Book Review: The Book of Cthulhu

Book Review: The Book of Cthulhu edited by Ross E Lockhart

Fantasy and horror author H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t a big seller during his lifetime, but the loose setting he created of the Cthulhu Mythos, where humans are only the most recent inhabitants of a cold and chaotic universe, and many of the previous inhabitants are effectively gods, has become one of the most popular sub-genres of horror literature.  The twenty-seven stories in this volume are by second- and third-generation Lovecraftian writers.

The Book of Cthulhu

There’s an encouraging variety of protagonists; professors and prostitutes, hitmen and clergymen.  Some of them are from ethnic groups HPL would never have made the heroes of his stories.  There’s a variety of tones as well.  Of course there’s a number that are straight up creepy horror, but there’s also noir-ish crime fiction and deadpan penny dreadful humor.

The volume opens with “Andromeda Among the Stones” by Caitlín R. Kiernan.  A family guards a gate off the Northern California coast; but only one of them was truly born for the job.  I found the story rather slight, and one of the weaker ones in the collection.

The closing story is “The Men from Porlock” by Laird Barron.  Seven lumberjacks go hunting in the Pacific Northwest.  Not all of them are going to be returning.  This one makes good use of escalating creepiness, culminating in a scene where a monster makes its menace particularly personal.

Oldest story honors go to Ramsey Campbell’s “The Tugging” from 1976.  An art critic in a small British city is having disturbing dreams about Atlantis, which may tie into a comet with unusual gravitation behavior.  I’ve read this one before, and it’s interesting as an unintentional period piece.  I remember in my youth paging through great bound volumes of yellowing newsprint as the protagonist does here, instead of scrolling through microfilm, or today’s scanned files.

“Black Man with a Horn” by T.E.D. Klein is one of the editor’s favorites, according to the introduction (which is perhaps a little too generous to Lovecraft’s writing skills.)  An elderly writer who was a friend of HPL in his youth meets a missionary returning from Malaysia.  Over the course of time, the writer learns that at least one thing written by Lovecraft may be uncomfortably close to reality.  It is a good story, told well.

I also particularly enjoyed “Lord of the Land” by Gene Wolfe.  A Nebraskan teacher is collecting oral history in the Appalachian region.  An old man tells him about seeing the “soul sucker”, which seems like a tall tale at first…but it’s actually a warning.  This one held my attention fast.

Overall, this is a strong collection with many creepy stories and some marquee writers like Elizabeth Bear, Joe R. Lansdale and David Drake.  I should mention that one story features incest and marital rape.  Recommended to fans of the Lovecraftian type of horror.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Flash, Volume 4

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Flash, Volume 4 edited by Julius Schwartz

The Flash is Barry Allen, a police detective who was working during a thunderstorm one night when a bolt of lightning struck a shelf of chemicals, spilling the mixture on him.   Barry quickly realized that he’d been gifted with super-speed, making him the fastest man alive.  Taking inspiration from a comic book hero of his youth, Barry Allen protects Central City and the world as the Flash!

Showcase Presents the Flash, Volume 4

This fourth volume of the Showcase Presents collection of the series covers from Flash #162-184, 1966-68.  The first story in the set is “Who Haunts the Corridor of Chills?”   A Walt Disney stand-in is inspecting the new spooky ride at his amusement park when he’s unexpectedly transformed into a rampaging monster.  Flash is temporarily handicapped by developing a sudden phobia of dark spooky tunnels.  By the end, the story becomes a parable about not jumping to conclusions.

Most of the stories are workmanlike tales of the Flash encountering a criminal or monster, encountering some sort of obstacle that prevents him from simply using his immense speed to solve the issue, and thinking his way through to victory.  Barry Allen was very much a “thinking” hero, using his scientific know-how and reasoning abilities as much as his ability to move very fast.

Some have criticized the Silver Age Flash for having a bland personality, but “bland Midwestern science fan” is a personality I see all the time in real life.  Barry’s serious but not grim, and even when he loses his temper, it’s in a subdued fashion.  This makes him becoming a braggart in the cover story, #177 “The Swell-Headed Super-Hero!” especially jarring.  This particular story is also interesting because it’s the only one in the volume where we see Barry performing his day job as a crime scene investigator for more than one panel.

Alas, he doesn’t use any of his science skills on-panel, but instead performs a Ralph “Elongated Man” Dibny-style feat of deduction to solve the “impossible” crime.  This story also has a great panel by Ross Andru of horrified civilians seeing the transformed Flash for the first time.  (The Silver Age writers loved transforming the Flash.)

The thinness of characterization is perhaps clearer in the villains, who tend to have very similar personalities, leavened slightly by Captain Cold being a would-be ladies’ man, and Abra Kadabra’s need to be the center of attention.  (The latter may explain why he appears the most in this volume.)

And then there’s Professor Zoom, the Reverse Flash.  He only gets one appearance, but it’s a doozy, as Barry Allen finally gets around to marrying Iris West.  Except that Zoom decides to take his similarity to the Flash to the next level by changing his face to Barry Allen’s and impersonating the hero–even to the point of marrying his girlfriend!  Barry manages to escape in time and prevent the false vows, but this plotline will define Professor Zoom for years to come.

Barry, very protective of his secret identity, doesn’t tell Iris that he’s the Flash until a year into the marriage!  (Flash television show viewers can take heart that this tendency is faithful to the comics.)  However, it turns out Iris has known since the wedding night as Barry talks in his sleep.  (Wah wah waaaah.)   This is directly contrasted with Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick’s relationship with his wife Joan, who was in on the secret from the beginning.

