Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Guest Microreview [book]: The Fictional Man by Al Ewing

Al Ewing, The Fictional Man [Solaris, 2013]

Al Ewing is real, despite the Dallas-sounding name, and he has written a fantastic novel about fiction vs. reality. It's an easy book to read, but that's not to suggest it is only fun pulp. At times it confuses you as to where it is heading, and often brings up troubling and complex emotional scenarios. This is a book that can combine serious relationship issues, personality crisis, fan parody, spoof humour, gratuitous sex and violence and social comment all in a couple of paragraphs.

Ewing presents us with an alternate present, one where human cloning exists. Hollywood is full of 'Fictionals' - clones developed as fully-fledged fictional characters by writers and brought to life in labs, made to act in films and shows alongside real stars. Niles Goran, a 'real' person, is a hack author of Jack Reacher-esque thrillers whose personal life is a shambles. His only confidants aren't even 'real' - his counsellor, a Fictional who played a TV shrink, and his best and only friend, a Fictional created for a superhero series. He is asked to write a remake of a Flint-style 60's spy spoof which for the proud yet floundering novelist would mean one of his characters would be made into living, breathing Fictional. However, as complications ensue, Niles begins to question his own reality and what he really feels about these clones.

As we explore this world through Niles's story, the fun of the scenario becomes clear - much enjoyment seems to be had by Ewing in rewriting cultural history, and references to everything from Jaws to Weekend At Bernies, Batman to Bond abound. As the Fictionals are designed to BE the character they play- a true 'meat puppet'- jokes such as an old-school Sherlock helping the police, dumbly assisted by an 'Action Holmes', or how Dexter as played by a clone got a little too carried away, fly off the pages.

However, despite Ewing's clear talent shining through as with his work for 2000AD and his earlier novels, with interesting shifts in style and format, I found myself struggling to enjoy this story at the half-way mark. The British author writing about a depressed, arrogant British author struggling with his writing felt self-absorbed at times. It stank of a Mary Sue situation, a writer using his surrogate to bitch about critics and the world in general. The regular giggly 'you know what I'm referring to here, right?' nature of the pop references also began to grate, making me think of the South Park spoof of Family Guy's reference generator machin... oh shit now I'm doing it...

And, worst of all, the device of Niles narrating an alternative reality to each scene in italics began to annoy me; used, it seemed, far too frequently, and too like the tired filmic trick of seeing something happen that turns out to be all in the character's head - which, after making me laugh as a kid at Dream On, now it poisons my blood....(Actually I mainly watched Dream On for the nudity, so maybe it was never funny...).

Yet then something wonderful happens with this book. I realised all these apparent flaws were intentional and designed to highlight Niles's neurosis. Niles's existential dilemma and attempts to finish his movie pitch begin to shift things in an intriguing way. His friendship with the Fictional and his dealing with his ego become far more central than the Hollywood biz story. His narration of his own life is shown to be a major personality flaw, one he tries to overcome, and the constant refs are revealed to highlight the smudged reality Niles has to navigate. Ewing started to really play with my brain in the second half of the story. What is real, other than what we each believe, or tell ourselves to believe? Is a clone any less human than a 'womb-born'? How much do we surround ourselves with lies to make ourselves feel better, and can one person ever really know another? Are love and friendship just fictions with a finite life?

This book became far more than the Futurama-meets-Blade Runner stunt it appeared at first, and although the humour continued, by the perfect and almost gentle ending I was very impressed. Managing to combine explorations on writing, author ownership, identity, sexual disfunction and Hollywood business, whilst never losing its playfulness, and including some wild tangents, this is a superior read and I can't wait for Ewing's next.

The Math

Baseline Assessment : 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for the dark and serious ideas behind the spoofs and winks; +1 for the sly digs at media coverage and bad movie-making; +1 for the ending; +0.5 for the use of the phrase 'Action Holmes'.

Penalties: -1 for indulging too much in the self-narration; -1 for underwritten support characters, particularly women; -0.5 for reminding me Scrubs exists.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10. "A mostly enjoyable experience."

Read about our scoring system, in which a sufficiently random sample of books would normally distribute around 5, here.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Alert! Cult Movie Titles Expiring from Netflix

Just a heads-up for those of you who subscribe to Netflix Instant: This Wednesday, May 1, hundreds of titles are expiring and will no longer be available to view instantly. These include a ton of 1950s sci-fi and classic horror titles (many of which I've reviewed here at Nerds of a Feather).

Some of these titles include:
  • Gog
  • Invisible Invaders
  • Burn, Witch, Burn
  • The Call of Cthulhu (independent silent film from 2005)
  • Beyond the Time Barrier
  • Dr. Phibes Rises Again (campy Vincent Price classic)
  • The Flight that Disappeared
  • The Black Sleep
  • The Dunwich Horror (loosely based on the Lovecraft story)
  • Red Planet Mars
  • The Crimson Cult (Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee)
  • I Bury the Living (one of my favorite b-horror movies)
  • The Brain that Wouldn't Die
So stock up on Mountain Dew or Starbucks gift cards and start watching, folks. We're less than 24 hours away from B-moviemageddon!

Con Impressions: C2E2

On Saturday I had the privilege of attending day 2 of the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo (C2E2) and must admit that I had a great time.  In recent years I have started hitting the convention scene up a decent amount, from the nerd mecha that is San Diego Comic Con to the photo-op, autograph heavy Wizard World Conventions that travel from city to city.  PAX and Toy Fair are on my bucket list, but thanks to a long day of driving I was able to cross C2E2 off the list, which despite being in its 3rd year, has already developed a reputation as a great con.  Click here for some great pics courtesy of the Chicago Tribune.

My journey began with a 4:30am wake-up call in southern Indiana, a large cup of coffee, and a five hour drive to McCormick Place.  Check in was quick and the friendly staff had me all set up to join the que to hit the show floor!

Similar to other cons, C2E2 featured an assortment of comic publishers (Marvel, Archaia, Top Shelf, Dark Horse), merchandise (We Love Fine Tees, Threadless, The Yetee), local comic book store booths, and artisan wares.  One thing that really impressed me was C2E2's inclusion of "The Block".  The Block was a central hub where you could purchase hand made action figures, screen-printed t-shirts, art prints, and other homemade items.  It really allowed artists who are not nationally known to showcase their goods and there were a lot of great items.

C2E2 also offered up a "Power Up" scavenger hunt which had con
goers, including myself, deciphering clues to the location of 16 QR codes placed around the convention.  Upon scanning all 16 you were rewarded with the secret phrase which you whispered to the nice folks at the information for a swag bag.

I love that Jeffrey Brown included a sketch!
Visiting the various booth resulted in a decent showing of swag (not to the level of SDCC) and the ability to interact with creators in a more intimate setting than SDCC.  At Marvel I was able to see Rick Remender and Brian Posehn, and utilized Twitter to interact with Sean Williams and pick up my Artful Daggers art card!  With no line I was able to get an autographed The Massive poster from Brian Wood and got Vadar's Little Princess and Darth Vadar and Son autographed by Jeffrey Brown at the Top Shelf booth.

My biggest disappointment for the day was missing Patton Oswalt, but had an absolute blast.  I also wish I was able to spend some time at Artist Alley as there were numerous creators I would have love to meet, but it was quite busy and my wallet was quite empty.

