Friday, July 5, 2024

Review of Citizen in Space by Robert Sheckley

Robert Sheckley is one of the most exciting authors on my shelf. I never know what I'm going to get when cracking a book, only that it will be a smorgasbord of subtle wit, easter eggs, and imaginative storytelling. His 1955 collection Citizen in Space hasn't changed my mind despite the relative lack of substance.

The collection begins with “The Mountain Without a Name”. Something akin to Dubai in space, it tells of an Earth construction company terraforming a planet for human use, which includes converting their version of Mt. Everest into a sea. But bad luck seems to tail them, wrecking the crew's best made plans. Things eventually come to a head, and the men are left with the most dire (as intended) of choices. In “The Accountant”, Sheckley must have been having a bad day with bureaucracy. A throwaway story, it tells of parents pressuring their child to become a magician when all he wants is to be an accountant. Though structured like a bar joke, the punchline is more dark humor than knee-slapping.

Friday, June 28, 2024

Review of Stolen Faces by Michael Bishop

The perception of Aztec and Mayan cultures is often of a war-like, bloodthirsty people who made ritual sacrifice quotidian. While there is historical evidence in support of this image, it doesn't paint the full picture. Slaves and prisoners weren't the only people sacrificed. The belief was that blood offerings forestalled the end of the world, meaning many people voluntarily offered their lives—people who wanted their heart removed, body disfigured, and ultimately death in the name of the cause. Examining this phenomenon in a science fiction setting is Michael Bishop's superb Stolen Faces (1977).

Stolen Faces is the tragic story of Lucian Yeardance. After a personal conflict with a commanding officer, Yeardance is exiled to Tezactl and assigned the title of Commissar of the planet's leper colony. A difficult situation, Yeardance has only a small group of assistants to help manage the colony and supplies are limited, often not being delivered to their remote outpost on time. Exacerbating the situation is the fact the colony has devolved into near animalhood. The younger, healthier lepers torment and steal from the older, more debilitated ones, and a bizarre system of beliefs induce the people into sadomasochistic behavior. Getting to the bottom of the situation proves to be the opposite of what Yeardance expects.

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Review of Black Helicopters by Caitlin R. Kiernan

I bounce off H.P. Lovecraft, hard. His prose is purple to the point of putridness and I condescend toward the paranoia and anxiety underlying the handful of stories I've read. Get a grip, dude. Reality is what it is, even if we can't explain everything. Secret evil is not waiting to pop out from behind every yard gnome you encounter (only a few). Caitlin R. Kiernan, however, I'm a sucker for. She often works in a similar medium (~existential horror), yet possesses some of the tip-top best prose out there, not to mention takes her reader's intelligence for granted. Black Helicopters (2013) is the perfect example of how deep (far?) cosmic “horror” can go.

Black Helicopters is a difficult story to encapsulate in just a couple of sentences. I will provide only the shell. Two rival agencies, operating invisibly yet in plain sight, have their sights set on one another. Butterfly effect in full effect, they tweak a social knob here, twist an event there, all in the hopes of manipulating the global dance in their subtle favor. At the beginning of the tale, one agent recruits two agents from the other side—knowing they are from the other side. And so too do the two other agents. Cat, mouse, and back again, they tango and samba around one another, getting at their secrets, bits of black magic and Weird just some of their tools of the job. Black helicopters—the proverbial variety—hover menacingly on the horizon.

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Review of The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett

I dance in and out of Robert Jackson Bennett's works. I haven't danced out and stayed out because he is, relatively speaking, dynamic in creation. I cannot say he has a wide range of styles, but his stories are not all within one sub-genre and he tries to thread the needle of derivative enough to be familiar yet unique enough to distinguish itself. His latest book, The Tainted Cup (2024), may have just done that.

The Tainted Cup is an agent Mulder-and-Scully murder mystery in a fantasy land. Hill-sized leviathans seasonally come ashore, wrecking havoc on the cities and fields, and magical concoctions and brews allow people to augment themselves in various ways—strength, speed, analytical capability, and memory among them. Seven years ago a savage blight was accidentally unleashed upon the land, and it is still looking to recover.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Review of Titandeath by Guy Haley

The end draweth nigh. Horus' rebellion approaches Terra. Standing in his path is an auxiliary outpost, the planet Geta-Garmon. Staging ground for Imperial operations, it is home to legios of Titans, the massive war engines. This last layer of the Emperor's protection faces the ultimate test of power in Titandeath by Guy Haley (2018).

Of the three dozen Horus Heresy books I've read, Titandeath is the one which feels most perfunctory. It fills a gap in the HH timeline: what have the Adeptus Mechanicus (light and dark) been doing since Graham McNeill's Mechanicus? It also answers the question: why did reduced numbers of titans take part in the Siege of Terra? The first question more interesting than the second, it remains, however, that Haley doesn't give the reader much reason to invest themselves in the story beyond that answer. The forces build up, a big battle occurs, and the book ends. While the same can be said of some HH books, it's with Titandeath the reader most strongly feels the sentiment: things happened as I expected.