There are a couple of real clunkers in this collection.  The first is #167, “The Real Origin of the Flash!”  This was the most hated Flash story of its era (and for many years thereafter.)  It introduces Mopee, a fumbling “heavenly helper” who somewhat resembles Woody Allen, and claims that he made an error in giving Barry Allen the power of super-speed.  He spoils several attempts by the Flash to “re-earn” his powers, before finally getting it right.  The reader reaction was so negative that the story was simply not referred to again for decades.

#180-181 “The Flying Samurai” & “The Attack of the Samuroids!” is a fun story that has aged badly.  Barry and Iris go to Japan on vacation and the Flash gets involved in a battle against nigh-invulnerable flying samurai robots.  So many well-meant but glaring ethnic stereotypes!  Among the lowlights: A cute female secretary is named Tushi (a name that doesn’t even work in Japanese); Japanese people speaking broken English even when alone among themselves (particularly annoying with supposed traditionalist Baron Katana); one of Barry’s Japanese friends referring to marital relations as “tender tentacles”; and villain Baron Katana assuming no one will think to look for him at the abandoned castle…that has belonged to his family for generations.

There are a couple of appearances by Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick (once with his friends from the Justice Society of America), a visit from Hal “Green Lantern” Jordan, and a race against Superman that guest stars the Justice League of America.  Plus, the first Earth-Prime story, in which Flash winds up in “our” world and meets Julius Schwartz.

The final story in this volume, “Executioner of Central City!” has the Flash apparently destroy his home town in an attempt to save it from a pulsar flare.  Of course, this is revealed to be incorrect.  The community has in fact moved to the distant future where humans are much larger and “programmed” against aggression.  Well, except for their leaders, which turns out to be a design flaw.

There’s some excellent art by long-time Flash portrayer Carmine Infantino, and not quite as good art by Ross Andru.

Overall, a good choice for Barry Allen Flash fans; fans of other versions of the Flash might want to check it out at the library.

 

Book Review: The Sundered Worlds

Book Review: The Sundered Worlds by Michael Moorcock (also published as The Blood Red Game)

In the distant future, Jon Renark comes to the wretched hive of scum and villainy known as Migaa, where the criminals and misfits of the galaxy have gathered.  It’s the closest world to where the Shifter System will at some point appear, their one chance to escape the rigidly ordered society that rules humanity.  For the Shifter System normally exists outside the universe as we know it, orbiting into it sideways from time to time.

The Sundered World

Jon Renark has also come to go to the Shifter System, but with a nobler cause.  He is a Guide Senser, a powerful psychic able to detect the shape of things, down to the very atoms of a human body or up to the location of every star in the galaxy.  And he has learned that the universe is contracting at a rate faster than the speed of light.  Renark has a hunch he’ll find answers in the Shifter…somehow.

Gathering up his two best friends, technician Paul Talfryn and former prince Asquiol of Pompeii, as well as Asquiol’s current squeeze Willow Kovacs, Renark makes the dangerous journey to the Shifter when it appears.

Within the Shifter System, the normal physical laws don’t seem to consistently apply, and the visitors are immediately attacked by beings they will learn are called the Thron, absolute xenophobes whose lust to destroy all other intelligent life is indirectly responsible for the existence of the Shifter in the first place.  Renark and his crew are rescued by ships from the exile planet Entropium.

Entropium, filled with the refugees of a dozen different universes, has one governmental law–do what you like, as long as you don’t try to tell anyone else what to do.  It’s not a happy place, but everyone has to get along, as the other planets are worse, and there’s no leaving the Shifter system once you’re inside.  Talfryn and Willow decide to play it safe and stay, leaving Renark and Asquiol to planet-hop within the system to learn the truth of the multiverse!

This book is some of Michael Moorcock’s earliest published work, cobbled together from two novellas.  It’s primarily important because it introduced the Multiverse concept he’d use heavily in his future work.  Later editions have a bit of editing to fix the multiple typos in this first U.S. printing, and to tie the story into his Eternal Champion cycle.

It’s not much like Moorcock’s more famous New Wave fiction, being space opera in the tradition of E.E. “Doc” Smith.  This story is all about the big concepts, and characterization is told, not shown.  In the first half of the story, Willow seems to exist solely to be a female character.  She’s quickly consigned to the galley (and never does finish cooking a meal), then dumped on the first alien planet, not to be seen for a while.

There’s a bit of mild humor in a side character who’s a parody of “beat” musicians, on Entropium since the galactic government outlaws his kind of music.

In the second half of the story, Renark and Asquiol return from the Shifter System changed both mentally and physically by their discovery of the nature of reality.  It’s impossible, it turns out, to save their home universe, but they can preserve large portions of galactic humanity by getting them on spaceships fitted with dimensional drives, and emigrating en masse to another universe.  Renark stays behind for vague reasons, and is the last living mind as the universe shrinks to zero.

The new universe is already inhabited, and while Asquiol tries to negotiate with the natives, the story focus switches to Adam Roffrey, a rebellious type who’s barely stayed within the law up to this point.  Now he deserts the rest of humanity, piloting his ship to the new position of the Shifter System.

Turns out Roffrey is the husband of the madwoman Mary the Maze, briefly met on Entropium in the first half of the story.  She’s been missing a long time, and until now Roffrey hadn’t known where.  Roffrey retrieves Mary, and as an afterthought Talfryn and Willow, and heads back to where he left the rest of humanity.  An understated love triangle begins.

