Henry H. Neff, The Tapestry (2007-2014)

A few months ago I was looking, quite consciously, for good Harry Potter clones, or school-of-magic series in general. I’m brave enough to admit I loved The Magicians by Grossman (season two of the tv series is still good, by the way!), dubbed Potter for adults, but this time I’m back to children-oriented books. Or… middle grim-grade? I once showed Coraline to my then-three-year-old niece (sort-of by accident, long story, sorry Madzia, the most important thing is there was no lasting psychological damage 😉 ), but I won’t be reading her this one any time soon.

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Max McDaniels lives a quiet life in the suburbs of Chicago, until the day he stumbles upon a mysterious Celtic tapestry. Many strange people are interested in Max and his tapestry. His discovery leads him to Rowan Academy, a secret school where great things await him.

Does not sound very original? And it isn’t, at first. Then it gets less derivative, and quite good. The five book long saga gives us likeable protagonists and develops their stories coherently up to a very satisfying ending. Seriously, there are many imperfections, and sometimes it felt rather dull, it definitely could be a book shorter in my opinion, but the ending itself made it worth my time. Melancholic, happy, but hard-earned. Even a bit tolkienesque, toutes proportions gardées.

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Logan (2017)

Piotrek: Times are good for comic book fans. Old stuff is easily available, new things are often good, and movies/tv… our genre is probably the strongest one today, with so much being done, everyone can find something nice. Solid stories, visual experiments (Dr Strange, Legion!), profane (Deadpool) and civil (Guardians) comedies… and now Logan.

Ola: The newest instalment in XXth Century Fox X-Men franchise is a story loosely based on the premise of Old Man Logan, one of the most famous graphic novels about Wolverine. It features a post-apocalyptic near future, where United States are in turmoil, symbolized by the absence of the Statue of Liberty, regular institutions such as police or National Guard or medical help no longer work, and the world once again becomes an arena of fight between the weak and the strong. The mutant gene has been suppressed; superheroes are no longer around; and those who stayed behind are not what they used to be.

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The new Red Sonja (2013-?)

Red Sonja. Female version of Conan the Barbarian, in a way lingerie football* is a female version of American football.

*There really is such a thing, and apparently quite popular in the US. Isn’t it a perfect summary of what is worst in today’s pop-culture? The worst trends in advertising and entertainment combining sport and sex to appeal to the lowest instincts of mass audience. And there is talk of empowerment and providing role models for little girls, of course… and fining players for not revealing enough skin.

This digression is not completely out of topic, because Red Sonja seems to be part of the same problem. Pulp had its strong points and can still be fun to read, but it also targeted male teenage audience with soft erotica in days when it had to be disguised and the regular porn was not easily available. Scantily clad women on the covers, damsels in distress rewarding dashing heroes with their graces, and sometimes sword-wielding females like Sonja, inspired but slightly different fantasies of authors and readers. Still, no actual women were hurt and left without medical help in the process, so maybe these were better times…

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Neil Gaiman, Norse Mythology (2017)

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This year, before American Gods hit the TVs as probably one of the most anticipated series of the year, the readers were treated to a new Gaiman’s book. At least things look like this if you judge the book by the cover 😉 But Gaiman’s name on the front page is more than a bit misleading – because he’s in no way the author of the collected myths; he himself presents his role in the introduction as that of a humble narrator, a storyteller refreshing ancient and beloved tales. I guess that his name on the cover serves as a selling device – and probably serves quite well. But even though I can understand this approach from a mercantile point of view, it still smacks of hubris to me. How can one present oneself as an author of mythology? That is a minor point, though – if this way more people will learn of Norse myths, I will only applaud and cheer.

I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t start with the cover. The English version of the cover, presented above, is IMO simply beautiful. A detailed rendering of Thor’s hammer, gold and grey on dark background, accompanied by simple, elegant lettering that in no way distracts from the graphics – what’s not to admire? It’s just perfect. I only wish Polish version were the same… Alas, you can’t always get what you wish for, and in most cases that’s a good thing 😉

As for what’s inside – it’s Norse mythology and no mistake. Gaiman openly states in the introduction that he’s just retelling the old myths, giving them simpler, more digestible form suitable for modern readers who are not necessarily mythology buffs. There is nothing new or unusual in there – for those who know Norse mythology. Those who got acquainted with Nordic myths through Marvel comics or movies might be in for a surprise ;).

