Showing posts with label Reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Reviews. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Robert Hewitt Wolfe's THE GOBLIN CROWN Continues a Long Standing Fantasy Tradition

It is a sign of the times that it took me three years to discover The Goblin Crown by Robert Hewitt Wolfe. I'd like to put most of the blame on the fact that we live in an era where there is more genre content being produced in a year than can be easily consumed in a lifetime and a good deal of that content is self-published, Kickstarted, or patron supported. I'd like that to be where I place the blame, but it was more likely due to the fact that I am in the process of earning my Ph.D. and don't have as much time to delve into the Science Fiction and Fantasy mid-list and new author stacks as I used to have.

While Robert Hewitt Wolfe's is an accomplished television writer whose credits range from Star Trek: The Next Generation to Elementary and include The Dresden Files (which gives him significant geek cred) and the underappreciated superhero show Alphas. The vast majority of Wolfe's television writing has been genre work, so it is not surprising that his first novel The Goblin Crown would be a Fantasy novel that is heavily steeped in genre tropes.

The Goblin Crown is the first volume of a series of (at least) three books in which Wolfe tells the tales of three high school students as they are transported into a fantasy realm. These teenagers are  the socially awkward Billy Smith, the angsty Lexi Aquino, and the prototypical quarterback Kurt Novac. These students must find a way to work together and combine their unique talents to help save the day for a desperate and outnumbered people, who are on the verge of extinction as war ravages the realms. These people are currently being rallied by a charismatic leader in a last desperate push for survival.

The twist? It is the Goblins who need saving from a massive human army. Goblin prophecy states that when Goblins most need them, a king from another world will arrive to save them and one of these young adventurers is destined to be that king.

What Works? 

Wolfe's talents as a writer are quickly apparent as he doesn't hesitate to make the main antagonist of this volume as psychologically complex and compelling as any of the protagonists. Wolfe's use of point of view characters is spot on for maximum emotional effect. We allowed to see into the mind of a hopeful Goblin named Hop who has quested into the depths of Mother Mountain to see if a new Goblin King has been sent. We become acutely aware of the worries and stresses of young Billy and Lexi as they adapt to this new world. Most importantly we get to experience the torment of General Sawtooth who wants to preserve his people, even as he knows he may have been misled by The Dark Lady and that his people may be doomed. The characters are compelling and have clear motivations that set up the conflict to come.

As mentioned earlier, Wolfe's basic conceit is that our young protagonists have been transported into another world. This is a common trope in fantasy and science fiction that is some variation of the "Trapped in Another World" trope and the "Down the Rabbit Hole" trope. While this is a common trope, it is one that has been used to great success by to many authors to list here, but that list includes like Edgar Rice Burroughs, L. Sprague de Camp, Michael Moorcock, and Andre Norton. For the trope to be successful, the conceit must be delivered quick and painlessly. The author must not make the reader wait too long before being transported into the magic realm and God forbid the author spend too much time describing the how and why the transportation works. Best to pull the veil away in a rapid and compelling fashion.

Let's examine a couple of archetypical examples of the genre.

In "Solomon's Stone," author Sprague de Camp transports his protagonist from our world into the Astral Plane. The protagonist, Prosper Nash, is transported by the will of a demon he and his friends summoned at an evening's dinner party.
Prosper Nash felt a tremendous shock, as if a destroyer had dropped a depth bomb on him. While his mind strove to keep a grip on his body, he could feel that body being pulled out of his mental clutches--going--going--gone!

He was moving with great speed--or falling; it was like an express-elevator plunge, only more so...

Keep your head, J. Prosper. Let's take a look at this astral body of ours first.
-- L. Sprague de Camp "Solomon's Stone" Unknown Worlds vol. 6 no. 1 (1942).

It's quick and too the point. Sprague de Camp gives us a little more of the "whys and wherefores" of travel beyond the veil of the mundane in his more famous Harold Shea "Enchanter" stories, but he still gets us there quickly.

There, on sheets of paper spread before him, were the logical equations, with their little horseshoes, upside-down T's, and identity signs. 
His scalp prickled a trifle as he gazed at them. But what the hell! Stand by for adventure and romance! He bent over, giving his whole attention to the formulas, trying not to focus on one spot, but to apprehend the whole:

'If P equals not-Q, Q implies not-P, which is equivalent to saying either P or Q or neither, but not both. But if not-P is not implied by not-Q,  the counter-implicative form of the proposition--'

There was nothing bu six sheets of paper. Just that, lying in two neat rows of three sheets, with perhaps half an inch between them. There should be strips of table showing between them. But there was nothing--nothing...>

It is through this focus on a logical equation that Harold Shea is transported to Midgard's border and where is adventure begins. L. Sprague de Camp's tales were inspirational to Gary Gygax as he worked on the Dungeons & Dragons role playing game, and that work in turn inspired Andre Norton's Quag Keep, which uses magical lead miniatures as the conceit (and does so much quicker than de Camp). One of the most iconic versions of the Trapped in Another World trope is Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars, which sees Civil War Captain John Carter transported to the fantastic world of Barsoom through sheer force of will.

As I stood thus meditating, I turned my gaze from the landscape to the heavens where the myriad stars formed a gorgeous and fitting canopy for the wonders of the earthly scene. My situation was quickly riveted by a large red star close to the distant horizon. As I gazed upon it I felt a spell of overpowering fascination--it was Mars, the god of war, and for me, the fighting man, it had always held the power of irresistible enchantment. As I gazed at it an on that far gone night it seemed to call across the unthinkable void, to lure me to it, to draw me as a lodestone attracts a particle of iron.

My longing was beyond the power of opposition; I closed my eyes, stretched out my arms toward the god of my vocation and felt myself drawn with the suddenness of thought through the trackless immensity of space. There was an instant of extreme cold and darkness...
And...BOOM! He's on Mars. It's powerful imagery that makes no logical sense. We are given no plausible reason for the transportation to work, but it does and it is magical. This is the kind of conceit Wolfe uses in his book as Billy wills himself into another world:

What do I do? Please, please, Billy prayed silently, I have to get her out of here.

