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Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis book review

There’s the bare bones of a good novel in Ian Tregillis’ Bitter Seeds, but it hasn’t been thought out well enough. From a great opening, Bitter Seeds founders on its basic premise that everything that happens in this alternate history of World War II where the Nazis have deployed technologically enhanced supermen and superwomen with special gifts and the British have turned to demonic spirits, depends on the ability of Gretchen, one of the superwomen, to predict the future and act in accordance with it.

That doesn’t seem like so much of a problem at first, but increasingly nothing can happen in the novel except following Gretchen’s agenda. That means nothing really matters and the story has nowhere to go. The British put their efforts into soliciting demons and paying a blood price to blockade the English Channel, but none of that really goes anywhere. The Nazis zip around Europe and besiege England, but don’t seem to get around to pushing into the USSR.

Rather than the battle between technology and mysticism that the novel’s blurb advertises, it’s more of a pointless stalemate with none of the characters really accomplishing anything. Tregillis proves the paradox that knowing the future leaves you helpless but that doesn’t make for much of a story. It’s not Tregillis’ writing that fails here, or his ability to tell a compelling story, it’s the plotting that locks him into a novel that goes nowhere. By the end the war has ended, with little intervention from any of the characters, and nothing really seems to matter.

The Scar Crow Men by Mark Chadbourn book review

Amid all the books of fantasy detectives and secret agents, The Scar Crow Men is the story of a fantasy secret agent in the 17th century. Fair enough. But what sets the Scar Crow Men apart is its grounding in a historical reality, Mark Chadbourn does a great job of bringing London of the period to life in all its strangeness.

Unfortunately the book is also uneven. There are absolutely great moments of Will and his allies dodging around plague pits and palaces on the run from a supernatural enemy, the fay, who have unnatural powers, torture and kill on a whim, and whose very sight drives men mad. And then the corner turns and the fay become just more redshirts to be mown down by Will, and even when they capture him, what follows is the usual “Let me tell you all my plans right before you escape from my fortress” bit.

Somewhere halfway through Scar Crow Men, and its promising beginning in the intrigue of the court and the grimness of the alleys of London, the book jettisons most of the horror and trades it in for cliches. The visit to France to encounter the thing that drove a man so mad that he killed an entire village, leads to nothing. The climactic hunt for the magic weapon that will change everything is anticlimactic and the weapon and how it works is undeveloped.

But to add insult to injury, the closing of the book reveals that the entire thing was pointless leaving The Scar Crow Men with an idiot plot.

Spoilers begin here…

The entire plot hinged on Kit Marlowe, the playwright, having known what was really going on, hiding the information in a ridiculously complicated cipher scattered around all over the place. It never made much sense that he would do this, and there was no real point to him doing it. The enemy already knew its own nature, so there was never anything to hide, and no reason Marlowe couldn’t have just put the actual information in his message.

Still that level of complexity can be accepted for the narrative’s sake… until Chadbourn has Marlowe step out in the final scene (after beating and tying up Will for no particular reason) to reveal that he was around all along, and could have told him how to defeat the plot against England at any time. That’s when a ridiculous plot becomes an idiot plot. (If you guessed that Chadbourn then reveals that Marlowe is the real Shakespeare, 2 points for nailing the last cliche.)

Marlowe is the shadow that hangs over The Scar Crow Men. Chadbourn worships him and insists on having all the characters worship him. He sets the plot in motion by his pointless secrecy, and keeps it going that way. And his return from the dead mans that there was no reason for anything that happened, except that if Marlowe had sent a brief note, it would have been a shorter and perhaps better novel.

Grimm and Once Upon a Time Previews

Grimm is shown off as a show by the Buffy and Angel producers about a cop killing monsters. Once Upon a Time as a show by the writers of Lost about a strange town that’s part of a dual reality with an extensive backstory. So no one’s wandering too far away from their specialty.

Based on the promos alone, the acting doesn’t look too great in either one, but Grimm has a premise that can carry over past a few episodes, Once Upon a Time is more like if we knew ahead of time that Lost was going to suck. That’s unfair. Once Upon a Time could be another 10th Kingdom. But I don’t see much of a fun factor here. Bad acting. An uninvolving lead. Robert Carlyle shows up. And maybe there’s more good to the show.

