Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Blue Angel by: Paul Magrs and Jeremy Hoad

The Blue Angel is a novel about many things.  It is about the loneliness of winter, a city of glass, the Obverse, and Doctor Who novels.  It is about Iris Wildthyme, companions, friends, time travel, motherhood, and aliens.  But, most of all, it’s about Fitz Kreiner, it is about Compassion, and it is about the Doctor.  Lawrence Miles’ two-part Interference shook the status quo and it is up to Paul Magrs and Jeremy Hoad to provide a follow up in an obtuse, yet captivating and brilliant style.  The Blue Angel has a plot, but it isn’t quite there on the surface as the events of the story are quite simple told in a complex manner.  Perspective switches from character to character between chapter and scene, making the novel read like a shifting tale between people giving everyone their time in the spotlight.  Magrs’ writing style has improved from The Scarlet Empress, which was already excellent, giving The Blue Angel a captivating prose throughout its run.  While it is difficult to tell where Magrs’ coauthor, Jeremy Hoad, contributed to the novel, there are hints of a second presence in the writing, making this book a unique experience for those who have experienced Magrs’ work in the past.

The actual plot is mostly a commentary on what the Doctor Who novels have been up to this point, going so far as to describing the Virgin New Adventures and their negative perceptions in the fanbase.  It’s not meant to deride fans of the earlier range, but to show how with Interference the world has changed.  The Doctor is not quite relegated to the background character, but he’s not in much of the first half of the novel.  Magrs and Hoad show just how broken the Eighth Doctor has become with the previous novel, and The Blue Angel is his attempt to return to some sort of normalcy, though this normalcy is never really achieved.  The Doctor is unsure of his place in the universe, he doesn’t really know if he can trust his companions, and reencountering Iris Wildthyme doesn’t make him feel any better.  He’s trying to figure out what the Obverse is (a parallel universe/dimension that will play into his future somehow) and what the Glass City’s purpose is.  Like many things in this book, Magrs and Hoad leave just enough mystery for the Doctor to potentially come back and explain, or just leave as an oddity.  The Doctor is an amnesiac, finds himself living with his companions in a village in winter that may or may not be real, and can’t stand being a plaything in essentially a story about gods.  He’s much less kind to Iris here than in The Scarlet Empress, even though here he has much less reason to be.  This characterization feels like a template for future authors to continue from using this book as a springboard.

Iris Wildthyme is in a new incarnation here and Magrs and Hoad characterize her wonderfully.  Yes, Magrs created the character and really introduced her in The Scarlet Empress, but The Blue Angel sees her regenerated into a new incarnation, giving the authors the challenge of telling a story where that has to be established.  Iris could have easily become a character who was a carbon copy of her earlier self, but setting several chapters in her own head allows the reader to understand this new incarnation of the character.  Iris comes back to the range unfamiliar with the changes to the status quo, is disappointed that Sam isn’t there, isn’t really impressed with Compassion, but Fitz does work for her.  There are two moments where Iris really steals the show in the book.  First, a mall that is snowed in and under siege by alien creatures: Iris is put into the role of the Doctor here and she handles it with this serious tone and real understanding of the situation.  There are two old women present, an old medium called Sue and Maddy, a woman who lost her son and replaced him with an alien, Ian/Icarus (one representation of the titular angel).  Iris is able to get these people on her side and get to the bottom of at least some of what is happening in the book.  Second, the climax of the novel sees her have to actively keep information away from the already mistrustful and confused Doctor which is a scene of real passion.  It contains beautiful prose and emotions.