The top panel I attended was the Age of Ultron.  I have really enjoyed this series and it was fun to get insight from the creative team at Marvel at how the various parties involved worked through certain issues.  I was able to get into all of the panels I attempted without any extensive waiting, and the fans asked intelligent questions and the creators seemed very happy to be there.

Some swag that made my kids quite happy
My overall impression of C2E2 is that if you are a fan of comics then you will have a good time.  I never felt overwhelmed with the crowds ala SDCC and the creators seemed to be more accessible and looked like they were actually having a good time signing autographs, posing for pictures, and interacting with fans.  As much as I love SDCC, it seems that some individuals (often myself) are just exhausted from the busy schedule.  C2E2 managed to feel relaxed and like you were part of something big at the same time.  I will definitely make a trip to the Windy City in 2014, hopefully stay for the full weekend, and bring a stack of books to get signed as I wish I did this year.  Thanks C2E2 and see you next year!
I survived my encounter with a wampa!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Xbox 720 to Require Constant Internet Connection

1984 has arrived!

I know there are some aluminum hat wearers out there that have been anxiously awaiting a nightmarish, Orwellian  future where we are monitored at all times by huge, evil corporations bent on world domination, just so you can say, "I told you so." Well, guess what? I've got a surprise for you! The next Xbox is going to never be disconnected from the Internet. Not only will it shut down if it isn't plugged into the net for three minutes, but they're more than doubling the cost of the privilege of subscribing to Xbox Live to $10/month. First of all, let me place the caveat here at the beginning saying this information comes from another blogger. We aren't 60 Minutes or Nightline when it comes to investigative journalism. That said, I feel fairly comfortable posting considering the story has re-run on Yahoo.com and IGN (Read more, I'm not making this up: http://www.ign.com/articles/2013/04/25/next-xbox-functionality-pricing-reportedly-outed).

It's moves like this that make me wonder, are they trying to scare people away? For one thing, every time your Internet goes down, and with some connections this is more of an issue than others, your Xbox is going out, too. Not only is that doubly annoying, it makes no sense.

I assume this is to cut down on people buying used games. Why not just do what Mass Effect 3 and many games before it have done? Have a one-time-use code that must be purchased a second time if the game is to be played on another console. It makes me sick to even say that because personally, I believe you ought to be able to buy and sell legal items pretty much as often as you'd like. However, it's the lesser of two evils. At least with the code you can buy the game used and play it at your leisure, not worried that you're being watched at all times by some sort of sick super-villain.

The blogger that broke the news said the 'always on' rumor, "Isn't as Draconian as many seem to believe." That's funny, I was thinking that was the perfect word for it. While I don't believe Bill Gates sits in a room with thousands of HD monitors showing every last Kinect feed in the world, I don't really want him to have that capability. You won't be able to take your Xbox any place that doesn't have an Internet connection. In some hotels, wifi can cost as much as $20/night. What about the Xbox hooked up in the car to keep the kids entertained in cross country road trips? I guess that one is ground they're giving completely to Sony and Nintendo, although the Wii isn't really back seat friendly. Those controllers make fantastic sister or brother assault aids in a 30-hour car ride, as well. 

are you trying to make me angry?

Don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry. I fail to see the justification and motivation for this drastic measure. Are they really losing that much money in used games? I keep all my games because I figure I'm not being played like a chump for six bucks. It's worth the slightest possibility to me that I might play something again that I'll keep it just out of spite over not giving into Gamestop's racketeering. I have close to six grand in video games sitting on the shelf next to my t.v. Well, sadly they aren't worth that now. Game discs do not, as a general rule, appreciate in value with time like fine wine or artwork. I did the same thing with lots of college textbooks. I paid $129 for it and you're going to try to give me $12? I don't think so! I'm keeping it. I'll probably never crack it again, but it's worth it knowing I wasn't played for a fool by a system set up to con students, the vast majority of whom aren't the richest demographic to begin with.

I'm a bit reactionary and I currently feel like "dealing with it" by picking up a Sony this year. I can get it earlier than November, so that's one plus for the PS4. I may calm down by then and realize I can't live without my Xbox, but I also might not want Bill Gates watching me sit on my couch all day. That's exciting stuff, I know, but that's exactly why I don't want to give it away for free! I should be charging Billy Boy for that privilege. Microsoft Executive Adam Orth resigned shortly after the less-than-sympathetic Tweet above. Nevertheless, it appears Microsoft is going ahead with their plans. Screwing over loyal customers is fine, so long as you don't tell them about it on social media. That's crossing the line, man. Low blow. Dirty pool. Unacceptable. I suggest buying a roll of this, so at least you can give Microsoft the same treatment they're giving you.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Microreview [book]: Gideon's Angel, by Clifford Beal

Or, Historical Fiction versus Historical Fiction

The Meat 

Would you say, reader, that you like history?  And if so, do you demand some sort of authenticity, some truthiness, from its depiction in fiction? In other words, when you read historical fiction, is it partly to learn something about the past?  Or is a historical setting more like a fancy suit that just makes everything in a story snazzier?

If you're a purist of the former outlook, that historical fiction must seek to teach the reader something of the past, you'll be disappointed by virtually every single historical fiction book in existence, since there are basically only two types of historical fiction authors out there: the career novelist and the career historian. No matter how intensely novelists research history, they've dedicated their life work to perfecting their writing, meaning they tend to apply a thin historical veneer to what is otherwise a simple story of love, revenge, or both. Conversely, historians busy themselves studying history, which leaves little time to burnish their fiction writing skills, and as a result their accounts tend to be weighed down with those giant cement shoes known as "too much detail about stuff no one cares about anymore" and "'character development? I can't do that—these are people from history!'". It's incredibly rare to find a novelist who possesses deep knowledge and understanding of history, or a historian with a gift for fiction writing (or in many cases, nonfiction writing too, sad to say).

Historical fiction, especially those works written by historians, also faces a fundamental problem: the past totally sucked.  No matter which time period a given story is set in, the world is almost certainly dirtier, crueler, more prejudiced, and less convenient than ours, whatever the current world's faults. I can hear, from among my audience of literally dozens, a chorus of gasps that I could prefer the current world to the glorious wonders of the past, but answer me this, you Gone with the Wind-loving romantics: can you honestly say, with a straight face, "yep, 1864 America was a great time to be alive!" Or perhaps you think wistfully of Qing-era China, but conveniently forget about foot-binding, the indiscriminate slaughter of civil wars, opium, or predatory Western imperialism. Or for lovers of English/French history, it's pretty hard to see in rosy hues the endless slaughter of, not only the enemy across the Channel, but also the people at home if they were not of that moment's favored religion, wouldn't you say?

Segway! Gideon's Angel is set in, if not really about, Cromwell's England. And after reading my ranting on historical fiction above, you're probably wondering by now which Clifford Beal is: a historian or a novelist. Nothing a Google search won't answer! Yet before you shake your heads in disgust at the effrontery of a novelist marinating his story in the fragrant juices of history, know this: just because a story is spray-painted with an old-looking patina doesn't mean it's a bad story. So if you are of the historical fiction camp—history as veneer—then Gideon's Angel is perfect for you. Because it's actually quite an entertaining romp, as such stories go.