Meanwhile, the natives of the new universe have proved to be hostile, but they’ve challenged the invading humans to a game to determinate who will be master.  The Blood Red Game consists of teams beaming disturbing mental images at each other until one side collapses. (The cover illustrates a hallucination caused by the Game.)  The humans are losing badly, but Mary the Maze may be the key to victory!

Overall, some great concepts with two-dimensional characters who do things because that’s what the plot says they do.  Mostly for Moorcock completists, and even for them I’d recommend the later revised editions.

Manga Review: One Piece #27 & #28

Manga Review: One Piece #27 & #28 by Eiichiro Oda

On a world covered with oceans, pirates run rampant.  Not so many years ago, the so-called King of Pirates, Gol D. Roger, was executed, but before he went, he proclaimed that he’d left all his fabulous treasure in “one piece.”  It’s assumed that finding that treasure would make you the new Pirate King.  One of the pirates looking for that treasure is Luffy D. Monkey.  As a boy, he ate the Gum-Gum Fruit, a “Devil Fruit” that made his body like rubber, able to stretch at will, at the cost of being unable to swim.  (not a good thing for someone who travels on water!)

One Piece Volume 27

Enthusiastic but not overly bright, Luffy set sail to assemble a pirate crew full of wacky characters.  The Straw Hat Pirates sail the seas in search of the One Piece and their own individual goals, and along the way they help people–especially if it involves treasure or a good scrap!

This manga series has been running in Weekly Shounen Jump since 1997, and is still going strong after twenty years.  The general plot structure is that the Straw Hats  sail into a new area, meet a new cast of local characters, discover a problem in the area that must be solved (usually through a series of battles), resolve the problem, then sail off.  Every so often, a new member will join the crew.  This structure has served the series well, and Oda often brings older characters back for cameos or extended stays.

The series is primarily comedic, and often has laugh out loud moments, but also has heartbreakingly dramatic passages.  The art is cartoony, well suited to the many characters that have transformation powers of some kind.

The volumes at hand, #27-28, are set in the Skypiea arc.  Having learned of the existence of the White-White Sea, a semi-solid to solid cloud area, the Straw Hats modified their ship, the Merry Go, to be able to survive being launched into the air to visit this natural wonder.  They arrive in Skypiea, a cloud island within that sea.

One Piece Volume 28

At this point in the series, the Straw Hats crew consists of:  Luffy (captain), a jolly fellow with stretching powers; Zolo (mate), a former bounty hunter and master of the Three-Swords fighting style; Nami (navigator), former thief and the greediest member of the crew, she wields a staff with some weather modifying powers; Usopp (sharpshooter), a cowardly liar who’s good with distance weapons and has some gadgeteering skills; Sanji (cook), a ladies’ man who fights with his feet; Chopper (doctor) a young reindeer who ate the Human-Human Fruit and became a were-human; and Nico Robin (historian), an archaeologist who ate a Devil Fruit which allows her to manifest extra body parts…anywhere she wants.

Shortly after arrival in Skypiea, the Straw Hats are declared criminals by the mysterious “Kami” of the island.  They do have some allies, however, including “Sky Knight” Ganfor, the previous Kami.  He explains that “kami” is normally just the title for the ruler of Skypiea.  And it’s time for some tragic backstory.

It seems that objects from the surface world that come up to the White-White Sea are called “varse”.  And the most valuable varse is ground that can grow plants, extremely rare in these parts.  But about 400 years ago, half of a large surface island somehow got blown up into the clouds and fused with Skypiea.  Yay, land boom!  The bad news was that the land was already inhabited with surface dwellers.

The sky people drove the surface dwellers from their home and took over.  The displaced people became the Shandians, a resentful tribe that trains in guerilla tactics to regain their homeland.  Ganfor was trying to negotiate a peaceful solution (not helped by Shandian leader Wyper being a hard-liner) until six years ago, when Eneru and his vassals arrived.  They’d heard of a resource the Skypieans had (gold) that Eneru wanted (but not for the reasons you’d think.)

Eneru defeated Ganfor, making him the new kami, and took over the island.  His rule is harsh and tyrannical; no one can enter the forest beyond which Eneru lives, outsiders are forbidden, and speaking against the government is a crime.  But you can still oppress the Shandians if you like, Eneru’s cool with that.

Eneru’s four vassals are a step up from the opponents the Straw Hats have faced up to this point.  They are among the minority of sky people who are born with “mantra”, a sense that allows them to predict people’s movements by listening to their bodies.  This is a distinct advantage in combat!

Eneru also controls the Heavenly Warriors that used to work for Ganfor; they’re loyal to the office, not the person.  And Eneru himself (though it’s not explicitly stated in these volumes) is not just able to control lightning, he is lightning.  This makes him so much more powerful than any other sky person that he considers himself a true “kami” (god.)

The Shandians are anti-Eneru, but refuse to ally with any sky people or surface people due to pride.  Thus they’re as likely to attack people who want the same goals as their actual enemies.  Eneru finds this hilarious, and when the Upper Yard is invaded by those who oppose him, he treats the whole thing as a game.

There’s a bit of moral complexity here; Ganfor sincerely wants to make peace with the Shandians, but comes from a place of privilege, wanting them simply to forget the wrongs of the last four centuries and behave as though the Skypieans are doing them a favor by sharing the land.  Wyper, meanwhile, can only see the wrongs done his people, and demands revenge rather than compensation.  He refuses to compromise, even when it would improve the lot of his followers.

There’s some fun use of powers and unusual weapons–this arc is where the “dials”, seashell-like objects that can store qualities like impact, heat or scent for release later, are introduced.  And as so often in One Piece, there are amazing battle scenes.  All the Straw Hats get moments to shine.  There’s even a bit of movement on the “Missing Century” plotline, as Nico Robin discovers relics from that period.

