Wednesday, 28 December 2016

The Savage Sword of Conan, Vol. 14, by Charles Dixon, Gary Kwapisz, Ernie Chan and chums (Dark Horse Books) | review by Stephen Theaker

This reviewer has read several volumes in this series over the last year or so, and this review could pretty much apply to any of them, since The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian was a remarkably consistent magazine. Whichever collection you pick up, you’ll get the same black-and-white mix of a rough but honourable barbarian, extremely attractive women (variously good and evil), mad wizards and kings, and reliably good storytelling and art – all for a bargain price. One improvement is that by the issues collected here, 141 to 150, the black caption boxes that made the earliest books rather a pest to read are long gone, and the creative team of Dixon, Kwapisz and Chan have settled in for a run of consecutive issues that tell a series of consecutive stories in Conan’s life. As ever, each individual story, whether it is teaming up with Red Sonja on a quest for a hidden idol, defending a fort from a Pictish attack, or a struggle in Brythunia to prevent the rising of Oranah, the Stag God, who drives farmers mad with murderlust, has the length and heft of a French album, but this time they also add up to more, a grand saga that takes Conan from a gladiator to a general and beyond. One story, “Blind Vengeance”, features a firm but unfair tyrant who intimidates villagers into handing over their goods, and carves a W into the foreheads of corpses – an inspiration for Negan on The Walking Dead, perhaps? The speech balloon placement is a bit careless, with the correct reading order often counterintuitive and confusing, but the artwork is nearly always top notch, and unusually for a Comixology edition double page spreads are presented as two separate pages, which makes it much easier to read on a tablet. Recommended to anyone who liked any of the other volumes. ****

Monday, 26 December 2016

Chobits Omnibus, Vol. 1, by CLAMP (Dark Horse) | review

Hideki is a college kid who is trying to get into Tokyo university, and he doesn’t have a lot of money. He certainly can’t afford a persocom, a human-shaped computer, so it seems like a stroke of luck when he finds one that’s apparently been thrown out with the trash. She seems to be in good condition, and is, incidentally, very pretty, though Hideki is more focused on spreadsheets, word processing and household accounting (by all of which he means pornography). As he carries her off, a disk falls out, and maybe this is why she has no memories, and not even an operating system. He names her Chi, because at first that’s all she says. She’s a blank slate for Hideki’s lessons, and since he’s a buffoon that doesn’t go well; she ends up unwittingly working for a short spell at a strip club. As the endless pages fly by, she seems to develop feelings for him, while he does for her, even as he is told by himself and others that she’s a machine and such feelings are a waste. Would he be better off spending his time with Yumi Omura, a peppy student with a crush on him? Then there’s Takako Shimizu, a college tutor who turns up at his house for an impromptu sleepover, and Chitose Hibiya, his beautiful landlady, who is keeping a couple of big secrets, and knows a few about Chi, who might be one of the fabled Chobits, persocoms that can learn for themselves. Although this manga translation is presented in the now-traditional right-to-left format, the limited amount of dialogue per page stops it from being too confusing to read. The backgrounds are plain, as little art as possible being used to fill each page – the printing costs that have shaped US comics so much were presumably less of an issue as comics developed in Japan. I’ve never before read a book so long in which so little happens. It only took a couple of hours to read, despite being 740pp long. (This explains those fifteen-year-old Goodreads users with thousands of books read.) The “sexy” elements of it tend to be a bit gross, especially in retrospect after we’re told late in the book the apparent age of Chi’s physical body. It has some interesting ideas about how easily humans would switch their affections to such androids, sidestepping the problems and complexities of human romance. It’s undemanding, occasionally amusing, a bit pompous, and it kept me busy while I drank a cup of tea; if volume two comes up in a sale I might possibly buy it, but otherwise I’d be happy to leave Hideki to perv over his personal computer in private. Stephen Theaker ***

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Kalpa Imperial, by Angela Gorodischer (Small Beer Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