Finally, Fitz and Compassion are perhaps the most important characters in the book.  The typical role of a Doctor Who companion can be boiled down to audience surrogate, but Interference ensured that Fitz and Compassion were anything but.  Compassion is incredibly cold and calculating, though has a deeper soul as the travels she is undergoing are essentially slowly making her more human.  Fitz, on the other hand, is trying to prove to himself and others that he is still Fitz, which of course he isn’t.  They’re trying their best and it is heartbreaking to see them fail at this throughout the book, though the Doctor here seems to at least accept that they must travel together for now.  Overall, The Blue Angel is a dense book that ends with twenty questions about what actually occurred and makes the reader question just how reliable things have been to this point.  It’s laden with analysis, sees the regulars in physical and mental anguish at the same time, and keeps the Eighth Doctor Adventures on a mission statement to tell a story.  9/10.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Mistborn: The Bands of Mourning by: Brandon Sanderson

Shadows of Self, while the second book in Era Two of Mistborn, was actually mostly written after the third book was completed.  This unconventional style of writing a series puts author Brandon Sanderson into dangerous territory, as the transition between Shadows of Self and The Bands of Mourning could easily come across as awkward and not really match up.  That is something that Sanderson has the skill to overcome, yet not completely.  The opening chapters of this book really don’t match up to the end of Shadows of Self, which was perhaps one of Sanderson’s best scenes.  There is some effort made to jump forward in time, which allowed some of the emotions to fall by the wayside at least in what Wax is going through.  This is one of those books where Sanderson wants to put his characters through their own personal hell, and does so, but this is after giving his characters their own respite.  The understanding between Wax and Steris that worked so well previously is still present, but Sanderson has evolved back to the more standoffish relationship with an undercurrent of understanding.  This novel sees them eventually wed and their relationship evolves to a loving one by the end of the novel.  Their actual wedding becomes the final event of the book, leaving the reader on a satisfied note, especially as Mistborn is currently on a hiatus until next year.

The plot of The Bands of Mourning is actually the first book in Era Two to at least feel like the story is going somewhere.  While The Alloy of Law and Shadows of Self were mostly character driven and focused on unravelling conspiracy, The Bands of Mourning is where Sanderson actually allows the conspiracy to be laid out and unlike the first trilogy, the villains here are human in form and motivation, being funded by something greater.  Sanderson doesn’t rush the exposition, and in fact allows hints in the previous novels to inform just what has been going on behind the scenes on Scadriel.  The Bands of Mourning is primarily a quest to find the titular artefacts which the villains want to gain godlike powers for their own order.  It’s essentially a conspiracy to control the world with sinister undertones.  Making this a quest novel makes for an incredibly fun read as Sanderson moves the action to a frigid northern parts of the planet, for the first time really exploring the setting and how it has changed from the original trilogy.

Steris, while deepening her relationship with Wax in this novel, actually gets a decent amount of focus in The Bands of Mourning.  The previous books have used her as a background character, but here Sanderson allows an exploration of who she is.  A perfectionist in every sense of the word, she has prepared contingencies for anything that could go wrong with her own wedding, and is of course broken when the wedding turns into a gunfight to kick off the plot.  She’s also incredibly introspective and uncertain of herself, something that Sanderson uses to really explore the themes of purpose in this book.  Wax, Wayne, Marasi, and Steris all have to come to terms with their purpose in Harmony’s grand scheme for the world and unwillingness to interfere.  It’s the purpose of The Bands of Mourning, for its characters to find their purpose before they can actually defeat the great evil and leaves the reader wanting more.  The only character whose baggage is resolved poorly is Wayne, who just kind of goes through a developmental period which is odd.

Overall, The Bands of Mourning is perhaps the best installment in Era Two, fixing some of the issues of previous novels.  It sets up the world and characters for the final installment while being a fun, if a little long read.  8/10.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief by: Rick Riordan

