Monday, 16 October 2017

Rogue One: a Star Wars Story, by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy (Disney) | review by Stephen Theaker

The empire has ruled the galaxy since the events of Revenge of the Sith, but the Rebellion has been growing in strength, necessitating the construction of the Death Star, a weapon of planet-busting capabilities. Jyn Erso is in the Empire’s custody, but she is sprung by rebels who hope her family connections can get them the information they need to destroy the Death Star (presumably so called because Death Sphere or Death Moon didn’t sound quite as cool). She ends up going with a ragtag band of rebels on what may be a suicide mission. She’s hoping to rescue her father (played by Mads Mikkelsen), while others in the squad have orders to kill him. Overall, this reminded me very much of the Dark Horse Star Wars comics. Respectful and serious in intent, lots of nods to the canon, well-made, but rather missing the mad invention of the six George Lucas films, which never stopped throwing new stuff at the screen even when the films weren’t all that good. One real sticking point in the film is the appearance of a character from the original Star Wars, rendered with a mix of computer animation and a body double. If this were a CGI film, he would look fantastic, but standing in a room of human actors he sticks out like a sore thumb, and one wishes they had simply recast the character. It’s not as jarring as the young Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy or the big brawl Keanu Reeves in The Matrix Reloaded, but at least in those films you could put the problems down to glitches in their electronic environments. Another problem it has is that the two lead characters are not quite as colourful as their fellow rebels. I wish I hadn’t heard that Tatiana Maslany of Orphan Black was up for the role of Jyn Erso, since she would have been so perfect for it, but Felicity Jones does everything she’s asked to do. At the last it over-reaches once again, trying for a special effect and just falling short, but if the film had ended thirty seconds earlier, one would have said it ended very well. ***

Friday, 13 October 2017

Bloodshot: Reborn, Deluxe Edition 1, by Jeff Lemire, Mico Suayan, Butch Guice, et al. (Valiant) | review by Stephen Theaker

“Who was Bloodshot?” asks the first page of this comic. “Red Eyes. White skin. Guns… Lots of guns.” He was a vicious, psychopathic killer manipulated by false memory implants, working for the government, presumably in previous Bloodshot comics, but that’s all over now. At some point before this book begins he gave up his powers (regeneration, strength, aiming – basically Wolverine plus the Punisher) with the help of a woman he loved called Kay. That restored his humanity, but Kay didn’t survive, and now, six months later, he’s trying to keep calm and stay under the radar while working at a motel. Unfortunately, the nanites that provided his abilities are now taking over other people, civilians who aren’t equipped to handle them, and they are going on murderous rampages. His conscience gives him no option but to travel across the country recovering them, because at least he would be able to keep the nanites under control, but will it mean giving up his humanity once again? It’s the archetypal story of the superhero who wanted to give up the powers that were ruining his life, but can’t escape his sense of responsibility once they are gone. After that adventure is over, there’s then there’s an Old Man Loganish story set in a Mad Maxish future, where he teams up with other surviving Valiant heroes, which will probably be a treat for fans of those characters. Overall, I thought the book was a good read without being outstanding. It’s as well-written as Trillium by the same writer, and there are plenty of ideas, it’s just that it’s about a character who doesn’t massively appeal to me, and probably isn’t intended to. ***

Monday, 9 October 2017

The Lego Batman Movie, by Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers et al. (Warner Bros) | review by Stephen Theaker

Lego Batman was one of the funniest things about The Lego Movie, against strong competition, and the three Lego Batman games were all terrifically successful (and great fun to play), so it’s no surprise to see him back in a film of his own. It doesn’t refer back to his adventures in the previous film, but Batman is still a master builder who knows that he is made of Lego and can rebuild and reshape the world around him at high speed. This is in addition to his usual Bat-powers: money, gadgets, fighting skills, acrobatics, and (in these films at least) the ability to shred on the electric guitar. For all his success, though, he’s very lonely, and this really comes to a head when Commissioner Gordon announces his retirement. Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) is going to take over, having cleaned up Bludhaven (this is a film made by people who have paid attention to the comics), and she’s not so keen on vigilantes. Batman also upsets the Joker, by denying the two-way nature of their relationship, and that inspires the Joker to team up with some of the greatest villains of all time, some of them (not giving away any spoilers, because the identity of these villains was a wonderful surprise for those of us who didn’t know in advance) British. A daughter of mine described this as one of the best films she has ever seen at the cinema, and it’s hard to deny that it’s a great deal of fun. Batman himself gets a little less funny as the film goes on and, as so often happens with comedies, the plot kicks in, but his brand new Robin Dick Grayson more than makes up for that, and that the two of them are played by Will Arnett and Michael Cera (a.k.a. Job and his nephew George Michael from Arrested Development), only adds to the enjoyment, as do many references to Bat-stories of old, including the Adam West film. The animation is gob-smackingly detailed, with dozens if not hundreds of characters on the screen at the same time, the cast excellent, and the script very funny, not at all the mess you would expect from a film with five credited writers. So much about this film made me happy, and a lot of it I wouldn’t want to give away, but part of it is that Billy Dee Williams, who played Harvey Dent in Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns, finally played Two-Face. It’s not the best Batman film there’s ever been, but it might be the best one not directed by Christopher Nolan. ****

Friday, 6 October 2017

Blade Runner 2049 | review by Rafe McGregor

Villeneuve’s sequel replicates, reverses, and reproduces Scott’s original(s).

I qualified my review of The Voyage of the Moonstone in TQF 55 with the admission that my emotional and financial investment in the late Joe Dever’s gamebook series precluded any objectivity in my review. I must make a similar disclaimer here, although it’s more of an emotional and intellectual investment. Watching Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner at the drive-in – probably in late 1982, the year of its release – is one of my first memories of the big screen. At the time, my main interest on the small screen was cop shows rather than sci-fi, more Miami Vice than Star Trek, and my parents had told me that Blade Runner was a cop film set in the future in order to pique my interest. Strictly speaking, they were right – blade runners are police officers – and part of the film’s continuing appeal is the way it merges elements from the crime, romance, and speculative genres. Another reason for its first cult and then mainstream popularity is the number of versions that have been screened from 1982 to 2007. If we exclude those edited for television and minor alterations in the Swedish release, the IMDb lists six. Excluding the two shown as previews in 1982 leaves: the International Cut (1982), the Domestic Cut (1982), the Director’s Cut (1992), and the Final Cut (2007). The Domestic Cut is the International Cut edited for graphic violence and the Final Cut is billed as the definitive Director’s Cut, so we can concentrate on two distinct cuts, International (which was very likely the one I saw in 1982) and Final (Blade Runner: The Final Cut [5-Disc Ultimate Collectors’ Edition] has pride of place in my DVD collection).

What is particularly remarkable about these two cuts is that although they are the same length (113 minutes) and have only minor alterations, the story they tell is almost completely different. The changes are: the removal of Deckard’s voiceover narration, the change of a single word in Batty’s dialogue, the insertion of a short dream sequence, and the removal of the happy ending. The removal of the voiceover and the insertion of the dream about a unicorn combine to represent blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) as a replicant (androids that are almost identical to human beings) rather than a human being. Significantly, he does not know that he is a replicant until the final few seconds of the film, before he escapes with Rachael (Sean Young), who is also a replicant who thinks she is a human being. The narrative of the Final Cut puts the film firmly in the speculative rather than crime genre and given my early exposure to and enjoyment of the International Cut, I was deeply disappointed when I first saw the Director’s Cut at the movies in 1992. I could see how the change improved the story in some ways, but was adamant that the original combination of detective character and science fiction setting was superior in all those that mattered. Nearly twenty years later, I attended a symposium on Film, Philosophy, and Death at the University of York where a professor from St Andrews was speaking on the themes of empathy and mortality in Blade Runner. One lecture and a brief conversation later, I was convinced I’d been wrong and eventually wrote a short essay on the merits of the Final Cut for the journal Aesthetic Investigations.

