Friday, August 18, 2017

The Unholy Consult By R. Scott Bakker

The Unholy Consult
By R. Scott Bakker

For brotherhood was not the discovery of oneself in the breast of another, but of someone better”
The Unholy Consult page 265

The Unholy Consult is the latest book from R. Scott Bakker, who likely remains the best writer you're not reading. Published in July 2017, it finishes the second of two trilogies. Both were set in the world of Earwa: a world whose entire history from pre-human days to the very last page turns on one thing. Long ago, before men discovered fire or flint, a ship from an alien world slammed into this one, and they’re still around. The beings in this ship, that has been named the Ark. have but a single purpose. They desperately want to avoid damnation, for the existence of hell and their own eventual fall into it's flames is an objective fact that they cannot dispute. They believe that the only way to do so is to destroy the link between the living world and the afterlife, which is also called the Outside. To do that, they must kill. No, they must wreck a genocide beyond anything else, killing every sapient being until no more than 144,000 living thinking beings exist. To achieve this they warred with the natives of the world they found themselves on, creating monsters like the Scranc (orcs with all the humanity removed), Bashrogs (trolls drained any dignity or grace), and Wranc (dragons, only worse) to war against the Non-Men. They lost their war but their counter stroke left the Non-Men doomed and insane. When humanity appeared, they seduced a number of sorcerers, forming the Unholy Consult and began their war anew. But their greatest weapon ever was the No-God; a weapon that not only was able to direct their savage creations with inhuman imprecision but made giving birth to living sapient creatures impossible. The last time the Unholy Consult was able to deploy it, it led to the fall of human civilization and they were only stopped by a heroic effort by the greatest sorcerer of the age and the last living son of the greatest royal house of that civilization.
In the last trilogy Kellhus, a descendant of that royal house and the end product of a millenium-spanning breeding effort to create super rational humans, arrived in the civilized lands and proceeded to use his gifts to hijack a holy war and turn himself into the god emperor of humanity. He did so because he had been called by his father, the only man to leave the program. In his journey Kellhus discovered that the Unholy Consult was real, active, and rebuilding the No-God. Kellhus would betray Drusas Achamian, the man who taught him sorcery and the ways of the world, steal Achamian's wife Esmenet, lie, steal, and commit murder on a scale historical to create the greatest empire in the history of the world. He did all of this to build the greatest army in the history of mankind, to march it beyond the ends of the world to assault Golgotterath; the fortress that the Unholy Consult had build around the Ark to end this cycle of war and destruction; kill the Unholy Consult and destroy the No God. Meanwhile Drusas fled to study, dream, seek the truth about Kellhus, and gain revenge. In the last three books both men have marched toward Golgotterath. Kellhus with an army of 300,000 men,  Drusas Achamian with Mimara: his pregnant student, wife, and daughter of his ex (but I'll discuss her in a moment). Meanwhile a surprise contender, the most violent of men, Cnaiur urs Skiotha approaches leading a horde of his fellow barbarians for purposes that only he can fathom. The second series focused on bringing all the characters we've followed to Golgotterath for a final showdown that will decide the course of human history.

It's a hell of a showdown to witness, Kellhus' army has lost 2/3rds of its number but is still a massive assembly of men, magic, and metal to pit against alien cunning and machinery. Meanwhile there's Mimara who carries the judging eye, an ability to see your very soul and through that your final destination be it heaven or hell. Mimara is an interesting character in her own right, being that she is a child of Esmenet, born before she met Drusas and sold during a famine to prevent her starving to death. Like her mother she's had a hard life and is filled with rage over it. I have to note that, without making any explicit point of it, Esmenet and Mimara are very telling indictments of their cultures (and by association the cultures of our own past). They are extremely intelligent and gifted women, often more so than many of the men in their lives but because of their gender their gifts are utterly wasted. Even Kellhus, who is more willing to use gifted women than anyone else in the series tends to put them in the backseat. This is an example of Bakker's skill as a writer to be able to make a point without getting up on a soapbox, it's never explicitly acknowledged by the characters within the story but it's incredibly hard for the reader to miss.

Against this massive army are monsters uncounted. Ur-Scranc, Scranc with human like intelligence and drive, live within Golgotterath and with them there are even worse monsters behind fortifications that have held off armies since before prehistory. Magic weapons, black magic and darker technology lurk in the Ark itself as the Unholy Consult will resort to any weapon, strategy, or argument to win the day and bring about the practical extinction of humanity. Almost half the book is given over to the battle itself and it is written with skill and flair. Mr. Bakker shows us the fight on a small scale and a large scale, showing us tales of heroism and cowardice, victory and defeat, hope and despair. Cunning plots are undone by simple courage, bravery leads young heroes to ruin, ancient wickedness is undone by youthful self sacrifice. Mr. Bakker gives this battle, one he has been building up to for over three books now, the kind of weight and tension that a fateful clash for the fate of an entire world should have. Even this battle isn't the most important thing happening in the book however, as two other events that will likely prove more important occur at the same time. First is Mimara giving birth to her child which I suspect will end up being the more important event in the long run. The more immediately important event to the story is Kellhus going alone into the inner chambers of the Ark itself and the secrets he learns and reveals. As well as who he confronts and how that confrontation ends. Because it's in this book that that we finally learn the actual truth of who and what Kellhus has become. Mr. Bakker has been playing with us on this since the last book of the first series and ladies and gentlemen... You're gonna have to read this one to believe it. What I am going to say is that, Mr. Bakker uses the conflicts he has built up in the last six books as well as the mysteries he has teased and delivers not just resolution but sneaks in a commentary on where we may be going as a society and what that may mean for us as a species and as individuals.