Subtitled “the greatest empire that never was”, this book tells a series of stories about the long-lived empire of Kalpa – or so we presume, since that name only appears in the title. In the book it is just the Empire, and it has a north, and a less easily governed south, and it has lasted (or will last: some stories hint that this is a future empire) so long that emperors and even dynasties may be completely unknown to their successors. Some stories, like “The Old Incense Road”, about an elderly man leading traders across the desert, take place over a shortish span of time, but others are rather more expansive, like the remarkable “And the Streets Deserted”, which follows a city from its founding and shows its many different lives, as an imperial capital, as a home for artists, as a spa for the unwell. Each story brings a majesty to the lives great and small that it examines, and each is equally enjoyable. The rule in the Empire is much like that for the original run of Star Trek films, that emperors will, in general, alternate between the good and the bad, and the book shows us both. The wisdom and determination of the Great Empress Abderjhalda in “Portrait of the Empress” or the emperor who never leaves his bedroom in “The Two Hands” are an example of each. The book was originally published in two volumes in Argentina in 1983, and this translation by Ursula K. Le Guin, which seems, so far as one can tell without reading the original, to be impeccably done, is from 2003. It should appeal to anyone with a taste for the epic, and in particular readers who enjoyed Lucius Shepard’s The Dragon Griaule, with which it shares many similarities: of tone, structure, and indeed quality. *****

Monday, 19 December 2016

Atomic Robo, Vol. 7: The Flying She-Devils of the Pacific, by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener (Tesladyne) | review

Atomic Robo is a cool guy created by Nikolai Tesla, who he calls his dad. He is atomic-powered, generally good-natured, and likes a fight. He’s strong, wry, almost indestructible, and each graphic novel (or mini-series, in their original publication) takes us to a different period of his life, with different friends and colleagues, previous highlights including battles with giant Nazi robots and cthulhoid monsters. If that sounds a lot like Hellboy, that’s because it is a lot like Hellboy – but with blue skies and daylight. Book seven begins with him flying an experimental plane in 1952, and under attack by weird little flying tanks. Not having any weapons and badly outnumbered, he gets shot down and would be destroyed were it not for a squadron of rocket-women. They kept fighting in the Pacific rather than going home to countries where they’d have to hang up their bomber jackets, their enemies mostly mercenaries, but now there’s a bigger threat, and they’re going to need Atomic Robo’s help to stop it. The previous six Atomic Robo books were all very good, and given that this is once again from the same writer and artist it isn’t a surprise that this is too. A few panels left me puzzling a little over what was going on, but when I dawdled it was more often to take it all in. The rectangular panels make it ideal for reading on a tablet. Reading one one Atomic Robo book always makes me want to read all of them again. The only sad thing is that the skipping about in time means we’re not likely to meet the she-devils again for a while, a shame because they’re rather brilliant. Stephen Theaker ****

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #57: now out, in print and ebook!

free epub | free mobi | free pdf | print UK | print USA | Kindle UK | Kindle US

Issue fifty-seven of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction is now out!

It is one hundred and sixty-eight pages long, and features five tales of fantasy, horror and science fiction: “The Elder Secret’s Lair” by Rafe McGregor, “Nold” by Stephen Theaker, “On Loan” by Howard Watts, “The Battle Word” by Antonella Coriander, and “With Echoing Feet He Threaded” by Walt Brunston. The spectacular wraparound cover is by Howard Watts, and the editorial includes exciting news about the magazine’s plans for 2017. The issue also includes forty pages of reviews, and some sneaky interior art from John Greenwood.

In the Quarterly Review, Stephen Theaker, Douglas J. Ogurek, Jacob Edwards and Rafe McGregor consider audios written by Colin Brake, Jonathan Morris, Justin Richards and Marc Platt, books by Cate Gardner, Erika L. Satifka, Harun Siljak, Joe Dever and Karl Edward Wagner, and comics from Joshua Williamson and Fernando Dagnino, G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona, and Erik Larsen, plus the films Don’t Breathe, Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, Ouija: Origin of Evil and Suicide Squad, and the television programmes Preacher season one and The X-Files season ten.



Here are the kindly contributors to this issue:

Antonella Coriander is not so sure about this. “The Battle Word” is the eighth episode of her ongoing Oulippean serial, Les aventures fantastiques de Beatrice et Veronique.

Douglas J. Ogurek’s work has appeared in the BFS Journal, The Literary Review, Morpheus Tales, Gone Lawn, and several anthologies. He lives in a Chicago suburb with the woman whose husband he is and their pit bull Phlegmpus Bilesnot. Douglas’s website can be found at: http://www.douglasjogurek.weebly.com.

Howard Watts is a writer, artist and composer living in Seaford who provides both a story and the amazing wraparound cover art for this issue. His artwork can be seen in its native resolution on his deviantart page: http://hswatts.deviantart.com. His novel The Master of Clouds is now available on Kindle.

