book review: johnny and the dead

Johnny and the Dead is a book about a boy who can see and talk to the deceased folks in his local graveyard. Terry Pratchett uses this short kids’ novel to deal with the importance for living people to remember the dead (and the dead people to forget the living). The basic plot is that the village council wants to put in a new condo development on the graveyard and the dead people tell Johnny to stop them. Johnny gets his friends together and (this is where the book really shines) do not organize a protest or anything big and outside the scope of what a bunch of 11-year-olds could conceivably do, they just ask questions about the people who are in the graveyard.

Now, it’s Terry Pratchett writing this, so the characters are funny, but the situations never really are. Even though it’s a bit dated (it’s from the ’90s), it’s a pretty excellent story for Remembrance Day, especially since it talks about how sad it is that soldiers go off and die (instead of doing some bullshit celebratory thing about their noble sacrifices or whatever). Also, it’s the middle book of the Johnny Maxwell trilogy, but I haven’t read the first one and did not feel like I was missing anything.

book review: red mars

Photo Credit: Mars, once by kevin dooley, on Flickr shared under a cc-by-2.0 license

I’m one of those people who loves a good frontier story. The idea of going somewhere new and pushing the edges of what the people you know have seen appeals to me. I’ve also heard that idea being described as a Western-centric colonialist/racist perspective so yeah, there are problematic issues there. But the beauty of science fiction is getting to do some of that bold infinitive splitting in places where there are not cultures to feel superior to. Which brings us to Mars.

I love a good Mars story. Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road, and Kage Baker’s The Empress of Mars are the two I can see on my shelves, but I’ve got my own Douglas Quaid thing going. Which makes it weird I’d never read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. I have now begun.

The first novel, Red Mars, begins with a murder once a colony on Mars has been established, then it jumps back in time to show us the trip from Earth and the training the First Hundred went through, then the work of starting a colony and the politics of science. Eventually the story takes us past the opening murder into greater politics and dust-storms and mysticism. The whole book spans decades (they also develop longevity treatments on Mars, while Earth is tearing itself down in overpopulated war).

We read about these decades through the perspectives of a bunch of the first settlers, and their perspectives are all very different. What I really liked about the book was that the political choices were real and taken seriously and not very much was solved easily. Getting into these characters’ heads made a difference and it was very clear how few villains there were, just people trying to make life work in a cold harsh place.

One of the things I found disorienting was some of the 1990sishness of it. There was still an assumption that in the 2040s the important nations would be the Americans and the Russians. There’s literally one Asian person in the first 100 colonists, and she becomes a mystic orgy saint pretty quickly. Hm. Maybe that’s not such a typical ’90s thing. There’s definitely a bunch of otherization going on with the Sufis and Bedouin that feature in parts of the story, which does get in the way of some of my pure enjoyment (this is a problem that Ian McDonald’s Mars books don’t have, FYI).

The science in the book was intriguing. Robinson really delved into what it would take to make Mars habitable and how that changes the unspoiled nature of a lifeless rock. That geology (sorry, areology) has purpose beyond being fit for people and commercial interests.

Very good book, though I’ll wait a while to read the next ones. I like to make this kind of story last.

book review: preacher (vols. 5-9)

I had always thought I’d read all of Garth Ennis’ Preacher, but it turns out I only had the first four volumes before I went off travelling and got interrupted. I don’t know why I never came back to finish it, except that I thought I had. Anyway. I’ve finished it now and Preacher remains a great comic.

The basic story is that Jesse Custer is a hard-drinking ass-kicking southern preacher who has been given the power of the Word of God and he’s off to track God down for abandoning its creation. He has an Irish vampire buddy named Cassidy and the girl he used to steal cars with, Tulip to help him. There’s an organization called the Grail that is trying to stop him to usher in Armageddon on their terms. It’s a pretty big story.

There’s a lot of backtracking in the story to go back and give us more background on characters, which, by the end turns this huge epic into a couple of guys duking it out on a street in San Antonio. It’s blackly funny and very situated in the 1990s, which is kind of fun to read now (because I am apparently becoming nostalgic in my old age).

book review: king rat

King Rat was the China Mieville book I hadn’t read (apart from his thesis which is a Marxian analyis of some economics topic I can’t remember). It is unread no longer.