When I put a poll on Twitter if I should review the mythology retellings of Rick Riordan due to their upcoming adaptation, I was not expecting to have a positive result, but the poll put up had a 2/3 vote in favor of the reviews so here I am.  First, a little background: I read Percy Jackson and the Olympians near the time that The Last Olympian was released, continued with The Kane Chronicles and the first two novels in The Heroes of Olympus.  The books I read I remember generally liking, but eventually entered a phase where I felt they were aimed at an audience too young for me so I stopped.  This series of reviews will be looking at the series with a critical eye, and will hopefully be positive.  The series may be young adult, however, I believe that even children’s media can be scrutinized as an adult, so I will be looking at these various series through that lens.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians began in 2005 with the publication of The Lightning Thief from bedtime stories that author Rick Riordan told to his son, who requested new myths made after they ran out of Greek myths to tell one another.  It was tested through a group of middle schoolers and eventually published as the first installment of what would become a pentalogy.  Using middle schoolers as a trial run for a novel was perhaps a stroke of genius as The Lightning Thief as a novel does many things right to begin a series and tell a fun cross-country adventure steeped in Greek mythology.  The structure of the novel is formulaic, with our trio of heroes travelling towards their primary goal while being interrupted by several monsters that they must defeat in a variety of ways.  The book follows both the heroes journey and the structure of mythology in this way, assisting in making it feel like a modern day myth.  The premise is simple: the Greek gods are real, living in the United States, and someone has stolen the thunderbolt of Zeus to start a war between Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades during the summer and it is up to a trio of young heroes, Percy Jackson (son of Poseidon), Annabeth Chase (daughter of Athena), and Grover Underwood (satyr) to locate the bolt before World War III begins.

Following the Hero’s Journey format, the call to adventure is the kidnapping of Percy’s mother by Hades, who had been keeping the fact that he is a demigod a secret for his own safety.  The first three chapters of the book are dedicated to introducing a status quo for Percy where the mythology he is unaware of exists under his own nose.  Percy has ADHD and dyslexia (traits which Riordan uses as indicators of one’s demigod status) and seems to have trouble staying at one school at a time.  The book opens with a scenario where Percy’s Pre-Algebra teacher transforms into a Fury in front of his eyes and attempts to kill him.  Riordan makes a key decision here to have Percy realize that something is going on underneath the surface of the world before the explanations come in after Percy’s mother is kidnapped.  The book is in first person from Percy’s perspective, allowing the audience to get into his head and once the quest is given the reader can see how he grows.  His journey in this book is one of self-acceptance: he goes on the quest to save his mother, not the world, and has to come to terms with the fact that he is going to be a hero.  He is reluctant, but not overbearingly so, and by the end of the book while he has come to terms with being a demigod and the son of a god, but not a hero.  There is a single conversation with his father, Poseidon, which really shows this: Poseidon doesn’t yet love him, but claims him as his own son.  He has water based powers, but they are fairly unrefined (though a bit over powered).  It provides a good stopping point for his own development, especially as Riordan puts Percy through a lot and while the book doesn’t quite end on a cliffhanger, it does have a twist villain reveal which is executed masterfully.  Riordan includes a prophecy outlining how the quest Percy undertakes will go and does an excellent job of hiding double meanings into it, like most good prophecies.

While Percy is the main character, Grover and Annabeth both get equal development as they interact with the world throughout the novel.  Riordan could have left the two as blank slates to show how good Percy is, but they aren’t.  They are fully fledged characters in their own right, with their own goals and aspirations.  Grover is introduced as Percy’s only friend at school, and revealed to be a satyr sent to watch over him by Camp Half-Blood, as a second chance.  He failed five years previous to bring a half-blood to the camp and has left Grover incredibly nervous.  He lacks the self-confidence which is his discovery on the quest.  Annabeth is set up as a friendly rival to Percy, due to Greek mythology’s tendency to put Athena and Poseidon at odds with one another.  She also has a bad relationship with her father, who according to her resents her, though Riordan heavily implies that this may just be Annabeth’s interpretation of events.  She learns to overcome her own biases towards Percy and becomes a fierce ally and friend.  The trilogy of heroes works incredibly well off one another and makes for a trio of protagonists the reader will look forward to continuing with through the series.

