Friday, October 23, 2015

A long long time ago in a galaxy far far away...

Let me preface this review of Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig by saying I never got into the Extended Universe (now Legends). I tried reading the Zahn books, but got about halfway through Heir before feeling like I was reading really pretentious and horrible fan fiction. I found out how they brought back Boba Fett and his sentient Sarlac and rolled my eyes. I played the old MMO Star Wars Galaxies, but never got into it, mainly because the timeline was so screwy.I recall playing Shadow of Empire on PlayStation, but even that smacked of silliness.

With that said, I picked up Aftermath because I read a bad review of it. I know this sounds odd, but someone was complaining quite vehemently about the inclusion of the GLBQAAT into the ostensibly white straight Star Wars Universe.

So yeah.

The one problem with not particularly breathing Star Wars is that without contextual clues, just saying X character is Twi'Leck doesn't help. Thankfully, Wendig does add in contextual clues, so when you meet Jas, a Zabrack bounty hunter, the horns and facial tattoos means she's one of Darth Maul's people.

Anyway, yeah, this is book one of an alleged trilogy fixing the timeline between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens and reclaiming the franchise from the horrors of the Extended Universe. As such, we're not focused on the original heroes (well, the ones from the classic trilogy) as much as we are new characters from both the New Republic and the remnants of the Empire. We do get vignettes throughout the main story giving glimpses at other worlds in the galaxy and what's happening there, and we get a brief visit with Han Solo and Chewbacca who are breaking Republic protocol to go help liberate Chewie's homeworld that I am so not going to try to spell again.

The main plot centers around the Outer Rim world Akiva, where Admiral Rae has assembled some of the last officers of the Empire to try to plot out where to go after the destruction of the Death Star and the end of Palpatine and Vader. Problem being Wedge Antillies stumbles across the meeting and gets captured. His distress call gets picked up by Norra, a Rebellion pilot who fought in the battle of Endor, who's come home to Akiva to get her son Temmin off the planet. Temmin is trying to take over territory from the local crime boss, and getting in deeper trouble by doing so. In the meantime, Jas, the bounty hunter, figures out exactly how many credits she can get after discovering that not only is the target she was after was on Akiva, but 5 other major bounties were there as well. In the process of assembling this disparate group, we also get Sinjer, a former Imperial loyalty officer who had a change of heart during the battle on Endor.

Ultimately, the book relies on ramped up coincidence and misinformation on everyone's part, with everyone believing that everyone else is getting fed information from an outside source. Which, as we find out at the end, they were, as someone we only meet as Admiral makes shadowy commentary worthy of Dr. Claw or Blofield. Also, in keeping with internet memes, Ackbar is back and still worried that taking part of the fleet to Akiva will be a trap.

By the way, the complaints about the queer characters seems a bit silly, since the lesbian couple who raised Temmin after Norra left to fly in the Rebellion exist mainly to provide exposition, and the other gay character mentions it once during the run up to break in to the Imperial meeting. It's not like any of them get graphic sex scenes right in the middle of the plot. for that, you'd be wating Mara Jade and Luke Skywalker's silliness in the EU.

When the next book comes out, I'll probably read it as well, since these are now canonical, but really, for me, Star Wars works better on a big screen with a bucket of popcorn in my lap.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Hello twelve, hello thirteen, hello nihilism

Long time readers on here will likely remember what a fan I was of R. S. Belcher's fantastic books set in 19th century Golgotha, Nevada. While I still hope he returns to Golgotha at some point, his more modern Nightwise is still a pretty good substituite for the weird Western.

Unlike Golgotha, here we're in a first person narrative, centered on one Laytham Ballard, a Wisdom out of West by-God Virginia. Well, sort of a Wisdom, since he's pretty much mortgaged part of his soul, doing drugs on the regular, and his Occult Rat pack is dissolved and dying off. One of his former cohorts, Boj lies dying of AIDS related complications in a Hospice, extracting a promise from Laytham to go after Dusan Slorzack, a Balkan bad guy who was responsible for many atrocities against Boj's wife.

Problem being that Dusan can't be found by any means, physical or mystical. And to be honest, someone really doesn't want him to be found. An investment banker with a tenuous link to Dusan winds up crucified in his office. That said investment banker is also part of the Illuminati isn't helping.