At that moment, Billy saw real light, a shining cell phone, illuminating the culvert.
Unfortunately, it was carried by the last person Billy wanted to see.

"What are you idiots doing?" It was Kurt. And he sounded furious.

Billy tried to catch his breath, push past the pain, and lift Lexi, anything to get her away from Kurt. To get Lexi to safety.

I need to get out. I need to be anyplace but here.

Then, suddenly, as if in answer to Billy's unspoken wish, the world around him shifted, warped, and bent. His stomach lurched. His ears popped. And just like that--

Billy was somewhere else.

Wolfe's description of transportation here is a combination of Burroughs and de Camp and it works nicely. You have the desperation of the scene, the compulsion to get away, and that's enough. Wolfe doesn't spend pages describing how and why the kids are transported, just that Billy wants to go and so they do. This is a fantasy novel and that comes with suspension of disbelief. When the trope used is a common one, such suspension is easy and granted eagerly. Don't spend time describing how and why, that only opens up the critical eye and limits the visceral experience. Wolfe understands this and takes us away quickly.

The reader is exposed to the world of the Hanorian Empire and Mother Mountain, which isn't given a world name in The Goblin Crown, at a nice pace. It's clear by his inclusion of Burroughs-esque use of language (and language acquisition) that Wolfe has a mapped out a compelling fantasy world. It may lack the Mythopoetic realism of Tolkien's Middle Earth, but it is logically consistent and has a history that mirrors the migrations, expansions, and invasions of real Earth history. If you don't find echoes of actual historical engagements between cultures in the backdrop of this story, you aren't paying attention. Wolfe has set up a clash of civilizations that views both societies as "human," with all the virtues and flaws that entails, which allows him to explore moral complexities.

While the majority of The Goblin Crown takes place within Goblin society, readers are given enough of human history to see a broader world. This first volume spends its time building Goblin society, and it's a rich one. We are given glimpses of the Goblin worship of  the Night Goddess and the justness of the religion's matriarch. These are not Warhammer's mindless Goblins. While they are still the untrustworthy, sneaky, and vicious Goblins we are used to, they are also a gentle, family minded, and caring people. Wolfe humanizes the Goblins without demonizing the humans and it makes the impending conflict more powerful.

One of the most developed aspects of the world, is the underlying magic system of the races. Humans, who worship the sun, have fire based magic and Goblins, who worship the Night Goddess, have cold based magic. Each system has strengths and weaknesses and both systems of magic come with the risk of madness and death if they are overused. We as readers are able to learn the intricacies of the magic system through the interactions between Lexi and a Goblin Wizard named Frost. After being transported to the new world, Lexi discovers that she is a Fire Mage and that her fiery temper may well lead her down the road to destruction.


As entertaining as The Goblin Crown is, I read it in an afternoon and ordered the sequel immediately thereafter, it isn't a perfect novel. 

Even as one of the novel's major is how well developed the majority of Wolfe's characters are, there are holes. While General Sawtooth, the major antagonist of the novel, is offered as a point of view character, Kurt Novac isn't. Given that Kurt is one of the core four characters (maybe five if you count Frost), having to rely on his conversations with other characters to reveal his inner thoughts is a bit of a letdown. We get Lexi, Billy, Hop, and Sawtooth as point of view characters. Leaving Kurt out of this list maked it seem like the author was attempting to prolong a mystery that wasn't really a mystery. Was the only reason Kurt wasn't used for point of view to leave us wondering who the Goblin King really was? Given the title of the novel, and the copy on the back cover of the book, one hopes not. Kurt needed to be explored a little more, especially since the character does evolve and shift from antagonist to one of the heroes as the book progresses.

The second area for critique is very much related to the first. The initial narrative misdirection regarding who and what the Goblin King is and how it is chosen was unecessary. While this misdirection leads to some very important narrative outcomes, and allows the point of view character to learn more about the world and their new abilities, it felt like a bit of a cheat. This is exacerbated by the fact that it's pretty obvious. It's a mystery without a mystery. It's like guessing who the murderer in a typical episode of Matlock is. We all know it's the Guest Star. What makes Matlock interesting isn't the who, but the why. Had the misdirection explored the why of the Goblin King, it would have worked. Instead, it was primarily a vehicle to move the characters from one location to another.

Final Thoughts

Setting aside these two relatively minor critiques, The Goblin Crown was a fun ride. It has a narrative and cast of characters that appeals to our inner child with a complex moral backdrop that engages our more cynical adult minds. If you love fantasy for all ages, or have a tween who is looking for a series to start, you couldn't do better than The Goblin Crown. Wolfe draws inspiration for Edgar Rice Burroughs, de Camp, Tolkien, and classic children's tales and creates a world worth exploring.

And explore this world is something I'll be doing over the next couple of weeks. I'll be writing up statistics for some of the main characters for a role playing game. I haven't decided on which game to use yet, but I'm leaning toward Genesys, Shadow of the Demon Lord (hey, he's planning a Kid Friendly Version), The Index Card RPG, or Symbaroum.

Friday, September 14, 2012

[Book Review] GIANT THIEF -- Where's the Likeable Rogue?

Easie Demasco is a character with whom I am conflicted. On the one hand, he is a witty character who has a well developed sense of humor. One the other hand, he's a jerk -- one who never really becomes more than a jerk. He's also the strongest and most compelling feature of David Tallerman's novel GIANT THIEF (published by Angry Robot Books).

GIANT THIEF is a fairly straight forward tale of:

1) Thief acquires MacGuffin not understanding it's value.
2) Thief meets people who understand value of MacGuffin and seek to use thief in battle against evil.
3) kind of know the rest.

