Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Frontier Worlds by: Peter Anghelides


Sometimes when you write a series of reviews, you don’t really expect the similar type of analysis to pop up immediately after one another.  Frontier Worlds is Peter Anghelides’ great big pulp fiction Doctor Who story and honestly it’s what the Eighth Doctor Adventures kind of needed at this point.  The plot of the book is presented as a fairly standard Doctor Who story dealing with an evil corporation with liberal dashes of The Seeds of Doom tossed in for good measure.  The villain is an alien plant which takes over a human host, and no it isn’t the Krynoid, the humans it takes over are specifically members of the Frontier Worlds Corporation.  The Corporation is one involved in genetic engineering projects, something that Anghelides manages not to fearmonger over, instead keeping the critique to the issues of extreme capitalism and corporatism inherent in a lot of funded science.  Frontier Worlds is not a book criticizing using new technologies but allowing funding to disregard safety for a grab at power, in this instance being a matter of extending life artificially.  The Raab is the plant alien here which infects the head of the corporation, or better put he infects himself intentionally, and the best parts of the book is seeing how the Raab sort of takes over this guy’s thought process.  Yes, a lot of it comes from Harrison Chase’s insanity in The Seeds of Doom, but Anghelidies at least gives the characters who are infected something very different.  Many of them started with good intentions, and are taking this risk in experimentation because they’re looking for something.  The Corporation is taking advantage of them throughout the novel just to raise their profits and create a product.


The book itself plays around with the format, being one of the few Doctor Who novels that is told from a first person perspective, switching from a few core characters.  This is the first book really since Interference to give a lot of page time and perspective to Fitz Kreiner, who really is the star of this book.  Fitz has decided to make his and Compassion’s cover story Frank and Nancy Sinatra, a reference that somehow actually works in getting them in the door.  Fitz is kind of left without the Doctor’s help and has started to become fed up with the Doctor’s inability to address the problems the TARDIS team have been having throughout these past few books.  He doesn’t particularly like Compassion’s inability to live up to her name, instead coming across as an inhuman ice queen.  Compassion is implied to be, for lack of a better term, developing into something else, something that is no longer human.  She was already not human in the previous books, but Frontier Worlds makes it clear what Magrs, Butcher-Jones, and Clapham were attempting to do with the character.  Compassion just wants to get the job done and move along, clearly not really enjoying the whole leaving the TARDIS bit, preferring to be among its data which becomes an incredibly interesting development for the character who doesn’t quite know who she is.


The Doctor as presented in this novel is given one of his better characterizations.  The EDA writers have always had a difficult job in characterizing this particular Doctor based on the very little screen time he had.  Paul McGann only appeared in 2/3 of the TV Movie and wouldn’t appear as the Doctor again until 2001’s Storm Warning.  Anghelides here latches onto the helpless romantic aspect of the character, posing as Doctor James Bowman and not really seeing the rift being formed between his companions.  The Doctor here fights for justice, but still finds his head in the clouds as to what’s going on around him.  It feels like the character may be repressing the events of the last few novels as he just wants to get back to travelling, something that is obviously not going to happen.  The Doctor is on a path to be utterly broken, he is being setup for failure in the grand scheme of things, and while he eventually wins in Frontier Worlds the future looks dark.  Overall, Frontier Worlds is one of those stories that manages to be fun despite being quite derivative of other, better Doctor Who stories.  It is mostly a book for its main cast, and Anghelides writes something that the readers need at this point with a pulpy mystery at its heart and some fun set pieces to make it work as a story.  6/10.

