Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Lee Collins "She Returns from War" (Angry Robot, 2013)

When Victoria Dawes, a proper young Englishwoman, sees her parents killed by savage beasts, she embarks upon a journey of revenge.  Her journey will take her to Albuquerque NM, in order to enlist the aid of seasoned monster hunter Cora Oglesby.  Before Victoria’s parents can be avenged, first they must face the menace of a Navaho skinwalker.  

Collins’ first novel, Dead of Winter, was one of my surprise finds of 2012. It was a solid weird West tale featuring a unique voice and great plot twists.  Needless to say, I was excited to read the follow up.  Unfortunately, She Returns from War is more than a bit of a letdown.  

It’s not that this is a bad novel.  Plot, pacing, characterization, etc are all good.  But none of it really stands out against the competition.  Told from Cora’s POV, her voice was a distinctive feature of the first novel.  She Returns from War is told exclusively from the POV of Victoria Dawes.  After immersion in the roughhewn mind of Cora Oglesby, Victoria Dawes is a rather milquetoast choice.  

Additionally, a large part of impact of Dead of Winter hangs upon a very significant plot twist.  While my expectation is not that Collins should try to replicate this each novel, the plotting in She Returns from War is rather straightforward in comparison.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Some Thoughts on 2012


 We are definitely in the long tail mode at this point.  Critically, the EOY discussion seems to be clustered around Frank Ocean, & the concept of hipster R&B.  But did it really have much traction actually with music listeners?  I think FO had a compelling narrative for critics, & one that they were sympathetic to, but not necessarily interesting music.

 Clearly the songs of the year were “Call Me Maybe” & “Gangnam Style”.  In terms of all non-sales definitions of a hit, both these songs fit the definition.  They were ubiquitous, appearing in multiple varieties in odd situations (Olympics coverage, for example).  One interesting thing about both songs in that they were released as creative commons licenses, which encouraged the viral dissemination of the music.  It’s also interesting to me that this seems to be a move back to a 19th century model, where prior to recordings, the song itself was the thing.

The big story that seems to be under analyzed is the continued sales of Adele, as well as the strength of the release from Mumford & Sons.  Despite market dominance, critics seem to avoid this.  (There are probably a variety of reasons for this, not the least that neither artist is particularly interesting from a musical perspective.)  I think this speaks to a resurgent rockism, as music fans are clearly attracted by the traditionalism of both acts (as well as the fact that both are soaked in layers of “authenticity”).

The rise of the EP.  Yeah, this format has been around for years and years.  But it seems to be gaining traction in new categories of music.  Traditionally this has been limited to dance/hip hop/etc, but now we’re seeing a wide variety of musicians with releases slightly smaller than full albums.  In 2012, I heard excellent EPs from The Punch Brothers, Zoe Muth, Elizabeth Cook, The Black Twig Pickers, & others.


We can’t really talk about internet culture in 2012 without recognizing the behemoth that is facebook.  Its IPO shocked economic observers, but I have to say that I was not really surprised given their history of absolutely not understanding the internet.  Anyway, 2012 was the year that your mom got onto facebook.  They are the new AOL, & within 10 years will consist primarily of old ladies.  The next platform that seems to offer what people use fb for will provoke mass migrations, similar to what we saw with Friendster, myspace, etc.

Also of interest was the migration of internet communities into meatspace and traditional media.  Anonymous made regular appearances on news sites, not just the tech underground.  The Guy Fawkes mask was an iconic image of the year.  The world is becoming increasingly (William) Gibsonesque. 


  We’ve started to be in the midst of the generation after the so-called “Golden Years”.  What we’re seeing now is smart TV for dumb people, where the surface details of the better shows (Wire, Sopranos, etc) are lifted & used in pandering ways.  AMC & FX are perhaps the most guilty of this, although many others are jumping into the fray.