Having finally (no pun intended) wrestled the problem of the better Blade Runner into submission, I was disconcerted to hear that Ford had a role in the sequel – to the Final Cut, we presume – Blade Runner 2049. Because of their potential threat to human beings replicants are constructed with a built-in failsafe, a lifespan that is limited to four years from inception. If one watches the Final Cut after the International Cut, as many viewers will have, one may carry the suggestion from the earlier film that the latest version of replicant has been allotted a longer lifespan, but one thing that replicants do not do is age. Short or long, they are automatons rather than organisms and, as the famous scene in which Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) expires shows, they simply short-circuit and become inanimate. So, if Deckard is indeed a replicant, which was the whole point of the change from International Cut to Final Cut, then whether or not he is still alive in 2049, one thing he should not be is thirty years older. Ford was forty in 1982 and is now seventy-five, reflecting the apparent aging of Deckard thirty years after all the versions of the first film, which is set in 2019. If Deckard has aged, then Blade Runner 2049 appeared to be a retcon (short for retroactive continuity) rather than a sequel or reboot. My concerns were amplified by Alien: Covenant (reviewed in TQF 60), where Scott (credited as executive producer of Blade Runner 2049) almost completely disregarded the narrative arc set up by Prometheus in the alleged sequel to the Alien prequel. As the opening date of the Blade Runner sequel drew nearer, further alarm bells were sounded with the release of Nexus: 2036, a six minute short that explained what had happened in the thirty years between the two films. I studiously avoided watching or reading about this, all the while wondering why, if there was no retcon, any explanation was required. When Digital Spy chipped in with ‘Rutger Hauer doesn’t understand why a Blade Runner sequel even exists’ (20 September 2017), I feared all was lost, and settled on the tagline: Ridley ruins reviewer’s childhood...

A more appropriate tagline might be Ridley obsessed by original as much as reviewer. Blade Runner 2049 is both a replication (pun intended) and reversal of the Final Cut, a classic dismantling and rebuilding of a narrative that raised more questions than it answered. The protagonist of the sequel is K (Ryan Gosling) and in 2049 Los Angeles all blade runners are replicants known by serial numbers rather than names. Although there is less philosophical concern with identity in this film, there is commentary on what philosopher Kelly Oliver calls the grown-made binary opposition, where priority (humanity in this case) is always accorded to the organic over the automated. The discovery that replicants – or at least Deckard and Rachael – can reproduce is the inciting incident of the film. While hunting a rogue replicant, K discovers a buried box of bones. An autopsy identifies the cause of death as childbirth. The science of replicant reproduction is never explained – indeed, unlike HBO’s Westworld for example, there was very little scientific explanation or under-the-skin revelation in The Final Cut – so it seems we must rely on a kind of Jurassic Park-style “life will find a way” to suspend disbelief. In an even closer combination of replication and reversal, Deckard’s discovery that he is really a replicant courtesy of an origami unicorn is mirrored here courtesy of a toy horse (relatively early in the film).

Blade Runner 2049 constantly refers back to the Final Cut, to such an extent that my concerns about it merely being part of a franchise are entirely unfounded. If anything, the only potentially significant fault in the film is that it is too obviously, faithfully, and closely a sequel. In consequence, I find it hard to imagine a viewer who hasn’t seen (or doesn’t remember) either the Final or International Cuts being able to appreciate (and perhaps even understand) Blade Runner 2049. This is not merely the case for the represented sequence of events, but for the shots, scenes, settings, music, mood, and characters. Dennis Villeneuve has been particularly ingenious with respect to character, performing a complex and satisfying deconstruction of the roles in the prequel such that, for example, K is not only a replication of (or equivalent to) Deckard, but a hybrid of Deckard and Batty. Similarly, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) – personal-assistant-cum-chief-of-staff to Niander Wallace (the new Tyrell, played by Jared Leto) – combines Rachael’s vulnerability with Pris’s (Daryl Hannah) deadliness in combat (although there is also a Pris look-alike who appears to share her predecessor’s function as a “pleasure model”). The revisiting and inversion twists and turns in on itself so that where Deckard was supposed to hunt Rachael but helped her, Luv is supposed to help K but hunts him. In yet another success, the story engages as both science and detective fiction, with the mystery of the replicant child becoming more complicated as the narrative progresses. Like the various Blade Runners, the film is deeply philosophical, exploring less the question of what it means to be human and more the question of how to be human: how memory, perspective, and psychological reality construct and sustain individuality.

There is a hint of retcon when Wallace confronts Deckard, but this is merely a tantalising suggestion rather than a second undoing of the plot of the International Cut and Blade Runner 2049 is ultimately a paradigmatic sequel, a model to which future directors and authors should aspire. The work provides an almost continuous and near perfect play of similarity and difference that is both similar enough to capture all that audiences enjoyed about the originals and different enough to delight, intrigue, and compel. Blade Runner 2049 is so essentially a sequel, however, that it is likely to leave most if not all new viewers nonplussed, as I noted above. The only fault from my personal point of view is that the appearance of the septuagenarian Ford is neither explained nor even commented upon. Perhaps those replicants who can reproduce must also suffer the indignities of old age and even the despair of death? Life has, it seems, found a way with one hand and taken away with the other.*****        

Superf*ckers Forever, by James Kochalka and chums (IDW) | review by Stephen Theaker

A five-issue miniseries of the utmost puerility, this is very entertaining. The Superf*ckers are a Legion of Super-Heroes-esque gang of teenagers who live inside a club house and act like complete idiots. Even Vortex, who fixes up the universe every time the others destroy it, is willing to lie down on a sofa that has just been peed on by his colleagues Jack Krak the Motherfucker and Ultra Richard (it’s better than weeing in the toilet, they decide, because you never have to clean it). The skull possessed by interdimensional super-villain Omnizod shows up, first getting turned into a lamp by stinky Grotessa, then encouraging Princess Sunshine down a megalomaniacal path. Orange Lightning is jonesing for his next fix of Grotus’s slime, Computer Fist is struggling to get his robot fists working properly, and team leader Superdan returns from Dimension Zero just in time to lead a pointless new mission into Dimension Zero. The stories are sweary, rude and gross, and all the better for it. Kochalka’s artwork is as brilliantly characterful as ever, while a series of backups by other creators show that these heroes look just as silly through their eyes. The entire series can be read in under an hour, but what a great way to spend an hour. ****

Sunday, 1 October 2017

British Fantasy Awards 2017: the winners (and my guesses!)

The British Fantasy Awards have just been announced, at FantasyCon 2017 in Peterborough. I kept my thoughts about what might win to myself until now, since I might be thought to have inside knowledge about the juries I wasn't on. I didn't – my fellow jurors on the comics/graphic novel jury quite properly didn't talk about their other categories at all – but better safe than sorry. So here, after the fact, are the guesses I made, and more importantly the winners!

Anthology
Winner: People of Colour Destroy Science Fiction ed. Nalo Hopkinson & Kristine Ong Muslim
My guess: People of Colour Destroy Science Fiction ed. Nalo Hopkinson & Kristine Ong Muslim

Artist
Winner: Daniele Serra
My guess: Daniele Serra

Collection
Winner: Some Will Not Sleep, Adam Nevill
My guess: Some Will Not Sleep, Adam Nevill

Comic / Graphic Novel
Winner: Monstress, Vol 1: Awakening, Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda (Dark Horse)
No guessing required, I was on this jury, and it was a fascinating experience!

Fantasy Novel (the Robert Holdstock Award)
Winner: The Tiger and the Wolf, Adrian Tchaikovsky
My guess: The Tiger and the Wolf, Adrian Tchaikovsky

Film / Television Production
Winner: Arrival
My guess: Black Mirror, Series 3, by Charlie Brooker and chums (Netflix)

Horror Novel (the August Derleth Award)
Winner: Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, Paul Tremblay
My guess: The Searching Dead, Ramsey Campbell (PS Publishing)

Independent Press
Winner: Grimbold Press
My guess: Fox Spirit Books

Magazine / Periodical
Winner: Tor.com
My guess: Uncanny Magazine

Newcomer (the Sydney J. Bounds Award)
Winner: Erica L Satifka, for Stay Crazy (Apex Publications)
My guess: Erica L Satifka, for Stay Crazy (Apex Publications)

Non-fiction
Winner: The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley
My guess: Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016, Ursula K Le Guin

Novella
Winner: The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle
My guess: Arrival of Missives, Aliya Whiteley

Short Fiction
Winner: White Rabbit, Georgina Bruce
My guess: White Rabbit, Georgina Bruce

The Special Award (the Karl Edward Wagner Award)
Winner: Jan Edwards
My guess: Mark Morris

I'm surprised that I managed to guess six right. The current system is based on people, usually BFS members or FantasyCon attendees, sitting down to read the nominees and deciding the awards on that basis, and that makes it hard to predict (and indeed quibble with) the results unless you've read all of them too.

(I was terrible at predicting what would win even when I was running the awards and could read half the jury discussions!)

Anyway, congratulations to all the winners, and all the nominees, and to the awards administrator who carried it off so successfully, Katherine Fowler, who can now have a nice break all the way until, well, January, when it all starts again...!

[NB: I originally included in the list the first ever Legends of FantasyCon award, which was given to David Sutton and Sandra Sutton, after the BFS publicity officer confirmed on Twitter that it was a BFA. However, the BFS treasurer said shortly afterwards, "No, it's not a British Fantasy Award. It will be presented before the BFAs start, each year it is given out." So I've taken it off the list.]

