Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Battle of the Books, Spring 2012, First Round :: Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck by Eric G. Wilson vs. The Stolen Bride by Tony Hays

Everyone Loves a Good Train WreckThe Stolen Bride
The Spring 2012 Battle of the Books continues with Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck by Eric G. Wilson against The Stolen Bride by Tony Hays. As always, the book I most want to keep reading after the first 25 pages will advance. This is an unusual matchup, featuring the two books in this bracket that are not science fiction, fantasy, or horror. Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck is non-fiction, but on a topic we thought would be of interest to genre readers; The Stolen Bride is mystery, but with an Arthurian setting we figured genre readers would appreciate.

Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Farrar, Straus and Giroux hardcover, February 2012, 210 pages, cover photo by Simon Lee. A Wake Forest professor of English, Eric G. Wilson has written seven previous non-fiction books, including Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy and The Mercy of Eternity: A Memoir of Depression and Grace.

Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck, subtitled Why We Can't Look Away, examines why so many of us are fascinated by terrible things: grisly highway accidents, morbid horror movies, etc. In short, easily digested chapters, Wilson considers this issue through personal anecdotes and quotations from authors in a wide range of disciplines.

The Stolen Bride: Tor/Forge hardcover, April 2012, 344 pages, cover art by Steve Stone. Tony Hays is an international journalist who also writes historical mysteries. The Stolen Bride is the fourth in his series of mysteries during the days of King Arthur. But the books are not fantasies——Hays assumes the Arthur legends were based on real people and places his stories in a historically accurate early medieval setting.

The narrator of The Stolen Bride is Malgwyn ap Cuneglas, a counselor of Arthur, who respects the King (or rather, the Rigotamos) but also resents him for saving Malgwyn after he lost an arm in a battle against the Saxons. In Malgwyn's view, Arthus wrongly deprived him of a noble death and left him a cripple. In the opening scene, while traveling through a region of the kindgom in turmoil, they find a village slaughtered by unknown forces. The only survivor is a young blonde woman named Daron. With her help, Malgwyn determines to find those responsible.

The Battle: A non-fiction book against a historical mystery. Isn't that an apples-to-oranges comparison? you ask. Well, yes. Yes, it is. And at Fantastic Reviews, we like apples-to-oranges comparisons. For the record: apples. Apples are better because they're not too sweet, have a satisfying crunch, and don't leave you with a mouthful of pulp you're not sure whether to swallow or spit out. We like apples better, and you should too.

Let's start with the mystery novel. I do read mysteries from time to time, but there has to be something more than the whodunit to keep me interested. Part of the appeal of The Stolen Bride is the historical setting, but so far the characters are hanging out in nondescript forests, and Hays hasn't given me much sense of time and place. And his writing style leaves me cold. Here, for instance, Malgwyn is trying to question Daron, the only witness to the slaughter he is investigating, but her eyes glaze over:
I did not know what she was seeing in the darkening forest; perhaps her mind was taking her back to that horrific event of which she spoke.

"Master?" Sulien was at my side. "If we are to reach Celliwic tonight, we must leave soon."

I nodded. There was little more I could learn here. "Very well." Standing, I felt a tug at the bottom of my tunic.

"You will leave me?" Poor Daron. To leave her in this village of death was punishment.
The stilted language ("of which she spoke") is supposed to make this feel like olden times, but mostly it just annoys me. And in modern times or old, nobody should have to puzzle out why a woman who just watched her husband, family and friends all killed might be a bit distracted. It's similarly unnecessary to spell out that leaving her in the destroyed village would be a punishment.

Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck also has a ponderous opening. Wilson couldn't decide between four different introductions to frame his central question, so he used them all: Chapter 1——Why was I so fascinated with the 9/11 footage? Chapter 2——Why do I rubberneck at highway accidents? Chapter 3——Why do I study gothic and morbid subjects? Chapter 4——Why am I generalizing to other people from myself? The only insights in these chapters are tucked away in the endnotes.

Thankfully, Wilson hits his stride after that, beginning with an anecdote of how his brother and a friend once freaked him out with a silly homemade horror film, dredging up disturbing images and desires. (He notes that his brother and his friend later collaborated on the Troma vampire film Drawing Blood.) From there, he generalizes to "the awkward split——one that most of us suffer——between socially acceptable fa├žade and interior strangeness":
[W]e all understand, those times we are honest, late on an insomniac night, the limits of the veil. The engrossing action is inside, where our appetites run rampant: lust for power and erotic pleasure, fantasies of failure and sometimes death.

Poe calls this urge for destruction the "imp of the perverse." Imagine, he asks, standing on the brink of a precipice. "We peer into the abyss——we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably we remain."
Why do we keep staring over the brink? Any fan of horror stories or apocalyptic fiction has to be interested in the answer.

