Book Review: Goblin Quest

Book Review: Goblin Quest by Jim C. Hines

Jig has always lived in the mountain, only hearing third-hand stories about the outside world.  Even stepping outside the goblin warrens is dangerous, why risk going any further?  Still, he dreams of being promoted from his lamplighter duties (a child’s job) to a patrolling warrior.  Jig’s smart, but that counts little in goblin society when he’s also small and weak, with poor vision.

Goblin Quest

Then  one day Jig is bullied into acting as a scout for a lazy patrol, only to find himself captured by adventurers who have killed the rest of the goblin patrol.  A captive, Jig is forced to become a guide for the party of four.  There’s Prince Barius, a younger son touchy about his honor and his low status among his siblings; Ryslind, Barius’ brother whose magic seems to be adversely affecting his sanity; Darnak, a dwarven cleric and tutor to the brothers, and Riana, an elvish pickpocket who was also dragooned  into serving Barius.  It seems they’re after the Rod of Creation, a powerful artifact that supposedly created the mountain itself.  Jig’s chances of survival just keep dropping!

This is the first volume in the “Jig the Goblin” trilogy of comedic fantasy novels by Jim C. Hines, who was a Guest of Honor at Minicon 52.  It’s heavily based on the kind of “kill monsters and take their stuff” style of fantasy common to games of Dungeons & Dragons, and in specific seems to be parodying aspects of the Dragonlance series of D&D tie-in novels.

One of the common hallmarks of comedic fantasy is to tell the story from the viewpoint of someone who isn’t the typical hero of heroic fantasy stories, and in this case, it’s one of the “monsters” who would normally be cannon fodder to allow the protagonists to show off their prowess before getting to really tough opponents.

Jig is initially only sympathetic because of his underdog status; he’s cowardly, selfish and all too willing to let others suffer or die in his place.  As the story progresses, Jig has his horizons expanded as he learns about the adventurers from their perspective, and realizes that goblin social norms put them at an even greater disadvantage than they already had due to their small size and lack of technology.  He even finds a god!

Meanwhile, the adventurers are no heroes; Prince Barius’ motive for seeking the Rod is entirely self-centered, Ryslind has a hidden agenda, Darnak is at least honorable, but must serve the brothers’ will, and Riana is only serving due to a threat of prison or execution.

And that’s not getting into the truly strong and evil monsters that wait deeper within the mountain.

Once Jig is dragooned into the party, the plot is a fairly straightforward dungeon crawl with some backtracking towards the end.  The back half of the book reads quickly, and the ending is reasonably satisfying.

Recommended primarily for fans of the tabletop role-playing games the setting is based on.

Comic Strip Review: Gunnerkrigg Court, Volume 3: Reason

Comic Strip Review: Gunnerkrigg Court, Volume 3: Reason by Thomas Siddell

After Antimony “Annie” Carver’s mother Surma dies, her father Anthony drops her off at her parent’s alma mater, a strange boarding school called Gunnerkrigg Court.  The court is an enormous place, looking rather like an industrial city, but large portions of it seem to be abandoned…by humans, at least.  There are robots advanced beyond anything in the outside world, bizarre events are commonplace, there’s a creepy forest just across a long bridge students are forbidden to cross, and Annie notices that she’s picked up a second shadow.

Gunnerkrigg Court, Volume 3: Reason

This noted fantasy webcomic has been running since 2005, beginning here (happily, the art style drastically improves over time.)  It’s got an intricate plot with many details planned well in advance.  (For example, in an early strip Antimony tells us it will be two years before she sees her father again.)  The Court’s architecture is somewhat based on the city of Birmingham in England.

At the beginning of this volume, Annie is in training to possibly become the Court’s Medium, an ambassador between the school and the magical Gillitie Wood.  The other two candidates, Andrew Smith (with the ability to bring order out of chaos) and George Parley (whose father expected a boy, and has the gift of teleportation) argue a lot but turn out to be attracted to each other.  This interrupts two simulations.