Most historical fiction writers cannot resist the temptation to have their protagonists interact with the Great Men (or, all too infrequently, Women) of History, and Beal is no exception. Perhaps they hope to soak up some relevance for their stories via contact with well-known personages, but the trade-off is their depictions of ordinary life/people get the short stick. So, in Beal's Cromwellian England, our historical veneer consists of little nuggets like, say, pistols not firing correctly, the use of the word 'hanger' instead of more familiar latter-day terms like cutlass, or brief descriptions of the hearty fare in inns—good as far as they go, but few and far between. On the other hand, Beal does a fine job creating characters (Billy is especially good) we want to see through to the end of their adventure, though at times their motivations are inexplicable (why on earth would Richard join such a silly conspiracy, given his knowledge and skills?). But what if you are a serious student of history, and yearn to discover truths about the glorious past in each historical fiction volume you read? Then read a history book—you'll see just how scarce glory was in the past.

This is actually my one serious objection to Gideon's Angel, which purports to depict a period of history rife with religious and political intolerance but instead presents a rosy picture where in due course a Protestant Royalist joins forces with a Catholic swashbuckler (what 17th century tale is complete without an extended cameo from everyone's favorite musketeer?), a Spanish Jew, and a bunch of Republican Freemasons to take on the forces of Hell (literally) by casting Jewish prayer-spells in Hebrew that work for Christians too.  Is it exciting?  Absolutely! Might it give the casual reader the grossly mistaken impression that England at that time was an utopian paradise of tolerance where Jews and Christians of all types amiably agreed they were all servants of the same God and let's be BFF? You bet.

Beal's take on Europe's past: a land of live-and-let-live tolerance

Europe's actual past

The final verdict, then, is that Gideon's Angel is thoroughly entertaining, and well-crafted stylistically (though Beal does lay on the archaic vocabulary rather too thickly, I felt), but definitely falls into the historical fiction camp, which might be a problem for some readers—though, sadly, it's precisely those for whom it won't be a problem that this is a problem. I remember years back a rash of people basing their understanding of the Roman Empire on Gladiator—I only pray this book won't create a similar wave of 'experts' on Cromwell's world!  Just enjoy it for what it is: an entertaining sword and sorcery and sandals and demons and stuff story.

The Math

Objective quality: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for good writing style and characters, especially Billy

Penalties: -1 for showing the past we wish existed instead of the one that actually did

Nerd coefficient: 6/10   "still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore"

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Thursday Morning Superhero

After a two week hiatus from our anniversary celebration, Thursday Morning Superhero has returned and not a moment too late.  Mark Millar launched Jupiter's Legacy, a tale about superhero parents dealing with their frustration with their own superhero children and the broken political system in the U.S. where they currently reside.  It is packed with mystery, drama, and political commentary.  Morning Glories is moving on to season 2 and you can pick up issue #26 for only $1!  On top of that it looks like I will be taking a road trip to Chicago on Saturday to partake in some C2E2 festivities!

Pick of the Week:
Mind MGMT #10 - Curse you Matt Kindt for giving readers a new experience each time they read your book and setting the bar to unattainable heights for other creators!   Seriously.  Check out the store on his website if you don't believe me.  Look at some of the merch he is selling!  Onto this week's issue.  We meet a former Mind MGMT recruit who can read the thoughts of all within a fifteen mile radius of himself and we can too.  In the sidebar, before reading the page, you can read the thoughts from his perspective and then watch what unfolds.  This obviously creates a challenge for Lyme and his group, but with the help of some six-sided friends they are able to make their pitch to him.  Not wanting to spoil anything, what happens at this meeting has me chomping at the bits to read issue #12.  Time to go back and happily reread this series in an attempt to reveal more secrets that Kindt meticulously places in each issue.  This title is rapidly becoming one of my favorite series of all-time.  Kudos Mr. Kindt.

The Rest:
Jupiter's Legacy #1 - Mark Millar appears to have another hit on his hand with his mix family and political drama.  Excited for issue #2!

Morning Glories #26 - Season two looks to include even more time travel and twists in what my be the best deals and best looking comics available today.  Casey undercover!

The Mighty Skullkickers #1 - I am continuing to enjoy this tongue-in-cheek book that manages to balance humor and story quite well and isn't afraid to take jabs at the comic industry.  The wild rumpus ala Where the Wild Things Are helped too.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Gilbert Hernandez in LA Tonight!

I can't go. But you should. More info here.

Microreview [crime fiction]: Web of the City


Web of the City
Harlan Ellison

The Meat

This is probably not the first work by Harlan Ellison. The man wrote thousands—I assume thousands—of short stories and, even though I have never been much of a sci fi reader, there’s a good chance that at some point I read something by Ellison. And so have you.

Web of the City is his first novel, released in 1957. The publisher quickly folded and the book disappeared from the paperback racks. Until 1960, when it was republished as Rumble—without the author’s knowledge, as he relates in the introduction to the new edition.

Here's the plot: Young tough Rusty Santoro quits the Cougars, the gang he once led, to focus on drafting. The gang's new prez, Candle, wants to prove his mettle by stabbing Rusty. There's a horrible murder, some revenge, the drugs business. That's about it. 

Ellison was apparently committed to this story—even briefly joining a Brooklyn street gang as part of researching the novel. This experience partially comes through in Web of the City: there’s an ugliness to the book that feels much more realistic than the gang world portrayed by Hollywood during the same period. I suspect that Ellison got the period’s lingo down pretty well, since the characters use slang that I’ve never heard before. Then again, everything I know about gang culture of the 1950s I learned from two episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

I must take issue with .Ellison’s depiction of drug use. Here, I want to stress that this is a tempered criticism, given the author’s youth when he wrote this. But I do have to wonder if he had actually seen anybody smoking marijuana, as his depiction of Rusty’s night of tea-fueled mayhem seems more reminiscent of Reefer Madness than a chill Sunday afternoon. I know for a fact that marijuana in the early ‘90s was far less potent than today’s weed. So, my guess is that smoking a joint in the fifties probably had the affect one gets from standing up very fast. 

But is the book good? I found it initially difficult to get through. There’s a wordiness in the book that slows down the reading considerably—an effect, no doubt, of Ellison’s relative inexperience as a writer at the time. The book gets much better when we finally get to the dramatic turning point, the murder. Unfortunately, this is around page 100 or a 200 page book. The revenge plot is standard, the drug bit laughable. That being said, Ellison crafts the angst-ridden Rusty Santoro rather well. He comes off as a far more complex individual than the characters that populated the world of crime fiction of the era.

I preferred, however, the short stories included in the edition. Well, two of them. The first, “No Way Out,” being the original upon which Web of the City was based was largely unnecessary. But “No Game for Children” and “Stand Still or Die!” were wonderfully fun stories, though maybe it’s because, like any good citizen, I like to see nogoodnik punk teens get theirs.

Perhaps Hard Case will republish Ellison’s 1958 collection The Deadly Streets? My guess is that I would enjoy it far more than Web of the City.

The Math

Objective score: 5/10

Bonuses: +1 for Hard Case Crime’s retro book design; +1 for two good short stories

Penalties: -1 for too many words in the rest of the book

Nerd coefficient: 6/10

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Scalzi, The Human Division, Eps 11-13 and Final Thoughts

Welcome to the latest, greatest and, sadly, final installment of my serialized review of John Scalzi's serialized novel The Human Division. In case you are just getting on board, here are my reviews for Episode 1Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4Episodes 5-7 and Episodes 8-10. So far the book is smart, fun and at times very funny, but I've worried about the pace of storytelling and, at times, overdosed on the witty repartee. Through 10 chapters, the book has a cumulative score of 7.40/10. 