The supporting characters are perhaps where The Lightning Thief falls a little flat.  The characters taken from mythology fair the best, but the same cannot be said about the human side characters.  Riordan paints almost all of them as incredibly one note, which is fine for those who are in few scenes including Percy’s step-father Gabe (an abusive alcoholic whose fate is brilliant) and Percy’s mother Sally (who we really see through Percy and Poseidon’s eyes), but the human characters at camp are either one note, or less.  Luke, son of Hermes, is perhaps the best served, but Clarrise, daughter of Ares, is just a one-note bully.  The rest of the characters don’t even get names, just vague references.  This doesn’t hurt the novel much, but it is something that must be rectified for the rest of the series.  The gods are brilliantly portrayed by Riordan, who only includes five to really introduce.  Zeus gets the least page-time, but with Poseidon, the most presence as their brewing war against one another is building in the background of the novel.  Ares is suitably warlike and arrogant, yet also a buffoon as many wars are.  Dionysus as the head of Camp Half-Blood with the immortal centaur Chiron acting as activities director makes a good dynamic.  It is explained that this is his punishment and while he is portrayed by Riordan as deep down good, he is still the god of alcohol.  Hades is the real standout here: Riordan avoids the cliché of making him analogous of the Christian devil.  Yes he is intimidating and the only god that has felt like a god according to Percy, but he is not portrayed as evil.

The Lightning Thief is a novel that is a joy for children and adults alike as Rick Riordan introduces readers to what will be a fascinating world.  This review was kept mostly spoiler free to entice those to pick it up as there are several encounters from Medusa to the Minotaur which really help give the book its own flair.  It doesn’t ever feel like a simple retread of Greek mythology, but provides enough context to the various myths for new readers.  There is room for improvements, especially with the supporting characters, but it feels like this is the beginning of a wild ride.  8/10.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

The Man in the Velvet Mask by: Daniel O'Mahony - A Re-Review

WARNING: The following review and the book it is reviewing, The Man in the Velvet Mask, contains scenes depicting sexual assault, rape, and general adult topics.  These topics are understandably difficult to discuss and potentially triggering nature of said topics, discretion is advised.

Daniel O’Mahony is, to say the least, a controversial author.  He wrote two novels for Virgin Books, both receiving mixed reception.  The first was the New Adventure Falls the Shadow which detractors called overly violent and ultimately meaningless, however, it is one that I quite liked for what it attempted to say.  The second is a Missing Adventure featuring the First Doctor and Dodo Chaplet in an alternate France.  The Man in the Velvet Mask is shorter than Falls the Shadow, but equally dense in style.  O’Mahony’s choice of placement and TARDIS team is already telling: at this point Dodo is a character who appeared in 6 stories and only 19 episodes of the show, the third shortest run of a companion behind Sara Kingdom’s 9 episodes and Katarina’s 5 episodes.  She’s a character often regarded as a clone of Susan and honestly Jackie Lane has already undergone plenty of rather nasty reviews in regards to what is a rather weak character.  It is odd that The Man in the Velvet Mask would not only choose this team, but not include Steven Taylor who would be a grounding influence for Dodo.  Yet, this turns to be a stroke of genius from O’Mahony in several regards.

First, O’Mahony writes the First Doctor as a man close to death.  There are several sequences in the book where the Doctor knows that he is about to die and regenerate for the first time, and he wants to be alone when it happens.  It has never happened to him before, and he does not know what to expect.  On some deep level the Doctor is scared, something that both Moffat and Davies would later lift and mangle in Twice Upon a Time and The End of Time, respectively.  He’s separated from his companion and haunted constantly by the idea that he is going to die, going so far as to starting the regenerative process at one point in the novel.  O’Mahony uses The Reign of Terror as almost a blueprint to juxtapose what the Doctor has become.  The Doctor’s favorite period of history is the French Revolution and The Man in the Velvet Mask occurs in an alternate 1804, near the end of what is generally thought of to be the French Revolution.  The Doctor here isn’t amused or excited, he’s really suffering from an existential crisis.  There is this inability for the Doctor to find the energy to save the day, sure he does in the end, but he’s just really tired throughout it.  O’Mahony’s characterization feels like an accurate portrayal of what the character is internalizing as there are lines which would be Hartnellisms and probably featured, but because the reader sees them through the eyes of the Doctor we see them as a real mask.