THE WINNER: EVERYONE LOVES A GOOD TRAIN WRECK by Eric G. Wilson

Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck advances to the second round, to face Ben Marcus's The Flame Alphabet.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Battle of the Books, Spring 2012, First Round :: The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus vs. The Burning Man by Mark Chadbourn

The Flame AlphabetThe Burning Man
Moving into the bottom half of the bracket, the Spring 2012 Battle of the Books continues with The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus against The Burning Man by Mark Chadbourn. The winner will be whichever book I most want to keep reading after the first 25 pages.

The Flame Alphabet: Alfred A. Knopf hardcover, January 2012, 289 pages, cover design by Peter Mendelsund. Ben Marcus is a highly regarded mainstream author. His three previous books, Notable American Women, The Father Costume, and The Age of Wire and String, have included elements of surrealism, but The Flame Alphabet is his first outright science fiction or fantasy novel (even if you won't find it in the science fiction section of the bookshop).

The Flame Alphabet is set in a near-future society that is quickly breaking down due to a strange epidemic that has made children's speech toxic to their parents. The book opens with our narrator Sam and his wife Claire making the terrible choice to abandon their teenaged daughter Esther to save themselves. The rest of the opening 25 pages consist of flashbacks to when they first fell ill, and their gradual realization that the source of the illness was their own daughter.

The Burning Man: Pyr trade paperback, April 2012, 390 pages, cover art by John Picacio. Mark Chadbourn is a British fantasist, who has published some 15 novels since 1992 and twice has won the British Fantasy Award. First published in England in 2006, The Burning Man is the second in the Kingdom of the Serpent trilogy, which is related to Chadbourn's prior trilogies, The Age of Misrule and The Dark Age. The Burning Man is the sequel to Jack of Ravens, which fell in the first round of the Winter 2012 Battle of the Books. No shame in that——it lost to Elizabeth Bear's Range of Ghosts, which went on to win the entire bracket.

(Spoilers to Jack of Ravens follow.) As summarized in a ten-page synopsis at the outset of the book, the protagonist of this series is Jack Churchill, who has appeared at various points in history as a "Brother of Dragons," battling evil forces led by his former friend Ryan Veitch. In the novel's prologue, Jack and some friends——including his wife Ruth, with whom he was reunited in the previous volume——collect some fellow Brothers and Sisters of Dragons, who had been lost without their memories in an alternate universe. Meanwhile, Ryan Veitch is resurrected after seemingly dying in the previous volume.

The Battle: The Flame Alphabet has a strong and original premise, even if there are some precedents: Octavia Butler's "Speech Sounds" also showed a society breaking down due to a failure of language, Chuck Palahniuk's Lullaby previously handled the concept of unwittingly harming the people around you with words. The initial scenes strike me as tedious at times, as Marcus persistently repeats himself, straining for an impressive-sounding effect. (I often have this reaction when mainstream writers try to do science fiction, although thankfully with some exceptions, such as Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go.)

For me, the saving grace in The Flame Alphabet so far is the dialogue, which quickly reveals the personalities of Sam and Ruth and their acerbic daughter Esther, while also framing the metaphoric import of the story. In an early scene, Marcus introduces the theme of language as weaponry, when Sam shows Ruth a timeline for their getaway:
"You actually wrote this down," she finally said, her voice hollowed out through the mask.

A statement and not a question. Some essential marital weaponry from the arsenal of not giving an inch. Verbalize someone's actions back to them. Menace them with language, the language mirror. Death by feedback.

"It's a suggestion," I said, in the bedside voice I'd adopted as her caretaker.

* * *

Claire gave the timeline back to me and turned away.

"Unbelievable," she whispered. "I hope you're enjoying yourself."

"Oh, I am, Claire," I said. "The time of my life."
In his flashbacks, Sam analyzes how they could have reached the point of leaving Esther to fend for herself, when at the initial outbreak they had vowed "we would love our daughter no matter what. How ridiculous to think otherwise. Ridiculous. It was so easy to agree to what did not test us." The opening 25 pages end with a terrific passage of dialogue (too long to quote) between all three characters, displaying Ruth's sarcasm, which is amusingly witty but has a withering effect on her parents.

Turning to The Burning Man, usually it's a handicap to enter the Battle of the Books as a sequel, but this time I think it's oddly helpful. The opening of the previous volume, Jack of Ravens felt a bit aimless to me, while this book's initial prologue gives welcome context and a nicely dramatic feel from the opening lines:
My name is Jack Churchill, known to my friends as Church, and I am only a man. This is a story of gods, and powers higher than gods. I write these words in my head, and thus on a page, and thus throughout all Existence, as I stand here, at the end of the world.

