Friday, October 31, 2014

Contributor Profiles: Tia, Brian and Charles

Today we officially investigate our three---three!--new contributors!

Tia

Not Tia
NAME: Tia

SECRET UNDISCLOSED LOCATION: Somewhere in Penn's Woods.

NERD SPECIALIZATION(S): Books, Fantasy, Urban Fantasy.

MY PET PEEVES IN NERD-DOM ARE: Nerds being bullies.

VAMPIRES, WEREWOLVES, ZOMBIES, ALIENS OR ROBOTS: Vampires.

RIGHT NOW I'M READING: Steven Erkison, Toll the Hounds; Karen Miller, The Falcon Throne.

...AND A COUPLE BOOKS I RECENTLY FINISHED ARE: Erikson's Malazan series books 1-7; Teresa Frohock, Miserere: An Autumn Tale; Tad Williams, The Dirty Streets of Heaven.

NEXT TWO ON QUEUE ARE: Final 2 in the Malazan series

MY FAVORITE SUPERHERO AND SUPER-VILLAIN ARE: Batman, Syndrome.

IF I WERE A SUPERHERO/VILLAIN, MY POWER WOULD BE: Telepathy!

THE BEST COMIC FILM OF THE PAST 5 YEARS IS: Guardians of the Galaxy.

THE WORST COMIC FILM OF THE PAST 5 YEARS IS: The Amazing Spiderman 2.

I JUST WATCHED [FILM X] AND IT WAS AWESOME: Guardians of the Galaxy.

I JUST WATCHED [FILM Y] AND IT WAS TERRIBLE: Transformers 4.

EVERYONE SHOULD SEE [FILM Z] BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE: Death to Smoochy.

BEST SCIENCE/SPECULATIVE FICTION SHOW OF THE PAST 10 YEARS: Cowboy Bebop.

WORSE ENDING--LOST OR BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: Lost.

THE OFFICE--BRITISH OR AMERICAN VERSION: American.

GAME OF THRONES--LIKE OR DISLIKE DEVIATIONS FROM THE BOOKS: HATE!


Brian

Not Brian
NAME: Brian.

SECRET UNDISCLOSED LOCATION: Soy City.

NERD SPECIALIZATION(S): video games, science fiction, fantasy

MY PET PEEVES IN NERD-DOM ARE: Console/PC "Wars." Just play the games you like on the platform you like! What other people play their games on should not be of anyone else's concern!

VAMPIRES, WEREWOLVES, ZOMBIES, ALIENS OR ROBOTS: Robots. They are as unliving as vampires and zombies, as tough as werewolves, and as inscrutable as aliens. The best of all worlds

RIGHT NOW I'M READING: Steven Erikson, Reaper's Gale.

...AND A COUPLE BOOKS I RECENTLY FINISHED ARE: Steven Erikson, The Bonehunters and Midnight Tides.

NEXT TWO ON QUEUE ARE: The rest of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series, interspersed with some SF to keep things interesting.

MY FAVORITE SUPERHERO AND SUPER-VILLAIN ARE: Batman and Mr. Freeze, though those answers are subject to change depending on whenever a good comic book video game is made.

IF I WERE A SUPERHERO/VILLAIN, MY POWER WOULD BE: Wishlist? Probability manipulation. If I were hit by cosmic rays enhancing one of my existing human traits? Invulnerability. I've taken a lot of hits and falls and I've never broken a bone.

THE BEST COMIC FILM OF THE PAST 5 YEARS IS: Dredd, hands down. Guardians is a close second.

THE WORST COMIC FILM OF THE PAST 5 YEARS IS: I try to avoid bad movies unless I'm watching them because they're bad, so I'm going to cop out and say I have no desire to see Ryan Reynolds' floating head cracking wise in Green Lantern. Otherwise, I have to say Thor, which was pretty alright.

I JUST WATCHED [FILM X] AND IT WAS AWESOME: Guardians of the Galaxy. It was fun, and there were very few humans in it.

I JUST WATCHED [FILM Y] AND IT WAS TERRIBLE: After Guardians, my wife made me watch Howard the Duck. It was pure torture.

EVERYONE SHOULD SEE [FILM Z] BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE: Brazil. Terry Gilliam is fantastic.

BEST SCIENCE/SPECULATIVE FICTION SHOW OF THE PAST 10 YEARS: Battlestar Galactica. Although I was very fond of Almost Human.