Basically the story is a Pied Piper retelling set in late-90s London in the Drum & Bass community. When Saul’s father dies he’s brought into the police for questioning, but then King Rat shows up, tells Saul he’s part rat and part human and he needs to escape right now. King Rat has plans for Saul in his age-old feud with The Piper, who is fucking terrfiying because he can make you do whatever he wants with his music.

While Saul is learning to move through the city like a rat, his friends are disappearing and being turned into pawns of the Piper. There’s also some cool stuff with the Loplop, the king of the birds and Anansi of the spider realm. These urban animals have all dealt with the Piper before and been defeated.

I loved the descriptions of how moving like a rat through the world worked for Saul. He’s a human and doesn’t simply shapeshift or anything. He just does impossible things. The book is set very specifically in London and it feels far from generically urban in its fantasy.

This is a much darker book than The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, another reimagining of the Pied Piper tale. People die horribly violently in this book. You can see a lot of themes Mieville came back to in his later novels, but this one doesn’t have any of the real mind-blowing craziness I love in his work.

book review: batman: knightfall parts 1 and 2

This summer’s The Dark Knight Rises is Christopher Nolan’s last Batman movie, and the villain is going to be Bane. I know the basic story of Bane from back in the 1990s but I hadn’t actually read the comics until recently.

In Broken Bat Bane has come to Gotham and blows a hole in Arkham Asylum to let a whole crapton of Batman’s enemies out. Batman is already weakened at the start of the book and Robin and Alfred are trying to get him to take a rest. Of course, Batman can’t do that. So this book is him fighting these escapees and just ending up dead on his feet. There isn’t much explanation of why Batman is already so run-down at the beginning of the story; I think this was just after the long gang war thing with Black Mask, but don’t quote me on that. Anyway, in this book Batman is weakened, physically and psychologically and then Bane (a juiced up South American badass who wants to make Gotham his) beats the shit out of him in stately Wayne Manor. Bane doesn’t kill Batman, but breaks his back.

Who Rules the Night follows Robin, Alfred and Jean Paul Valley as they try to cover for Batman now being crippled. Valley (who’d been brought up as a religious assassin kind of guy named Azrael) takes over the mantle of the bat. He’s a lot more intense about things than Bruce Wayne, and armours up the Batman costume and eventually beats Bane (almost kills him, but pulls back at the last moment).

There’s a third part to the Knightfall story which has the new Batman getting more and more out of control while Bruce Wayne tries to recover (and gets his back unbroken by a magickal doctor, who I expect won’t be in the Nolanverse version of this story).

These comics are interesting in what they say about Batman, and they were a timely part of the 90s trying to put some edginess into superheroes, but as far as good stories go? Meh. I don’t like how old the Tim Drake Robin looks in these books (he’s supposed to be 14ish and looks 20), and the writing is simplistic and the villains are cartoony. It’s good for me to read some of these comics to remember that while there’s good stuff in superhero comics, not everything is awesome just by being words and pictures together. Sometimes I can forget that.

book review: through a glass, darkly

Dennis Detwiller’s Through a Glass, Darkly is a Delta Green novel. Delta Green is a setting for the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game in which you play government agents working as part of a shadowy conspiracy to fight the monsters from beyond space and time that threaten the world. Delta Green has a very 1990s feel to it, with its government collaborations with the little grey men and all of that (though it did originally predate the X-Files).

Through a Glass, Darkly is a novel set in the beginning of 2001 and follows an operation that has huge repercussions for the organizations involved. A couple of scientists have made a technological breakthrough that causes weird shit to happen and gives one of them godlike powers. Two Delta Green agents try to figure out what’s going on. Lots of stuff gets blown up.

Now, the thing that’s weird about a book like this is how it’s part of a game setting. In the Delta Green sourcebooks there’s a lot of information on a bunch of characters and organizations. If you’re reading this novel I guess it’s assumed that you’re familiar with everything from those sourcebooks, because there’s really not a lot to help you out in the text itself. I haven’t gone through the sourcebooks very carefully in quite a few years and I couldn’t remember what I knew from them and what might have come from some of the other short stories, or John Tynes’ novel or what.

I liked the book even though I feel like I was missing some crucial information. The BLUEFLY raid was great and horrific. Eddie Edwards was an excellently drawn character. There were a lot of good scenes. But if you aren’t already a Delta Green fan, I’d really recommend finding a copy of Alien Intelligences instead. It’s definitely a better introduction to the setting.