Fearless Defenders Volume 1: Doom Maidens

Monday, December 30, 2013

Fearless Defenders Volume 1: Doom Maidens
Cullen Bunn, Will Sliney, 2013

Premise: Collects Fearless Defenders #1-6. Valkyrie has a problem. Since the troubles that Asgard has been having (it’s super complicated, but you don’t need to know the details to read this title), she was supposed to put together a new cadre of Shield-maidens to replace other vanished valkyries. She hasn’t exactly done that, and now an ancient team of death warriors are rising from their graves to correct the balance. Valkyrie and Misty Knight might need all the ladies of Marvel to get on board to save Earth from the Doom Maidens.

This was really fun to read. The writing is really strong, the dialogue is snappy without being gimmicky, and the art only occasionally strays too far into cheesecake territory. It’s a great showcase book for a bunch of somewhat lesser-known Marvel superheroines. Valkyrie is the one I knew best, from a few issues here and there of various events and team books she appeared in, as well as guest spots on Avengers Academy, etc.

Misty Knight I know was part of a few recent books that I didn’t get into, but I love her here. She’s a bionically enhanced detective. She is also snarky as anything and uber-practical. Misty’s friend the archeologist Annabelle Riggs stands for the unpowered among us, although her knowledge is essential to their mission. Dani Moonstar I think I’d heard of briefly before this, but she seems awesome. A telepathic mutant who can create illusions and whose prior dealings with Asgardians left her with a few extra abilities, she’s a perfect fit here. Hippolyta, a resurrected amazon who has no patience for much outside of battle, rounds out the main cast.

I loved the style and I loved the pacing. The splash pages were epic in more ways than one. The trade collection happily keeps all the entertaining covers before each issue, and reprints a selection of the letter columns too!

The end of the arc manages to both be a bit of a cliffhanger for the next arc and a satisfying resolution to the story as presented. The main characters cover a lovely array of backgrounds, ethnicities and sexualities! I have heard some complaints about the ending or about certain character developments, but I enjoyed it enough to give the creators a little benefit of the doubt, and I look forward to the next volume.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

A Yuletide Universe: Sixteen Fantastical Tales

Monday, December 23, 2013

A Yuletide Universe: Sixteen Fantastical Tales
Editor: Brian M. Thomsen, 2003

Crossposted to Mainlining Christmas

Hooray! Despite opening with an epigraph/poem that made me cringe (it started out rhyming, and then… stopped?) this was a much better collection of holiday cheer than the others I've read this year.

My favorite stories are starred(*).

The collection opens with three super-short pieces:
“Nicholas Was . . .” by Neil Gaiman, 1989
“Cyber-Claus” by William Gibson, 1991
* “Holiday” by Richard Christian Matheson, 1982

The Gaiman and Gibson are brief and forgettable, but the Matheson (this Matheson is the son of the more famous author) is a nice, subtle piece about a guy who runs into Santa on holiday in the tropics.

“Nackles” by Donald E. Westlake, 1964
Westlake is mostly a crime fiction author, and this little spooky story about the creative power of belief is well done, if not (in 2013) particularly original.

“Santa Claus vs. S.P.I.D.E.R.” by Harlan Ellison, 1968
Absolute shit. Extremely dated, pedantic, unfunny, and gross parody of a spy novel. Avoid this one at all costs. I'm already repressing having read it.

“O Come Little Children . . .” by Chet Williamson, 1989
This is a finely written piece about belief and the “real” Santa, along with parental fears and a decent twist.

“It’s a Wonderful Miracle on 34th Street’s Christmas Carol” by Brian Thomsen, 2003
The most recent piece, a trope mashup taking place mostly in a therapist's office, is also the one by the editor of the collection. It’s not terrible, but maybe he should stick to editing.

“The Yattering and Jack” by Clive Barker, 1984
While I found some parts of the ending unsatisfying, this tale of the struggle between a demon and an average man was often fascinating.

