Thursday, November 7, 2019

Book Review: Hellboy Volume 5 - The Conqueror Worm

book cover for Hellboy volume 5Part two of my Halloween read, and as good as part one was, this was even better.

This volume contains the one story and there's a lot to it. The Nazis are back, and one of their experiments from the war is coming to fruition sixty years later. Hellboy and the homunculus—they named it Roger—are sent to a spooky castle somewhere high up in the Austrian Alps where said experiment was conducted and thought to be destroyed by a military expedition led by some vigilante named Lobster Johnson. Much smashing occurs.

This collection has everything: poetry samples from Poe, Lovecraftian nightmares, restless spirits of the damned, hordes of ghoulish creations, undead minions, transmogrified soldiers, subterranean lairs with steampunk machinery, and a Nazi mad scientist. What else could you want?

Ok, there's more. Hellboy has his usual witty responses to the situations he stumbles into. It's his coping mechanism. Loyalty and trust are two of his strongest traits. He's expects underhanded behavior from strangers and outright villains, but the BPRD does something to royally piss him off, and he's forced to reconsider his relationship with them.

Roger the homunculus gets plenty of screen time. There's some self-reflection on what he is and how he fits into this modern world, centuries after his creation.

This is probably my favorite of the Hellboy volumes that I've read so far.

4.5 stars


Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Book Review: Hellboy Volume 4 - The Right Hand of Doom

book cover for The Right Hand of DoomHalloween is fast approaching, but I didn't have anything spooky on the nightstand or the kindle, so I went to the library and picked up the next two volumes of Hellboy.

The Right Hand of Doom is a collection of eight stories: one backstory, five missions, and two which deal with Hellboy and his destiny.

Hellboy typically gives people the benefit of the doubt. He might harbor suspicions, but he won't act on them until he gets more information. As such, people mistake this behavior for weakness or cluelessness. But in the end, Hellboy rallies or fate intervenes, and these people ultimately come out on the losing end of things. This theme runs through "The Nature of the Beast," "King Vold," and "Heads."

And Hellboy has a sense of humor, too, although it can be a bit dark sometimes. "Pancakes," "Heads," and "Goodbye, Mister Tod" have their humorous incidents, whether they be intended or not.

"Pancakes" kicks things off, and it's about Hellboy's introduction to, as can be surmised, pancakes. It's a short—merely two pages—and cute. I won't say anything else to avoid spoiling it.

"The Nature of the Beast" sees Hellboy off to meet some cabal of Englishmen in 1954 to investigate the folktale of one Saint Leonard the Hermit. Apparently there's a dragon involved.

Professor Bruttenholm asks Hellboy to go to Norway in 1956 to help out a friend, and fellow paranormal researcher, in "King Vold." Said friend is investigating King Vold, aka the Flying Huntsman.

Hellboy goes to Japan in "Heads." The year is 1967, and Hellboy is wandering in the forests outside of Kyoto, looking for a haunted house, where he is put up for the night at the local equivalent of a bed and breakfast.

In 1979, the Bureau sends him to Portland, Oregon to investigate a complaint about a physical medium in "Goodbye, Mister Tod." "Just say no" never carried as serious a repercussion as what's portrayed here.

"The Vârcolac" sees Hellboy investigating the rise of Countess Ilona Kakosy, a powerful vampire, in Romania in 1992. Even Hellboy feels fear.

"The Right Hand of Doom" and "Box Full of Evil" are bookends of a sort. The collection's title track gathers all that we have learned about Hellboy's past and details that came up in volumes one and two and reflects upon them. The latter story finds someone attempting to force Hellboy's destiny upon him, not to bring about the Apocalypse as Rasputin hoped, but to enslave him. Combined, these stories reflect on destiny and fate. Are we bound to it, and thus, do we let it control us? Is free will an illusion? Do we make our own fate, or is it predetermined? These are questions that Hellboy has to answer for himself, with a little bit of help of course.

The artwork remains quintessential Mignola. The man knows how to make the most of shadows and light. Dave Stewart colored this volume, using a palette of muted pastels to evoke the surroundings of our intrepid red friend.

4 stars.


Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Book Review: The Lost Fleet - Dauntless

book cover for Dauntless - Lost Fleet #1The Alliance has been fighting the Syndics for a century—and losing badly. Now its fleet is crippled and stranded in enemy territory. Their only hope is a man who's emerged from a century-long hibernation to find he has been heroically idealized, beyond belief...

