Friday, January 17, 2020

Dark Shadows: The Salem Branch by: Lara Parker

The publication history of Dark Shadows is an interesting one.  Angelique’s Descent was originally published by HarperCollins Publishing in 1998, with a follow up not by Lara Parker in 1999 before publishing stopped.  It wasn’t until 2006, the same year Big Finish Productions began producing Dark Shadows audio dramas, did Lara Parker return to write a second Dark Shadows novel.  The Salem Branch is a very different novel to Angelique’s Descent, still including many flashbacks, this time to Salem, 1692, doing another take on The Crucible but with Miranda du Val as its central character and explaining Angelique as a reincarnation of the woman, retconning bits of the 1840 story arc from the show where let’s be honest Dan Curtis had run his writers dry in redoing bits of literature that Curtis liked.  Parker’s take on The Crucible takes out the affair and makes du Val somehow both the victim and perpetrator, implying an unreliable narrator at points.  This section of the book is the weak point as while the flashbacks are better integrated in the novel without a framing story and the two plotlines do end up matching up at the end of the book, it’s a lot of stuff that viewers of Dark Shadows will have seen before and done better before.  Judah Zachary is kind of an interesting character, a powerful warlock who is beheaded in the end and his head becomes an eventual plot point in the television story, but here honestly he is far too boring as presented here.

The actual driving force behind the novel is the present day storyline with the now cured Barnabas Collins becoming emotionally restless as he has to deal with the fact that he is now, very probably, fully human.  There’s genuinely this internal struggle, as Parker uses Barnabas’ experience with having to eat food and deal with the fact that after so long he can be hurt.  This emotional outlet is something that never really was explored on television and the audios reestablish him as a vampire (because of course this is never actually going to be permanent, it’s Barnabas), both going under the mostly accurate theory that Barnabas’ appeal comes from his vampiric nature.  The Salem Branch may just be the exception that proves the rule, because the inner turmoil is brought into an outlet as Barnabas spends much of the novel obsessed with the woman responsible for buying and restoring to its near exact condition, whom he believes is the reincarnation of Angelique because she looks like Angelique.  Antoinette, or Toni as she is referred to in the novel, creates an excellent foil and allows Barnabas to be shown in an incredibly paranoid light.  Parker clearly understands that Barnabas Collins is not a good person and his obsession here is perfectly portrayed as both Julia and Quentin both attempt to affirm to Barnabas that she isn’t Angelique.  Sure her daughter is eventually revealed to be a reincarnation of Miranda du Val and is in love with David Collins, whom she promises not to harm as long as they’re together, but she’s completely innocent.

While Barnabas is the A-plot, the B-plot of the novel in the present day is dealing with a bunch of hippies allowed to live on the Collins land.  This is the part of the novel which leads directly into the climax and the hippies themselves are genuinely an interesting group of people.  It really allows both Roger, David, and Carolyn something to do.  David and Carolyn both partake of their rituals while Roger spends much of the novel being over the top about wishing to get them off the Collins land, even though he has no real way of doing that.  There’s also this added danger of two vampires wandering around the land, attacking and slowly bringing Barnabas back to his curse which adds some great tension.  The only issue with the present day storyline here is that Julia, while getting a subtle storyline throughout which gets revealed near the end, really doesn’t have as much to do which is a shame as Parker excels at writing these present day characters.  Overall, The Salem Branch is a marked improvement over Angelique’s Descent and makes for a great bit of Dark Shadows fun.  8/10.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Revolution Man by: Paul Leonard