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Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others (2002)

Arrival might be the most interesting movie I missed in 2016. From the guy behind new Blade Runner, and, (even more important!) new Dune. Heh, new Dune… I’m not ashamed to admit I love Lynch’s version, but I’m ready for a new one.

Back to Arrival…a science fiction with Amy Adams playing a linguist trying to decipher alien language. Without any threat of invasion, this is no Ender’s Game, the goal is just to understand a fundamentally different culture. Well, the goal of our protagonist, government would prefer to gain some useful technology. The problem is, this alien culture is build upon fundamentally different understanding of time. It’s not a line for them and so they understand the world in a way far removed from our experience. Their language (languages in fact, as their writing is a language in its own right) reflects that.

The science of language is done with great care for details, and while the movie – and at this point I know it only from reviews and trailers – adds many entertaining details, to build a feature film from 64-page short story – it’s still a piece of hard s/f.

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But enough about the movie, short story collection is what this post is about. And its very interesting author.

With just fourteen short stories and a novella, the author behind the recent film “Arrival” has gained a rapturous following within the genre and beyond.

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Neal Stephenson, Seveneves (2015)

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Seveneves is a critically acclaimed, almost seven hundred pages long science fiction novel, with solid two-thirds of it being trademark Stephenson hard sf. It has been shortlisted for 2016 Hugo award and is currently being adapted to film by the Apollo 13 filming team. It starts in an ideal Hitchcock fashion: with an earthquake, followed by an ever rising tension.  Imagine yourself, right about now, looking up at the starry – or blue, depending on your current location on Earth – sky. Imagine looking at the Moon, its white, pocked face benevolently gazing down on you. Imagine that you close your eyes for a fraction of second, and when you open them again, the Moon is no more. There is a huge, hazy cloud instead, growing with an alarming speed.

That’s the opening earthquake of Stephenson’s Seveneves. An Agent, an unexplained force, tears the Moon apart into seven huge chunks (and myriads smaller, which quickly turn into cosmic dust or else fall down on Earth as meteors, killing a few unlucky chaps along the way). The big lumps keep in orbit, at first – they are given cute names, like Scoop, Kidney Bean and Mr. Spinny, and are being observed by all as the sensation of the season – but then they begin to collide with each other. What happens next? Well, there is good news and bad news.

The good news is that the Earth is one day going to have a beautiful system of rings, just like Saturn.

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Paul Cornell, Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? (2016)

This is a quick follow-up review to my post on the two first books of Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police. In the comments I’ve suggested it starts well and I’m happy to add it continues so. For me – the best part of the series so far and a reason to read the next one. Beware of minor spoilers, but nothing major. If anything, knowing that would make me feel better while reading volume one, now I know the author knows where he’s going.

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The ghost of Sherlock dies quickly, and the identity of his killer is only one of the riddles for our team to solve. They are also chasing the Big Bad of the series, and the truth about the disappearance of their predecessors. Plenty to do for a small team of police officers with varying specialities and sanity levels.

Is this still a horror story? Well, there are violent deaths, and graphic depictions of Cornell’s vision of Hell, but it’s just a sort of grimdark Urban Fantasy, nothing to scar even relatively sensitive readers.

And it definitely feels like a proper UF saga now, with a main story I’m really interested – and emotionally invested – in, to a degree. The supernatural world is a bit more fleshed out, characters grow, story progresses, even some good things happen. There’s a change 😉 Usually I make up my mind faster, here it took me three books, but Shadow Police finally joined the ranks of series I’m definitely going to follow.

Still, not all is great. Worldbuilding, very important for every genre universe, is uneven. I like to London, but I don’t fully buy the main principles of magic here. The way economy works in the supernatural underworld, with sacrifices as a rather inconsistent measure of worth, could not, I believe, sustain even a relatively small community. The way magic is exclusive to the cities, and only some of them – goes against tradition, and tradition that makes a lot of sense. City magic could be unique, but to claim that mysteries of the world originated with big settlements… I’m not convinced. Aaronovitch might be getting worse at plotting his books, but his worldbuilding is way better. And the way magic works, and how relatively easy it is to come upon, I don’t think it’s realistic to assume it would be ignored by the mainstream to such a degree.

Ok, but the strong points of this novel go beyond developing the series in an interesting direction. by itself it’s very cool. Cornell uses Sherlock-mania and many different versions of fiction’s greatest detective, with subtle jabs at a few of his modern incarnations.It’s definitely the best case our protagonists encountered so far!

If you’re hungry for Urban Fantasy darker than Dresden Files – and its less successful clones – that is a nice thing to try. You might like it 🙂

Score: 7/10