From the first day that I accepted my role as a Brother of Dragons, I have struggled long and hard. At the time I didn't understand the full nature of the responsibility thrust upon my shoulders. Now I do.
That's solid epic fantasy fare. Still, I confess I am wearying of multi-volume fantasies about nice guys trying to preserve goodness and light against the forces of badness and dark. Reading of Jack and his companions racing through a building from a gazillion angry spiders (which he knew perfectly well would be there) feels to me like watching friends play a spirited role-playing game. It's all in good fun. There will be adventures and battles, characters killed (but some will come back after a saving throw), possibly a winner (probably not), but tonight's game will be not much different from last week's.

From the opening pages, it seems to me that Ben Marcus has something more interesting to say with The Flame Alphabet, and I'd like to see where he decides to take his novel's concept.

THE WINNER: THE FLAME ALPHABET by Ben Marcus

The Flame Alphabet moves on to the second round, to face either Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck by Eric G. Wilson or The Stolen Bride by Tony Hays.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Battle of the Books, Spring 2012, First Round :: The Faceless by Simon Bestwick vs. Shadow's Master by Jon Sprunk

The FacelessShadow's Master
The Spring Bracket of the 2012 Battle of the Books continues with The Faceless by Simon Bestwick against Shadow's Master by Jon Sprunk. Which book will I most want to continue reading after the first 25 pages?

The Faceless: Solaris paperback, February 2012, 470 pages, cover art by Luke Preece. Simon Bestwick has been publishing horror and crime stories since 1997. His short fiction is collected in A Hazy Shade of Winter and Pictures of the Dark. His novella "The Narrows" received a nomination for the British Fantasy Award. His previous novel Tide of Souls was set in the Tomes of the Dead universe.

The Faceless takes place in a sleepy town in Lancashire, in northwest England (where Bestwick lives), and involves strange masked figures appearing out of a heavy mist. In the first 25 pages, we meet Eva Griffiths, who is struggling to support her daughter Mary and her unemployed and depressed husband Martyn. But Eva is killed when the "faceless" figures appear and Martyn is soon institutionalized in a home called Roydtwistle, so the job of caring for Mary falls to Martyn's sister Anna, a closet lesbian with her own history of mental illness. We also meet Detective Chief Inspector Joan Renwick, and we read excerpts from the testament of Lance-Corporal Cuthbert Winthrop, who took a severe shrapnel wound to the face in World War I.

Shadow's Master: Pyr trade paperback, April 2012, 309 pages, cover art by Michael Komarck. Shadow's Master is third in a trilogy, following Shadow's Son and Shadow's Lure, Jon Sprunk's first published novels.

The hero of the Shadow Saga is Caim, an assassin with a mysterious background and the ability to summon shadows, to lethal effect. By the opening of Shadow's Master, Caim has begun a quest to the desolate, perpetually dark northern reaches of his continent. He travels with three human companions and with the sensual spirit Kit, whom only he can see. Caim has left behind Josey, a queen carrying his child. Josey leads a company of soldiers north to find him, but it is doubtful they can catch him.

The Battle: It took me a few pages to settle into both of these books. The profusion of English idioms in The Faceless is difficult at first for a Yank, but I settled into the characters' cadence before long. Similarly, Sprunk has on over-the-top delivery that is offputting initially (e.g., "The priest licked his lips, which continued to wriggle like two albino worms."), but it's a deliberate stylistic choice that I think serves the story well.

After 25 pages, I'd be happy to continue reading either book, but forced to make a choice, it comes down to this: Through four chapters, Sprunk has given me little indication what's at stake for any of his characters. In particular, I have no clue why Caim is traveling into the North. Even his companions don't seem to know what they're doing there, although they are apparently content to follow Caim wherever he pleases. Similarly, Josey strikes me as a pleasant enough character, if a bit naive and self-centered, but aside from carrying a torch for Caim, I don't yet know what conflicts she faces. No doubt this partially reflects that Shadow's Master is third in a trilogy and I haven't read the first two books, but even so I should like to have picked up more hints or reminders by now of what the story is about.

I know what The Faceless is about: strange, dangerous figures descending on a quiet English town. Apparently these ominous figures are related somehow to veterans of the Great War. Bestwick introduces this conflict through a set of interesting characters, and he establishes early on why the appearances are meaningful to his characters. When Anna goes to pick up little Mary from school, the faceless appear outside the classroom window. They leave without doing any harm, and nobody yet knows they were responsible for the death of Mary's mother, but Anna is shaken, because the figures are familiar to her. The first 25 pages end with Anna driving Mary home and asking her about the strange people:
"Were you frightened?"

