Category Archives: Reading

Is Our Writers Learning: Winterwood by Jacey Bedford (#SFWApro)

WINTERWOOD: Rowankind Book One by Jacey Bedford (cover art Larry Rostant, all rights retained by current holder — and yes, it’s another cover with a Staring Protagonist) is a frustrating example of a book that just doesn’t click with me. Which is not to say I didn’t learn from it

THE STORY: It’s 1800. Rossalinde Tremayne, a wizard and widowed pirate captain, returns to her dying mother only to be saddled with a mysterious box of impenetrable winterwood. Oh, and with a brother she didn’t know she had who’s half-rowankind, a fae treepeople who serve as English slaves. Narrowly escaping the forces hunting her, Ross returns to sea, only to discover the hunt isn’t over. Because that box is very, very important ….

WHAT I LEARNED:

•Women doing things is more interesting than women just wanting to do things. I’ve written before about how I hate women who’s main trait is not wanting to conform to gender stereotypes. And that I’d rather see them doing stuff than grumbling about how patriarchy stops them doing stuff. Ross actually does stuff. She’s a pirate captain and we have very little “but you’re a woman!” nor is the fact that she’s unconventional meant to win us over by itself. That’s nice.

•Having other women do things would be nice too. There are some powerful female fae but once Ross leaves her dying mum, she’s pretty much in an all-male world. With such a strong lead, that’s disappointing.

•Backstory is often tedious. I read a book once that said all backstory should be left until after the first half of the book if you need it at all. I don’t know I’d go that far, but we get several people explaining their history and most of the time I didn’t need it. There’s one Southern pirate who hooks up with Ross and for some reason Bedford gives the story of how he went to see. He’s not a central character, there’s really no need to know this (unlike Ross’s brother David, whose backstory is important). Of course, a lot of people complain I should give more backstory in my writing, so maybe I’m in a minority.

•Errors are forgivable, but not on big things. Ross’s ghostly husband Will is her constant companion. In one scene, he’s able to influence her body enough that they can have sex. So why a few chapters later is she bemoaning that sex is the one thing Will can no longer give her?

•Slavery doesn’t have to be a metaphor. I’ve read a couple of blog posts recently complaining that using mutants/mages/ETs as a discriminated minority or a metaphor for real-world discrimination is a bad thing (something I hope to discuss in a post of my own). First, because it’s not an exact analogy (victims of discrimination aren’t alien/monstrous/inhuman); second, a lot of these stories seem to forget about including real-world minorities. Not a problem here as the rowankind aren’t a metaphor. Real slavery of African Americans still exists; the rowankind are slaves separately from that (and with little signs of a free-the-rowans movement). I think that works.

•Books that don’t click are frustrating. It’s frustrating because when a book has a lot going for it, I want to like it. And I want to figure out why I don’t. But I can’t quite pin down what left me so bored with Winterwood. Part of it, I think, is the dialogue: in addition to the exposition, it often feels stilted (I know David’s part-nonhuman but he still sounds way too old and rational when he talks). But beyond that? Just some x-factor — some writers are simply pitched at a frequency I don’t hear. Which is not necessarily Bedford’s fault, just a writer/author mismatch.

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Dragons and sea serpents vs. Doc Savage! (#SFWApro)

THE PURPLE DRAGON by William Bogart (cover by Bob Larkin) is the first novel to really deal with Doc’s crime college since The Annihilist (I don’t really count The Flying Goblin). The “college” is where Doc’s team of surgeons operates on criminals to erase their memories, after which they’re trained into law-abiding citizenship. This is usually portrayed as being more humane and productive than imprisonment; this book throws in that Doc would sooner have the crooks as taxpaying citizens rather than living on the taxpayer dime.

