Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014 edited by Paula Guran

Even the fastest, most dedicated readers can’t read everything that’s published each year.  Not even in relatively limited genres like fantasy or horror.  That’s where “Year’s Best” collections come in handy.  Someone or several someones has gone through the enormous pile of short literature produced in the previous year, and winnowed it down to a manageable size of good stories for you.

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Admittedly, these collections also come down to a matter of personal taste.  In this case, Ms. Guran has chosen not to pick just straight up horror stories (which do not necessarily include fantastic elements) but fantasy stories with “dark” elements.   She mentions in the introduction that at least some good stories were excluded because they weren’t brought to her attention–small internet publishers might not even know such a collection exists to submit to.

This thick volume contains thirty-two stories, beginning with “Wheatfield with Crows” by Steve Rasnic Tem.  Years ago, a man’s sister vanished in a wheatfield.  Now, he and his mother have returned to the site as darkness falls.  Will history repeat?

The final story is “Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee.   A spy discovers that the army occupying half her country is being aided by not-quite-human wizards everyone thought were wiped out centuries before.   They are compiling a lexicon of every human language for nefarious purposes, and it is up to Iseul to find a way to stop them.  In the end, she learns that there are innocent casualties in war no matter how  targeted the weapon.

Some stories I particularly liked:

“The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed, about Girl Scouts gone feral, and the foolish men who think to possess them.  This one has a logical stinger in its tail, and very dark humor.

“Phosphorous” by Veronica  Schanoes is about the women who made phosphorous matches, and their fight for better working conditions.  The viewpoint character is a woman dying of “phossy jaw” caused by the poison she’s been exposed to.   She is determined to see the strike through, and her grandmother knows a way–but the cost is high indeed.

“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson concerns a bounty hunter who must track her prey in the forest that has Three Simple Rules.  Don’t start fires, don’t shed blood…and don’t run at night.   So simple.  But there are other bounty hunters in the forest tonight, and treachery.  Some rules will be broken, and the shades will descend.

One story I didn’t care much for was “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which is a description of a horror movie based on the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess.  There are some good scenes, but the presentation muffles the effect, taking me out of the story.  There’s also use of “Gypsy” stereotypes within the film.

Most of the other stories are good to decent, and there are big names like Tanith Lee and Neil Gaiman represented.  If this is the sort of genre fiction you like, it would be worthwhile to check the book out at your library–and then buy it if enough of the stories please you.

Manga Review: Inuyashiki #1-3

Manga Review: Inuyashiki #1-3 by Hiroya Oku

Life is tough for Ichiro Inuyashiki.  He’s only 58, but looks a good ten years older.  His wife and children think he’s a loser (and they’re not entirely wrong,) he gets pushed around by jerks, and now he has cancer.  The prognosis is terminal, a few months at most, and he’s not sure anyone will miss him when he’s gone.

Inuyashiki 1

The only creature on Earth that seems to appreciate him is his Shiba dog Hanako.  And it’s when he’s out walking Hanako in the park that Ichiro’s life takes an unexpected turn.  When he wakes up in the wee hours of the morning, Ichiro has missing time, and his aches seem to have disappeared.  Little things keep adding up, until Mr. Inuyashiki finally realizes he isn’t human any more.

This seems to be the last straw, until Ichiro sees some juvenile delinquents attacking a homeless man, and for the first time in his life, he can step up to help…

The “aliens accidentally kill an Earthling, and rebuild him (or her) with superpowers” plot device is a long-running one, even being parodied in Osamu Tezuka’s A*Tomcat.  The writer is fully aware of this, and references Tezuka’s Astroboy, which A*Tomcat was riffing on.  But it’s mixed with the “dying man finds a new purpose in life” plot from Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Ikiru.

The opening scene is the Inuyashiki family moving into the new home that Ichiro has saved up years to be able to buy–which would be a nice place except that it’s literally overshadowed by newer and bigger houses on either side.  It’s clear that Ichiro didn’t consult anyone else in the family before making the purchase, and the surprise he wanted to impress them with is a huge disappointment.  Still, they could be a teensy more appreciative.