However, because these are middle chapters in an ongoing battle arc, people who want complete stories might find these volumes less than satisfying.  (And Chopper’s victory is pretty much handed to him rather than won.)

There’s also a “splash page” story concerning the villain of a previous plotline, Wapol, going from homelessness to success as a toy manufacturer.  He might not be a king any more, but he’s rich and has a hot wife.

Overall, One Piece is a fun and engaging manga with twenty years of continuity to catch up on.  I especially like that it took fifty volumes for a female character whose primary motivation was being in love with the male hero (Luffy) to show up, and then she turned out to be a parody of that kind of character.  (On the other hand, there’s some transphobic “humor” in some volumes that does not sit well with many readers.  Recommended for teenagers and people who love shounen manga.

Book Review: A Feast for Crows

Book Review: A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin

Note:  This review will contain SPOILERS for the first three volumes in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series.  If you have not read those, you may want to consult my reviews of those books instead.

A Feast for Crows

While war still ravages the land of Westeros, for the moment it is contained to a handful of trouble spots.  In King’s Landing, King Tommen is the puppet of his mother, Queen Cersei as she schemes to gain complete power over the realm.  In sunny Dorne, daughters seek vengeance.  In the Riverlands, the last castles are yet to be taken, and outlaws and soldiers alike despoil what little remains of the smallfolk.  In the Vale, there is no war, but their lord’s castle, the Eyrie, feels the effects of winter early.  Across the Narrow Sea in Braavos, a girl has lost much and stands to lose more.  On the other side of Westeros, the Iron Islands must choose a new leader.  And in Oldtown, there are sinister doings at the Citadel of the Maesters.

And everywhere, the crows are feasting on carrion.

When Mr. Martin realized that this book was getting way too long, he could have taken the Wheel of Time route and split the story in half by time.  But that would mean checking in with about thirty viewpoint characters, most of whom would accomplish relatively little in that timespan.  Instead, he chose to split this and the next volume, A Dance with Dragons, up by location.

The good news is that this allows the characters that do appear to advance the plotlines considerably.  The bad news is that if your favorite characters were in the other territories, you won’t see them until the next book.  And back in the day, that would be another five years!

There are a bunch of new viewpoint characters, and Mr. Martin gets “cute” with the chapter headings, naming them “The Soiled Knight” or “The Kraken’s Daughter” instead of the character’s name.  He even uses different nicknames for different chapters!

With their numbers dwindling and scattered, the Stark family is down to two viewpoint characters.  Sansa Stark is now going by “Alayne Stone”, supposed daughter of the cunning Littlefinger.  With the death of her aunt Lysa and her cousin Robert being less than mentally sound, Littlefinger has free reign as the Lord Protector.  This does not make him or Alayne loved by the people of the Vale, however.

Arya Stark has arrived in Braavos, the city of secrets, and seeks shelter in the temple of the Many-Faced God.  She is learning to serve death, but can she make the final sacrifice of her own identity?

Brienne of Tarth goes back to the Riverlands in search of Sansa.  What she finds instead is outlaws, many of whom have a grudge against her specifically.  Her sections have some of the best writing in the book.

Samwell Tarly is sent south from the Wall to Oldtown to learn maester skills that the Night Watch desperately needs…and for more secretive purposes.  He has an encounter with Arya during a stayover in Braavos, though they don’t realize at the time how they’re connected.

Jaime Lannister quarrels with his sister Cersei and is relatively happy to get the order to end the siege at Riverrun.  He’s still trying to adjust to the loss of his hand, and attempts to navigate the contradictory oaths he’s taken.  Jaime may have no honor as far as most other people are concerned, but he wants to keep what honor he has.

Queen Cersei becomes a viewpoint character for the first time, and we see how the patriarchal nature of Westeros society has contributed to her personality.  If she’d been properly trained in leadership and statecraft from the beginning, things would be better.  But instead she’s always been told her job is to pump out babies, and barred from anything but backstairs scheming.  And scheming is not the only thing needed to run a country.  Possibly worse, a certain prophecy has made her essentially the Wicked Queen from Snow White, right down to dwarfs thwarting her will.  It’s no surprise when her own plots backfire, leaving Cersei in a nearly inescapable bind.

(Indeed, one of the minor subthemes here is “The Patriarchy ruins everything, even for patriarchs.”)

Over in the Iron Islands, we see things from the viewpoints of Asha Greyjoy, daughter of the late King Balon and sister to Theon (who does not appear in this book but is probably still alive); her uncle Aeron, a fanatical priest of the Drowned God, and her uncle Victarion, leader of the Iron Fleet.  None of them like the other uncle Euron Crow’s Eye, who is just outright evil, but at the Kingsmoot Euron reveals a plan to conquer Westeros that most of the Ironmen like.  And with Westeros in the shape it’s in, now is definitely the time to attack.

Asha is the smartest of the lot, but her uncles don’t listen to her because she’s a woman.

Down in Dorne, the viewpoint characters are Areoh Hotah, captain of Prince Doran’s guards; Arianne Martel, Doran’s daughter and heir; and Arys Oakheart, a knight of the Kingsguard who is protecting Princess Myrcella Baratheon.

Under Dornish law, Myrcella would have precedence over her younger brother Tommen for the Iron Throne.  Arianne, who is worried that her father is scheming to have her put aside in favor of her own brother to match mainstream Westeros culture, comes up with a plan to crown Myrcella queen and stir up war with the Lannisters.  Certain facts have been hidden from Arianne, so her plan has disastrous consequences.

