Book Review: A Game of Thrones

Book Review: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

About three centuries ago, the land of Westeros was known as the Seven Kingdoms.  Then Aegon Targaryen and his sisters came from the collapsed civilization of Valyria with their dragons and conquered six of the Kingdoms.  (The seventh Kingdom joined up later semi-voluntarily.)  Eventually, the dragons died off, but the Targaryen dynasty stayed in power through inertia and intermittent smashing of rebels. Finally, King Aerys the Mad was such a poor ruler that a rebellion led by Robert Baratheon and his supporters succeeded in overthrowing the Targaryens.

A Game of Thrones

Robert is…a better king than Aerys, anyway.  He had intended to marry a member of the Stark family, lords of the North, but she perished during the rebellion and Robert settled for Cersei Lannister, member of a powerful Western family.  The Lannisters have become powerful at court, but one of their intrigues is about to have a slight glitch, putting their plans in jeopardy.  Other noble families have noticed the success of the previous rebellion, and remembered that their ancestors were also kings.   Across the Narrow Sea, the last heirs of the Targaryen dynasty are still alive and dreaming of retaking the Throne of Swords.  Far to the North, beyond the Wall, an enemy older than the Seven Kingdoms itself is stirring with the coming of Winter.

If this were a history book, we’d be about to see a lot of maps with flags and arrows on them.

This is the first volume in the vastly popular A Song of Ice and Fire series, which has spawned a TV series, Game of Thrones.  There are planned to be seven volumes, of which five are out and the sixth is scheduled for release in 2017.  This may mean that the TV show will need a completely different ending.  Mr. Martin started writing this epic fantasy series with the idea of making it more “realistic” (cynical) than  many of the doorstopper fantasy books then  on the market.  As such, things do not always go well for people who try to stick to ideals such as honor and justice, leading to cruel, pointless deaths for them or others.   I should mention here that yes, GRRM does go to rape repeatedly as a way of showing how gritty and realistic the setting is, and there are at least a couple of child marriages that are pretty creepy.  (I am told that the TV series aged a couple of characters up.)

This book is written in tight third-person, so we only know what the current viewpoint character senses and thinks about.  This allows the author to keep certain things a mystery until another character is the point of view, and to shade the interpretation of certain events.

Most of the viewpoint characters in this first volume are members of the Stark family.  Eddard “Ned” Stark is more or less the main protagonist of this book.   A childhood friend of King Robert, he’s now been called upon to become the King’s Hand, the person who handles most of the daily details so the king can concentrate on ruling.  Their mentor had been the previous Hand, but recently died, and his wife sent the Starks a letter accusing the Lannisters of having a hand in it.  Eddard is a very honor-bound man and constantly attempts to do the right thing.  Given the nature of this series, that’s not healthy.  His clan motto is “Winter Is Coming.”

Catelyn is Ned’s wife, originally of the Tully family.  Her sister is the wife of Jon Arryn, the former hand.  Catelyn is fiercely protective of her children, which causes her to make several rash decisions.

Robb Stark is the eldest child and heir to their castle Winterfell.  At fourteen years old, he must assume a man’s role before even his harsh homeland’s usual standards.  We don’t get any point of view chapters for him.

Jon Snow is allegedly Ned Stark’s illegitimate child of about the same age as Robb.  While he certainly does resemble Ned, the older man’s refusal to explain anything about Jon’s conception or mother  beyond “he’s my bastard” suggests there is some mystery about his actual parentage.  Catelyn doesn’t like him one little bit.  He’s sent North to the Wall to join the Nightwatch like his Uncle Benjen, only to find out that conditions there are not as expected.  (Benjen goes missing shortly thereafter, one of the big mysteries of the series.)

Sansa Stark is the older daughter, who is good at activities considered traditionally feminine in Westeros.  She’s also a huge fan of chivalric romances, and thinks that’s how the world works, at least for her as she’s clearly the lady fair type.  (Think of an eleven-year-old Twilight fan who actually lives in a world where vampires follow horror tropes.)  She’s engaged to Robert’s handsome son Prince Joffrey and ignores some important clues to his real personality.  (In fairness, her father told her none of his evidence of what was really going on.)

Arya Stark is her slightly-younger sister, who is initially more likable for modern audiences, as she gets all of the “rebellious tomboy” personality bits.  She gets some important clues early on, but only being ten and not having context, doesn’t get to do much with them.

Brandon “Bran” Stark is seven, and an avid climber.  This gets him in trouble when he passes by a window that should have been unoccupied and learns a dangerous secret.  His subsequent near-death experience causes him to forget what he learned, but the person whose secret it is can’t take chances on that, and the assassination attempt made on Bran moves much of what Catelyn does for the rest of the book.

Rickon Stark is the baby of the family at three, and doesn’t get any point of view chapters in this book.  Nor does family guest/hostage Theon Greyjoy, who is slightly older than Robb and Jon, and is boarding at Winterfell as a hostage to the good behavior of his father.

Tyrion Lannister is the only member of his family to get point of view chapters.  Born with dwarfism, Tyrion was barely tolerated by his father Lord Tywin and sister Cersei, and marginally treated better by his handsome brother Jaime (now a Kingsguard.)  Clearly never going to win glory in knighthood, Tyrion has concentrated on honing his mind, and his razor tongue.  He is kind to Jon Snow and later Bran, but runs afoul of Catelyn Stark due to the manipulations of his enemies.