Often these tales include a heroic journey or follow a bildungsroman format in which our Thief undergoes some major transformation or grows in some way -- usually evolving morally. Not so with GIANT THIEF.   Easie begins the story as a selfish and greedy rogue, and he ends the story as a selfish and greedy rogue with more grandiose plans than before.

Technically,  that does count as some kind of character development, but it lacks the moral evolution that often occurs in these tales.  Easie goes from a petty thief to an individual who seeks to become a master thief. He goes from pick pocket to one who wants to become a Thomas Crown-esque figure, but he lacks the sophisticated charm of a Thomas Crown and has instead a clownish sense of humor.  If one were to cast Easie for a film, one would look more to comedic talent than to cool sexuality.  He's more Daffy Duck than Han Solo.

There are quite a few clumsy moments in the book and the chapters establish and follow a  predictable rhythm. One is tempted to say that the book is one that isn't to be recommended based on these flaws, as they are often fatal to good storytelling. And yet...

I keep finding myself wanting to throttle Easie Damasco, or watch him get caned, or at least have a long talk with him to wake him up and set him on a more moral path. I keep finding myself imagining conversations with him.

All of which means that Tallerman has achieved something that is often rare within a novel, he's created a realistic character who lingers in ones mind weeks after a book has been read. That is a good thing indeed. If only Easie were more likeable. He's a rogue and a scoundrel...and that's it. He's not loveable. He's not nice. He doesn't harbor a hidden heroic heart. But he is interesting and I want to know more about him

[Gaming Notes -- Contains a minor Spoiler]

The book's MacGuffin and interpretation of Giants are perfectly suited for adaptation to the gaming table.  The MacGuffin is a non-magical stone sacred to the Giants that signifies who is the Giant's chief.  In Giant society the orders of the chief must be followed without question, even if they violate the morality of the tribe members.  The Giants in this case are gentle pacifist vegetarians, but they are asked to do some terrible things.  All of which could make for a compelling and morally complex D&D adventure.

You can play with PC preconceptions regarding Giants and slowly introduce them to the moral complexity of the situation.  How many Giants will the players defeat, or even kill, before they discover the secret of the stone?  How will they feel about their actions later.

These are good questions, that can make for a rewarding adventure as well.

Friday, January 13, 2012

12-Sided Die: Should You Be Game for this New Webseries?

Earlier today, the team @12sideddie blasted the internet with a solicitation of their new gaming themed web series 12 Sided Die.

12 Sided Die is a web series directed by Daniel Murphy and written by Curtis Fortier that is aimed at the table top gaming community. According to the show's website, the show is:
A hilarious new web-series about romance, geeks, and graph paper.

Our hero: Curtis Foster, Permit Processor by day, Level Fourteen Wizard Warrior by night.

If theres one thing Curtis loves most on this Earth, it's playing a rousing game of "Swords and Swordsmen" with his friends Chris and Eric.

Sadly, the group is growing older... Eric is newly married, Chris is a father, and the time between games is growing larger with each passing day.

So, on their eve of their first game in over six months, when the stakes have never been higher, Curtis is convinced that nothing can get in his way.

Except, perhaps, a surprise distraction of his own: his neighbor Cynthia.
But is the show hilarious, and does it really capture geek romance?

The answer to this central question is maybe. The first episode of the series (embedded below) suffers from a significant dose of what I like to call "pilotitis." This is the slight awkwardness that many pilot episodes suffer from which fails to capture the full potential of the idea underlying the show, or the talent of the creators and performers of the show. A good historical example of pilotitis is Star Trek. The show's original pilot was pretty bad, but by the time they reworked the show for the second pilot the show's potential really shined through.

12 Sided Die has a good concept. It's a show about gamers and romance, but it is also a show about the difficulties of balancing a hobby with real life. Anyone who has played games, or had a passionate hobby, in their post-college/high school years understands how difficult in can be to find the proper balance in time to meet all your obligations and still find time for your hobbies. For example, I love playing board and role playing games. I also love running around the park with my wife and daughters, the allure of spending time with History and Mystery (our 3 1/2 year old twins) is a pretty significant obstacle to making time to play games. I am thankful that the girls really like the people who come over to game twice a month, and even more grateful that my friends like spending time with the girls. To be honest, if they weren't willing to let the girls "watch" us play it would be a deal breaker. History and Mystery would win out in the battle of hobby vs. family and which provides more joy. That said, my group does enjoy having the girls come around and the girls love to play with our "little men." It's that kind of tension, though other tensions as well, that underlie the dramatic/comedic conflicts of 12 Sided Die. Just add a dose of 30 something and single/looking for a relationship, and you've captured the show perfectly.

Back to the show's pilotitis. It leaps out at you from the first scene. The lighting during the play session in the opening is a distraction. The room looks unnaturally yellow, when it should be lit to look like a normally lit apartment. The problem is that they filmed a normally lit apartment, and normally lit apartments don't look like normally lit apartments on film. This scene is also a tad overacted. While Christopher Gehrman's over the top performance as the dungeon master can be forgiven, as he's playing an over the top dungeon master, Curtis Fortier's performance in this scene needs to be backed down a little. Not his "in character" performance, but his "I'm so excited about where the game campaign is going" performance, the same should be said of Eric Vesbit's performance in the scene as well. As the show progresses, the actors seem to fall into more natural rhythms and I don't see this being a problem in the long haul. It is just something that needs to be pointed out. As Hamlet would say:

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
you, trippingly on the tongue:but if you mouth it,
as many of your players do, I had as lief the
town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air
too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently;
for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,
the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget
a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it
offends me to the soul to hear a robustious
periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to
very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who
for the most part are capable of nothing but
inexplicable dumbshows and noise: I would have such
a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant; it
out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it.

It should also be noted that the sound design is a bit off. There is an overuse of score, and the individual sound edits don't always match up with what I'm supposed to be hearing. This is particularly acute during a scene in which Curtis makes himself some "Strawberry Milk."

