Reviews: Napier’s Bones and Among Thieves

I’ve been trying to read more this year, and my luck has been excellent (mostly due to the fact that I read things that come highly recommended or are written by friends).

So here are two short reviews of books I’ve read in the last couple of weeks:

Napier’s Bones by Derryl Murphy (ChiZine Press) — ISBN 9781926851099

This is a recent contemporary spec fic novel from Chizine, one of the publishers I represent (through Diamond).  It’s a weird, awesome urban fantasy kind of book where Math is magic.  A select number of people called Numerates can see and manipulate the numbers inherent in all things, traveling around the world to collect number-powered artifacts called Mojo.  Dom and Jenna, along with a Numerate ghost named Billy get swept up in a plot by a long-dead Numerate, and fight their way across three countries and two continents to prevent the ghosts of long-dead Numerates from seizing an artifact that would let them re-define reality itself.

I wasn’t expecting this book to fly like it does.  The pacing is fantastic, and made it a great book to read during plane travel.  The characters are decently defined, if not remarkable.  Strong plotting covers up many things, and I found myself happy to follow the leads through their weird Donald in Mathmagicland-esque adventures and throwing number blasts.  I was reminded of the tabletop RPG Unknown Armies, except the setting wasn’t as bleak.

 

Among Thieves: A Tale of the Kin by Douglas Hulick (Roc) — 9780451463906

Doug Hulick is a friend I met through the SCA, and his historical knowledge is put to amazing use in this premiere.  If you are a fan of Joe Abercrombie’s gritty fantasies or Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards books, you should definitely check out Doug’s premiere.  Among Thieves is the story of Drothe, a thief who works as a Nose, keeping tabs on other thieves (aka ‘The Kin’) and reporting to his boss.  Drothe is a sharp, morally grey character (grey at best.  He is not a good person, though he does have his own sense of honor, to his fellow Kin), but is very compelling and sufficiently sympathetic to make me happy to spend a book with him.

Drothe finds himself in possession of an artifact that if used by the wrong people, could swing the balance of power or even destroy the empire which his home city of Ildrecca is a member.  All Drothe wants to do is keep from getting shanked by the various factions maneuvering to obtain the book — either to destroy the book or use it to take power for themselves.

The two most notable strengths of this book for me are the thieves’ cant and the fight scenes.  Doug started Among Thieves after picking up an encyclopedia of thieves’ cant, and the love of language is evident throughout the book.  As the story moves along, Among Thieves masterfully enculturates the reader into Drothe’s version of the thieves’ cant, with shorthand, slang, and stock phrases.  By the end of the book, a reader can happily parse a whole paragraph where most all of the verbs and nouns are in the cant rather than the common tongue used by non-Kin.

And the fight scenes, oh the fight scenes.  Doug has studied renaissance martial arts extensively, and that knowledge grants his fight scenes a great sense of self-confidence and clarity.  The blocking and choreography of the fights in Among Thieves is some of the best I’ve read in years.

If you are looking for a fantasy romp with backstabbing, sneaking, rumor-mongering and a deadly game of ‘Where’s the McGuffin,’ give this book a try.

 

More reviews later if I have the time.  Right now I’m super-excited to start reading China Mieville’s Embassytown.

I’m not dead — but I will be published

I’ve been quiet of late here, and not for lack of things to say.

However, the last few weeks I’ve been focusing more on my fiction writing. I sold my first short story (“Last Tango in Gamma Sector”) last week, which will be published at Crossed Genres on June 1st in their issue on “Gadgets & Artifacts.”

In addition, I’ve wrapped up line edits on my New Weird Superhero novel Shield & Crocus and have started working on a synopsis while creating a list of agents to query.

This 21st Century Geek is a maker as well as a consumer of culture, and I’m trying to find a better balance of input/consumption vs. output/creation.

More pop culture ramblings will come soon, as we’re amidst a variety of season finales in TV-land.