The homeless man later in Volume 1 is almost ridiculously sympathetic.  He’s working again, tomorrow he’ll be able to move into a place with a roof, his ex agreed to take him back, he has everything to live for…so naturally now is when the monstrously cruel tweens decide to attack him for funsies.  Saving him and finding a way to punish the children without using violence against them makes Ichiro feel alive again.  Saving lives makes him feel…human!

Inuyashiki 2

Unfortunately, Ichiro wasn’t the only person in the park that night.  Teenager Hiro Shishigami was also present, and also rebuilt by the aliens with unusual powers.  In Volume 2, he takes center stage for a while, helping one of his friends who’s being bullied–and also murdering an entire family for fun.  Hiro only feels alive when he’s killing, and now he can whenever he wants.  Ichiro tries to confront the boy, but neither of them recognizes the other, and while Hiro is able to escape, his instant-death power doesn’t work on the older man.

In some ways, Hiro is a very typical teenager.  He likes comics, is bad at talking to girls, wants to help his friend, and lets his impulses override his better judgement.  The excessive bloodthirst is much less typical.

Not knowing how to track Hiro down, Ichiro explores various ways his abilities can help others.

Inuyashiki 3

In the third volume, the gigantic Yakuza thug Samejima becomes the main enemy.  A man of enormous appetites, he chooses to kidnap a woman to be his sex slave until his abuses kill her.  Through gumption and quick thinking, she temporarily escapes, but that just makes Samejima angry and willing to kill her boyfriend.  It’s at this point that Ichiro interferes; but even with his new powers, Samejima’s physical prowess may be too much for him to handle.  Plus, of course, making the entire Yakuza his opponents.

The creator’s previous work was Gantz, a long-running SF action series noted for over-the-top violence, gratuitous nudity and disturbing sexual situations.   The first volume of this series might fool you into thinking it’s more sedate, but by the third volume we’re back to things like mass eye-gouging and on-page rape.  Sensitive readers should exercise caution.

One thing this series has that Gantz initially didn’t is a sympathetic viewpoint character.  Mr. Inuyashiki means well from the beginning, even if he doesn’t have the courage or physical skill to back up his convictions.  And while his family does come off as pretty awful people, we can understand some of their feelings about the situation.

On the other hand, the “teens are monsters” thing gets tiresome quickly, and in a way it’s a relief when the adult criminals take center stage.

Recommended to fans of Gantz and those who enjoy well-drawn ultraviolence with gratuitous nudity in their science fiction.

Movie Review: Tokyo Gore School

Movie Review: Tokyo Gore School

Fujiwara leads a double life.  He’s the leader of a gang of high school bullies, and also the teacher-trusted student president.  He’s reasonably comfortable with this, having a binary view of life.  There are winners and losers, and he’s determined to be a winner.   Fujiwara is baffled, however, when he’s suddenly being chased on the street by complete strangers.

Tokyo Gore School

It turns out that Fujiwara is listed as one of the participants of something called the “Chain Game.”  Your data is listed on a cell phone-accessible website, allowing people to track you down.  If you capture the other person’s phone, you learn their darkest secret, and gain points that can be used to erase parts of your data, making it harder to track you.  If you lose, then your secret is out.  A lot of the involuntary participants default to violence as a means of getting cell phones, thus the “gore” in the title.

While some of the secrets are just embarrassing, like having your mom sew your name into your underwear, others are much more dangerous, and Fujiwara will find himself doing anything he must to avoid his secret getting out.  Oh, and the vaguely described “School Justice Bill” the government just passed may have something to do with all this.

This is a 2009 Japanese movie, currently available on the Crunchyroll website.  It’s an “R” for gory violence (which takes a while to get there–the first few fights are relatively bloodless.)  Also on the content front are suicide, rape (off-screen), torture and some rough language.

As you might guess from the plot description, Fujiwara is more protagonist than hero.  He does defend a young woman, but its for his own purposes. He’s invited to join a large group that’s using numbers to protect itself, but declines.  While he’s correct about the deficiencies of the strategy, his refusal is what causes that group to fracture.