“Icicle Music” by Michael Bishop, 1989
A creepy ghost story that starts with a boy receiving a shotgun and a visitor.

“Miracle” by Connie Willis, 1991
Nope, not reading that one again. It’s not horrible, I just didn’t like it much.

* “A Foreigner’s Christmas in China” by Maureen F. McHugh, 1993
A poetic, lovely piece about travel, ghosts, and the paths people walk.

“Household Words, Or The Powers-That-Be” by Howard Waldrop, 1993
This was very very odd. Parts of this meditative, half-biographical, half-alt-steampunk-world story about Dickens and Christmas Carol are intriguing, but it never really goes anywhere. It felt like the author was just showing off a handful of ideas he really liked, without a real story to put them in.

* “A Kidnapped Santa Claus” by L. Frank Baum, 1904
An earlier version of this story was in The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, but certain aspects of it are much more interesting in this. A handful of demons decide to kidnap Santa in order to cause the children of the world to indulge in vices. In the public domain! 

* “How Santa Claus Came to Simpson’s Bar” by Bret Harte, 1873?
A Western! It’s got excellent style, and it’s a sweet story with rough edges, which is just right. In the public domain!

* “A Proper Santa Claus” by Anne McCaffrey, 1973
Just lovely, a fantastic story about a young boy and his ideas about “proper” art. Recommended for all who were young artists.

* “The Plot Against Santa Claus” by James Powell, 1970
FINALLY! Someone wrote an actual Christmas noir! Rory Bigtoes has a lot of problems as head of Security for Santa, what with threats against the big guy and civil unrest among the elf population over new toy production techniques. This is probably my favorite piece in this whole collection.

This is a much stronger collection overall than the others I read this year, despite a few missteps, and I can safely recommend it as a fun read. Just skip the Ellison.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book (If you delete that one story. Otherwise 3. Or 2. It’s really bad.)

The Knights of Christmas

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Knights of Christmas
Suzanne Barclay, Margaret Moore, Deborah Simmons, 1997

Crossposted to Mainlining Christmas

Yup, it’s officially a theme. MORE SHORT STORIES. These ones are a little more like novellas, though.

This is a Harlequin Historical compilation, three short works set at Christmas. I thought it might be a somewhat entertaining read: a bit of fluffy medieval holiday romance. Well, I was right, sort of, in that it was fluffy (in a shallow way) and medieval (in its uneasy gender roles).

The first story, Kara’s Gift, was the one I actually liked. It has in common with its sibling stories awkward and somewhat off-putting description in the sex scenes, but the characters are at least likable, the story super-cliche but amusing. Duncan is a landless knight, back from the crusades with enough treasure to wed his childhood sweetheart, but instead he’s swept up in a Scottish clan-war and a wild-hearted pagan lass. It’s actually kind of sweet by the end, and the romance is whirlwind but the passion plausible.

Here’s the first problem with the other two stories: they have the same plot, more or less. The Twelfth Day of Christmas is about a young noble couple who have until the end of the Epiphany celebrations to figure out whether or not they want to marry. The lady challenges the gentleman to convince her to love him. A Wish for Noel is about a world-weary knight who comes home to find his neighbor’s daughter is obsessed with him, and he gives her until the end of Epiphany to clear out, which she takes as a challenge to make him love her.

Second problem: they both have couples that make my skin crawl, although they feel like standard romance fare. In the first, Giselle wants to get out of an arranged marriage because she’s convinced that having a husband is like an imprisonment. Sir Myles Buxton, her suitor, is pompous and self-absorbed, but apparently capable of the occasional romantic gesture, and revealed to be ‘sensitive’ by the end. The story starts out alright with misunderstandings and trickery and banter, but it bogs down in overly flowery descriptions of how twitterpated Giselle becomes, and the whole resolution of the plot made me grimace. In the second story, Noel is convinced that she can make her PTSD’d man all better with her (young, magical, virginal) love. Of course, because this is Harlequin, Giselle is wrong about the dangers of marriage, marriage is hearts and flowers and happiness and she was being foolish, and of course Noel can cause her knight to embrace life again with only a few well placed kisses and holiday games. Ugh.