And then there’s Daenerys “Dani” Targaryen.  She and her older brother Viserys are the sole remaining grandchildren of the former king, and Viserys is thus the rightful ruler of Westeros for the Targaryen loyalists.  However, in exile in the Free Cities, their cause has not gone well, and the royal pair are broke.  In a last-ditch effort to raise an army which he can use to take back Westeros, Viserys arranges for Dani to be married to Khal Drogo, a mighty leader of the Dothraki horse nomads.

Despite his taste for child brides, Khal Drogo is a pretty good husband by Dothraki standards, and Danerys learns to love him.  Even better, their child is prophesied to become “The Stallion That Mounts the World.”  Viserys isn’t willing to wait until his nephew is born to start conquering things, and pushes a little too hard.  He probably never really understood what it means to “wake the dragon.”

Don’t get too attached to any of these people, Mr. Martin has no qualms about killing viewpoint characters in cruel and pointless ways.

Good things:  There are a lot of vividly-drawn characters in multiple factions–my edition has a list of the major clans and their members at the back, along with a timeline of the Targaryen Dynasty, and that still leaves out multiple members of the cast.  The politics are detailed but not too difficult to follow.  The main thing is that far too many nobles remember bad things that happened to their families decades and even centuries before, and operate on the principle of getting payback for that.

There are many twists and turns in the plot, so other than “someone’s going to have a cruel and pointless death soon” it’s hard to guess what’s happening next.    Sometimes I did get frustrated by people making boneheaded decisions for stupid reasons, but the majority of actions made sense given earlier or later explained motivations.

Less good:  The content issues noted earlier; Mr. Martin likes him some earthy language too, and is overfond of the word “bastard.”   This is rather obviously not a standalone book, with most of the plot threads still hanging loose at the end of Book One, and I am told many of them dangling through the end of Book Five!  Perhaps I should have stuck with my original intention of not starting until all the books are out.

To be honest, this series has had so much hype that you probably already know if you’re interested in trying it.

Let’s enjoy the Sesame Street version of the plotline!

Audio Review: The Adventures of Luke Skywalker

Audio Review: The Adventures of Luke Skywalker

Most Star Wars fans are aware that director George Lucas based much of the look and feel of the first movie on classic Hollywood films and especially the thrilling chapter serials.  But have you ever considered what A New Hope would sound like if it were a big-budget film made in Hollywood’s Golden Age?

The Adventures of Luke Skywalker

Someone certainly did, and put together a version that might have appeared on old time radio as part of Lux Radio Theater.  LRT was a weekly broadcast hosted by famed movie director Cecil B. DeMille that adapted recent movies for the radio, often with the actual stars of the movie reprising their roles.  You should be able to find episodes downloadable or streaming at various sites on the internet.

For this performance, there is a star-studded cast (provided by voice impersonators):  Mickey Rooney as Luke, Humphrey Bogart as Han Solo, Katherine Hepburn as Princess Leia, Bela Lugosi as Darth Vader, and so on.  (Rin Tin Tin as Chewbacca!)  It was recorded live; there’s some obvious microphone feedback towards the beginning and some of the cues are a teensy off.  Much of the story is carried by the narrator, who fills in what we’re supposed to be seeing.  (Saves on special effects!)

The story follows the familiar film, plus or minus a scene or two.  The dialogue has been altered at a few points to allow in-jokes for the “actors.’  (Bela doing the Dracula “bleh!” for example.)   Some of the impersonations are better than others; in fairness, some voices are easier to imitate.  As a purist when it comes to historical fiction, I was jarred by a couple of words being used that hadn’t been coined by the 1940s, even in science fiction.

It’s a lot of fun, and recommended to both Star Wars and old time radio fans.  On the down side, this recording had a limited number of copies made, and is now out of print, so may be difficult to track down.

Manga Review: Shonen Jump Weekly (2016)

Manga Review: Shonen Jump Weekly (2016) by various creators.

It’s the fourth anniversary of this blog (where does the time go!?) and thus my annual review of the online edition of Weekly Shounen Jump, Japan’s best-selling manga anthology.   The 2016 reaper has been busy here as elsewhere, with several long-running series ending:  Bleach, Nisekoi, Toriko and even the record-setting but mostly unknown outside Japan Kochikame (a gag series about a lazy cop in a quiet neighborhood police station.)  World Trigger and Hunter x Hunter are on indefinite hiatus due to creator health issues.  So let’s take a look at what’s left, starting with the weekly series.

Weekly Shonen Jump (2016)

One Piece: Now the tentpole long-runner of the magazine, the story of the Straw Hat Pirates as they sail around a world of mostly water in search of freedom and the ultimate treasure continues to be awesome, though the cast is perhaps now too large to fully utilize all of them properly.  Currently, the plot is centered around Sanji, the ship’s cook and would-be ladies’ man.  His unpleasant family has caught up with him, and Sanji is being forced into a political marriage with Pudding, the daughter of Big Mom, one of the Four Emperors.  Naturally, the rest of the crew and a few new allies are determined to rescue Sanji…even if he doesn’t want to be.

My Hero Academia:  The kids of Class 1-A have almost all gotten their provisional superhero licenses.  One of the exceptions is the explosive Bakugou, who has almost but not quite figured out the connection between formerly Quirkless classmate Deku and the now powerless All-Might.  Bakugou and Deku are now having a discussion about their relationship, and in the tradition of both superhero comics and shounen manga, they’re having it with their fists.  Still one of the best superhero school comics out there.

The Promised Neverland:  New this year, and the most promising of the newcomers.  Emma and the other children in the orphanage never questioned the rules about not leaving the grounds, or wondered what happened to the kids who were adopted.  Until the day they learned the horrible truth–the children who leave are eaten by demons!  Now Emma and the two smartest boys in the orphanage, Norman and Ray, must figure out a way to escape, even though Mother Isabella and Sister Krone are keeping a sharp eye out for potential trouble.

