Book Review: Ready Player One

Book Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Wade Watts is a gunter.  That’s short for “Easter egg hunter,” which has nothing to do with the holiday.  Born into grinding poverty as the child of refugees in the energy-starved dystopian future, Wade was orphaned at an early age and put into the hands of a neglectful aunt living in a skyscraper trailer park/junk heap.  Gifted at repairing discarded and broken hardware, Wade’s one chance at getting out of this hardscrabble life is winning a contest.

Ready Player One

It seems that the billionaire creator of OASIS, the virtual reality that nearly everyone in the world uses for games, business and school, set up a game before his death.  James Donovan Halliday (Anorak on the internet) had a massive obsession with the pop culture of the 1980s, the decade he’d been a teen in.  The first person to solve a series of puzzles and complete tasks based on Eighties trivia, movies, games and music will inherit Halliday’s company and all its wealth.

Thus it is that Wade and his fellow gunters have also developed an obsession with the Eighties, as they scramble to be the first to find the Easter egg that will make its owner incredibly rich.  However, in five years no one has managed to pass the first gate.  Until, of course,  Wade stumbles across an obvious in retrospect clue.

In a bit of a surprise twist, he’s not the first to do so, but manages to be the first to accomplish the associated challenge.  The game shifts into overdrive as Wade (or rather his OASIS codename Parzival) becomes an overnight celebrity and target.  To win the contest he’s going to need more than a command of Monty Python jokes!  He may even need to go…outside.

This book reads like a young adult cyberpunk novel…written for geeky forty-somethings.  I’m a bit older than that, but still managed to get most of the references due to having been very geeky during the 1980s.  One of the notes that makes it obvious this is a book for grownups is that our protagonist gets a day job to pay his bills so he can devote time to being a gunter.

The main villains of the story are the IOI corporation and its Oology Division.  IOI wants the cash cow that is OASIS, and to make it “pay to play”, shutting out poor people like Wade and the others who live in the Stacks.  (They’ve already managed to get laws passed to legalize indentured servitude.)  IOI is fully willing to use its monetary and manpower resources to gain unfair advantage over ordinary gunters, and Wade soon discovers just how far the corporation will go to have its way.

Wade starts the story already gifted in the skills and knowledge he’ll need to accomplish his goal…except interpersonal relationship skills.  His background has made Parzival a paranoid solo operator, and over the course of the novel he must learn to build bonds of friendship with the other elite gunters he meets.  A common theme is that all of these people only know each other from virtual reality, and their avatars conceal (or reveal) important information about their true selves.

Though we wouldn’t have a story without it, I can’t help feeling that if Mr. Halliday had found some way of getting people to work on solving the “real world” problems of the dystopian future as hard as they were trying to perfectly recreate the 1980s in cyberspace, things wouldn’t be nearly as bad for Wade and others.  At least one of the gunters, Art3mis, does intend to use the money to try to fix things.

Apparently future society has stagnated or regressed on certain civil issues, back to the Nineties or so.  There’s also references to offpage sex.  It should be okay for junior high readers on up, but the heavy emphasis on things that were cool back in their parents’ time might be off-putting.

Recommended primarily to geeky forty-somethings, with some overlap for geeks on either side of “80s kids”.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Batman, Volume 6

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Batman, Volume 6 edited by Julius Schwartz

By 1971, the Batman television show had been off the air long enough that its sales boost to the Batman and Detective Comics series had faded, and with it, the incentive to model the magazines on the show.  Bruce Wayne moved from stately Wayne Manor to a penthouse in downtown Gotham City and started a charitable organization for victims of crime.  Dick “Robin” Grayson went off to college on the other side of the state, and guest-starred infrequently.  And most of Batman’s regular rogues’ gallery took a vacation.

Showcase Presents: Batman Volume 6

This freed up space for a more somber tone, although this run certainly had its own silliness, such as a return engagement by the Ten-Eyed Man, whose optic nerves had been transplanted into his fingers.  And Two-Face made an appearance for the first official time since the 1950s.  But quite a few of the stories had Batman facing off against ordinary murderers and organized crime…as well as what appeared to be ghosts and psychic powers.