Captain John "Black Jack" Geary's legendary exploits are known to every schoolchild. Revered for his heroic "last stand" in the early days of the war, he was presumed dead. But a century later, Geary miraculously returns from survival hibernation and reluctantly takes command of the Alliance fleet as it faces annihilation by the Syndics.

Appalled by the hero-worship around him, Geary is nevertheless a man who will do his duty. And he knows that bringing the stolen Syndic hypernet key safely home is the Alliance's one chance to win the war. But to do that, Geary will have to live up to the impossibly heroic "Black Jack" legend.

This book got off to an awkward start for me. We're introduced to Geary shortly before he's ordered to take command of the Alliance fleet. First impression: cranky and in serious need of a chill pill. After we're finally given some backstory, we learn why he's so irritable. He eventually learns how to deal with his situation, so between the two, he grew on me as the book went along. But I can't help but feel that that initial awkwardness could've been avoided if Campbell had written a prologue that depicted the "heroic last stand" attributed to Geary or the scene where they revive him from stasis with his mind clouded by confusion over memories of the battle and waking up a century later. I think either scene would've generated immediate sympathy for Geary rather than this standoffish behavior.

Jack Campbell is the nom de plume of John G. Hemry, a retired Naval officer. Given his experience, the manuscript has an air of authenticity when it comes to the interactions between the characters. Hemry lived the life; it's second nature to him. So while the story takes place centuries from now, the way Hemry handles navy culture makes the story all the more relatable.

The story is told entirely from Geary's POV, but the narrative is in third-person so Geary can't hide his feelings or motivations from the reader. He struggles with returning military discipline to a fleet full of would be heroes, a trend that he inadvertently helped to create. While other characters might accuse him of duplicity, we know that isn't the case. Speaking of other characters, the two other characters that interact the most with Geary are Captain Tanya Desjani, who commands the Dauntless, and Victoria Rione, Co-President of the Callas Republic, a key Alliance ally. Both of them believe in the legend of Black Jack Geary, but interpret it differently. As "ancestor worship" has become the de facto religion among humans, having a legend seemingly return from the dead is seen by a blessing by some and a curse by others. Desjani hopes that it means Geary will lead the fleet home, but she doesn't fawn all over him like a schoolgirl with a crush. Rione shares the same hopes, but she worries that the legend will overtake the man and fuel an ambition for political power.

I'm going to speculate a bit here since I can't find the answer on the internet. Geary is shocked to learn that the Alliance navy has grown distant from the values and traditions that were held in high regard back in his day. Some things are merely surprising (hardly anyone salutes); others are downright shocking to him. The rules of war seem to have largely been abandoned. In particular, the way the Alliance treats POWs disgusts him. This book was first published in 2006. Given how long it takes for a novel to make it to market, I wouldn't be surprised if Hemry started writing this element into the story after learning about the Bush administration's use of waterboarding as an "enhanced interrogation" technique. I can't imagine that John McCain was the only veteran to be sickened by that. I don't know Hemry, but if Geary's values are in any way a reflection of his, then I have to think that those revelations played a part in this story.

Overall I found it an enjoyable story, even if the dialogue was a little stiff at times and the relativistic physics lessons were repetitive. Geary was a clever character put into a difficult situation with problems to solve and relationships to juggle. I can see why the series has been so successful and continue with it.

3.5 stars


Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Book Review: Cibola Burn

Book cover for Cibola BurnThe gates have opened the way to thousands of habitable planets, and the land rush has begun. Settlers stream out from humanity's home planets in a vast, poorly controlled flood, landing on a new world. Among them, the Rocinante, haunted by the vast, posthuman network of the protomolecule as they investigate what destroyed the great intergalactic society that built the gates and the protomolecule.

But Holden and his crew must also contend with the growing tensions between the settlers and the company which owns the official claim to the planet. Both sides will stop at nothing to defend what's theirs, but soon a terrible disease strikes and only Holden - with help from the ghostly Detective Miller - can find the cure.

Some refugees from Ganymede have come to settle Ilus (New Terra to others). Life is hard, but it's better than spending the rest of your life stuck on a spaceship begging for food and scrounging spare parts for your CO2 scrubber. The soil chemistry isn't quite right, but the lithium mine is a cash cow. Just gotta fill up the cargo hold and head back to Medina Station to sell it. That'll generate enough cash to buy what they need to thrive.

The thing is, they didn't check with anyone first. Why would they? It seemed like everyone turned their back on them. Along comes Royal Charter Energy (RCE) with a UN claim for the world and things get complicated fast. And by complicated, I mean people die.