Since this is the last installment in this review series, I'll cover the chapters at hand and then give some final thoughts and issue final bonuses/penalties before giving you that all-encompassing score of scores. 

The Meats and the Maths

Episode 11: A Problem of Proportion

A lot of stuff happens in this episode, or more accurately, a lot of stuff gets discussed in this episode. Perhaps the heavy emphasis on dialogue is unsurprising in a novel about diplomats, but your enjoyment of this one will depend entirely on your tolerance for story exposition achieved almost exclusively through conversation. As I've said before, I tend to like Scalzi's dialogue until it passes my tolerance threshold for winks and nudges. And in this case, unfortunately, Scalzi does pass that threshold, most egregiously when Harry Wilson goes on an away mission with some aliens who, despite being from presumably vastly different worlds and cultures, waste no time in yukking it up with Wilson in the exact same manner one of Scalzi's quick-witted humans would.

That said, a lot does happen, and it is definitely interesting. The Colonial Union and Conclave, you see, have arranged for a secret meeting to discuss all the ships that have gone missing under mysterious circumstances, and whose disappearances inevitably implicate the other side. Only, when they arrive, there's a third ship and it's shooting missiles in both directions. It then gets curiouser and curiouser...

Generally speaking, and occasional overload on wit aside, this is a pretty good episode, and does more to move the plot forward than the last 3 or 4 combined. So big kudos for that. At the same time, it also made me realize what's been bothering me about The Human Division this whole time--it's not just that everyone is so damned witty, but that everyone is just too damned nice as well. Even the characters who come off as gruff and tough early on, like Abumwe and Coloma, have by now reveled themselves as serious softies. Sure the villains are still lurking in the shadows, but even the torturer we met in Episode 8 was polite. This book is in dire need of some assholes.

[INPUT 8/10 (+1 for the palpable sense of mystery; -1 for why is everyone so nice?) OUTPUT 8/10]

Episode 12: The Gentle Art of Cracking Heads

Another excessively talky episode, but like A Problem of Proportion, that's mitigated by the fact that it helps move the plot along in meaningful ways. We're back on Earth with potential Wilson love interest Danielle Lowen as she investigates the murder of diplomat Liu Cong. Unfortunately, I can't reveal more without ruining the episode for you, so consider my lips sealed on that front. I will, however, say that the way it ends is pretty compelling. Still, I can't really figure why this kind of episode--slow, talky and centering on someone who has been a bit character up to now (and who doesn't figure to level up to "secondary protag" status until Season 2)--hits us just before the grand finale. It's more appropriate as Act One material, and in that sense underscores the degree to which we've meandered to our current position in Act Three. I mean, was there even an Act Two?

[INPUT 7/10 (+1 for plot progression; -1 for OMG stop talking) OUTPUT 7/10]

Episode 13: Earth Below, Sky Above

This. This is what I've been waiting for--action, tension, concern for characters I've come to like and relate to, fear for their well-being and the feeling of having a stake in the outcome. It's all here in spades, in what is without any doubt the best and most compelling episode of The Human Division. Sure there are snippets of over-snark, and one egregious infodump smack dab in the middle, but I don't care. Not really; not when it's this good...

Action begins with the Clarke en route to a peace conference of sorts, where the Colonial Union hopes to mend fences with Earth and get that pipeline of soldiers and colonists going again. Abumwe, Wilson and the gang have point, given that they are now officially specialists in pulling off the near impossible. The problem is, there are plenty of folks in the galaxy who might not want this to work out. Unbeknownst to her fellows, Captain Coloma has been tasked with making sure that doesn't happen. But in the absence of any real military deterrent, what could she and her ancient ship actually do in the event of an attack?

The thing that makes Earth Below, Sky Above work so well is the pacing. The episode starts slow but then picks up bit by bit until it's raging forward at warp speed. And it doesn't sacrifice the wit and snappy dialogue Scalzi is renowned for either. In short, it's a microcosm of what made the original Old Man's War trilogy so good. On the other hand, it's also a microcosm of what The Human Division as a whole could have been, but isn't quite. Earth Below, Sky Above, you are so rich and tantalizing--why did you have to remind me of the fact that I don't have as much of you as I wish I did?

[INPUT 9/10 (+1 for pace and action; +1 for this is what I was waiting for; -1 for this is what it could have been like the whole time) OUTPUT 10/10]

Final Thoughts

Now that I've come to the end, I can say without reservation that The Human Division is a fun, breezy read with memorable characters and a whole lot of well-written dialogue. On the other hand, I can say without reservation that it takes too long to warm up, goes on too many unnecessary tangents and doesn't quite give the reader enough of the best it has to offer. In short, it's a good book that doesn't ever quite evolve into the great one it clearly could have been. Imagine, assuming you eat meat, that you're going to this one super awesome steakhouse thinking you're going to get the 12oz/350g ribeye they're famous for, but instead they keep giving you lots of tasty but distracting side dishes--salads, potatoes, shrimp cocktail and so on. You like all these things, but that's not why you chose this particular restaurant. And when the steak actually comes, it's a 4oz/125g filet. A good filet, to be sure, but you walk away feeling unsatisfied. (Vegetarians/vegans: imagine the same thing but with a perfect portobello mushroom in place of the steak.)

This sets up an ultimate choice for the reader: do you walk away or come back for more? And the bottom line is that I'll be back for more. See, that 4oz/125 filet of space operatic whodunit did whet my appetite, just like a season-ending cliffhanger does on a TV show. And as much as I've complained about the proverbial side dishes of tangents and filler material taking the place of main dish type stuff, I'll be damned if they weren't just charming enough to defuse any righteous NERD RAGE anger I might have pointed in the direction of another author. So yes, The Human Division is fun, funny and smart, and it's worth reading for all the other reasons I've mentioned in the course of this epic review as well.

That Whole Serialization Thing

...and that brings me to the question of how well the serialization worked. For me, at least, I think it's fair to say that it worked pretty well, but not perfectly. The good part is that I never had trouble getting back into things after a week off, and was always happy and excited to sit down with a new episode. The bad part--well, it's not so much "bad" as "not as good as it could have been"--is that there was often too little urgency involved. I had hoped reading episodes of The Human Division would feel like watching the early seasons of Lost or the middle seasons of BSG, the kind of serialized fun that leaves you hungry, clawing at the walls, scouring the internet for scraps of information and constructing ever-crazier theories. I never felt that way. Instead, reaching the end of each episode felt more like reaching the end of an episode of Farscape, leaving me just with a kind of "okay, cool, see you next week" feeling. There's nothing wrong with that, but it also strikes me as a missed opportunity. Here's hoping Season 2 picks things up a bit...

The Final Math

Cumulative Episodic Score: 7.62/10

Final Bonuses: +1 for leaving me hungry for more.

Final Penalties: -1 for leaving me hungry.

Final Nerd Coefficient: 7.62/10. Somewhere between "a mostly enjoyable experience" and "well worth your time and attention."