Third problem: they both feel like stories that might have made at least some sense if they were set in the Regency period, but they are completely odd set in medieval Europe. Both authors, by their blurbs, also write Regencies, and Margaret Moore in particular seemed ill at ease writing about medieval life or celebrations.

All three stories are followed by a short blurb/ad for the author’s next book. Needless to say, I am not on the lookout for any of them.

1 Star - Didn’t Like it Much (But Give Kara’s Gift 2 Stars)

Miracle and Other Christmas Stories

Monday, December 9, 2013

Miracle and Other Christmas Stories
Connie Willis, 1979

Crossposted to Mainlining Christmas

Awww, man! More disappointing Christmas stories. I went into this one with high hopes, because Willis’ story “Pony” was one of my favorites in Christmas on Ganymede. Unfortunately, it was one of my favorites here, too.

It starts strong, with an introduction that was worth borrowing the book from the library for, just for the snark about Hans Christian *overrated hack* Andersen and the list of other recommended stories and movies, some of which weren’t on our radar yet! Sure, she thinks The/A Christmas Story is actually quality, and that's just wrong, whether you’re talking about the myth as literature or the movie as cinema (she likes both). But Willis is a Hugo winner! Surely, there are some good genre stories in here, right?

Sort of.

Lets run through the contents, shall we?

Starts strong, woman receives visit from accidentally conjured hippy Spirit of Christmas Presents, makes a cogent compelling argument for why “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a terrible movie. All good right? Unfortunately, about halfway through you see the “twist” and it devolves into another bad holiday rom-com. Sigh.

Now, credit where credit is due: In this story, Willis probably comes closer than anyone else in my entire life in getting me to give a good goddamn about a baby in a manger. It’s a good solid story about a woman in a church choir with an unexpected visitor.

“In Coppelius’ Toyshop”
Has a nice creepy vibe in some of it, overall too obvious.

“The Pony”
Read before. I still like it, although it doesn’t have much of an ending.

Okay story about a bookseller meeting characters from A Christmas Carol fallen on hard times.

“Cat’s Paw”
This one confounded me at first. It is clearly presented as the latest in a line of Holmes/Poirot/etc. style stories, although the characters are aware of this. I just wasn’t sure whether these characters did in fact predate this story, and if it would make more sense if I knew more. Turns out no, and no. Still, it’s kind of a neat little murder mystery, if the ending is a bit clunky and I found the style grating.

BEST story in the book. Really fun first-person tale about a possible alien invasion at the holidays. Everyone is nice, you see… too nice.

This story about a preacher with a sudden urge to drive into a snowstorm starts strong, but goes on a smidge long. Then the end, which is supposed to leave a sense of mystery and be open to interpretation, just undermined the whole thing for me, leaving me unsatisfied.

Short stories often have the problem of just being vignettes, but most of these were long enough ‘short’ stories that I thought the plots should have some closure, and only half of them did, it seems.

It’s not a terrible collection, overall, but I was so annoyed by the first one that it took me a while to give the other stories a chance.

3 Stars - A Good Book on average.

The Ice Harvest

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Ice Harvest
Scott Phillips, 2000

Crossposted to Mainlining Christmas

Premise: Charlie Arglist is making the rounds on Christmas Eve, 1979: the bars he likes, the strip joint he runs and the one that he patronizes. He’s not telling anyone that he’s leaving town in the morning. Charlie’s not having a good night.

I didn’t like the movie of this as much as Erin did, but I did really enjoy the book. It’s got a bleak humor that places it firmly in the best noir tradition.