This volume covers Batman 229-236 and Detective Comics 408-416.  The first story, “Asylum of the Futurians” pits the Caped Crusader against a group of apparent lunatics who’ve captured a photographer in the mistaken belief he possesses psychic abilities that will make him their leader.  (It’s never clear that the Futurians actually have ESP; it certainly doesn’t help against Batman; but then how do you explain the sudden impulse he had to investigate the neighborhood?)

Several stories are topical to the 1970s.  Thinly veiled versions of consumer advocate Ralph Nader and “participatory journalist” George Plimpton make guest appearances.  Stories featuring youth activism and black radicals have aged poorly; the latter mixes in a police corruption subplot, the end of which supposedly fixes injustice in the legal system of Gotham City.  Batman’s platitudes towards the radicals he’s fighting/helping come off as tone-deaf.

Other stories focus on Batman as the World’s Greatest Detective, revealing at the end the one clue he noticed where the criminal slipped up.  One, taking place at a production of Macbeth, involves the literal pricking of Batman’s thumbs.

The most notable plotline was the first appearances of Ra’s al Ghul and his daughter Talia.  Talia appeared first, helping Batman bring down Dr. Damien Darrk of the League of Assassins, who had fallen out with her father.  Then Ra’s contrived a scenario where both Robin and Talia were kidnapped in order to test Batman’s fitness to marry Talia (who had fallen for Bruce) and eventually take over his shadowy empire.

As created by writer Denny O’Neil and artists Dick Giordano and Neal Adams, Ra’s al Ghul was a mastermind in the Fu Manchu style (particularly the later novels.)  He controlled a vast criminal network, but did not consider himself a criminal, but rather humanity’s eventual savior.  Over his long life, Ra’s had become convinced overpopulation was the root of all the Earth’s problems.  Therefore he was going to do something about that.

Like Fah Lo Suee before her, Talia was conflicted between loyalty to her father and the desire to jump the hero’s bones.  Ra’s respected Bruce’s intelligence and skills enough to allow them to be mated, but only if Batman accepted a place as the Demon’s Head’s heir presumptive.  And no, Batman was not impressed by the “kill most of humanity to save the rest” plan.

After several encounters, Batman decides to take down Ra’s al Ghul once and for all, assembling a small team of specialists to help.  (This was the first appearance of the Matches Malone disguise, as Batman’s attempt to recruit the hitman went awry.)  After much ado, they finally catch up to the mastermind, or rather his corpse.

Except that it turns out Ra’s has access to something called the Lazarus Pit, which allows him renewed life and vigor at the cost of temporary insanity.  (This puts a different cast on an earlier story where Talia had supposedly believed her father dead.)  Eventually, Batman and Ra’s al Ghul must duel in single combat to determine which of them shall triumph in the last story of the volume.

This is nifty stuff, with some crackerjack writing and excellent art.  On the other hand, Talia’s personality is entirely defined in this storyline by her relationships with men, and she wavers back and forth between them as the plot demands.

Overall, this is a good run of Batman, and well worth requesting for the library, or even buying if you are a big Batman fan.  (Batgirl has a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos.)

Book Review: The Baker Street Peculiars

Book Review: The Baker Street Peculiars written by Roger Langridge, art by Andy Hirsch

It is 1933 in the city of London, and what appears to be a stone lion from Trafalgar Square is running wild in the streets.  Three children from different walks of life (and a dog) have separately decided to chase down the lion to learn what’s going on.  They eventually lose the trail, but meet the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes, who engages them for a shilling each to be his new Irregulars.  They’ll investigate the supposed living statue while he’s busy with other cases.

The Baker Street Peculiars

But wait; assuming Sherlock Holmes wasn’t just made up by Arthur Conan Doyle, didn’t he retire to a bee farm in Sussex before World War One?  There’s more than one odd thing going on here!

This volume collects the four issues of last year’s children’s comic book series of the same name.  As a modern period piece, it’s a bit more diverse than the comic papers that would have been published back in the day.

Molly Rosenberg is a whip-smart girl, who wants to be a detective.  Her kindly but conservative tailor grandfather has forbidden her formal education as he’s afraid she’s already too learned to attract a good husband.