We’re still in the early stages of the plot, and much remains mysterious–just what is Isabella’s real motive here?  Do the demons control all of Earth, or just the area around the orphanage?  Just where is the orphanage anyway?  With all the plotting and counter-plotting, this is so far a worthy successor to Death Note.

Black Clover:  In the world where everyone has at least some magical ability except Asta (who now has anti-magic), the Black Bulls are the dregs of the Magic Knights of the Clover Kingdom.  But just because they’re a ragtag bunch of misfits doesn’t mean they’re pushovers!  Currently, two groups that are enemies of the Clover Kingdom have teamed up to attack the Witches’ Forest–good thing the Black Bulls just happened to be there to get medical attention for Asta’s arms!

Food Wars!:  Soma’s education at the elite culinary school Totsuki Institute is threatened when an embittered former student, Azami Nakiri, takes over the school and insists that everyone must now cook only the recipes he likes in the way he prescribes.  Soma and his fellow rebels have been whittled away by rigged final exams, but now Azami’s old classmate (and Soma’s father) Joichiro has shown up to propose a team shokugeki (cooking contest) for all the marbles!  Can the Polar Star team win, even with Azami’s genius chef daughter Erina on their side?

RWBY:  Based on the popular webtoon, this manga covers events that happened before the four girls who make up the RWBY team joined together at their school for monster hunting training.  The current plotline involves Blake (the “B”), who is a member of the Faunus, a humanoid species that is discriminated against by the majority humans.  She was once a train robber to help her people, but her partner Adam crossed the line….  I have not been very impressed with this tie-in.

The most recent issues have two “Jump Start” series that have just started in Japan and may be added to the regular rotation.

Demon’s Plan involves two boys who grew up in a slum together, working hard and saving money for a chance to get a wish from an artifact known as “the Demon’s Plan.”  It turns out that artifact was a fake, but in  the process the owner of the real thing shows up and turns them both into “demons” who must now battle other demons and eventually each other.  The one  who’s less enthused about that idea has made it to the big city in search of the cruel creator of demons.  Could be good, not hitting me well just yet.

Ole Golazo is about a lad named Banba who was a tae kwon do champion before being banned from the sport for fighting.  (In fairness, he was provoked beyond endurance, but rules is rules.)  Adrift in high school, he develops a crush on a girl, and tries to join the soccer team she manages.  Banba has amazing kicking skills, but knows nothing of the rules and customs of “the Beautiful Game.”  Can he be trained to work with a team to achieve victory?  Very reminiscent of the early chapters of Slam Dunk and has some likability.

And then there’s monthly features as well, so let’s look at those–

Seraph of the End:  On the post-apocalyptic world, our heroes have gone AWOL from the Demon Army (which is humans who use demon weapons that if abused will turn them into demons) and teamed up with the nicest vampire they’ve met so far.  They’re in a tenuous alliance with some vampires that seem to be rebelling against their top-heavy social order, but who are not to be trusted.  In the most recent chapter, annoying vampire Crowley reveals he is far more powerful than he’s been letting on.  But he’s still well below the person the alliance will need to beat for the next step of the plan.

Blue Exorcist:  The focus is off Rin “Son of Satan” Okamura for the moment, as his classmate in exorcism training Ryuji works with unorthodox investigator Lightning to discover what happened to several missing people on the Blue Night.  It seems there’s a secret laboratory located on a different time axis below the cram school.

Boruto:  A sequel to the long-running Naruto series starring the son of Naruto.  His father’s turned into a boring bureaucrat who’s hardly ever home, and Boruto tries to get his attention by winning big in a multi-village tournament/exam.  Except that Boruto is talked into using some devices that are against the rules, and is shamed by his father for it.  Now, Naruto has been captured by new villains, and Boruto must regain his honor by joining the rescue team.

Yu-Gi-Oh! Arc-V:  I have actually completely lost track of what the plotline is supposed to be, though it seems that both the multiple personality protagonist and his arch-enemy have traveled back in time from when children’s card games destroyed the Earth.  I’m not even sure a full twenty-four hours have passed since the beginning of the series, and certainly the card game school mentioned early on has gotten zero development since.  This is a hot mess.

One-Punch Man:  Saitama, the superhero who can defeat any opponent with a single punch (and that really sucks for him) is participating in a martial arts tournament in a wig disguise.  Meanwhile, most of the other heroes are dealing with a huge monster infestation.  Slow going, but still very amusing.

Although the loss of several popular series seems to have caused a drop in sales for the print edition, the online version is still excellent value for money and is highly recommended for fans of shounen manga.

Comic Strip Review: Kill 6 Billion Demons 1

Comic Strip Review: Kill 6 Billion Demons 1 by Tom Parkinson-Morgan

Disclaimer:  I received this volume as a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Post-graduate student Allison Ruth and her boyfriend Zaid are attempting to have sex for the first time.  But the usual awkwardness becomes a non-issue when demonic-looking knights invade Allison’s dorm room and kidnap Zaid.  Their apparent leader jams a jewel into Allison’s forehead that…expands her consciousness?  When her vision clears, Allison doesn’t know where she is, but it’s certainly not Earth!

Kill 6 Billion Demons 1

According to “82 White Chain Born in Emptiness Returns to Subdue Evil”, an angel (approximately) who becomes the closest thing Allison has to an ally, this world is Throne, the center of the Multiverse, and used to be Heaven (approximately) before the gods went elsewhere.  Now Throne is a wretched hive of scum and villainy, infested with demons, demiurges and less savory beings as ganglords and shady guilds squabble over territory.

