Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 A Year In Review

Even though I didn't begin seriously blogging until the end of the year, not even the addition of a new baby to our family could prevent me from indulging in the genre. Sure, books got read in pages rather than chapters, TV got watched days or even weeks later on the DVR, and movies became an occasional indulgence, but I think I appreciated it all even more for the fact that my dose of spec fiction was so hard to come by.

So, in anticipation of blogging regularly through 2012, here's my year in review:

This was harder to narrow down than I expected, but my top 5 reads (in no particular order) are:
  1. 11/22/63 by Stephen King (vintage King with an ending that really works)
  2. Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay (also my most pleasant surprise of the year)
  3. The Dinosaur Hunter by Homer H. Hickam Jr. (the man who brought us the stars brings us dinosaurs)
  4. The Enterprise of Death by Jesse Bullington (weird, wild, and wonderful)
  5. Shadowplay by Tad Williams (once Barrick began to man up, the series improved dramatically)

After a few lackluster reads (The Last Light of the Sun & Sailing to Sarantium) that strayed too far from the kind of epic fantasy that initially drew me to him, Guy Gavriel Kay absolutely amazed and delighted me with Ysabel - an urban fantasy. I only gave it a read because I was looking for something shorter than Under Heaven that I could read at doctor's appointments with my wife, but I found it one of his strongest books. Beautifully written, with strong characters, it also tied in very nicely to the Fionavar Tapestry. That subtle (but critical) tie is what made a 'good' read a 'great' one.

Without a doubt, the read that most disappointed me in 2011 was Steven Erikson's final entry in the Malazan Book of the Fallen saga, The Crippled God. This is a series that constantly blew me away, challenged what I expected from epic fantasy, and shocked me with some of the twists. Erikson really knows how to tell a story, and how to build a history/mythology that rivals anything in or out of fiction. So, with all that said, why was this my most disappointing read? Well, as superb as he is at telling a story, I'm afraid Erikson did an atrocious job of ending one. The story just fell apart at the seams, abandoned it's unpredictability and edginess, and betrayed the intellectual and emotional commitment of 9 books, brining us to a conclusion that was as boring as it was incomprehensible.

Dishonourable mention goes to Last Gleaming, the final story arc of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's season 8 comic book arc. The entire season was wildly uneven, indulging too much in the limitless FX budget of a comic book, but the final arc was ridiculous and lazy.

I'm going to go with two picks here. First, the moment I look forward to every week is the flashback appearance of Rumpelstiltskin on Once Upon A Time. Yeah, the show is cheesy, and I'm not sure it can survive beyond a single season (where do you go once the fairy tales are revealed?), but as good as Robert Carlyle was in Stargate Universe, he completely steals the show here.

Second, the one moment that made me jump off the couch an pump my first in the air was the Trojan Dino scene in the Terra Nova season finale. It was a total surprise, and if seeing that dino emerge from the cargo container was good, watching it eat the head off that bastard from the Phoenix Group (in a total homage to Jurrasic Park) was epic.

With a pregnant wife for the first half of the year, and a newborn baby for the second half of the year, I didn't get out to the movies as often as I'm used to. Transformers: the Dark of the Moon was fun, although not nearly as good as the second movie; Contagion just bored me to tears (there wasn't a single moment where I felt the slightest bit of emotional involvement); and Paul was a great flick (Kristen Wiig's alien conversion to atheism made me laugh until I cried), although a bit of a disappointment compared to what I expect from Simon Pegg.

In the end, the one movie that made me smile and reminded me of being a kid was The Muppets. It was as close to a perfect film as I've seen in years, right from the 80s nostalgia (the movie won me over the moment 80s robot offered up Diet Tab and New Coke), to the cameos (Jim Parsons was a particularly inspired choice for 'human' Muppet), to the villain's 'maniacal laugh' (and the Muppet henchmen suddenly wondering if they're on the wrong side).