Rajani Malakar is an orphan of Bengali descent who was raised (when not confined to juvenile institutions) by professional thief Big Jim Cunningham.  Big Jim had an alcohol-related fatality a bit back, and she’s had to make her way alone with petty theft.  Rajani is probably the oldest of the children, as she’s hit puberty.

Humphrey Fforbes-Davenport is the youngest son of a large upper-crust family.  Evidently he was unplanned and unwanted, as he was shipped off to a harsh boarding school as soon as possible, with only a golden retriever named Wellington as a valet.  (Wellington doesn’t talk, so his level of intelligence is difficult to gauge.)  Over the course of the story, Humphrey learns to weaponize his class privilege (within his own class, of course, it’s never done him any good, so he didn’t even realize he had it.)

As it happens, Molly’s cultural background is especially useful in this case, as the villain is Chippy Kipper, the Pearly King of Brick Street, a self-willed golem.  Chippy has the mind of a small-time protection racketeer, but has realized that the ability to bring statues to life gives him an army with which he could take over the city–maybe the world!

The kids are on their own through most of the adventure.  The sole representative of the law enforcement establishment is PC Plank, who’s intellectually lazy, and would rather arrest known riffraff Rajani than investigate any other possible criminals.  Sherlock Holmes is…elsewhere…much of the time, and Daily Mirror reporter Hetty Jones is well behind the children in her investigations.

The art is cartoony, with several Sherlockian in-jokes hidden in the background.  This serves to soften somewhat the several off-screen deaths.

This volume should be suitable for middle-schoolers on up.  Parents may want to be ready for discussions on period sexism and ethnic prejudice.  (There’s also a subplot about dog farts.)

It appears that this may be the first in a series about the kids–I should mention that despite the Holmes connection, this and potential future volumes seem more about the “weird adventure” than mysteries.

Book Review: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

Book Review: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table by Martin J. Dougherty

The Arthurian mythos is a familiar one to just about everyone in some form or another.  But unless you’re a scholar of the subject, you might not know where all the pieces came from and how they got put together.  This “coffee table” book gives an overview of basic information about King Arthur and his knights.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

This generously illustrated tome begins with a look at what we know of early British history, and historical figures that might have inspired the tales of Arthur, even if no actual King Arthur ever existed.

Then it moves on to the major sources of the Arthurian stories.  The first written account we still have is that of Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose Arthur is just one in  a line of probably fictional rulers.  The book also covers the romances of Chrétien de Troyes (who was big on graphic violence and courtly love), the Grail Quest (heavy on the preachiness and religious allegory), and of course Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which pulled material together from multiple sources and added some of his own touches.

A final chapter touches on modern retellings of the Arthur cycle, from Mark Twain’s satirical proto-science fiction work A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, through the musical Camelot to the recent television series Merlin.  The author also talks a bit about what might be called tertiary Arthuriana, where a character could say, “this bell was enchanted by Merlin” with no other references to King Arthur, yet the audience will immediately know what’s being talked about.

This book is for the layman, and should be suitable for tweens on up.  (Parents of younger readers might want to discuss the theme of marital infidelity that comes up in the relationship of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, as well as other places in the Arthurian cycle, not least Arthur’s own birth.)  There is an index, but no bibliography, so serious scholars will want something more advanced to work with.

The author also talks a bit about the enduring appeal of King Arthur and his stories.  Heroic knights and chivalry, a struggle of good against evil, a kingdom where right is more important than might, even if it is doomed to fall and be followed by a darker age.  “A moment so bright it will be seen on the far side of that darkness.”

This book would make a good gift for the casual fan of things King Arthur, especially bright teenagers.  Did they like the recent movie?

Audio Review: If We Were Villains

Audio Review: If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

Eleven years ago, seven drama students entered their fourth year at the prestigious Dellecher Classical Conservatory.  Now, a decade after the end of that school year, one of those students, Oliver Marks, is being released from prison.  Former police detective Colborne has never entirely bought the official version of what happened, and Oliver agrees to finally tell the truth of that year.  Or at least a truth.

If We Were Villains

The highly competitive nature of the school and constantly interacting with each other have made the seven students their own little troupe with defined roles.  But a couple of the students have begun resenting their typecasting, and natural born star Richard is on the verge of snapping.  Even when Richard is removed from the picture, the fractures in the group widen until the tragic climax.