Monday, April 22, 2013

Microreview [book]: Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins

The Meat

Wolfhound Century, Peter Higgins's fantastic debut, defies easy classification. Two parts detective fiction, one part dark fantasy, one part political thriller, one part dystopian fiction, and one part fairy tale, it sits in the sweet spot between the variety of genres we cover here at Nerds of a Feather. And there it sparkles, at times with searing, polished brilliance, and at other times with the rough potential of an uncut gem.

This fantasy centers on protagonist Vissarion Lom, a police investigator in the provincial town of Podchornok. One day, Lom finds himself summoned to the capital, Mirgorod, to investigate terrorist acts connected to known anarchist Josef Kantor. The summons for Lom, a newcomer with no network or allegiances in the capital, constitutes a long-shot. Lom's employer, Under Secretary Krogh of the Ministry of Vlast Security, hopes that Lom will have reasonable success in convicting Kantor without drawing the attention or ire of the Vlast's secret police (who may in fact be protecting Kantor).

And the stakes of this investigation could not be higher. Kantor is the lynchpin that connects with darker, more insidious problems within the Vlast. Despite propaganda to the contrary, the Vlast is weakening, as its war against the Archipelago is not going well. Making matters worse, an angel has crashed into the forest outside Mirgorod, and is heaven-bent on escaping its forest-prison by any means necessary. And fearing the power of the angel, the forest sends to a spirit-emissary upon which one of humanity's possible futures may depend.

The true wonder of this book is in the dark yet beautiful setting. Wolfhound Century blends Russian history, mysticism, and the tensions of industrial life in a totalitarian state. It is set in an alternate reality, a mystical world in which golem-like mudjhiks, giants, great wolves and elk, and sentient rain exist alongside trains, guns, explosives, and other implements of modern life. This is an alternate Russian reality. Mirgorod is perhaps St. Petersburg, constructed on a swamp at the mouth of the Mir (the Neva River, no?). The Vlast is an ossified Stalinist regime that overflows with paranoia; hence it both controls the populace through incessant propaganda and lashes out in gratuitous violence and murder. And the Vlast finds itself confronted with equally violent revolutionaries who preach the ideology of permanent revolution. The story thus takes place in a Russian dystopia, a totalitarian state fighting a losing war abroad while fearing revolutionary intent from within.

Wolfhound Century is divided into two parts. Part 1 is forehead-slappingly brilliant. Genius, even. Higgins presents the reader with a number of slowly unfolding mysteries. Why is Vissarion Lom called out to Mirgorod, an area in which he has few connections? What is the slab of angel skin doing on his forehead? Who is Josef Kantor, and what are his aims? And how do they relate to stories of a fallen angel outside Mirgorod? Higgins slowly unravels these mysteries with a beautiful prose that at times borders on poetry. And gradually, the reader becomes aware of a broader plot that is no less compelling than the world Higgins has created.

It is the complex characters that propel the story forward. Strikingly, both protagonist and antagonist alike appear preoccupied with different notions of order. Vissarion Lom is a decent cop with a difficult past. He thus cuts a familiar figure as a high-idealed protagonist who serves the broader social order. Raised in a state institution, he joined the police (becoming an inspector) as a matter of course, despite the fact that his morals are too finely honed for the rampant corruption of the state he supports. Lom's sense of propriety is so strong that he arrested and convicted his own boss for corruption and murder. He is, in short, out of place. Too moraled for his immoral, rotten, corrupt, diseased world, and tired of harassing residents instead of tackling corruption. It is only the job in Mirgorod that saves him from his enemies in the police and the certainty of life in a (Soviet) gulag. Will the very principles that make him the perfect totalitarian soldier (the perfect upholder of the social order) cause him to rebel against the corrupt state that raised him?

Josef Kantor, the antagonist, is a charming figure that makes no qualms about his desire to wreak havoc throughout the Vlast. But while Kantor is sworn to revolution, to overturning the existing social order (albeit to create a new one dominated by him), he is at the same time obsessed with personal order, the code by which he lives. Although he is fights for a new future, Kantor at times seems even more obsessed with his personal code.
Kantor's life had been shaped by the dialectic of fear and killing: If you feared something, you studied it, learned all you could from it, and then you killed it. And when you encountered a stronger thing to fear, you did it again. And again. And so you grew stronger, until the fear you caused was greater than the fear you felt. 
Abandoning this code, which he did only once in the past, may ultimately prove to be his undoing.

Wolfhound Century should not be read as a traditional epic fantasy or as a moralistic tale that pits unlikely heroes against the seemingly dominant forces of evil. Instead, Higgins presents Mirgorod as a contention zone, a battle between two sides that are fighting for their share in the emerging order. Victory by either side will represent a different path for the future: a harder, more authoritarian future that perhaps leads to different worlds; or a softer future, no doubt one in which humanity lives in greater harmony with nature.

It is truly unfortunate, however, that Part 2 jettisons the brilliance of Part 1. The mystery shifts into an unresolved adventure story that not only fails to do the novel justice, but also ends abruptly. I had expected some type of resolution. Instead, the book ends without much happening. In this sense, it should be read as the first installment of a broader series. But this detracts in a major way from the overall story. I believe Higgins would have benefited either from publishing the novel as a fleshed out version Part 1, or from adding quite a bit more to the ensuing adventure story. As it stands, it ends on an unsatisfactory note.

This does not detract from Higgins's achievements. His compelling world and interesting plot have made a fan out of me. Fans of dystopian fiction, noir, and science fiction and fantasy (especially those weary of tired old world building that always seems to center on English history or Western European norms) will find much of interest in this book. I, for one, can't wait to see what happens next.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for angels, angel skin, and the sentient golem-like beasts, the mudjhik; +1 for sentient rain and other strange, fantastic entities.

Penalties: -1 for the Pollandore, which is not that interesting, -2 for Part 2 and an ending that wasn't an ending.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 "An enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws"

[Think our scores are too low? Read about our scoring process here, and learn why we say "no" to grade inflation.]

Saturday, April 20, 2013

We Rank 'Em : Terminator Films

I had the utmost pleasure of recently viewing all four Terminator movies in the same week; it turns out it's the perfect balm after a long day of recording. For the purposes of reviewing and ranking these films, I also had the distinct advantage of never having seen any of them. I know this is weird for my age, but I must have missed the most-influential-movie-of-your-childhood cut-off date for Terminator 2: Judgment Day by just a couple of months. (And, sidebar: 1991 was a great year for movies: Beauty and the Beast, Hook, Silence of the Lambs, Addams Family, Hot Shots!, City Slickers -- well, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.)

I will say now that I understand my generation's infatuation with this series. Pre-BSG, pre-Matrix, and apropos-ly released in 1984, the first Terminator movie was an early film exploration of the dangers of technology and a warning of the inevitable robopocalypse we all know will come one day when the singularity comes.

But like most James Cameron productions, I think the philosophy and poetry of the series is generally half-baked -- and I dream of what these movies could have been if someone like Joss Wheden had been at the helm since the beginning. But most movie-goers don't want to think too hard anyway. The movies are charming. There are running gags and call-back lines in each of them, and I'm surprised how well this worked at turning me from a T-n00b to a Connorist.