Grimm doesn’t seem bad. It lacks some of the punch I was hoping for. And we’ve got the usual Forever Knight setup with a cop who has superpowers that he uses to solve crime and a partner who doesn’t know it. But the werewolf sidekick is looking like fun. But the Grimm preview looks like it’s the entire first episode. That’s a stupid thing to do.

I was hoping Grimm would be more like Special Unit 2 and maybe it will be. Right now it looks enough like a generic procedural to be boring.

Game of Thrones is True Blood in Medieval Drag

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If you want to see a glimpse of George R.R. Martin’s complex and epic fantasy series, it’s nowhere to be found in HBO’s Game of Thrones. But if you want to catch True Blood in medieval drag, it’s there and you’re welcome to it. But where True Blood’s campy soap may be a fair tribute to the original, Game of Thrones isn’t. Instead it maximizes the trashiest elements and wallows in them putting something that’s closer to Guccione’s Caligula than a quality production.

Watching the first 15 minutes that HBO put online, it’s easy to feel good about Game of Thrones. But that 15 minutes gives you about as much of the world building and the fantasy background as you’re going to get. It also gives you some of the better acting in the first episode. From there on in, it gets worse. Much worse.

No one involved with Game of Thrones seems to care much about establishing a plausible world, but they care even less about character background. And that quickly boils Martin’s complex intuitive tales about human vulnerability into a stream of bedhopping instead. Take the scene where Daenerys is told by her brother (one of the worst actors on the series) about her fate. What is a story about an abused young girl who is the heir to a lost kingdom on the page, loses all its context on screen for nothing more than a prolonged nude scene. When Daenerys says that she too wants to go home, the viewer assumes that she shares her brother’s motivation, but the reader knows that she only wants the small house where she lived for a while as refugees. The red door that was a symbol of her childhood is gone, and the 13 year old girl is aged enough that HBO can decontextualize what’s going on for a prolonged nude scene.

The rest of the first episode isn’t as bad, but it’s up there. Sean Bean is the name actor and the central redeeming factor. When he’s on screen the story has weight, but it doesn’t keep that weight for long when he’s off screen. The production tries to invest the northern life of the Stark clan with some authenticity, but it eagerly slips out to the bedhopping royals that it’s sure the audience really wants.

For an HBO series, the bad acting is surprisingly commonplace. But it’s not because so many of the actors are bad, but because the material isn’t being taken seriously. It’s True Blood in medieval drag, and too many of the actors treat it that way. There’s little suspense and unsubtle foreshadowing. The networks may be canceling the soaps, but HBO and Showtime are investing in a new kind of soap.

High King of Montival by S.M. Stirling book review

High King of Montival by S.M. StirlingIf you took every single dinner party or mealtime out of the second phase of the Dies the Fire series, it wouldn’t have taken four books just to get Rudy and the gang to and back from Nantucket. To its limited credited, High King of Montival does manage to get them back in one book. But not without visiting everyone along the way. And attending all their dinner parties. A dinner party for the Maine Vikings. A dinner party for the Boise nobility. A dinner party in Wisconsin. A meal out in the wilderness. On and on until there’s more meals and dinners than battles. More dinner parties than the hobbits ate at in Lord of the Rings.

Four books in and there’s finally a sword, which is a deus ex machine that can read minds, project thoughts, teach languages and do everything. Characters get married. There’s a brief battle against the Cutters over in Canada’s Alberta province, which is the only place in North America to still have something like a non-feudal democratic government. And not much else.

The High King of Montival reruns the characters and situations from the previous books, wrapping them up, but mostly dragging them out. There are a few good moments, one as the travelers climb to the top of Toronto’s CN tower, but it’s a rare exception to a narrative which satisfies itself with more homecomings, detailed descriptions of food and repetitive banter. There’s a brief spurt of energy with the Cutter ambush but that dissolves into a generic homecoming. It’s not quite a cliffhanger, but it’s clear this story will drag on through more and more books.