This is a debut novel from Shakespearean scholar M.L. Rio, and is full of William Shakespeare’s words and ideas.  The theater kids often quote (or misquote) Shakespeare’s plays to each other in their dialogue, and sometimes to confused or annoyed outsiders.  A basic familiarity with the Bard of Avon will vastly enhance your enjoyment of the story.

The main characters are the kind of “party hearty” kids I did not get on well with in college; their substance abuse is a large factor in how badly their actions go off the rails, and the sexual shenanigans certainly didn’t help.  And of course, keeping secrets from the adults on campus who could have solved many of the issues early on makes things even worse.  (While I am on content issues, warning for rough language, slut-shaming and domestic abuse.)

Oliver has pressures outside school as well, as his parents are unsupportive of his career goals and one of his sisters has an eating disorder that needs them to redirect their limited financial resources.  (Oliver is alas completely unempathetic towards his sister’s problems.)  And some of the other students have even worse family situations, one of the reasons they’ve bonded with each other instead.

Once having established that the main characters are not the kind of people who make smart choices, the stage is set for the inevitable spiral into tragedy, mirrored by the plays they’re performing.

The version of the novel I’m reviewing is the audiobook from Macmillan Audio, and read by Robert Petkoff, himself an actor experienced in Shakespearean drama.  His voice is well suited to the text (though there were times when I could not distinguish between female characters) and conveyed emotion well.

However, the audiobook experience was sometimes difficult for me.  I sometimes missed important words, especially early on, and “rewinding” the CD was trickier than simply turning back pages to recheck lines.  On the good side, portions of the book are written in a semi-script style that made it clear who was speaking, very helpful when all the main characters are in the same room.

The physical presentation of the audiobook is barebones, just a box containing plain white sleeves for the ten CDs.  There are no liner notes (it would have been both helpful and apropos to provide a dramatis personae), nor a quick bio of Mr. Petkoff.

While this novel has mystery elements, it fits more comfortably into the “contemporary” subgenre.  Perhaps that New Adult category I’ve heard of.  Recommended to Shakespeare buffs, theater kids and fans of last minute twists.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this audiobook from the publisher to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was requested nor offered.

Comic Book Review: Oni Press Starter Pack 2016

Comic Book Review: Oni Press Starter Pack 2016 by various

While I spend many of my comics-related posts on this  blog talking about the Big Two’s superhero comic books, there are a number of worthy small press comics companies that put out interesting material every year.  Oni Press has put out an affordable collection of seven first issues from various series they’ve printed over their existence.

Oni Press Starter Pack 2016

Leading off this trade paperback is The Sixth Gun by Cullen Bunn & Brian Hurtt.  This horror-western about a collection of cursed firearms is as it happens something I have reviewed before.  I won’t repeat myself here, but note that the series lasted eight collected volumes in its main storyline, with three extra graphic novels of spinoff stories.  Pretty impressive!

Letter 44 by Charles Soule and Alberto Jiménez Alburquerque is science fiction.  When incoming president Stephen Blades reads a letter left for him by his predecessor, he learns that many of the bizarre actions taken by Francis T. Carroll were based on information not shared with the American people..  It seems that there are aliens doing…something…in the asteroid belt.  President Carroll felt it was most important for America to arm itself just in case the aliens are hostile, thus his warmongering activities on Earth that have made a mess of foreign policy while neglecting domestic issues that are coming to a head.

The United States also sent a secret manned space mission out to the location of the alien activity in an effort to learn more; they’re just now coming close to their destination.  The astronauts have concealed certain information from their Earth-bound mission controllers…among other things, one of them is pregnant.

There are some pretty clear parallels to the Bush/Obama transition, with mentions of lies about weapons of mass destruction, and a white conservative president with a bad reputation on the economy and war being replaced with a darker-skinned liberal.  But as the series progresses, the special circumstances lessen those similarities as President Blades tries a very different approach to the same situation President Carroll faced.

Meanwhile, the astronauts learn the truth behind the alien presence, and we learn the backstory of their mission.

The Bunker by Joshua Hale Fialkov & Joe Infunari starts with five recent college graduates going out to the woods to bury a time capsule.  Except that they find themselves uncovering a bunker with four of their names on it.  A bunker that contains items alleging to be from the post-apocalyptic future, including letters from their future selves.