WORSE ENDING--LOST OR BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: Battlestar. It was such a letdown! Lost always kept us guessing, and I never expected everything to be wrapped up at the end of it.

THE OFFICE--BRITISH OR AMERICAN VERSION: Yikes, now we're getting to the tough questions. I have to say I prefer the American version. The lows are so low, but the highs are so high. The British version is absolutely more consistent but it never reaches the height that the American version does.

GAME OF THRONES--LIKE OR DISLIKE DEVIATIONS FROM THE BOOKS: I'm a cord-cutter, so I haven't seen Game of Thrones the TV show. Since I read all the books well before there was a TV show, I'm inclined to say I would dislike any variation from them. Also, I read that they cut out Vargo Hoat and that doesn't even make any sense to me.


Charles

Not Charles
NAME: Charles

SECRET UNDISCLOSED LOCATION:
Eau Claire, WI

NERD SPECIALIZATION(S): Short Fiction, Fantasy, Science Fiction

MY PET PEEVES IN NERD-DOM ARE: "objectivity"

VAMPIRES, WEREWOLVES, ZOMBIES, ALIENS OR ROBOTS: All at once, please.

RIGHT NOW I'M READING: While Mortals Sleep (Kurt Vonnegut), The Curse of the Mistwraith (Janny Wurts), The Weird (ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer)

...AND A COUPLE BOOKS I RECENTLY FINISHED ARE: Through the Woods (Emily Carroll), Shadowplay (Jo Clayton), Mirror Mirror (Gregory Maguire), Under Heaven (Guy Gavriel Kay)

NEXT TWO ON QUEUE ARE: Dr. Bloodmoney (Philip K Dick), The Ladies of Grace Adieu (Susanna Clarke)

MY FAVORITE SUPERHERO AND SUPER-VILLAIN ARE: Multiple Man (Jamie Madrox) and Q

IF I WERE A SUPERHERO/VILLAIN, MY POWER WOULD BE: Eidetic Memory

THE BEST COMIC FILM OF THE PAST 5 YEARS IS: Thor

THE WORST COMIC FILM OF THE PAST 5 YEARS IS: Man of Steel

I JUST WATCHED [FILM X] AND IT WAS AWESOME: Guardians of the Galaxy
I JUST WATCHED [FILM Y] AND IT WAS TERRIBLE: Man of Steel

EVERYONE SHOULD SEE [FILM Z] BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE: Star Trek  VI: The Undiscovered Country

BEST SCIENCE/SPECULATIVE FICTION SHOW OF THE PAST 10 YEARS: Supernatural

WORSE ENDING--LOST OR BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: umm?

THE OFFICE--BRITISH OR AMERICAN VERSION: British

GAME OF THRONES--LIKE OR DISLIKE DEVIATIONS FROM THE BOOKS: If done well they should be fine. That said, most of them are not done well.






Thursday, October 30, 2014

Thursday Morning Superhero

It is hard to believe that Halloween is tomorrow.  I look forward to the new wave of superhero trick-or-treaters, and will without question see large volumes of Star Lords and Rocket Raccoons stop by in hopes of a treat.  After the knowledge that Marvel dropped in regards to its upcoming movie slate, I think that the steady stream of superheroes is sure to continue.  On a sad note, this will mark the first Halloween in some time that I am not going dressed as Axe Cop.  I am going to be the Groot to my son's Rocket.  Happy Halloween!



Pick of the Week:
Saga #24 - Epic moment from Lying Cat, The Will's sister, and a dog that shoots tranquilizer darts from his nose.  Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples can do whatever they want and it will be pure gold.  It was great to have an issue almost entirely dedicated to the quest to save The Will.  He quickly became one of my favorite characters and I hope that Gwendolyn and Sophie are able to find the necessary dragon semen to create the elixir.  Oh, this also featured the line "Gonna eat yer filthy cervix!"  In other words, this comic rules.


The Rest:
Mind MGMT #27 - We all knew that Meru was special, but she didn't believe in herself.  She is one of the strongest female protagonists in the comic book medium, and it looks like she may now understand her true power.  Meru converses with the first immortal in this issue and turns a corner in terms of understanding her unique gifts and why they are a threat to Mind MGMT.  Things had been looking bleak, but hopefully this was just the pep talk that Meru needed to finally take down this vile organization.