Sword of the Lady by S.M. Stirling book review

Sword of the Lady by S.M. StirlingI realized what was bothering me about Sword of the Lady by the time the endless series (now on its third book in the second chapter of the sprawling Emberverse series) reached Maine, populated by Vikings. Stirling’s original idea for Dies for the Fire was a good one. Tolkien and many fantasy writers have tried to reach back to reconstruct a fantasy pre-history for Europe, Stirling reversed that by constructing a fantasy post-apocalyptic history based on the heritage of the different peoples who make up America. It’s interesting in theory, but it’s also impoverished in practice.

Stirling’s Viking Disneyland Maine is not only implausible, it’s less interesting than the actual Maine. Much less. And that follows true for most of his America or Montival. At every turn, Stirling gleefully tears down every element of the old America, replacing it with a dim feudal society where everyone can only belong to one culture. If you live in Maine, you better be Swedish or learn to pretend. If the Mackenzies were just trying to survive in the first chapter, by Sword of the Lady, Rudi and Mathilda are openly talking about how loyal a vassal Fred will be for their children’s inheritance. Is there anything admirable about that? Only if you contrast it with the sociopathic Cutters who just kill or rape everyone outright. A typical example of Stirling’s subtle touch.

There’s not much to say about Sword of the Lady. This series has gone on too long and it spills into still another book. Sword of the Lady should have been incorporated into Scourge of God. Instead it ends with yet another cliffhanger. Along the way Rudi and Mathilda turn Boise into another feudal kingdom, spend time eating and hanging out in a Swedish household in Wisconsin and then go on to Maine and do the same thing, battle corsairs and finally land on Nantucket, before receiving a vision that the extra-dimensional aliens they call gods, took away human technology to save us from ourselves.

Dust of Dreams by Steven Erikson book review

40 pages in and Dust of Dreams, the ninth book of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series looks like it might be the most astounding fantasy

Dust of Dreams by Steven Erikson

novel in some time. 400 pages in and you’re bored to tears and can’t wait for it to end. But there are 400 more pages to go.

Dust of Dreams is to the Wheel of Time, as Black Swan is to Showgirls, a classier version without the energy. Dust of Dreams is well written, but the writing consists of the same thing done over and over again. There are too many characters and almost all of them spend frightening amounts of time agonizing about who they are, what the point of doing anything is and whether life has any meaning. And they do it for page after page.

There are gripping elements here and a dramatically edited down book might have captured them. The children’s journey across the desert deserves to stand on its own. So does the Malazan army’s last stand. But instead chapter after chapter goes to the prolonged bickering and internal debates of too many characters. Most of it adding up to nothing. Maybe a 100 pages or more dedicated to seven bickering characters who are parts of a split personality, leading to an awakening of a character who doesn’t seem to show up in this novel. A 150 pages on the rape and torture of Onos Toolan’s wife Hetan, then the failed rescue attempt by her brother, and the extermination of the White Face Barghast. Nothing anyone does makes a difference and the material is ugly, unpleasant and pointless. It leads nowhere.

Dust of Dreams might be more defensible, if Erikson didn’t top off his philosophical meandering with the trite. The K’Chain Che’Malle’s search for a new religion ends with Kathyn telling them to believe in compassion. The K’Chain Che’Malle are an ancient civilization with a high level of technology who are about to be exterminated, until two Malazan warriors show up with innovations like using shields and strategic formations, and rekindle their hope with their human confidence. For a book so determined to be smart, that isn’t smart at all.

Imager’s Challenge by L. E. Modesitt, Jr. book review

Is it fair to negatively review a book not on its own merits, but because it’s a carbon copy of half a dozen books just like it that the author already wrote? That’s the question that comes up with Imager’s Challenge by L. E. Modesitt, Jr., a book that reads well enough on its own merits, but is a virtual carbon copy of many of Modesitt’s Recluse books, right down to the beat cop assignment, which he had used in a recent Recluse novel only a few years ago.