Call for submissions: UNSPLATTERPUNK! 2

Extravagantly grisly, stealthily virtuous: Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction seeks stories for second anthology in controversial subgenre.

Earlier this year, Theakers Quarterly Fiction #58 eviscerated the extreme horror community with the first ever unsplatterpunk anthology, UNSPLATTERPUNK! 

Unsplatterpunk overtly or subtly integrates a compassionate message into an otherwise splatterpunk story. In other words, unsplatterpunk retains all the taboo subject matter, over-the-top violence, and gruesome details of splatterpunk, but puts a positive spin on it.

Since the release of UNSPLATTERPUNK!, which the British Fantasy Society called “memorable and thought-provoking”, the subgenre has had a polarizing effect. Dr Rafe McGregor of the University of York calls unsplatterpunk “a very risky but highly original take on aesthetic education (or the ethical turn) for those philosophers (or theorists) amongst you”.

Once again, TQF is taking the low road to get to the high road. We’re looking for authors to submit stories that take the first anthology’s depravity and gore to a new low, while still imparting a benevolent message.

Douglas J. Ogurek will reassume editorial duties, while author, critic, educator, and philosopher Rafe McGregor will contribute a foreword.

Unpublished stories of 10,000 words or fewer are welcome. Alas, since TQF is a “for the love” market, we cannot offer monetary payment. Thus, we’re primarily seeking hobbyists who want to make a splash – maybe “splat” is a better word – with their writing rather than people who make their living this way. However, that's not to say we wouldn't welcome submissions by established splatterpunk writers willing to integrate a positive message into their stories. All authors will, like everyone, receive a free pdf of the widely distributed journal. The anthology will also be available for print and ebook purchase via Amazon.

Advice

  • Offend John and Jane Doe in the first paragraph
  • Embrace taboo subject matter
  • Make story concept as attention-getting as death metal at a yoga session
  • Convey a positive message, blatantly or subtly
  • Thinking of writing a revenge story? Remember that revenge alone isn’t a virtue.

Be a part of the phenomenon that has evoked reader responses ranging from “ghastly” and “sickening” to “transgressive” and “crafty.”

Deadline: February 28, 2018

Word count: 500–10,000

Reprints: No

Multiple submissions: No

Simultaneous submissions: No

File name: [story title]-[author surname].doc

Payment: Non-paying zine (free epub, mobi, and pdf copies available to everyone including contributors) plus participation in an emerging subgenre

Send submissions as a .doc or .rtf attachment, along with a 3rd person bio, to TQFunsplatterpunk@gmail.com. Please include UNSPLATTERPUNK! in the subject line.

After publication, you are free to reprint your story elsewhere, but please credit Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction for original publication.

See standard guidelines for additional information on rights and legal matters.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks by David Whitaker (BBC) | review by Jacob Edwards

Seeing is believing – the BBC is your ser-vant.

Although most Doctor Who fans have a favourite Doctor, for many the choice is as much about era as actor. Style of story, and the broadcast years during which the viewer was of formative age, must go a long way towards shaping this preference.

Regardless of who comes in at number one, few people will rank the Doctors of the classic series without listing Patrick Troughton in their top two. Whatever the show itself was like, the second Doctor himself was exceptional.

Which merely adds to the tragedy of the BBC’s junking policy. Fifty-three Patrick Troughton episodes are missing – the equivalent of two whole seasons of new series Who – and the word “missing” is itself a misnomer giving false hope. The master tapes were wiped, their content destroyed. When a lost episode miraculously turns up at a relay station in Nigeria or a rubbish tip in New Zealand, any celebration is tinged with cold comfort.

For many years one story particularly lamented for its absence was The Power of the Daleks. Not only was this Patrick Troughton’s first full appearance (following the regeneration scene at the end of The Tenth Planet), it also sounded like a cracking tale: Earth colonists on the planet Vulcan find and activate three daleks, which pretend to be subservient while repowering. Heedless of the Doctor’s warnings, blinded by their own conflict, the colonists are turned upon and for the most part exterminated.

If this sounds oddly familiar, it is probably because Mark Gatiss pinched the idea – more kindly, homaged it – when writing the Matt Smith story Victory of the Daleks (2010). And why not? The concept is far more chilling than the daleks’ usual mindless blather; and after all, it wasn’t as if new generations of Who fans had the opportunity to watch the original…

Not until 2016, fifty years after The Power of the Daleks was first broadcast, when the BBC, in celebration and atonement, released the story in full animation. All six episodes!

Animation was first used to reconstruct episodes one and four of the eight-part Cybermen classic The Invasion (1968), synching the footage with audio recordings of the original broadcasts. It was employed in similarly stopgap fashion for several other stories, but never had fans expected it to pull a wholly missing serial from the hat. Who would have thought? Half a century on, the chance to watch (and review) The Power of the Daleks

Beyond its mere existence the animation is in many ways extremely good. Granted, the characters often stay front-on when moving sideways, resulting in an odd shuffle reminiscent of paddle pop stick puppets; true, there’s a fair bit of bobble-about background acting; but this is entirely understandable. Remember, we’re not watching a multi-million dollar production for cinematic release! More importantly, each person is well portrayed. The movement of mouths matches their speech. The characters are facially expressive. They have personality.

The backgrounds too are superbly rendered (and expertly lit), capturing the sinister moodiness of the story at large. Reconstruction producer-director Charles Norton has handled his job well, drawing from camera scripts, no doubt, but also conceptualising the action to complement a soundscape that features long sections without speech; passages that in audio alone would be quite bewildering. The first episode in particular sees the Doctor behaving erratically post-regeneration, and Ben and Polly wracked with uncertainty. From the patchiness of dialogue it seems the original broadcast version must have relied heavily on nuances of movement and expression, which the animation to some extent captures.

And so, to the story itself…

The Power of the Daleks is something of an oddity: yes, in part due to the nature of its reconstruction; but also because Patrick Troughton is feeling his way into an (at the time) unprecedented situation; and because there’s a deliberate intention to obfuscate from viewers in 1966 whether this new Doctor really was the Doctor (a neat parallel with the newly submissive daleks); and indeed because it’s the only second Doctor adventure not to feature steadfast companion Jamie McCrimmon. Add to this some obvious flaws – such as why Lesterson believes a single dalek, armed with a sink plunger, will double the colony’s mining output; and why he and Bragen go unnecessarily stark raving mad – and one might start to doubt the “classic” appellation bestowed upon this so-called great lost serial…

And yet, it really is very good. The Vulcan colony, with its scheming factions, has a complexity that more or less justifies the story’s six episodes. The Doctor shows newfound fallibility and a sorrowful, Stan Laurel-like expressiveness, the acting is impeccable (until Lesterson goes to pieces), and through much of the story there resonates that unnerving dramatic irony of the viewer perceiving an impending doom of which most of the characters aren’t cognisant. All told, we have here the blueprint for the classic Troughton-era “base under siege” tale, kick-started by the daleks in a more frightening and cunning manifestation than seen so often before or since.

And of course the big point now is that we can see it. Just as portended by that final scene where the TARDIS departs and a shattered dalek raises its eyestalk, the destruction wreaked upon The Power of the Daleks turns out not to have been total. All in all, it’s a most admirable un-junking.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Assassin’s Creed, by Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage (Ubisoft et al.) | review by Jacob Edwards

if you like eagles* flying

if you like lots of fighting

if you like people liable to jump from

the tops of high places

their options like eyelids, unbatted

surviving, unflappable, by means of –

[cut away]

why, i’d say this just might be for you



if you like falcons* flying

and jeremy irons

if you value high orders of god corporate

cluelessness, science divine

in its improbability

plots lines that spew from computer screens

proving the existence of game theory

really, this could be for you



if you like your hawks* flying

if you like your films stylish

if you like your macguffins quite rounded

your heroes brought low

but still bearded, gruff, cut from a mould

if you like all the conflicts to stay unresolved

’til the sequel that’s stealing the plot

well, what ho! this’ll do



if turkeys* are flying, if you stand to decry

but you find yourself writing reviews

with a semblance of rhyme

in the hope your denial won’t show

and that no one will find out you didn’t despise it

console yourself knowing the trailer with matt damon

blank-faced and fighting off dragons in china

probably gave you perspective (false positive)

rose-tinting all you’d expect to find dire



* despite prolonged opportunity, this viewer failed properly to distinguish

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Contributor news: Branch Turner vs the Currants by Douglas J. Ogurek

TQF regular takes on Little League baseball in new young adult novel.

