Daniel Powell – The Silver Coast and Other Stories | Book Review

Short story collections as a rule are a bit more difficult to do well. On average, you’re relying on around a dozen stories to keep the reader’s interest, and one or two duds can really drop the overall thoughts on a collection. As it so happens, Daniel Powell‘s collection The Silver Coast has issues, but consistent quality of readability is not one of them.

All of the stories have some kind of science fiction element. Powell shines especially when dealing with post-apocalyptia, including a touching story about the few remaining survivors of a small town in a zombie apocalypse. Another tells of a man escaping prison to find his lost love in a post-nuclear world, not knowing one way or another if his partner even survived the disaster. This story in particular feels a bit too brief, however. If it were stretched to closer to a novella length Powell would have had better opportunity to highlight the troubles of the search and make the payoff a lot more satisfying.

Other stories, such as one about a man’s obsession with an old car he sees parked on the side of the road, have a good twist but don’t grab the imagination quite as vividly a the better parts of the collection. That said, Powell is a solid writer with good dialogue that moves things along, with his biggest strength being his ideas. Although not every story is brilliant, his ideas are consistently interesting enough to inspire continued reading.

Strangely enough, there are some stranged formatting problems in the eBook edition. The first few pages are nothing but weird tags that don’t register as anything but jumbled HTML on the basic Kindle. For the entirety of the collection, full empty lines are used between each paragraph, which doesn’t really come across well in a book such as this. If you can get past the formatting issues associated with the ebook (which we cannot verify are also present in the print edition), this is a strong collection. It seems that if Powell were to do a full length novel that gives him more time to build his characters and work through his wonderful ideas, he could write something really special. The Silver Coast and Other Stories is at the very least a readable and enjoyable collection, but has a few stories that stand out as borderline excellent.

Rating: 3.5 stars (of 5)

Michael R. Underwood – Geekomancy (2012) | Book Review

There seems to be a new trend in modernist urban fantasy to try to squeeze in as many pop cultural references as humanly possible. Some readers seem to get a kick out of reading a book that uses the word “frak” so that they can think to themselves, “I know that reference.” Not really sure why that is appealing, but these sorts of novels seem to be selling pretty well. Michael R. Underwood‘s Geekomancy is definitely that sort of book.

The primary basis for the world is that there is a large underground group of people who are able to channel nerdy pop culture things into temporary magical powers. Ree is a struggling screenwriter working a crummy day job who is drawn into this world when a crazed man wanders into her store, purchases a copy of Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, and runs away. The next time she sees him, he is battling a troll straight out of classic fantasy, and she becomes one of the lucky ones that is actually able to remember the fantastical things she sees instead of going through a convenient amnesia following any supernatural incidents.

Roughly the first half or so of the book is spent introducing Ree and the reader into the world, as well as filling just about every page with a reference of some kind. Eastwood, the teacher who Ree originally meets buying the classic graphic novel, is an unlikable jerk who teaces Ree how to take power from the geeky things she likes; the stronger the user’s connection is, the better the results. The remainder of the half sets up the basic elements of what will become the actual plot, and breaks it up with so much useless dialogue that if the comedy style isn’t to your liking it is hard not to skip ahead pages at a time.

Once things start to get serious and the first of two significant twists comes, the plot becomes a focus of the novel rather than an afterthought. Ree and Eastwood are essentially trying to stop a chain of cosmically connected suicides, a surprisingly heavy idea considering that the book spends the majority of its time as a fluff piece. At the very least, Ree is an extremely likable character who shines when the plot starts to roll, and Underwood is actually a good writer with solid, believable dialogue and prose that does its job without being distracting.

Although this kind of novel will absolutely not age well, it will be enjoyable for some right now. It lacks any kind of real depth and definitely feels like the candy bar equivalent of urban fantasy, but it is still enjoyable if one is able to adequately suspend his or her disbelief and take the book on face value. Appreciated on its own merits, Geekomancy is an enjoyable romp that is easily forgotten when the last page is read. Comparing it to other works of urban fantasy that have managed to be similar entertaining while also accomplishing more in terms of literary significance is a mistake. Geekomancy can only be enjoyed if you simply go along for the ride and appreciate the nostalgia.

