Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

A Hope for the Genre?! No way!

show_art_Killjoys_new

Genre: Space Opera/Space Western

Medium: Television

The premise: Killjoys is a sci-fi adventure story co-produced by SyFy and the Canadian genre channel, Space. It tells the story of three bounty hunters Dutch (Hannah John-Kamen), John Jaqobis (Aaron Ashmore), and D’avin Jaqobis (Luke Macfarlane) who navigate a colonizing human society known as the Quad ruled by an oligarchic council called the Nine and a domineering corporation simply referred to as the Company. Bounty hunters, known as Killjoys, work on behalf of the Company to bring in or assassinate wanted criminals. Life is neither easy nor simple for these protagonists, who most negotiate obstacles both martial and political to stay alive, all while also overcoming the dark secrets of their own pasts.

Why it’s awesome: If you’re a fan of Firefly, Farscape, or Outlaw Star, you’ll enjoy Killjoys. (Or if you remember the glory that was campy nineties television.) Although the show doesn’t lack for serious moments, danger, or suspense, it is tremendously good fun to watch and does not take itself seriously to the extent that so much television does today. Sometimes as genre fans we want to explore deep, thoughtful questions–and sometimes we want to watch a kickass heroine take down baddies and rescue her friends from certain danger. Hannah John-Kamen is wonderful to watch as Dutch and Aaron Ashmore complements her perfectly as her partner Johnny. A host of entertaining secondary characters from their fellow Killjoys to bureaucrats to the bartender at their favorite watering hole round out the cast.

Why it’s hopeful: It’s refreshing to see a woman-centered science fiction show on sci-fi. Especially since Dutch is a woman of color. She’s also a capable, complicated yet sympathetic character with real human relationships and a mysterious backstory. There’s no doubt who Killjoys is really about. Even better, Dutch’s friendship with Johnny is the emotional centerpiece to the show. Whatever romantic relationships the two pursue elsewhere, they are always reunited. It shouldn’t be revolutionary to have a compelling friendship between a man and a woman on an action show that doesn’t devolve into sexual tension…but it is. And while some critics have said that Killjoys is thematically light, it has plenty to say about class and class structures, power, and the destructive force of capitalism in society. There’s a lot to like here and I’m happy to report that the show will return for a second season in 2016.

What’s that? A bird? A plane? A review of an anthology paying tribute to one of science fiction’s most singularly game-changing writers?

It’s probably that last one.

It should go without saying but: spoilers below. It is difficult to review anything without spoiling something. Thus, there will be no kvetching about spoilers.

Octavia’s Brood edited by adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha, out April 14, is a collection of stories, essays, and–in one remarkable case–a T.V. script, which seeks to capture the visionary fiction aesthetic and social justice mentality of the great Octavia Butler. Brown and Imarisha solicited its contents from a wide range of activists, from journalist Dani McClain to actor LeVar Burton. The stories include speculative fiction of all stripes, including more recognizable spaceships-and-aliens sci-fi, fabulism, zombie apocalyptic horror, and–unsurprisingly–plenty of dystopian fiction.

In other words, there’s pretty much something for everyone between the covers of Octavia’s Brood, provided you’re interested in having your ideas and social assumptions challenged. Much like Butler’s work, this is an anthology driven by questioning and the questions asked–about race, gender, and sexuality in society–are not easy ones. Consequently, I recommend it as a slower read. Take some time to chew on what you’ve been given. Think about the stories and go back to them if you can. This is a book that requires patience and introspection; if you blow through it, you’re not going to get anything much out of it.

But assuming you are that kind of reader–and if you love Butler, you almost certainly are–definitely pick up this book. If you can, read it with some likeminded (or maybe slightly different-minded) friends. It will precipitate the types of conversations many of us want and need to have. Good fiction, like Butler’s fiction, can do that for us. It can make us grapple with the issues of our identity, the ways in which we conceive of one another, the often unnoticed harm that happens to those of us outside the margins.

That’s all well and good, Julia, you might be saying, but how were the stories? That’s what we read anthologies for, after all. Ideas can only get us so far.