The gem embedded in Allison’s forehead turns out to be a powerful key, which makes her a valuable prize ripe for the taking.  But Allison isn’t at all keen on what anyone else wants for her.  She wants to be reunited with Zaid, go home, and have her life make sense again.  Not necessarily in that order.

This is the first collected volume of the webcomic, which can be found at http://killsixbilliondemons.com/comic/kill-six-billion-demons-chapter-1/   It covers the first few chapters, up to about the point Allison finally gets her head together some and decides to take her own actions instead of being just dragged around from one madcap situation to the next.

The setting (which takes aspects from Hinduism, Zen Buddhism and many other sources) allows the creator to stretch his imaginative muscles with bizarre backgrounds and distinctive non-human characters.  Allison undergoes several appearance changes herself, with the one consistent feature being her wide-open eyes, giving her a perpetually startled appearance.  (To be fair, most people would be perpetually startled under the circumstances.)  The one flaw with this being a print edition is that some of the larger spreads wind up having explanatory tags in  tiny font, so you may need a magnifying glass for full enjoyment.

Actual plot is thin on the ground, as Allison is only interacting with other characters in chases, confrontations or brief breathing spaces–we’re introduced to over a dozen characters who seem like they’ll be important to the story later, but right now we just have names/job titles/distinctive appearances.

Allison comes across rather shallow, but again this is excusable under her extreme circumstances; I’ve read ahead, and she gets more interesting.  In this volume, the interesting people are White Chain, who holds on to their (angels are agender, officially) ethical standards as much as possible even when circumstances require a far lower bar for what’s acceptable; and Cio, a cynical blue-masked demon who used to be a powerful master thief but has been depowered and now works as a bookkeeper in a brothel (until she quits to help out Allison…for her own reasons.)

While there’s quite a bit of discussion of sexual topics, and some non-graphic nudity, there’s no on-camera sex.  Lots of violence, though, some pretty graphic.  Some rough language as well.  Every so often there are text pieces that tell stories from the background mythology; these don’t always have standard endings.

Recommended for fantasy fans who don’t mind that much of what’s going on is confusing and won’t make sense until much later.  Yes, you can read it for free on the internet, but cash infusions from the print version help the artist keep creating.

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology

Book Review: Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

As the subtitle of this volume indicates, it’s a collection of 29 short stories written from a feminist perspective. There are selections from the 1960s through the 2000s–SF, fantasy, horror and a couple of stories that seem to be included out of courtesy because of “surrealism.”

Sisters of the Revolution

The anthology begins with “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.” by L. Timmel Duchamp, an account of a journalist’s meeting with a woman whose use of language is considered so dangerous that a Constitutional amendment has been passed to specifically ban those words. The journalist has a photo-op with Margaret A. in the prison that woman is being held in, and the experience changes her. It’s an interesting use of literary techniques to suggest the power of Margaret A.’s words without ever directly quoting them.

The final story is “Home by the Sea” by Elisabeth Vonarburg, in which a gynoid in a post-apocalyptic world returns to her mother/creator to ask some questions. The answers to those questions both disturb and give new hope. Like several other stories in the volume, this one deals with the nature of motherhood, and the mother-daughter relationship.

There are some of the classic stories that are almost mandatory for the subject of feminist speculative fiction: “The Screwfly Solution” by James Tiptree, Jr. (men abruptly start murdering people they’re sexually attracted to, mostly women but the story tacitly acknowledges homosexuality); “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ (a planet with an all-female society is contacted by men from Earth after centuries of isolation–it originally ran in Again, Dangerous Visions, an anthology for stories with themes considered too controversial to be published elsewhere, times have changed); and Octavia K. Butler’s “The Evening the Morning and the Night” (a woman with a genetic disorder discovers that she has a gift that fits her exactly for a specific job, whether she wants that job or not.)

The anthologists have also made an effort to include stories that are “intersectional”, providing perspectives from other parts of the world. “The Palm Tree Bandit” by Nnedi Okorofor tells the story of a Nigerian woman who defies a sexist tradition and starts one of her own. Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Glass Bottle Trick” is a retelling of the Bluebeard story in modern Jamaica (this time the women avenge their own), and “Tales from the Breast” by Hiromi Goto, wherein a Japanese-Canadian woman discovers a solution to her breastfeeding problems.

Some other standouts include: “The Grammarian’s Five Daughters” by Eleanor Arnason (a fairy tale about language); “The Fall River Axe Murders” by Angela Carter (one of the stories that really doesn’t feel like speculative fiction, but is really well-written, set in the moments just before Lizzie Borden is about to get up and kill her parents) and “Stable Strategies for Middle Management” by Eileen Gunn (how far would you go to fit into the corporate culture? Would you let them shoot you up with insect genes?)

Tanith Lee’s “Northern Chess” is a fantasy tale of a warrior woman infiltrating a castle cursed to be a deathtrap by an evil alchemist. It’s exciting, but the ending relies on a now-hoary twist. Still worth reading if you haven’t had the chance before.

Most of the other stories are at least middling good. The weakest for me was “My Flannel Knickers” by Leonora Carrington, which falls into the surrealist category and seems to be about a woman who has rejected conventional beauty standards. Probably.

Rape, sexualized violence and domestic abuse are discussed; I’d put this book as suitable for bright senior high schoolers, though individual stories could be enjoyable by younger readers.

Recommended for feminists, those interested in feminist themes, and anthology fans.