A good year, and I'm looking forward to an even better one as I begin exposing our newest addition to the joys and delights of the genre.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"Waiting On" Wednesday: The Sacred Band by David Anthony Durham

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill over at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

This week's pre-publication "can't-wait-to-read" selection is:

The Sacred Band by David Anthony Durham :

With the first two books in the Acacia Trilogy, Acacia and The Other Lands, David Anthony Durham has created a vast and engrossing canvas of a world in turmoil, where the surviving children of a royal dynasty are on a quest to realize their fates—and perhaps right ancient wrongs once and for all. As The Sacred Band begins, one of them, Queen Corinn, bestrides the world as a result of her mastery of spells found in the ancient Book of Elenet. Her younger brother, Dariel, has been sent on a perilous mis­sion to the Other Lands, while her sister, Mena, travels to the far north to confront an invasion of the feared race of the Auldek. Their separate trajectories will converge in a series of world-shaping, earth-shattering battles, all ren­dered with vividly imagined detail and in heroic scale.

David Anthony Durham concludes his tale of kingdoms in collision in an exciting fashion. His fictional world is at once realistic and fantastic, informed with an eloquent and dis­tinctively Shakespearean sensibility.

With this, the epic conclusion to David's Acacia Trilogy, it looks like I have yet another series to get caught up on. Acacia was an amazing read, and the only reason I didn't finish it was that it fell into the Niagara River one afternoon on a hike. I've just picked up the first 2 volumes as e-books, so I'm looking forward to getting back into things.

Friday, December 23, 2011

In Memoriam 2011 - Authors and Artists

2011 was a harsh year for science fiction and fantasy fans, with several notable authors (and artists) passing on to forever wander the landscapes of our imagination. My apologies if I have missed anyone, but as we contemplate the joys of family and friendship over this holiday weekend, I'd like to pay homage to those who will not be joining us in 2012:


Our shelves are a little emptier, and our imaginations a little darker, without them.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Dark Shadows: The Original Series Story Digest by D. J. Arneson

Unless you've been sleeping the days away in a pine box, deep inside some dusty old cellar, you likely know that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are bring Dark Shadows to the big screen in 2012. Given that Arneson's story takes place outside the main Dark Shadows storyline, at a time when Barnabas is no longer a vampire, it seems an odd choice to tie into Burton's movie, but it's still a wonderfully nostalgic look back at the origins of the franchise.

Over 40 years after it's original release as a Gold Key Comics Original Series Story Digest, D. J. Arneson's Interrupted Voyage is being republished, complete with the original artwork, beautifully recoloured to match the original printing. 

Interrupted Voyage is slightly cheesy, completely melodramatic, and so earnestly romantic it hurts. If that sounds like a complaint or a criticism, nothing could be further from the truth - Arneson captures the original soap opera feel perfectly, almost as if this were an unfilmed episode of the series. This is a story with as much atmosphere and emotion as plot, which is exactly what we should expect from a Dark Shadows tale.

That's not to say that the plot here is particularly thin or unimpressive. Transporting an ex-vampire and a ghost back to Salem to rescue a young lover's soul from the clutches of an evil witch, is genius. The paranoia and the tension is almost palatable, creating a situation that drives the story along at a breakneck pace. What makes it even more interesting, adding a note of dread to the proceedings, is the fact that the beautiful Angélique is waiting in the wings, ready to reclaim Barnabas' soul should he fail.

There are also some impressive narrative touches to the tale. The scene in which the Captain's room slowly devolves back into a storm-tossed ship, prompted by Annabella's tale of her own demise, is particularly mesmerizing. It's so carefully crafted, you don't quite realize what's happening until Barnabas is drenched with seawater. The transition is so seamless, without relying on any surprises or dreamlike states to help bring it along, you can't help but reread it to see how Arneson accomplished it.

Even though I suspect the audience for this will be slightly different from that of Burton's film, it's still nice to be reminded of the saga's roots, and to once again experience the melodramatic thrill of so many years ago.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"Waiting On" Wednesday: Skirmish by Michelle West

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill over at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

This week's pre-publication "can't-wait-to-read" selection is:

Skirmish by Michelle West:

At long last, Jewel is preparing to announce her candidacy to become the next Terafin and claim the House Seat. But it is a decision that has her targeted by demons who will stop at nothing to destroy Jewel and her allies as the House War begins...