"No. I know how to deal with nasty men like that."

Anna had to laugh. "Oh do you now?"

"Yeah. Kick 'em in the goolies and run. That's what Mummy--" She stopped.

Anna almost ruffled her hair, but didn't. Mary was sunk down in her seat, looking dully out of the window. When she spoke again, her voice was quieter -- older, even. "We shouldn't tell Daddy about this, should we?"

"No," Anna said. "Probably not."

* * *

She let the music fill the car, focused on that and driving Minnie the Micra safely back across town. Better that than thinking of thin, immobile faces, black cloaks blowing tatters around bodies of sticks; she'd seen them when she'd been at Roydtwistle. Her and no one else. Because back then, she'd been insane.
This is a terrific hook to end the first 25 pages, leaving me with a compelling desire to keep reading.

THE WINNER: THE FACELESS by Simon Bestwick

The Faceless moves on to the second round, where it will meet The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Battle of the Books, Spring 2012, First Round :: The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod vs. The Demi-Monde: Winter by Rod Rees

The Night SessionsDemi-Monde Winter
Our third match of the Spring Bracket of the 2012 Battle of the Books features Ken MacLeod's The Night Sessions against The Demi-Monde: Winter by Rod Rees. Once again, random chance has paired similar books in the first round -- these are both first American editions of near-future science fiction novels by British authors, previously published in England (The Night Sessions in 2008, Demi-Monde in 2010). As always, the winner will be whichever book I most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

The Night Sessions: Pyr trade paperback, April 2012, 261 pages, cover art by Stephan Martiniere. Ken MacLeod is a four-time Hugo nominee, has been nominated for the Nebula and Clarke and a host of other awards, and three times has won the British Science Fiction Award, including a best novel award in 2009 for The Night Sessions. Given MacLeod's stellar record and the strong reception The Night Sessions received when published in England, we named this one of our four "seeded" novels for the Spring 2012 Battle of the Books.

The opening prologue of The Night Sessions follows John Richard Campbell, a Christian fundamentalist traveling from New Zealand to Scotland to meet some like-minded people. His trip takes him past highs and lows of the future: an amazing space elevator, and a sea of glass where Los Angeles used to be. We have also just met Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson and his robot sidekick, who (the book cover suggests) will be investigating a terrorist bombing, possibly carried out by militant atheists.

The Demi-Monde: Winter: William Morrow hardcover, January 2012, 505 pages, cover design by James Iacobelli. This is Rod Rees's first novel and the first in a projected tetralogy of Demi-Monde books. I've seen it billed as steampunk, but as far as I can tell the steampunk elements all take place within a computer-generated virtual reality, so to me that's science fiction.

The Demi-Monde: Winter opens with Norma, daughter of the POTUS, trapped within a dismal virtual reality world, peopled with cyber-duplicates ("dupes") of awful tyrants from history. The game runs on a quantum computer system regrettably called "ABBA"--I had to read this with "Waterloo" and "Mamma Mia" running through my head--which functions rather too well. The Army created this simulation to train soldiers in urban warfare, but the villains in the game possess artificial intelligence, and they apparently have designs on the real world. For reasons only hinted at so far, the Army has recruited a young musician named Ella to go into the Demi-Monde to rescue the President's daughter.

The Battle: When we started the Battle of the Books, I expected that the format would favor books that begin with an action sequence. So far that's not proving the case. Instead, the first round is largely about building credibility, getting me to trust that I'm in the hands of a gifted storyteller.

Nearly all of the first 25 pages of The Night Sessions consist of a low-key prologue, with no action at all. But in those pages, MacLeod accomplishes two very important objectives: first, he presents an interesting future, in which a religious war in the Middle East has triggered a backlash against any religion in politics in the West:
Campbell could see more clearly than ever why people in Britain, the US, and their former allies used the expression "Faith Wars" for what everyone else referred to as the Oil Wars. Calling the catastrophes of the first two decades of the century the Faith Wars was the only way the former coalition countries could kid themselves they had won. They'd certainly defeated militant Islam, with secular republics now implanted throughout the Middle East. The Israel-Palestine issue could be regarded as solved, at least until the radiation dropped to a level that made the territory worth fighting over again.

In every other respect, the US and UK had been defeated: armies destroyed, economies bankrupted . . . The main internal political consequence was the Great Rejection, in which the religious factions who'd pushed for the war had had the unwelcome experience of seeing a nasty gleam in the eyes of the returning veterans, a little glint that said: You're next!
Second, MacLeod shows me some nice characterization. The first thing he tells us about Campbell is his belief in young earth creationism, a quick way to make him contemptible in the eyes of most science fiction readers. But in the following scenes, we find Campbell remarkably good-natured and scrupulously honest. I don't know if he will continue to be an important character, but even if not, MacLeod's even-handed treatment of him bodes well for the novel as a whole.