Friday, October 16, 2020

The Dresden Files: Storm Front by: Jim Butcher


The subject of this review, by unfortunate coincidence, shares its name with a hate group, so whenever I refer to the title of the book, please know that it is simply a title.  I do not condone hate in any form, however, people have a tendency to overreact on the Internet.  The Dresden Files is another of those long running fantasy series that has kind of become synonymous with a particular subgenre, in this case urban fantasy.  Beginning in 2000, it started as an attempt for a young Jim Butcher to prove a writing professor wrong by following a formula and genre to a tee.  The outcome of that attempt was Semiautomagic, which would be edited and refined into Storm Front.  Two sequels would be written, Fool Moon and Grave Peril, before The Dresden Files were picked up for publication, and now twenty years later, the series is still going strong releasing the sixteenth and seventeenth novels, Peace Talks and Battle Ground, this year.  There are at least eight further installments planned in the series, and at the rate Butcher writes it is likely that the series will be finished sooner rather than later.  Spawning a massive series off Storm Front is actually an interesting achievement, as Storm Front does follow a formula and was clearly written with several boxes to tick in mind.


Pulp fiction refers to a specific type of short story published in pulp magazines, so named because of the lower quality pulp paper they were made from.  These magazines attracted genre writers such as H.P. Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the gumshoe detective story was a staple of the magazines.  Reading Storm Front is like reading something straight out of a pulp detective magazine, and I mean that in almost every possible way, including some of the negative ways.  Readers may find some of the casual sexism in Storm Front come across as outdated, however, as this novel is the result of trying to actively follow a genre, it may be forgiven.  It is also something that apparently future books tone down, and as Butcher includes a few strong female characters in Storm Front the reader can get the sense that the views of the main character, Harry Dresden, do not represent the views of the author Jim Butcher.  As most of the sexism is relegated to comments made by Harry and the way he thinks, it can be assumed that this is meant to be part of the character, who is written in the role of gumshoe detective, and also wizard.


Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden is the point of view, in a first person perspective, throughout the novel, and outside of his old fashioned views towards women, he really is a fun character to follow.  He has a pessimistic edge throughout the book, promoting himself as a wizard in the phone book, helping out the Chicago Police Department, and honestly being poor throughout the book.  While he is a real wizard and magic is real in the universe, with a magic system that is quite fascinating, almost an adult version of some of the magic in Roald Dahl books, people still think he’s a crank.  Butcher gives Dresden a history and makes him an outcast from the magical community for killing someone with magic, something punishable by death.  He also has the radical idea that maybe he should help people.  His relationship with Detective Karrin Murphy is playful and almost flirtatious at points, as she can actually provide him with jobs.  He also fashions himself as a gentleman and a big shot, though when making an entrance is sure to keep innocent bystanders safe.  He keeps a skull called Bob in his basement, summons a fairy to help him in an investigation, and really just wants to keep everybody safe.


The title of Storm Front is apt as the entire book feels like a storm slowly drawing in.  It’s a mystery novel at its heart: a pair of lovers turn up dead, their hearts exploding outward, one of them a bodyguard for Gentleman Johnny Marcone, a gangster, and the other an ex-employee of a vampire.  The reader follows Dresden as he tries to unravel various aspects of the mystery and a separate, seemingly normal, missing persons case, which of course are intertwined and eventually end up revealing something different.  Butcher’s prose is easy to read and perfectly captures the world of Chicago and magic.  It doesn’t really feel like this was ever meant to be a series, as the book ends pretty quickly and all the loose ends are well tied up.  Overall, Storm Front is a good introduction to a world, but standalone and a slave to a formula which ends up bringing it down quite a bit.  It’s also aged poorly in some aspects, but still manages to be pulpy fun which is sometimes what you need.  7/10.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Trem by: Alex Baxter Scott