Which leads me to a topic I've been avoiding in these reviews of Mr. Bakker's work for a while now. A number of my readers have asked me why I even bother with Mr. Bakker's work. It's dark and moody; full of depravity, despair and is at times disgusting. Mr. Bakker has built a world on a brutal metaphysical structure that is much like our own world but skewed, with all the mercy, hope, and decency removed. It's populated by deeply flawed men and women who often constantly make the worse decisions possible and leave you wanting to reach into the book and shake them. All of this is true and it is maddeningly rendered with a skill and driving passion that you rarely see. This makes Mr. Bakker's world of Earwa shockingly real. There's a weight to this world that is often missing from fictional works. The history of Earwa may lie upon it's present like a nightmare to paraphrase the quote, but it clearly lies on the present providing context and consequences. Like the worlds of Middle Earth or Arrakis there is clearly something that happened before the story began. By twisting our own histories and faiths, Mr. Bakker creates a living breathing world for his characters to live in. One that disturbs us so much because we suspend our disbelief for these stories to a much greater degree than we can for stories that take place on worlds that are less defined. If we find Earwa, a shocking, savage place devoid of grace it is because it is a reflection of our own history. That's not the only reason however, for all the realism and factual weight of the darkness that fills his stories, it would be just a pornographic literary sadism if not the fact that Mr. Bakker fills it with complex characters that one can sympathize with and cheer for.

Drusas Achamian for example is a deeply flawed man, full of grudges, wounded pride, and anger; but despite all of that he is a good man. A man who at his core wants to help and teach his fellows, to make the world better for those who will come after. Mr. Bakker seems at times to have Achamian in this story only to torment and belittle him but it is Achamian's stubborn refusal to surrender that carries him through. Add to this Esmenet, a woman who had her fate written for her by her society and was condemned for it. Esmenet was born into the role of a whore and her whole life as been a struggle to be allowed to decide her own role in things; to gain even a bare drop of agency and freedom in a society that tells her that she has no choice in the matter and that she is also a terrible person for doing what she is told. In the quest for some measure of freedom and security she has made awful decision after awful decision and paid a heavy cost for it but she still tries and in doing so finds grace. There are legions of other characters here I could name who in turn bring light and a little spark of hope in a dark world; such as Proyas' doomed struggle or even Kellhus' daughter Serwa's willingness to give everything to protect the world. The darkness of Mr. Bakker's world comes from the laws and histories that compel it, but the light comes from those people who can raise above themselves if even for a moment and if their light shines against a powerful darkness, then it shines all the brighter for it.

Lastly, I have to admit I admire Mr. Bakker for having the courage to carry through his ideas to their full implications. The presence of gods and demons is not a new one in fantasy but often made trivial. Demons are made into a type of orc, just another creature for our heroes to defeat and the facts that their existence implies left to rot. Hell itself in fantasy is reduced to another level for the main character to overcome and rendered almost banal. Mr. Bakker throws a hand and reminds us that the existence of hell and demons means the existence of Damnation, which is horror beyond all others. Our society, often divided between those arrogantly assured of their salvation and immunity to the flames and those who honestly believe that those flames don't exist, has in large measure forgotten that horror even exists. Mr. Bakker brings us a small reminder that something as immense as eternity should not be taken casually. If Hell is an objective, provable fact in your universe, then it is a horrifying, gut churning, bowel loosening one and should be treated as such. While I may feel he twists the knife a bit too much... It's a rare writer even willing to take up the knife in the first place.

The Unholy Consult is R. Scott Bakker at the top of his game. It clears the table, answers many of the questions that had been oh so carefully posed for a full six books and sets everything up for a whole new story. It provides us with the full scale of experience we would expect in an epic fantasy where the stakes are nothing less but the fate of humanity and possibly every other living thing that shares the world with it. I was in turns horrified, disgusted, amused, impressed, shocked, and more throughout the book. Additionally I appreciated the inclusion of the Encyclopedic Glossary at the end of the book, providing something of a pocket guide to the history of the world. While not every book or series should try to be like the 2nd Apocalypse, in fact I would argue most shouldn't, the series and the book in this review provide a benchmark of what well considered and written fantasy can be with drive and effort. I am giving The Unholy Consult by R. Scott Bakker an A.

Join me next week as we hit Monstress Vol II. Keep reading.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

Friday, August 11, 2017

Log Horizon VI: Lost Child of the Dawn By Mamare Touno

Log Horizon VI: Lost Child of the Dawn
By Mamare Touno

Here we are with yet another Log Horizon review, in case you somehow missed the last couple books or reviews let me sum up the series. Log Horizon is the story of a group of Japanese players of a MMO game that found themselves trapped in the game when a new expansion was released. They found themselves in the bodies of their characters with full access to their character’s abilities, only now when they fight the many monsters in the game, it was real and painful. As real fights tend to be. They have no idea how this happened or why. While there are subplots that focus on the many, many characters that have become part of this world, the main plot focuses on a young man named Shiroe who takes it on himself to organize a government and a society in the city he woke up in. He has to do this because frankly everyone else lost their damn minds. Thankfully once Shiroe got moving we swiftly found out that the other characters not only have minds but are capable of using them. So the story avoids the trap that Sword Art Online fell into of only the main character being allowed to do things (that's right, I said it and I'm not sorry!). Log Horizon actually started out as an online novel that was being posted by the writer Mamare Touno and it exploded as part of the current light novel obsession running across Japan.

Having said all of that, Shiroe is “sir not in this book” except for one chapter, instead this book focuses on a group of the ladies of Log Horizon. In this case the book is mostly told from the viewpoint of Akatsuki. Akatsuki is a young lady who, like Shiroe and the others, was pulled into the world of the game and woke up in the body of her male character. She was what old-timey folks like me called a cross gamer (apologies if this is the wrong term but I haven't heard it called anything else) where you play a character of a different gender than your own. From what I understand a number of ladies do this to avoid harassment. While there's nothing wrong with playing a character with a different gender, I do find it sad that people have to resort to this to just play Secret World (look you have your MMOs, I have mine) without some jackass texting them to send nude pics. I'm just gonna say…  Don't do that. It's just kinda sad, not to mention just flat out rude.