Book Review: The Queen of Zamba

Book Review: The Queen of Zamba by L. Sprague de Camp (Also published as Cosmic Manhunt)

It started out as a normal missing person case.  Victor Hasselborg was hired to find runaway heiress Julnar Batruni.  Her trail is easy to pick up, as she used her own name to buy tickets off-planet with her lover, one Anthony Fallon.  Victor pursues them to the distant world of Krishna, where he runs into a snag.

The Queen of Zamba

It seems that Krishna is under a technological interdict, to prevent the warlike natives from gaining the ability to destroy themselves (and others) before their civilizations advance to more peaceful methods of conflict resolution.  Thus Victor must shed most of his advanced equipment and disguise himself as a native to search for the lovers.  Can a man used to automatic pistols and fast cars survive with a sword and aya-drawn buggy?  And once he does find his targets, will he survive his encounter with the Queen of Zamba?

This story is part of the Viagens Interplanetarias setting, created by Mr. de Camp as a way to use many of the tropes of “planetary romance” in a more plausible way than had previously been the case.  (Edgar Rice Burroughs, the founder of the subgenre with A Princess of Mars, had focused more on the fiction side of “science fiction” and most authors writing in the same vein had stuck with that.)   So the Krishnans, while appearing close enough to Terrans so that they can easily disguise themselves as each other, can make whoopee with humans but not babies.  There’s a reasonable explanation for using swords and riding animals when more technologically advanced items exist.  And our protagonists can’t just zip between worlds–thanks to relativistic effects, voyages that take months for the traveling characters take years for the people left behind.  Even with improved human longevity and safe suspended animation, normal people with settled lives aren’t keen on repeated space travel.

Thus our protagonist, Victor Hasselborg.  In some ways, he’s a typical fictional private eye.  Disappointed in love, recovering alcoholic, tough talker, will kill if he has to.  But he’s also a germ-phobic hypochondriac who is skittish around attractive women who seem a bit too interested, and none too interested in the adventurous life.

There’s also some inventiveness in the general setting–after World War 3, the Soviet Union was gone and the United States crippled to the point it had to merge with Canada to survive.  And Brazil became the world’s leading power, aided by having invented starships.  On the other hand, people still smoke cigars in this 22nd Century, and the number one occupation of Earthwomen is “housewife.”  (A Krishnan woman expresses her desire to become one as the rumors she hears of Earth romanticize the position.)

During the story, Victor runs into treachery and eventually must team up with another Terran in disguise to prevent technological horror from being unleashed on Krishna.

Originally written in the late 1940s, this story was reprinted by Ace Books under the title Cosmic Manhunt and with the ethnicity of one of the characters changed due to politics.  This “Asimov’s Choice” edition restores the original title and character.

To fill out the volume, a longish story entitled “Perpetual Motion” has been added.  Con artist Felix Borel comes to Krishna to fleece the natives with a twist on the technology ban.  He can’t introduce any innovation that is beyond current Krishnan science or technology, but since perpetual motion machines are impossible, they don’t count, right?  Felix is not a good person, though he can twist events to make himself look better–right up until his luck runs out.  This story shares a minor character with the main event.

This is light adventure and fast reading; even with the added plausibility, you shouldn’t think about the science too hard.  Recommended for planetary romance fans.  There are quite a few Viagens Interplanetarias stories; I also recommend Rogue Queen if you can find it.

Book Review: Father of Lies | Mirror Image

Book Review: Father of Lies | Mirror Image by John Brunner and Bruce Duncan, respectively.

Belmont Books was a minor publisher of paperback books with a specialty in speculative fiction, which lasted from 1960 to 1971.  Apparently in an effort to mimic the success of Ace Doubles, they produced a series of “Belmont Doubles” that tucked two novellas into one book, but without the reversed printing that made Ace’s books distinctive.  This particular volume was printed in 1968.  While the two stories have little in common, the cover blurb does a good job of linking them.

Father of Lies | Mirror Image

“Father of Lies” is by John Brunner (Stand on Zanzibar) and features a group of seven amateur parapsychologists.  After a failed attempt to find a “Nessie” type creature in another loch, one of them interests the others in investigating a circle of land in England that seems to have dropped off the memory of everyone outside it, to the point that the maps don’t match what can be observed of the territory.

The team learns that after a certain point into “the Blank Space” modern technology doesn’t work.  The people inside seem to be in a medieval social stasis, and one of the team who happens to have studied older forms of English is told by the locals that there’s an ogre about.  When another of the group, Miles, enters from a different direction, he learns that there’s also a dragon.  He also sees modern tire treads heading into the territory and decides to investigate–then vanishes!

There’s some fascinating Arthurian stuff going on, and a couple of exciting scenes involving the ogre and dragon.  Plus, Miles meets a naked modern woman named Vivien who’s about to become a human sacrifice.  The tension is high in places.  The title does come into play, but not as you would normally expect it to.

The characterization is kind of lacking; two of the seven parapsychology team never show up in person or have lines, and most of the rest get one personality trait each.  Miles and Vivien aren’t much better off, getting “bookish fellow who finds his inner hero” and “modern independent woman with no identifiable skill set but is very brave.”  The villain is also kind of shallow, childishly evil.

The ending is kind of abrupt, with the reveal of what’s been going on in a rushed infodump after an important character dies.

“Mirror Image” is by Bruce Duncan, which turns out to be a pen name for Irving A. Greenfield (Only the Dead Speak Russian).  Go-go dancer Trudy Lane drops dead in the street, but when she’s autopsied an hour later, the doctor finds that she’s been dead over seventy-two hours.  New York police detective Luis Santiago is saddled with this bizarre case, which only gets weirder when another Trudy Lane body shows up cut in half and stuffed in trash cans.