Arkham Manor #1 - Despite cutting down the number of titles to a supposed
52, DC continues to expand some of its more popular lines so a new Batman title is anything but shocking.  In this new book, due to the implosion of Arkham Asylum and the citizens of Gotham not happy having the criminally insane held at the stadium, the mayor uses imminent domain and turns Wayne Manor into the new Arkham.  Interesting premise and with Gerry Duggan penning it I will stick around.  This was a fine first issue and establishes the situation well enough.



Southern Bastards #5 - We are gifted a new arc from the creative duo of Jason Aaron and Jason Latour and we are going to learn quite a bit about coach Boss.  The first arc was put to rest so to speak, and the town is going to continue pushing forward as if the events from the first four issues never occurred.  While I am shocked by how bold Boss is in the aftermath of issue #4, I am more intrigued by the glimpse into his childhood that we are provided.  I look forward to pulling back the curtain and peeking at a glimpse of humanity in this previously one note character.  So happy this series is back.




POSTED BY MIKE N. -- comic guy, proudly raising nerdy kids, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

We Rank 'Em: Female Protagonists - Young Adult SF/F


Science Fiction and Fantasy literature has always been incredibly popular among young adult readers. Collectively, we could probably write a book on why. Chances are, if you were born before the turn of the century you’ve read R.L. Stine, Christopher Pike, and/or V.C. Andrews. Today, the popularity of YA SF/F is growing exponentially as the success of bringing Harry Potter to the big screen has sent publishers and production companies scrambling for the next highest grossing YA franchise. Much of today’s mainstream YA SF/F franchises have female protagonists and it makes me wonder about the value of what is being presented to the always impressionable population of young adults readers.

So without further ado, I give you the six most mainstream YA SF/F female protagonists (unscientifically determined by me) rated based on role model merit. Presented worst best…enjoy.

6. Bella Swan

 I won’t waste too much of my hypothetical breath or your precious time on this. Really, the only positive message Bella sends to young women is to not give it all up at once. Which, of course, is a good message. However, she also tells young women that it’s okay to become completely obsessed with a beautiful mysterious boy the second he shows interest in you, because eventually you guys will end up getting married and having (creepy) babies. Not a good message. Bella also tells young women that it’s okay to completely surrender your identity to said boy. Worse message. I could go on, but I won’t. You’re welcome. 





5. Elsa and Anna

Yes I know, Frozen isn’t a book and technically it doesn’t fit here but I’ve included it because (1) despite being geared toward a younger audience it is incredibly popular among young adult women (as evidenced by my high-school aged cousins and their friends and that’s legit evidence) and (2) it represents a major shift in the Disney princess paradigm. Elsa shows young women that even though there is something about you that is different, it doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with you, despite what those in power may say. She shows young adults that suppressing and hiding parts of yourself only leads to isolation, most importantly from those who love you. But running away to free yourself and harboring resentment won’t fix the problem either. 

Anna shows young women that there is no such thing as a prince charming and that they shouldn’t blindly trust someone just because they finish each other’s sandwiches. Anna also tells them that not all boys are jerks though, and plus one for the good guy with Kristoff. Anna is independent and leads her own quest, which is probably the first instance of the Disney princess paradigm shift in the film. The second? Anna’s selfless act. Here comes Kristoff, running in slow motion to deliver true love upon a dying Anna and what does Anna do? Throws her dying self in front of Elsa to save her sister’s life. Astounding. What does this say to young women? A lot of things but maybe most impactful to this age group is that Anna shows them that there are people in your life who are more important than your crush. 

So, if Elsa and Anna are so great then why aren’t they higher on the list? Well, first off, the case of Elsa portrays the notion that even though you are different everyone will still accept you, and we all know that’s not true. Of course in an ideal world Anna accepts Elsa for who she is, ice blasters and all, and leaves the audience thinking that she should have just told Anna from the beginning and everything would have been okay. This is called hegemony, and we don’t live in an ideal world. Oftentimes coming out to your loved ones and the rest of society, regardless of what you are coming out about, rarely goes so smoothly. In reality, acceptance is a virtue and not many people have it. Secondly, even though Anna set out to lead her own quest, she ultimately needs a man to succeed, which is not a good message for young adult women. And finally, this story would have been just fine without the Anna and Kristoff kiss. It would have been nice to see the story end with the two as friends, sharing a bit of chemistry and a future of endless possibilities…ya know, in an ideal world.