In contrast, The Demi-Monde: Winter opens in media res, with a character racing from fierce dog-like creatures and evil villains. The story seems promising enough, but Rees does not instill confidence that he is going to tell it especially well. For instance, even through action sequences, he overloads his prose with linking verbs:
The guy was obviously mega-tense, which was odd because it was Ella who was being interviewed for the gig. It was Ella who had exactly twelve dollars in her pocket and rent of fifty dollars due tomorrow. It was Ella who would be living on air pie for the rest of the week.

And more to the point it was the general who was asking all the questions. But oddly he was the one who was uptight.
Rees's sentences rely heavily on adjectives and adverbs, often pairing two at a time, or simply repeating the same one: "that hideous, hideous man"/"totally, totally wrong"/"evil, evil bastards"/"she really, really needed the gig." But writing is not blackjack--doubling down adds no impact.

To overcome these stylistic quirks, Rees has to convince me his story involves strong characters in a very interesting future conflict. But in contrast to the nuanced presentation of Campbell in The Night Sessions, through the opening pages The Demi-Monde's characters come across as black-and-white, particularly the cartoonishly evil villains inside the simulation.

Moreover, the opening sequences do not show us the virtual reality technology at the heart of the story in a convincing way. We see the President's daughter running through the Demi-Monde, which she is aware is a VR construct, but strangely she doesn't treat it that way. She seems to think of the villains chasing her as real people, not as computer simulations. She allows exhaustion and a series of scrapes and bruises to stop her, when she must know her real body is not injured or fatigued. Most importantly, we are told she is literally racing for her life, because if you die in the Demi-Monde, your real body dies as well. Huh? In a VR system supposedly developed to train soldiers, that seems like a pretty serious bug. Maybe Rees explains this later, but it's such an unlikely but important plot element, he should have taken a couple lines to justify it from the outset.

The Demi-Monde: Winter has been generally well-received, so I suspect it develops into an interesting story. But after 25 pages, I have much more confidence in where Ken MacLeod is taking The Night Sessions.

THE WINNER: THE NIGHT SESSIONS by Ken MacLeod

The Night Sessions advances to face either Simon Bestwick's The Faceless or Jon Sprunk's Shadow's Master in the second round.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Battle of the Books, Spring 2012, First Round :: Hell Train by Christopher Fowler vs. Greatshadow by James Maxey

Hell TrainGreatshadow
Our second match of the Spring Bracket of the 2012 Battle of the Books pits two new Solaris titles against each other: Hell Train by Christopher Fowler vs. Greatshadow by James Maxey. The winner will be the book I most want to continue reading after the first 25 pages.

Hell Train: Solaris paperback, January 2012, 319 pages, cover art by Graham Humphreys. Christopher Fowler has published some thirty books, mostly horror novels and collections, but also the Bryant & May series of mystery novels. He is a five-time winner of the British Fantasy Award, including best novel for Full Dark House, and has been nominated for the Stoker Award, World Fantasy Award, and others. Based on this impressive track record, we named Hell Train one of the four "seeded" novels for the Spring 2012 Battle of the Books.

Hell Train is a horror novel paying tribute to the glory days of Hammer Films. The novel opens in 1966, when Hammer was beginning to lose the momentum from The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, and was looking for a new hit. Screenwriter Shane Carter receives an assignment to write the next Hammer film, but he has only five days to do it. The producer Michael Carreras (an actual Hammer producer) suggests something about a train. As Carter wanders the Hammer studio, his eyes fall on a board game called "Hell Train." In the second chapter, a young girl finds the same game in her attic, but gets more than she bargained for when she begins to play. The third chapter takes us to Europe during World War I, where a British con artist has arrived by train at a mysterious village. We don't know how these scenes connect yet, but one suspects that the girl and/or the con artist are actually characters in the movie Shane Carter is writing.

Greatshadow: Solaris paperback, February 2012, 416 pages, cover art by Gerard Miley. Greatshadow is the first in The Dragon Apocalypse series. James Maxey has written a previous fantasy trilogy with dragons, the Dragon Age series--Bitterwood, Dragonforge, and Dragonseed--as well as the superhero novels Nobody Gets the Girl and Burn Baby Burn and a collection of short fiction called There Is No Wheel.