Douglas J. Ogurek, TQF contributor and editor of the controversial TQF UNSPLATTERPUNK! issue, has produced a work that signals a more wholesome detour. Ogurek’s young adult novel Branch Turner vs the Currants (World Castle Publishing) takes the reader into the baseball-focused world of twelve-year-old Branch Turner. Here’s the synopsis:
The Tigers’ Branch Turner wants to steal more bases than any other player in the Union City Pony League. Then Coach Tillman from the Currants, the Tigers’ biggest rival, tells Branch about “bam.” This begins Branch’s search to discover the most important part of baseball. 
Branch’s journey will include his old-fashioned teammate Pine Tar Yore, the Currants’ show-off Eli Tillman, the dangerous fastball pitcher Louie Horton, and many other colorful players.
So what is the most important part of baseball? Is it winning? Having fun? Playing by the rules? Or is it something else?
“I grew up in a Chicago suburb where baseball was a rite of passage,” said Ogurek. “My friends and I lived and breathed the sport.”

Ogurek’s typical summer day might have included any combination of the following:
studying pro ball stats in the newspaper, sorting baseball cards, playing backyard Wiffle ball, playing old-school video games (baseball, of course), playing neighborhood games in the field down the street, playing organized Little League games, and watching pro ball on TV (or taped on the VCR). Ogurek drew from many of these tween experiences to write the book, which took more than ten years to complete.

Branch Turner vs the Currants contains many of the elements of the classic sports story – a protagonist who comes to terms with his weaknesses, an underdog who strives to overcome the obstacles, and characters who aim to win by means fair or foul. It also offers plenty of on-field antics and humor, as well as a mysterious hockey player who skates in and out of the story.

Ogurek said, “I hope that what will make this story fun for readers of many ages are the polarities that it explores – tradition vs novelty, mass popularity vs individual preference, and at a deeper level, personal gain vs social outreach.”

Branch Turner vs the Currants is available in paperback and Kindle via Amazon.

Monday, 18 September 2017

The Complete Scarlet Traces, Volume One, by Ian Edgington and Disraeli (Rebellion) | review by Stephen Theaker

Before the films, before the games, before Richard Burton and the brilliant album, and even before the book by H.G. Wells, my first version of The War of the Worlds was a comic strip. It was introduced by Tom Baker’s head in Doctor Who Weekly, though my guess is that it was a reprint from Marvel’s Classics Illustrated. It made a real impact, and yet this adaptation (and then sequel) was even better. I’m sure all of our readers know the story already, but anyway… The astronomer Ogilvy spots great flumes spouting from Mars, just as it is at its closest point to Earth. A great cylinder falls on Horsell Common, then unscrews, and from it emerge first the Martians themselves, and then their weapons, to incinerate humans with as little thought as we would give to swiping at ants on a picnic blanket. It’s crucial for an adaptation of this story to get the horror of these scenes right, and here they are terrifying, Disraeli’s artwork capturing brilliantly the fear on the faces of all those people realising that they no longer rule the world, they no longer even rule Horsell Common. This is pretty much a perfect adaptation to comics of the novel, in my opinion. After that the book moves on to a sequel, ten years later, by the same writer and artist. Again, this is well-trodden territory, though it hasn’t always been trod with great distinction. There were books such as The Nyctalope on Mars (reviewed back in TQF31) and The Space Machine by Christopher Priest (described as dull by its own author), an awful television series, and the overwritten Marvel adventures of Killraven, born in the Martian pens. More recently, Stephen Baxter has written a sequel novel of his own, The Massacre of Mankind. The approach in Crimson Traces is to use new characters in a murder mystery story set in a Britain that has been greatly changed by the war between the worlds, the technology that was left behind by the Martian attack having been cracked open and repurposed to keep the empire running in tip-top shape. While delivering an action-packed thriller, the story also considers the results of automation without social equality. It’s a problem that is likely to only get worse for us, and there’s a warning here about how bad it could get. The sequel reminded me a bit of Bryan Talbot’s equally excellent Grandville series, as it puts some tough, likable characters up against a mystery of national importance and a bunch of vicious villains. Definitely worth your time, even if you think you’ve probably had enough of the Martians and their tripods by now. ****



This review originally appeared in Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #59, which also included stories by Rafe McGregor, Michael Wyndham Thomas, Jessy Randall, Charles Wilkinson, David Penn, Elaine Graham-Leigh and Chris Roper.

It | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Cinematic take on King classic needs more Pennywise, less Kumbaya.

Viewer responses to the 1990 miniseries It typically evoke some variation of “not great”. So it was with much fanfare that the film version of Stephen King’s chunky 1986 novel surfaced. According to both critics and the general audiences, the film has lived up to the hype.

It does offer a brilliant portrayal of the infamous Pennywise the Dancing Clown and captures the spirit of growing up in the late eighties. However, the structural glue that holds the film together is a bit weak, and in more than one scene, the film dips into a sentimentality incompatible with modern horror masterpieces.

A year after his brother Georgie disappears, child protagonist Bill Denbrough and his outcast friends attempt to find the missing boy. As the group navigates King’s fictitious Derry, Maine, it discovers the evil responsible for the horrific incidents that assail the town every twenty-seven years.

The opening scene, in which Pennywise/It (Bill Skarsgård) lures Georgie into the sewer, is cinematic magic. Skarsgård’s nuanced delivery puts the drooling, unstable Pennywise in the same league as Heath Ledger’s Joker. With his fluctuating vocals and eye colors, Pennywise is hard to pin down. Is he a friendly clown or a diabolical fiend? One thing is certain – he is not human. Alas, this scene is arguably the best in a film that sacrifices such intimate dialogue for demented attacks. The filmmakers should have let Skarsgård talk more.

Nevertheless, most of Pennywise’s attempts to terrify the children are engaging. In one scene, he crashes a meeting in Bill’s garage using means both subtle and blatant. In another, he transforms into a headless reanimated corpse that stumblingly yet quickly chases a boy through a library.

It is also a coming-of-age story about a group of friends and the problems they face, such as parental abuse and peer bullying. The film explores the growing attraction between the stuttering Bill and Beverly Marsh, the group’s only female. The film’s most entertaining character is Richie Tozier, a potty-mouthed smart aleck whose Coke-bottle glasses exaggerate his bold and often humorous comments. Often though, the acting among the children takes a turn for the worse. The dramatic speeches don’t register and expressed grief or concern is sometimes laughable. Additionally, group hugs and holding hands in a circle seem more fitting for a kids’ movie than a horror film. And yet, these characters are kids, and nerdy kids at that.

Still, It is worth seeing for Skarsgård’s performance. Perhaps in the sequel, he’ll get more dialogue. – Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Monday, 11 September 2017

Now out: Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #60!

free epub | free mobi | free pdf | print UK | print USA | Kindle UK | Kindle US

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #60 is now available! It contains five stories: “The Lost Testament” by Rafe McGregor, “Turning Point” by Nicki Robson, “Yttrium, Part One” by Douglas Thompson, “Amongst the Urlap” by Andrew Peters, and “Doggerland” by Jule Owen. The wraparound cover is by Howard Watts, and the editorial answers the most urgent queries in Richard Herring’s Emergency Questions. The issue also includes almost forty pages of reviews by Douglas J. Ogurek, Rafe McGregor and Stephen Theaker.

They review books by Martha Wells, Lisa Tuttle, Mira Grant, Gwyneth Jones, Jim Butcher, Skottie Young and Michael Turner, plus the films Alien: Covenant, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, It Comes at Night, The Mummy, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Prometheus, and Wonder Woman, the album Humanz by Gorillaz, the tv shows Iron Fist and Legion, and a pair of events: Eastercon 2017: Innominate (or at least two days of it), and Into the Unknown, the exhibition at the Barbican.



Here are the kind and beautiful contributors to this issue:

Andrew Peters is an Egypt-based financial writer, who has recently started to publish fiction. His short story “In Dogpoo Park” was chosen as Editor’s Pick in the Aestas 2016 Short Story Competition run by Fabula Press, and was published in an anthology this year. Some of his flash fiction will also be appearing in the 2017 Fish Anthology, having been chosen in competition.

Douglas J. Ogurek’s work has appeared in the BFS Journal, The Literary Review, Morpheus Tales, Gone Lawn, and several anthologies. Douglas’s website can be found at www.douglasjogurek.weebly.com.