Lots of plot twists and interesting developments this time, but I sorely missed favorite characters.  There are maps at the front, and an ever-growing character guide in the back.

As always, there’s tons of violence, talk of rape, and strong language.  Torture is on-page this volume, and worse implied.

Because of the largely-new cast, this volume reads differently than the earlier ones  The reader should probably have the next volume ready by the time they finish this one, as I am told they read better as a set.

 

 

Book Review: One Night in Sixes

Book Review: One Night in Sixes by Arianne “Tex” Thompson

Island Town used to be known as Sixes, when the Eadan Confederacy controlled this area.  But a decade or so back, the indigenous peoples pushed the Confederacy across the river.  Now Island Town is on the border, with only a handful of the old inhabitants providing continuity.  Like many border towns, the former Sixes is a mix of various peoples with different customs and languages, who cooperate or clash in many ways.

One Night in Sixes

Sil Halfwick knows nothing of conditions in Island Town–not even its new name.  The sickly displaced Northerner was hoping to sell some horses at the County Fair to show his business acumen and earn enough money to move back East.  That didn’t work out, so he gets the hare-brained idea to go across the border to Sixes, where horses are scarce.  He drags along mixed-race ranch hand Appaloosa Elim, who Sil is nominally in charge of, but considers himself Sil’s babysitter.

Elim has good reason to worry.  Across the border, “mules” such as himself are regarded with extreme suspicion due to the belief they carry disease. And if that wasn’t enough, certain people in Island Town have cause to be on the outlook for someone like Elim.

Sil is oblivious to all this.  He samples the local nightlife and becomes involved in high-stakes gambling.  He seems to win big, but a series of coincidences and petty cruelties result in a man being dead in the morning.  Now the two outsiders are in deep, deep trouble.  And it looks like neither Sil’s fast talking nor Elim’s steadfast endurance is going to get them out of it.

This Western-flavored fantasy is the first in the “Children of the Drought” series.  Despite many similarities, this is not Earth as we know it.  The various kinds of humans have supernatural talents, and some of the people in Sixes aren’t strictly speaking human.  The “white” people speak Ardish, which is not quite English, while the trade language is the not-exactly Spanish tongue Marin.  (There’s a glossary and list of characters in the back.  The latter is mildly spoilery.)

One of the big differences is that it’s much harder for mixed-race people to “pass”, as instead of melding features, they wind up with vitiligo-like mottled skin.  Elim has a very conspicuous eye-patch marking.

The story is told in tight third-person, with switches in viewpoint character revealing new information and making motivations clearer.  We see that much of the tragedy in the story comes from people’s biases blinding them to the good intentions or full humanity of others.

In addition to Sil and Elim, we hear the thoughts of:

Twoblood, the other mixed-race person in town.  She’s Second Man (effectively sheriff) and feels the need to be seen to enforce the law rigorously  to offset the suspicion against her because of her ancestry.

Fours, the livery owner who is not what he seems and has conflicting loyalties.  As a result, Fours has to work against his personal agenda from time to time.

Dia, the only Afriti (black person) in town.  She’s a grave  bride of the Penitent religion (roughly Catholic nun) and wants to give mercy where she can, but the wickedness in Island Town often thwarts her.

And Vuchak, a member of the a’Krah tribe (followers of Crow) who works in the local den of sin.  He’s poor-tempered, even with his partner Weisei (who’s a trifle addlepated.)  Vuchak takes his tribe’s honor very seriously, and doesn’t like compromises.

There’s quite a bit of world-building and examination of culture clash.  The book ends as several characters leave Sixes/Island Town for a long journey that will presumably be the focus of the next book, but there are indications that those who died in this book will still have an effect.

There’s some rough language, and discussion  of slavery.  (Sil claims Elim is a slave at one point, but Elim’s situation is more complicated than that.)  The fantastic racism may strike some readers as too close to real racism for comfort.

I found this book well-written and look forward to the next volume.

Book Review: Fire-Tongue

Book Review: Fire-Tongue by Sax Rohmer

If there’s one thing a detective hates, it’s when their client hems and haws about explaining basic details of why they need a detective, only to die just as they make up their minds with only a cryptic last utterance as a clue.

Fire-Tongue

But that’s the situation Paul Harley is in with his latest case.  Sir Charles Abingdon, noted osteologist, suspects he may be in danger, but is so vague about the circumstances that it’s impossible to tell why.  He promises to make more explanations at dinner, but collapses just after drinking a bit of water, uttering only “Fire-Tongue…Nicol Brinn” before passing.

Nicol Brinn is an American millionaire who happens to be in London just now, but what possible connection could he have to Sir Charles?  And the phrase “Fire-Tongue” is a complete mystery.  Oh, and neither the water nor the glass itself were poisoned, so how did Sir Charles die?

Brinn appears to know something about “Fire-Tongue” but is evasive at best on that matter, and claims to know nothing about Sir Charles’ death or why he might have felt threatened.  He does promise to let Harley know if he has any definite leads.  Very suspicious.

However, Harley learns that Sir Charles’ daughter, Phyllis “Phil” Abingdon has been receiving “attentions” from Ormuz Khan, a Middle Eastern banker.  And since certain features of this case suggest the “Oriental”, that’s worth looking into as well.

Readers familiar with Sax Rohmer’s work will fnd little mystery here.  Once there’s a “mysterious Oriental” in the case, it’s obvious he’s guilty somehow.  From there on in it’s secret societies, poisons unknown to Western science, subtle mental powers and lots of peril.