I’ll admit, not everything in here was my cup of tea in terms of plot and structure, but as I said, that doesn’t seem to be the goal. There’s something sort of scattershot, sort of busy, in this approach–a cramming in of different types of stories to spur as much conversation as possible. And, because many of these people aren’t writers by trade, the quality of prose can be a little uneven at times. Some stories seemed to need more room to breathe. Others felt sluggishly paced. But there were plenty of gems, too, by my estimation.

My top five were:

“Revolution Shuffle” by Bao Phi. The anthology opener kicked it off with a socially conscious zombie twist worthy of early Romero. Hit all the right buttons for me and gave us that “on the edge of revolution” feel that persisted throughout Octavia’s Brood.

“The River” by adrienne maree brown. Hands down the most beautifully written story in the book and the prose lent itself to the eerier qualities of this ghostly story set in post-industrial Detroit.

“The Long Memory” by Morrigan Phillips. An unusual sort of tale that deals with the issue of cultural and social memory and the problems we encounter when only a handful of people are aware of that inheritance.

“The Surfacing” by Autumn Brown. Interesting in media res approach which details the ousting of a woman from her subterranean society, only for her to discover everything above wasn’t quite as she thought.

“Lalibela” by Gabriel Teodros. This story that shifts through space and time reminds us how much has changed and how little.

It should be noted, too, that the essays at the end of the anthology are pretty fantastic all on their own, especially if you like talking about Butler’s work or Star Wars.

On the whole, despite its flaws, I was glad for the opportunity to read Octavia’s Brood and dwell on its questions. I sincerely hope there will be more anthologies like it in the future.

7/10.

I finally saw Avengers: Age of Ultron this weekend. Read: spoilers ahead.

I saw it after some apprehension. I waited to see the movie because the week it came out, I wasn’t especially in the mood to see cities reduced to smoke and rubble (Hello, Baltimore. Hello, Nepal.) Because I waited, I got to see the vast social media discussions (see: arguments) about various aspects of the movie–in particular the love story between Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanov.

Great, I thought. Am I going to leave this movie angry?

I didn’t leave the movie angry. I didn’t even leave the movie feeling particularly disappointed. I liked Avengers: Age of Ultron. Some bits more than others. But I liked it.

But I also didn’t leave the movie feeling excited. I didn’t leave bemoaning the long wait before Avengers 3. I didn’t even really leave wanting more.

I don’t think I came into Ultron with particularly high expectations. I knew it was a superhero movie. I knew there’d be plenty of “Hulk smash!” and explosions and daring escapes. But even though I didn’t consciously have many other expectations, I left the theater wanting something different. There were parts of the movie where I could only think: “Oh, this again? Oh.”

There were times, too, when I thought Ultron might indeed go somewhere else. I particularly loved the party scene toward the beginning of the movie that showed the ways in which the Avengers had grown comfortable with each other in some respects–and not comfortable with each other in others. I loved Hawkeye’s hidden family and the stunned reactions of his teammates (Auntie Nat, of course, excluded). I loved Bruce’s inability to say no to Tony’s desperate enthusiasm and bid for normalcy. I loved Cap’s ongoing rediscovery of himself, despite his grandma tendencies and in the face of his immense loneliness. I loved the eerie, dystopic feel of the Iron Legion’s appearance at the beginning of the movie. I loved the fears Scarlet Witch triggered in all of them and the way they remained shaken by those nightmares throughout the film. I loved the twins’ storyline in general, although I thought their obsession with Tony in particular felt like a misstep, like too much of a shift back to Iron Man. Why not all of the Avengers? Or S.H.I.E.L.D.? Or both? You don’t need a Stark Industries bomb to send someone into the arms of Ultron.

But those kinds of missteps sadly characterized the movie for me. There would be a flash of something really truly interesting and then it would fizzle. We would have another action sequence instead or a ham-handed joke about Bruce and Natasha boning.

It didn’t bother me, by the way, that they had a love story. In part because it actually seemed very fleeting and tenuous. And because Natasha seemed so clearly to be the pursuer and it didn’t  affect her ability to fight or make difficult choices or be Black Widow. What did bother me, however, was the way that it halted all of her other fascinating relationships with the remaining Avengers, with the exception of Hawkeye. Suddenly dialog about Natasha became about Natasha and Bruce solely (the reverse is not true, by the way, which is another issue). It felt like the movie was constantly trying to remind me that this was a thing. Remember? It’s a thing. Natasha and Bruce are a thing. Natasha and Bruce. Bruce and Natasha. A thing. GET IT?!