Anyway, Akatsuki was a cross gamer and it was thanks to Shiroe sharing a potion with her that she was able to transform back to her own gender and build. In return, she swore to repay Shiroe through unswerving service (editor’s note: Oh Japan…). Over the course of the last five books, that service has grown into a real emotional attachment which is foiled by her inability to communicate her feelings to Shiroe like an adult. She's also a very small, slender young woman, which leads to most people treating her like a child. Mr. Touno does well here by not fetishizing Akatsuki but by examining the drawbacks and the impacts it has on a person when they are simply never really taken all that seriously. Akatsuki is feeling that especially now as she realizes her weaknesses as a person and an assassin. Despite being a player of MMO's Akatsuki has avoided membership in guilds and large groups. This meant she's never been on raids or fought high level boss battles. Which in turn means she is suffering a severe lack of high level equipment. If you've played games like this you know that equipment is a major source of firepower, so despite being high ranked on paper Akatsuki is at a pretty harsh combat disadvantage against players that have tackled a lot of raids.

Akatsuki is not the only one struggling with growth in this story. Princess Raynesia, granddaughter of one of the leading families of the People of Earth (the natives of this world who in the game were NPCs and Quest givers) has been posted to Akiba, the city of Adventures, as an ambassador. Her leading worry is preventing a break between the Adventures (which is what the natives called the gamers) and the People of Earth. This is despite having next to no diplomatic training and difficulty understanding even the basics of Adventurer culture. For some perspective: even people from a society as restrained as modern day Japan look like a bunch of free flying maniacs with no regard for rank or class to someone from a full blown feudal structure. Add in that Princess Raynesia really just wants a quiet easy life where she can nap everyday, and you have a young lady really struggling.  You might be asking why she was posted here?  Simple, she was able to whip up an army of adventurers to fight off a monster invasion in the last books and has the best track record when it comes to dealing with adventurers.  At least among the nobility.   Shiroe and the others saw problems coming though and asked a number of young ladies from the adventurer population to drop by regularly for tea, hoping to build up connections and friendship through repeated contact. The Princess is gonna need those connections because there is something that threatens to make the city of Akiba explode.

There's a murderer running loose in town. He's faster and stronger than even the top leveled adventurers, he appears and disappears at will, he strikes at night, and no one can stop him. Now granted, death isn't really a big problem for the adventurers, if they die they wake up the next day in a temple in a nearby city but... Violence is supposed to be impossible inside the city walls. Peace is enforced by super powerful guards clad in magic armor that enhances them beyond the ability of even adventurers. Meaning anyone who initiates violence within Akiba is almost instantly imprisoned.  So who is this man, what does he want, why is he attacking every adventurer he can find alone and what happens if the truth comes out? Raynesia and Akatsuki will have to learn to grown past their limitations. They and the girls of the tea party will have to work together and fast to find the murderer, solve the mystery behind his rampage and end the situation before it becomes a scandal that could undermine the government of Akiba and the peace between Adventurers and the People of the Earth.

This is actually an interesting look into characters who usually play more of a supporting role in the story, giving them time in the spotlight. Not only do we learn more about them but we get to see them grow and improve in response to a problem. I enjoy character development like that honestly. The book stays within the the bounds of the city with one exception but tells an interesting story-within-the-story and gives us something new. The plot is fairly well self contained, although if you haven't read the other books, you're not going to know who any of these people are and why this is important, so I am deducting points for that. That said, the plot is pretty straight-forward; it's well done mind you but I felt that it actually avoided a number of twists or turns that would have made things more interesting. Still Log Horizon VI: Lost Child of the Dawn by Mamare Touno gets a B-. I really liked it.

Next week. The greatest army in history approaches the gates of the greatest den of sin and terror in the world. Are we going to see the salvation of the world or the fall of a new dark age which may very well mean the extinction of mankind? Join me next week, for the Unholy Consult by R. Scott Bakker.

Keep reading.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper By David Bennett

Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper
By David Bennett

At this time Mask of the Ripper (released in October 2015) remains the last published work in the Gideon Smith series. I reviewed Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon, the prior book in the series, waaayyy back in February (there will be a link at the bottom) so let me recap. The world of Gideon Smith is a steampunk wonderland where the American Revolution failed and the British Empire kept its hold on most of the east coast of North America. It's a world of Airships, islands full of Dinosaurs, Vampires, Clockwork Cyborgs and even weirder stuff. Into this world strides the Gideon Smith of our title; a handsome, strong son of a fishermen with straightforward courage and morality out to help as many people as possible. Because of this and his deeds in prior books, he's been awarded the title of Hero of the Empire but Smith doesn't work alone. There's his shockingly loyal if rotund chronicler Aloysius Bent, his mechanical lady love Maria, and Rowena Belle of the Airways among his surviving companions. The last two books have been journeys for Gideon Smith learning what being a Hero requires of him and what that means for his life. This book isn't about Gideon though, this book is about Maria, Bent, and Rowena. Although Mr. Bennett spares some time in the book to screw with Gideon's head of course.