The show's strongest suit is in the story, it has a nicely done cliffhanger that is timed almost perfectly. This is a tale of a group who hasn't met to continue their game for almost 6-months given their current responsibilities, what happens when a new romance enters one of their lives? It's a nice touch, and well done. Kristina Lynn Bell is a nice choice for the romantic interest. I was a bit concerned with her introductory performance. Her acting to the audience "behind the fourth wall" started out a tad over the top, but by the end of the scene she won me over. The camera angles were bit off, but her performance really started to hit a sweet spot.

All of this can be written off as pilotitis, and I will certainly return for a second episode. The show as it stands did leave me wanting to see what happens next. It really left me wanting to see what happens next.   So...what happens next?!

But there was one thing that I couldn't quite write off as pilotitis, and it affected the verisimilitude of the entire show. That was the use of "made up game mechanics" that didn't quite sound like real game mechanics. I can understand, and appreciate, the desire to avoid violating other people's copyright. But in a d20 license world, there is no reason for a character to utter the line, "I'll cast my Pyro spell." Especially when one could just as easily say "I'll cast my Fireball." Heck, even in a pre-OGL world, you could have gotten away with that. This was magnified by the fact that the writers were willing to include real world references to Coke and Mountain Dew, but stumbled at the mention of concepts that would most appeal to their target audience. Don't be afraid to say D&D. Even better, if you want to have a little "geek cred" as Erik Mona and crew at Paizo if you can use the Pathfinder brand as your game of choice. If they say no, it doesn't matter. The rules are Open, just avoid Golarion specific references.

All of my criticisms are written with the understanding that these people are working really hard to provide something entertaining that they really believe in (see Jody Lindke's recent blog post on the subject).   But they are also written in the hopes that the show will address small problems and continue to improve.  There is something here.  Something that is already worth watching, for gamers, but it is something that could appeal to an even broader audience if it continues to improve on its strengths and address any weaknesses.  Entertaining people at all is hard.  The 12 Sided Die crew have already succeeded in entertaining me, now I want them to blow me away.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The CW's Nikita is Stylish, Sexy, and Soulless

When considering how to approach the CW's new action television series Nikita, I reminded myself of a couple of my core rules to follow when reviewing works of entertainment. In this case, I wanted to make sure that I followed rules #2 and #7. I find that having certain principles of review ensures that a review is as fair as possible to those who made the effort to produce an entertaining product. Making an entertainment product requires a lot of work, and those working on the products do so because they want to entertain the public.

So what are rules #2 and #7 and what are some examples of them in application?

Rule #2 -- When reviewing a property that has been translated from one medium to another, it is only fair to compare the property to the source material as far as the property relates itself to the original.

An intellectual property that perfectly exemplifies the importance of rule #2 is Frank Herbert's Dune series of books. If one were to compare David Lynch's version of Dune to the novel one would find numerous differences and omissions, but that would be a disservice to Lynch's brilliance in the film. Lynch's Dune isn't a translation of the novel adapted to the big screen. Instead, it is a story inspired by the book that attempts to tell a similar story through a different medium. It approaches the central conflicts of Herbert's SF masterpiece and builds a film narrative structure around it. It also uses the strengths of the different medium to add new levels of spectacle to the property. One should judge Lynch's work apart from Herbert's because it departs widely from the original property.

The several Syfy series based on Dune, which claim to be "faithful" adaptations, should be scrutinized heavily due to their claims of fidelity. In fact, the failure to live up to the claims of fidelity -- followed by the invention of lame filler narrative -- is one of the chief flaws of the Syfy versions of Dune. The others are low production values and poorly choreographed melee combat (inexcusable in the post HK New Wave era).

Rule #7 -- Never judge a new television show purely upon its pilot episode.

Pilot episodes are often clumsy and the actors frequently have yet to build the chemistry that will make a series worth watching week after week. If one were to look only at Star Trek's original pilot, one would wonder how the show ever got picked up by a network in the first place. The concept is solid, but the execution is awkward -- something I often call "pilotitis." Additionally, the first episode shown may not even be the first episode "narratively." When Fox released Firefly, they showed a middle episode as the pilot and viewers where left without any context for the "universe" they were experiencing. As any Browncoat can tell you, this was a shame because viewers missed out on what ended up being a great ride.

I waited to review CW's Nikita for these very reasons. First, I had to judge just how closely they were associating the property with the original Luc Besson film, then I wanted to see if the show's quality improved or declined in the second (and eventually subsequent) episode.

From the advertising posters to the opening scene of the pilot episode, it is clear that Craig Silverstein and crew are making deep associations with the original film. Both posters show Nikita in a similar pose, and both properties begin with the robbery of a drug store for pharmaceuticals. This association continues in the second episode when Nikita's protege Alex is given "two weeks to improve" before the Division decides to "eliminate" her, the identical raising of stakes Nikita faced in the film.

It should be noted that the new Nikita isn't attempting to be a remake by any means, rather it is striving to be a sequel. It is a "what happened next" story that is using the original as a jumping board. This would typically make it a heavy candidate for rule #2 suspension of disbelief, except for the numerous overt parallels between this series and the original. Since it isn't a direct remake the show doesn't deserve "strict scrutiny," but it does deserve "close scrutiny" because it keeps reminding me of its relation to the original property.

So how is CW's Nikita in light of this level of comparison, and how is it in its own right?

Maggie Q is sexy and powerful in her portrayal of an expert assassin who seeks revenge against the organization that did her wrong, but she's too sexy and too competent. Anne Parillaud was vulnerable and sympathetic. She was a fish out of water, who we cared for in spite of the terrible things she does in the first scene of the film. It's easy to like Maggie Q, but it isn't easy to empathize with her. She's too glossy, too strong, too competent -- except when she inexplicably isn't.