The character of Dodo is also given a lot of life through O’Mahony’s explorations of her own thoughts and inner struggles.  For much of the novel she is with a troupe of actors performing for the ruler of France, where she has to put on a role.  She has this sexual relationship with another actor, which she uses to take control of her own life and choices, even if this control will possibly lead to her own death after she leaves the Doctor.  She doesn’t have self-esteem or a real idea of what makes her a good person and O’Mahony makes her perspective fascinating.  Dodo feels like she has transcended in this novel the Susan clone she was and it dovetails into O’Mahony’s main theme.  The Man in the Velvet Mask is all about putting on masks: outside of the Doctor and Dodo all of the characters go by several names throughout the novel, the actors take on the names of their characters, and the main ‘historical’ figure here is at times only known as a number in an obvious reference to The Prisoner.  It’s a book about looking underneath the mask and to what people really are, and a lot of these people really are horrible.

The Marquis de Sade is a major player in the novel, with his not historically accurate adoptive son, Minski, capturing him in the Bastille and making a deal with interdimensional maggots to take over the world.  This is where the controversial nature of The Man in the Velvet Mask really comes out.  Sade is the root of the word sadism, and as such the novel delights in gore and rape and sex.  Dodo learns to accept being stripped naked, the Marquis de Sade and Minski both rape or at least have raped several women.  O’Mahony never goes to the point of gratuity or really handles them lightly like say Timewyrm: Genesys or Deceit, but uses them to make the reader incredibly uncomfortable with these people.  His prose is almost lyrical, but for some it will be tainted with something that has every right to leave you with a disgusting taste.  The Man in the Velvet Mask becomes an incredibly difficult book to read as it makes the reader face the worst of humanity, yet never devolves into shock value.  It’s one that begs the reader to think without giving a straight answer.  It’s a book I read and loved, but one that you might not.  8/10.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Mistborn: Shadows of Self by: Brandon Sanderson

Books are odd things aren’t they?  They can have an incredibly slow start and make it feel like there’s little the book can do to improve, exacerbated by an author’s note saying that this was written after its sequel because of difficulty, but then in the final act make it one of those books that hits hard and leaves you feeling more satisfied than it has any right to be.  Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson is one of those novels: an unintended sequel to The Alloy of Law published in 2016, it deals with Wax, Wayne, and Marasi undergoing political maneuvering while a threat emerges to the city of Elendel.  On the surface it’s a murder mystery whose culprit is revealed about a third into the novel.  Sanderson excels at describing Wax’s wedding planning and his relationship with Steris, but the prose is not well suited for the murder mystery format and once he ditches that style the book improves greatly.  Once the foe is revealed to be a kandra Sanderson adds a flair for paranoia as they could be anywhere, and giving Wax a communication channel with the kandra really allows the villain to be fully realized.  There’s this taunting, like Wax is being played with throughout the book and there is a final reveal that pushes Wax’s character forward past the death of Lessie by force.  The epilogue of Shadows of Self contains some of Sanderson’s best emotional prose as Wax and Steris both reflect on the events of the book with a final image that is the first time Sanderson actually sells their relationship.  It isn’t a romantic relationship, but it is one of mutual trust and gain.  It’s a partnership and nothing more.

Sanderson also spends a lot of time with Wayne and Marasi here, making Wayne’s comedic relief become more developed.  Here, Wayne is a fish out of water in high society, looking on the games that the upper class play and attempting to master them.  By games, I am speaking of the social games of regulating their speech with hidden meanings and making actions specifically for their own ends.  There is a point where Wayne infiltrates a party as a Thomas Edison-esque professor and has to deal with that baggage which does more to reveal the hypocrisy of the upper classes.  Where Marasi shines is uncovering the political conspiracy underneath Elendel as a revolution is built up against politicians making unwise decisions for the people.  The Well of Ascension saw Sanderson writing a revolt against a benevolent leader from the perspective of said benevolent leader, while Shadows of Self sees the revolt occur from the perspective of those on the ground.  The reader can see the political and social unrest, the poverty which has been growing under this particular governor.  The landing is slightly lessened when the explanation is given as to why the governor is making these decisions, however, it can be taken as an allegory for how politicians take dirty money over their own principles.