I don't think I've spent a lot of time talking about Maria in these reviews. Part of that was because her story was heavily bound up in spoilers. Maria is a mechanical woman, built out of pipes, clockwork, and wrapped in the finest kid leather as skin. Her mind is a human one, it belonged to a woman murdered by agents of the British Crown for the crime of being in a relationship with a prince of the Empire. The whole crazy mess is given life and powered by a strange artifact found in the Atlantic on a sunken Viking longboat, it's origins are lost in pre-Egyptian times. Maria has been through a lot of changes in the last two books as exposure to other artifacts of the same origin have made her more... Alive. She no longer needs to be wound up and grows increasingly less dependent on the machinery that makes up her body. Maria has made her peace with her origins but she now has to make peace with who and what she deciding who and what she is. For one thing, Maria has to decide just how much she is going to let herself be bound by the conventions and mores of a society that in large part will never accept her as a person. I mean we are talking about British society 100 years ago here. This is the society that was struggling with the idea that women might be people in the same sense as men are. I suppose I shouldn't sneer to much at that, as there are plenty of people today, in the 21st century, who seem to have trouble accepting this idea. This is made more difficult when she finds out that her missing creator modeled her looks on a flesh and blood girl. A girl who disappeared upon being hypnotized into believing she's a whore. Maria is gonna have to deal with all this as well as work out what her relationship is with Gideon and what her ties are to the monster haunting the streets of London.

Because while she, Gideon, and the crew were running about the world? Jack the Ripper was hunting through the streets of Whitechapel killing women and cutting open their heads as if he was looking for something inside those heads. That of course begs the question of why the Ripper would be looking for anything inside of the head of a girl from Whitechapel and who, if anyone, he could be working for (or with) while conducting this grisly search? The Ripper showed up in the first book, Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, as the story that Mr. Bent had been chasing and now that all the business is out of the way Aloysius Bent is determined to hunt down the Ripper once and for all and put an end to the murder spree. Especially now that the street-walking girls of Whitechapel have declared a general strike until Jack the Ripper is found and arrested. To do this Bent will have to join forces with the police, specifically Inspector G. Lestrade. It's here that I run into something I really do dislike about the book. Inspector Lestrade is a Sherlock Holmes character, as a good number of my readers may already know. As you may guess Dr. Watson and Sherlock himself make an appearance in the novel; with Sherlock being a mental patient and Dr. Watson being the doctor tasked with his care. Dr. Watson lets him attempt to solve crimes as a method of treating his insanity. I'm gonna be blunt, that's pretty disrespectful and was unnecessary for the story. It really feels like something Mr. Bennett just threw in to darken the tone of the world. Considering that the book is dealing with hunting a serial killer that the authorities outside of the local cops barely care about? I think the tone is already pretty dark. I mean, in the last book Mr. Bennett took us to a Texas being run by an insane cyborg slaver warlord. I like the idea of adding shades of gray to the standard pulp setup and confronting pulp style heroes with morally complex situations but for there to be shades of gray, you need to mix in some light with your darkness, lest you end up with just a morass of muddy darkness. Nor is Sherlock the only character dragged through the mud as an aging Zo... El Chupacabra returns and is used poorly. That said I do like the work done with the good inspector Lestrade as this version of the character has considerable depth to him and his own unconventional relationship which gives him a point of commonality with the main cast. Still if the ghosts of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Johnston McCulley show up demanding satisfaction for this insult... I'm gonna have to say Mr. Bennett brought it on himself.

Unfortunately Bent is unable to focus his full abilities on catching the Ripper when Rowena is arrested and put on trial for murder. It's here we get to see the full extent of Bent's loyalty and willingness to put himself out for his friends. He throws himself into proving her innocent, by getting her a lawyer and working to find any evidence or any witness to keep the jury from uttering the words Not Guilty. Which is going to be difficult as the evidence against him is high and the Judge is known for his love of the death sentence. This is all the more difficult in that he has to do it alone, Maria is distracted with grappling with her identity and her place in the world and Gideon Smith? Gideon Smith has gone missing and disappeared into the depths of London without a trace. This leaves Bent fighting with every ounce of cunning, low charm and dogged determine he can wring out of himself. We also get a small look into Bent's past and find it choked by regrets. Mr. Bent comes off as oddly self aware and at times vulnerable in this book with his characteristic braggadocio gone. Considering that I've not talked a lot about Bent in these reviews because there wasn't much to say, Mr. Bennett has done well to humanize this character and lets us see that he doesn't hang around Gideon Smith for material gain. Although he has gained a much more comfortable life, it's not about that for him. He's here because at the latter half of his life, after trying so hard and screwing up so often, he finally has a chance to do something good and right and he's gonna throw everything he has into that. I like that and it's strange to have Aloysius Bent, the crude, near-hedonist cynic emerge as the moral compass of the book; but here it works.

The Ripper isn't the only villain of the piece however, there is also Markus Mesmer. Mesmer has a talent for hypnosis and has been causing minor havoc in London while hiding behind an act as a theater entertainer all while leading his own gang. Of course the gang isn't the only protection Mesmer has, he also has a battery of lawyers and isn't afraid to use them. Mesmer mostly plays a minor role in the story but our heroes do have to figure out what he's up to. Why is he in London, who is he working for, what if any is his connection to Jack the Ripper? Why is he so interested in the missing girl who looked just like Maria? For that matter, why is there is a girl who could pass for Maria's twin? All these questions pull the group apart as without Gideon Smith there, they find themselves operating mostly alone and unafraid. That said our title hero isn't neglected in this story, just kinda shuffled into the back seat for a bit as he disappears into London robbed of even his memory of who he is. Without even memory of his name or any money in his pockets, Gideon is wandering London in the middle of winter. He has to figure out just how far he'll go to keep alive and he finds himself pulled into a plot against the Empire. He has to figure out just what he stands for and who he's fighting for.