The closest parallel to Parillaud's Nikita is Lyndsy Fonseca's Alex character. Fonseca's performance often demonstrates the vulnerability and humanity of the Parillaud version, but these moments are undermined when the show's "twist" is revealed. Alex suddenly becomes less vulnerable and become an instrument of revenge -- losing some of her humanity in the process.

Allow me to elaborate.

Besson's Nikita opens with an amazing image. Four drug addled youths are walking brazenly through the late night streets of Paris. One of these addicts is carrying an axe and dragging a body behind him. It's a disturbing image that plays off of the classic heroic introduction in The Right Stuff with an ironic twist. These young people are attempting to break into a drug store to get a fix, and as it turns out the drug store is owned and operated by the father of one of the youths. There is a touching scene where a father recognizes his child, and is saddened and horrified by what he sees. The tension and sorrow are palpable. Eventually, it almost seems as if everything is going to turn out okay and deescalate when the police arrive and the scene explodes in gun fire. The first two casualties are the father and son, then all of the youth save Nikita who had been curled up under a desk suffering from withdrawal symptoms. A policeman sees this young woman, attempts to gently help her out of the store and is coldly murdered by her. Her addiction has eliminated her humanity. The rest of the film is about -- among other things -- her rediscovering her humanity.

It is a sad story that constantly keeps the audience worried about the protagonist. We forgive her murders because we see her desperation and vulnerability. Besson makes us care about the killer from the first two minutes.

One of the perfect demonstrations of this vulnerability is expressed in the movie poster.

While Nikita is dressed in a sexually appealing outfit, high heels and all, what immediately registers with the viewer is fear and vulnerability.  She is in a near fetal position.  She is gripping the gun with two hands, and her eyes gaze worriedly off camera at some unseen threat. The viewer is interested in the character because the viewer is worried about her safety and we wonder what it is that she is looking off camera for. Who or what is just off the screen?

In contrast, the new Nikita opens in media res with a robbery of a drug store taking place in mid-action. The robbers are both wearing masks -- one bunny and one pig -- dehumanizing the criminals from moment one. Our first view of Alex, and we later discover Nikita, is as inhuman mask wearing figures. This sharply lessens our ability to empathize with them as vulnerable characters. The bunny mask is captured after the pig mask murders someone on site. The "innocent" bunny is unmasked and we first see the face of Alex, who will be our Alice in the rabbit hole that is Division. Where Besson knew that he could get us to sympathize with a murderer Silverstein makes sure that the new recruit is seen to be "in the wrong place at the wrong time" and doesn't trust the audience can be empathetic. We meet Alex, the "next" Nikita in this scene.

Then we are introduced to Nikita herself, the stylish and sexy Maggie Q. Through voice over and flashback we are given her back story and informed that she intends to get revenge against Division for them killing the man she loved. This is all presented pro forma, its just enough to set up the situation but lacks any emotional weight.

As the story unfolds we are introduced to Michael (Shane West), the "Bob" (Tchéky Karyo), of the series. West's performance isn't as subtle as Karyo's, but it is strong and gets better as the show progresses and his character is given more dramatic conflicts to resolve. Michael and Alex, along with Amanda (Melinda Clarke), are very compelling components in the show. They have a "realism" that is lacking in the almost superhuman confidence of the Maggie Q Nikita. Though the Michael/Alex relationship once more highlights the lack of heart in the television series.

In a scene that parallel's the movie, Michael informs Alex that she has two weeks to improve in training or she will be eliminated. This scene comes after Michael has saved Alex's life -- nominally -- and Michael notifies Alex just as she is about to thank him. It is a scene that works well as Michael is simultaneously asserting that he will not allow himself to become personally involved with a trainee (again), but that he does feel vulnerable in Alex's presence. The scene is good, but is shallow when contrasted to a similar scene in Besson's film.

In the film, Nikita has been acting out upon being forbidden from leaving the training facility. She has frightened the techie, bitten the ear off the judo instructor, danced in celebration of biting off the ear, and painted graffiti all over her room. "Bob" has been notified that she has two weeks to improve or Division will kill her. He enters her room with a birthday cake and a gift -- a poster of Degas' The Star.

He cuts her a piece of cake -- with a switchblade -- and tells her that she is only excelling in painting and dance. He is referring to the graffiti and the dance of humiliation she did earlier, which are demonstrations of her individuality and humanity that he appreciates. The Degas painting's portrayal of dance and the individual amplifies this association. He gives her a brief moment of celebration and kindness, and then drops the bomb that she has only two weeks to live if she doesn't improve. It is a powerful scene. It has a weight entirely lacking in television show.

Throughout the first two episodes Nikita attempts to undermine the actions of Division, but she soon discovers that not all who oppose Division are her allies. Maggie Q's Nikita is continually shown as powerful, competent, and sexy -- with one moment of almost farcical incompetence in the second episode in a "sniper" scene. Since the show is using Alex as the proxy "film Nikita," Maggie Q's Nikita is almost the direct opposite of Parillaud's. A quick cheat for what I am referring to is the marketing poster for the new series. Look at how it parallels and differs from the original film poster.

Here Nikita is holding two guns, one in each hand, and has a spare sub-machine gun at her feet.  She is lounging sensually in a chair holding her pistol with one hand and looking at the viewer with confidence and authority. The background is sharp and red, as opposed to foggy and blue. This is the image of a ruthless and attractive killer and not a vulnerable and sympathetic fish out of water. If it weren't for the way that the poster, and show, reference the original as they simultaneously reject it, I wouldn't make note of it. But the fact is that they are constantly referencing the original, and not in an "easter egg" manner.

I have thought long and hard about why the show would both reference the original and then advertise its rejection of the template and the only reason I can come up with is Dollhouse. This version of Nikita is as much a response to Dollhouse as it is to Besson's Nikita. The new show's glossy style and sensuality is reminiscent of Dollhouse, while the story structure is reminiscent of Nikita.