Trem is the debut novel from Alex Baxter Scott, self-published on Amazon in 2018, and currently the first in at least a three-novel series.  For full disclosure purposes, I have personally spoken to Scott over direct messages on Twitter which is where I was made aware of Trem’s existence, however, I shall strive not to let my personal feelings of friendship for the author affect the way this review is written.  It’s a novel which could accurately be described as an urban fantasy romance novel, with some flavorings of gothic horror thrown in for good measure.  The plot of Trem is primarily concerned with Gabby Morgan who stumbles upon a world of magic: an alien Manzazzu called Trem has been living in an old manor house near Gabby’s home for years, bringing back benevolent spirits for company, and really just minding her own business and getting on with her own life.  From there the novel splits into two primary threads, the first being the conspiracy of the Manzazzu and the budding romance between Gabby and Trem that arises over the course of the novel.  These two plotlines are enough to fill a book, but Trem is a novel which falls into the trap of writing a story with almost too many threads, common in first time writers, meaning that much of what Scott includes isn’t as fleshed out as perhaps it could have been.  Still, props to Scott for daring to include musings on the nature of death and how people would react if they discovered an afterlife, any afterlife, was real, something that isn’t always explored.  The world of Trem has been thought out with Manzazzu society being seen through the eyes of Gabby as something truly old and inhuman, but not necessarily inhumane.


While romance is not a genre which I am familiar with, the sections of the novel devoted to the developing attraction and romance between Gabby and Trem are where Scott demonstrates his best work with characters.  The relationship is essentially a variation on the “friends to lovers” trope, but Scott avoids making either perfect people falling in love.  Gabby is still a teenager and unsure of her place in the world, with that odd relationship most teenagers have with their parents while Trem doesn’t really consider what taking someone away for two days will have on them.  The pair argue for lack of a better term, and have their own disagreements, and their romance slowly develops over the first half of the book or so.  The integration with the romance and the conspiracy does feel like two separate books occurring in parallel, and could have been integrated better, but both plots follow satisfactory arcs.  Trem’s grandfather serves as the novel’s primary antagonist.  Treman is a character who is a bit too over the top in many areas as the standard racist villain who is trying to gain his own power, but really is just sniveling.  As a threat there are points where he seems a bit tacked onto the book while the rest of the story happens around him.  The supporting cast are where Scott shines as a writer, giving Trem four ghost friends for company, each with their own quirks from an actor, to a pirate, to a gentleman.  Gabby’s parents are also well portrayed as caring and understanding to a fault, but still human and prone to flaws.


That isn’t to say that everything about Trem is positive: as said above it is a first novel and as such there are some pacing issues, especially in the finale of the novel which wants to serve as a hook and does it well, but would serve better as a preview for the next book in the series.  Scott’s prose and style aren’t as developed as they could be, and while the action scenes are engaging, there are moments where the way the book is written is a little on the bland side.  There are hints at a style developing, however, meaning that this may be in the sequels.  There are also a few pitfalls which the book falls into by the nature of being self-published: Scott did not have a professional editor, so word flow isn’t always perfect and there are examples of typos.  The print edition is also not the best formatted version of the book, having the title page on the wrong page, being in an odd font, and honestly not doing the author justice.  Overall, Trem while a first time novel, is a good first time novel.  There are flaws and the inspirations are worn on the book’s sleeve, but it won’t disappoint in telling a story that is at least fun and hints at a larger world.  7/10

Friday, October 9, 2020

The Kane Chronicles: The Throne of Fire by: Rick Riordan


Rick Riordan is an author who finds a formula and then kind of sticks to it, but at least makes the formula unique for each series.  In my review for The Red Pyramid, a large point was made about how that novel was mostly a retelling of a single Egyptian myth, translated into the modern day with modern protagonists.  This is a theme which continues with The Throne of Fire being a retelling of the sun god Ra’s nightly journey through the night, with the added twist of Carter and Sadie Kane attempting to raise Ra before the serpent Apophis can be set free from its prison on the winter solstice.  The mythic retelling is mostly contained in the later half of the novel, complete with the several instances of snakes, the lake of fire, and the death and rebirth symbolism.  This is the only point in the novel where Carter and Sadie’s parents appear and the siblings have to work together.  Riordan makes a lot of the sibling relationship in this section of the book really pop as the cooperation and competition between the two is unspoken and completely under the surface for much of the novel.  It’s an accurate representation of what the reader would expect from this type of relationship.  There’s the standard sibling bickering, but both characters display this longing to have a normal relationship and be normal kids once again, and not have this responsibility to save the world.


