie, and their adventures after the Battle of Endor–and the comic’s cover, which shows these characters reunited and smiling, certainly capitalizes on that nostalgia.  But although they all make cameo appearances in the comic, this is clearly not their story.  This wouldn’t be such an issue if Shara and Kes were interesting characters in their own right, but they are not.  Shara receives little development outside of “good pilot, loves her husband;” and Kes, who bizarrely tells his wife “I was thinking we need to find a nice planet and build a house” before rushing into battle, couldn’t have a target printed on him more clearly if he was one day away from retirement.

Note:  NOT from Shattered Empire.  Although every story could benefit from space-velociraptors.

Note: NOT from Shattered Empire. Although every story could benefit from space-velociraptors.

More than anything, Shattered Empire reminds me of The Truce at Bakura–that bizarre Expanded Universe story where the heroes of Star Wars rushed off to fight space-velociraptors before Darth Vader’s ashes had a chance to cool (it, um, wasn’t the best of the Expanded Universe).  Alas, Shattered Empire has no Jedi-on-dinosaur action, but what the stories have in common is a need to tell the next story instead of a good story.  They’re filling in gaps that aren’t really all that important or all that interesting–something the Star Wars franchise has certainly been guilty of before.  After Shara and Kes help destroy the Death Star and return to Endor, they rush to the far side of the moon to finish off another Imperial base.  They already saved the galaxy:  now they’re just cleaning up leftovers.  With weak characters and a weak story, it’s difficult to recommend Shattered Empire, even with the terrific art.  I’m just hoping that The Force Awakens offers higher stakes and more compelling characters when it arrives this December.

In fairness, Shattered Empire #1 has a lot working against it.  As a first issue, it has to introduce us to the characters and story, and make us want to read more.  As a licensed Star Wars product, you know it must have faced severe restrictions on what it could reveal and what it could depict.  A lot of talented people worked on it, and honestly, we’re probably lucky it ended up as good as it did.  I just wish it has something to add to the Star Wars mythos, instead of riding its coattails.  The force is not strong with Shattered Empire, and this particular Star Wars fan will be waiting for The Force Awakens to see what happens next.

Rating:  2 out of 5 stars.

Review: Plutona #1

Plutona #1 won me over when the fat kid told the bully to fuck off.

At first glance, this new comic by Jeff Lemire and Emi Lennox looked like an all-ages, super-powered take on Stand By Me, where a diverse group of kids stumble across the body of a famous superhero (the titular Plutona).  The art by Emi Lennox is cartoony and welcoming, with plenty of soft pastels and autumnal colors.  The main characters are all in middle school, and at first they seem like a collection of teenage archetypes straight out of The Breakfast Club:  the nerd (Teddy), the bully (Ray), the fat kid (Diane), the weirdo (Mie), the annoying kid brother (Mike).  A few pages in, I thought I had a good idea what to expect.

But that started to change the moment Diane told Ray to fuck off.  Suddenly, I wasn’t reading a book for kids–I was reading a book about kids.  They were talking like real teenagers, not what adult writers think teenagers talk like.  Each of the kids has his or her own unique voice, and while they may start out as stereotypes, they are already beginning to seem more real and developed:  Diane is trying to find an identity for herself.  Mie is kind of a shitty friend.  Beneath the bright and accessible art there is an underlying darkness, visible in the flies crawling over Plutona’s body and the beer cans stacked by Ray’s unconscious father.  Plutona isn’t quite what I expected, and I am looking forward to seeing more.

Plutona Page 4

Also worth noting is Lemire’s work with panel layouts, so innovative and brilliant in Trillium.  Although it is never distracting, Lemire’s play with the comics form helps develop the characters and story.  For example, Lemire and Lennox introduce each of the four main characters in four consecutive pages with nearly identical layouts (the first, our introduction to Teddy, is above).  Seeing their different lives presented in such a similar way highlights the differences and similarities between them, and effectively dumps readers into the middle of their often complicated lives.

Rating;  4 out of 5 stars

Review: Armada

Armada

For any gamer, the premise of Ernest Cline’s Armada is pure wish fulfillment:  geeky teen Zack Lightman discovers that his favorite video game is actually a training simulation for a real life war against alien invaders.  Suddenly, his leet skillz make him the most important person on Earth, and quite possibly the savior of humankind.  But as he rockets from high school fights to airborne battles, Zack begins to suspect that not everything is as it seems…

If the premise sounds familiar, it should:  it’s pretty much the exact plot of the 1984 film The Last Starfighter.  Just like Cline’s first novel, Ready Player OneArmada wears its influences on its sleeve (sometimes literally–Zach has a jacket covered with patches from classic video games).  It’s full of quotes, references, and homages to films, books, and video games like The Last Starfighter, Ender’s Game, and Iron Eagle–not to mention Star Trek and Star Wars.  At one point, Zack’s two best friends have a lengthy argument over which fictional weapon was the best, Thor’s Mjolnir or Frodo’s Sting (a fruitless discussion–the correct answer is obviously Axe Cop’s axe).

This kind of nerdy banter is one of the best things about Armada.  For someone who likes video games, comics, and cheesy sci-fi movies, reading a book by Cline is like hanging out with a smart, funny friend.  Some readers called Ready Player One “nostalgia porn,” but for me there’s a huge difference between Armada and cynical cash-grabs like Pixels:  Cline genuinely seems to love this stuff, and love talking about it.  In fact, one of the most fun and exciting moments in the book is just a play-by-play description of Zack playing his favorite video game.

Also, the dust jacket doubles as a blueprint for one of the spaceships. How cool is that?

Also, the dust jacket doubles as a blueprint for one of the spaceships. How cool is that?

Unfortunately this delight in all things geeky, which made Ready Player One such a joy, feels a little out of place in Armada.  This is a book with a literal doomsday clock, a rapidly declining countdown until the aliens arrive and start tearing Earth apart.  It feels a little out of place when characters take a break to make a Yoda joke or talk about their characters in Dungeons and Dragons.  The tone swings wildly between grim war story, nerdy diatribe, and family melodrama.  It’s as if Rorschach took a break in the middle of Watchmen to discuss what an underrated show Mork and Mindy was.

The ending of the book also feels rushed and incomplete.  There’s a revelation about the aliens I won’t reveal here, but it’s foreshadowed so early and so frequently that when it finally arrives it feels a bit anticlimactic.  What promises to be an epic final battle is compressed into a few short pages, and feels more like we’ve been given an outline of the battle than actually experienced it firsthand.  It’s odd that this encounter falls so flat, compared to the exciting and downright joyful depictions of Zack’s in-game missions early in the book.  The last two chapters feel like they could have been an entirely separate book, a condition I like to call The World’s End Syndrome.

Despite all this, I enjoyed Armada.  I think Ready Player One is a better book–it has fewer weaknesses, and they are easier to ignore.  But for anyone who has ever cranked up the stereo, fired up some video games, and felt like a hero, Armada is a welcome escape.  If nothing else, it would make a terrific movie.  I can even think of a title…

The moral of the story is, Hollywood really needs to remake this movie!

The moral of the story is, Hollywood really needs to remake this movie!

Rating:  3 out of 5 stars