Charlie’s a lawyer, and he works in the machinery of the mob that runs much of the town, managing businesses like porn shops and the Tease-O-Rama. He’s skipping town in the morning. That’s all you know at the start of the book, and I really liked the slow build. The movie hits you right at the start with Charlie’s partnership with Vic, and why and how they plan to leave town, but for fully half of the book, all you know is that Charlie’s leaving, and he has to meet Vic at two.

The book takes place over less than 24 hours, chronicling Charlie’s long, horrible night. The picture of the town from this perspective, of the 4 or 5 bars that Charlie visits, and then visits again in a different order, makes it clear how realistic and terribly sad it would be to live like that. Of course there’s action, murder and betrayal, but the best parts of the book are the quiet interactions with minor characters, each with their own tragedy of a life.

The minor characters get a lot more play in the book than in the film, and the family relationships are slightly different, and more interesting, I think. Charlie isn’t sympathetic or unsympathetic. You go along with his decisions because he’s the point of view character, but you don’t really spend time in his head. He’s not a nice guy; he’s just less awful than a lot of the others.

It’s the story of one man’s long, dark Christmas Eve, and it was a really satisfying read.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Christmas on Ganymede and Other Stories

Monday, December 2, 2013

Christmas on Ganymede and Other Stories
Edited by Martin H Greenberg, 1990

Crossposted to Mainlining Christmas

I was so excited when I found this book! A collection of sci-fi themed Christmas stories, just the thing to break up the Christmas monotony, right?

Now I know why I kept finding copies of it for a dollar.

It’s not all bad, there are some stories I liked, but most of the authors are phoning it in here. It’s like everyone had one mediocre holiday story in them, and instead of reading it in a collection of other good stories on other topics or other good stories by the same author, it’s bundled with every other author’s one mediocre story.

But let’s be more specific, shall we?

“To Hell with the Stars” Jack McDevitt, 1987
To hell with your pessimistic cliche attitude, Mr. McDevitt, warp drive might still be possible - 1 Star

“A Midwinter's Tale” Michael Swanwick, 1988
A nicely creepy Solstice tale, well done - 4 Stars

“Christmas on Ganymede” Isaac Asimov, 1968
Cute humor story, fine for what it is - 3 Stars

“The Falcon and the Falconeer” Barry N. Malzberg, 1969
Okay example of mysticism, not my thing - 2 Stars

“Christmas Roses” John Christopher, 1943
Decent little character study, holiday somewhat incidental - 3 Stars

“Happy Birthday Dear Jesus” Frederik Pohl, 1956
Starts really strong, but the cutesiness of the setting takes over and the ending chickens out big time - 2 Stars

“The War Beneath the Tree” Gene Wolfe, 1979
One of the best stories in the book, dark and horrific, well in tone for December - 4 Stars

“The Santa Claus Planet” Frank M. Robinson, 1951
Cute premise, I guess, but overstays its welcome - 3 Stars

“The Pony” Connie Willis, 1985
Niiiiiiiiiiice - 4 Stars

“O Little Town of Bethlehem II” Robert F. Young, 1985
Really intriguing premise, somewhat lackluster execution - 3 Stars

“The Christmas Present” Gordon R. Dickson, 1957
Really? This was pointless - 1 Star

“The Season of Forgiveness” Poul Anderson, 1973
Decent, but at this point in the book, decent wasn’t impressing me - 2 Stars

“Christmas without Rodney” Isaac Asimov, 1988
Cute, but read like a story that was cut from I, Robot for not having an ending - 2 Stars

“Christmas Treason” James White, 1961
It’s almost good? The idea is neat, but the plot “twists” are so incredibly dated today that I just had to sigh - 3 Stars

Hits and misses aren’t that surprising for an anthology, but still I was disappointed. Nothing really blew me away, although most of the stories were at least okay.

In the end, it averages about 2.6, which sounds right. Not terrible, by any measure.

Lets call it 3 Stars - A Good Book, because I’m feeling generous.

Because all credit to these authors, but it’s not their fault that Mainlining Christmas’ collection of Christmas stories has amazing sci-fi that leaves theirs in the dust.