The character of Ra is interesting as he’s a character who has been struck with senility and speaks in essentially babbles, but Riordan plays this trick where it’s clear that the god still has a few tricks up his sleeve.  It’s a good trick, and it only makes sense once you actually read the novel, and Riordan ensures that it doesn’t become grating by having Ra be sent off to his sun barge at the end of the book.  The climax of the book, however, is a bit of a mess in quite a few ways: first there is a twist with who the villain is working with that feels like it was from an earlier draft of the book where the “twist” was meant to be an actual twist.  There’s also a twist where an antagonist is revealed at the last minute to be a protagonist which also feels out of line with what we learned about that character in The Red Pyramid: Carter and Sadie shouldn’t be surprised that this character at heart isn’t a bad person.  The twist that actually does work is that to save Ra from senility and complete their mission, they actually have to free Apophis, meaning while they have time to prepare, the end of the world is coming in the last novel and there’s nothing that can be done about it.  The scene in the back half of the book, however, that really defines The Throne of Fire is the gambling scene: it’s a scene where sacrifices are made and a character who the audience has come to love comes to a point where he must make a choice.  This is really the first time in the trilogy where Riordan makes the stakes high and the tension is there from the start.


The first half of the novel, on the other hand, is an odd beast and really where it becomes unsure of what The Throne of Fire wants to be.  So, The Red Pyramid set itself apart as this call for possible magicians to come to Brooklyn for training, and The Throne of Fire opens with an introduction for some of the initiates.  There are a couple who gain some interest: Jaz is a healer who has an interesting presence before she is taken off-screen, and Felix has a nice quirk, though it seems Riordan wants to avoid really writing a child character.  The most interesting is Walt Stone, a descendent of Akhanaten who is revealed to be dying from a curse.  Walt is overall, really bland, and just there to be a human love interest for Sadie, as Riordan realizes that he can’t really have someone in a serious romantic relationship with an immortal god.  The book starts with some genuinely great action, followed by some exposition, but like Percy Jackson and the Olympians the supporting characters just lack a lot of the depth.  More time could have been spent at Brooklyn House getting to know these characters, especially considering the framing of this being a recording means that we could have had more time dedicated to that.  Instead, Sadie and Carter each have their own little side quests.  Sadie is in London and attacked by two gods with her non-magician friends which is a nice little plot detour before actually getting into the meat of the novel, but it pales into comparison with Carter’s search and discovery of Zia.  Zia becomes a fascinating character, as this is really her introduction: the Zia the reader saw in The Red Pyramid was just a pale imitation.  She becomes an interesting character throughout as she’s essentially kidnapped by Carter, still believing the Kane family to be evil.  She also ends up respecting Sadie more, hitting Carter right in the pride.


The Throne of Fire is just one of those books where a lot happens.  Several characters return and there are basically three subplots to find the Books of Ra which allows some great character moments.  Sadie in particular is helped a lot by this book, and the return of Set and the Russia plot is one that kind of makes the book worth reading: Set, a god of evil, is played up as more of a chaotic camp neutral character.  He’s got his own goals, can’t be trusted, but looks out for number one more than anything else.  Overall, The Throne of Fire is somehow better than The Red Pyramid as it does carve a sense of identity, though Riordan falls back on several tropes which may turn some off from the trilogy.  8/10.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Divided Loyalties by: Gary Russell