Review: V — “Pilot”

I was too young to watch/remember the original V miniseries/ongoing series, but I learned the basic premise growing up as a geek.  I’ll be talking about stuff that constitutes as spoilers, but not really, as ABC is foregrounding the ‘Big Sekrit!’ of the V’s identity even in the previews.  Most of what I’ll talk about is the not-hard-to-find Vs = Obama reading.

The leader of the Vs is played by Morena Baccarin, a Brazillian woman whose looks are easily pushed past beauty to the edge of the uncanny valley, her mixed-ethnicity background easily positioned as ‘exotic’ from a US-American gaze.  All of the Vs who are seen in the public eye would count as attractive, and even in the pilot, the Vs are leveraging attractiveness into manipulation (one sub-plot features the FBI-Agent lead’s son being attracted to a female V played by Laura “Supergirl” Vandervoort).

The Pilot episode gets all the way to the ‘Vs are actually Lizards and trying to take over the world’ stage, with Elizabeth “LOST Juliette” Mitchell and Joel “4400” Gretsch as FBI Agent and Pastor who are witness to a V attack on a word-of-mouth group spreading word of the Vs’ real agenda.

A note — unless you go in looking for the Obama = V reading, it may be rather easy to miss/not think of it.  It’s not that the show pounds you over with it.  The show’s pacing is strong (stronger than the original miniseries in the equivalent section that I watched), and goes quickly to the ‘The Vs are tricking people, time to fight back!’ stage of the story, where our two adult leads will develop a resistance, with assistance from another lead — how quickly he’ll connect with the group is hard to tell.  Interpersonal conflict will come from the FBI Agent’s son getting deeper in bed (literally) with the Vs and refusing to accept mom’s warnings/explanations of the V’s villainy.  This is exacerbated by the fact that until the resistance can get a V corpse to show the lizard under-parts, they don’t have a very strong case.

It was great to see Alan Tudyk in the show, though I don’t think he’s listed as a full series regular.  He brought a great balance of seriousness and levity to the show, remind us how awesome an actor he is (as if we needed any more reminding after “Briar Rose/Alpha” in Dollhouse.

The new version of V seems to be written and executed in a way that invites an anti-Obama reading. The rhetoric of the pilot episode includes mentions of Hope!  Change!  Universal Health Care! and features a charismatic leader of mixed ethnicity.  There’s an interesting degree to which this version of V is a dream come true for the Fox News Opinion Show crew.  Many of the most outrageous fears about Obama are made manifest in the series — The Vs come with a message of hope and change, with people flocking to them, clamoring to be saved.  The Vs insinuate themselves into people’s hearts, but are secretly not who they say they are and will take over and destroy the world.

Basically, the premise reads like an unused script from the Glenn Beck show with space-lizards instead of Chairman Mao.  The show’s basic premise is much as it was in the 80s series (as far as I know/have read), but it just goes to show that as times change, a story can remain more or less the same but be read very differently.  It seems that the new ABC version of V is specifically written to highlight the Vs as Obama reading (the rhetoric about hope and change and universal health care),

Overall, the Pilot isn’t magnificent, but it is a solid start and I’m interested to see how this version continues and develops like or unlike the original.

Now I leave review-land and go into ‘I’m a writer-land’ — I realize that I’d be as interested or possibly more interested in a series where the aliens really were trying to improve humanity’s lot, with conflict coming from paranoia and quibbling over cultural differences/expectations between the Vs and various US cultures.  Basically, if it were a script from Keith Olbermann/Rachel Maddow instead of Glenn Beck. 😛  A story that highlights the tension between a well-meaning group with technological advantage and an ambivalent community that doesn’t want to bow to cultural demands but does want those technologies.  This presents a different metaphor, more analogous to western humanitarian campaigns in the 3rd world/Global South — where cultural imperialism comes part-and-parcel (intentional or unintentional) with humanitarian aid.

Sadly, this would probably not work as a TV show — it would lend itself much less to explosions and gunfights and the like.