4. Beatrice (Tris) Prior


Tris is a decent role model for young adult women. She shows them that at some point they will need to make their own decision about who they are and where they want to go in life, and this decision may send them and their family in different directions. She shows young readers that decisions like that can be hard, even frightening at times, and that it will take hard work and courage to succeed. Tris also tells young women to not let self-doubt consume them, and to be firm in their convictions. She tells them to think differently about their parents and to consider that maybe they have made some hard choices of their own. Tris is multi-faceted in a world where everyone seems one-dimensional, but she shows readers that there are others like her out there. Tris tells young adult women that a love interest should complement, not complete them, and that it is okay to accept help, but ultimately they must be able to succeed on their own. She also shows them that their choices are only part of who they are and that their actions are equally as important.

Tris may be determined and courageous and all that good stuff, but she perpetuates bootstrapping too much to be any higher on this list. She tells young readers that if they want something bad enough and work hard enough, ultimately they will get it. This is great in theory, but isn’t always reality. In reality, sometimes there are limitations that you cannot surpass no matter how hard you try. A better role model Tris may not have been able to succeed in Dauntless initiation due to physical limitations and instead had to conquer her fear of becoming Factionless and learn about living life unprivileged. That said, I’m a big fan of any female character that tells young women to value physical strength, so Tris definitely gets bonus points for that.


3. Katniss Everdeen

Katniss is a fighter. She tells young women to stand up for what is right and to not trust everything they see on TV. Katniss shows that sometimes there are things more important than what you want, like the needs of your family and community. She warns young adults about the influence of the media and shows that the stronger the action the heavier the consequence. She shows them that you can’t always take someone’s word at face value.

But Katniss, like Tris, is a violent figure, wielding weapons and inflicting harm, even though she may not have a choice. And although we sometimes have to do what is necessary to survive, relying on violence shouldn’t be the
answer and Katniss shows how much of a toll that can take on a person. Katniss isn’t higher on the list because she is not necessarily a relatable role model and suffers from the superhero effect. Sure, we all want to be like Katniss (or Batman) but realistically we know it’s not possible and that dream gets filed in the ‘wish I could’ folder.










2. Lyra Belacqua


Lyra is smart, independent, sly, and cunning. She is curious and fearless. She shows young adult women to stick up for themselves and for thier friends. She tells them to not be judgmental and shows there are people worthy of respect in all walks of life and in all levels of society. What really makes Lyra a strong role model for young adults though is not Lyra herself, but her daemon Pan. Pan is a physical representation of Lyra’s self, and through Pan young adults can see that even though their idea of themselves may change while they are discovering who they are, the underlying foundation must remain solid. Lyra and Pan warn readers of the dangers of losing their central sense of identity and show that while this sense of identity is often amorphous as a young adult, the actions and choices they make now can greatly effect who they become in the future. 


[side note: The movie The Golden Compass didn't do very well in the U.S. (grossed about 70 million) so exposure to it may be a bit lower than the others on this list. If you haven't heard of it, I highly recommend this His Dark Materials series by Phillip Pullman. It is full of philosophical and theological undertones and is heavily inspired by John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which may be the best epic poem ever written. ] 



1. Hermione Granger


Out of all the female protagonists in today’s YA SF/F, Hermione Granger wins for the most positive female role model. She’s independent, smart, and caring. She is at times overambitious and often too eager to prove herself in a world where she feels she has to. She is sometimes insecure and is even a bit self-conscious about her appearance (like her hair and her teeth). But all in all, Hermione is proud of who she is and is willing to stick up for what she believes in. She recognizes her mistakes. She is a loyal and loving friend. Most importantly, her arc isn’t dependent on a love interest. Granted, love interests come into the picture when the characters start to grow up, but Hermione doesn’t need one to define her, or to help her succeed. But she does get support from her friends, and Harry, Ron, and Hermione all need each other equally.



Hermione is a realistic, relatable, and achievable role model. Even though she has magic, which supposedly isn’t real, young women can strive to emulate her if they so choose (for example by excelling in school but taking risks and having fun). So what does Hermione say to young adult women? She tells them that it’s okay to be yourself, even if you are sometimes unsure who that person is. She tells them to be ambitious, but warns of the dangers of over ambition and setting unrealistic goals. Hermione tells them to value those in their lives who are important and shows what a real friend is like. She shows how to stick up for what you believe in, to stick up for your friends, and to stand up for what you think is right. She reminds young women to be independent but not exclusive. And she tells them that it’s okay to be different. Hermione reminds all of us that not fitting in doesn’t make you any less valuable a person, and oftentimes those who set the boundaries for different and normal are just as, if not more, insecure than you are.