Many of the reviews I have written for the Eighth Doctor Adventures have spent quite a bit of time lamenting the TARDIS Team themselves.  Companion Samantha Jones is not one whom is thought of highly in the Doctor Who community for good reason: she has a characterization similar to that of Clara Oswald, incredibly abrasive and bold yet treated as if she’s somehow a flawless companion.  It was clear that the BBC Books were attempting to recreate the powerful female companions of the Virgin New Adventures such as Benny and Roz, but they failed by making Sam an annoying character.  What makes this an even harsher disappointment is that seven books before her departure they introduced a second companion who actually allowed Sam to overcome her character’s rougher nature and show the real potential to be a great potential.  Revolution Man is the third novel to feature companion Fitz Kreiner, and Paul Leonard uses the story to really explore each characters roles as well as an in depth reflection on the late 1960s’ place in history.  The plot deals with the Doctor investigating an anomaly in the late 1960s, a time of protest, a time of revolution, and a time of drugs.  There is a new drug on the streets which seems to give those who take it telekinetic powers, and it’s up to the Doctor, Fitz, and Sam to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Leonard’s plot is interesting as it spans three years in the history of Earth, 1967-1969, only ending when the threat is done.  Leonard does an amazing job of setting the atmosphere of the novel as one of tension.  You can feel through the pages that there is revolution brewing, the Vietnam war is dragging on, the youth are restless for change that hasn’t come, and the Maoist reign of China is in full swing.  Every supporting character in this novel is either a revolutionary in some way, or a drug user, or at least tangentially related to those professions, making Revolution Man come across as incredibly tense as a riot could be breaking at any moment.  There’s also a real psychedelic nature to the novel with the drug Om-Tsor basically being LSD with added telekinetic powers, creating a genuinely silent threat as the Doctor has to track it through as it poses a danger to society.  The ‘revolution man’ of the title is a figurehead, shifting from person to person and remaining an ever present threat throughout the novel, leaving symbols on the Great Pyramids and subtly broadcasting their presence to the world.  It makes a great off-screen threat, and the actual reveal of the two behind the title creates a true monstrosity for the Doctor and company to face in the climax.

Sam Jones is placed in an interesting environment here as throughout the book she is working with anarchists who are planning violent resistance.  Leonard uses this to explore just how Sam believes protest should be carried out.  Sam has truly grown since her introduction in The Eight Doctors and has built up the idea that everything can be accomplished with peaceful methods.  Leonard truly gives her a voice, as she investigates the trail of the Om-Tsor and the phenomena it had possibly caused in Rome, as well as its potential to destroy the rest of the world.  Leonard gives her a foil in the ‘king’ of the anarchists Jean-Pierre Rex, who eventually takes the mantle of Revolution Man at one point.  Rex is a character who insists on using violent tactics throughout the novel who serves as a glimpse at potentially what Sam would become if she becomes violent, ending his life with a bang and leaving an impression on Sam.  Fitz on the other hand genuinely goes through hell in this novel.  Putting the character only a few years after his own time is used to really show just how different the late 60s are from Fitz’s 1963.  There is the rise of drug culture which throws Fitz as well as the genuine shift in music towards the psychedelic, as Fitz gets a love interest in Maddie, a user whose boyfriend is in a band and addicted to Om-Tsor.  Maddie is pitiful as a character, as Leonard intentionally makers her one of those characters who cannot fend for herself.  It’s essentially because of her Fitz is brainwashed by the Chinese government which has a lasting effect and because of the monstrosity her boyfriend becomes that Fitz has to shoot him.  Yes, the climax of this book involves Fitz in a fight for his life against the Revolution Man, once called Ed, now an amorphous mutated, Lovecraftian blob of terror and he shoots him.  This event shakes the TARDIS crew but not further.

The actual shaking of the TARDIS crew is the Doctor then picking up the gun and finishing the job in cold blood.  This is one of those aspects which resonates with the reader, seeing the Eighth Doctor have the first hints of a darker side.  Throughout the novel the Doctor is presented as the savior, coming in to make sure everything, but in being a savior he has to take arms and this alone is the highlight of the novel.  Overall, Revolution Man takes a place as one of the best Eighth Doctor Adventures, challenging the characters and acting as a turning point in their relationship which the forthcoming novels must resolve.  10/10.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Dark Shadows: Angelique's Descent by: Lara Parker