In other words, something that could have felt very organic and natural and subtle just…wasn’t.

I was intrigued by the revelation about Natasha’s training and the “graduation ceremony,” which expanded on what we already knew from Agent Carter. I don’t think the scene of her explanation was handled with an overabundance of grace, writing-wise–but then, little was in regards to her character. But the content in itself remains interesting, as do her feelings about herself. This echoes the beginning of the movie when she refuses to try to lift Thor’s hammer, the immediate suggestion being she knows she’s not worthy. (Although, we’ll note that Thor had to go through extreme tests of his own to lift Mjolnir.) It’s telling, too, I think that while her fellow Avengers’ dreams reflected their horror of the future, only she and Steve were most frightened of aspects of their pasts. In fact, Natasha’s fears were extremely specific to an event and relayed as memories, not the more surreal, stylized presentation of Steve’s fears.

Basically, despite the bad writing mentioned above, Natasha Romanov emerges from Ultron just as fascinating and dynamic a character as ever, largely due to Scarlett Johansson’s excellent portrayal.

But that returns us to my issue with the movie, which is that it forced me to wonder how much longer I want to keep seeing Marvel movies or superhero movies in general if they don’t seem to be making much progress, as much as Ultron seemed to occasionally lean in that direction. And if at times I find them boring. All this particularly when still none of them are  made with women in mind–much as we might enjoy them, we must enjoy them in spite of the fact that the studios who make them don’t see us as significant members of their audience.

It begs the question: as a fan, what percentage of a work ought you to find satisfying before you stop carefully picking out the things you like and give up? How much effort should you need to invest to imagine a version of a film or show to make it work for you? How long do you wait?

We haven’t had a Hope for the Genre in ages, so it’s obviously time to bring it back into the repertoire.

Birdman-Poster

Genre: Superhero? Superhero commentary? Mild magical realism? Psychological spec fic?

Medium: Film

The premise: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)written and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu–tells the story of Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton), a washed-up Hollywood actor who is trying to revitalize his career with a Broadway play based on Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” And before you ask what the hell that has to do with any kind of speculative fiction, Riggan formerly played Birdman, a superhero character in big budget films. Riggan is haunted–or possibly hounded–by his alter ego, who voices all of his dissatisfaction with the world around him. He descends into more and more elaborate fantasies in which he is telekinetic, can fly, etc. Meanwhile, the play is under constant threat of failure as it finishes its week of previews before opening. Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, and Andrea Riseborough play Riggan’s malcontent cast; Zach Galifianakis is his neurotic producer, lawyer, and best friend, Jake. Emma Stone co-stars as his daughter, Sam, recently out of rehab. The story is a twisted mess of relationships and affairs haunted by the specter of more grandiose dreams.

Why it’s awesome: This movie has earned every ounce of praise it’s received from critics and audiences. It’s fantastic, in every sense of the word. Keaton (formerly Batman) kills it as Riggan Thomas. I loved Birdman’s raspy, Bale-in-The-Dark-Knight-esque voice, evoking the entire genre. The commentary on superhero culture was fabulous without sucking all the fun out of it. And for a movie that is largely psychologically driven, the action never lets up. There’s constantly another turn or altercation that keeps you engaged and often anxious about the movie’s outcome. Norton makes a hilarious douchebag stage actor; Watts kills it as his insecure girlfriend who just wants to be on Broadway. It was incredibly rewarding, too, to see Emma Stone and Zach Galifianakis break out of type. Not to mention one of the best instrumental soundtracks (Antonio Sanchez) I’ve heard in years–the drums are practically their own character in the film.