It seems that by their actions, the quintet will bring about the near-extinction of the human race.  But not doing so might create an even worse future.  It’s not clear if the future selves are trying to create a time loop, or avert one.

This was a double-sized first issue, so a lot goes on.  This does include nudity and on-page sex, as well as some nasty violence and strong language.  The last page twist is foreshadowed, but still pretty shocking.

Stumptown  by Greg Rucka and Justin Greenwood appears to be the first issue…of the third series.  Private detective Dex Parios participates in an amateur soccer match (her team loses) before going to a professional game of footy with her brother Ansel and friend Mercury.  It’s hometown Portland vs. Seattle, and autographs after!  But afterwards, Dex and Ansel find a badly beaten (maybe dead) Mercury in the bushes.  Is it hooliganism or a crime unrelated to sports?

Greg Rucka is well known for his crime comics, but the soccer elements took up most of the issue for a slow start.

Helheim by Cullen Bunn & Joëlle Jones takes place somewhere up North during the Sixth Century.  A stockaded village is caught in a war between witches.  A raiding party is chased by warriors of the witch Groa who soon become the undead.  A man named Rikard keeps having visions of himself weeping tears of blood.  When the village itself is breached, Rickard is beheaded, but that’s not the end of his participation in the war.  Especially if his lover Bera has anything to say about it!

Rikard is relatively nice for a Norseman of the time, not happy about abandoning comrades or turning over loved ones to the enemy as a peace offering.  His father is made of sterner stuff, but neither of them is fully prepared for what happens next.

Kaijumax by Xander Cannon is a considerable change of pace.  The world has long been infested with monsters who ran rampant over the human civilizations.  But now the humans have developed a way to give themselves giant superpowered forms (ala Ultraman) and have been capturing the kaiju they see as criminals, placing them on an island prison.

One of the latest inmates is Electrogor, who claims to have been just out looking for food for its children.  Alas, the humans take poorly to kaiju eating their power supplies.  Electrogor knows the humans are after its children, and it appeals to E68FE3 (“Hellmoth”), a monster that’s about to be released on a technicality, to help the kids out.

E68FE3 wants a return favor though, and the resulting altercation puts Electrogor in solitary confinement.  It’s only then that a guard lets Electrogor know that the “technicality” Hellmoth was released on is that there are no living witnesses to its crimes.  Especially the children.

Despite the cartoony art and many jokes, this series is a commentary on the American prison system and the abuses rampant within it.  So Not For Children.

We finish with The Life After by Joshua Hale Fialkov & Gabo.  Jude sleepwalks through his life, every day seeming exactly like every other day.  Perhaps a little too much exactly like every other day–how many times can one woman drop her handkerchief on the bus?  But today is different.  Today, Jude picks up the handkerchief and tries to get it back to the woman.

It seems like the world is out to stop him, and it starts getting much weirder, but Jude eventually does catch up to the woman, and seemingly breaks her out of her routine as well.  This disturbs secret watchers who say that no one has escaped in two thousand years.

Shortly thereafter, Jude meets Ernest Hemingway, who believes that everyone in their city is in fact a suicide, and this is the afterlife.

Some nifty use of panels and other art tricks, reminiscent of the Franco-Belgian style.

Content note:  the woman’s flashback includes on-panel prostitution, gore and childbirth as well as suicide.

There’s a wide assortment of genres represented here, and this is a good choice to pick up if you’re unfamiliar with Oni Press and want to know which series you might like.  Based on these first issues, I’m least impressed with The Bunker which skews even more cynical than I have a taste for.

Manga Review: Platinum End Volume 2

Manga Review: Platinum End Volume 2 story by Tsugumi Ohba, art by Takeshi Obata

Quick recap:  Up until now, Mirai has had a miserable life as an orphan with an abusive family.  When he tried to commit suicide, Mirai was rescued by Nasse, an angel who had enlisted the boy in a contest to choose the next God.  There were twelve other candidates, but one was murdered by a person dressed as Metropoliman, a TV superhero.