Dark Shadows was a soap opera which ran for five years between 1966 and 1971, being one of the few examples of the genre to essentially overcome it’s status as a soap opera and earn a place as a cult classic.  It received a revival in 1991 which ran for one season and a film adaptation from Tim Burton in 2012, but what I’m covering today is one of two continuations from the main soap opera, the other being the successful line of Big Finish audio dramas (which was how I first heard of and got into the show).  This review is of the first of four Dark Shadows novels published by Tor Books and written by series star Lara Parker, this one exploring the origins of her own character, the immortal witch Angelique Bouchard, scorned by Barnabas Collins whom she cursed with vampirism.  Yes, this show was still very much a soap opera with all the dramatics the genre involves.  Angelique’s Descent is basically the origin story for a comic book villain, chronicling the unhappy childhood and adulthood of Angelique, retelling an entire story arc from the television show from her perspective.  As a novel, one of the greatest criticisms you can apply is that this is clearly Parker’s first novel.  The writing style is often a very generic series of events, especially in early chapters making the portions of the novel describing Angelique’s childhood become pretty tedious as similar developments repeat for several chapters.

That being said, the first half dedicated to Angelique’s childhood and upbringing sheds some interesting lights on the character.  The novel does a good job of showing the character in a state of grace, living initially with her mother in poverty on the island of Martinique, yet still happy, before being essentially kidnapped by Thomas Bouchard to be used in pagan rituals, exploiting the innate magical abilities of his assumed daughter.  Angelique is convinced she is the conduit for a goddess, so is repeatedly drugged, forced to partake in these rituals, and locked in a tower with nobody really for company for much of her childhood.  The highlight here is really getting into the head of the witch, as she develops her own, clearly dark, powers, yet still has an outlook of wanting to do good.  The Dark One/Diabolos/whatever demon Angelique eventually becomes servant to is responsible for granting these powers, but is toying with her, allowing her the idea that she is free throughout and that the power is her own.  She also has to endure the death of her only friend at the hands of her father, and is only saved by a revolution on the island allowing her to go back to her mother.  Thomas Bouchard serves as an excellent villain for the first half of the novel: written with a domineering presence and presented as truly cruel, treating his own daughter as a slave.  The slight issue is the pacing here, as after Angelique escapes him there really isn’t another threat to replace him as the book enters territory covered by the television series and Angelique began the descent into villainy.

The relationship between Angelique and a young Barnabas Collins is incredibly interesting in the way that it is presented here.  One important thing to note about Barnabas is on the show while he is a protagonist on the show, he is not a good person.  He is presented as taking advantage of Angelique before moving on to his one true love, which is in line with the way it is presented here.  Angelique truly believes that Barnabas cares for her and there truly is an innocence, which makes her fall seem all the more grave, as Parker also does an excellent job of setting up the friendship between Angelique and Josette, which was kind of lacking on television.  It makes the point where Angelique has to hurt Josette have a more emotional impact.  Though Parker doesn’t actually have to do much than just retell the 1795 story arc from the point where she entered and exited, with one major exception: the time travel aspect is completely ignored.  This is actually a missed opportunity as Phyllis Wick, the character who was replaced on television by Victoria Winters, only gets some background mentions with nothing changing.

Outside of the retelling, Angelique’s Descent also features a present day framing story which seems to be mostly setup for future novels which is fun to read, but really has little impact on the plot.  The Old House burns down and someone who is probably Angelique buys the property which just may lead into something interesting.  That being said the book on a whole is a pretty fun read for fans, though if you’re unfamiliar it may not be the best for you.  7/10.

Friday, January 10, 2020

War of the Words by: Steve Moore with art by: Dave Gibbons

War of the Words is written by Steve Moore with art by Dave Gibbons.  It was released in Doctor Who Monthly issue 51 (April 1981) and is reprinted in its original form in Doctor Who: Dragon’s Claw by Panini Books.