This isn’t Rohmer’s best work by a long shot.  He divides the role of hero up between three male characters poorly, has characters make stupid decisions to keep the happenings mysterious, and the backstory is given in four straight chapters of infodump at the end.  Exciting but incoherent.

And that’s before we get to the racism, sexism and making the villain effeminate in appearance to indicate that he’s somehow unnatural.  Perhaps the weirdest bit in this direction is that Brinn’s face is repeatedly described as “Sioux-like” without any indication of Native American heritage.

This is, by the by, the second Paul Harley book; the first, Bat Wing, was apparently more of an actual mystery.  Mr. Harley is an ex-barrister who has turned to political consulting and detection as a more interesting career.  He’s apparently psychic, able to detect auras of evil or danger.  Which would be more helpful if this sense were directional, and didn’t sometimes interfere with his ability to make rational observations.

Like many pulp heroes, Mr. Harley is also a master of disguise.  Pity the baddies were specifically looking for someone in disguise!

Mr. Brinn is a harder-edged sort, and rather cold-blooded.  He has a sense of honor that allows him to dally with other men’s wives, but not break his word.  It’s a good thing he’s a millionaire, or he’d never get away with this stuff.

And then we have Detective Inspector Wessex of Scotland Yard, a bright (but not too bright) fellow who fills in chapters when neither Mr. Harley nor Mr. Brinn is available on-screen.

Overall, only recommended to Sax Rohmer completists.  It’s in the public domain in the U.S.–my copy was from a print on demand publisher, but you should be able to find the text on the internet.

Magazine Review: If May 1961

Magazine Review: If May 1961 managing editor Frederik Pohl

If was a science fiction magazine that ran from 1952 to 1974.  It was considered a “second tier” magazine due to frequently low sales, but that should not be confused with “second-rate.”  By 1961, If had become a sister magazine to Galaxy, publishing in alternate months.  Under editor Frederik Pohl, this magazine tended to publish newer writers and more experimental stories, while Galaxy on average worked more with popular established authors.  The cover for the May 1961 issue is “The Commuters” by Jack Gaughan, which has nothing to do with any of the stories.

If May 1961

The lead story is “That’s How It Goes” by J.T. McIntosh.  An overpopulated Earth needs millions of colonists for new worlds.  But it’s only hundred thousands who volunteer.  So most colonists are those who’ve broken laws or rules.  Serious criminals are sent to hellholes like Roc, which is almost certain death.  But for relatively pleasant worlds like Aperdui, which just needs a lot of hard work, any rulebreaker will do.

Thus the seven candidates in the colony office are an actress who wore a see-through nightie on screen, two gluttons, a man who made too many shoes for his quota, a fellow who took a call from his girlfriend and let a food vat die, his girlfriend and the phone operator who let the call go through.  The operator gets a temporary stay, but the rest are shipped off to the new planet to start a farm.

One of the gluttons kills himself because he can’t face life on just enough food to work, and is replaced by an experienced farmer.  We follow the fortunes of the group through their ups and downs, some succeeding and making Aperdui a decent place to live, others dealing with heartbreak.

At the end, one of the colonists becomes a recruiter back on Earth, facing the same sort of involuntary exportees he once was. There’s a picture of a woman skinny-dipping in the distance, her back turned towards the “camera.”  Notably absent from the story is the notion that Earth should perhaps limit its population by other means than emigration.

“Out of Mind” by William W. Stuart concerns a control freak bureaucrat who takes a “vacation” on a planet where the natives have illusion powers that make the place seem ideal, whatever that means to the individual viewer.  Many visitors never leave.  But Screed is ready with anti-illusion pills and a satellite that will disrupt the natives’ powers.  He’ll soon have them whipped into shape as a proper member of the galactic civilization!

Much of the story is Screed being set up to think it’s his idea to go to the planet.  It’s pretty clear his wife (who he allots fifteen minutes of scheduled sex a week) is in on the scam.  It’s a well-deserved fate, but the ending is telegraphed.

“A Science Faction Story” by Theodore Sturgeon is an article on making money from going to space.  Specifically, the then-new idea of communications satellites, a business opportunity that can only be achieved through spaceflight, as opposed to being (Earth activity) in SPACE!

“The Connoisseur” by Frank Banta is set on a generation ship that has forgotten its past, and its goal.  A collector of rare items barters for a child bride with such things as the control knobs which used to be on the navigation panel…before the ship inhabitants killed the last navigator.  No happy ending here, kids.

“Seven Doors to Education” by Fred Saberhagen is an interesting piece about a  swimmer who finds himself undergoing a series of tests to unlock doors to escape wherever it is he’s trapped.  Pete Kelsey’s family didn’t believe in education, and he’s wound up with a steady but dead-end job sorting letters in the Chicago post office.  Now he has to learn, and learn fast if he wants to avoid drowning.  A bit of an infodump at the end, but Pete is faced with a decision that feels meaningful.

“The Useless Bugbreeders” by James Stamers has some interesting features.  The narrator is an advocate for alien species who don’t want the expansionist Earthlings to destroy their homes for the ease of space travel.   He must defend them to a panel of judges who are none too thrilled considering the wacky things that happen.

In this case, his clients are the Bugbreeders, who are masters of creating specialty microbes.  He’s brought along one of their scientists to perform some demonstrations.  Unfortunately, poor prior planning causes each of the demonstrations to have predictable bad consequences.  It looks like the Bugbreeders may lose their asteroid home, but there’s one last twist.  This is one of those stories where the advocate and the client should have gone over the testimony in advance.