Then it’s time for a camping trip to a park that is actually inside the boundaries of Gunnerkrigg Court.  Campers start to disappear, and Annie and her best friend Kat (Katherine Donlan, daughter of two of the teachers who were friends with Annie’s parents) must solve the mystery.

After that, Kat, who is beloved by the Court’s robots due to her technical skills and repair abilities grants the king of said robots access to the portrait of Jeanne, the ghost that haunts the ravine between the Court and the Wood.  In return, he reveals the existence of a robot that has memories of Jeanne, and the very early days of the Court.  Those memories reveal a dark secret of the past.

In the next chapter, Annie visits the Wood and learns more about Ysengrim, the wolf with tree armor that is the current Medium for their side of the river.  Coyote, the trickster spirit that is in charge of the Wood, gives Annie a gift for reasons not fully revealed.

Then the subplot of Jack, who’s been acting increasingly erratic since he was exposed to the mass hallucination projected by a girl named Zimmy, comes to the fore.  He coerces Annie into accompanying him to a power station that might have something to do with why he can’t sleep.

This is followed by a spotlight chapter for Kat, who hasn’t been able to process her emotional reaction to learning what the Court did to Jeanne.  She’s finally able to recover her equilibrium with the help of an abandoned baby bird, and Paz, a classmate who can talk to animals.

Further research with the help of Andrew and Parley reveals some of Jeanne’s story from her point of view, and convinces Parley to be honest about her feelings.

Finally, Annie’s second year at Gunnerkrigg Court comes to a painful close when she and Renard (a fox spirit living in a stuffed toy) quarrel and reveal some very painful secrets to each other.  This leads to her choosing to spend the summer in the Wood rather than with friends.

At the end are some art pages and bonus strips about “City Face”, the pigeon Kat rescued.

The mood swings wildly between chapters, some being very comedic while others go deep into dark territory.  While we get several important revelations in this volume, the jigsaw nature of the overall plot means that many items don’t pay off until future volumes–I do recommend starting from the beginning.

As is often the case with webcomics collections, the material is all available on the internet for free, but if you like it, please consider buying the print version to make the creator more financially stable.

Book Review: Time Frames: A Speculative Poetry Anthology

Book Review: Time Frames: A Speculative Poetry Anthology edited by Terry A. Garey

Poetry related to the various genres of speculative fiction (SF, fantasy, horror, etc.) is pretty common.  You can see samples by ones or twos in many magazines and spec-fic collections.  But full hardback anthologies of speculative poetry are rare.  So Rune Press in Minnesota brought out one in 1991, and I recently got my hands on a copy.

Time Frames: A Speculative Poetry Anthology

The slim volume features eleven poets; the only name I recognized immediately was Ruth Berman, who starts the volume and has a couple of nice pieces involving the Oz books.  From her “Wizard’s Road”:

Home in Omaha at last

It was hard to believe

In a probable world.

To be honest, most of these poems are the modern free verse stuff I don’t fully understand, and don’t know good from bad.  There are a few exceptions with more formal rhyme and scansion, and one attempt at a rare Welsh form called a “toddaid.”   It’s not very good, but I appreciate the poet’s effort to stretch.  I did like Roger Dutcher’s “The Smart House” about an AI-run domicile that learns from other houses’ mistakes.

The book ends with John Calvin Rezmerski’s “Challengers”, a memorial to the Challenger disaster of 1986.  I do not know if the poem moved me of itself, or because of my lingering sorrow over the event.

As is often the case with poetry, those who are trained in its ways may enjoy it much more than I.  It is, I understand, quite rare, so you may have trouble tracking down a copy.

Book Review: Demons of the Night and Other Early Tales

Book Review: Demons of the Night and Other Early Tales by Seabury Quinn

Seabury Grandin Quinn (1889-1969) was a prolific pulp author, producing more than five hundred short stories.  He’s best remembered for his Jules de Grandin stories appearing in Weird Tales, featuring a French-accented occult detective.  This particular collection, however, is focused around his other early work.