Review: Stargate Universe “Air Part 1&2”

I watched the Stargate film back in 1994 when it came to theatres, and then when Stargate: SG-1 came around, I didn’t bother watching it.  I watched a season-and-a-half or so of Stargate:Atlantis, and was usually amused. But I have many friends who swear by various parts of the Stargate-verse, loving SG-1 and trashing on Atlantis, loving-but-criticizing-Atlantis and not caring about SG-1, etc.

So when I saw that there was a new, supposedly stand-alone Stargate series, I took notice.  The casting of Robert Carlyle in the lead went a long way towards getting my attention, as did the concept.

For those not already in the know, here’s the breakdown:  Stargate Universe is about a group of people who get trapped on an ancient spaceship made by a predecessor species only known as the Ancients.  The ship was designed to tour the universe, and from time to time opens up a dimensional portal (the Stargates, natch) to a habitable planet in the surrounding galaxy.  The Stargate remains open for a finite amount of time, and the ship is on auto-pilot, preventing the heroes from taking control of its route.  Using the gate to get back to Earth or to get from Earth to the ship (called the Destiny) is tremendously-plot-says-don’t-do-it difficult.  The tone seems to be substantially darker than previous Stargate series, prompting people to dub it Stargate Galactica or BattleStargate, likening it to the critically-acclaimed 2004-09 Battlestar Galactica.

The overall formula seems to be (Stargate + LOST) x (Sliders + Battlestar Galacatica) = Stargate Universe — which is certainly not a bad mixture of inspirations.

A more detailed and spoilery review follows:

Continue reading

Fall TV Preview

We’re on the verge of the Fall 2009 premieres, so I thought I’d share some thoughts on upcoming shows (Sadly, wordpress seems to have eaten all the videos I embedded to go along with the commentary):

Glee (FOX, premieres 9/2)– I’ve already written about Glee here, but let this serve as a reminder, since the re-air of the Pilot is tonight.  One of FOX’s most-pushed new shows, Glee follows the losers and outcasts of an Ohio Glee club, re-started by former Glee star-turned Spanish teacher.  It’s a musical comedy, but rather than breaking from reality for the musical numbers, they’re all diegetic, songs done by the Glee members or a cappella loops for sound effects/background music.  In the pilot alone, they do “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat,” “Rehab,” “On My Own,” and “Don’t Stop Belevin.'”  The show has a great quirky sensibility, and is playing the ‘outcasts band together to become more than they would have been alone’ vibe.  It’s got an infectious joy to it, and is definitely one to check out.

Flash Forward (ABC, premieres 9/24) — Adapted from a Robert J. Sawyer SF novel, this is being positioned as the long-awaited companion show to their ongoing hit, LOST.  In Flash Forward, everyone in the world collapses for 2 minutes and 17 seconds.  During that time, they see their own lives, 6 months in the future.  The action of the show will then follow the main characters working to ensure that the events in their flash forwards come to pass (or that they don’t).  The large ensemble cast includes Joseph Fiennes, John Cho, Dominic Monaghan, Christine Woods and more.  ABC has been pushing the show, and it’s drawn a good bit of attention already, given the cast and the concept.  In the viewing world following shows like LOST, Heroes, and more, there seems to be more room for mystery-based SF shows, especially ones such as Flash Forward or LOST that have contemporary settings, focusing more on the familiarity than estrangement (to go back to Darko Suvin’s definition of SF).  Whereas the novel version by Sawyer flashed forward 21 years, the short-term flash-forward allow for each season to run the span of a flash-forward each season, then do another incident for each following season (which has been advertised as the plan for the TV show).  This approach should make for more contained story arcs, and hopefully, the ability for each season to stand on its own merits rather than serving as a lead-in for a subsequent season, as any longer serial narrative has a tendency to do.  I’m going to follow this one for probably at least a few episodes, unless it just crashes and burns.