“Science Briefs” is a set of short science fact developments as of 1961, including a look at radiation therapy to treat cancer.  Fascinating stuff for science fans!

“Cinderella Story” by Allen Kim Lang concerns Orison McCall, a Treasury agent infiltrating a bank where weird things are going on by being hired as a secretary.  Such things as most of the bank’s employees wearing earmuffs in mid-summer and the invertebrate farm upstairs.

Eventually, Orison learns that she’s stumbled onto an alien power struggle.  The story is marred by most of the male characters treating Orison as a romantic target (and the other major female character assuming Orison is her romantic rival on the strength of Orison being pretty.)  This is especially irksome with the male lead Dink Gerding, who very specifically will not accept that “no” means “no”, orders for his date at restaurants, and jumps straight from first date to marriage proposal.  Naturally, Orison is deeply in love with him by the end of the story.

“The Flying Tuskers of K’Niik-K’naak” by Jack Sharkey rounds out the issue.  It’s a comedic tale about a pompous Great White Hunter being outfoxed by his native servant…in SPACE.  It’s overdone, the narration pushing the hunter character well beyond pompous into actively abusive.

The Saberhagen story is the best in this issue, but the McIntosh story is also pretty good.  You can find all the issues of If on the Internet Archive.

 

 

Book Review: Stories from Sleep No More

Book Review: Stories from Sleep No More edited by August Derleth

Sleep No More was a 1940s anthology of horror fiction put together by noted Wisconsin historical fiction (and horror) author August Derleth.  It featured primarily creepy stories from the pulp magazines of the 1930s.  In the 1960s, a paperback reprint came out.  To make it a manageable size with the binding limitations of the time, only the first nine stories were included; and presumably there would have been a sequel with the rest had sales justified it.

Stories from Sleep No More

“Count Magnus” by M.R. James leads off with the tale of a would-be travel book writer who visits Sweden and wakes up something that should have been kept sleeping.  Like many tales from the era, it’s told at a remove, reported by someone who found the protagonist’s papers and pieced together the story from them.  That aside, it’s an excellent example of horror by implication–none of the presumably gory bits happen on page, and the results are not directly described.  The moment of most terror is a lock that should not be open being open.

“Cassius” by Henry S. Whitehead is set in the West Indies.  A man who’s had an ugly growth removed is hunted by a small but deadly enemy.  It starts well, but the explanation for the terror is heavily racist, involving some dubious genetics and “race memory.”  Also, the ending is an anticlimax.

“The Occupant of the Room” by Algernon Blackwood is the oldest story in the collection.  A schoolteacher who altered his holiday plans on a whim finds himself at a Swiss inn with no vacancies.  Wait, there is one room, but the catch is that the occupant just vanished a couple of days ago–they may or may not be returning.  The room’s atmosphere is oppressive, leading to thoughts of suicide.  Unnatural thoughts!

“The Return of the Sorcerer” by Clark Ashton Smith has a desperately unemployed man (who happens to know Arabic) get a job as secretary to reclusive scholar John Carnby.  Carnby turns out to be an occultist with eccentric habits, and a fear of leaving his room at night.  Supposedly, the noises in the halls are rats, but the glimpses the secretary gets don’t look like any rats he’s ever seen.  Mr. Carnby needs some passages from the Necronomicon translated at the highest priority, passages about sorcerers being able to come back from the dead.  The job does not end well.

“Johnson Looked Back” by Thomas Burke is a rare second-person story.  The reader is addressed as though they were Johnson, who is pursued by a mysterious blind, handless man.  The narrator urges Johnson not to look behind him, but of course he does and dooms himself.  The ending is kind of kludgy, suggesting the whole story is a metaphor.

“The Hand of the O’Mecca” by Howard Wandrei is set in Minnesota, not far from Mankato.  Finnish-American farmer Elof Bocak is crossing the fields at night to woo his neighbor, Kate O’Mecca.  Perhaps he should have paid more attention to the superstition about bats on the ground.  Some nice local color, but the twist is telegraphed.

“‘He Cometh and He Passeth By!'” by H.R. Wakefield concerns a barrister named Edward Bellamy.  He’s contacted by an old school friend, Philip Franton.  They’d fallen out of touch after the War, but now Franton is in a spot of trouble.  It seems he was for some months host to Oscar Clinton, a fascinating fellow who Philip was quite entranced with initially.

Eventually, Clinton’s less appealing habits (impregnating chambermaids, stealing and forgery) became unbearable, and Franton broke ties with the man.  Some time later, Clinton tried to use his “friendship” with Philip as a recommendation to a club, and the wealthy man blackballed him.  Clinton was not well pleased, and sent Franton a supposedly cursed image.  Now Philip is jumping at oddly shaped shadows.

Bellamy is unable to prevent his friend’s horrible death, but perhaps he can get a little extrajudicial revenge?

Oscar Clinton is cartoonishly decadent.  To quote:

“I fancy,” said Clinton, “that you are perplexed by the obstinate humidity of my left eye.  It is caused by the rather heavy injection of heroin I took this afternoon.”

It’s probably meant to evoke the image of the notorious “Wickedest Man in the World” Aleister Crowley.  While Clinton only mentions sex with women, there are homoerotic undertones in his relationships with Franton and Bellamy.  His comeuppance is satisfying.

“Thus I Refute Beezly” by John Collier is titled after Samuel Johnson’s famous rejoinder to Bishop Berkeley.  “Small Simon” Carter is a friendless child who spends most of his time in the garden, playing alone.  He claims to be playing with a “Mr. Beezly” who is hard to describe, and no adult has ever seen.