The action remains fast paced and well written and the dialogue is snappy and fun to read but to be honest I found myself more frustrated with this book then the last two in the series. The story raises a lot of questions and doubts for our characters but fails to provide answers to many of them and leaves our characters shaken and not entirely at peace with what they accomplished. There's good character work done with Maria and Bent but the story accompanies that by tearing down Gideon and Rowena which leaves us without any real catharsis. Which means Mr. Bennett has managed to tell a complete story but leaving us with the feeling of an incomplete story, which I'm almost sure he meant to do. It's an impressive feat of writing if that's so but I can't say I'm favor of it. Still this isn't a terrible book and it's interesting. Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper by David Bennett gets a C from me for that (Editor Query: Higher without the character assassination?{Yeah, it would be}). I find that I enjoyed the last two books in the series a lot more.

Join us next week as we continue Log Horizon, keep reading.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Valerian Directed and Written by: Luc Besson

Directed and Written by: Luc Besson

Hello and welcome, now usually I don’t do movie reviews, although I did do a guest review for Fantastic Four… Which we are not going to talk about.  Ever Again  Nor do I really intent to make a habit of it, however given that I did do a review for the Valerian and Laureline comic and I did see the movie with my editor Dr. Allen,  Hello everyone.  I am going to inflict myself upon you all. We thought it might be interesting to do a brief movie review, we will be talking about the movie as a stand alone and as an adaption of a prior work.  As such this review will have two grades.  First let me talk about Luc Besson.

Mr. Besson was born in 1959, in Paris France to a pair of diving instructors who divorced and remarried when he was 10, leaving him feeling isolated.  We almost didn’t get Luc Besson the director, he wanted to be a Marine Biologist but an accident at the age of 17 rendered him unable to dive.  As he was sitting there wondering what do with his life, a friend invited him to a movie set and he was convinced.  He was gonna make movies and he did.  Mr. Besson has to his credit films like Nikita, Leon: The Professional, 5th Element, Lucy and now Valerian.  Which is what we’re going to talk about today.

First off, the film looks amazing, the visuals are great.  The setting of most of the film, Space Station Alpha aka the city of a thousand planets is awesome, it’s like Babylon 5 only insane and on drugs.  Specifically LSD. I will concur that, like with The 5th Element, the visuals were pretty good, and I liked the degree of stylization in dress and architecture.  On the surface [read:the world that the elites live in], it looks like the sort of neon-techno orgy that a decadent society free from all want would look like...and the seedy underbelly looks exactly like the sort of seedy underbelly a society with that high a GINI coefficient would produce.  

Sadly, the writing doesn’t match the visuals.  The plot is fairly mediocre and while not executed badly, it’s not carried out with any great level of skill either.  This is a story you’ve seen several times before and you’ve seen done better.  The world-building was substandard as well.  With something like Babylon 5, you know why the station is there, what it’s purpose is, and can get a feel for the political landscape inside a few minutes. I was left wondering “Why is a space station that was cobbled together over the course of centuries and then sent to drift through space (without propulsion… in 400 years it should still be in Earth’s neighborhood, not seventeen lightyears away) seemingly the center of galactic governance?”.  Nothing is ever forthcoming in that respect.  I’m actually pretty annoyed about the treatment of a minor character who was brought in to solve a problem that she wasn’t really needed to solve and then dies… For no reason I could figure.  That was just so transparent that it knocked me right out of the movie. Honestly, she was the only character I gave a damn about as well.

The acting is not great either, a big problem for me at least is the relationship between Valerian and Laureline which I found vague and not very well explored.  They’re clearly in a physical relationship of some type (some sort of weird “friends with benefits” thing with a side order of resentment, miscommunication, and what looks a lot like workplace sexual harassment because both have become--and then stopped being--more attached to the other at different times) but I’m often asking why given the sheer amount of doubt that Laureline expresses in Valerian and the hostility. Their relationship just wasn’t something I could really believe in and considering that a lot of the movie hangs on it… That’s a bad thing.

On the military side, Valerian and Laureline are supposed to be agents in some sort of special forces.  They’re not police given that they conduct operations outside of their national boundaries without the permission of the host government, not to mention their military ranks.  As a Marine, I’m going to get up on my high horse and rant about that for a bit.  Their ranks make no damn sense.  Valerian is a Major, for… reasons and Laureline a sergeant.  However, Laureline is the one with a “fancy Ivy League education” (given her behavior in the movie, I’m left wondering just what her degree is in, underwater basket weaving?) which in most if not all 1st World militaries is a fast track to the officer corps.  Frankly Valerian acts more like a Sgt Major and Laureline acts like a Lt with anger issues (She gets very violent, to the point of beating a captive man unconscious). Military ranks are not just pretty words!  They mean things!  It would have been better if they were just referred to as agents or something for the whole movie.  I don’t expect most people be to be bothered by that but it annoyed the piss out of me. Also consider the level of competence on display.  I have no idea how Valerian even survived training, let alone made it to the rank of Major.  Good initiative and capacity to think on his feet, but his planning threshold is about five seconds.  That does not a good officer make.  

We basically have a visually staggering world with hints of a great setting with characters that are fairly unlikeable and a plot that isn’t really worth it.  This movie isn’t a terrible movie, the plot is serviceable like a microwave dinner and the acting is well done enough that you can believe people were paid for it.  So this isn’t Batman Vs Superman (If you disagree that it was an objectively bad movie, go back to your hole, you are alone in this world.{I take no responsibility for the comments of my editor})  But that doesn’t make it a good movie either.  Sadly Dr. Allen and I have discussed and we must give this movie a grade of C-.  Go see Atomic Blonde instead. For my part, instead of giving this movie a grade, I would call it aggressively mediocre for “Immortan Joe Declaration” values thereof.  The movie screamed “WITNESS ME!”, and that is my only response.