Without further ado --

4. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
The crux of the whole series is that John Connor must make it to the future because he will lead the revolution against the machines.  I don't care how many hot Terminator ladies made of liquid metal you throw in, the twist at the end of the movie -- that the plot you were trying so hard to invest yourself in for the last 90 minutes despite Nick Stahl's lackluster performance was just a fated ruse to get John & Kate (Claire Danes) to a fall-out shelter to survive Skynet's nuclear attack on the humans -- is infuriating to see. I think that makes it a good twist, but it lacked poetry.

T3 comes in last because it is the series' awkward adolescence -- not sexy enough, not smart enough. Plus the T-X model keeps liquid-metal-shifting her arm into a SWORD. Puh-lease.

Plus -- and I never thought I'd say this -- there was too little Arnold. After his charming performance in T2, they put baby back in the corner. Or should I say Connor?!?! lolzzzz

3. Terminator Salvation (2009)
I liked this movie more than my friends did. The action was engaging, and Christian Bale was a much more believable version of John Connor -- moody and tough -- than the young adult Nick Stahl in T3. Sure, it's got some plot-holes, but who cares?

I was, again, furious by the end of it. I thought that this movie would finally show exactly what John would do that would make him the savior of all mankind. And I got it! A nuclear explosion at the Terminator factory. This was the crushing blow that allowed the humans too rise u--- No? The voiceover at the end said that this was just the beginning of the war? That John has yet to fulfill his fate?

Now I know: this was meant to be the first in a new trilogy, and then the Halcyon Company went bankrupt. Fun fact: When the rights went up for the first time, the only person to bid was The Hero of Canton himself, Mr. Joss Whedon, with an insulting $10,000 offer. The rights have since been sold and resold -- and we can all look forward to more Terminator in our lives.

This movie comes in not-last because Bryce Dallas Howard is pleasant as peaches as grown-up Kate, the time-travel drama of saving your own future-past father is always fun, and even though is totally absurd that Terminators throw people instead of just killing them, it's totally awesome to watch Terminators throw people. Plus, we get to meet the first Arnold-model, all naked and shiny like the first time we met him. Missed you, buddy!

2. The Terminator (1984)
The Terminator love story -- and a fairly convincing one at that, I think. Kyle and Sarah's one day whirlwind romance is, of course, when John is conceived. The sex scene was really uncomfortably intense for me; I prefer Wikipedia's clinical dissection of the motel scene: "Sarah reciprocates Kyle's feelings and they have sex."

I love the paradox of time-travel movies -- The Terminator was sent back to kill Sarah because she will conceive John Connor, but Sarah only conceived John because Kyle was sent back from the future to protect her from the Terminator that was sent back to kill her. Layer on this that we know future-John is the one who saves teenage Kyle in T4 and the one who ultimately makes the decision to send Kyle into the past to do his mom -- and poof, my mind just imploded from the joy of science fiction blowing my mind.

My one reservation about this movie is that the action reached a white-noise level -- it's so consistently loud and pounding that I found myself dozing during explosions.

1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Obviously! Even when the Terminator as a father figure line feels forced, and even when Sarah is so butch it's scary, this movie, man... this movie delivers.

Linda Hamilton is a boss. Sarah Connor's transformation from damsel to asskicker is drastic and compelling. Her journey to accept the Terminator, culminating in the Terminator's self-sacrifice, is a compelling struggle that doesn't get picked back up again until T4, when John meets Marcus. It's BSG's big question: do the Cylons have humanity?

Arnold surprised me -- though I don't think he's a particularly gifted actor, the BFT (Big Friendly Terminator) fit him well. I can't think of any right now, but isn't there some sort of early-90s trope of kids making friends with or finding a father figure in an unlikely and supernatural/science fiction character?

Eddie Furlong is the kid we all wanted to be in the late-80s and early-90s: streetsmart, snarky, overly brave, and heck yeah, camo army surplus does go with acid-washed denim.

The pacing of the movie is perfect, and it floats effortlessly through buddy comedy, roadtrip, action, redemption, training montage. Some call it the best action movie of all time. I don't know about that -- but I do think that, though heavy-handed at times, this movie has a lot of heart.

Bonus! Here's the drinking game we played while watching T2:
  • Anytime the Terminator acquires a vehicle
  • Anytime the film goes into Terminator Vision
  • Anytime the Terminator learns from John

Friday, April 19, 2013

Second Opinion: Attack the Block

Rereviewing Attack the Block: a Second Opinion

The re-Meat

      Do you want to know why Superman Returns was so underwhelming whereas The Dark Knight rocked so hard?  (I'll bet Bryan Singer does!)  I'm convinced it's because Superman is such a good good guy. Sure, that sort of squeaky clean image probably appealed to older generations, people under the shadow of the Cold War and whatnot.  But characters like Superman have little resonance with today's youth, who prefer that their heroes have a healthy streak of bad in them.
      Why is that? The truth is good guys have great difficulty undergoing on-screen character development, since after all how can a morally pure character experience a real dilemma, or break his unwavering commitment to right conduct?  That's probably why, in the Christopher Reeve superman movies, they had to invent the notion of him wrestling with becoming human in Superman 2.  But that didn't work out either, because if there's one thing even less interesting than a totally good superhero, it's a totally good person who's also totally ordinary.
      This brings us to 2011's Attack the Block, about which The G wrote a scathing review.  Am I here to pick apart every claim The G makes and show where he's wrong?  Not at all.  In fact, I agree with almost all his statements about the film—namely, that it's trying too hard to be cool/edgy, that the supernatural threat the gang of street kids faces is kind of lame, and most importantly, that none of the characters is sympathetic in any straightforward sense.  Where we differ is in our reactions to this final fact: he found it a huge obstacle to enjoying the film, whereas I thought it was the movie's strongest feature.
       The main characters are definitely not good guys.  They're crude thugs; the audience can't possibly feel that they have right on their side, which certainly makes rooting for them difficult. 

In fact, upon seeing their antics, we viewers might end up looking rather like these characters:

     But therein lies the movie's special challenge to the viewer: what if, when the bad guys come, the only ones who humanity can scrounge up to face them are a bunch of lowlife punks? Isn't the "punk versus alien" idea less well-traveled than the White Knight versus Total Evil paradigm? Instead of a beacon of justice, we get a loser and his lame crew, teetering on the edge of becoming straight-up criminals, nudged back from said edge only by the bizarre circumstances. They might be almost cartoonish caricatures of British wannabe American tough guys, but somehow listening to their almost unintelligibly slang-ridden bouts of braggadocio felt more fun than yet another "these aliens picked on the wrooooong American!" trope.
      Speaking of which, it's wonderful to have a movie (that doesn't totally suck, like the recent rash of terrible Russian sci fi movies about flying cars and sentient ball lightning and who knows what) in the all-too-familiar alien invasion sub-genre which isn't set in, or about, America (though minus one for, culturally, becoming so like the monster they are trying to overcome). That said, this movie isn't on the same level as District 9 or 28 Days Later, but I'd happily re-watch Attack the Block over quite a long list of alien/disaster movies.
      And if all else fails and you still find yourself wishing the film would end, take heart: it's short! The soundtrack helps the movie maintain its zippy pace, and the producers were smart enough to get the film down to just 82 minutes not including credits, which means we don't quite have time to lose interest in the characters or the situation.  Plus Nick Frost is at his dazed best!
      All in all, Attack the Block doesn't really live up to the critical acclaim it's received, but the makers can always chuckle to themselves that, with a mere 1/16 of the budget, they succeeded where Bryan Singer's lackluster Superman totally failed!