Eastwick (ABC, premieres 9/23):
Seemingly positioned as a sequel to John Updike’s 1984 novel The Witches of Eastwick, this updates the story for a post-Desperate Housewives world.  Three women make a wish at a well at the same time, and have their wishes come true — which in true Monkey’s Paw fashion, proves to be more than any of them bargained for.  Featuring Rebecca Romajn, Lindsay Price, and Jaime Ray Newman, with Paul Gross as the wish-giving devil.  There have been a number of shows that have come along trying to be the next Sex and the City or the next Desperate Housewives, and this show has the honor of being the third TV remake/adaptation of the novel.  I’m not excited about it myself, since I’m not the target audience, but I may watch an episode or two just to see how it does.

The Prisoner (AMC, premieres Nov): A remake of the influential British miniseries, AMC is trying to increase its original programming props by going for a remake/sequel of a show that for many, stands the test of time without needing an update.  They do have the fortune of slick cinematography, strong set/costume design, and Ian McKellan in the role of #2, with Jim Caviezel as the protagonist, #6.  I admit I haven’t seen the original version, but I’m hoping to watch it from AMC (as they’re streaming the original series online for free) before watching this version.

Bored to Death (HBO, Premieres 9/20):  With Jason Schwatzman in the leading role, there’s instantly a certain expectation for the show.  Add the show’s logline of “A Noir-otic comedy,” and you’ve already got a decent sense of what you’ll be getting into.  Schwartzman plays Jonathan Ames, Writer by day, unlicensed Private Detective by night.  Ted Danson plays his boss, and the entire thing has indie screwball written all over it.  Given that it’s HBO, it automatically gets a certain amount of faith based on the network’s credibility, but I remain skeptical — more because of my own aesthetic leanings than any possible faults of the show.

Bored to Death

Midseason Shows

V: (ABC) — Another classic SF remake, this has a group of aliens arriving on Earth, promising technological bounties in all areas in exchange for access to water and another ‘common resource.’  Saying much more would verge into spoilers, but I’ll note that it will feature Firefly alums Alan Tudyk and Morena Bacarin as well as LOST star Elizabeth Mitchell.

Day one:(NBC) — This is an apocalyptic show that follows the residents in an apartment complex brought together to be in a position to do…something after a worldwide event/attack/something that Destroys Civilization As We Know It.  The recent trailers/previews seem to indicate an alien-type event, and a Mysterious Benefactor who chosen the main cast to lead the resistance against the aliens or whatever the source of the apocalypse ends up being.  It’s notable in that the level of effects used are reminiscent of films like The Day After Tomorrow or Independence Day, far beyond the scope of what is normal/expected for TV.  This of course means that if its budget is that high, it’ll need to perform amazingly well to earn its keep, a problem that shows like Dollhouse, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Battlestar Galactica have had to face.  None of the cast members stand out as of yet, and I have the feeling that Jason Alexander, the show-runner, is going for a Heroes/LOST-style ensemble where people’s backstories emerge in play to provide additional fuel as B-plots behind/beside the A-plot of the apocalypse and the recovery/survival aspects. We’re likely to see even more of this before it airs in 2010.


Review: Up

Pixar Studios may in fact be the gold standard in animated films.

It comes as no surprise that Up was chosen to open the Cannes film festival. It transcends the baggage associated with animated works and presents a compelling film delightful for children, heartbreaking and uplifting for adults. It achieves an astonishing amount of pathos, starting with a strong and moving opening sequence, genuinely emoting animals, surreal landscapes and an uplifting, tightly-plotted overall work.

Carl is a strong quiet (except when yelling at people because of being a grief-stricken crochety bastard) lead who shows a wide variety of emotion — through Carl, the film explores death and grief and nostalgia with subtle touches as well as huge metonyms (the whole house as Carl’s touchstone for Ellie, in addition to the smaller ones like the bird for the mantle and the portrait).

Russell is cute as a truck full of kittens, and Dug the dog is Pure Dog-ness incarnate and given a voice.

The 3D may not have added as much to Up as to other films, but I feel like it worked with the what was going on. I imagine we’ll be seeing more 3D-enabled work from Pixar in the future.

Two thumbs and four paws up.