It's almost as if this Nikita is saying, "this is what Dollhouse could have been."

As critical as I am of the lack of emotional weight of Nikita so far, I have to say that I am impressed with their twist. I am impressed enough to watch the show for a few more episodes to see where they go.

At the end of the pilot, we discover that Nikita was the pig in the opening scene and that Alex is being used as her "mole" inside Division to help her destroy it from the inside. It is a nice twist and one that I wasn't expecting.

The show has some interesting moments, but it's going to have to acquire some "heart" if it wants to retain me as a viewer. It can either do this by giving me empathetically dramatic stakes, or by adding humor. I don't care which one they do, but they have to make the show stand apart from its origins.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Film Review : Ip Man (2008) -- Ip Man Delivers

Image Copyright Mandarin Films Ltd.
Three of the best Hong Kong martial arts films ever made depict stories of kung fu masters defending Chinese honor during a time of Japanese military occupation. Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury -- called The Chinese Connection in the United States -- is one of the films that helped secure Bruce Lee as a legitimate action star. Jet Li's Fist of Legend improved upon Lee's classic and proved that Jet Li was a martial artist who didn't operate in anyone's shadow. Li's Fearless took the tale back a generation into what is essentially the prequel story to Fist of Fury and Fist of Legend and created a powerful narrative of struggle against tyranny and the power of patriotism.

All of these films are classics in the genre. The story they present is a simple one. The Japanese have invaded the Chinese mainland and are oppressing the people of China. In order to further humiliate the Chinese people, the Japanese forces seek to prove that the Japanese Fist (Karate) is superior to the Chinese Fist (Kung Fu). They hope that doing so will break the spirit of the Chinese people.

Fist of Legend and Fist of Fury both begin with a student of the Jingwu school of martial arts returning home to find that his sifu has been murdered by the Japanese during one of these "honor duels." To make matters worse, the Japanese poisoned the sifu in order to guarantee the win. The student -- filled with the arrogance of his extraordinary skill and the power of his righteous indignation -- enters the Japanese enclave and gives them a quick "lesson" in the Chinese Fist. Things escalate from there.

In Fist of Fury, the Japanese are presented in a stereotypical and demeaning manner. Li's version tones down some of the racism and has Japanese characters who aren't mere two-dimensional villains. The Li version adds a cross-cultural romantic subplot that is one of the many improvements that film adds to the Lee version. Fearless, as a patriotic piece, represents other cultures in a more stereotypical light than Fist of Legend, but in a less offensive manner than Fist of Fury. Fearless, taking place before the action of the two "Fist" films, sets the tone of honor and national pride that makes the two "sequels" narratively possible.

All of these films feature a compelling drama and phenomenal displays of martial arts. Li's fights in Fist of Legend are some of the most compelling martial arts duels to date in film. Li's final battle rivals the end fights in Meals on Wheels and Drunken Master II. Watching the duels it becomes clear that the audience is watching more than a choreographed fight, they are watching Art. The aesthetics of the action are breathtaking. The brave use of wide shots during the action accentuate the beauty in a way that American films have yet to match -- primarily due to American cinema's over reliance on the close up during fight scenes. A static wide angle filming masters is a thing of beauty that shaky close angle shots will never match.

As great as these films are, they all lack one key dramatic component. None of the Li/Lee tales of Japanese oppression truly illustrate how devastating the occupation was to the Chinese people. This is where Donnie Yen's Ip Man takes the established formula of the Fist of genre and pulls it out of the "action film" ghetto and into high drama. Prior to Ip Man, I would have argued that Fist of Legend comes close with its romantic sub-plot, but after Ip Man there is truly no comparison when it comes to moving pathos.

Ip Man tells the tale of Yip Man a humble master of Wing Chun. Ip Man isn't filled with righteous indignation and he is completely lacking in arrogance. He is the antithesis, in many ways, of the able Chinese fighters in the Fist stories. He is a kind family man who is merely seeking to provide for his family and to live an honest life. But he is also a man who can only witness so much injustice before he must step forward to protect his community. When push comes to shove, it isn't the "honor of the Chinese Fist" for which Ip Man fights, it is for the honor of those who have been oppressed.

Donnie Yen's performance as Yip Man is deep and touching. When one watches a martial arts film one expects action, but one doesn't often expect to be given genuine pathos. Yen's substantial martial arts talents deliver on the action end, but his acting chops are proven as well. Yen manipulates the audiences heartstrings as ably as any actor in an "independent tragedy." The film, and Yen, are almost somber in their presentation. This is a film about resisting tyranny, and not a film about revenge. As such, the film gains an emotional power that would otherwise be lacking.

The film, like Fearless, is a highly patriotic film -- presenting the virtue of Chinese society against the tyranny of Japanese society. Like Fist of Legend it portrays a more complex Japanese occupier, though it does portray some negative stereotypes in its depiction of the Japanese political character. Ip Man also displays a more complex Chinese citizen than the past films in the genre. Ip Man's Chinese citizens act like the oppressed, taking actions that undermine the Chinese people and make things easier for the occupying Japanese. Bandits steal from hard working Chinese families instead of fighting the Japanese. Translators hand over Kung Fu masters, though the master's may end up shot if they are too successful against the Japanese, out of fear of punishment and a need to support family. There are no simple quislings in the story, but the oppressed act in ways that make the job of the oppressor easier.

It all makes for one of the most emotionally powerful martial arts films ever made. The action in the film is amazing -- as I have come to expect from Donnie Yen films -- but there is something special about this film that has nothing to do with the action and everything to do with the performance and direction.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Game Review: The Supercrew by Tobias Radesaeter

Every now and then, there comes along a product that manages to simultaneously appeal to several of my obsessions. The Supercrew roleplaying game by Tobias Radesaeter is one of those products. The game combines my interest with the indie game movement with my obsessive need to own every superhero roleplaying game ever published. As numerous re-reads of Superhero 2044 prove to me time and time again, the targets of my obsession do not always lead to enjoyable (or even understandable in the case of 2044) experiences.