The re-Math:

The G's original score: 2/10

Zhaoyun's take:

Objective quality: 4/10

Bonuses: +1 for anti-hero punks, +1 for not America, +1 for brevity

Penalties: -1 for the trying too hard to be cool/American thing, -1 for lame aliens

Nerd Coefficient: 5/10 "Equal parts good and bad"

[See an explanation of our non-inflated scores here]

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Why Princess Mononoke is Better than Jemmy Thought

I will preface this by stating that I am a big Miyazaki Hayao fan like Jemmy, but don't feel like I have his expertise in the field despite taking a class on Japanese Animation at The University of Texas back in the day.  I don't feel the need to produce a new plot summary as I doubt I would be able to craft one as elegant and complete as Jemmy did here.

My top five Miyazki films are My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa in the Valley of the Wind, Spirited Away, and Ponyo.

I will start by saying that I fully agree that Miyazaki created a beautiful world in Princess Mononoke, but I will take that a step farther and say that I think this may be the most beautiful animated movie of our generation.  The color palate that Miyazaki uses throughout this film is so rich and deep in a way that CGI has yet to capture.   According to the Disney site (who owns the U.S. rights to Studio Ghibli films), Miyazaki saw the redraw of over 80,000 cells and the attention to detail shows.  To me the sheer beauty of this film distinguish it from almost all other animated movies.

I must also concur that the complexity of characters is a huge strength of Mononoke, but disagree that San being one-dimensional was a flaw.  As Jemmy stated, both Ashitaka and Eboshi are two very complex and fantastic characters.  I have never enjoyed a movie that lives in the gray as much as Mononoke.  No character is truly good and no character is truly evil.  To me it speaks to a changing world and examines the positive and negative that are associated with that.  As to San, I personally feel that the fact that she is one dimensional and has an internal struggle that she doesn't realize, makes her more believable.  She was raised by wolves and now has the world that she once new and loved challenged to its core.  Her animal like reaction to what is thrust at her, in my opinion, adds to the movie and adds an element of realism to this fantastical tale.

I will concede that Mononoke is not as subtle as Nausicaa, but I have no issue with this.  To me this is merely the context of when the movies were made.  A lot changed between 1984 and 1997 and Miyazaki was able to overtly state his message in a way that may not have been accepted in 1984.

Princess Mononoke remains that film that I use as a gateway to Miyazaki with friends (unless it is fellow parents of children like myself as it is quite violent) and has a very special spot in my heart.  My only criticism with the film is the fact that I couldn't get over Minnie Driver's British accent in the U.S. dub.  Stick with the original audio.

Objective Quality: 9/10.

Bonuses: +1 for its sheer beauty.  +1 for its strong female characters.

Penalties: -1 for Minnie Driver in the U.S. dub. -1 for its over-the-top violence which limits its audience.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10  "very high quality/standout in its category"

[See an explanation of our non-inflated scores here]

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

We Wank 'Em: The Things I Planned to Write for the Blog But Didn't

Happy Retrospecticus.

A little over year ago, I decided to help out a buddy. He was starting a "nerd" blog and asked if I'd like to review comics. Maybe one a week, he suggested. Why stop at comics? I said. I'll write all kinds of posts. Smart posts about film and culture, withering social critiques and stark confessionals, all loosely related to nerdom (which for me pretty much means comic books). So many ideas percolated.

And then I began receiving comics and crime fiction to review. Now that weekly contribution to the public discourse has become a last minute dash to have my post up by 12:00 AM. So, I never ended up writing these brilliant posts.

Well, they probably would not have been brilliant. But some of them might have been worth two minutes of your time. Here are my favorite posts that I planned to write but never did:

6. Rereading Chris Claremont's Entire Run on Uncanny X-Men

This started as a labor of love. I began reading comics in the late eighties and with Uncanny X-Men and Classic X-Men available at 7-11 Chris Claremont made a lasting impression. So, I decided to read Claremont's entire run on X-Men. When the G came along with this dumb blog idea, I told him that I'd write something about this project -- though I had really no idea what that something would be. And I never got around to figuring it out because I never finished reading the run. Mainly because it's a long one: the guy was at the X-helm for around twenty years. Of course, no one noticed  at the time that Claremont was effectively writing the same three stories over and over: some variant of the Dark Phoenix Saga, perennial Shi'ar or Brood invasions/misunderstandings, and something about people thinking the X-Men were dead, but they really weren't. (Marvel's X-books have kept this tradition alive: Wasn't there just another Phoenix epic?) At least in the early days Claremont would throw  a weird horror story into the mix. Or element, such as Magneto's Lovecraftian sea layer. After about five years of the run, I got bored and stopped reading. Sometimes you should leave the comics in the garage. Then again...

5. Monthly Feature: Tales from the Longbox

For much of last year, I was in Europe, travelling between Spain, France, Ireland, and the UK. I took a virtual library of digital comics along with me, I had Amazon and Comixology to back this up, and, if worse came to worse, I'd buy French comics. In short, I'd planned for casual comic reading whole abroad. Then I started contributing to Nerds and my obsessive tendencies kicked in. I suddenly wanted to read every comic ever written and every book about comics ever written, to become a devoted student of comic's history. But mainly I found myself wanting to read comics from my formative years. Though not Uncanny X-Men. I wanted to read Taboo again, Blood of Dracula, Epic Comic's thoroughly underrated Hellraiser series...I read a lot of horror comics as a teen. While abroad, I made a promise to myself: I'd go to Bakersfield, take my comics from storage in my mother's garage and begin rereading and writing about them. It's been five months since I've returned. I've yet to read a single comic from those longboxes

4. We Rank 'Ems
It seems like every week I come up with a new We Rank 'Em list. It's party the internet's love of lists. (Are people actually reading Buzzfeed Politics?) It's mainly because We Rank 'Ems are easy and very fun to write. Here are some of the ideas that I came up with: Best Crime Comics (#1 Stray Bullets, plus anyone remember Hard Looks?); best Dan Clowes graphic novels (shelved because I like Ghost World so much and always have a hard time getting through David Boring); Best Jim Thompson and Best Elmore Leonard novels (After Dark, My Sweet and Rum Punch, respectively); Best MST3K Episodes (Beatniks); Best Nerd Bands (Man...Or Astroman? end of list). And a list of the six best webcomics, but really who has time for that?

3. Essays 
There was a set of ideas that I filed away as "essays," though I never planned for them to exceed 750 words. Basically these were just random thoughts that I imagined could make for good blog posts. I had ideas about historical research into crime comics and the black-and-white boom of the eighties (which would have been another excuse to dig into the longboxes, as three-for-a-dollar bins were full of funny animal comics during the late eighties). I planned to a series of posts about terrorists in post-9/11 comics, books, and films (when did Marvel start calling villains "terrorists"?). I planned to write a reflective post on my experiences as a post-collector, but who wants to read about a guy who stopped buying old pulp magazines and 7 inch records because he decided to pursue a PhD and embrace abject poverty? All good ideas. And there's a very good reason that none of these got written: They require a lot of work. And I have nothing to say.