Divided Loyalties is not a good book.  Gary Russell went into writing it with an interesting idea: a story about the Doctor’s first meeting with the Celestial Toymaker while in the Academy on Gallifrey, but then did not write that book.  Instead, he took that idea, could get about 50 pages out of it, and then stuck it in the middle of a sequel to The Celestial Toymaker and prequel to Graham Williams’ novelization of The Nightmare Fair.  Which makes sense, at this time The Celestial Toymaker was hailed as an absolute classic, despite what the actual soundtrack revealed, and The Nightmare Fair was from the mythic lost season of the show during the cancellation.  And the actual setup of the book is not bad, and the plot could actually work (even with the novella flashback that makes up the center), but Gary Russell fails where much of the story matters.  The idea starts with the Doctor, Tegan, Nyssa, and Adric all getting dreams about a mysterious planet that the Doctor didn’t even know existed, and a space station from the Earth Empire meant to keep the peace is under attack.  The Celestial Toymaker is in control of this planet with several human toys for the ridiculous games he plays.


This premise would be fine, but the characterization of the regulars is abhorrent.  Now, the Season 19 TARDIS Team has never been a well-liked team and even on television antagonism between them, but nothing on the scale present in Divided Loyalties.  The Fifth Doctor is no longer the soft spoken, instead being characterized by dry sarcasm going against his companions which just doesn’t work.  There’s also this cruelty near the end of the novel with the Doctor initially questioning if he wants to try and save an apparently old and close friend from his millennia length capture from the Celestial Toymaker.  When he isn’t being sarcastic, or morally questionable, he is barely in the story.  This characterization just doesn’t ring true and part of me would like to think that Russell understands that.  Nyssa doesn’t fair much better.  Russell attempts to make her the intelligent one of the crew, having the Toymaker comment on how she is truly a match for him, but she easily falls under her spell and spends much of the last third of the novel in a daze.  There is also the revelation that she is apparently only a child even though Sarah Sutton never played the role as a particularly young child, but closer to a mature teenager.  She had to be at least older than Adric, but Russell is adamant that she’s the youngest member of the TARDIS Team.  Speaking of Adric, he is the one to far the worst by Russell’s pen.  Yes, Adric is meant to be an annoying character, but Russell portrays him as a rather stereotypical nerd, complete with bad hygiene (some of the worst lines of the book come from this fact).  It feels like the pot is calling the kettle black here as making “Adric” a nerd not only dates the book incredibly poorly to the late 1990s, but also just feels disrespectful to an already disliked character.


Tegan is somehow setup as the book’s hero because she’s a human and is somehow able to catch on to the illusory nature of the Toymaker, but she’s written so inconsistently: one moment she’s incredibly loud and abrasive, and the next she is trying to be kind.  It’s clear that Russell has issues with this team which really begs the question of why he would make this a Fifth Doctor story and not any other Doctor.  The supporting characters fair slightly better under Russell as the crew are meant to be the Eric Saward style crew, and the humans who were turned into toys are over the top enough to be interesting.  It’s at least better than the original toys in The Celestial Toymaker.  The Toymaker himself is given an incredibly deep backstory and that’s where a lot of the story is dragged down.  The Toymaker is connected as one of the Guardians, the Guardian of Dreams, in something that feels like Russell was invoking Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman.  He honestly is fine, and is serviceable as a villain, but it is Russell’s obsession with continuity that simply doesn’t work.  The flashback to Gallifrey (and the novel itself) has enough continuity references to make Craig Hinton blush.  On Gallifrey in the Doctor’s close circle of friends are the Master, the Monk, the Rani, the War Chief, Drax (from The Armageddon Factor), and Coordinator Vansell (from The Sirens of Time, The Apocalypse Element, and Neverland).  There are references to Lungbarrow and the end of the VNAs; The Deadly Assassin and The Arc of Infinity, and honestly a lot of it is simply dragged down.  The actual story with the Toymaker is the easiest section to read, and the most compelling with a pair of Time Lords losing their lives to his game.