Fujiwara’s antagonist for most of the movie, though it takes him a while to figure it out, is his ambitious lieutenant Todoroki, who enjoys violence for its own sake; the other bullies are stupid and easily led.

The movie has some nasty twists towards the end, and its philosophy becomes nihilistic in the negative sense.  There’s some nifty fight sequences, and the gore doesn’t get too overdone.

If teenagers fighting to the death as part of a game is your thing, this isn’t nearly as good as Battle Royale or Hunger Games but is enjoyable on its own terms.

Book Review: Jewish Noir

Book Review: Jewish Noir edited by Kenneth Wishnia

Many of the themes of noir fiction, alienation, hostile society, darkness and bitter endings, resonate with the experience of Jewish people.  So it’s not surprising that it was easy to find submissions for an anthology of thirty-plus noir stories with Jewish themes.  (Not all of the authors are themselves Jewish; see if you can guess which ones.)

Jewish Noir

The volume opens with “Devil for a Witch” by R.S. Brenner.   A man caught embezzling for what he thinks are good causes has his death faked by the FBI so that he can go undercover in the Klu Klux Klan.  The title comes from an old saying about trading a known danger for an unknown one, and this assignment turns out to be perilous indeed.  The author bio mentions that this is an excerpt from an upcoming novel.

Most of the stories in this collection are appearing for the first time, but two are not.  “A Simke (A Celebration)” by Yente Serdatsky was first published in Yiddish in 1912, and this is its first publication in English.  It’s a melancholy tale of a woman whose refusal to conform to the social norms of Russian-Jewish immigrants made her popular in her youth, but isolates her now that she is middle-aged.  Harlan Ellison® contributes a story first published in 1960. “The Final Shtick”, about a comedian returning to the small town he had good reason to flee, and his feelings concerning this.

As one might expect, several of the stories concern Nazis, neo-Nazis and/or the Holocaust.  “Feeding the Crocodile” by Moe Prager is perhaps the strongest of these–a writer tells stories to a death camp commandant in hopes of surviving just a bit longer.  But the crocodile gets greedy.

There’s a fairly wide variety of protagonists in these stories.  Good people who do bad things, bad people who try to do good things, evil people who sink even lower, men and women, religious Jews and secular ones, Jews of different sexual orientations and skin colors.  Ethnic slurs and antisemitism are peppered throughout, and there is mention of child sexual abuse, suicide and rape.

“The Golem of Jericho” by Jonathan Santlofer is on the borderline with supernatural stories.  A bullied boy and his grandfather build a golem, which may or may not have killed the bullies; it’s certainly a mysterious coincidence.

The weakest story is “Her Daughter’s Bar Mitzvah: A Mother Talks to the Rabbi” by Adam D. Fisher which is just one long kvetch.  (My spell checker doesn’t flag that word, interesting.)  No crime, no hopeless ending, just complaining.

It should be noted here that this volume published by PM Press has no connection to the series of regional noir anthologies put out by Akashic Books despite the very similar presentation and book structure.

Most of the stories are good; recommended to noir fans who are willing to stretch their focus a little.

 

Manga Review: Captain Ken 1 &2

Manga Review: Captain Ken 1 & 2 by Osamu Tezuka

Mamoru Hoshino lives on his family ranch on Mars near the town of Hedes.  Life in a backwater frontier town can get a bit stale, so he’s excited when he learns a distant relative, Kenn Minakami, is coming from Earth to live with them.   On the way to the spaceport, Mamoru runs into a gunslinger calling himself “Captain Ken.”  Although a boy no older than Mamoru himself, Ken is a skilled combatant and saves Mamoru’s life from an ambush.

Captain Ken

Realizing that he’s too late to get to the spaceport, Mamoru returns home to find that Kenn Minakami, a lovely girl, has just arrived.  Mamoru is shocked to discover that aside from the obvious, Ken and Kenn look exactly alike.  He begins to suspect that they’re the same person, but other problems become more pressing.

This 1960 manga series by Osamu Tezuka took the concept of a “space western” and ran with it.  In the backstory, the first human settlers on Mars were Americans, who noted the terrain’s resemblance to the legendary Wild West.  They promptly adopted Western garb and customs, as well as building robot horses to ride as wheeled vehicles were not suitable except in built-up areas.  Other countries’ immigrants more or less assimilated into that culture, except the Russians.