Why it’s hopeful: We can debate a bit about whether this qualifies as pure speculative fiction or whether it’s merely reflecting on a particular subgenre. There is a certain amount of ambiguity at the end about the nature of Riggan’s fantasies (not unlike Pan’s Labyrinth, another movie I adore). But does it matter if what Riggan experiences is real? Isn’t the point that all of us long for big explosions and fame and incredible heroism? The film connects these desires to social media in a beautifully subtle and smart way that feels current. And although the story certainly highlights the tension between works like Carver’s short fiction and the comic book genre (echoed in the tension between Broadway and Hollywood), I don’t think it comes down neatly on one side or the other. We see the inherent flaws in both groups of people. After all, Norton’s character Mike is incredibly pretentious and narcissistic as much as Riggan is egomaniacal and delusional. Besides, the film relies on elements of both to succeed–each genre has something to lend to the story. Ultimately, whatever the reality of Riggan’s situation, Superhero culture feeds Birdman, much in the way it feeds Kavalier and Clay, which is likewise an incredible work of art.

Today’s review is of The Brothers Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard, out September 30.

Please note that The Brothers Cabal is the fourth of Howard’s Johannes Cabal series. To begin at the beginning (as you should), start with Johannes Cabal the Necromancer.

And as always, reviews have spoilers.

Confession: I adore the Johannes Cabal books. If you’re looking for any sort of objectivity in your book reviews, you’re not going to find that here. I like to think my opinion is totally warranted, but I frankly don’t care. These are just my kind of books.

The Brothers Cabal picks up where The Fear Institute left off: Johannes, after his adventures against Nyarlathotep and time as a ghoul, finds himself on the brink of death just outside his garden gate. A strong and mysterious stranger picks him up, takes him into the house, and begins to care for him. The book closes with Johannes’ recognition of the figure and the line: “But . . . you’re dead . . .”

Which prompted a lot of all-caps texting and tweeting amongst my Cabal-reading buddies. There was only one person who could possibly have rescued Johannes and that was Horst, his brother-turned-vampire-turned-pile-of-dust who we haven’t seen since his demise in book one. And Horst it certainly is.

The Brothers Cabal, happily, answers nearly all of our Horst-related questions, while naturally raising a whole host of new ones in their stead. A diabolical secret society–in cahoots with an unknown entity called the Red Queen–has raised Horst from his post-undeath death with the intention of making him their Lord of the Dead, one of four supernatural generals to lead their army of horrors against the human world. We learn of Horst’s adventures through his narration to Johannes, who is still weak and in bed at the beginning of the novel. The newly-risen Horst must navigate a remote, central European castle full of zombies, were-creatures of all types, spies, and enterprising businessmen. Eventually, he falls in with the Dee Society on the side of humanity and convinces Johannes to join their cause.

The Brothers Cabal possesses the irresistible charm of the previous Cabal books, which is to say: these books are fun. Sure, there are unspeakable horrors and Elder Gods and evil carnivals and terrible deals with the devil. But Howard relates everything with a razor sharp wit that makes even the most gruesome aspects of Cabal’s adventures entertaining as hell. It doesn’t hurt that Johannes is such a fantastic character to begin with–coldly logical and of utterly dubious morals, but inflicted with a soul and an anything-but-cold mission. One of the pleasures of The Brothers Cabal is following Horst as he learns of his brother’s most recent dealings–in particular that Johannes has saved the world not once but twice since Horst’s death.

Of course, the reader has witnessed all of Johannes adventures and his reaction to Horst’s death in the first book. It surprises us not at all that Johannes so readily agrees to help Horst and his new allies. He will never be a warm and fuzzy kind of protagonist, but that’s ultimately what makes Johannes such a wonderful antihero. His rediscovery of his very inconvenient humanity is often as poignant as it is hilarious.

Meanwhile, Horst struggles to maintain his own humanity. He does internal battle with the insidious little voice of his vampirism, which bids him to drink at his leisure and cares little for the sanctity of life. While many of these exchanges are laugh-out-loud funny, we also understand the very real threat to Horst’s integrity.

Nor is The Brothers Cabal lacking in action. We have the usual zombies and vampires, but there’s also everything from a were-badger to a gigantic other-dimensional Daddy Longlegs and evil acidic amoebas. Other than the Dee Society, Horst befriends a flying circus of lady entomopter pilots. The battles are lively and suspenseful without being too drawn out or overly cinematic.