Jacob Edwards also writes 42-word reviews for Derelict Space Sheep. This writer, poet and recovering lexiphanicist’s website is at http://www.jacobedwards.id.au. He has a Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/JacobEdwardsWriter, where he posts poems and the occasional oddity, and he can be found on Twitter too: https://twitter.com/ToastyVogon.

Rafe McGregor is the author of The Value of Literature, The Architect of Murder, five collections of short fiction, and over one hundred magazine articles, journal papers, and review essays. He lectures at the University of York and can be found online at https://twitter.com/rafemcgregor.

Stephen Theaker’s reviews, interviews and articles have appeared in Interzone, Black Static, Prism and the BFS Journal, as well as clogging up our pages. He shares his home with three slightly smaller Theakers, no longer runs the British Fantasy Awards, and works in legal and medical publishing.

Walt Brunston’s adaptation of the classic television story, Space University Trent: Hyperparasite, is now available on Kindle.



As ever, all back issues of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction are available for free download.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Archivist Wasp, by Nicole Kornher-Stace (Big Mouth House) | review by Stephen Theaker

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the best way to begin a novel is with a fight to the death, and that is how this novel begins. Wasp is the current archivist, her job being to capture ghosts and record what information she can glean from them. This miserable and lonely existence has a downside: each year she is challenged by three upstarts to a knife fight. If one of them wins, they’ll become the archivist, and she’ll become a ghost. If she wins, she has to tie a braid of their hair into her own, making her head heavier by the year, giving her headaches, making it more likely that she will lose to the children.

Wasp is sixteen years old, and doesn’t expect to live much longer. However, she survives the book’s opening duel, just barely, and after a period of convalescence returns to the job. A very strong ghost appears, one who can harm her, speak to her, even heal her bad ankle, and he wants her to come with him to where the ghosts live, in search of a woman he loved in life, and has never been able to find in death.

Good mysteries and good fights are two things I really like in a book, and Archivist Wasp delivers in both respects. Wasp is resilient and resourceful, and likely to win the admiration of all readers, not to mention their sympathy, and the same goes for her ghost, whose pre-apocalyptic story is not quite what I was expecting. Another terrific title from Small Beer Press, and clearly an author to look out for too. ****

Monday, 12 December 2016

Doctor Who: The Angel’s Kiss, by Melody Malone (BBC Books) | review

River Song is in New York, working as a private eye under the name Melody Malone, just as we found her at the beginning of the television episode, “The Angels Take Manhattan”. She takes the case of a minor film star, Rock Railton, who has overheard someone saying that he will die. Then she runs into a fellow who looks like him on the street, dying, and extremely old. At a party she meets him again, young and beautiful but without the slightest idea who she is. Weird stuff is going on and she wants to figure it out whether she gets paid or not. This short book, written in truth by Justin Richards, doesn’t match the passages quoted from it on television, sadly, but it does lead nicely into that story, and it gives River Song a lot of fun things to say and do. The audio version, read by Alex Kingston herself, must be a hoot. Stephen Theaker ***

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse, by Simon Kinberg | review by Stephen Theaker