Well, there you have it, my not so humble opinion on the matter. Of course, all of this is open for debate (except Hermione) and we’d love to hear what you think!

----
POSTED BY:  Tia  whose patronus is a panther and whose daemon is a bobcat


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

How Classic Horror Continues to Inspire

Regular readers may know that I have an abiding love of classic horror movies, and some may also know that I am the singer and songwriter for the alt-folk band Sci-Fi Romance. This month, those two things came together in a way that, I have to admit, surprised me, when I found myself writing, recording, and releasing an EP of new songs inspired by a half dozen of those movies.

See, every October, my wife and I stock up on Fall seasonal beers, turn the lights down, and watch as many old horror movies as we can. The classic Universal monsters, Roger Corman and Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Mario Bava, maybe Sam Raimi, the old micro-budget RKO pictures produced by Val Lewton, drive-in oddballs, and anything else that may be tangentially related or catches our eyes. This year, the first movie we watched was Corman's The Fall of the House of Usher, and while we were watching it, I got a weird, fully-formed idea completely out of the blue.

"Why don't I write a song for each movie we watch, dig up my old four-track cassette recorder I haven't touched in over 15 years, record the songs immediately after I write them, and put the whole thing out for free?" Yes. Why wouldn't someone do exactly that? Nostalgia upon nostalgia, and all my nerd buttons pushed simultaneously.

The thing that did it, I think, that sent me in this odd direction, was that for the first time I understood the humanity in Usher's decision to bury his sister alive. My experience of these films — many of which I saw for the first time when I was a kid — was one of sensationalism and spooky atmospheres, and something that fit in with my regular diet of Scooby-Doo and Adam West as Batman. You know, some crazy person in an old castle with lots of old candles and spiderwebs, and a bland dope who wanders into a bad situation they can't comprehend, before everything catches on fire and burns down 90 minutes later. So admittedly, much of my continued enjoyment of these films is nostalgic. Some of it comes from an increased appreciation for the craft of the actors and filmmakers involved, who were so evocative and (usually) inventive with very limited resources, either financial or temporal. But sometimes my enjoyment of them suddenly leaps beyond all of that, when I make a profound emotional connection with a character that everybody thinks is nuts.

This first happened a dozen years ago when I re-watched Frankenstein. I had long admired Karloff's performance as the monster, of course, but this was the first time I had really felt Colin Clive's Henry Frankenstein. Clive was a drunk who died in his thirties, so who knows how much of the haunted, longing pain in his eyes was acting and how much just followed him around everywhere he went. But man, it hit me, and I wrote a song about it. Now here it is 12 years and who knows how many bands later, and I had the same thing this time with Vincent Price in Usher. Just like it had before, that connection made me want to write a song.

And that turned out to be the key. I suddenly watched these movies with an entirely different outlook, realizing that these classically trained actors, who had all done Shakespeare and Ibsen and all of this had had to find an emotional way into these characters to ground their performance at the center of all this great atmosphere, set design, and macabre plot elements. I'd always found the 1931 Dracula to be bizarre, with Dracula's casual strolling about among people who know he's a vampire and have sworn to stop him. But this time, I asked myself why the hell he left Transylvania in the first place, and the answer made everything else fall into place: he was desperately lonely. He wants to be around people, he's used to unquestioned dominion, and he doesn't perceive a threat from Van Helsing and the dopey Jonathan Harker. Also, Dwight Frye's performance as Renfield is amazing.

I couldn't watch Dracula and not watch Ed Wood, and the fundamentally joyous soul of that movie has always spoken to me. Ed's response to being told he made the worst movie someone's ever seen is "Well, my next one will be better!" for Pete's sake. That song came easily. Karloff was kind enough to explain straight out in The Body Snatcher the reason behind his seething creepiness, which was that as a low-class, forgotten cab driver he had managed to get and hold sway over a powerful, well respected physician and medical professor, and he would do absolutely anything in his power to keep that sense of power and meaning. In Bride of Frankenstein, we watch Karloff's monster grow in his humanity and fill up with an aching pathos, like Dracula, seeking connection. His longing for it gave me a chance to write what I consider both a very funny and a very sincere song. It's a celebration of possibility, but since we know how the story ends, the context gives everything a very different meaning.

Finally, for what was probably my favorite song on the EP, I tackled Corman's Masque of the Red Death, which is my favorite of the Corman/Poe/Price movies. It has the most going on, and is to me the most interesting because of what is actually a pretty acute exploration of human nature. I had no idea what to write about, where to hang my hat, as it were, for a song about this movie. And then I saw the sadness with which Hazel Court portrayed Juliana, Prince Prospero's mistress, who had always resisted committing her path to unrepentant evil, as he had. I loved her performance, and hope I did it justice.