If the novel falters at all, it may be in the mystery of the Red Queen and her intentions. The book ends on a chilling cliffhanger, but we understand little of what might happen. I believe this has more to do with the book’s placement in the series than any failure of its plot or execution. By book four, it’s hard for any story to feel like a standalone adventure. Also, I would definitely suggest rereading the first three if it’s been a while.

Regardless, The Brothers Cabal is a highly entertaining continuation of the series, and I can’t wait to read more.

8/10

Fall is upon us, friends! Which means the dreary television wasteland of July and August has passed. Here’s a small roundup of six of this fall’s speculative offerings on the small screen. (Goes without saying: some spoilers below.)

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Definitely still on the upswing from last season, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D has recovered admirably from its initial inertia to give us the engaging, action-packed story of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s attempt to resurrect itself in the wake of last season’s events. It shouldn’t surprise us either that our characters have become more complicated and tragic in the intervening months. But the classic Whedon-esque humor persists. I’m especially digging B.J. Britt’s continued presence as Agent Triplett and the addition of Henry Simmons as Mac. Dramatically, Clark Gregg continues to impress as Agent Coulson and Iain De Caestecker has been delivering some major chills as the mostly-recovered-but-still-pretty-damaged Fitz. By the way, FitzSimmons4life.

The Flash: Set in the Arrow universe (guess who makes a cameo at the end of episode one), The Flash seeks to give the CW Muppet Babies treatment to another one of our beloved Justice League heroes. They’ve certainly got the formula down: unrequited love affair, baddie created at the same time, gaggle of geek types to work support. As a result, what should be exciting and fun (I mean, it’s the Flash), ends up being pretty stale within the first 45 minutes.

The Walking Dead: Sweet Zombie Jesus, what a season premiere! Carol could spend the rest of the season at a spa and still win the show’s biggest badass award. I’m also a big fan of near-sociopathic Rick and dual-lightsaber Michonne. But seriously, it’s really exciting to see this show have some momentum. The last two seasons have shown vast improvements, but I think this year is going to leave them all behind. After all, they’ve finally answered the question of “is there any sanctuary?” will a resounding NO and an explosion. It’ll be interesting to see what happens to group as they venture north. Alas, there are so many of them now that you know somebody’s going to have die soon…

American Horror Story: I’m never sure what to think or feel about AHS and Freak Show is certainly no exception. This is a show that continually trips over itself in concerted efforts to one-up the previous seasons. As a result, previous seasons have hosted completely bonkers plots (see: aliens in Asylum) or see their narratives falter and fall apart completely (Coven). Freak Show at least seems to be looking for some cohesive storytelling and obviously the setting of a freak show is incredibly rich. But I’d like to see a season that didn’t begin with some sort of sexual assault. What they do have going for them? Jyote Amge as Ma Petite.

Gotham: Many of my feelings regarding The Flash also apply to Gotham. Maybe it’s because Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight deals so comprehensively with sinister, gritty Gotham. Maybe it’s because there are so many other superhero shows out there. Maybe I’m just tired of origin stories. (How about a superhero show dealing with the characters 10-20 years after their prime?) Thus far, Gotham just feels like a less interesting rehash of everything we’ve seen before in the Batman universe–without Batman and somehow still about Batman. I mean, even Carol Kane couldn’t make me like this.

Sleepy Hollow: I have to say, I was skeptical of Sleepy Hollow at the start. I thought it would completely tank like Grimm or descend into utter ridiculousness like Once Upon a Time. Which isn’t to say that Sleepy Hollow isn’t often silly. They love them some naked Ben Franklin. They play the “man out of time” jokes hard with Ichabod. But these are the marks of a show having fun with its casts and concepts and the mythos of American history. Season 2 is definitely off to a promising beginning. The first episode played a somewhat expected alternate reality plot twist. The weird connections between the horsemen of the apocalypse and Ichabod’s family persist. But whatever plot kinks there are tend not to bother me because this show rises and sets on Nicole Beharie. Abbie is the source of the show’s greatest pathos. She’s also a helluva heroine and tough customer, with believable personal, non-dude-related issues. Which is all to good, because Abbie is contemporary America. Ichabod may be our idealistic, storied past, but Abbie is our present and future. And we’re rooting for her to win.