Platinum End Volume 2

This volume opens with last time’s cliffhanger, as Mirai is stabbed with a love-inducing red arrow.  The culprit turns out to be Saki, the girl Mirai already had a crush on.  (And it would seem she reciprocates.)  This might not be so bad, except that the red arrows induce not normal love, but slavish absolute devotion.

We’re also introduced to Saki’s partner, Revel the Angel of Trickery.  He’d prefer to be titled the Angel of Tactics but honestly isn’t that smart.  After some negotiation, it’s decided the four will team up against the murderous Metropoliman.

Meanwhile, Metropoliman continues fighting petty crime to keep up his superhero disguise.  He’s getting frustrated because his challenge to fight the other god candidates is not bearing fruit.  (Unsurprisingly, none of them wants to die.)  He decides to switch tactics and offer to negotiate with the other candidates at an open-air stadium.  (This would theoretically allow them to fly away if the negotiations go badly.)

What follows is the Ohba trademark plan vs. plan battle, involving multiple disguises, mind control and misdirection.  Mirai and Saki manage to escape with their lives, but it’s clear that Metropoliman is much more than they can handle.  Where can they get allies?

Good:  The art continues to impress, and the characters that are supposed to be intelligent really do come across as smart.  Nasse continues to be nicely creepy.  She’s an Angel of Purity, not an angel of good, and freely admits feeling nothing when humans other than Mirai die.

Not so good:  Female characters other than Nasse are poorly developed and lack personality.  (I am told Saki will improve in later volumes.)  Most of the female angels are drawn as Victoria’s Secret models with wings and the lingerie fused with their bodies.

Content note:  Metropoliman absolutely will murder small children to get what he wants.  We’re also told that all the god candidates live in Japan due to its high suicide rate.  This is a Mature Readers title.

Most recommended for fans of Death Note.

Magazine Review: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Nov/Dec 2016

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Nov/Dec 2016 edited by C.C. Finlay

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction started publication in 1949.  According to Wikipedia, it was supposed to be a fantasy story version of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine as it was at the time, classic reprints mixed with new material of a higher literary quality than was common in the pulps of the time.  Science fiction was added to expand the possible pool of stories.  F&SF has managed to publish fairly regularly ever since, though in recent years it’s bimonthly.  It has a reputation for literate fiction.

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Nov/Dec 2016

The cover story is “The Cat Bell” by Esther M. Friesner.  Mr. Ferguson is a successful actor in the early Twentieth Century, even having a fine house with servants.  One of those servants, Cook, greatly admires Mr. Ferguson.  Mr. Ferguson greatly admires cats, and has nineteen of them that Cook must feed every day.  One day there are twenty cats, and Cook finds herself in a fairy tale.  Content note:  Cook suffers from several of the less pleasant “isms” and isn’t afraid to say so.

“The Farmboy” by Albert E. Cowdrey is set on a distant planet being surveyed by a scout ship.  The crew has discovered a massive deposit of gold, but even if they had room to take it with them, the government would simply confiscate the wealth, giving nothing to the survey crew.  Several of the crew members come up with a scheme to make themselves very rich at the expense of the rest of the crew.  But if you can’t spot the sucker at the poker game, it’s probably you…some unpleasant sexism.

“Between Going and Staying” by Lilliam Rivera takes place in a future Mexico even more dominated by the drug cartels.  Dolores is a professional mourner using the newest bodysuit technology.  She’s been making very good money performing for the wealthy, but this funeral is personal.

There are two book review columns, one by Charles de Lint, in which he admits not being fond of psychological horror.  The other is by Chris Moriarty and focuses on books about human survival.

“The Vindicator” by Matthew Hughes is the last story in his current cycle about Raffalon the thief.  Raffalon is a mediocre burglar in the sort of fantasy city that has a Thieves’ Guild.  For some reason a Vindicator (assassin) is after Raffalon, and the Vindicator’s Guild isn’t being helpful for calling it off.  Raffalon hires a Discriminator (private investigator) and the truth turns out to be explosive.

A relatively rare Gardner Dozois story follows, “The Place of Bones.”  A scholar and his companion discover the Dragonlands, where dragons go to die.  More of a mood piece than a proper story.