Now let me talk about it as an adaptation.  Now, changes must be made when translating a story to a new medium.  For example, in the comics Valerian and Laureline travel time as often as they do space the movie drops that, perhaps to avoid confusion.  Although I feel an audience that watches Dr. Who and Back to the Future could figure it out.  That said I can live with that change.  I can also live with Laureline being changed from a redhead to a blonde (we live in an era where characters have their gender and race changed and as often as not it’s a good change[Black Heimdal=Awesome] , why whine about hair color?).  Keep in mind as well that I am not a well-studied fan of this series, having only read to Empire of a Thousand Planets (which I liked!) but from what I’ve seen this is what the movie and the comics have in common:  There’s a pair of agents named Valerian and Laureline who operate as paramilitary protectors of their society.  They work in space.  This is everything the comics and movie have in common.  

Massive changes have been made to the setting, gone for example is Galaxity and instead we have the United Human Federation which is shown to us as a rather milquetoast science fiction society.  The relationship between the characters has changed, Valerian is made into kinda of a meathead bro instead of the crafty agent I saw, in the comics. Yeah he was two-fisted but he was also capable of cunning (as is proper for a manly hero in the pulpy Age of Chrome).  Laureline’s personality is more violent and confrontational than in the comics where she tends to be disarmingly charming, and while capable of violence, tends to prefer to out think her enemies.  Now some of that is an artifact of their times, as the comic started in the 1960s but I do think more effort should have been put in to retain what made both the setting and characters different and interesting.  I mean consider this; before the comic was published the name Laureline didn’t exist, the creators made it up.  Now thousands of women have that name.  That’s a real world impact.  Frankly this series, even from the little I’ve seen, deserved better than this.  As an adaptation I give Valerian a D+, Mr. Besson would have been well served to get a professional writer for this.  

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

Friday, July 28, 2017

Valerian and Laureline: Empire of a Thousand Planets by Pierre Christin art by Jean-Claude Mezieres

Valerian and Laureline: Empire of a Thousand Planets
by Pierre Christin
art by Jean-Claude Mezieres

It's 1965, Salt Lake City, Utah, United States of America. Two young men from France meet, they've met before, playing together in cellars during allied air raids in World War II but this time instead of hiding from bombs, they're building a metaphorical one. One of them teaches French literature at the university, while the other was an artist in training. One was inspired by the Mad magazine school of art and the wide open spaces of the American West, still full of natural beauty not to mention the visuals of films such as This Island Earth or Forbidden Planet (that's right, yet another staple of science fiction inspired by Forbidden Planet). The other was inspired by Asimov, Van Vogt, Vance, and Wyndham as well as by his education at the Paris Institute of Political Studies and his PhD in literature. From the minds of these two men, something new was about to be born.

The comic series Valerian and Laureline is a French science fiction series that was first published in Pilote magazine (which ran from 1959 to 1989) but outlived the magazine to have it's final story published in 2010. The series has a visual influence on a number of series including Star Wars (while some deny it, the design director of Phantom Menace at least admits to keeping albums of the series on set) and 5th Element. Mr. Mezieres was awarded the The Grand Prix de la ville d'Angoul√™me, a life time achievement award considered one of the greatest awards in the French comics industry. The European Science Fiction Society award was given to both men in 1987 for their work on the comic as well. The series is about the adventures of our two title characters as Space-Time agents for Galaxity, the central government of humanity and much of the galaxy. In this future, much of humanity has slipped away from reality, living in “dreams” while a small group of technocrats keep all the lights on and an even smaller group of agents keep the timeline and the galaxy safe for dreaming. It's kind of interesting to see the idea that a civilization would lose itself in simulations was being advanced in 1967 even if they don't use the same language to describe it that we would. In the volume I read, maybe it's just me but Galaxity comes across as an empire tittering on the brink, it's people live isolated from reality while a shrinking class of people are constantly working harder and harder just to keep things going. The idea of imperial collapse and changing of the guard seems to be a theme in the series as I think y'all will soon see, but let me get to the specific story.

Valerian and Laureline are sent beyond the borders of human space to Syrte the capital of the Empire of the Thousand Planets. The planet itself is a vision of extremes, within the massive imperial palace where only the elite of elites are even allowed entry while out in the swamps not even three days away people live in abject poverty, forced to hunt massive predators for their skins to survive. It's a world with a massive space port that reaches out to dozens of worlds but the majority of the inhabitants have to make do with much less advanced technology, many of them using beasts of burden and muscle powered tools with the most advanced thing they'll ever see being a solar powered paddle boat. Still if you can get to the capital and visit the market you'll see wonders beyond reckoning. The world is in decline and ruins dot the surface, infrastructure decays from neglect and poverty spreads while the ruling class distances itself more and more from the common people. The only exception to this is a group of mysterious masked beings known as the enlightened ones, healers with an understanding of mind and body beyond what anyone else in the empire has ever seen. They live in a temple fortresses, emerging in small groups to minister to the people for short periods of time before disappearing again. They are ruthless towards opposition and have systematically crushed all opposing centers of power, at the cost of much of the learning native to the empire but they are now the power behind the throne on a empire crumbling out from under them.

It's into this situation that our heroes arrive, sent to see if the Empire will be a threat to their own people or if peaceful relations can be established. When a chance meeting in the marketplace turns the enlightened ones into their enemies, they find themselves pulled into the empire's internal politics and have no choice but to intervene. If they would live they must navigate the politics of an alien empire simmering with resentment and discontent that could explode into violence at any moment. Still, they have the training, they have the talent and they have the drive to not only work for their own well being for the people of the empire... If it's even possible to anymore.