What better way to revitalize The Girl Who Loved Zombies than a book review?

By the way, new posts every Tuesday and Thursday, may Azathoth devour the cosmos if I fail.

It should go without saying but: spoilers below. It is difficult to review anything without spoiling something. Thus, there will be no kvetching about spoilers.

Cheryl Priest’s Maplecroft, out September 2, is a Gothic epistolary yarn set in the seaside town of Fall River, Massachusetts. The town’s inhabitants are falling prey to a mysterious illness in the spring of 1894. Victims grow distant and distracted. They lose their appetites and their vitality, grow pale and bloated like creatures from the sea. Eventually, they take their own lives or those of their loved ones in grotesque and unimaginable ways. Something lurks out in the Atlantic; something just awakened calls to the people of Fall River. And only one person has any notion of what’s happening: the infamous Lizzie Borden.

Maplecroft, the first of Priest’s Borden Dispatches series, follows Lizzie, her sister Emma, and Owen Seabury, M.D., as they attempt to make sense of the bizarre phenomena afflicting their town. Emma, much older and a brilliant scientist, is also consumptive and often bedridden. Seabury, a widower, treated Lizzie’s parents before they died–from multiple axe wounds, as the song tells us, but also as the first victims of Fall River’s plague. Other witnesses to the mystery include Lizzie’s lover Nance, Detective Simon Wolf from Boston, and Phillip Zollicoffer of Miskatonic University. In true Lovecraftian style, the more our protagonists investigate, the more they risk their lives, their sanity, and their very souls.

I often say of Cherie Priest that she writes the books I want to read. From her Clockwork Century series (steampunk and zombies!) to her Eden Moore trilogy (Southern Gothic ghost stories!), I’m always happy to pick up her books, and Maplecroft is no exception. It was especially rewarding to see Priest experimenting with form–the epistolary works nearly perfectly–and returning to a darker, slower horror. What I found particularly brilliant in Maplecroft was the gradual dissolution of our heroes’ relationships. As the Bordens and Seabury delve deeper into the otherworldly threat, they lose faith in each other. They grow suspicious, petty, and cruel, without realizing what’s happening to them. Their involvement has real ramifications, and the novel closes on a rather bleak note. Little is resolved, although the immediate danger seems to have passed. I.e., it’s a damn good thing this is a series.

Priest’s appeal isn’t, of course, just zombies and gadgets, ghosts and Civil War battlefields, or unspeakable horrors and notorious mass murderers. What she does with gender–nearly effortlessly–is absolute essential to speculative fiction as a whole and horror in particular. The women in Priest’s stories are complicated heroes, not Mary Sues. Many are older. All of them have experienced trials and tragedy. They’re weathered. Real. Multidimensional. And although the men in her stories lend a helping hand when they can, these women are believably capable. Lizzie Borden fights off the creatures lurking in the night for her friends and family. But she is also haunted by what she’s seen and done. Priest reimagines her, vindicates her in many ways, but does not completely redeem her. There’s a darkness in Lizzie, too, which saves Maplecroft from being purely revisionist.

Priest handles Lizzie’s relationship with Nance equally well. Their relationship feels not at all like a gimmick, but rather adds dimension to the character (and historically, there has been some speculation about Borden’s sexual orientation). There are some beautifully written scenes between Nance and Lizzie. Lizzie’s desire to protect her lover from the terrible truths she’s learned, the animosity between Nance and Emma, and Nance’s irresistible attraction to the closed doors in Maplecroft all lend drama, tension, and suspense to the novel.

As a whole, Maplecroft succeeds completely. Like much of Priest’s work, it builds slowly, the characters and events accumulating in the book’s first half. Then, the novel turns–everything for Lizzie et al quickly goes to hell and there’s much to overcome before the end. This is not only characteristic of Priest’s work, of course, but the tradition which she manipulates here. Maplecroft is Gothic, Weird, Lovecraftian–and it follows the conventions of these subgenres very successfully. However, if you like your horror fast-paced rather than eerie, this likely isn’t the novel for you.

Otherwise: go for it.

8/10.