Well, the title of this story is clearly a pun of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, an integral novel to the history of science-fiction.  It is kind of fitting then that War of the Words deals with a war taking place over the library planet, Biblios.  Knowing that the comics were popular I can’t help but wonder if this was an inspiration for Steven Moffat when coming up with Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead.  The setting is one of the more interesting settings for a comic strip and Moore does a good job of allowing Gibbons to flesh out the setting so he can focus on getting the story told in only one comic issue.  Yes, like The Life Bringer before it, War of the Words is one of those stories which only occurs in one issue of Doctor Who Monthly.  Moore is able to do this by keeping the story to task with a plot that is incredibly simple.

There are two warring factions hoping to take control of Biblios, which contains all the data in the universe, so would be used as a deadly superweapon in the wrong hands.  It’s of course up to the Doctor to find a way of ending the war.  The two waring factions, the Vromyx and Garynth, are the weakest element of the comic strip as they don’t really have any identity of their own except generic alien species.  Gibbons does give them some fun designs and his art style is really useful for making them at least look interesting.  Where Moore really shines, however, is in the writing of the Fourth Doctor.  The Doctor in this comic strip uses deception and cunning to find a peaceful solution to the war, with some smoke and mirror tactics a la K9, which makes this strip be the first since Dragon’s Claw where the Doctor actually is allowed to show off what makes him the Doctor.  The other stories just had him in the role of almost generic protagonist which isn’t really able to be said about the Doctor.  Sure it isn’t the deepest characterization in this strip, but the solution is at least reminiscent of something the Doctor would in fact do as a character, bringing to mind stories like The Time Warrior.  You can just imagine Tom Baker ending this story with a toothy grin as he goes off back to the TARDIS.

Overall, War of the Words is a story which at least attempts to overcome its limitations with such a short page count.  Moore and Gibbons manage to come together as a team to give a Doctor Who story which at least feels like it is a complete story.  There are still issues with pacing, as the setting still could use some fleshing out, yet it’s still a fun read.  7/10.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

The Lady of the Lake by: Andrzej Sapkowski translated by: David French

The Lady of the Lake is the final book in Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher saga and concludes the story of Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri.  Sure there was one final book published, but that is a midquel so doesn’t really alter what happens in this one.  This final book is the longest and most distinct from the others.  The series itself has used the Polish and Eastern European mythology, from tales of Sapkowski’s youth, to flesh out its world and to tell it story.  The Lady of the Lake is a departure from that, instead taking its title and aspects of its plot from British legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.  The story is once again presented through narration from Ciri after the fact, this time in the role of the Lady of the Lake to Sir Galahad of the Round Table, eventually revealing that Ciri has left her home and traveled far to some version of the British Isles.  The story she tells is one that allows her to emotionally process events, and is implied to be at least partially an unreliable narrator.  Some of her final comments to Galahad really hit hard with the last 100 pages of the novel reading as an extended epilogue, concluding the story and wrapping up every loose end Ciri, Geralt, and Yennefer created throughout the series.  This epilogue is particularly impactful for how it ends everything, drawing upon Arthurian themes and leaving the series on a bittersweet, yet satisfying note.  Dandelion also only appears in this epilogue portion of the novel and the wrap up to his story serves as one final comedic plot point before the bittersweet ending really sets in.

The actual climax of the novel is perhaps its most engaging section, as Ciri and Yennefer are captured by Vilgefortz and Geralt’s party are actually making headway to rescue her.  Vilgefortz’s final plan is one to gain as much power as possible using Ciri’s Elder Blood and Sapkowski presents it in a way that makes the reader squirm.  It’s described in such a methodical and plain way that the disgusting nature of the plan is what really gets into the reader’s head, and puts you right on the side of Ciri as she escapes the lab on her own.  It also begins a long and tense buildup to the defeat of Vilgefortz which is non-stop action and character resolution almost resembling a dungeon crawl.  It’s this point in the novel where you really get to see how much Ciri has grown into an adult at this point: she has matured into a women and knows now more than ever how to handle herself.  Her reunion with Geralt and Yennefer is also incredibly satisfying, making up for the several books of buildup to this moment.  This section of the novel also concludes the storylines for Geralt’s party, each getting a final fate befitting of them.  Cahir finishes his redemption arc, fighting to the death while protecting Ciri from Vilgefortz’s clutches.  His is one which does not have as much detail in the sequence, but the way it is done is enough to end his arc.  The same can be said for Milva, who goes out in a blaze of glory for the archer that she is.  Finally, Regis’ ending is perhaps the most subtle, but the one with the best quips.  This is the novel where we finally get to see him embrace his vampiric nature, drinking the blood of his enemies and turning into a bat in what turns out to be a very satisfying sequence. He also gets the best quote of the novel: “There are occasions…where it’s simply impossible not to have a drink” and props must be given to David French for translating the novel so expertly.