The book opens with the kidnapping of Hiram Shalleck, a likable lunch-wagon operator. After confronting the fire-breathing Purple Dragon, Hiram regains his memories of life as Joe Mavrik, bootlegger and mobster, with no idea of his other life, or that it isn’t still 1929. When he starts to realize what’s happened, the bad guys whack him. Several more graduates get the same treatment but the evidence indicates they were murdered years ago (the cops have no idea where they’ve been). Doc, however, knows better and begins the investigation. It’s a good, twisty mystery with several in-jokes in character names and quirky touches (Doc has trackers implanted in his team’s socks!). It reuses the wristwatch communicators from Merchants of Disaster and also borrows several bits from earlier books. Monk and Ham are apparently stuck back in prehistoric times (a la Giggling Ghosts); the bad guys gas people and put them in compromising positions (Evil Gnome). There are also lots of minor oddities: Doc’s anesthetic gas is visible as a fine haze when he uses it; Doc uses a utility belt rather than his usual vest.

Those are minor continuity glitches though. The real flaw is that we get no hint how the villains pulled this off. They don’t have anyone inside the college giving them tips, so how do they know where to find all the targets (members of a former NY mob who know where to find their late boss’s hidden loot)? How do they even know the college exists? It’s a serious weakness in an otherwise solid mystery.

Speaking of the college, the time frame shows it was operating in 1929, well before the start of Doc’s heroic career. Not surprising (when we hear of it it’s an established operation) but more fodder for my Young Doc Savage concept.

DEVILS OF THE DEEP by Harold Davis (cover by Emery Clarke) opens with a sea serpent, or possibly a giant tentacle, crushing a small fishing boat. In an odd bit, Monk, Ham and Long Tom offer to investigate, just so they have an excuse to go to the coast and fish. Monk deliberately downplays evidence that there’s something going on so Doc won’t feel the need to go with them. Doc, of course, sees through this.

Unusually the story doesn’t waste any time speculating a possible supernatural threat. Doc identifies the menace as mechanical early on. It turns out a group of engineers have developed an anti-sub device that captures submarines with its coils, then holds them underwater until the crew runs out of air. Bad guys have the device, and they’ve used it to seize a submarine; now they’re raiding up and down the coast.

This is a very WW II book, even though it’s still 1940 and the US isn’t involved. Rather than assume it’s the Axis attack (as opposed to Merchants of Disaster, where the oxygen destroyer is assumed to be a Japanese weapon), the thinking is that one or the other side in Europe is trying to manipulate America into coming into the war as their ally. Then it appears that Doc Savage is the one behind it (not the first time he’s been blamed for something like that). Despite the awkward opening, it’s a solid, competent adventure. It’s the first book since I started rereading these that I didn’t actually have (and haven’t read) though not the last (I picked it up used).

Rights to both covers remain with current holder.

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Maps, shadows, and Dr. Strange: books read (#SFWApro)

DRAWING THE LINE: Tales of Maps and Cartocontroversy by Mark Monmonier covers the kind of material I thought On the Map glossed over such as the Mercator map with its distorted presentation of the world (which he notes is not an issue in its original use for navigation), the maps of Pangea drawn as proof of continental drift, the problem of boundary maps that may not match reality (Trees are uprooted, hills wash away, rivers change course”) and how map design influences our concept of safety (“If our town is included in the map of environmental risks, we automatically assume it’s threatened.”), not to mention the specifically political uses of mapping (some Palestinian maps ignore all developments and settlements since 1948; former British colonies replace European place names with ethnic ones). Monmonier’s core argument is that maps create the illusion of objective fact even though they may be politically slanted or unintentionally skewed by subjective assessments. Very interesting.

THE CHARWOMAN’S SHADOW by Lord Dunsany (cover by Gervasio Gallardo, all rights remain with current holder) is a remarkable little story and a quasi-sequel to his Don Rodriguez (one character is Rodriguez’ grandson). Ramon, the son of a penniless Spanish grandee goes to work for a wizard learning how to make base metal into gold, something his family needs to give his sister a dowry.  When Ramon learns the wizard’s elderly charwoman (Britspeak for housekeeper) is enslaved because she sold the mage her shadow (“It used to make the grass such a tender green. It never dimmed the buttercups.”) his new priority becomes finding and freeing her shadow. Clever, beautifully written, wryly humorous in spots; I think I liked this more than I remembered.