Douglas Thompson won the Herald/Grolsch Question of Style Award in 1989, 2nd prize in the Neil Gunn Writing Competition in 2007, and the Faith/Unbelief Poetry Prize in 2016. His short stories and poems have appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies, including Ambit, New Writing Scotland and Albedo One. His first book, Ultrameta, published by Eibonvale Press in August 2009, was followed by eight subsequent novels and short story collections: Sylvow (Eibonvale Press, 2010), Apoidea (The Exaggerated Press, 2011), Mechagnosis (Dog Horn Publishing, 2012), Entanglement (Elsewhen Press, 2012), The Rhymer (Elsewhen Press, 2014), The Brahan Seer (Acair Books, 2014), Volwys (Dog Horn Publishing, 2014), and The Sleep Corporation (The Exaggerated Press, 2015). A new combined collection of short stories and poems The Fallen West will be published by Snuggly Books in late 2017/early 2018. His first poetry collection Eternity’s Windfall will be published by Red Squirrel in early 2018. A retrospective collection of his earlier poetry, Soured Utopias, will be published by Dog Horn in late 2018. “Yttrium: Part One” is taken from his novel Barking Circus, forthcoming in 2018 from Eibonvale. Part Two of “Yttrium” will be published in TQF61.

Howard Watts is a writer, artist and composer living in Seaford. He provides the wraparound cover art for this issue, his thirtieth consecutive cover for us in the span of eight years. His artwork can be seen in its native resolution on his DeviantArt page: http://hswatts.deviantart.com. His novel The Master of Clouds is available on Kindle.

Jule Owen was born and raised in Merseyside and now lives in London. By day she is a practising digital technologist, working on products that involve machine learning and automation, by night she writes stories about future and other worlds

Nicki Robson writes fantasy and horror fiction. She has had short stories placed in competitions run by the British Fantasy Society and others published in anthologies from Twilight Tales in the US. She is based in Yorkshire and is currently working on a YA fantasy novel.

Rafe McGregor is the author of The Value of Literature, The Architect of Murder, five collections of short fiction, and over one hundred magazine articles, journal papers, and review essays. He lectures at the University of York and can be found online at @rafemcgregor.

Stephen Theaker is the co-editor of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction. He apologises for this issue being three months late, but expects the next one to be along quite soon.



Back issues of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction are usually available for free download. However, Dropbox have just turned off their public folders function (they did warn me!), so unfortunately the download links for free epub, mobi and pdf copies of the back issues won't work till I rebuild them.

Monday, 4 September 2017

A Wizard’s Henchman by Matthew Hughes (PS Publishing) | review by Stephen Theaker

For those readers who have had the immense pleasure of reading several of this author’s Archonate books, A Wizard’s Henchman is simply unmissable. Over many short stories, novellas and novels we have been shown a universe on the point of collapse, rapidly approaching the point at which reality will flip, from being based like ours (one hopes) on scientific principles to being ruled instead by magic, or, to be more precise, by the will. Some books have shown magic bleeding through, and others have even taken us into the future for a brief glimpse of what is to come, but this is where it actually happens! It is very abrupt. Flying cars fall out of the sky. Buildings collapse. People starve. But not our protagonist. Knowing a little bit about what is going to happen, he gloms on to a promising candidate for wizardship and keeps him safe while he prepares and later learns to use his new powers. Less pleasant magic users are also making their play, and the denizens of other dimensional planes are also ready to take advantage of the new status quo. The book offers a comfortingly familiar mix of science fiction, fantasy and mystery, while never being reluctant to offer a shocking image or idea when appropriate. It gives us a protagonist for whom self-preservation is at first a priority, but who grows in stature into a true hero, in large part thanks to his determination to adapt and learn. A brilliant book, probably my favourite new book of 2016. *****

Monday, 28 August 2017

Resurrecting Sunshine, by Lisa A. Koosis (Albert Whitman) | review by Jacob Edwards

As human as it gets.

The rest of the world knew her as Sunshine but to Adam she was Marybeth, the love of his troubled adolescence. Behind the alter ego, beyond the music and the fame, Marybeth meant everything to Adam; and when Sunshine died she took Marybeth with her. Adam’s life fell apart.

But what if he could bring her back? What if his memories could help resurrect Sunshine in a clone body? He would give anything, wouldn’t he?

But will it really be Marybeth? Will having her back take the pain away?

The more Adam commits to the procedure, the more he starts to wonder if maybe Marybeth’s death came a long time before Sunshine’s…

I first happened upon Lisa A. Koosis when editing for Andromeda Spaceways. Her story “Soul Blossom” was sad and beautiful. As soon as I read it I knew hers was a name to look out for.

Resurrecting Sunshine returns to the same themes as “Soul Blossom” – loss; grief; hope beyond death – but gives them a book-length treatment, aimed at teens but no less profound in the telling. As an adult reader I found myself intrigued, drawn in and then taken by the story’s flow. (As a reviewer I’d usually try for some kind of simile at this point, but it feels wrong; Koosis’s writing calls out to stand by itself.) The novel is perfectly paced. I read it in three sittings, each longer than the last yet seeming to go faster. There was a sense of inevitability to the narrative, but not predictability. When the ending came, it brought closure.

In her acknowledgments Koosis describes Resurrecting Sunshine as “the book that would not die”. This suggests also a book that didn’t want to be born; a story that came but grudgingly into the world; and yet, whatever difficulties it posed the author, the end result is seamless. In fact, it is Koosis’s obvious investment in her work that makes it so compelling. Underlying the spec-fic “now” tale is a heartfelt backstory whose gradual emergence brings a depth of emotion so lacking in most teen novels. All the characters feel genuine. They’re not just there to tell a story; they’re living through one.

Resurrecting Sunshine is written in the present tense from a first-person male perspective. Koosis handles this well, as does she that fine balancing act between keeping the reader guessing and allowing the book to retain its integrity. Resurrecting Sunshine is a profound, beguiling debut that transcends genre to resonate with yearnings deep within. Buy it for yourself and then buy a copy for someone you love. Because this is as human as it gets…

And wouldn’t you do anything?

Monday, 21 August 2017

Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling (Tachyon Publications) | review by Stephen Theaker

This novella tells an alternate history story based on the anarcho-syndicalist republic that was declared in the formerly Italian city of Fiume, a city where “there were more great world causes to fight about than there were men to represent them”, that was to become part of Yugoslavia after the first world war. In our reality the republic fell after fifteen months, but in this story a clever and capable engineer, Lorenzo Secondari, having been revived from death by a medical experimenter’s “psychically advanced séance”, arrives in the city in time to get its weapons factories up and running again. They had been taken over by female workers, including the formidable Frau Fifer, who becomes a companion of Secondari. As a result of his successes, Secondari rises to become “Minister of Vengeance Weapons”, the original title of Pirate Engineer being rejected as not quite right. Eventually Harry Houdini shows up, a secret ambassador from the United States, accompanied by Robert Howard and a surprisingly chipper H.P. Lovecraft. I really liked one bit of dialogue from Secondari, when he says, “I don’t have to believe any more, because it’s the truth!” I’ve often thought that when someone says they believe in a thing, that can be a sign that they don’t think it’s actually true (or at least isn’t true yet), whether they realise that or not. I enjoyed the book while finding it a bit hard to get to grips with, much like Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius and Oswald Bastable books. The book also contains an introduction by Warren Ellis, an interview with Bruce Sterling, a useful afterword by Christopher Brown, and a note by the cover artist, all of which, while interesting and often educational, does make you wish the story itself was a bit longer. ****

Annabelle: Creation | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Well-choreographed scares without the long wait.

Watching Annabelle: Creation, the latest installment in The Conjuring (2013) universe, is kind of like going to an amusement park with thrill rides. While you’re waiting in line, not much is happening. These are typically the scenes in which characters are talking. But then, there are the times when you experience the exhilaration of the ride. In this film, directed by David F. Sandberg, it’s when you’re looking into a dark space, focusing on an inanimate figure, or hiding with a character as something approaches. At both the park and the theater, the overall experience depends on how long the lines are. Fortunately, unlike its immediate predecessor Annabelle (2014) and more like The Conjuring, the pre-prequel Annabelle: Creation doesn’t make one wait long to get on the rides . . . and there are quite a few.

The film takes place in the mid-1950s. Twelve years after their daughter Bee dies, doll maker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and his bedridden wife Esther (Miranda Otto) allow a group of orphaned girls and Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) to take up residence in their rural home. The girls find Bee’s creepy-looking doll Annabelle, which was crafted by Samuel. The majority of Annabelle: Creation consists of the girls, especially the physically disabled Janice and her friend Linda, wandering the home and getting freaked out.

Most of the film’s attempts at character-driven drama and relationship exploration end up rather dull and clichéd. For instance, Sister Charlotte takes Janice’s confession, or Janice and Linda engage in overly mature dialogue about how they’re looking out for each other. One exception is LaPaglia’s Samuel Mullins, the tight-lipped bereaved father. In one scene, his attempt to bond with Janice shows how insensitive and volatile he is. In another, he stops outside the girls’ bedroom and, hammer in hand, stares at them for a bit too long.