The story itself has aged more or less decently but has clearly aged. To be blunt on the matter audiences of the modern day are a bit more demanding than those of 50 years ago and plot twists that were groundbreaking back then are now normal. There's a bit of deus ex machina in the story as well, as our heroes at time seem to get what they need through sheer luck more than anything else. I'm not so sure a modern writer could get away with that. The art is also an artifact of the time, reminding me heavily of some of the comics of the period or newspaper serials where the physical characteristics of the characters are exaggerated. While I'm not very bothered by it, I can't call it great work by modern standards either. I'm a Burroughs fan though so the datedness of the story doesn't bother me overmuch. The characterization is straightforward if simple. Valerian is a man of action who focuses on the mission first and everything else second. Laureline is focused mainly on helping Valerian and in this story acts mostly as his sidekick, that said unlike a lot of female leads of the time period she isn't relegated to the damsel in distress but is able to even save Valerian at times and be of real help on the mission. Which honestly gives it some bonus points. That said we don't get a lot of deep investment into the characters. I can't tell you much more about them then what I already have. This story is a pretty fun (if dated) space opera and if you’re aware of the state of fiction in the late 1960s, you appreciate the work for what it is.

Between the inventiveness of the settings, the two fisted action, and the fact that I can see the seeds that became a lot of our modern science fiction... I did enjoy it. Going back this early isn't something I recommend for everyone but if you’ve got a taste for going back to our roots (Editors note: To the “Age of Chrome!”?), give this book a try.  To be clear it wasn’t the only work doing these things back then, but at the time it was not the common trend.   If I had read this in 1967, this would have gotten a B+ very easily or even an A-, as this is a series that stands out for it time.  Time marches on however, Valerian and Laureline: Empire of a Thousand Planets by Pierre Christin gets a C+ from me but an enjoyable one all the same.  

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Blood of the Lamb: The Expected One By Mark E. Rogers

The Blood of the Lamb: The Expected One
By Mark E. Rogers

I'm a book nerd and my chosen poisons tend towards fantasy and science fiction. I've defended both genres from critics as a whole repeatedly both in this review series and in other venues. I do feel, however that there are problems at times. One of the great strengths that both of the genres have is the ability to get us to look at a problem or an issue without raising our defenses by changing things enough to allow us look at it in a new light. This is often done with political or social issues in fantasy or science fiction, you see this books ranging from Harry Potter to the Goblin Emperor for example. The execution varies from masterful to anvil droppingly awful but one thing modern fantasy seems to shy away from is theology.  I don't just mean the theology of modern religions but even most fantasy religions are fairly shallow. There are plenty of religious allegories in modern fiction, Harry Potter died for the sins of the Wizarding World and rose 3 minutes later not that long ago. Man of Steel was fairly happy to use religious symbolism. I think this is because most people aren't very learned in theology.

In recent history, religion in the United States has become politically charged with the Christian Fundamentalist Churches all but demanding sovereignty over these questions. Their own very sparse and harsh theology has produced people who are in my experience often unaware that there are other works out there to read beyond the Bible.  If you're wondering I honestly recommend starting with The City of God by Augustine, as that's where a lot of western theology starts. You can never go wrong by starting at the beginning.  Speaking as a pastor's son, many of the lay people could stand to actually read the Bible.  This is not exclusive to Fundamentalist Churches to be fair, nor is a problem exclusive to Christianity. There are deeper levels you can go to, questions that theologians have been dueling over for thousands of years and it's there that we rarely go. Now some do go there, Scott Baker has staked out some interesting ground in his own series which is one of the reasons why despite so many people being outright horrified by that series, they keep reading it. I was bemoaning this to a friend, when he suggested an old series called Blood of the Lamb and that's what we're here to talk about today.

Today’s author Mark E. Rogers, was born in 1952 in New Jersey and wrote his first book while a high school student, The Runestone that would eventually become a movie in 1991. Mr. Rogers would graduate the University of Delaware in 1974 as Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelors of the Arts Degree. Mr. Rogers would come to be known primarily for two things, the Samurai Cat series, a parody work featuring a Samurai cat on a mission to avenge its master's death, and his artwork. However, when you peek beyond that you see a long list of novels, many of them dark, that grapple with moral and theological themes and pull no punches in doing so. The Expected One is honestly the first work of his that I've ever read but I find myself looking at the others as well. Sadly Mr. Rogers is no longer with us, having passed away in a heart attack in 2014 while hiking in California. He is survived by his wife and his 4 children. He is also fondly remembered by a number of friends who have written moving tributes of a man they considered to be thoughtful and intelligent. I want to say he is also survived by the work he left behind but if amazon is any indication his work is slowly disappearing. It is a sad and simple fact that only tiny amount of fiction writers will continue to have their work published after death, as publishers will prefer to devote time and energy to new writers who can produce more work. This is a sad and terrible thing in my mind but I honestly lack a solution to this. To get away from that subject, however, I think it's time we actually start talking about the book we're here to review.

This series takes place on a fantasy world that is similar but at the same time very different from our own. On this world is a group of people who are called the Kadjafim, an ethnic group united by it's shared religious belief in a single God and their waiting for a foretold Messiah. The religion of the Kadjafim is kept by an order of wizard priests known as the Sharajnaghim. They maintain the doctrine and rituals of the religion and are the final authority of the religion. However they are not sovereign, 20 years before the story begins the great Silver Horde of Batu Khan swept over the lands and conquered all before them. While he demands yearly tribute from the Sharajnaghim, Batu Khan is fairly hands off towards them, perhaps in gratitude for their aid against the Black Anarites, worshipers of a being that the Kadjafim consider a demon. The people of the Kadjafim are not content under the fist of Batu Khan however and rebellion seethes under the surface, even if it is punished quickly and brutally. However in addition to mere secular rebellion has come over the years an increasing number of men claiming to be the Expected One, the awaited Messiah of the Kadjafim. The Khan declaring that he is not a religious authority and would not wish to offend God, has given the Sharajnaghim the responsibility of ferreting out and trying these heretics. If the Sharajnaghim declare you to be a false Messiah, you are handed over to the Khan and executed.