Small Simon’s father, who insists on being called “Big Simon”, is a dentist with some odd ideas about parenting.  Big Simon is big on science and fact, and when Small Simon won’t admit that Beezly is imaginary, decides to punish the lad.  That’s a mistake.

This story is more often reprinted than most in this collection, and there’s analysis of it at various websites.  What struck me was that the author is being snotty about “modern” parenting methods of the sort where parents insist on children calling them by first name.  “See?  This fellow is all ‘progressive’ and such, but when logic fails, it’s back to corporal punishment just like normal folks!”

Rounding out the collection is “The Mannikin” by Robert Bloch.  A schoolteacher picks a random isolated town for vacation, only to discover that this is the hometown of his old school friend Simon Maglore.  In the time they’ve been parted, the deformity of Simon’s back has gotten a lot worse, and the superstitious locals shun him.  The basic twist is the same as “Cassius”, minus the racism.  Some Lovecraftian references in this story, too.

Most of these are good if dated stories; “Cassius” is the only one that has become outright uncomfortable to read due to its attitudes.  While it’s long out of print, the paperback edition should be relatively easy to find in finer used bookstores.

Manga Review: Haikyu!! 1

Manga Review: Haikyu!! 1 by Haruichi Furudate

It is the first game of the junior high boys’ volleyball tournament, between Kitagawa Daiichi Middle School and Yukigaoka Middle School.  While the first school is known for its strong volleyball program, the other…isn’t.  Yet the stars on each team have something in common.

Haikyu!! 1

Shoyo Hinata of Yukigaoka has been in love with volleyball since he saw a particularly thrilling game on television as a child.  A relatively short player nicknamed “the Little Giant” showed his skills leading Karasuno High School to victory.  This inspired the undersized Hinata, and he began practicing his skills.  But his school didn’t have a boys’ team, and he turned down the offer to join the girls’ team.  So for several years he was the only member of the volleyball club.  In this, his final year, he’s finally scraped together enough members (including loaners from other sports teams) to enter the winter tournament.  Pity none of the other team members has skills!

We don’t learn as much yet about Tobio Kageyama’s background, but he’s got a reputation for being a natural genius at volleyball, called “The King of the Court.”  The catch is that his Kitagawa teammates gave him that nickname not for his skills, but for being a royal brat who is the “I” in “team.”  His attitude is sour, but he’s the only one who respects Hinata as an opponent.

The game is a blowout, of course, but Hinata encourages his team even though they let him down time after time, while Kageyama berates his team for being less than perfect.  Despite Hinata’s despair at losing the only full volleyball game he’ll get to play in junior high, his team feels better about their loss than Kitagawa does about their win.  Hinata marks Kageyama as his arch-rival and promises they’ll meet again in the high school tournaments.  Kitagawa is soon eliminated from the tournament as well, though Hinata barely notices the news.

Hinata chooses to go to Karasuno High School, a half hour away by bicycle, because of his memories of the televised game, even though he has heard their volleyball program is not as good as it used to be.  He is shocked to discover that Kageyama is also attending the school, even though he should have been getting a full scholarship from the school district’s top volleyball high.  Kageyama angrily explains that he was rejected, but does not elaborate.

The two immediately begin quarreling, which causes some issues with the vice-principal.  Daichi Sawamura, the volleyball team captain, bans both of the rookies from the team until they’ve learned to work together.  This will be shown in a three-on-three match.  Hinata and Kageyama will be teamed up with the thuggish-looking (but really a huge goofball) Ryunosuke Tanaka, while Daichi will be with the other two rookies, who haven’t been introduced yet.

Can the short kid with speed and jumping skill learn to work with the genius setter in time?

This popular sports manga appears in Shounen Jump Weekly and has had three seasons of anime adaptation.  Volleyball (haikyuu in Japanese) was one of the first sports to get an ongoing manga/anime in the form of Attack! Number One and remains a popular sport in Japan.

The story gives us two protagonists who both must learn teamwork for different reasons, but slightly disguises it by having them set up as rivals in the first chapter.  Hinata’s easier to like, but has a tendency to stick with boneheaded decisions well past the point it’s clear they’re not working out.  Kageyama is quick to point out that never giving up doesn’t work if you don’t have the skills and strength to pull it off.  The taller boy, meanwhile, has to learn how to adapt to the teammates he actually has, rather than expect everyone to match his level.

The rest of the Karasuno team is the usual assortment of quirky types; the most developed in this volume is Tanaka.  His skinhead haircut and habit of sneering at people he doesn’t know makes Tanaka look like a troublemaker, but he’s actually just very intense and a hopeless romantic.

As is common in boys’ sports manga, the only named female character in the first volume is Kiyoko Shimizu, the pretty but shy team manager.  Tanaka is open about his crush on her, which she tactfully ignores.  It’ll be quite a while (I’ve seen the anime) before we get any others worth mentioning.

The Karasuno High School vice-principal is very much a stock character, pompous, obstructive and wearing a bad toupee; thankfully he mostly goes away after this volume.

This first volume is mostly about introducing characters and setting up the initial conflicts; it will be a while before the manga gets to the serious sports action.  We also get little bits of explanation about volleyball for the new reader, and character profiles indicating strong and weak points for the cast.

The art is generally good, with strong crow motifs for the Karasuno team, but every so often the artist uses “crazy eyes” when he shouldn’t.

There’s little here that should be objectionable for sports-minded middle-schoolers on up, with strong themes of persistence, teamwork and (eventually) friendship.  Recommended primarily to young volleyball fans.

Let’s have the opening for the first anime season!

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