But all this is no more than a means to pass from one scare scene to the next. That the entire story takes place at one homestead testifies to the filmmakers’ skills—they know how to tweak lighting, prop placement, and sound (or absence of it) to keep the viewer on edge. Though this film does not instill the lasting terror of some of the last couple decades’ scariest pictures, its abundance of jump scares may evoke more screams.

In one strong scene, Linda shoots a ball connected to a string into a dark room, then reels back the ball. Later, the camera focuses on a scarecrow with a burlap sack head while the lights slowly turn off and on. And there are plenty of lingering shots of Annabelle. She is wide-eyed, pigtailed, and rosy-cheeked. She is also wicked disturbing. – Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Read Douglas’s review of The Conjuring or The Boy (2016), another recommended film in the creepy doll subgenre.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Metronome by Oliver Langmead (Unsung Stories) | review by Stephen Theaker

William Manderlay, an elderly man living in a care home, meets a Sleepwalker, March, a hunter of nightmares, in one of his dreams. March lends William his special dream compass, and tells him to go to the Capital of dreams, to chill out while March gets on with clearing out the bad dreams that are infesting his noggin. As well as helping him find his way, the compass can show whether people he meets in this world are other dreamers or just figments. Unfortunately, he runs into June, another Sleepwalker who wants to get to Solomon’s Eye, whatever that is, and for that purpose she needs a copy of the songs that William never got around to recording for his big hit album. They will provide her with directions. Eventually William gets involved in a rival quest, on board the Metronome, a clockwork-powered flying craft whose captain is willing to take him in pursuit of those stolen songs, because they happen to be the map to the centre of the storm where she lost the rest of her crew. This a nicely written piece of work, with plenty of ideas and a beautiful cover, but it didn’t really excite me. It feels unfair to say that I feel like I’ve read plenty of airship stories now, when I wouldn’t say the same thing about car stories or spaceship stories, but some of the beats did feel quite familiar from books like Empress of the Sun and Clementine. The portrayal of William in his old age is very touching, as his reaction to finding himself increasingly youthful again in the course of the dream quest. It was pleasant enough, and I’m sure there are people out there who will be more in tune with it than I was. ***

Monday, 7 August 2017

Letters to Arkham: The Letters of Ramsey Campbell and August Derleth, 1961–1971, edited by S.T. Joshi (PS Publishing) | review by Stephen Theaker

This book collects the correspondence (or so much of it as remains) from the 1960s between the prolific writer and editor August Derleth and the young Ramsey Campbell. The latter would go on to be a titan of the horror world, and the former already was, his publishing of H.P. Lovecraft’s work in hardback having done a great deal to cement that writer’s reputation. The letters are often fascinating. Campbell, fifteen at first, is importunate, full of questions – reminding us that this was a time when you couldn’t simply look things up on the internet – a virgin, somewhat testy and defensive. August Derleth, much older, is sexually omnivorous, patronising, encouraging, and exceedingly free with his opinions. One thing I had noted reading Derleth’s pastoral Sac Prairie Journal immediately before this is that August Derleth’s romantic life is completely absent from its pages, and these letters make it obvious why: he was having it off with whoever he could! Given that the letters are remarkably revealing, it’s a credit to Ramsey Campbell and to the literary estate of August Derleth that their publication was allowed. That the book would be edited by Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi must have helped in that regard, and he provides very useful footnotes to the letters, supplying information about everything from incorrect film titles (there is a great deal of film chat) to whether planned titles from both writers were ever published, and if so in what form and under what titles. One of their favourite topics of conversation is films, and reading the book now, when so much of cinema’s rich history is available for a few pounds and a couple of clicks, it’s almost shaming to see the lengths to which the two of them go to watch really good films, travelling for hours to get to a particular cinema on the one night that film would be shown. Since reading the book I’ve certainly been making more of an effort to watch better quality films. It’s essential reading for fans of either writer, and very interesting reading for everyone else. ****

Friday, 4 August 2017

X-Men: Legacy by Simon Spurrier, Tan Eng Huat and chums (Marvel) | review by Stephen Theaker

This twenty-four issue series, which ran from 2012 to 2014 and is available in its entirety to subscribers on Marvel Unlimited, as well as in four collections, tells the story of David Haller, the son of Professor Charles Xavier and an Israeli diplomat. He is known to the world at large as Legion, and though he isn’t keen on that name (he’d be really annoyed that it’s the title of the new television show based on the comic), it accurately reflects his powers: like Crazy Jane of the Doom Patrol, he has many split personalities, each of them with its own powers.

When he’s in control, he can use those powers. When they’re in control, the results can be disastrous. This series begins at the point in Avengers vs X-Men when something terrible happens to Professor Xavier at the hands of one of his friends, and that totally shatters David’s control, as well as giving rise to a malignant and powerful new personality that resembles his father. Over the course of the comic David will try to re-establish control of his own mind, take a pre-emptive approach to mutant hate crimes, start astral dating Blindfold of the X-Men, and try to prevent an apocalyptic prophecy of his future from coming true.

It’s interesting to see Marvel trying something like this. It is a bit like the original Vertigo comics – Shade the Changing Man, say – both in tone, and style, and in that a lot of the stories stem from David’s own problems in keeping his powers in check; if he’s not the big bad in each story, there’s always the danger that he might be. The television programme will probably need to be less all about him, but it worked well for the comic. ***



This review originally appeared in Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #59, which also included stories by Rafe McGregor, Michael Wyndham Thomas, Jessy Randall, Charles Wilkinson, David Penn, Elaine Graham-Leigh and Chris Roper.

Monday, 31 July 2017

I Am Providence, by Nick Mamatas (Night Shade Books) | review by Stephen Theaker

A horror book, or maybe literary horror fantasy. Lovecraftian fans, critics and writers gather in Providence, Rhode Island, at a hotel for a convention, the Summer Tentacular. To me it sounded very reminiscent of the first FantasyCons I attended (i.e. lots of blokes, lots of names familiar from the internet, and lots of people trying to sell their books; here, we almost immediately meet a chap hawking Madness of the Death Sun – which sounds great), while to newcomer Colleen Danzig it resembles a large Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, “except instead of alcoholism the attendees had all sorts of other, subtler problems”. Some of those people feel very familiar, but even if you aren’t well enough acquainted with that particular scene to identify the people being parodied, you get the gist of why someone would want to parody them. We have two point of view characters – Panossian, an older writer who gets himself murdered, and Colleen, who wants to investigate his murder – and chapters alternate between them. The dead (or “posthumously conscious” as he puts it) man tells his story in the first person, and his view of this environment soured long before he was killed there. Fandom is the social network of last resort, he says. Lovecraftians are a bunch of misfits and social defectives. Literary critics and fans are two of the more ridiculous sets of people in the world. Ambition is a hell. And he admits to having been a jerk to a lot of people – a lot of very mentally unstable people. Asked for his thoughts on writing, his answer is, “Generally, I’m against it.” He’s rather brilliant and very entertaining, much like the book itself. ****

Friday, 28 July 2017

Princess Jellyfish 01, by Akiko Higashimura (Kodansha) | review by Stephen Theaker

This 388pp manga collects episodes one to twelve in the story of an unhappily single Japanese woman, Tsukimi, and the geeky friends with whom she lives, and how her life changes completely when she meets a very glamorous young man. It’s rather like The Big Bang Theory in reverse. She calls herself a fujoshi, which means (rather nastily) rotten woman – a woman who follows her enthusiasms rather than trying to fulfil her expected role as a mother or wife. There’s no magical or fantastical element in this book, it turned out; it’s called Princess Jellyfish because she is a jellyfish geek (a phase the author talks about going through herself in the biographical comments). That’s what gets her talking to her gorgeous new friend: he brings his stylishness to bear in helping her save a dying jellyfish in a pet shop, just as later he will try to save Tsukimi and her friends from losing their home to property development. He’s the first boy she’s talked to since elementary school, and what gets her over that barrier at first is that she doesn’t realise he’s a boy: he likes to dress as a girl. It’s a sweet and romantic comic, with an adorable lead character and likeable love interests, and it’s an eye-opening portrayal of gender fluidity in Japanese culture. The backgrounds are sketchy, but the character artwork is highly expressive . Unfortunately, at the publisher’s choice, this Comixology edition can only be viewed a full page at a time (described as “Manga Fixed Format”). Not a problem on a tablet, but you’d struggle to read it on your phone. ***

Monday, 24 July 2017

The Four Thousand, The Eight Hundred by Greg Egan (Subterranean Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