Our world is different now, and today a lot of violence comes out of nowhere. It is sudden, profound, and often committed outside of context. People with mental illness fire into crowds, terror attacks come out of nowhere, and we worry things like GMOs and technology may ultimately harbor us ill will. Horror movies of today have come to reflect those fears. For several years, most mainstream horror movies were simply sadistic parades of people being killed brutally for reasons that remained at arms' length, and now zombies have gnawed their way to the top of every medium's genre output. I think these earlier films, despite a lack of special effects, despite their limited budgets, and despite much actual onscreen violence, used what they had, which were their gifted casts. Products of a different time, they told different kinds of stories — fundamentally human stories — that might not get the recognition they deserve. I can't imagine writing a song about Paris Hilton in House of Wax, but I could write one about Henry Jarrod as played by Vincent Price. Beneath the arched eyebrows and pencil mustache, there was more of me.

October is available as a free download here. Happy Halloween, everybody.

Posted by — Vance K, cult film aficionado, lover of terrible movies, and resident baritone at Nerds of a Feather since 2012

Monday, October 27, 2014

Microreview [book]: Night of Knives by Ian C. Esslemont

One Fateful, Disappointing Night in Malaz City
The Malazan Book of the Fallen series is enormous, and spans several continents, dozens of major characters, and huge stretches of time. As such, there are some stories that remain untold. In Night of Knives, Esslemont tells one such story; the death of the Malazan Emperor. What generally happened is known to anyone sufficiently far enough into the prime Malazan Book of the Fallen series written by Steven Erikson, but Esslemont fills in the blanks and digs deeper into the event. In some ways, he succeeds in bringing a major event in the Malazen series to light. In other ways, he fails to give sufficient perspective into the death of Kellanved and Dancer.

Night of Knives does not follow Kellanved and Dancer. It follows Kiska and Temper. Kiska is a talent, an untrained mage. Temper is a Malazan veteran, whose former glory came from being part of Dassem Ultor's retinue, The Sword. The entire story takes place during a single 24 hour period, in which Malaz City is in close enough proximity with the Shadow warren that it's easy for creatures from that world to cross over into the mundane world. While most of the city's denizens stay indoors to avoid meeting unpleasant deaths, Kiska is charged with delivering a dead man's message and has ambitions of finally getting out of the island city by showing her worth to the island's mysterious visitors. Temper, seemingly content with being a guard at Mock's Hold, is nonetheless drawn out by concerns for his female companion. The two cross paths a number of times, and cross paths with many major characters from the Malazan universe in the fateful night that ends Kellanved's reign.

This story is considerately smaller in scope than those of the Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen novels. Following only two characters, and primarily only focused on a single day, it makes up for the small scope by fleshing out the details of the environment much more than necessary. I noted several instances in which a room was described with more detail than most of the conflicts in the novel. Esslemont seems to gloss over the details in fights to the point that it is hard to follow what just happened. Fights are often described, more or less, as a shuffle of bodies with one standing victorious and the other lying dead. The next paragraph is a detailed description of a room. The parts that I wanted to have described in detail are lacking, while the parts I could not care less about are given many words. I also found that following the perspectives of Temper and Kiska led to many situations in which Important Things were occurring were obscured by the fact that those characters were nearby but not present for the events. What is one of the most important events in the story is described from the perspective of someone listening to it occurring one floor above them, then going to look at the aftermath. That was disappointing, to say the least.

I often found the novel also suffers from some mechanical problems. Esslemont has a bad habit of giving two characters voice in a single short paragraph. This often came in the form of line of dialog, character switch, line of dialog, end paragraph. This made dialog very hard to follow sometimes as I expect voices to change by paragraph, not within a single paragraph. It also features something common to the Malazan books that some might like more than others. Sections of the book are presented in the third person but following a single character. Everything is described from that character's perspective. If the reader knows Kiska is talking to or describing a particular character, but Kiska doesn't know them, it is written in a manner that would befit Kiska's knowledge. If I just read a section in which Temper fights something, and Kiska is observing this but does not know Temper, Kiska's observation will be written without any mention of Temper, just a description of a heavily-armored man with two swords. But the Malazan series has many heavily-armored men with two swords, so the descriptions are not unique enough to make it clear who is being described sometimes. It often left me feeling like I was seeing something important happening but didn't pick up on the full significance of events. Combine this with another Malazan trademark of characters possessing many names, and we have a story that is certainly interesting and worth reading but hard to follow at times and almost requiring a re-reading for further insights.