Unlike Imager, Imager’s Challenge doesn’t crib from The Name of the Wind, but that just means Modesitt cribs from himself instead. And Imager’s Challenge has all the standard material. An earnest and incredibly talented young protagonist, forced by his magical power to join a special guild, and deal with obstinate superiors who manipulate him and refuse to tell him what he needs to know. A chunk of this goes all the way back to The Magic of Recluse, right down to the main character. There’s the usual conspiracy and a climax in which the main character figures out how to use his magic power to make things go boom.

Taken on its own, Imager’s Challenge is reasonably well written. The world building isn’t bad either, though pseud0-European 19th century settings are a dime a dozen now. And Modesitt just made the Recluse world, without Recluse and with a different magic system. Modesitt controls his urge to describe everything the character eats in great detail, but not by very much. There are thousands of words dedicated to describing meals. Much of the rest is dedicated to procedures in the job the main character has taken on and lectures about moral principles. Again standard fare for Modesitt.

But Modesitt has shown that he can actually take on different universes. The Ghost of the Revelator is set in a very different world. Imager though is a way to create a cheap new universe, without really going out and doing it.

How Many Fantasy Cop Shows Can You Have?

Currently at least two. Grimm “a dark but fantastical cop drama” from Angel’s David Greenwalt and Ron Moore 17th Precinct dubbed “Harry Potter for grown-ups.” This might be less a case of Hollywood’s bizarre tendency to order multiple copies of something unexpected when one studio starts imitating another (e.g. two volcano movies, two asteroid movies) but more about the growing shelf power of crappy current fantasy novels about vampires and werewolves.

Sight unseen, I’m going with Grimm on this one. David Greenwalt is underrated. And Ron Moore is hugely overrated. Plus his writing has no sense of humor. I can’t imagine a humorless fantasy cop show, but I’m sure Ron Moore will manage to give us one. A show where the characters are as painfully serious as if they were being written by Aaron Sorkin.

On that note, why get Aaron Sorkin to use Keith Olbermann to make a TV show about cable news, why not just use Aaron Sorkin to replace Keith Olbermann. It’s the same thing and you’re getting rid of the middleman.

It probably doesn’t matter. I don’t see a fantasy cop show having much staying power off the SyFy channel, and on the SyFy channel it would have to come with bad acting, a low budget and exist mainly for international markets. The shame here is that if Joss Whedon announced he was doing a fantasy cop show, there would be more hype than you can shake a stick at. But David Greenwalt doing one gets ignored.

The Spy Who Haunted Me by Simon R. Green

The Spy Who Haunted Me by Simon R. GreenThere was a time when a Simon R. Green novel was a unique sort of thing. But ever since Green jumped in the supernatural detective trend with both feet, his novels come off an assembly line. And the entire Secret Histories series, in which Green tries to differentiate himself from all the Jim Butcher wannabes by writing a supernatural spy novel (he already has a supernatural detective series in Nightside and new supernatural investigator Chance novels) come off as the worst of the bunch.

Even by those standards The Spy Who Haunted Me is ridiculously generic. Green is phoning it in and not even trying to hide it anymore. The Drood novels were already bogged down by never being more than James Bond parodies with the same main character you see in every Green series (a reluctant hero in his 20’s who plays by his own rules and makes cutting remarks and has an open-ended superpower), but The Spy Who Haunted Me jettisons most of the background to have Eddie Drood join a few existing characters and some generic Bond types on a quest to solve mysteries like the Loch Ness Monster or the Roswell landings.

Green isn’t even bothering here and it shows. There are paragraphs of redundant description and contradictory character remarks coming in a few lines of one another, to give you a proper First Draft effect. Most problems are solved with Eddie Drood’s armor with the other characters contributing nothing except quips. This goes on forever until we reach a predictable and anti-climactic ending.

Simon R. Green is writing too many novels now to do a good job. But you can still look at the difference between The Good, the Bad and the Uncanny and The Spy Who Haunted Me, to see which of them actually get some quality time, and which get rushed off the assembly line. And both pale sadly next to some of the older Deathstalker novels. It’s hard to blame Green for cashing in on a trend, but he’s destroying his own appeal by churning dozens of books that all read the same, have the same characters and quips and situations.

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