ORLANDO FURIOSO: The Ring of Angelica was the first volume in Ballantine Adult Fantasy’s translation (courtesy Robert Hodgens) of Ariosto’s epic (regrettably none of the other volumes came out, though I have read it elsewhere). As the story is a sequel to the earlier Orlando Inamorata by Boiardo, it starts in media res as the sorceress Angelica, the knights Bradamante, Ruggiero and Orlando and various supporting players travel across Europe in engaging feats of derring-do and wizardry. Full of wonders and unlike William Morris, Ariosto’s combat scenes really move (he makes me appreciate how much Morris falls short of the people he’s modeling his fantasies on). He’s also surprisingly sex positive, which is different from the English epic tradition I’m used to. I do agree with editor Lin Carter though that the plotting is kind of random, as Ariosto’s more interested in hurling new and exciting things at us than following a mere plotline.

DOCTOR STRANGE: The Oath by Brian K. Vaughn and Marcos Martin has the sorcerer supreme and the Night Nurse (a doctor who runs a secret clinic catering to super-heroes) begin investigating when someone steals a miracle cancer cure (Wong’s terminal) from Strange’s sanctum. What follows is not only a battle of magic, but a look at how Strange’s Hippocratic oath still shapes him — and in different ways, his adversary. The relationship with Night Nurse feels a little forced, but I’d have liked to see it continue — subsequent crossover events took Stephen in a different direction (and not a good one) Well done.

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Book covers I like, including some fake ones (#SFWApro)

Carrie Fisher’s passing prompted Timothy Anderson to capture the original trilogy as old-school paperbacks:

Then we have What If Salvador Dali Did A Cover For Keith Laumer?

I like this one. No relation to Alas Babylon.

A mystery novel.

One by Powers, more realistic than his usual work.

His usual work.

All rights remain with current copyright holders. If I didn’t name the artist, it’s uncredited.

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New Screen Rant column out: 16 Facts About Jay Garrick (#SFWApro)

I have a new Screen Rant column up about Jay Garrick, the original Flash. Learn how smoking gave him super powers. How he came out of retirement because of an artist’s challenge. Why he ages slower than ordinary people. And more!

Cover by Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson, all rights reserved to current holder.

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Floods, mutants, vampires and more: comics and books read (#SFWApro)

NOAH by Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel and Niko Henrichon shows the impulse to do Biblical epics didn’t die off with Cecil B. DeMille. This story of Noah getting his ark up and running despite the interference of a local warlord and his own doubts whether humanity should survive works well as spectacle (it’s apparently based on Aronofsky’s recent movie) — not great art but entertaining. Though I’m not sure switching out the usual portrayals of decadent civilizations for eco-destructive ones really worked.

THE SUNDERING FLOOD was William Morris’ last romance, in which a boy and girl on opposite sides of the eponymous river fall into long-distance love, then go off and have adventures, which in the girl’s case means getting captured a lot (disappointing given she starts out as something of a free spirit). This moves faster than usual for Morris, and I found it more engaging than much of his work. However Morris’s action scenes remind me of the long, inferior stretches in Malory where there’s nothing but endless tournament after endless tournament (i.e., not terribly interesting). Part of this is that as a historical writer, Morris dwells much more on details of medieval life that Malory didn’t bother with. Pleasant enough to read though, and what a lovely cover by Gervasio Gallardo (all rights to current holder)

WOLVERINE AND THE XMEN: Tomorrow Never Learns by Jason Latour and Mahmud Asrar starts off well as the Jean Grey School gets seriously weird (Krakoa the living island is now Krakoa the Living School Grounds, there’s a supply of bamfs around to provide instant teleportation). Unfortunately the plot — Askani warrior hunts down Quentin Quire for the evil he’s going to do when he acquires the Phoenix Force — is stock X-book stuff, and very convoluted, plus the usual angst and guilt from Wolverine.

THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN by Holly Black has a teenager wake up from a wild party to discover everyone else has been victimized by vampires, which leads to her, her slowly turning ex-boyfriend, and a seemingly helpless vamp (“No-one has ever saved me before.”) journeying to one of the Coldtown ghettoes where vampires are quarantine, with the protagonist planning to wait there until she knows for sure if she’s infected. I like this much better than I expected — Black writes well, and in many ways this seems to undercut the cliches of the post-Anne Rice vampire fiction by showing that under the beauty and celebrity, vampires really are just disgusting corpses who feed on the living. The stretches of internecine vampire struggles, though, I largely skimmed. In a minor note, Fables writer Bill Willingham gets to be a vampire victim.

CHEW: Taster’s Choice by John Layman and Rob Guillory has “cibopath” Tony Chu reluctantly recruited by the federal government to use his super power (psychometric flashes from anything he eats) to solve crimes (one nibble on a victim’s finger …). I thought the later volume I read was fun enough, but this is really gloriously, goofy fun with a lot of eccentrics and weird psionics (like a woman whose restaurant reviews make you actually taste the food when you’re reading her). Great job!

DC REBIRTH by Geoff Johns and various artists launched DC’s latest continuity-mangling Big Event, which while implying it will fix the problems of the New 52 will probably make them worse (as every reboot since Crisis has managed to do). This has the pre-Flashpoint Wally West warning Batman about what’s coming, Lois and Clark watching the New 52’s Superman die at Doomsday’s hands (“Perhaps he’ll recover as I did.”), Batman learning the Joker’s not one man but three (I can’t even guess where they’re going with that one) and we learn Dr. Manhattan is secretly behind the entire New 52. While I was never a fan of the New 52 reboot, I have no faith whatever’s coming will be an improvement, particularly as the same creators who thought the New 52 would be a great step forward are still running the show.

 

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Abe Sapiens and an Exorcist: Updates from the Hellboyverse (#SFWApro)

While I have added all these to the Hellboy Chronology, I haven’t reviewed them yet, so here we go. Some spoilers.

25852939ABE SAPIEN: The Secret Fire by Mike Mignola, Scott Allie and Sebastian and Max Fiumara (cover by the latter, all rights reside with current holder) was a disappointment for me. It’s mostly Abe dithering and worrying about his role in the end of the human race — something he’s been doing since the series started — and getting lots of advice from various mystical people. Meanwhile the sorcerer Gustav Strobl, who’s been hunting Abe all through the series, continues hunting him. It felt like filler that didn’t advance the story, didn’t stand on its own, but did stretch things out a few issues longer.

ABE SAPIENS: The Desolate Shore (same creative team) stars better as Abe discovers the BPRD’s Professor Bruttenholm knew all about Abe’s human past two decades before Abe learned his origins. Why did he stay silent? And what exactly did Abe’s former self, Langdon Caul, discover in the depths of the ocean. Having raised the questions, we get more brooding (apparently they’ll be wrapped up when Abe rejoins the BPRD for the mythos finish), which got frustrating. And while I like Strobl’s agenda (the mage believes he should be the template for the next age of man, not Abe), his final showdown is over so abruptly it retroactively makes Strobl pointless — why exactly were we wasting time reading about this guy? I hope the BPRD series wraps up better.

On the other hand I really enjoyed BPRD: Hell on Earth: The Exorcist (Mignola, Cameron Stewart, Chris Roberson, Mike Norton) which introduces almost-new BPRD agent Ashley Strode (she had a brief cameo in an earlier book). In the first story in this collection, she confronts a demon and becomes an exorcist as a result of her trials; in the second, she’s now traveling across country exorcising evil things in the old Hellboy manner (only with ritual rather than a right to the jaw). The stories were good, and it’s nice to have a relatively optimistic character in the spotlight for a change. I believe Strode is also the first gay protagonist in the mythos, but I can’t swear to it.

The Exorcist proved a slight challenge to the chronology as the two stories take place fifteen months apart. I’m guesstimating that the second one happens “now” or as close as we can get (as I’ve mentioned before, I think the rapid pace of events puts the timeline several years behind our own) and fitting in the first story based on that.

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