Meanwhile, America’s most advanced nuclear submarine, the Triton, sails out on a secret mission.  There’s some concern about Petty Officer Second Class Warren Hall, who got a “Dear John” letter just before going on shore leave.  He disappeared for several hours during the night, but they do know he was seen with a go-go dancer named…Trudy Lane.  Hall admits that he spent time with her, but lies about another man he was seen with at the Mermaid Club.  Odd.

The reader is not left in suspense long.  (Imagine that meme with the guy from  the History Channel saying “ALIENS”.)  Yes, aliens are invading the Earth and replacing certain people with robots under their command.

The best parts of the story are the bits from the perspective of the Hall robot, which has the parts of Hall’s memories the aliens considered essential, but doesn’t really grok human behavior.  It’s not quite to the level of “Hello, fellow humans.” but Hall keeps doing or saying things that set off people’s uncanny valley instincts.

The aliens appear to have some form of mind-control ability as well, but this is inconsistently portrayed.  The lead alien’s exposition is deadpan enough that it’s almost funny.

It’s a decent enough story, but again the characterization is lacking, and thus the parts that should be thrilling as the submarine is taken over fall flat.

Mostly I recommend this for the John Brunner completist as the previous published version of “Father of Lies” in  Science Fantasy #52 (April 1962) will be even harder to find.

Manga Review: Weekly Shonen Jump (2015)

Manga Review: Weekly Shonen Jump (2015) by various creators.

It’s the third anniversary of this blog, and as is my custom, I’ll be looking at the current lineup of Weekly Shonen Jump, the online version of Shounen Jump.  For those just joining us, Shounen Jump is the top-selling shounen manga (boys’ comic book) in Japan.  Many of its series get anime (animated cartoon) adaptations, and its ethos of “friendship, struggle and victory” has been highly influential in manga circles.

Shonen Jump  2015

The struggle is exemplified in the magazine itself by the reader polling system.  Each issue comes with a survey to mail in, and the placement of further chapters within the magazine is based on how well they do in the polls.  Popular series get prime spots near the front, while struggling series get moved to the back.  Series that do poorly for an extended period tend to get axed–if this happens right away, it’s called “ten-weeked” for the minimum time a series will be kept.  (There are a couple of exceptions to the polling system that are more or less immune to being cancelled as their collected volume sales are very high, even though the weekly readers rate them poorly.)

Not all of the series in the print edition make it into the online edition, which also adds some monthly features from other magazines also owned by the same publisher.  Let’s start with the weeklies.

One Piece:  On a world that is 90% ocean, a boy named Luffy decides to become the Pirate King.  He gathers a wacky crew as he sails around the world looking for the mysterious “One Piece” treasure of the previous Pirate King.  Currently, the situation in Spanish-flavored Dressrosa has been resolved, and the crew is looking for their vanished members on the “island” (actually a massive elephant) Zou, home to a tribe of animal-people called Minks.

World Trigger:  Earth is periodically invaded by beings from a parallel universe called “Neighbors.”   The agents of BORDER are our primary defense against them.   Currently, our viewpoint agents are engaged in a tournament called “Rank Wars” to try to qualify for an away mission to rescue kidnapped Earthlings from the Neighbor dimension.  This is about to be complicated as a Neighbor strike force has arrived with the intention of crippling BORDER’s ability to launch away missions.  The artist has been having health issues, so the feature takes frequent breaks.

Bleach:  Teenager Ichigo Kurosaki has the ability to see spirits, and has since been inducted into the Soul Society, which attempts to stop evil spirits and conduct good ones to the afterlife.   This is still on what is supposed to be the final arc, as the previously-thought-dead Quincies invade the Soul Society to destroy the afterlife as we know it and presumably replace it with one where they’re in charge.  It looks like the creator is going to milk every last member of the huge cast for extensive flashbacks–we may be at this for another three years.

My Hero Academia:  Izuku Midoriya (aka “Deku”) was born without superpowers on an alternate Earth where 80% of the population has “Quirks.”  But he has the heart of a hero, and has earned a special power, so can attend a magnet school for aspiring superheroes.  Currently, Deku’s class is on a summer field trip for intensive training.  (I’ve reviewed a couple of the individual volumes.)

Nisekoi:  Raku and Chitoge, the scions of feuding crime families, are forced into a fake dating relationship (the “false love” of the title) to stop the feud.  They start developing genuine feelings for each other, but things are complicated by there being several girls who have a thing for Raku, at least one of whom he also has feelings for.   The series just concluded a story arc that eliminated one of the “harem” from consideration; this did very poorly in the polls, perhaps because it centered around her frankly annoying personality and equally annoying family.   Now Raku is down to two viable choices and desperately trying to avoid making up his mind.

Toriko:  A far-future Earth has become a world where the more dangerous a creature is, the more delicious it is (usually), and Toriko is one of the top Gourmet Hunters, dedicated to seeking out new flavors and foods.  Over time, the series has come to focus more on his sidekick, aspiring chef Komatsu.  This may be in its final story arc, as the Earth is “ripe” and about to be eaten by a cosmic being, unless our heroes find an alternative.  But there is so much going on with different parts of the cast that it may take several real-time years to resolve.

Black Clover:  In a fantasy world where everyone can use at least some magic, Asta was born without any.  He’s trained his body extensively to make up for this, and has “never giving up” as his primary personality trait.  At his society’s coming of age ceremony, he initally does not get a grimoire of spells, but then is gifted with one that turns into a sword with the power of anti-magic.  He joins the Magic Knights that protect his kingdom, but only in the Black Bulls, a ragtag group of misfits who are looked down upon by the more professional units.  This series is new this year, and is considered something of a successor to Naruto.  Currently, Asta is helping a mirror mage and a fire-powered nun fight kidnappers who steal the magic from children.