Finally, if you have not read any of the other Malazan books, particularly Erikson's series, you will not only be lost in the details, but miss all of what makes this story important. Night of Knives may be the start of Esslemont's Malazan contributions, but it is far from the start of the story. In fact, I would not even recommend reading this without having first read up to book six of Erikson's series, The Bonehunters

By now, it probably sounds like I did not enjoy Night of Knives! That is not the case. Despite being slightly difficult to follow for many of the above reasons, the story is worth reading if you're a Malazan fan. Temper is an interesting character, and the flashback to his time in The Sword is a fascinating look back at Dassem Ultor. The treachery within the Malazan empire is in full focus, and several of its best characters are given special attention in the story. There is even a subplot involving the Stormriders that is given very little attention but sounds as interesting as the story being told. Unfortunately, if you're not a Malazan fan, there are not many good reasons to start with Night of Knives.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 4/10

Bonuses: +1 if you've read up to The Bonehunters and are a Malazan fan. +1 for the Dassem Ultor flashback. +1 for the tiny bits of Stormriders teasing.

Penalties: -1 for being a bad start if you have not read six other enormous novels before getting into Malazan. -1 for too much time spent describing scenery. -1 for mechanical problems and slavishly adhering to perspective to the point of confusing the reader.

Nerd Coefficient: 3/10 if you're going into it with no Malazan knowledge. (Just bad), 5/10 if you're a Malazan reader. (Problematic, but has redeeming qualities)

***

POSTED BY: brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014

Reference: Esslemont, Ian Cameron. Night of Knives [Tor Books, 2004]

Friday, October 24, 2014

Microreview [book]: Valor, by John Gwynne

Not bad, but the problems of Malice worsen...


Gwynne, John. Valor. Orbit: 2014.


Buy it here.


In my review of author John Gwynne's first installment of this trilogy, Malice, I pointed out the extreme difficulty, as a reader, in suspending my disbelief that some 'good guys' would continue to serve an antiChrist-like figure even after he starts showing his true nature. Such guys include legions of samurai-like ninja supersoldiers who had spent their entire lives preparing to serve the prophesied avatar of the good god, one half of the world's Zoroastrian battle between light and darkness (complete with angels and demons). But even if they're completely unable to tell right from wrong, and even if we as readers are willing to swallow this wildly improbable state of affairs, Main Baddie Nathair's right-hand man, Veradis, continues to be such a good soul in this volume and to serve Nathair loyally—even after seeing his friends murdered by Nathair's other right-hand man, the "angel", and his pet giant—that I have to draw the line at him.

Gwynne is obviously building up to a Big Reveal, when Veradis will realize the error of his ways, switch sides to Main Good Guy Corban and (it's looking likelier and likelier) fall in love with Corban's spunky sister, but the sustained dramatic irony, an annoyance in the first book, is an extremely distracting cacophony here in book two. Much of the suspense in the book is built around different characters (finally!) figuring out who's good and who's bad, and that sort of thing got old quickly. Essentially, it's melodrama: we the readers are meant to empathize with poor misunderstood Corban and hate slimy pretender Nathair, grow furious with each new betrayal of the latter and cheer for each narrow escape by the former. That formula worked fairly well for book one, but here in Valor, it's not doing it for me anymore—I feel like Gwynne tried to milk this angle for too long.

On the other hand, in world with such starkly delineated notions of good and evil, once the battle lines are drawn, there won't be much left to do but have a Big Fight, and Gwynne wisely reasoned, I suppose, that having Corban and Friends on the run, constantly harried by foes, makes for better entertainment than a 500-page battle. Only trouble is, the extended chase scenes follow a predictable formula as well: each time, Corban manages to escape, but almost invariably loses another person precious to him, a member of his (as they literally call it) 'pack.' So I didn't even need to glance at the number of pages remaining in the book to know when I was getting near the end—let's just say the steady attrition of Corban's buddies takes its toll, until there obviously wasn't any more mileage Gwynne could get out of it without sacrificing a Main Character (you know, the kind that Storm-trooper types can never hit no matter how many times they fire their ray guns!), since he'd run out of Second-Tier Important Characters Whose Death, While Sad and All, Doesn't Really Change Much (you know, the kind people like J.K. Rowling sacrifice instead of really important characters so there can still be a happy ending! Just imagine the stink everyone would have put up if, instead of one of the totally expendable Weasley twins, it had been Ron—or Harry!?!?—who fell at The End!).