“Lord Elgin at the Acropolis” by Minsoo Kang involves a police officer and writer meeting to consider the problem of a museum director who believes that one of the paintings in the museum is fake, despite no other evidence.  Is he just crazy, or is there another explanation?

“Special Collections” by Kurt Fawver is a horror story about a library with a section you must never enter alone, which is the first rule.  And then there’s the second rule….

David J. Skal reviews High-Rise for the film section, and compares it to the J.G. Ballard novel.

There’s the results of a contest for updating older science fiction works to today’s world.  Including a “Dishonorable Mention” update of 1984.

“A Fine Balance” by Charlotte Ashley is set in a city where all disputes between the two major parties are settled by specially trained duelists.  Except that one side doesn’t want to play by those rules any more.  Very satisfying story.

“Passelande” by Robert Reed takes place in a depressing near future with electronic backups for people who can afford them.  Backups who have their own feelings and motivations.  This one grated on me, as I felt the characters had their motivations poorly explained/depicted.

“The Rhythm Man” by James Beamon is a variant on the legend about talented musicians selling their souls for skill or fame.  A lot of set-up for one great scene at the end.

And the stories wrap up with “Merry Christmas from All of Us to All of You” by Sandra McDonald.  It’s a dystopian tale of a gift-making community that ensures none of its children can truly escape.  But perhaps there is a ray of hope?

There’s an “Easter egg” in the classified ads, and then an index of stories and features that appeared in 2016’s issues.

I liked “The Vindicator” and “A Fine Balance” best, though “The Cat Bell” was also quite entertaining.  “Passendale” was the weakest story for me.

This magazine has consistently high quality stories and some nice cartoons; consider a print or Kindle subscription.

 

 

Book Review: The Play of Death

Book Review: The Play of Death by Oliver Pötzsch

Disclaimer:  I received a Kindle download of this book through a Goodreads giveaway to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

The Play of Death

The year is 1670, and the people of Oberammergau are preparing their every-ten-years Passion Play…though some of them think it might be sacrilegious to be doing so four years early.  When the actor playing Jesus Christ is found actually crucified on the prop cross, the villagers suspect the Devil is afoot.  The deaths of other actors in the manner of the Biblical figures they’re portraying certainly lends credence to that hypothesis.  Or perhaps it’s God’s wrath, and there’s always the slim possibility of less supernatural murderers.

As it happens, medically trained bathhouse operator Simon Fronwieser is in town to enroll his son Peter in grammar school.  The town medicus having recently died, Simon is drafted to examine the crucified body for clues and treat the town’s sick people.  He’s soon joined by his father-in-law Jakob Kuisl, the hangman of Schongau, who has come with the district secretary to investigate the strange goings-on.

But are these murders tied in to the wooden Pharisees?  The little men from Venice?  Ancient pagan sacrifice?  The wrathful quaking of the very mountain under which Oberammergau sits?  As the mysteries mount, can the medicus and hangman survive?

This is the sixth in The Hangman’s Daughter mystery series to be translated into English; I have not read any of the previous volumes.  Naturally, the hangman’s daughters also come into the story.  Magdalena is pregnant with what she hopes will be her and Simon’s third child, and waits anxiously for her husband back in Schongau.  But Barbara has just reached the age where she is flirting with young men, and she attracts the attentions of a lustful doctor.

When Barbara rejects her unwelcome suitor and Jakob backs her up, the doctor vows vengeance and soon he’s using his political connections to have Barbara accused of witchcraft.  (It doesn’t help that the young woman has books containing spells under her bed.)  There’s a conspiracy on the Schongau town council, and Magdalena must make the perilous voyage to Oberammergau to alert her menfolk to the danger.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and much of the solution is figuring out which of the mysterious happenings are directly connected to each other, which are outliers, and which are just coincidence.  There’s some topical material:  Jakob is struggling with his binge drinking, and the Oberammergau villagers both exploit and hate the immigrant laborers who have come to their valley.

Content issues:  In addition to the expected violence (including a suicide), there’s also rape and child abuse in the story.  Torture occurs off-stage; as the hangman, Jakob is a skilled torturer, but prefers to avoid this part of his job whenever possible (he’s okay with torturing people he personally knows to be guilty.)  Other hangmen are not so scrupulous.  Classism is a constant issue.  (This leads me to a translation quibble:  while “dishonorable” might be a direct translation of the German word for despised occupations, the connotations in English make it a bad fit.)