As this is the penultimate volume of The House War saga, it may just be time for me to get caught up. For those new to Michelle, the series does share a universe with her previous The Sacred Hunt and The Sun Sword sagas, but can be read alone - in fact, Michelle recommends new readers start with The House War, and then move onto the other series.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Dark Tower: The Wind Through The Keyhole (Excerpt)

The good folks at Tor have just published a excerpt from Stephen King's upcoming Dark Tower novel, The Wind Through The Keyhole, which takes place between books four and five in the series.

 In King’s own words: “What happened to Roland, Jake, Eddie, Susannah, and Oy between the time they leave the Emerald City (the end of Wizard and Glass) and the time we pick them up again, on the outskirts of Calla Bryn Sturgis (the beginning of Wolves of the Calla)? There was a storm, I decided....” 

 As a HUGE fan of The Dark Tower saga, I've already been salivating over this newest addition for months. I can't say much for the cover (maybe that will grow on me), but the artwork that accompanies the first two chapters has an eerie beauty to it.

You can check out all the details, including the artwork and excerpt, here:  

For those of you counting the days, we still have 4+ months to wait - forget December 25th . . . it's April 24th that can't get here soon enough!

Apeshit by Carlton Mellick III

The back cover describes Apeshit as "perhaps one of the most f*cked up books ever written." That's an apt description. This is either the most revolting, graphic, offensive piece of splatterpunk horror I've ever read, or the most brilliant, original, insightful piece of satire upon the genre ever written.

Then again, maybe it's both. Or neither.

 As far as basic plotting goes, this is part Friday the 13th, part Evil Dead, and part The Hills Have Eyes. Basically, a bunch of teenagers (the requisite mix of cheerleaders and football players) decide to head out for a weekend of drunken partying at a cabin in the middle of the woods (where, of course, there is no cellular service). Right from the star, however, Mellick begins messing with the conventions of the genre.

Beware, spoilers abound from his point on.

First of all, the three hot cheerleaders are seriously messed up. One is a tattoo addict with a bright green mohawk, involved in a threesome relationship with two of the football players (more on them in a moment). One is a total germaphobe, completely unwilling to be touched, who gets off on erotic abortions (I don't even want to know if that's a real fetish). The other is obsessive-compulsive, pregnant by her own brother, and afflicted with the mythological condition vagina dentata.

As for the football players, let's start with the 'normal' one - he's your typical jock, hyper masculine, aggressive, and the son of a sadistic father who has tortured the fear out of him. As for the other two, one is a loving sex-addict who would rather infect the threesome with AIDS than tell them the truth about his affairs and thus lose their friendship. The other is a nice guy who is about to break up with the cheerleader part of their threesome, and who has been using the cover of a urinary tract infection to hide the fact that he's healing from a sex-change below the waist.

As for the mutant monsters in the woods, they're your typical horror movie fodder - cranked up a few notches on the weirdness scale. Either lovers or siblings (or, as is suggested, both), they're hideously deformed, with half-formed fetal limbs growing out of their heads, completely wild, and maniacally bloodthirsty.

What follows is a few days of absolute carnage, with acts of dismemberment, torture, and rape that strive to top each other with new levels of depravity. Adding to the weirdness is the fact that (as we learn later) nothing can die in the cursed territory of the forest. This allows for some disgusting sexual adventures with a headless cheerleader, and for a disemboweled cheerleader to use her dragging entrails as a rope for rescue and bondage. What puts it over the top, though, is the sex-change jock who gets impaled upon a tree branch that rips through to his mouth, but who still desires human penetration.

 It's a story that would be comic, if it weren't so revolting . . . that would be absurd, if it weren't so sincere. As a straight-forward horror novel it's simply too much, but as a satiric take on the genre, it's an interesting read.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Demon Seed by Dean Koontz

I've always had something of a love-hate relationship with Dean Koontz. When he allows himself to be dark and edgy, giving his imagination free reign, he can rival just about any horror author out there. When he gets self-conscious and plays it safe, however, allowing the morality of the tale to tale precedence over the story . . . well, more often than not, he gets violently tossed into the did-not-finish (DNF) pile. In many ways, it's as if he is one of his own creations, a schizophrenic author with two wildly distinct personalities.