In Gwynne's world, bad guys hit their targets, alright, but only if they're aiming for second-tier nobodies!

You might be sensing by now that my tolerance for authors who have melodramatic cake and eat it too is rather low. I'd prefer to see an author unafraid to sacrifice the Ned Starks now and again, because it makes the story weightier to know that even those hard-to-hit Main Characters are vulnerable—in short, it places the Happy Ending in jeopardy! But Gwynne, at least so far, is having his Storm-trooper stand-ins fire and miss (or at least, hit only the equivalent of the Weasely twins).

The vaguely post-apocalyptic setting remains interesting, as does the under-populated human lands—but the latter are definitely firmly within a Celtic/Western European middle ages paradigm, and I'd say that particular brand of fantasy has been war-hammered almost to death by now. I hope that Gwynne can raise his game for the titanic final volume in the series, which I will look forward to reading—even after the slight disappointment of Valor.


The Math


Objective Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for continuing the cool blending of post-apocalyptic world with Mithraic/ Zoroastrian struggle between angels and demons, light and dark

Penalties: -1 for continuing to milk the dramatic irony/melodrama angle for all it is worth, -1 for keeping Main Characters safe at the expense of the second tier of supporting characters

Nerd coefficient: 6/10 "Still enjoyable, but the flaws are (getting) hard(er) to ignore"


[I know what you're thinking. "A 6/10? That's harsh!" Not so—at NOAF, that means Valor is a cut above the typical fare out there.]


This has been a communique from Zhaoyun, glasses-wearing academic by day, superhero sf/f aficionado by night, and one of the Main Characters at NOAF since 2013. Vive la resistance boutonneux! 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Thursday Morning Superhero: Halloween ComicFest Edition


This Saturday marks the third annual Halloween ComicFest.  While it has only been around since 2012, Halloween ComicFest has grown each year and has quickly become an annual tradition for many families.  This will be the second year that our household ordered packs of the mini-comics to pass out to trick-or-treaters.  The books were a massive success last year.

Find out if your LCS is participating by checking out the link here and make sure to dress up in your best costume as many comic book stores have additional events and contests associated with Halloween ComicFest.  If they don't have a costume contest, snap a picture of yourself holding one of the ComicFest comics and submit it to "The Greatest Halloween Costume Contest Ever" here.  In addition to a lot of great prizes, you could take home a gift certificate to your LCS worth either $500 or $1,000!

There are 19 total comics that will be distributed on Saturday, and instead of my usual pick of the week I am going to breakdown my top selections for this weekend.  Keep in mind that each store has its own distribution policies on the comic books.  They purchase the comics at cost to provide to you for free.  Make sure you say thanks!


Pick of Halloween ComicFest:
Scooby-Doo Team Up: HCF Edition #1 - I still have fond memories of the Scooby-Doo and Batman crossover from my youth and am excited to read this all-ages comic book with my kids.  Batman and the gang team up to uncover the mystery of a giant Man-Bat that has been causing trouble.  Sounds like loads of fun for the whole family to enjoy.

The Rest:
Afterlife with Archie #1 - Recommended for teen readers and older, this is a story that involves Archie and his pals are taken to the grave and back in what is dubbed the Arch-pocalypse.  Nice palette cleanser the other zombie comics on the market and very appropriate considering the recent demise of Archie.  Featuring Sabrina the teenage witch and zombies, this classic reprint is not to be missed.







Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight Halloween Special Edition #1 - Relive the first chapter in Jeph Loeb's classic Batman: Haunted Knight, in this special reprint.  Set on Halloween, this tale features an all-star cast of villains and is a must read for any Batman fan.  And to be completely honest, while I say I am doing this for my kids, I just want more comics for myself!








My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic HCF Edition #1 - I am not a brony.  I'm not!  Nothing wrong with enjoying good stories with my daughter.  Seriously though, the creative team behind the new ponies do a great job writing entertaining stories with very relatable characters.  My son pretends not to enjoy them as much as his sister, but he is a fan.  Halloween ComicFest really has something for everyone and is a great excuse to put on your best MLP costume, go to your LCS and have fun reading about ponies.


POSTED BY MIKE N. -- comic guy, proudly raising nerdy kids, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.