It is in this setting that word arrives that a man known as Essaj Ben Yussef has been preaching in the backwater regions and performing miracles while referring to himself as the Son of Man. Despite the disquiet in the order in performing a role as the Khan's appointed hatchet men, 3 young members are dispatched to investigate Essaj and his claims to prove his miracles and to test his preaching to find fraud and heresy. Let's talk about these 3 young men a bit, first up we have Sharif, a handsome young man who is well gifted in magic and physical combat. Sharif is brave, earnest, devoted to the order and honestly not very good at intellectual pursuits. That's okay though, because he's mostly on this trip to bodyguard our other two characters. The first off is Erim, who while not as physically capable as Sharif is frighteningly intelligent and an expert in doctrine. His job on this adventure is to test Essaj's religious arguments and preaching and see if he can expose any heresy or weak points. Erim does have a weakness, however, when it comes to good food, good wine or good women, which I'll circle back to in a bit. Our last member of the trio, Nawhar stands opposite to Sharif and Erim in many ways. Nawhar's body is wracked with bad joints and skin that constantly itches, Nawhar has turned to religion for solace in the face of this and has become something of a zealot. He's a genius zealot however with a high skill in sussing out false miracles and trickery. As the confrontation between them and Essaj leaves them unable to disprove his miracles, miracles which seem to become increasingly unbelievable the longer they stay in his presence and attempts to discredit his theology founder, we see cracks in the friendship of these 3 young men. Erim begins to doubt that Essaj is a false prophet. Sharif finds himself rocked to the core and fearful of the future.

However there's also the question of whether or not the Sharajnaghim can really claim the authority to make these decisions anymore. Generations of wealth and authority have brought corruption, politicking and those more concerned with material gains than religious duty. Mr. Rogers shines here in showing this very subtly and not hitting us over the head with it. We see the members of the Sharajnaghim have grown disdainful of manual labor, we see that they grown lack in enforcing proper behavior in ceremonies (allowing a student to drink wine and celebrate in between tests for promotions when he's suppose to be meditating and praying for example) and have breaking their vows, such as vowing to be chaste but having mistresses and wives. The corruption is further shown realistically in that these aren't necessarily bad or faithless people, most of them even those who break their vows still have very real faith and belief in what they're doing and create rationalizations and excuses for their oath breaking. This is how corruption works in the real world, it doesn't turn everyone into a cackling super villain, even good people will indulge in it if encouraged by people they respect and if it's made the norm. That's how even the best of us can be caught up in it and it can bring down even those who aren't part of it. Nawhar for example sticks to his vows to the very letter but in doing so lets pride and anger cloud the reason for those vows in the first place, placing him in jeopardy of destroying the very thing he would protect through sheer narrow minded pigheadedness.

This isn't the only story line in the novel however, back in the home temple of of the Sharajnaghim someone has unleashed a Demon to hunt down and kill masters of the order. This plants seeds of doubt between the masters as it raises the real possibility that the demon that is hunting them in their very homes was summoned by a Master of the Sharajnaghim. Meanwhile they also have to contend with the possibility that the Black Anarites have sent this Demon to destroy them and end their long war. I have to note another thing I enjoyed here was the use of Demons, a lot of fantasy series turn Demons into basically another monster to fight and conquer. This kind of drains the horror from the concept and can leave one thinking that there's not much difference between a Demon and an Orc expect ability. In this book series however, the theological weight of Demons is restored. Demons are objects of horror, tormenting their victims physically and mentally. Displaying knowledge about them that you would think it would be impossible to have and using it to prey on people's mental and emotional weaknesses. The Demons in this book are elevated from a monster to figures of terror and secrets and that is a lot closer to the core idea of a what a demon is for me.

As I'm sure a lot of you have guessed by now, this is an alternate retelling of the gospels. Set on another world where the Biblical fall didn't happen until the 2nd generation of mankind, this means that mankind has access to more gifts than in our world. In this case being magic. This isn't a straightforward one to one transfer of the gospel to a different world however, the geography and history of this world is very different. For one thing there are no Romans, but there are Mongols who set up a massive empire. Essaj is of course the stand in for our Lord Christ and Jesus' teachings remain fairly intact if not engaged in-depth in this book.  The theology of the Sharajnaghim is given more time and space in this book, given that is important for the trial that Essaj is going to find himself on, I'm okay with it. Most of the miracles are taken straight out of the gospels, I won't spoil which ones but the context in which they occur and and the order they're traditionally in is changed. Very little time is spent on the disciples which I found to be a shame, since they're fairly big parts of Jesus' story. The book is fairly unflattering to them, showing them as very focused on their status and on who Essaj favors more. This is honestly kinda accurate to how they were before the Death and Resurrection so I shouldn't nitpick too much here.

The book was an excellent change of pace for me, while there was plenty of action and daring deeds, there was also space for debate on religious beliefs and discussion on just where the space between doing your duty and being a hide bound fanatic lie. That said, the book is also rather thin to my taste given the subject matter being a mere 230 pages, still Mr. Rogers’s sense of plotting and pacing allow him to cover a lot of ground in a few pages, something that modern writers could use a little bit more of, even if I think the book could have used another 20 or 30 pages. Still this is the first book in a series, so I suppose I can't fault it too much for leaving room for the next book. I am going to penalize it for not completing the stories told in this book, however. While entertaining and interesting to read, none of the plot lines are brought to completion so I can't say I read a complete story here. Still despite that, I am giving The Expected One by Mark E Rogers an A-.

Next time, we take a peek at one of the longest running science fiction comics out there when I review Valerian. Keep reading!   

This review edited by Cameron Johnson