The exciting development was the true emergence of the auteur model as it relates to TV.  Small shows dedicated to a very personal artistic vision.  Girls & Louie exemplify this (also Portlandia).  IMHO, this is the way to proceed in the new model.  You aren’t going to have large audiences, so go for small idiosyncratic programs.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

R.S. Belcher “The Six Gun Tarot” (Tor Books, 2013)

The basic bones of The Six Gun Tarot are familiar.  An ancient evil awakens in a small town, and a ragtag band of locals have to join together to try to stop it.  But the details are important, and in this case the details are what separate The Six Gun Tarot from so many other stories. 

First, there’s the town itself.  Golgotha is a Nevada town after the silver mine tapped out.  It’s not a ghost town yet, but there’s a sense that the town is in decline, and may be there eventually.  And Golgotha seems to have lots of secrets.  We never really learn about most of them, but hints are there – a grave that must be salted, strange murders that have happened.  At one point a character asks if the trouble is regular trouble, or “Golgotha trouble”.  

Of course a town is nothing without its citizens, and the people of Golgotha aren’t the inhabitants of “Gunsmoke”.  There’s a mad scientist, a sheriff who can’t die, a feminist assassin, a Chinese sorcerer, and other unique characters.  The implication is that Golgotha itself has some sort of mystical gravity, pulling people and monsters to it. 
The Six Gun Tarot is an ambitious first novel.  Given the large cast, and even larger set of ideas, in play, Belcher has a lot of balls to keep in the air.  And somehow he manages to pull it off.  The first half or so of the book is primarily setup:  introducing the characters and concepts that will be needed.  In the middle of the book, the tone takes a dramatic shift, & suddenly it’s a frantic horror story, with our cast of characters fighting for survival.  But it all works.  The characters are nicely developed and have distinct voices.  

The world building, despite its ambitions, is nicely handled and gives a sense of solidity to this world.  Belcher wisely chooses to leave the reader with some mysteries.  I found myself wanting to know more about the backstories of several of the characters, and wondered if my suspicions were correct about them.  

A book like this isn’t for everyone.  It’s not boilerplate fantasy or SF, with their familiar tropes.  But if you’re looking for something a bit off the beaten path, or from a new voice, then The Six Gun Tarot could be very rewarding.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Mark Teppo “Earth Thirst” (Night Shade Books, 2013)

Vampires as ecowarriors?  Sounds intriguing… So how does that play out?

The plot is full of thriller tropes.  A superspy is on a mission that goes cockeyed.  Afterward, he’s on the run while trying to put together all the pieces to figure out what exactly is going on.  He teams up with the sexy noncombatant, who helps him (while providing a romantic interest).  Wouldn’t you know it, he realizes that there are two shadowy groups in opposition to his own organization.   After much exotic globetrotting, he has a final showdown, only to realize that the truth still hasn’t been uncovered.

In Earth Thirst, the superspy is named Silas, & he’s a Greek soldier who is a vampire (here they are referred to as Arcadians).  He’s been around since the Trojan War, & somehow due to the rejuvenation process the Arcadians use, he’s missing a lot of his memory (not quite as much as Jason Bourne, but you get the idea).  The sexy noncombatant is a journalist named Mere, who of course has investigative skills necessary to put the pieces of the conspiracy together.

So what about that vampire thing?  Teppo’s vampires don’t do a lot of vampirey stuff. There’s a bit of blood drinking, but it’s more like a guy who enjoys a beer now & then, rather than the alcoholism of most vampires.  They can regenerate by being buried in “good soil”.  But most of the time it’s just used to give certain characters greater than human abilities (speed, strength, etc).

Oddly enough, the parts of Earth Thirst that work best are the thriller elements.  Sure, most of it is bog standard for a post Bourne thriller, but it was very well done.  Faced paced, great action sequences.  It was compelling and riveting.  

What didn’t work as well for me were the vampire elements.  The Arcadians themselves seemed a bit overpowered.  They can walk in sun, go without drinking blood, have access to untold wealth and top notch military training.  Silas should have been sympathetic, but I had some difficulty becoming emotionally invested in a character whose greatest flaw is a bad memory. (And that seemed to be a convenient reason to withhold information from the reader – what have the Arcadians been doing for thousands of years?  Why should we think of them sympathetically?)

Would I recommend Earth Thirst?  Yes, with reservations.  It’s a lot of fun, but not as innovative as the blurb may make you think.