In this tense science fiction novella, there is strife on Vesta. Back when the colony was first being established, each of the founding families contributed different resources. Problem is, attitudes to private ownership of intellectual property have changed so much since then that the family that bought into the project with its patents and inventions is now regarded by some as having stolen its share, and a proposal to have them pay it back is, unthinkably, passed, with 52% voting in favour. Some put up with this discrimination, some decide to fight back, and some flee, either in passenger ships, or if the security forces are after them, via a space age underground railroad to Ceres, drugged, half-frozen, and hitching a ride on a rock slab. All of this will put Anna, only a week or so into her new job, in an impossible position, when a cruiser, the Arcas, is sent in pursuit of fugitives. It feels like a long short story rather than a short novel, but I enjoyed it very much, and it is of course remarkably topical, in that we too are experiencing what happens when a substantial minority of the populace is railroaded by a narrow popular vote rooted in prejudice and selfishness and hatred. The book does a terrific job of showing how that can happen, and how shocking it can be when it does. ***

Monday, 17 July 2017

The Cthulhu Casebooks: Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows by James Lovegrove (Titan Books) | review by Rafe McGregor

I’ve recently made several comments on the evolution of Sherlock Holmes from the cold criminal investigator who calmly rejected supernatural explanations of even the most outré circumstances created by Conan Doyle to a character who is probably most accurately called an occult detective in the twenty-first century. In my review of Sherlock: The Abominable Bride in TQF55, I mentioned that Holmes and several others who cross the threshold of 221b Baker Street are more akin to superheroes and supervillains, giving the series very much of a fantasy feel, and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (2011) was served with a deliciously strong steampunk sauce. I recently responded to an article in The Conversation on the decline in the popularity of Doctor Who by noting that Doctor Who and Sherlock have become increasingly close in the last couple of decades and Steven Moffat is one of many writers who have written either official novels or screenplays for both the doctor and the detective. In my review of Simon Kurt Unsworth’s The Devil’s Detective in TQF56, I mentioned “the many failed and few successful attempts to combine Sherlock Holmes and the Cthulhu Mythos” of late, and the subject of this review is James Lovegrove’s contribution to precisely that subgenre – a contribution that is by and large successful. The subgenre was launched with Michael Reeves and John Pelan’s Shadows Over Baker Street: New Tales of Terror! in 2003. Re-reading my somewhat scathing review in TQF24, I stand by most of what I wrote (though not my dismissal of Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald”). One of my main criticisms of this volume was that there had been little or no effort to recreate the atmosphere of Victorian or Edwardian London in most of the stories. The shadows are, after all, over Baker Street, not Angell Street or Clinton Street. James Lovegrove’s shadows are, as his title suggests, in Shadwell (the district between Whitechapel and Limehouse), and he has paid close attention to both the historical setting and the original Holmes stories such that the few anachronistic turns of phrase he uses are insufficient to distract the reader. It’s the relationship between old and new where Lovegrove’s contribution to literary pastiche is revealed at its most ambitious and most promising.

His intention is that the three volumes of which this is the first will “effectively rewrite the Holmes canon”, peeling back the illusion of detection to reveal the reality of the Mythos. As such, Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows begins in a similar manner to A Study in Scarlet, with Watson returning from Afghanistan with more mental than physical damage and meeting Holmes through Stamford. The location is not the Long Bar of the Criterion, however, but an unnamed public house in Limehouse which is a haven for illegal gambling, bare-knuckle boxing, cock-fighting, and prostitution. Holmes and Watson meet by making independent attempts to assist Stamford when he falls foul of a pimp and his henchman. Stamford flees in the ensuing fracas and it emerges that he is an opium addict and a suspect in a series of murders. The murders have been linked by Holmes but not Scotland Yard in that the victims are all of the unlikely-to-be-missed (in Victorian England) variety and appear to have been starved to death. Stamford quickly removes himself from play – after being found wandering the streets while raving about the Old Ones – committing suicide in a particularly gruesome manner. Lovegrove’s writing is crisp and clean, lacking the laboured quality characteristic of so much pastiche and the narrative is fast-paced, more of a thriller than a mystery, but none the worse for it. Indeed, Lovegrove’s Holmes and Watson are somewhat reminiscent of Ritchie’s and his portrayal of Watson as a physically adept ex-soldier is particularly pleasing. The trail of the case quickly leads to Stamford’s employer, a Chinese immigrant by the name of Gong-Fen who runs an opium empire in Limehouse. At Gong-Fen’s bidding and under the influence of a cocktail of narcotics, Holmes undertakes a dream-quest where the existence of the world of the Elder Gods and Outer Gods is revealed to him. On his return to Baker Street, Watson discloses the truth of his experiences in Afghanistan and the cause of his wound. At the mid-point in the narrative, Gong-Fen, Holmes, and Watson are attacked by what appears to be the shadows of the title. This unequivocal manifestation of the supernatural in the present of the story, which is both gripping and otherworldly, marks the point of no return from crime to horror. The incident takes Holmes and Watson to the second layer of the puzzle, Gong-Fen’s employer, whom they find following researches at the British Library, and thence to the Mythos itself, with a climactic battle underneath St Paul’s Church in Shadwell.

My only real criticism comes compliments of Lovegrove himself. The novel is preceded by both an author’s preface (where he employs a conceit based on the similarity of his own surname to Lovecraft’s) and a fictional foreword by Watson and concludes with a brief epilogue in which Watson, writing in 1928, provides a teaser for the next instalment (due for publication in November this year), Sherlock Holmes and the Miskatonic Monstrosities. The first novel is set in 1880, the second in 1895, and the third (Sherlock Holmes and the Sussex Sea Devils, due for publication in 2018) in 1910. If Lovegrove is indeed reinventing Doyle’s canon – and I think reinvention is the key to successful pastiche – then he needs to do a little more than rewrite the meeting of Holmes and Watson. Given that this volume is supposed to tide us over until 1895, it covers the first two novellas and the first two collections of short stories but alludes to very few of the incidents or characters with which readers are familiar. Lovegrove has Watson explain that he wrote “one sort of story [detection] to deflect attention from another [horror], which strays into realms most ordinary people are incognisant of and are all the better off in their ignorance”. Granted, but if the canon is being rewritten as opposed to Holmes and Watson simply undertaking an alternative set of adventures, then there needs to be a little more explanation or demonstration of the relation between Lovegrove’s reinvention and Doyle’s canon. Why, for example, did Watson write the particular stories that comprise The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes rather than others? What happened in the reality of the Mythos that caused him to draw this particular veil of detection over it? If it weren’t for Lovegrove’s preface, this expectation would not exist, but it does exist and remains unrewarded at this point in the trilogy. Notwithstanding, the novel is an entertaining and accomplished contribution to the occult detective genre and an original and ambitious contribution to the Holmes and Mythos subgenre.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Nominations for the British Fantasy Awards 2017

The British Fantasy Awards nominees have been announced for 2017, and it's the first time since 2012 that our magazine and its contents have been eligible, thanks to me stepping down as awards administrator last September.

Sadly, though, fate did not hear our call, and we did not receive any nominations, although I do contribute on average a page per issue to one of the best magazine nominees, Interzone, edited by the apparently tireless Andy Cox, so I'll be celebrating that while the rest of the TQF team weep into their teacups. Andy's equally fine Black Static, to which I occasionally contribute a review (albeit not last year), also received a nomination.

The other magazine nominated was Uncanny Magazine, a first-time nominee which I haven't read, but which looks very interesting. There are also first-time nominations in this category for Tor.com and Ginger Nuts of Horror, both websites which don't style themselves as magazines or periodicals – they don't publish in issues, for example – so it's a bit of a surprise to see them on the list. But the BFAs often follow the voters' heads in this kind of thing: see for example how the best small press award morphed over the years from being an award for small press publications to being an award for the small presses themselves.

The full list of nominees is here. Congratulations to all of them!

Scroll down to the bottom and you'll see that I'm a juror on the best comic/graphic novel category, and the work for that kicked off when we were appointed on June 24. I was glad to find I'd already read 29 graphic novels and comics collections from the relevant year, and I read another dozen or so highly-recommended books in the course of us deciding whether to add egregious omissions to the list. In the end, we added two to the four put forward by the voters of the British Fantasy Society and FantasyCon. Now I'm reading and re-reading all the nominees, but I know already that it's going to be a very tough decision.

Not going to say much about the other categories, since there's a lot of overlap between juries, so I might be seen as having inside information about the juries I'm not on. (I don't – I didn't even know my fellow comics jurors were on a couple of other juries, or that my all-male jury wasn't the only one, until yesterday's announcement.) It does seem a bit of a shame that the best horror novel, best fantasy novel and best artist juries decided not to add any items to their shortlists, given all the work out there deserving of awards recognition, but maybe the jurors were deadlocked on what to add.