The superhero genre features characters of near unlimited potential, and who possess a vast array of capabilities. Any game designed to emulate the feel of the source material faces a daunting challenge. How does one design a game that can simulate an almost infinite collection of powers and abilities, yet is also as fast and exciting as the source material being emulated? It's not easy to do, and it is one of the reasons that some successful superhero systems are also successful "universal" systems. For a while, it seemed as if all decent superhero systems were also universal systems. The indie game movement, with games like Capes, proved that being universal wasn't a necessary condition of a superhero game and that games could be designed based on emulating the feel of comics without granularly emulating the physics of them.

Games like Capes are a part of the narrative focused game design that influences a lot of what is going on the indie gaming community. Design choices in these games focuses more on how a particular mechanic can help to create a collaborative "playing story" rather than a quantified gaming representation of "reality." To be reductive for a moment, these games have a narrative rather than a gamist focus.

Supercrew takes a fairly strong narrativist approach to the superhero genre in it design choices, and even makes one small quip regarding gamist style games, and even presents its rules in a narrative format.

Supercrew's thirty-page booklet presents the games rules in a comic-book panel format. The first game to attempt this approach was the unplayable He-Man and the Masters of the Universe RPG by FASA. It's a novel approach to introducing roleplaying concepts and mechanics, and in the case of Supercrew is done in an effective manner. The rules are presented in a logical and engaging manner. They are also very easy to understand, making this game a potentially great introductory roleplaying game -- in addition to its potential use as a narrative rpg for experienced gamers.


Supercrew begins with an interesting premise as a game within a game. The central conceit of Supercrew is that all of the superheroes designed by the players are their own alter-egos. As the game explains it, "The players play super-powered versions of themselves. Each adventure starts with them playing a role-playing game when they hear about some kind of emergency they have to stop." You read that right. The players are playing characters who are playing a roleplaying game that gets interrupted and needs their superheroic intervention. When I first read that the players play versions of themselves, I was reminded of the character design system for the revised edition of Villains and Vigilantes so I didn't think Supercrew's approach was too novel. Then I read the sentence where the rules describe it as a game where the "characters" have shown up to play an rpg, only to have it interrupted, and a number of wonderful uses for this game popped to mind -- this is before I read a single rule.

Every group has players who show up late, or cannot make it to a particular session. If your group is playing in a long term campaign, you often don't want to continue the adventure without the player as it could make the player feel left out as their characters don't earn as many experience points or miss out on key plot points. You also have to consider the feelings of those players who did show up. They are there to have a good time and to play a game. If your group agrees to use Supercrew as the backup campaign, it's central conceit is perfect for these occasions. Let's say Jim doesn't show up to your regular D&D campaign. You begin the session as normal, "when we last left our heroes," but somewhere in the middle of the first encounter you do your best radio static impression and blurt out "News Alert! Baron Ravenblood and Persecutus are holding the city hostage threatening to destroy the Gas Company building unless the mayor wires $1 billion into their bank account by 3pm." The players grab their Supercrew character sheets, and their "characters" excuse themselves from the D&D game to fight for great justice!

Sounds like fun, but does the system work?


Characters in Supercrew are constructed using three main abilities and three tricks which are particular uses of these abilities. The powers are ranked from 3 - 1 in order of power. Three is the most powerful ability, two is the most frequently used ability, and 1 is the least powerful ability. It doesn't sound like a lot of powers to give a character, but it actuality this is a pretty robust system.

For example:

Christian wants to make a character based on everyone's favorite Flight, Invulnerability, and Super-Strength character. To avoid copyright attorneys suing his game group, he decides to name the character Superior! He give the character the following powers Heat Vision, Inert_Gas-ian Physique, and Flight. He states that Heat Vision is Superior!'s most potent ability (as is often described regarding our favoring FISS character, though rarely believed) at rating 3. Inert_Gas-ian Physique, Superior!'s most frequently used power, is given a rating of 2. Finally, Christian gives Flight a rating of 1.

Inert_Gas-ian Physique is a broad descriptor that encompasses super-strength, super-speed, x-ray vision, super-breath, and invulnerability. There is no reason to quantify each individual power, as would be done in more granular systems, since the broad descriptor's effectiveness is determined by the associated rating.

The effects of powers are determined by the roll of ordinary six-sided dice. The player rolls a number of dice equal to the abilities rating. Those dice that have a result of 4 or greater are considered successes, lower results are considered failures. This is a system similar in basic structure to Burning Wheel or White Wolf's World of Darkness systems where pools of dice are rolled and successes counted based on the results of individual dice.

The game enforces the use of ineffective powers, and limits the usage of the most potent powers, by requiring that heroes spend "hero points" in order to activate the rank 3 power. The only way to acquire hero points is to either use your rank 1 power or to be knocked unconscious in a battle. Each of these gives the character a hero point that may be spent later to activate rank 3 powers. This is an elegant design choice that undermines overt power-gaming where players would minimize/maximize abilities to tweak a game system in their favor and hold more "power" than other gamers. In this system, that is relatively impossible. Even if the player chooses a broad ability descriptor, like Superior!, since how an ability is used is determined when the player's describe what they are doing the broad descriptor is no more useful than the narrow one. After all, the Shade Knight can apply his "Keen Intellect" descriptor just as broadly as Superior!'s Inert-Gas-ian Physique.

For any given task, the Game Master sets a success threshold. The individual character can only contribute toward passing that threshold, once per round -- or once per task for certain tasks. Teams must work together to succeed at fighting earthquakes and burning buildings.