Unfortunately, another part of American history repeated itself as the Earthlings stole land from the native Martians and broke treaties with them, pushing them into the worst land, ever shrinking as the humans multiplied.

Captain Ken’s mission is a bit nebulous at first, although he does try to protect the natives from oppression by evil Earthlings.  Tezuka was well aware that most of the readers would have read Princess Knight (originally Ribon no Kishi) and would think he was repeating the trick of having a girl impersonate a boy or vice versa.  For most of the first volume, he makes sure no one ever sees Ken and Kenn together, and has them both engage in odd behavior that would make sense if they were the same person.   The real explanation turns out to be way weirder.

Captain Ken eventually decides to learn “Martian Shooting Style” which is actually only usable by people born under the heavier gravity of Earth.  This is important, as the deadly gunfighter Lamp knows the style and is loyal to the villains.  Everything climaxes as the Martians reveal they’ve been stockpiling weapons for years, and are now ready to kick all the aliens off Mars.  The ending is bittersweet.

This is very much a boys’ adventure series, with women relegated to minor roles (Kenn is more important as a motivation than as someone with agency.)  While this is a children’s story, Mr. Tezuka does not hold back on the violent action, and several people die.  (The story wobbles on whether Ken’s gun shoots lethal bullets.)  Sensitive readers may find it too intense.  There’s also a person who is dying of radiation poisoning, clearly inspired by Hiroshima survivors.

Parents of young readers may want to discuss the treatment of Native Americans, whether using guns is the best way to resolve problems, and perhaps the atomic bomb with their children.

This isn’t Tezuka’s best work, but it’s still well-written fun with his cartoony art.  Recommended to Tezuka fans, space western fans, and boys at heart.

Book Review: Birthright: Book 1 of the Temujin Saga

Book Review: Birthright: Book 1 of the Temujin Saga by Adam J. Whitlatch

Temujin has always known he is special.  He is, after all, the clone restoration of Genghis Khan, endowed with strange alien powers and destined to conquer the Earth.  It is his birthright.

Birthright

Alexander Walker has never even suspected he is special.  He’s just a normal Iowa farm boy, getting up the nerve to ask the girl he has a crush on to watch fireworks with him.  But he too has a birthright, and this Fourth of July will be unlike any other.

Quintin MacLaren doesn’t really have a yardstick for “special”.  Brought up by an alien scientist, he only met other humans a short while ago, and they’re all immortal bounty hunters.  When the team gets a mission to the forbidden planet Earth, Quintin stows away on the ship.  Perhaps it is there that he will find his birthright.

These three young men are about to have a meeting that will change all their lives.

This young adult science fiction action book mashes together several different concepts: aliens, immortals, psychic powers, all in the service of a coming of age story.  Alex is our primary hero, the farm boy who is far more than he appears or ever imagined, soon joined by faithful (mostly) sidekicks and then extremely cool allies.  Quintin is his twin brother, created when aliens tried to cram too much awesome into one human body.

It takes a while to set up all the pieces, but the second half of the book is slam-bang action as Temujin tries to eliminate the one person (Alex) who can foil his plans for world conquest.  Boys and boys at heart should enjoy this immensely.

On the other hand, Temujin is literally a mustache-twirling villain, and the story pits our American(ized) band of heroes against the fanatical hordes of the East, a trope that raises some hackles.  This is also very much a boys’ adventure book–female characters are girlfriends, mothers and rescuees, whatever their nominal job description is.  Conservative parents might look askance at how intimate some of the rewards for rescuing are.

One of the characters also uses “sister” as an insult for his male teammate.  Repeatedly.  There may be a story behind that, but as is, it came off unnecessarily sexist.

The book’s plotline reaches a satisfactory conclusion, but Temujin is still around to try again (he’s in the series name, it’s not a spoiler.)

Recommended for teenage boys who like this sort of thing, but parents may want to discuss the “Eastern Hordes” trope with them.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...