Talk about in media res, Greatshadow begins with the first-person narrator being thrown out a 500-foot-high window, and the action never slows after that. But Maxey still manages to give us a feel for his main characters. Our narrator is the devoted sidekick of the superhuman warrior woman Infidel. Surprisingly, the narrator does not survive the first 25 pages, yet his disembodied spirit continues to tell the tale. Hints have been dropped that the story will involve Infidel attempting to rob an immensely powerful dragon of its treasure.

The Battle: Both of these novels have strong openings. Greatshadow hits us with action from the first paragraph, quickly setting the stage for what promises to be very fun reading. Hell Train builds up a bit more slowly, but that's because the story is modeled after the style of the old Hammer horror films. I absolutely love how the first chapter, in which our protagonist arrives at the Hammer studio, is itself like a typical Hammer movie: the studio is in a secluded mansion, oddly quiet, where our hero meets a beautiful but enigmatic woman, while subtle hints of strangeness add to the gothic feel.

I try to be as objective as I can with the Battle of the Books, but sometimes you have to surrender to your biases. I love the old Hammer films (even the bad ones), and the concept of a horror novel in the Hammer style about the making of a Hammer movie is very appealing to me. A fantasy novel about stealing treasure from a dragon just doesn't have the same appeal. That's an admittedly subjective reaction, and if you love dragon books, I am sure Greatshadow will be well worth your time. But for me, I want to spend that time with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.

THE WINNER: HELL TRAIN by Christopher Fowler

Hell Train advances to take on Tempest by Julie Cross in the second round.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Amy's Movie Reviews :: John Carter (2012)

John Carter movie posterI saw a screening of the new Disney 3D movie John Carter (2012) (runtime 132 minutes. It's a pulp fiction, science fantasy romp on Mars. If you, like me, appreciate classic heroic fantasy and sword and sorcery, you might enjoy it. John Carter is an old-time fantasy adventure done up nicely with a big budget. But if you go see it, simply sit back and be entertained, don't expect it to be anything remotely possible.

The movie John Carter is based on the book A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, first of the Barsoom books. The first part of the book appeared in serialization in 1912, a hundred years ago. We now know that there isn't enough air to breathe on Mars, and nobody could go nearly bare-chested, like John Carter, in the Martian temperatures. But people didn't know that for sure back then.

John Carter (played by Taylor Kitsch) is a Civil War veteran, originally from Virginia, who finds an odd cave in the southwest. From there he is transported to Mars, where he discovers that a white man really can jump. Carter encounters and is captured by tall, alien-looking Martians called Tharks. He proves his strength and befriends Tar Tarkas and Sola. After an air ship battle, Carter learns there are human-like people on Mars too. He meets the courageous and lovely Dejah Thoris of Helium (played by Lynn Collins). The people of Helium are fighting against the city-state of Zodanga and the villainous Therns. Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium, is being forced to marry a Zodangan prince. John Carter fights bravely to save Dejah Thoris and Mars, which the natives call Barsoom.

John Carter looks good overall. The lead actors fit the roles and were watchable. The outfits worn by John Carter and Dejah Thoris seemed inspired by pulp book illustrations. The rocky desert scenery was fitting for Mars. The Red Martian air ships, and smaller fliers, were eye catching.

The movie features many popular fantasy film concepts. It has a handsome muscular hero who fights superhumanly, and a brave, sometimes scantily clad, heroine princess. There are wicked looking swords, fierce combats, and battling hordes. There are also visual effect aliens, the Tharks with their green skin and six-limbs, and otherworldly creatures such as the ferocious white-apes, and Carter's fast-moving, lizard-dog pet.

But does John Carter work as a movie? I think so, for the most part. The touches of humor help, but maybe the story is fundamentally a bit too cheesy for modern viewers. John Carter jumping up to the tower was farfetched. The schemes of the Therns were too cryptic to be scary. Somehow I never really got emotionally involved. Yet the movie was visually interesting and kept me entertained. In my opinion, John Carter is worth seeing in the theaters, at least for a matinee, if you enjoy science fiction and fantasy movies.

John Carter is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Aaron's 2011 Hugo Recommendations :: Best Short Story & Best Novelette

I like to make recommendations for Hugo nominations in all the fiction categories, but this year I don't feel I've read enough novels and novellas to make recommendations. For what it's worth, however, so far my favorite novel from 2011 is Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (aka Daniel Abraham & Ty Franck), and my favorite novella is "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" by Kij Johnson.

On the other hand, I've read over 150 short stories and novelettes from 2011, so I'm very happy to make recommendations in those categories.