The title of the book, Shadows of Self, is apt for this one as Sanderson includes several elements and shadows from the original trilogy here.  There is a point early on where our heroes rediscover Hemalurgy as it is being used by the kandra and is what allows Wax to speak with Harmony, the deity Sazed became at the end of The Hero of Ages.   The conversations with Harmony are fascinating as he is still clearly the flawed Sazed given godlike powers, but is treated like a god.  Sanderson does use this to argue for why an actual god would not interfere with the affairs of mere mortals, but this analysis is surface level and less engaging.  What is really engaging is the fact that while Sazed is worshipped as an all-good god, he does not make those claims.  He does what is right and what must be done, but there really isn’t a veneer of being the moral high ground.  Harmony sends MeLaan, a younger kandra, to help our heroes and she works really well as a kandra who doesn’t have to hide behind the contract.  Finally, there really is a reflection of how Vin and Elend have become almost deities, rarely being referred to by name, instead by title for their hero status.  They have become shadows in the eyes of the people while Wax has to see from a primary source just how human they were.  Overall, Shadows of Self is definitely a good novel, brought up by a great ending, but it’s difficult to initially get into.  7/10.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

All-Consuming Fire by: Andy Lane - A Re-Review

Writing a second review to a novel often means that decisions have to be made to reflect changes I may have had on that novel, so it is odd when upon reread my thoughts on All-Consuming Fire have not changed much.  Already one of the best Virgin New Adventures, upon reread I find myself appreciating Lane’s style and story more than ever now that I have experienced much of the original Sherlock Holmes canon.  Lane takes careful steps to match the style of Arthur Conan Doyle from the way that all of the characters speak in almost exaggerated dialogue, and the plot being seen through the filter of Dr. John Watson who has compiled the reminiscences of the Case of the All-Consuming Fire.  Lane has captured the mannerisms of Holmes and Watson well, modeling them on the book characterizations for this novel and not the more traditional Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce portrayals.  The book is written in the way that it feels like it is part of Doyle’s original canon and not the Virgin New Adventures: it’s the missing fifth Sherlock Holmes novel that just happens to contain the Doctor, Benny, and Ace as major supporting characters.  The first thing Lane does in the novel to establish this firmly into the canon of Holmes by making one of the novel’s major villain’s Baron Maupertuis, who is mentioned in The Adventure of the Reigate Squire from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

Maupertuis works very much in the same way as other Holmes villains: he is one that works in the background and the second half of the novel is spent tracking him down on the alien planet of Ry’leh.  He embodies the upper-class villain, misguided in his own beliefs even if his plan to steal books from the Library of St. John the Beheaded, the only person in history to do so.  This library is eventually what the Braxiatel Collection will partially grow from and creates a great setting for an inciting incident and to base an investigation.  Much of the outlandish points in the case, like many Holmes cases, can be explained rationally with the aid of science fiction technology that is not unreasonable to assume to be possible.  There are also several settings and characters which will be a treat to Holmes fans: the Diogenes Club, Mycroft Holmes, and Professor Moriarty all appear in this novel, Moriarty admitting that this is the first time he has met Holmes and foreshadowing The Final Problem nicely.

While the Doctor is still manipulative in All-Consuming Fire and his presence is felt in his absence, there is much more of a trickster spirit around him.  The Doctor here has some idea what is going on and is clearly delighting in outsmarting the Sherlock Holmes at several points in the book.  He spends his time on the sidelines where he can direct the events and push things into what he thinks are the right direction.  He has sent Benny and Ace ahead to India and Ry’leh respectively, meaning that the main trio of Holmes, Watson, and the Doctor drives much of the book.  Once Benny appears in the narrative, she integrates herself incredibly well and even gets her own adventure with Watson.  Lane sidelines Ace for even more of the novel which actually makes her harsher characterization hit softer than other novels where she suffers from this.  There are also twists and turns around every corner making the book one of the best of the VNAs mainly because of how unconventional, yet simple the story is.  It owes a great deal not only to Doyle, but also to H.P. Lovecraft who inspires the villains.  Steven Moffat clearly has read this as Extremis draws quite a few ideas from here.  It’s highly recommended to Who and Holmes fans alike. 10/10.