Overall, Divided Loyalties is a mess of a novel that is bogged down by gratuitous continuity references and some truly awful characters.  Gary Russell’s prose, while easy to read, does not do much to help things and Russell has done better books coming from the need to fill in a gap that isn’t there.  This is one of those books that should be avoided at all costs unless you want something that’s so bad it’s good.  2/10.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Malazan: Deadhouse Gates by: Steven Erikson


Deadhouse Gates is a big novel, even bigger than Gardens of the Moon, and for full disclosure reading it for me was a difficult task.  You may have noticed that the last Malazan review was uploaded over a month ago on the first of September.  Yes I continued Malazan immediately, but Deadhouse Gates, due to personal circumstances, it took much longer to read than initially intended.  This was not a good scheme for reading this book as it made it necessary to reread sections of the book to fully understand a plot, a plot which like other Malazan novels isn’t meant to be entirely understood on the first read through.  If ever I do a reread of Malazan, Deadhouse Gates will be on the top of the list for a re-review as I understand more and can more accurately assess its quality.  As it stands, Deadhouse Gates is a novel which shows much improvement over Erikson’s previous entry in the series in a variety of ways.  First, readers must be aware going in that as a sequel to Gardens of the Moon, Deadhouse Gates kind of fails, it doesn’t include many of the same characters, instead looking at a completely different conflict in the Seven Cities. This is a different part of the same war which is being waged in Gardens of the Moon, but different characters are the focus and a different almost more personal aspect of the story.


The most accessible portion of the novel for readers of Gardens of the Moon is the continuation of the plot with the exiled Bridgeburners.  Giving them a big focus, appearing about 80 pages into the novel, gives the reader something to immediately latch onto if the previous 80 pages hadn’t given you new characters to latch onto.  There is also an almost darker tone connected to the setting and subject matter.  While much of Gardens of the Moon was in a typical fantasy city setting, Deadhouse Gates takes readers out into the deserts where Erikson makes use of the oppressive heat throughout the book.  There are some brilliant examples of imagery bringing the reader directly into the desert, feeling what the characters are feeling as the war is waged with blood, sweat, and insects.  There is a lot of death here in Deadhouse Gates as characters attempting to Ascend in various ways is a large driving force of the plot.  Reading Night of Knives actually helped explain what was going on and the threads of Kellanved and Dancer ascending to Shadowthrone and Cotillion respectively are given purpose here almost as a warning to those seeking Ascension about the price they must pay and the death it causes.  War followed that Ascension, Empress Laseen is painted very much as a villain in the wings, and one not necessarily meant to be defeated.


While the Bridgeburners plot is brilliant and it is always nice to see those characters again, especially during the climax where they make a stand against the Malazan Empire, there are plenty of other characters to love.  Specifically Erikson employs this brilliant double act with Mappo and Icarium, a Trell and Jhag duo, both harboring deep secrets from one another, yet the relationship is still one predicated by great trust.  The reveals about Icarium’s past and the atrocities which what seems like a good person could have committed in the distant past is fascinating and the reader still sympathizes as the man cannot control himself.  As a pair they interact mostly with the Bridgeburners which really helps a lot of the pieces of the puzzle come together.  On the other hand there are characters like Felisin, the younger sister of Paran from Gardens of the Moon, who is just put through hell in the novel.  Like this book is not for the faint of heart and her story is the best example of this.  She is a victim of sexual assault and rape, but essentially uses the situation to essentially manipulate her situation, or at least attempt to do so.  She is a child and once you realize just how young a fifteen-year-old is, you can understand who she is in a lot of ways.  Erikson doesn’t quite make you care for her, and her story ends with her possibly Ascending, but possibly being possessed by a god and not entirely in control.


Overall, it’s the climax of Deadhouse Gates that actually allows a lot of the pieces of the puzzle to come together while adding new mysteries, many of which won’t be discussed here for fear of spoilers (and the long amount of time it took to read the book).  Erikson’s writing style has improved a lot since Gardens of the Moon and it seems that there is nowhere to go but up for the Malazan Book of the Fallen.  8/10.