Food Wars!:  Known as “Shokugeki no Souma” in Japan, this series features Souma, a young maverick aspiring chef as he attends the top culinary institute in Japan and engages in cooking battles.  The early chapters were heavy on the cheesecake imagery, but the series has backed off on that some to concentrate on the food porn.  Currently, the school has been taken over by a sinister man who wants to make all cooking conform to his idea of perfection without regard for individual tastes, and Souma is in a cooking contest with one of that man’s minions (who has already bought the judges, so we have no idea how he’s going to win.)

On to monthly features.

Blue Exorcist:  Rin Okumura discovers  that he is the son of Satan, destined to bring about his father’s final triumph.  Rin decides to defy his heritage and joins a school for exorcists that battle the forces of evil.   Currently, Rin and his human (or is he?) fraternal twin Yukio have been sent on a mission to locate a missing exorcist.  They spend much of this month’s chapter being mistaken for a gay couple, much to Yukio’s annoyance.  (Rin seems to think it’s kind of funny.)

Seraph of the End:  In the not too distant future, a plague seemingly wipes out all adults, and many of the surviving children are enslaved underground by vampires.  Yuichiro Hyakuya, one of these slaves, escapes to the surface, at the cost of losing his friend Mikaela Hyakuya (they were named after the orphanage they were brought up in before the plague.)  Yu joins the Demon Army, humanity’s last defense against the vampire menace…or are they the real enemy?  Currently, Yu has been reunited with Mikaela, who has become a vampire.  Meanwhile, the Demon Army’s mission seems to have gone south, or possibly that was always the plan, as the top brass start sacrificing their own troops to summon the Seraph of the End, and Captain Guren appears to have gone insane and it’s not clear what side if any he’s on now.

One-Punch Man:  Saitama trained really hard to become a superhero that could take out any opponent with one punch.  He achieved that goal, but found it hollow as fights no longer hold any joy for him.  This parody of superheroes turns out to have some deeper themes about what it really means to be a hero.  Currently, the main plot seems to be about Garo, who hates stories where the hero always wins, and is working to become a villain who can defeat any hero.  (See my review of the first volume.)

Yu-Gi-Oh Arc-V:  yet another spin-off of the toyetic Yu-Gi-Oh series, centered around a children’s card game that is the most important thing in the world.  Yuzu Hiragi is the heiress to a card dueling school that’s seen better days, and is trying to snag a celebrity duelist as a teacher.  She’d like to snag the mysterious Phantom, who’s been engaging in illegal card games, but may have to settle for another person with a very similar appearance.  Currently, it appears that Yuzu’s father has been kidnapped to lure the Phantom into a duel.

The online edition also features a “Jump Back” slot, reprinting the first few chapters of an earlier series to advertise the back volumes.  Currently it’s running Yu Yu Hakusho.  Junior high delinquent Yuusuke Urameshi is dead on the first page, having senselessly sacrificed his life to save a child that wasn’t actually in danger.  But because of his anomalous circumstances, Yuusuke can undergo a test to see if he is worthy of returning to life.  (Yes, but the experience leaves him with supernatural powers he must use to protect humanity.)

This is still a huge bargain for anyone who likes shounen manga, even if not all the series are that good, and lives in a country with legal access.  Recommended.

Magazine Review: Argosy October 8, 1938

Magazine Review: Argosy October 8, 1938

Argosy began its life as The Golden Argosy, a children’s weekly, in 1882.  By 1889 publisher Fred Munsey had discovered that the readers aged out too fast to keep the magazine viable, so he switched to fiction aimed at adult readers and shortened the title.  It’s considered one of the first pulp magazines, and published many famous authors.

Argosy October 8 1938

By 1938, the magazine had combined with several others, but continued to be weekly.  Rather than a specific genre, Argosy published adventure of all types.  Generally, it would have two or three  novel-length stories serialized, and then the rest of the magazine would be self-contained short stories.  Series of short stories were also common, bringing back a colorful character in different circumstances.

“Two Hours to Go” by Theodore Roscoe is the cover story (cover by Emmett Watson), with the first part of six.  A Trans-Andean flight is forced down to an abandoned airstrip by mechanical failure and stormy weather.  While the pilot goes off in search of the nearest place with a telephone, the passengers play a game.  “What would you do if you had only two hours to live?”  The man proposing the game has an ulterior motive–he knows a murderer is on board, and hopes to identify that person by what they say.

There’s a character who is obviously supposed to be autocratic and eccentric publisher William Randolph Hearst (three years before Citizen Kane!) and his mistress, a faded movie starlet who clawed her way up from poverty.  Also an algebra teacher who hate schedules and a lawyer who wants to reform the legal system.  This installment ends with a poor little rich girl saying she killed a man–but does that make her the murderer?  Several nice monologues, and I’m glad it’s not the story about the soccer players.

“Bluebeard’s Closet” by H. Bedford-Jones is a weird story about Gilles de Rais and an encounter he supposedly had with Jeanne d’Arc after her execution.  There’s a framing story about a museum of the occult called the Halfway House that a Joan of Arc scholar has been called to.   He and the narrator witness the events of the past…or do they?  And was that woman really Joan, or an imposter?  The world may never know.  I felt the frame story weakened the tale a bit.