Chrisjen Avarsarala (UN) and Fred Johnson (OPA) decide to hire the crew of the Rocinante to mediate the dispute. Holden doesn't want to go, but the protomolecule Miller simulacrum insists. It's been formulated by the protomolecule remnant to investigate why its creators are all gone, and it nags Holden just enough to make him even want to know.

Besides Holden, we get POVs from Basia Merton (one of the squatters), Elvi Okoye (RCE scientist), and Dimitri Havelock (security officer on board the RCE ship Edward Israel, presumably named after the astronomer). The authors do a great job getting you into their heads so that you can understand their motivations. Basia will do anything to protect his family after losing a son on Ganymede. Elvi is the consummate biologist, thrilled to be exploring a new world. Havelock was Miller's partner back on Ceres before the Julie Mao case became Miller's obsession and dealt with his share of anti-Earther bias.

His boss is Adolphus Murtry, a ruthless by-the-book kind of guy, who—to borrow the description that Amos and Holden have for him—is an asshole. Havelock mentions him working corporate prisons and industrial security his whole career. We don't get his POV though, so it's tough to figure out why he's so hardcore on enforcing RCE's charter given what happens over the course of the novel.

The authors explore the mythologizing of public figures. Holden and crew have a solar system-wide reputation at this point. In light of their accomplishments, Holden's public persona has been manipulated in the news media so much that he is hero to some, villain to others. We see that here as some characters are heartened at the news of his arrival to the colony. They assume that he will inherently agree with them on the spot and set things right, not realizing that things aren't that simple. Others view him as a dunce, easy to manipulate and render feckless. But, as Naomi put it to Havelock...
"A lot of people have underestimated Jim over the last few years. A lot of them aren't with us anymore."
I had a tough time putting this down at night and constantly checked the clock to see if I could squeeze in another chapter. Besides obviously wanting to know what happened to Holden and company, I was engaged with all of the POV characters this time. Each one went through personal growth, discovering things about themselves that felt good to see realized. While the standoff between the RCE personnel and the squatters was tense enough, a certain natural disaster that occurred midway through the book just amplified things.

This was a much better story than Abaddon's Gate. While all the interesting stuff happened in the first half of that book—and the second half was tedious with power mad jerks and body count padding—Cibola Burn carried my interest all the way through. It's a sci-fi adventure that lives up to the promise made in the first book. Now I get to worry and wonder what the TV show is going to cut out for season four.

4.5 stars


Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Book Review: The Annihilation Score

book cover for the Annihilation ScoreDominique O’Brien—her friends call her Mo—lives a curious double life with her husband, Bob Howard. To the average civilian, they’re boring middle-aged civil servants. But within the labyrinthine secret circles of Her Majesty’s Government, they’re operatives working for the nation’s occult security service known as the Laundry, charged with defending Britain against dark supernatural forces threatening humanity.

Unfortunately, one of those supernatural threats has come between Mo and Bob. An antique violin, an Erich Zahn original, made of white human bone, was designed to produce music capable of slaughtering demons. Mo is the custodian of this unholy instrument. It invades her dreams and yearns for the blood of her colleagues—and her husband. And despite Mo’s proficiency as a world-class violinist, it cannot be controlled…

When I first heard about a Laundry Files book featuring Mo, I was psyched. When narrating the other stories, Bob always said great things about her, particularly her kick ass-ery. She seemed like an under-utilized character in the series. But after reading some of the negative reviews, I decided to put off reading this one for a while. I went back and read all the short stories in the series that pre-dated this one. Reading those stories—happy tentacle times—put the series right, and I was finally ready to tackle this one.

The story picks up just before the climax of The Rhesus Chart (book #5) and reveals where and what Mo was doing at the time. It leads to the post-climactic standoff that ended book #5 from Mo's POV. Sadly, it seems that the pedestal that Bob placed Mo on was lovingly misguided. As the blurb indicates, Lecter, Mo's nickname for the white violin (a Lovecraft legacy), has inserted itself into the relationship. It haunts her dreams, teasing her that someday she'll be all his, body and soul. Primarily soul. It really wants Bob out of the picture. After a fight, whereupon it is clear that the violin is definitely playing Mo, Bob and Mo agree to a trial separation.

While there seems to be some will on behalf of both parties to work things out, work gets in the way. The death of Bob's boss has him traveling around the world putting out fires while Mo is tasked with starting up a new department (Transhuman Police Coordination Force) whose responsibility is to oversee the sudden uptick in people with superpowers (more on that in a minute). Most of the novel is taken up with Mo preparing for and attending meeting after meeting. There are so many meetings! Ugh! It couldn't get any more boring. There's no dramatic tension. At least with Bob, there's always the chance that the PowerPoint presentation will turn people into literal zombies rather than the figurative variety.