Rating: 3 stars (of 5)

Paolo Bacigalupi – The Drowned Cities (2012) | Book Review

Paolo Bacigalupi‘s The Windup Girl was the best debut novel of just about anyone, maybe ever. It was fresh and brilliant with wonderful characters (despite almost all of them being unlikable) and a world unlike anything seen in science fiction. It won the Hugo Award, and Bacigalupi managed to follow that up with a National Book Award nominee and Michael L. Printz Award winner in Ship Breaker, which told the story of a young boy forced to scavenge from derelict ships in a post-apocalyptic world devastated by global warming. The Drowned Cities is that novel’s successor, in that it shares the world and one major character. It is the best work Bacigalupi has ever done.

The Drowned Cities centers around Mahlia, a part-Chinese war orphan living in the D.C. area who had one hand removed by soldiers. Despite her handicap, she works as the assistant for the doctor of her small town, in a region that is constantly ravaged by always changing regimes of violence. The current occupiers are the UPF, but it is hard to believe that one could tell the difference between them and the Army of God or any of the other potential military dictatorships. Life is miserable, and soldiers come through from time to time just to rape and murder for the hell of it. Mahlia is a remarkably strong and wonderful character, who believes that she can escape the horrors of her world despite everything around her being so miserable and so dire that hope is in short supply.

The plot really begins when Mahlia and her best friend Mouse discover an unconscious half-wolf man called Tool. Thinking him to be dead, they try to cut into him to salvage what they can for meat or otherwise, but he awakes and takes Mouse hostage. Mahlia pleads for Tool not to kill her friend, and in exchange promises to go steal antibiotics and other medication from the doctor to help the half-man recover from injuries sustained in a prison break. To go any further would be to spoil, but it is an absolutely amazing story that is sometimes hard to read because of gore and the pure sorrow in every aspect of Mahlia’s situation.

Bacigalupi’s quality of writing is astounding. Both his prose and dialogue are just about perfect, and there are so many moments through the novel that beg the reader to stop and re-read. There’s just so much here and so much power in every part that it gives one the strong urge to run around telling every single person about it. The book may not be for everyone; it is often so depressing that it can be hard to return to. But this novel is so good, so perfect, that it would be a crime if it were not to win just about every award for the genre. Paolo Bacigalupi is absolutely the best writer working today.

Rating: 5 stars (of 5)

Book Review: The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis (2012)

The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis
Tor Books, 2012

Rating: B+

The most important aspect of any fiction dealing with war is that the conflict isn’t interesting if the characters of both sides aren’t treated with the utmost care. A handful of archetypal British heroes fighting a group of Nazi cannibals with no depth whatsover is not worth reading; black and white war stories should have died with John Wayne. Ian Tregillis understands this. The characters in The Coldest War, and its predecessor Bitter Seeds, are all very real people, with some flaws and some admirable traits no matter which side of the conflict they are on.

In the case of Klaus, there is a German who was forced into fighting for the Nazis from a very young age after being experimented on and augmented with technology that allows him to pass through walls. Although there is a sadness that he always carries with him, he is well intended despite his upbringing. The other side of the conflict in Bitter Seeds is Raybould Marsh, a proud Brit and intelligence agent. In the time that has passed since the first novel, Marsh’s life has fallen apart and he’s become a borderline alcoholic with severe marital troubles that stem from the loss of a child and the apparent mental disabilities of a second. When the story picks up, Marsh is essentially dragged forceably from the bottle by his country to “battle” the Soviet Union in a re-imagining of the Cold War, teaming up with Klaus and his sister, Greta. Although Greta is a bit lacking in depth, but serves an important purpose in that throughout the novels she uses her ability to see the future to basically be the master of all that is going on. She is a purely terrifying villain throughout.