Finally, the conflict with Nilfgaard is finally resolved and everything comes onto the table with why Emhyr var Emries actually wants Ciri.  It is for the same reason as Vilgefortz of course, but the plot thickens when it is revealed that the Emperor is in fact Ciri’s own father Duny, who plotted his wife’s death and only just survived.  He has lived since in this new identity and actually comes to marry the false Ciri once Ciri escapes.  The entirety of “A Question of Price” is recontextualized here and Duny is revealed to be utterly ruthless, willing to execute Geralt and Yennefer, claiming it is to rescue Ciri.  It is this which brings the pair to proclaim their undying love for one another, as they become resolute to confirm their love and commit suicide in a hot bath according with a ritual.  The eventual wedding to the false Ciri is also an excellent way of wrapping up everything else with regards to the Nilfgaard conflict.  Overall, The Lady of the Lake is an excellent end to a saga and really making me feel bad that this journey is over.  Yes, Season of Storms exists, but as a midquel I already know how that book will end and that it is leading up to this.  The Witcher is a series I highly recommend especially now that the Netflix adaptation has been released.  9/10.

Friday, January 3, 2020

The Tower of Swallows by: Andrzej Sapkowski translated by: David French

The Tower of Swallows feels like the oddest book thus far in The Witcher saga by Andrzej Sapkowski.  While the previous books haven’t always placed Geralt front and center in the action, it is this book which feels most like it is sidelining the main hero of the saga, instead focusing squarely on Ciri’s story and several side characters as buildup to the final book in the saga.  Geralt’s only real contribution to this novel is still searching for Ciri and receives information about the prophecy involving Ciri from an elf, while finding druids which know her location.  Dandelion’s published “Half a Century of Poetry” is used almost as a framing device for their party’s segments, telling quite a bit of the story in a mix between flashback and flash forward which makes them interesting to read.  There is also a decent amount of character development given to Geralt’s party of travelers throughout the novel with Dandelion’s opinions on just how odd this band of travelers is interspersed.  Reading this novel after the release of the Netflix adaptation, through these sections in particular the voice of Joey Batey as narrator.  These sections also seem to have a large theme of chaos embedded in them: the war is building and danger shakes at every turn while Geralt is barely managing to avoid the trouble brewing for him.

Of the numerous side plots, Yennefer’s is perhaps one of the more interesting as it builds towards revealing Vilgefortz’s backstory and a search to find the sorcerer.  It’s a plotline which really gives Yennefer a chance to shine on her own and brings quite a bit of her own motivations directly to the reader with her own point of view.  The climax of her plotline is also perhaps one of the most intense: taking Yennefer close to her limits physically and emotionally, and ending with Yennefer in an apparently broken state.  Vilgefortz in this novel shows just how effective of a villain he is in his few scenes with Yennefer: the man has this insanity about him that isn’t stated outright, but slowly revealed as he becomes more and more desperate for power.  This plotline feels like Sapkowski is playing around with espionage tropes in a fantasy setting without altering the tone of his story to fit that type of story which makes for an odd time reading these portions of the book as it doesn’t quite match.  The Nilfgaard plot is also interesting with the Secret Service led by Tawny Owl Stefan Skellen getting quite a large portion of the novel to their search for Ciri whom they find and lose, scarring the Lion Cub in the process.  Sapkowski uses this portion of the book to muse on the benevolent totalitarianism that Nilfgaard imposes, fully aware just how contradictory the empire is.  This is also the point where Emperor Emhyr var Emries decides that it’s time to marry the false Ciri because like the rest of the characters he is also becoming desperate with his position in the war.