Demons of the Night and Other Early Tales

The title of the first story and the Greg Hildebrandt cover might fool you into thinking this is a “sexy horror” collection, but Mr. Quinn had a wider range than that.  “Demons of the Night” is really more a version of the “Phantom Hitchhiker” urban legend, with an amusing twist.  “Was She Mad?” concerns a homeless woman offered a job that’s too good to be true.  “The Stone Image” is about an apparently evil Oriental statue , and also about a married couple that has very different tastes in art.  The best of the “weird” stories is “The Cloth of Madness” about an interior decorator who decides to take vengeance on his cheating wife and best friend.  It would have made a good EC Comics story.

Then there are a couple of straight-up romance stories, “Painted Gold” and “Romance Unawares”, both of which feature thirty-something lawyers discovering love for the first time.  (By the way, Mr. Quinn’s day job was as an attorney.)  They’re light and humorous.

Two stories involve Major Sturdevant of the Secret Service, “Ravished Shrines” in which he investigates a series of thefts of religious artifacts, and “Out of the Land of Egypt”, which involves the Major hijacking his reporter friend’s date to involve him in international intrigue.

Two more tales are told of Professor Harvey Forrester, head of the Anthropology department at Benjamin Franklin University.  “In the Fog” has him stumbling about in smog, spotting a woman who seems to be in distress and going to rescue her.  “The Black Widow” involves a seemingly cursed mummy.  A nice feature is that instead of the distressed damsel of the first story becoming his girlfriend, she becomes Professor Forrester’s ward, as she’s way too young for him.

Mr. Quinn has a good humorous touch, even in his weird tales, which he knows to turn off at appropriate moments in the story.  Most of these tales are still very readable.  However, there are some outdated ethnic stereotypes (and overuse of phonetic accents, one of the most annoying parts of the de Grandin stories) and period sexism.

Also included are his first published non-fiction article about the way Hollywood gets law wrong in movies, and a very comprehensive list of known Seabury Quinn stories.

Highly recommended to Seabury Quinn fans, recommended to pulp fans and lovers of short stories.

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.

 

Movie Review: Spider Forest (2004)

Movie Review: Spider Forest (2004)

Kang Min (Kam Woo-Sung), a line producer for a schlocky “true paranormal” television show, finds himself in a dark forest, headed for an isolated house.  Inside, he finds blood and destruction.  He sees the repeatedly stabbed body of his boss, and then finds his lover Hwang Su-yeong (Kang Kyeong-hyeon) dying and babbling about spiders.  At this point, he detects another presence in the house, presumably the killer.

A misleading scene from "Spider Forest"
A misleading scene from “Spider Forest”

Kang Min gives chase, only to be stunned with a blow to the head.  Dazed, Kang Min finds his way into a nearby highway tunnel, where he glimpses the presumed murderer again.  Before he can act on this, Kang Min is hit by an SUV.  He awakens fourteen days later in the hospital.

His acquaintance Choi, a police officer, is called in, and when Kang Min tells him about the murders, Choi is assigned to investigate.  Kang Min reveals the events that led up to that night in the woods in fragments of memory, dream and possibly hallucination.  Some of what he remembers may not be true.

This is a low-budget psychological thriller from Korea, meant to cash in on the wave of films such as Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.  As such, it’s sporadically violent and frequently bloody.  There’s also several sex scenes, and the film got an “R” rating in the United States.  It’s also mostly shot in dark and dimly-lit locations, with characters whispering their lines (thank goodness for subtitles!)

The story of the film is deliberately confusing, according to director Song Il-gong.  He started by writing a linear script that fully explained what was going on in a way that made logical sense, then cut out as much of it as possible and still have a narrative.   (There are a few deleted scenes on the DVD that fill in some of the gaps, but don’t really explain more of what’s really going on.)

Due to the darkness, whispered dialogue and jigsaw puzzle plot, this is not a movie I recommend for late night viewing.  It’s best when you’re fully alert and able to give it some concentration.  I do not recommend the film for anyone who hates jigsaw puzzle plots or mind screws.

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