Demon Seed, probably more than any other title, gives us an insight into those personalities. The original version, written in 1973, is definitely the product of his darker side. It's a sexually charged tale of psychological and physical domination, with an emotionally scarred young woman falling prey to the sentient computer that controls her home. Told mostly from Susan's point of view, it's an intimate tale that sinks its hooks into you, making you share her claustrophobic terror. Paying homage to Lovecraft (or, perhaps, anticipating Japanese anime), it spends a lot of time focusing on the pseudopod tentacles being grown by the computer, with which it intends to impregnate Susan in order to bring forth a new creation.

The original version was a very sexual book - almost embarrassingly so - with Susan spending a lot of time walking around naked, touching herself, and experiencing an orgasmic thrill when she illegally plugs the computer into herself. With her parents dead, and a history of abuse at the hands of her grandfather, there is a lot of emotional baggage to the story.

By contrast, the 1997 rewrite is coldly clinical and apologetic, snatched away from the talons of his darker side, and stripped of everything that made it compelling. Susan's viewpoint is abandoned, with the computer (Proteus) narrating the story instead. While this could have been an interesting approach, it removes the emotional hook, and creates an artificial distance between Susan and the reader. As for Susan, she's been given a feminist makeover, transforming her into more of a heroine and less of a victim.

Again, it could have been interesting, but it completely changes the tone of the story - without that vulnerability, and without the looming threat of suicide, she's far less sympathetic. Similarly, Proteus is transformed from the sinister, calculating, 'father-lover' figure of the original, and into an almost childishly malicious prankster. Gone are the phallic pseudopods, the creepy voyeuristic elements, and the overtones of mechanical rape. Gone as well is the taboo relationship with her abusive grandfather, replaced instead by an abusive ex-husband.

While neither version ranks among Koontz's best reads, the original makes for a far more compelling read.

Friday, December 9, 2011

11/22/63 by Stephen King

Wow. I literally just finished 11/22/63, so I wanted to write a few things about it while everything is fresh in my head, and before I begin analysing it too deeply and obsessing over misremembered details. First of all, it’s an oddly structured novel, told in 4 arcs.

The first is the introduction, which establishes Jake and introduces the concept of time travel. It reminds me of a short story, the kind of intentionally amusing oddity he would have included in the Night Shift or Skeleton Crew collections. It’s a little far-fetched, but played out so casually, as if there’s nothing to it, that it works. Little details, like buying the same pound of meat hundreds of times and then using it to sell 21st century hamburgers at 1960s prices ease us past the point of disbelief.

The second arc is Jake’s first extended visit to the past, which is really just an homage to King’s past. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – in fact, this was my favourite part of the book – but I suspect some readers will find it self-indulgent. Personally, I loved revisiting the town of Derry, seeing the evil that permeates through an outsider’s eyes, and running into the kids of IT. Later on in the book there are also some obvious nods to Cujo (rabid dogs come up a few times) and Christine (a sinister Plymouth Fury plays a role), as well as to Hearts in Atlantis and The Dark Tower saga.

The third arc comprises the bulk of the story, and deals with Jake’s second extended visit to the past. Here we get an interestingly (perhaps too) nostalgic look at the world of the 60s, one of King’s best stabs at developing a romance (between Jake and Sadie), and a healthy smattering of social and political commentary. This part definitely drags in parts, and is largely the reason I had to put the book down and give myself a break for a week or so before continuing. As events take us closer to the JFK assassination, and we really get to see how the past struggles to harmonize and protect itself, the story does take off, but it is a bit of a slog to get there.

The final arc of the story is one that I am sure will polarise audiences. Personally, I loved the Twilight Zone eeriness of it, and the unexpected way in which King deals with the aftermath of Jake’s intervention in the JFK assassination. It’s a bit heavy-handed, for sure, and easily the most fanciful part of the story, but it really brought everything to a satisfying conclusion with no lingering what-ifs.

Overall, a solid King story, and one that I suspect will end up ranking in my top 10, once I have a chance to digest it.