MY FIVE FAVORITE SHORT STORIES OF 2011:
Aliette de Bodard, Shipbirth (Asimov's, Feb '11)
Nancy Fulda, Movement (Asimov's, March '11)
Jeffrey Lyman, The Hanged Poet (IGMS, June '11)
Patrick O'Sullivan, Maddy Dune's First and Only Spelling Bee (Writers of the Future Vol. 27)
Ferrett Steinmetz, "Run," Bakri Says (Asimov's, Dec '11)

MY FIVE FAVORITE NOVELETTES OF 2011:
Ian Creasey, "I Was Nearly Your Mother" (Asimov's, March '11)
R.P.L. Johnson, In Apprehension, How Like a God (Writers of the Future Vol. 27)
Adam Perin, Medic! (Writers of the Future Vol. 27)
Matthew Sanborn Smith, Beauty Belongs to the Flowers (Tor.com, Jan '11)
Brad R. Torgersen, Ray of Light (Analog, Dec '11)

The fact that four of my fellow 2011 Writers of the Future winners appear on the list may reflect unconscious bias, but not conscious manipulation -- they really were four of my very favorite stories of the year.

I've listed these in alphabetical order, but out of all of them, my single favorite novelette of 2011 was "Ray of Light" by Brad R. Torgersen, and my single favorite short story was "Movement" by Nancy Fulda.

For more excellent short fiction from last year, click on the "Story Recommendations" label below.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Battle of the Books, Spring 2012, First Round :: Forbidden by Syrie & Ryan M. James vs. Tempest by Julie Cross



Our first matchup of the Spring Bracket of the 2012 Battle of the Books pits Forbidden by Syrie & Ryan M. James against Tempest by Julie Cross. Per our contest rules, I have read the first 25 pages of both, and the winner will be the book I most want to continue reading.

Forbidden: HarperTeen trade paperback, January 2012, 412 pages, cover photo by Howard Huang. Syrie James is the author of four previous novels, including The Memoirs of Jane Austen and Nocturne. Her son Ryan is a screenwriter and video game editor. This is their first collaboration.

Forbidden is the story of the forbidden love between Claire Brennan and Alec MacKenzie, students at a posh private high school in Brentwood, California. Through 25 pages there are only hints to why their (anticipated) love is forbidden. Claire doesn't know who her father was, and she has moved frequently for unknown reasons of her mother's. Alec is recently arrived from Scotland, with intentions to start living a more normal life, but we don't yet know what he was doing before. The book jacket suggests that the mysteries have to do with fallen angels, with Claire and Alec unwittingly on opposite sides of an ancient conflict.

Tempest: Macmillan audio, 9 CDs / St. Martin's hardcover, 334 pages, January 2012, cover photo by James Porto. Tempest is the debut novel of Julie Cross, first in a projected trilogy. This is the first book submitted to the Battle of the Books in audio format. I like the narration by Matthew Brown, particularly his nerd-nasal speaking voice for the character Adam.

College student Jackson Meyer, the protagonist of Tempest, has the ability to travel through time. But he can only go into the past, not the future, and only a few hours back. So, he says, he can't go back and kill Hitler or anything important like that. As the story opens, Jackson has finally confided his ability to his friend Adam, and they have begun some experiments to study Jackson's talent. Jackson has not yet told his girlfriend Holly about it. Then two strange men arrive at Holly's dorm room, dropping hints that they know about Jackson's ability. In the ensuing struggle, Holly gets shot, just before Jackson jumps back a full two years in time. The book cover tells us he will be trapped there, unable to return to his proper place in time.

The Battle: Aside from putting one "seeded" book in each quarter of the draw, the entire Battle of the Books draw is completely random. But fate seems to enjoy pairing similar books. Forbidden and Tempest are both young adult novels combining elements of fantasy and romance, a subgenre that has become quite crowded since the success of Twilight. The nice thing is, pairing these two books together makes it irrelevant whether I personally am a fan of this subgenre.

Forbidden and Tempest both bring the supernatural elements of the story into play quickly. Tempest begins with the protagonist Jackson and his brainy friend Adam doing tests to figure out exactly how his time traveling ability affects reality. Forbidden is more circumspect about what's going on -- so far there are only vague hints about the two main characters' backstories -- but Claire has two premonitions that clearly signal that she has clair(nudgenudge)voyant abilities. In both cases, the reader is immediately engaged in the supernatural aspect of the story.

So this battle comes down to who has me interested in the romantic side of the tale. In the opening scene of Forbidden, Claire bumps into the new boy, Alec. In Hollywood, they call it a "meet cute," where the two lead characters' first meeting leaves the audience wanting to see them together. But in this case the meet lacks much cute -- there's just nothing remarkable about the Claire-Alec meeting. She instantly dislikes him (typical in a meet cute) but for no real reason, and she changes her mind within minutes. Meanwhile, he is instantly attracted to her, but it's hard to see why. From his point of view, we are told that "she radiated intelligence, confidence, and vulnerability," but she hasn't said a word to suggest any of those things.