The events of X-Men: Days of Future Past have changed the timeline, and everyone now knows about mutants. Mystique is a hero to her kind, a civil rights leader who runs an underground railroad to help the less fortunate among them, such as Nightcrawler, forced to fight in a cage match against a very angry Angel. Back in Westchester, Professor Xavier has got his school for the gifted up and running, and when Magneto resurfaces, recruited by Apocalypse during a vulnerable moment, Mystique goes to Xavier for help. Cyclops and Jean Gray are already there, learning to control their powers, and Quicksilver is on his way – he also wants to find Magneto, albeit for different reasons. It’ll take the lot of them to cope with Apocalypse, an ancient body-swapping, power-collecting mutant who has just escaped from his underground prison of thousands of years. He’s a tough cookie and he can be very persuasive. It is time for the X-Men to go into action for the very first time all over again, and that is part of this film’s joy, to see a team very close to that of the Claremont/Byrne years of the comic in action: Cyclops, Jean Gray, Beast, Nightcrawler, Professor Xavier and even Storm, though she’s on the wrong side for much of the film, Apocalypse having found her in this timeline in Cairo before Xavier got around to it. It’s great to see them together, and that contributes to this feeling like the most X-Meny of the X-Men films yet. X2: X-Men United may have been a better film overall, but it felt like a science fiction film based on the idea of the X-Men whereas this feels like the X-Men. The melodrama, the humour, the flips from one side to the other, the bravery and tragedy: it’s all here. Once again Quicksilver comes close to stealing the film. Psylocke is introduced, but her complicated backstory is perhaps wisely left to one side, so there’s no sign of her brother Captain Britain, sadly. Another much-loved character makes an extremely violent five-minute cameo that may leave parents wondering whether it was wise to bring children to the film, as well as wondering how it ties up with the conclusion of the previous film – but continuity has never really been a concern of these films. See how badly the end of The Wolverine lines up with the beginning of Days of Future Past, or the constant recasting of any character not played by Hugh Jackman. By this ninth film in the series, including all spin-offs, that discontinuity must be taken as read. Let’s just assume there are changes to the timeline going on constantly in this movie universe, not just those we see on screen. It’s not perfect by any means – the tears over the lost cast of X-Men: First Class seem insincere given the film-maker’s decision to give them the boot. The post-credits scene is a colossal letdown, leaving the cinema audience audibly deflated (ironic for a film that credits its inflatable audience wranglers). But overall it was probably my favourite X-Men film yet. It rounds off this prequel trilogy nicely, James McAvoy being especially fantastic as Professor Xavier, while setting things up very well for what could be a new set of films featuring the classic line-up in their youth. I’m looking forward to the next film much more than I was looking forward to this one. ***

Arrival | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

The lingo of time: UFO film touches down as one of year’s most impressive cinematic offerings.

I didn’t think that any film this year would stack up to 10 Cloverfield Lane. So much for that. Arrival offers another strong female lead in an equally gripping sci-fi masterpiece.

The latter film, directed by Denis Villeneuve, in many ways transcends its genre to become, in this reviewer’s opinion, an Oscar contender. Inherent in the title is the film’s big idea. This isn’t an Independence Day or War of the Worlds alien invasion action film. It’s merely an arrival of extraterrestrial vessels, and protagonist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) must decode the aliens’ language.

Skilful in its audio and visual manoeuvrings, Arrival plays with our perceptions of language and time, and challenges our tech-driven migration toward impulsive behaviour. The film leaves the patient viewer processing its implications long after the credits roll. It even gets into Tennyson’s “Tis better to have loved and lost” bit.

Adams, along with supporting cast Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, offers a strong performance. All three actors let the film’s innovative premise and underlying mystery, rather than their characters, take centre stage.

The opening scene reveals that Dr Banks experiences a major loss. At the university where she teaches linguistics, she discovers that twelve alien craft have touched down at various points across the Earth. Colonel Weber (Whitaker) recruits Banks (the language expert) and theoretical physicist Dr Ian Donnelly (Renner, the scientist), then brings them to the Montana field over which the North American alien contingent hovers. Weber wants the duo to get into the ship and figure out why the visitors are here and what they want. This objective drives the remainder of the film, which builds to a Shyamalan-like climax that packs an emotional wallop.

Strong Connection with the Protagonist
The filmmakers’ tight focus on Banks keeps the viewer in tune with her feelings. One example is her reaction to the news of the arrival. She (and we) learn of the event not by seeing giant spaceships approaching, but rather via a news report in her quiet and mostly vacant classroom. A student asks her to turn on the TV. Although we hear what the reporter says, the camera focuses on Banks. As the shock registers on her face, we’re right there with her. And isn’t that how it would happen? We’re going about our business, oblivious to the outside, and then… we find out.

The viewer/protagonist connection continues the first time Banks enters the UFO and absorbs her reality. She struggles for breath in her oxygen mask and gazes up a dark passage that leads to a light source. You feel her uncertainty, her trepidation.

The tension carries over to the coal mine-like chamber in which the humans and aliens interact. A bird’s echoing chirps – the bird confirms oxygen levels – create a jarring sensation as Banks and Donnelly first approach the bright transparent screen that separates them from the aliens.

Language Twisting and Time Bending
Many films offer sleek alien craft and creatures that resemble octopuses – this film refers to them as “heptapods” (and Abbott and Costello) – but rarely are these conventions used in such a thematically inventive way.

The film’s first major theme is language and, more broadly, communication. While Banks and Donnelly race to translate the aliens’ complex symbols, some other countries elect to communicate with the visitors via games. Banks points out the flaw in this strategy: games have winners and losers. This human winner/loser or good/bad mentality takes root in certain individuals and nations that have a trigger-happy attitude toward the aliens. It’s sad to think that some people would actually think the Earth would stand a chance: if aliens figure out how to get here, then they’re more advanced than us.