Good:  The plot is nicely convoluted, providing plenty of cliffhanger moments, while wrapping up nicely with no important threads dangling.

Not so good:  Some of the villains are cardboard cutouts, with no redeeming qualities to explain how they got into the positions they occupy.

Recommended for fans of historical mysteries, especially those who haven’t read a German mystery yet and might enjoy the setting.

Book Review: Minnesota Vice

Book Review: Minnesota Vice by Ellen & Mary Kuhfeld

As I have mentioned before, Minnesota has many fine mystery and crime writers.  Mary Kuhfeld is probably best known under the pen name Monica Ferris, under which she has written nineteen Betsy Devonshire Needlework Mysteries.  (Thus the subtitle “Monica Ferris Presents” for these self-published books.)  Ellen Kuhfeld is also an experienced mystery writer, and they collaborated on several stories for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in the 1980s.

Minnesota Vice

Of the ten stories in this collection, the first six are collaborations, and the first four are set in Hedeby, Minnesota, a largish town in the fictitious Hedeby County.  The police detective team of Jack Hafner and Thor Nygaard is introduced in “An Ill Wind.”  A sudden blizzard snows in the town, making Hafner and Nygaard the only officers able to respond to a report of murder.  With all the outdoor clues buried under new-fallen snow, how will the detectives figure out which of the obvious suspects is guilty?

“Allergic to Death” takes place in a warmer season, as a man with lethal allergies apparently decides to take a walk in a pollen-laden garden.  Simple enough, but one of the relatives insists on a cremation before an autopsy can be ordered.  Honoring the wishes of the deceased, or covering up something more sinister?

“The Scales of Justice” concerns a traveling salesman who gets caught cheating at poker.  Since the game itself was unlawful, the man can’t be arrested.  Nygaard decides to treat the fellow to some traditional Norwegian hospitality.  This story will be funnier if you’re familiar with Norwegian-American customs.

In “Night Light”, there’s a UFO, leading to suspicions that a murder and disappearance may have alien involvement.  This is Hafner and Nygaard’s toughest case yet!

“Timely Psychiatric Intervention” features a government think tank that actually has a counselor handy to head off any of their scientists going mad.  But the nature of McCain’s project may make Dr. Bach’s repeated attempts to help him moot.

In “A Specialist in Dragons”, Baron Halfdan’s daughter has been abducted by a dragon.  He seeks the help of his local wizard, Wulfstan.  Unfortunately, Wulfstan’s not up to the task of tracking a dragon, and a series of increasingly expensive specialists needs to be called in.  Can Halla be rescued before the Baron runs out of gold?

The next four stories are solo efforts by Ellen Kuhfeld.  “The Old Shell Game” concerns a museum curator that notices a valuable fossil has gone missing.  It’s not anywhere on the grounds,  but it’s impossible for this large item to have left the premises without being seen.  How did it vanish?

“Thorolf and the Peacock” stars a Viking merchant (who is also the star of Ellen Kuhfeld’s book, Secret Murder) who is insulted by a flamboyant trader.  Thorolf decides to treat the fellow to some traditional Norwegian hospitality.  (In a slightly different manner than in “The Scales of Justice.”)

The next two stories were printed in speculative fiction magazines in the 2000s.  “Dances with Werewolves” has the investigative team of Scott & Scott hired to determine if a man’s new girlfriend is a Were.  This one contains a twist genre-savvy readers will spot quickly.

“Cycles of Violence” is a sequel to that tale, in which Bjorn the bartender must deal with a Wendigo invasion.  It’s easier to do that when you’re a werebear!

The bane of self-published works, there are a few typos, including an error in the table of contents.

As a hodgepodge of previously un-reprinted stories, this volume may not satisfy mystery purists (even though most of them were printed in a mystery genre magazine.)  That said, these are fun stories of which I liked “Allergic to Death” best.  I felt “Dances with Werewolves” was the weakest, probably because I spotted the twist far too early.

Recommended to Minnesotans (especially mystery fans) and fans of the Monica Ferris books.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from the authors to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

 

 

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