I find the dialogue in Tempest between Jackson and his girlfriend Holly much more charming:
Her face relaxed and she tugged on the front of my shirt, pulling me closer before kissing my cheek. "So . . . what are you doing tonight?"

"Um . . . I've got plans with this really pretty blond chick." Except I couldn't remember what we had planned. "It's a . . . surprise."

"You're so full of it." She laughed and shook her head. "I can't believe you forgot your promise to spend an entire evening with me reciting Shakespeare . . . in French . . . backwards. Then we were supposed to watch Titanic and Notting Hill."
Whether they're kissing or arguing, there is much more on-page chemistry between Jackson and Holly than between Claire and Alec. Overall, the characters in Tempest and their interactions feel more real to me through the opening chapters, and I want to read (or listen to) more about them.

THE WINNER: TEMPEST by Julie Cross

Tempest will advance to meet either Hell Train by Christopher Fowler or Greatshadow by James Maxey in the second round.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Aaron's 2012 Hugo Recommendations :: Campbell Award for Best New Author

While technically not a Hugo Award, I encourage every Hugo voter to nominate for the Campbell Award for best new author. A great many excellent writers have joined the science fiction and fantasy field in the past two years. You can see a list of many of them over at the Writertopia Campbell page.

Here in alphabetical order are the new authors I am planning to nominate. Yes, I am crass enough to nominate myself, not because I think I have any chance of making the ballot, but because even seeing myself on the list of nominated authors would be a thrill. For each author, I'm listing one or two works to start with, if you're interested in giving these authors a try:

Monica Byrne ("Nine Bodies of Water," Fantasy; "Five Letters from New Laverne," Shimmer)
Van Aaron Hughes ("The Dualist," Writers of the Future Vol. 27; "Random Fire," Abyss & Apex)
Stina Leicht (Of Blood and Honey; And Blue Skies from Pain)
Patrick O'Sullivan ("Maddy Dune's First and Only Spelling Bee," Writers of the Future Vol. 27)
Brad R. Torgersen ("Ray of Light," Analog; "Exanastasis," Writers of the Future Vol. 26)

Monica Byrne and Brad Torgersen are in their second year of eligibility, while the others will get another chance next year. From this list, I think Stina Leicht and Brad Torgersen are the most likely to make the ballot. Nominations are due March 11.

Good luck to all the eligible new writers!

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Coming of Age on Barsoom by Catherynne M. Valente

The Story Recommendation of the Week is for "Coming of Age on Barsoom" by Catherynne M. Valente, from the anthology Under the Moons of Mars, edited by John Joseph Adams. Catherynne Valente is our fourth three-time SROTW recipient, joining Rachel Swirsky, Aliette de Bodard, and Samantha Henderson.

Taking advantage of renewed interest in Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars books due to the John Carter movie, Under the Moons of Mars is an anthology of new stories set in the Barsoom universe. The contributors include such top-notch writers as Peter S. Beagle, Joe R. Lansdale, Theodora Goss, Tobias S. Buckell, Austin Grossman, and Garth Nix, among others. It's marketed as a book for young readers, but I think adults will enjoy it just as much, particularly adults like me, who grew up reading Edgar Rice Burroughs.

"Coming of Age on Barsoom" stands as a counterpoint to the John Carter books. From the point of view of one of John Carter's adversaries, it prompts us to wonder why we ever considered John Carter the hero of those stories, when to the Martian natives, especially the green-skinned natives, he was a conquering (and condescending) foreigner. The story is quite thought-provoking.

More importantly, like all of Catherynne Valente's work, it is beautifully written. After a brief introduction styled in the manner of Edgar Rice Burroughs, we go to the first-person narrative of Falm Rojut, Jeddak of Hanar Su, which is written in the poetic style we expect from Valente. Valente's eloquent language gives us a new perspective not only on Burroughs' Martian universe, but on life in general. Here, for instance, is a passage about Falm Rojut emerging from his egg as a child, which resonated perfectly with me, as a parent of a rebellious teenaged human:
They call to us, the mothers and fathers, they say: Be my child. Be my future. Battle me with your laughter and pinching and sneaking out to hunt the banth when you are not nearly ready, fight me with your every breath, your every kiss, while I struggle to make you grown and you struggle to die as quickly as possible, and then when I am grown old take my metal and my name and go on while I recede.
Catherynne M. Valente is a treasure to the science fiction and fantasy genre. Here's hoping she writes as much as Edgar Rice Burroughs did.