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Review of A Different Kingdom by Paul Kearney

Paul Kearney is one of the most criminally unknown fantasy writers out there. His early output focused on characters for whom a secondary world held up a twisted mirror to their real world. The works a critical not popular success, his publisher suggested he branch out into serial epic fantasy (which he did, again, to critical success but poor sales). Part of that early wave, A Different Kingdom (1993) is Kearney's second novel, and a gritty, good one.

A Different Kingdom is the story of Michael, a ten-year old boy growing up on an Irish farm in the early 20th century. Raised by elderly grandparents, Michael finds himself especially close to his aunt, a teen closer in age named Rose. The pair work the farm, and in their free time cavort in the nearby woods and streams, sometimes in transgressive fashion. The streams and forests likewise hold a certain unease for Michael. He sees strange animals and shadows moving where they shouldn't, and occasionally has bizarre encounters with a forest girl. Things come to a head when Rose is forced from the farm by Michael's grandparents, leaving him to fend for himself from the wilds of the woods.

Monday, June 10, 2024

Review of Shadows of Treachery ed. by Christian Dunn and Nick Kyme

Hang on for the understatement of the century (millennium? eon?): the Horus Heresy is no small undertaking. Shelves and shelves and shelves of novels and stories. Hundreds and hundreds of characters. Dozens upon dozens of intertwined plot threads. It's a lot. The reader goes through the books they find themselves asking questions. But wait a minute, what about character X? What happened when they fill in the blank ? Or what about Y? I thought they... Twenty-second book in the HH series and fourth anthology to date, Shadows of Treachery (2012) ed. by Christian Dunn and Nick Kyme aims to put to bed some of the biggest questions.

Out of the gate, “The Crimson King” by John French looks to answer the question: what were Rogal Dorn and the Imperial Fists doing in the aftermath of Istvann III? The answer is: being massively ambushed and forced into a difficult strategic situation, a situation that sees real heroism emerge. What makes this story a bit better than most of the other space-battle stories is the foundation of meaning French lays. More than just present-tense fighting, to the spoils go the victor, there is an additional character layer that has purpose in the context of the Heresy as a whole. Good story (and not about Magnus, as you may have thought based on the title—at least I did).

Saturday, June 1, 2024

Review of The Star Diaries by Stanisław Lem

There is genius, and there is Stanislaw Lem. Occupying the highest echelons of imagination and intelligence, nobody writes a story like Lem—regardless science fiction, literature, or anything between. His 1957 collection The Star Diaries, starring the everyday spaceman Ijon Tichy, is a small collection of jewels leading to why Lem is in that echelon.

Part satire, part imaginative play, and part thought experiment, The Star Diaries is a collection of stories—voyages to be precise—telling of the space man Ijon Tichy's adventures and encounters across the universe and through time. Tongue in cheek throughout, it's only a question of how much the cheek bulges in each.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Redline: "Siege"

I do not normally review small expansions for card games. But, in contrast to many heavily corporatized TCG-esque games hitting the market these days, Redline is an indie game worth feeding the buzz. As always, I am not being paid for this review.

A quick re-cap, Redline is a two-player expandable card game in which players build battlemechs (called efreets) to capture missions. First player to capture all five missions on the redline, or raze their opponents HQ (deck) to zero, wins. Chewy fun with a couple layers of depth, it mixes Battletech CCG, Warhammer: Conquest, and X-Wing Miniatures to become its own, satisfying game (no minis required). The core set released in 2021 included two playable 60-card starter decks, along with all the tokens, dials, dice, etc. needed to play. The expansion reviewed here, Redline: Siege, is the first expansion. (Core set required to play.)

Redline: Siege” is sold in two parts: “Siegecraft” and “Sapper”. Each is a 60-card pre-con deck that adds numerous new efreets and upgrades, as well as a handful of interesting new mechanisms. The core set had a lot of interesting concepts for players to game with, “Siege” almost doubles it.

Monday, May 27, 2024

Review of Catchpenny by Charlie Huston

Reviewers are normal folks, too. We can be turned on or off by cover copy. In fact, in our era of content overload, cover copy is in some strange way one of the more consistent and dependable ways of drawing a bead on a book. The internet may be awash with hacks, but publishers still tend to hire competent people to do what is actually a difficult task: both summarize a premise and entice a reader, all in just a handful of sentences. This is all a long winded way of saying: I was hooked by the blurb for Charlie Huston's Catchpenny (2024).  And I learned a new word.

Catchpenny is the story of one Sid Catchpenny. A former singer turned thief, in the opening pages he is looking for something genuine to do with his pathetic, plastic life; his doppelganger murdered his wife years ago and his career as a performer was traded away in a deal with a devil, meaning he spends his days wallowing in cheap self-pity. That is, until one day when a taxi-driving friend asks Sid to pay a visit to someone and get some information, some character information that will help the driver sort out a little domestic trouble he's having. And down the rabbit hole Sid unwittingly goes. Gangsters, mojo, influencers, mannequins, D&D, cults, and weird video games form a carousel, a carousel that spins ever faster with each new encounter. Trouble is, how to stop the ride?