The circular shape of the aliens’ symbols ties into the film’s other major theme: time. We’re accustomed to thinking of time as linear. Arrival, applying that circular concept to its structure, trounces on that tendency and challenges us to see the bigger picture.

Language and time also played a role in my coming to understand this film. Admittedly, my wife and I didn’t quite grasp the full meaning of what happened right away, but we discussed it – you could say we circled around it – for 45 minutes. Gradually, the pieces came together. And the tool that we used to achieve our arrival? Language. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Monday, 5 December 2016

How a Ghastly Story Was Brought to Light by a Common or Garden Butcher’s Dog, by Johann Peter Hebel (Penguin Classics) | review

This fifty-three page book manages to pack in twenty-six short stories, as told by Your Family Friend. The back cover describes them as “fables, sketches and tall tales”, but it may remind readers of The Real Hustle, which showed BBC viewers how con artists separate the greedy from their money. These stories would have performed a similarly useful duty for the readers of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, stories like “A Stallholder Duped” and “The Weather Man” showing the kind of tricks people might play. Two favourite stories of mine were “One Word Leads to Another”, in which a man asks what has been happening at home, and, as is so often is the case, the answer “Nothing much” turns out to be an understatement, and “A Secret Beheading”, a strange and terrible tale in which an executioner is kidnapped by unknown parties to do his usual work in a private matter. The back cover tells us that one of these twenty-six stories was Franz Kafka’s favourite, but doesn’t say which – that one, or perhaps the title story, about a pair of two-time murderers, would be my guess. Hebel writes, at least as translated here by John Hibberd and Nicholas Jacobs, much like Rhys Hughes, albeit without the fantasy. See especially “Strange Reckoning at the Inn”, where three clever students try to convince a cleverer-than-they-think pub landlady that since time is a circle and they do not have money to pay their bill, she should be patient and wait for them to return in six thousand years with the money they owe. She points out that they still owe her for the meal they ate six thousand years before. Stephen Theaker ****

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Well, that went badly. #nanowrimo

My November novel ran out of steam after about four thousand words this year, then I had the lead character start reading some chapters from another novel of mine (chapters I was writing specially for him to read), and that got me another six thousand words or so, making about ten thousand words in total. Disastrous! So, Stephen Theaker of 2017, here's where I think you went wrong in 2016:

  • You didn't do a chapter plan. This always works very well for you, so why didn't you do it this time? I suspect it's because you knew it would be hard because you didn't have a plot. You knew what the book was going to be about, what its theme would be, but you didn't think about what would actually happen from one chapter to the next. Next time plan the whole thing from start to finish, at least vaguely.
  • You did that thing again, that you do every time, where you begin the novel with a character on their own, with no one to talk to, in a featureless location where nothing is happening! In 2017 start your book with twenty people having an argument in a ghost house or something.
  • You tried to write a novel based on stuff that you were still quite fed up about, so whenever you tried to think about the novel you just got fed up about the thing you were fed up about, all over again. That didn't work. Don't do it next time.
  • You refused to relinquish the hour or so you spend watching tv each evening with your lovely lady wife. Yes, it's been great for your relationship over the last twenty years to have that time together each evening, drinking hot chocolate and laughing, crying, etc depending on the show, but if that had been sacrificed you'd have had another 30 hours or so to write your novel. And it only takes you about 50 hours to write your stupid little novels.
  • You forgot how much your own books make you laugh. Yes, they're terrible, but you should have had a read of one before this month started to remind yourself how hilarious you (if no one else) find them, to encourage you to write another, for your own entertainment if no one else's.
  • Your protagonist and your antagonist were the wrong way around. Yes, you wanted to write a novel about someone making a lot of bad decisions leading to a galactic disaster, but wouldn't you have found it much easier to write about the adventures of the chap being put in a series of tight spots by those bad decisions? There's a reason Spider-Man is the star of the comic book rather than J. Jonah Jameson.
  • You made the classic error of planning to write less Monday to Friday and more over the weekends. November is birthday season! You aren't writing more at the weekends. You're struggling to write anything! In 2017, stick to the plan: 1666 words a day, every day.

Well, Stephen of 2017, I hope you take all of that on board, and do a better job than you did this time. I have my doubts, given that this year you didn't read any of the brilliant advice I left for me in previous years…