A Wizard's Henchman was my favourite book of last year, so I'd hoped it might get a nomination in best fantasy novel. I'd also had hopes for Glen Weldon's The Caped Crusade in best non-fiction and A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson in best novella, and it was a big surprise to see that Central Station by Lavie Tidhar didn't make the best collection list – perhaps its votes were split between people voting for it as a novel, and people voting for it as a collection?

If I'm not picking out my favourite works from female writers there, that's because they made the shortlists: overall nine of the thirty-nine items I voted for made it on, a pretty good batting average! It's definitely worth using all of your votes. The plan is for winners to be announced at FantasyCon 2017, in Peterborough. Memberships of the convention and tickets for the awards banquet are available here. Good luck to everyone!

Friday, 14 July 2017

A Taste of Honey, by Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor.com) | review by Stephen Theaker

An interesting and romantic novella, in which Aqib, a young and good-looking member of the Olorumi minor nobility with a special way with animals, falls for a rough soldier from the Daluçan embassy. Forbidden and sweaty things happen, to their mutual delight, but it is important to his family that he makes the right marriage, and so when the opportunity for one arises he must choose between love and duty, happiness and family. As the story progresses we are also shown episodes from progressively deeper into his future life, placing ever more weight upon the decision he will have to make. This was a very well-written, exciting and romantic book; the relationships of Aqib with both his lover and his other significant other are tender and believable. Using an extremely famous literary title for another book always seems a bit odd (see also Signal to Noise and Journal of the Plague Year), but the story works hard to justify it. A word for the evocative cover art: fantasy and science fiction book covers often feature great design, but it’s brilliant to see that not every publisher has given up on illustrative artwork. ****

Monday, 10 July 2017

Sherlock, Series 4, by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat (BBC One) | review by Rafe McGregor

Like Conan Doyle, who famously tired of his creation, the BBC seem curiously reluctant to represent Sherlock Holmes on the small screen. Compare Sherlock, which began in 2010, with CBS’s Elementary, which began in 2012: the former has a total of thirteen episodes across four seasons (I’ll use the American term to distinguish an individual season from the series as a whole); the latter is, at the time of writing, in its fifth season and will have aired a total of 109 episodes by the time this review is in print. In addition to the British tendency to disguise mini-series as series, writers Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat seem intent on frustrating our enjoyment of the Benedict Cumberbatch (Holmes) and Martin Freeman (Watson) partnership in a way that Robert Doherty does not with Jonny Lee Miller (Holmes) and Lucy Liu (Watson) in Elementary. Season 1 ended with Holmes and Watson about to blow up, season 2 with Holmes’ faked suicide leaving Watson bereft, and season 3 with Holmes exiled to certain death. Ominously, the final episode of season 4 is called “The Final Problem” and it is telling that Doyle’s story of the same name – his half-hearted attempt to kill off Holmes after 26 episodes – is the only original case to have inspired two of the TV adaptations.

In my review of Sherlock: The Abominable Bride (the 2016 Special, which bridged the gap between seasons 3 and 4) in TQF55, I was clear that the conclusion of Holmes’ drug-fuelled investigation is that, whatever appearances to the contrary, Moriarty is dead. I’m pleased to say I was right. Moriarty is dead and he did commit suicide in the finale of season 2, “The Reichenbach Fall”. Season 3 was Moriarty-free and the overarching plot across the three episodes was the discovery of the real identity of Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington), whom Watson married in “The Sign of Three”, interwoven with Holmes’ struggle against Charles Augustus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen), a very nasty blackmailer of people in high and low places. The third season ended with “His Last Vow” (based on the Conan Doyle story “Charles Augustus Milverton” rather than “His Last Bow” as the title suggests), where Holmes was sent on a suicide mission to Eastern Europe in lieu of standing trial for the murder of Magnussen. The episode finished with Moriarty (Andrew Scott) apparently returning from the dead, being broadcast on every television screen in the UK and asking “Did you miss me?” The Special began with Holmes being recalled only a few minutes after his exile and its purpose was to confirm Moriarty’s death and establish his revenge as posthumous. Most of the Special takes place inside Holmes’ Mind Palace (AKA his drug-addled brain for this case) so the time elapsed between the end of season 3 and the start of season 4 is a matter of days rather than the three years the tormented audience has had to wait. Once Holmes reassures the authorities that Moriarty is dead, his murder of Magnussen is covered up, and he is reinstalled in Baker Street to await the unfolding of Moriarty’s retribution.

The three episodes in the season all take their titles from original stories – “The Six Thatchers” (“The Six Napoleons”), “The Lying Detective” (“The Dying Detective”) and “The Final Problem” – and succeed in both paying homage to them and creatively reinventing them for viewers who have and have not read them. Following the segue from the Special to season 4, “The Six Thatchers” sees Moriarty’s machinations fade into the background as a link emerges between two of Holmes’ new cases. The focus of the episode is actually Mary’s past catching up with her (she was a freelance military contractor who worked for the CIA and the British government amongst others). Mary decides to leave John and their child for safety’s sake and is persuaded to return by Holmes. The episode ends with Watson blaming Holmes for the consequences and demanding that he never darken his door again. Watson’s reaction is completely unfair, but provides the writers with an opportunity to deprive audiences of the beloved partnership without the threat of death to one or both of them (par for the course by now).

The series as a whole has been a mix of crime, fantasy, horror, and humour, but took a sinister turn after the confrontation with a really unsettling villain in Magnussen. The events of the first episode and the Holmes-Watson rift that results set an even grimmer tone for “The Lying Detective”. The villain of the piece, millionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist Culverton Smith (Toby Jones, whose performance inspires a perfectly-pitched combination of fear and disgust) makes Magnussen pale in comparison. In fact, after Magnussen and Smith one begins to wonder what all the fuss about Moriarty was. The case becomes a descent into hell for Holmes and his return to excessive drug use following Watson’s departure is employed as a device to blur the line between reality and hallucination, giving the story a surreal edge that marks the change from fantasy to horror for the last two episodes of the season. I was completely gripped and saw the episode as the highlight of season 4, although I wasn’t surprised to see it was the least popular – it is very dark in tone and Toby Jones’ Smith may be too much for many viewers. I do wonder, however, if Holmes’ drug addiction hasn’t become definitive of the character in a way that marks a complete departure from the original. Holmes’ occasional use of cocaine and morphine were only mentioned a handful of times by Doyle and were indicative of his desire for mental stimulation rather than addiction. They were also introduced at a time when both drugs could be bought over the counter in department stores. In contrast, Miller’s Holmes is a recovering heroin addict and Cumberbatch’s Holmes an addict in denial. I also wonder if Cumberbatch’s Holmes doesn’t glamorise drug abuse. Unlike Miller, whose day-to-day battle with heroin makes his life more-than-miserable, Cumberbatch emerges from his binges with barely a hair out of place.

“The Lying Detective” ends with the revelation that the third Holmes child, to which there has been previous allusion, is a sister rather than a brother and that she – Eurus (Sian Brooke) – is the instrument of Moriarty’s revenge. “The Final Problem” sees Holmes and Watson not only reunited, but joined by Mycroft (writer Mark Gatiss) in a Freudian excavation of the shared childhood traumas of the Holmeses. Eurus is a psychopath who shares the superhuman skills of her brothers and has spent most of her adult life in a maximum security prison on an island off the English coast. Mycroft allowed Moriarty to meet Eurus and when Holmes and Watson arrive on the island they find the tables turned and the inmate running the asylum. Eurus sets the brothers, Watson, and the prison governor a series of tasks to achieve in order to survive and the narrative is nothing short of harrowing, maintaining the grim atmosphere of the previous episode. The plot is quite similar to the final episode of season 1, “The Great Game”, but this is to be expected given that both involve Moriarty’s prolonged torture of Holmes. As there is currently much speculation about a fifth season it is no spoiler to say that the episode (and season and probably series as well) ends with Holmes and Watson back in practice in Baker Street.

There is no little irony here. Holmes is now free of the three supervillains that have dominated each season and he and Watson can, well, just get on with solving crimes and stuff (plus a bit of child-rearing, let’s not forget baby-Watson). Indeed, the ending is reminiscent of the first story in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, “The Empty House”, which sees a miraculously resurrected Holmes and conveniently widowed Watson set up shop once again, ready to resume business for another 33 episodes over the next 24 years. In a strange way, then, Sherlock ends where Elementary begins. The American series has been far less concerned with overarching plots and links between episodes than the British one and this, combined with the American focus on crime rather than fantasy or horror, has made it more rather than less faithful to the original stories, despite appearances to the contrary. Given the predilection of Gatiss and Moffat for frustrating the desires they have stimulated, I feel I can almost guarantee that the only season that does not end with the Cumberbatch-Freeman partnership teetering on the brink will be the last. At least there are 25 episodes of season 5 of Elementary to ease my withdrawal…