In giving voice to Mo, Stross has painted us a terribly unlikable person. It's a stressful time for both of them, but Mo lashes out at literally the one person she can confide in (break the oath, suffer debilitating pain) and seek solace against the nightmares they face at work. Rather than rehash what others have already said, I would ask you to consider reading the reviews from Will (he likens Mo to Bridget Jones), AMiL (calls attention to Mo's hypocrisy), and Torie (full on takedown) as they cover all the bases. The thing is, judging by a moment of introspection late in the novel, Stross did this on purpose. Mo has to sink to the bottom before she can bounce back. Stross risks alienating his readers with this course, and in this reader's opinion, it wasn't worth it.

Stross does a fine job explaining how superpowered people exist in the Laundryverse without violating the rules that he's established. I mean, I accept the logic of his argument, I just don't like it. I wasn't keen on the introduction of vampires (PHANGs in the bureaucratic vernacular) in the previous novel, but Stross made it work. I'm even less enthused about superheroes and supervillains. I enjoy the MCU, but I don't want them mixing in my Lovecraftian fiction.

Ultimately, the big reveal doesn't happen until the last forty pages or so. There were a few clues, but Mo never picked up on them as she was too self-absorbed with her problems and giddy over her new beau. I won't say that it was implausible—we live in strange times—but it was disappointingly short-sighted by those involved.

It's a character-driven novel; the story was secondary. The climax was more for Mo's personal growth than the plot. Slogging it out with her as she worked through everything had its moments, but they were too few and far between (MEETINGS!) and she was a difficult person to empathize with. It has been my experience that when people go through divorces, family and friends are often collateral damage. That's how I felt reading this book.

2.5 stars


Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Reading Night

Sony Triniton TVAs a kid, I naturally took to books. Way back in the 70s, the internet was still the province of the Defense Department and a few select universities, our phones didn't do anything more than ring, and computers were these massive monoliths that didn't do much besides crunch a few numbers. Sure there was TV, but we only had 13 channels. The only real medium to feed your imagination was books.

Despite my best efforts, my son lost interest in books after several years. He blamed school for forcing him to read dull books. My daughter made a decent attempt at it, but I could tell I was losing her to games and social media.

This was disheartening and completely unacceptable. I wanted them to read more, but I didn't want to make it seem like a chore. After years of failed attempts to persuade them to read more, I made the rather draconian move to institute "reading night." One night per week, the family would gather in a room and read for an hour. My wife had my back, so my iron fist of literacy wouldn't break.

There was resistance at first, but when I explained that I didn't care what was read, they decided to test me on it. Graphic novels were brought out, but I didn't say a word. In fact, I engaged them afterwards about what they read. I even picked up books from them after they'd read them, and when I finished, I talked to them about them.

Nowadays, my kids actually look forward to reading night. One of them will remind me, and if we missed our regular day, they'll insist we make it up. And this summer my son got a job at our local Barnes & Noble (yes, they still exist). This morning he let me know about a sale that was going on soon and mentioned a book that he thought that we'd both be interested in.

While this victory may be a small one for me, I feel that the true winners are my kids.


Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Book Review: All Systems Red

book cover for All Systems RedIn a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.

But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid—a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.

But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it's up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

As it says in the blurb, Murderbot hacked its governor module—for those not mechanically inclined, think of it as a choke collar. While it follows its orders so that it isn't discovered and risk getting scrapped, it has the freedom to ignore commands it doesn't want to carry out or just pretend to carry them out. It doesn't want to talk about its feelings or hang out with the human crew. It wants to spend as much free time as possible watching thousands of hours of entertainment media it downloaded. Introverts everywhere will identify with Murderbot and quite possibly want its weapons complement to keep pesky annoyances at bay.

The novella is told entirely from Murderbot's POV, but it is perceptive enough to gauge others' reactions to it. And the internal dialogue is full of plenty biting humor that I guffawed audibly several times, eliciting curious inquiries from my family.

Being part-organic, Murderbot isn't invincible either. Although the company has built them to be self-repairing, they are disposable to some extent. Murderbot's vulnerability is made obvious to the reader from the outset. But despite this, Murderbot doesn't hesitate to throw itself into danger. Is its programming overriding self-preservation, or does it actually have a smidge of empathy for the humans it's assigned to protect? That's up to the reader to figure out.

Highly enjoyable. 5 stars.