“River Pig” by Robert E. Pinkerton sets itself in the woods of Wisconsin in horse and buggy days.  A lumberjack foreman who’s just argued himself out of a job saves a young woman from a runaway horse, and consequently gets hired by her father, a rival logging baron.  As it happens, the baron is overextended in wheat, and cutting corners–so he decides to smash the foreman’s previous boss (and best friend, even if they’re not on speaking terms right now.)   Can a lowly river pig get the logs to the mill on time, put the crooked baron in his place and still win the heart of the girl?  I don’t think it spoils the story to say, yes, he can.

“Death Had a Pencil” by Richard Sale reminded me a bit of Death Note.  There’s this ancient Persian scriber that was used to sign death warrants.  Supposedly, it’s been cursed so that anyone or anything that has its picture X-d out by the pencil dies within twenty-four hours.  But Captain McGrail of the NYPD smells a rat in the picture somewhere.  After all, curses don’t really work…right?  Nifty story with a logical twist.

“Beat to Quarters” by C.S. Forester is part four of six of the first Horatio Hornblower novel written.  (Published as The Happy Return in Britain.)  It’s sixth in the chronological sequence.  Captain Hornblower has been helping a South American revolutionary, El Supremo, against the Spanish, but has now learned that England and Spain are allies.  This means he must battle the very ship he just acquired for El Supremo.   This chapter is the first round of that battle, fought in the heart of a raging storm.  Both ships are heavily damaged, but the revolutionary ship is closer to a friendly port–can Hornblower’s crew repair the ship in time and find the enemy in a trackless sea?   Great stuff.

“For Divers Reasons” by William E. Barrett is a boxing story.  A fighter fresh from the West is finding the boxing game more…complicated in the East.   When his love interest asks if he’s going to take a dive in his upcoming fight, he can’t honestly answer “no” and that bothers him.  On the other hand, he hasn’t actually been told to lose….  Some brutal fight descriptions in this one.

“Weasel, Weasel” by Frank Richardson Pierce is narrated by No-Shirt McGee, an Alaskan prospector and series character.  A criminal is playing mind games with a deputy U.S. Marshal, and the law officer is rapidly heading for a heart attack.  Will his doctor’s prescription cure–or kill?  So-so story.

“It’s Hard to Die” by Walter Ripperger concludes with its third part rounding out the issue.  A man thinks his brother has committed suicide due to embezzling large sums of money, and is trying to get himself killed in a non-suicide manner to collect the insurance and pay off the debt.   He’s finally found a gangster willing to do the job, but that criminal would like to keep the insurance money for himself.  Meanwhile, a police detective has figured out that the brother was actually murdered, and was not an embezzler.   Evil is paid unto evil, thanks to a descendant of the Borgias.  This is one of those stories where a crook could have won, getting out with an amazing amount of money, but he can’t control his greed.

There are a couple of picture features, and an oddly amiable letter column.

Most of these stories will be hard to track down, but Beat to Quarters is a classic and you should be able to find it in any decent book store.  A fun read!

Book Review: The Black Spider

Book Review: The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf

It is a beautiful day in rural Switzerland, sunny and warm–a good day for a christening.  As the guests digest the first part of the feast, one of them notices an anomalous piece of wood built into one of the window frames.  The infant’s grandfather tells the tale of a cruel feudal lord, a bold woman, the devil…and a black spider.

This tale of terror was written in 1842 by Swiss pastor Albert Bitzius, who wrote under the name of Jeremias Gotthelf.   This is a new translation by Susan Bernofsky.

The Black Spider

As is common with stories of the time, The Black Spider takes its own sweet time to get started.  It begins with a long description of a farm family  and their neighbors getting ready for the christening and the subsequent party; if nothing else, it’s a window into the customs of rural Switzerland in the Nineteenth Century.  Eventually a chance remark leads into the main action of the story.

It seems that this valley was once under the control of the Teutonic Knights, and the master of the castle makes unreasonable demands of the peasants.  At last he asks the impossible, and the farmers despair.  A mysterious stranger offers to help them out, and it sounds too good to be true.  This dark-skinned and red-haired stranger is of course the Devil, and he’ll help them out in exchange for one unbaptized child.  They cavil, and it is the bold wife of one who finally agrees, the deal sealed with a kiss on her cheek.

The Devil is as good as his word, helping move a forest from one mountain to another.  But this is a horror story, and a deal with the Devil never ends well.  Soon a child is about to be born, and the black hickey on Christine’s cheek begins to grow and sprout “legs” like a spider, reminding her to give the Devil his due.  Naturally, the villagers decide that they don’t want to give a baby to the Prince of Darkness

Christine is thwarted once and again, and the black spider appears for the first time, bringing disaster to the valley.  Now Christine’s own sister-in-law is fast approaching her travail, and this time the villagers are convinced it might be a good idea to give over.  The ensuing events release the full power of the black spider.

The monster is finally sealed by the self-sacrifice of a pious woman, but the story isn’t over yet.   An impious jerk releases the black spider once more, and the valley is nearly depopulated before it is put back into the wood.  Now only the piety and faith in God of the farm family keeps the creature confined.

The horror of the tale is enhanced by the framing; a sunny day of happiness and feasting, and the grandfather’s matter of fact telling.  (There are a couple of spots where he’s clearly embellishing, however–he describes more than one scene where there were no survivors to give details.)

There are a few things that might not sit well with modern  readers; Christine is essentially punished for having more gumption than was proper for a woman.  There’s a certain amount of classism; servants must be firmly controlled.  And while God’s power is effective against the black spider, it’s really noticeable that no Heavenly intervention comes to help the peasants against their overlord–it only steps in to directly thwart the powers of Hell.

Recommended to horror fans who don’t mind a leisurely pace and strong religious themes.

 

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