Ciri’s plot is what gets the most dedication in the book.  The novel opens with the rescue of Ciri by Vysogota, an elderly learned man who lives in a swamp.  Vysogota nurses Ciri back to health and essentially interviews her for the majority of the novel as her story takes up the most space.  As a character, there is this interesting mix of professional detachment and deep caring for Ciri.  Early on, he is examining Ciri to ascertain just what is wrong with her and how to treat her wounds, and there is never a moment where the character comes across as creepy.  He’s only helping her, and not using her unconscious state to take any advantage of the young witcher.  He grows to care for the girl, persuading her to stay to heal and not go out fighting monsters by herself.  Ciri’s plot in this book in particular is one of growing into maturity as she believes both Geralt and Yennefer to have perished, as well as seeing all her bandit friends die, and eventually coming to reckon with her own powers and place in destiny.  Her defeat of a banshee late into this novel is representative of just how far she has come and how she is nearer to equaling Geralt and Yennefer as characters.  Gone is the little girl of early novels, and in her place is a confident woman.  Overall, The Tower of Swallows or The Tower of the Swallow does some very important things for the series and is enjoyable, but does not reach the heights of the previous novel and some of the short stories.  7/10.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Life Bringer! by: Steve Moore with art by: Dave Gibbons

The Life Bringer! is written by Steve Moore with art by Dave Gibbons.  It was released in Doctor Who Monthly issues 49-50 (February-March 1981) and is reprinted in its original form in Doctor Who: Dragon’s Claw by Panini Books.

As I near the end of Steve Moore’s run on the Doctor Who Monthly comics, I can’t help but wonder just where this idea came from.  The Life Bringer! is a two issue comic that has the Doctor arrive on Earth and find the literal Titan Prometheus chained up in punishment for giving humanity fire.  This comic decides to make bits of Greek mythology canon to the Doctor Who universe with the Greek gods as immortal aliens on Olympus responsible for life on several planets.  There are several questions raised by this comic that don’t get the answers, but lead to some interesting theories.  These gods could easily be Eternals, or the race in Ghost Light, or just a weird fever dream of the Doctor’s.  The plot itself has the Doctor bring Prometheus home to Olympus and wander around for a bit, convincing Zeus that maybe he should create more life in the universe, angering the head god, and then leaving.  In the Stripped for Action documentary for the Fourth Doctor it was mentioned that at one point the panels were drawn before a plot was thought up, and I can’t help but speculate if this was one of those stories.  The plot itself is almost non-existent and incredibly basic.  It’s a real step down from stories like Doctor Who and the Time Witch and Dreamers of Death, which worked well with a shorter format.  Here very little actually happens outside of the implication that the gods are responsible for evolution and some generic action sequences.

Moore does take a chance to subtly reference several Greek myths throughout, including their contradictory nature.  Both Apollo and Helios are mentioned as characters, with the latter appearing with Selene, noting the two as separate deities for the sun.  There’s also some interesting reactions to K9, who features as companion, as these gods don’t have this type of technology, yet still have spaceships.  It is an odd contradiction between having an ancient society with advanced technology shown to be of the same ‘modern’ type as the design of K9, but being unable to recognize it when they see it.  While this isn’t a large detail in the story, it jumps right out at the reader due to the incredibly short and basic nature of this installment.  The big problem is that there just isn’t enough time to properly explore this type of premise in the allotted page count, and the story suffers greatly because of that.  As always Dave Gibbons provides his excellent artwork to the strip, with an interesting interpretation of the Fourth Doctor’s Season 18 costume and some interesting melding of designs for Olympus.

Overall, however, The Life Bringer! just falls apart as a story due to being restrained while doing a potentially interesting premise.  It’s not among the worst of Doctor Who, but is just kind of dull overall making for a bland experience.  4/10.