2. Stuff About Comics
Group blogs work best when everyone has a specialty, an individual identity. My planned identity was to be the "alternative comics guy." Or something like that. Basically, the guy who reviews non-superhero comics. This is, after all, what I know. But then I let my manic tendencies get the best of me. I started writing weekly reviews of Breaking Bad and arguing about Marvel crossover events. And when the G suggested that I begin reviewing neo-pulp fiction, I jumped at the chance to get free stuff. And it turns out that publishers will send you books to review. Lots of them. Now I have a backlog of crime fiction to read and review, but I don't ever get around to cracking these books open because I just started reading Mouse Guard. And I'm finally getting around to finishing Tricked. And I haven't been to Meltdown or checked out Thank You Comics since I got back. And I don't want to piss off Max Allan Collins again. The moral of the story kids: Don't try to be something you ain't. Read comics.

1. Microwreview: Hobo With A Shotgun
Though it was by no means a good film, it delivered what it promised: a hobo with a shotgun.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Second Opinion: The Dragon's Path/The King's Blood by Daniel Abraham

As much as we love each other here at Nerds of a Feather, we sometimes do have disagreements. One disagreement that The G and I cannot seem to iron out revolves around our respective views of Daniel Abraham's new epic fantasy series, The Dagger and the Coin. The G wrote excellent reviews of Book 1, The Dragon's Path (which he gave an 8/10) and Book 2, The King's Blood (which he gave a 6/10). My opinion is actually the inverse of his. Whatever the case, I see no reason to reinvent the wheel, which The G has done quite well, so instead of providing a traditional review of both books, I will simply state what I feel were the strengths and weaknesses of each installment of the series. This "Second Opinion" is my contribution to our Nerds of a Feather Anniversary Celebration!

The Dragon's Path

I literally flew through the book, gobbling it up in a few days. It is fantastically well written for a fantasy series, featuring crisp and clear prose. Further, Abraham deals with the issue of morality in a unique and inventive way. Geder, for instance, is pure of heart but evil in action. But Abraham grapples with morality in even more sophisticated a manner through the use of Dawson, a blue-blood (noble) in the truest sense of the term. Dawson fights to uphold the nobility; he fights for tradition, for what he thinks is right, true, and just. But in the process, he emerges as something of an anti-hero. I found myself rooting for his victory and rejoicing in his good fight while reviling his cause. What is morality, Abraham suggests, when what is moral and good to one is truly repulsive to another?  

Of course, The Dragon's Path makes no qualms about the immorality of atrocity. Abraham includes a number of spine-chilling scenes, acts of such emotional power that we rarely find in works of epic fantasy. One of the most horrible atrocities I have encountered occurs in this novel. But the presentation of this atrocity in a lighthearted manner, without celebrating its grit, its blood, or gore, make it all the more disturbing.  

Nonetheless, I had a number of quibbles with The Dragon's Path. As I see it, the book had four main weaknesses. First, the world building is a bit splotchy. Abraham introduces the idea of 13 races, but fails to flesh this idea out throughout the course of the novel. Perhaps it would have been more effective, as The G mentions in his review, had Abraham introduced the various slave races in a more gradual and natural way. The way he has it set up now, I am not sure that the 13 races actually adds anything to this series. 

Second, Abraham only hints at a broader narrative without really beginning to engage in it. Failing to introduce the main story arc, even in a limited way, detracts from the power of the story. Why continue reading the series when we have little idea where it is going?

The answer, of course, should have been the characters. Had Abraham created a character-driven fantasy with protagonists and antagonists about whom the reader truly cares, then that would overshadow the lack of a main story arc. Sadly, Abraham fails to do so. (A perfect example of a writer who does this well is Steven Erikson in The Malazan Book of the Fallen. One has little clue of the overall story line even after the first four or five books. But Erikson creates fantastic characters, an inspiring formula, and brilliant world building that keeps the reader engaged nonetheless). Although I enjoyed watching Cithrin grow up and seeing Marcus grow increasingly more protective over her, I never really began to care for the main characters. 

Finally, the novel only hinted at tenuous connections between the characters. While I understood that they would play more important and interconnected roles as the series progressed, I found myself wondering why each of the four main viewpoints did not connect to the others in a more intuitive way.

In the end, I did enjoy The Dragon's Path. The writing is clear and engaging, and Abraham deals with morality and atrocity in a more engrossing way than most other epic fantasies I have read. But the problems in its story arc and its characters do not warrant the fantastic score The G gave.  

The Math

The G's Score: 8/10

Jemmy's Second Opinion: 6/10 "Still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore"

The King's Blood    

I also find myself disagreeing slightly with The G's assessment of The King's Blood. In this book, Abraham presents is a more complete package than he did with the first installment of the series. The King's Blood is well written and engaging; I zipped through it, finishing the book it in even less time than I finished the first volume. To me, Abraham transformed most of the weaknesses of The Dragon's Path into strengths in The King's Blood (except the 13 races, which still seems to add little to the broader story).

First, and most importantly, I began to care about the characters. Cithrin truly comes into her own as a bank manager and as a political and economic mind. And although not all her decisions feel natural or make sense (her relationship with and protection of Geder, for instance--in this, I do agree with The G's criticisms), I remained invested enough in the character for my suspension of disbelief mechanism to kick in. After all, Cithrin is a fantastic character: highly intelligent, ambitious, fearless, and eminently practical. Marcus becomes more sympathetic and complex, as he becomes increasingly torn between his duties as Cithrin's head of security and his growing fatherly affections for her. Geder, always repulsive, continues to portray the child-like quality of evil. Child-like purity, after all, is composed of equal parts good and evil, parts which at times seem to be at war within Geder's personality. Dawson, ever the challenger for his particular sense of justice, fights the good fight, engaging in a battle he knows he is unlikely to win. And Clara, Dawson's wife, finds herself pushed into a decision that she otherwise would not have even thought up. It is the characters that make the story, and The King's Blood does a much better job in getting the reader invested in its characters, whether we like them or not.

Equally importantly, the connections between the protagonists and antagonists become clear as a sunny day. The advent of the spider priests (under Geder's protection), Marcus's personal quest, Master Kit's existence, Cithrin's attempts to establish herself in the bank, and Dawson's battle to save the kingdom point to where Abraham is headed with the series, and kept me much more engaged than did the first volume of the series.  


One of The G's biggest criticisms of The King's Blood is the fact that Geder was chosen as Lord Regent instead of Dawson. This, The G argues, makes no sense. But I do not feel that this should be seen as a flaw in The King's Blood. Instead, it is a flaw of the first book of the series, The Dragon's Path. Geder Palliako was the obvious choice or Lord Regent once he became the protector and adoptive father of the crown prince. So while I agree with The G that Dawson was the obvious first choice for Lord Regent, I also recognize that his fate was sealed after Geder became the crown prince's gallant protector. Instead of being a problem with The King's Blood, let's add it to the [growing] list of problems with The Dragon's Path.  


The King's Blood, in the end, does much to invigorate the series (which has a lackluster beginning). It is well paced, interesting, and ties the otherwise disparate story lines into an organic whole. While there are, as The G points out, some forehead slapping moments, they are offset by wonderful character development and a fast-paced character-driven story. Whereas I am hesitant to give an emphatic recommendation to The Dragon's Path, The King's Blood gets two thumbs up.  

The Math

The G's Score: 6/10 

Jemmy's Second Opinion: 8/10 "Well worth your time and attention"

[Read about our scoring process here, and learn why we say "no" to grade inflation.]