Which of course leads deeper down the rabbit hole, eventually involving a transgender Aborigine who runs a Nightclub in NYC, a hacker extrordinaire, the hacker's girlfriend, a gypsy girl with a touch of the power, and an acidmancer. (We're skipping a whole bunch of plot here, but....) We also get to meet a part fae girl who more or less acts as an intermediary to the gods. She gets a rather good line about discussing fan fiction with Etruscan gods of the harvest. Hell, even the Devil himself shows up at one point.

Based on my own readings into the subject matter, Belcher has done his research quite well into various occult practices of different cultures, which also came across in the Golgotha books. Ultimately, the takeaway here on his system of magic for this book is that will and intent matter much more than any particular system. Mind you, having Google translate handy for some of the Latin phrases Laytham uses as a focusing agent leads to some extra humor in a few places. (As an aside, I have to be amused that the idea of secret Occult knowledge can be found in a mass market paperback. Then again, a book can give you knowledge, but experience is how you learn what it really means.) also, some characters get mentioned who would make interesting additions to later installments, like the Twittermancer, who divines people 140 characters at a time.

Conspiracy theory also plays a large part in much of the plot. While Icke's lizard people don't show up, we get a alot about the Illuminati, the Masons, the US Treasury, 9/11.... In some ways, I felt like I was reading a novelization of someone's hand of Steve Jackson's Illuminati card game.

I enjoyed the ride with this one. It was kind of like reading an American version of a Simon R. Green novel, only with more drugs.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Don't poke the Deep Ones

Harrison Squared by Daryl Gregory invites a lot of comparisons. Given the plot is basically a Lovecraft story with some Rime of the Ancient Mariner thrown in for flavor, this isn't overly surprising. However, what this mostly comes across as is Cabaret as directed by Charles Band during his Lovecraft movie making phase. Because, seriously, there are some hard tonal shifts depending on which character we're following around at any given point in time.

So, we start the book with the arrival of Harrison Harrison the 5th (Harrison Squared x 5) and his widowed mother in Dunnsmouth, Massachusetts, where she has intentions of tracking down giant squid in the Atlantic. Dunnsmouth is at the uvula of a crocodile shaped bay, has no cell phone reception, no cable TV, and no internet service. Communication is only available via land line, making is hard for adolescent Harrison to get by.

Dunnsmouth High School is a bit odd, since it's one of the oldest buildings in town. Practical Skills class, which is the first Harrison attends, involves making fishing nets. Math covers non-Euclidian geometry. History covers great gales of Massachusetts and how to be a Tyrant.

Mom, in the meantime, goes missing after dropping a buoy in the bay. We catch up with her dealing with the Scrimshander, who paints people's souls into his scrimshaw. (Scrimshaw being using whale bones and cartilage as a canvas for art.) That he's also a fish man helping his mother, The Toad Mother, find vessels to host Urgaleth's present to Earth when the Stars are Right in the near future isn't helping.

This is what I mean by tonal changes. The parts involving Harrison are quite tongue in cheek. The parts involving the Scrimshander are universally terrifying. Nothing like a giant fish man attacking with knives to pick up the tension.

Anyway, The students at Dunnsmouth attend Voluntary before school. Where they chant to Urgaleth and what ever gods belong to the Deep Ones. As such, there's a resistance group known as the Involuntaries who work to break up the cult. The core group includes a talking doll named Isabelle. The leader, however, is Harrison's sort of girlfriend Lydia, who's parents also met the Scrimshander. Lydia's Uncle owns the Albatross, the boat that rammed the lobster boat that Harrison's mother's ship.

Harrison also picks up help from the strange explorer who seems to live in the library, as well as Lub, a Deep One adolescent obsessed with comic books. Lub is a bit odd anyway, since he idolized Aquaman. Partway through, Lub discovers Manga and starts giving everyone the -san honorific.

For the most part, it works. The humor in the narrative provides a nice counterpoint to the horror going on outside the main narrative. Unlike Lovecraft, the horror is much more personal than existential. The human villains chew the scenery quite well, while the Deep Ones (while also somewhat amusing), are less villains and more creatures following their calling.

This book will not be liked by Lovecraft purists, but for those of you who enjoyed such schlock as Re-Animator and From Beyond, it will provide a good escape.