The “history” part of alternate history has become fuzzy with this novel, as is only natural in a book taking place more than twenty years later in a universe where the British used warlocks to fight superhuman Nazis (and thus ending the war early). It doesn’t really feel like an alternate history novel in the Harry Turtledove sort of way, but is something unique that is brilliantly well-written with some of the most memorable literary characters in recent memory. Although The Coldest War doesn’t have as many amazing single moments as Bitter Seeds, and it takes a bit longer to get rolling, it is a worthy sequel to arguably one of the best science fiction novels of the 21st century.

Film Review: Batman: Year One (2012)

Batman: Year One
Directed by Lauren Montgomery & Sam Liu
Based on work by Frank Miller

Rating: A-

Frank Miller has two very important legacies in the history of Batman. The first of these is The Dark Knight Returns, a completely non-canon alternate reality story in which Batman comes out of retirement in middle age to kick some more ass and act like a total asshole. It is often seen as one of the great comic book stories of all time, but portrays Batman as chauvinistic and completely unlikable in attempt to make a grittier version of the dark knight. It is criminally overrated.

The second and far superior story that Miller contributed to the history of Batman is Batman: Year One, an aptly titled telling of Batman’s first year fighting crime as the caped crusader while future police commissioner James Gordon endures his first year on the force in Gotham as an honest man in a dishonest police department. Gordon is really the main character of the story; almost all of the narrative is from Gordon himself, voiced perfectly by Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame in this film version. Catwoman also appears in an almost-so-minor-it’s-pointless supporting role, portrayed very capably by Eliza Dushku. Katee Sackhoff of Battlestar Galactica is Detective Essen, Alex Rocco is mob boss Carmine Falcone, and Benjamin McKenzie is Batman himself.

A film adaptation that takes the source material and translates it to the screen exactly is almost pointless, but thoroughly enjoyable anyway. Although there is absolutely nothing different about it, seeing the film is a lot like reading the original story for the first time, and that has value. The voice cast is almost entirely stellar, although Batman could have been better cast. The visuals are perfect, and the entire production makes for an animated film that is just as enjoyable as the Christopher Nolan live action films. That being said, if you have already read the book, there is nothing new to experience here. Still, if you can appreciate a quality transfer between two mediums, Batman: Year One will be enjoyed.

Comic Review: New X-Men – E is for Extinction (2001)

New X-MenE is for Extinction (2001)
Written by Grant Morrison, Art by Frank Quitely

Rating: A-

Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely becoming the creative team of the newly retitled New X-Men was a very successful effort to revitalize the X-Men brand. After a few years of being relatively forgettable, Morrison and Quitely made changes to the team that still play a major part in the comics more than ten years later, and created elements that would be incorporated into the up-and-down film franchise.

E is for Extinction is the first story arch of their sizable tenure. It introduces the concept of secondary evolution, which has X-Men mainstay Beast changing from his old self into a more feline body, while telepath Emma Frost develops the secondary ability to change her whole body into nearly impenetrable diamond (a trait that is also shown in her minor appearance in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and her supporting role in X-Men First Class). Perhaps a more obvious change for the crew is that with this shift in creative teams the group has also shifted from individualized outfits to more basic and matching suits that emphasize that they are indeed a team of superheroes and don’t operate as individuals.

The story of E is for Extinction is outstanding; a new villain called Cassandra Nova is hellbent on destroying mutants to make way for what she claims will be the next phase of evolution. Although she doesn’t have the same level of charisma as Magneto or the pure cool factor of Apocalypse, she is a strong villain on the basis of the fact that she is so powerful that it is pretty terrifying. By the end of the three issues worth that comprise the storyline (and three-quarters of the trade release), she has managed to rack up a body count in the millions.

Morrison and Quitely have worked together a lot since this run, but E is for Extinction really made the X-Men cool again. The spirit of this book is so important because it modernized the X-Men in a way that was later carried on into Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men and is still an important part of what the X-Men are. With all of this in mind, it is really essential reading for anyone with an interest in the X-Men in print.