Saturday, March 26, 2016

Book Review: Railhead

My recent re-engagement with the works of Andre Norton, and something of a re-awakening of an only slightly dormant infatuation with Golden Age Science Fiction couldn’t have come at a better time. My brain was in just the right condition to receive Railhead, the new novel by Philip Reeve. Longtime readers of the blog will know that Reeve is one of my favorite contemporary writers. I first discovered him through his juvenile Jules Verne style romp Larklight, but really came to be a fan with his book Mortal Engines and its follow-ups. With those books, he delved into a lot of the ‘big idea’ Science Fiction spirit I love so much. And he has returned to that with Railhead, a very big idea, Golden Age soaked adventure yarn. A galactic railroad network, threading through stargates, taking humanity from world to world; all under the watchful eyes of ancient AI. Excellent.

What Reeve does that was less common during the era of Asimov, Norton, Heinlein, and others, is populate his wild settings with interesting, nuanced, challenging characters. In Railhead, Zen doesn’t always make great choices. He doesn’t always do the right thing. He’s not a perfect young man. And he’s not alone. Are the villains really villains? Are the heroes heroes? Or are they just people trying to do the best they can with the things they’ve got? Whatever the case, I really like reading about Zen. I love Flex, Gentlemen Take Polaroids, and Nova. I was curious to find out where the Threnody Noon story would go. And the Guardians? The Hive Monks? I want more.

This is the beginning of a longer story; that much is kinda obvious. There are a lot of things introduced, and not all of them are explored to satisfactory degrees. But there is a satisfying story arc to the book. While leaving things in place for events to continue, I like that there is some closure, some resolution. And I’m certainly looking forward to finding out what happens next.

Also, and you’ll know this if you’ve read his other Young Adult novels, Reeve is one of those authors who seems to delight in abusing his characters, and yes, killing them off...especially if they’re one of the ones you really love. This is something that I find thrilling. Knowing that any character, at any time, could get snuffed out makes the reading more intense. And it challenges me, in my own writing, to be more daring; to remember that in life and so in stories, stuff happens. People get hurt, they die, they come into sudden fame or glory or infamy, they fall in love with the wrong person, that make the wrong choice, they find unexpected beauty.

Like Heinlein’s “juvenile” books, and a lot of others from the Golden Age of Science Fiction, Railhead features some young protagonists and there’s no explicit sex. Otherwise, it’s written as though for adults, without condescension or the accepted lowering of writing standards frequently found in young adult fiction. This is a good book. And it happens to be appropriate for teenagers. Sci-fi readers of all ages should check this out. And of course, go back and read Mortal Engines and the other books about the Predator Cities. Great stuff. Hester Shaw, man. One of the great characters.

-Matthew J. Constantine

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Comic Review: Red Lance issue 1

You know I’m all about the can-do spirit; the ‘little guy (or gal)’ putting their heart on their sleeve and doing it. I love it in film, for sure. But I also love it in comics. That’s one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed many visits to SPX (the Small Press Expo) and why Artists’ Alley is always my favorite place to check out at comic conventions.

I just got a chance to check out the first issue of Red Lance, which is about as independent as they come. Created by Gary Bloom and crowd-funded into reality on KickStarter, this captures the feel of Silver Age marvel comics. While superheroes aren’t my bag, generally, I’m always interested in seeing someone try to do a unique take. And without the weight of decades of history weighing down plot and character options, unique takes can flourish in the indie scene.

While this is a first issue, so it’s mostly about establishing character and tone, there are several ideas that make me curious. I especially liked Vycia’s manipulation of minds, which made me think there might be a reason that crowds in old Marvel comics seemed to turn on a dime. What if someone were driving them to increased passions and illogical behavior?

Just because a comic doesn’t have Batman or Wolverine in it, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a try. If superheroes are your thing, check out Red Lance. The art is professional (better than a lot of stuff making the cut at the Big Two) and the dialog (often the weakest part of indie comics...and no few major titles) is fairly natural.

Go on over to the KickStarter and make the magic happen.

Matthew J. Constantine

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Book Review: Ice Crown

In rediscovering my love of Andre Norton, I got particularly interested in her “Forerunner” series, a set of novels sharing a ‘future history,’ like Alan Dean Foster’s “Humanx Commonwealth,” or Larry Niven’s “N-Space.”  However, things get a bit challenging.  That I’ve found so far, there is little scholarly work on Norton, and no definitive guide to the Forerunner stories. Ice Crown, the book I’ve just read is not listed on several sites I’ve found as being part of it, yet it is clearly set in the same universe, building on some of the same ideas.

Set on a restricted world where local humans live in a medieval style society, it features Roane, a young woman in the Service who has come to the world to investigate the possibility of Forerunner technology. Instead, she gets tangled up in local power struggles, breaks the Service’s rules about interference, and stumbles upon something from a dark time in Human space exploration, the time of the Psychocrats. This book is the first time I remember hearing references to this era of rule by mind-control masters. I’ll be curious to see if they feature in other stories.

On the one hand, I like that Norton gets more into character development in this book than in some of her earlier work. On the other, I find Roane to be a bit dull. There is a story reason, perhaps, for her being a bit of a void. I suppose. But considering the book does start to drag, in spite of its barely over 200 page length, I think, perhaps the character development wasn’t so great.

Norton churned out a ton of novels in her day, and maybe not all of them are winners. This one is OK. If they ever turned her Forerunner stories into a TV series, this would probably serve well as the basis of an episode. Beyond that? Eh. 

-Matthew J. Constantine