In combat, and in other situations, the player first states what ability they wish to use. They do not describe how the power is used, or its effects, until the number of successes achieved is known. In a recent post discussing the Dragon Age RPG by Green Ronin, I discussed how I liked how Dragon Age's stunt system allowed for more narrative combats. Supercrew's system is attempting a similar effect here, the benefits of "roll before you describe" are discussed at length in a recent GamePlayWright post. Once the player knows how many successes the character has achieved, and how many total successes are needed for an action, that player -- whether he completed the task or not -- describes what happens. This game is very much about the player, knowing the results, creating the narrative regarding how his/her character succeeded or failed. Typical of many modern narrative games, this player empowering approach can be disorienting or empowering depending on your group's preferred method of play.

The combat rules are an extension of the basic task resolution system, and the game provides some excellent examples of how they would represent villains, groups of thugs, or hazardous events like building fires.

The system looks like it works and it looks fun. Simple but able to simulate a broad array of activities, what designers often call "robust."


I have two major, and one minor, criticisms of Supercrew.

While the game provides some examples of how they would represent villains, thugs, and hazards, the game provides not guidelines or benchmarks to help the game master. Experienced game masters may not technically need these in order to run a game, but they would be exceedingly helpful. This is an even larger flaw when considering the fledgling game master. The games rules and concepts are perfect for the new gamer, in addition to the experienced gamer, but the new gamer needs more assistance when creating opponents for their players. Some comments regarding balancing encounters, more than just the examples, would have been greatly appreciated.

The game also lacks any real online support, which is tragic as the game deserves more. The rule book says to visit the Kaleidoskop site for character sheets etc., but the page listed gives a 404 error (in Swedish) and searching through the site doesn't seem to reveal any game aids in the Swedish parts of the site either. Thankfully, Christopher B at A Rust Monster Ate My Sword has designed an excellent character sheet for use in the game.

Lastly, and this is a minor quibble, the game's prose isn't quite funny enough. I would have liked more jokes. Given the entertaining cartoony art in the rulebook, some more jokes would have been appreciated. Maybe it's just the translation that lacks the humor, but I'd have liked more.

In conclusion, I think that this is an excellent game at a reasonable price. It isn't likely to replace Savage Worlds' Necessary Evil campaign in my game rotation any time soon, but I think I'll be trying to fit it in when some players don't show up for our regular sessions.

I wish some of the early professional efforts where as clearly explained and thought out as this gem.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Button Men for the iPhone: Thrust Interactive and Cheap Ass Games Release a Winner

I have long been a fan of the deceptively simple Cheap Ass game Button Men. In the game, each player possesses a button, the kind with a pin that fits nicely on those lanyards one tends to acquire at gaming conventions, which bears a nice looking illustration and a series of five numbers listed from lowest value to highest. Those numbers represent dice the player uses in an abstracted, and dice based, version of War. The goal is to "capture" your opponent's dice, which are each worth a point value equal to the number of sides that die possesses, by one of two methods (in the basic game at least). You can capture your opponent's dice through "power" attacks or "skill" attacks. The Button Men website does a wonderful job of describing the rules in detail.

It's great fun that seems mindless at first, until you finally encounter the player who plays the game "rationally." Then you come to understand that there is more to this little diversion than mere random chance. Strategy matters. Button Men is iconic of the inexpensive, but challenging/fun/and deep, games that James Ernest has made a career designing. The table top version of the game is a true classic that I cannot recommend highly enough.

So when the Button Men iPhone app became available yesterday, I found out thanks to John Kovalic, I leapt at the chance to purchase it. I didn't really know what the game would offer, but my hopes were high. I have come to trust Cheap Ass games over the years, their "Totally Renamed Spy Game" is one of the best card games ever made, but I have no experience with Thrust Interactive (

I had some minimum expectations. I hoped that the game would be graphically appealing, contain a decent variety of "buttons," and offer a decent randomization mechanism for two-player play. Essentially, I hoped -- at minimum -- that it was a game I could play with a friend by passing my iPhone between us.

What was offered was that and more. The game features buttons from two of the button men sets -- Soldiers and Vampires -- with new artwork that is appealing and with a color palette suited to the iPhone's digital display. Not all the artwork is better than the old images, the new picture of Shore is one of the weaker images, but the Starchylde and Dunkirk images are excellent re-inventions of already excellent images.

The game allows for 1 or 2 player games. In the 1 player game, I have been impressed with the AI so far -- though it has made a couple of baffling choices from time to time -- and have found it to be quite a time consuming distraction as I test different strategies. The 2 player version can be played in one of two ways. You can share your phone with your opponent, the 2 player play I expected, or interact with your opponent through bluetooth. I haven't had a chance to play a bluetooth opponent, but you can bet I'll be hunting down someone at the next gaming convention I attend.

The inclusion of two full sets of button men -- a $40 value if you buy the physical buttons -- for a $2.99 price makes this a bargain. The game play of the iPhone is quite addictive. Thrust's Button Men captures the simplicity and complexity of the tabletop version and adds some nice animations and sound effect to make a must buy application for any gamer's iPhone.

Now when are the Brom, Dork Tower, and Diceland expansions coming out?

Speaking of Diceland...when do I get that app?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Cinerati Book Review: The Mall of Cthulhu by Seamus Cooper

In the movie My Favorite Year, Alan Swann (Peter O'Toole), in quoting another actor, claims that "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." While the origins of the quote are relatively unknown -- being attributed to several sources -- the spirit of the quote is none the less true. It is very difficult to write an engaging work of comedy of any length. Nowhere is this more evident than in comedic Science Fiction and Fantasy writers.

While there are those like Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, and Ernest Bramah who have written what many consider to be consistently high quality SF/F books of a humorous nature, the majority of genre humor writers fall into a trap that Jo Walton succinctly describes in a blog post on her love hate relationship with humor fiction. Walton argues that the majority of humor writing tries to hard to be funny and doesn't let the humor rise organically from the material, and she finds this very frustrating as a reader. As she puts it, "I hate things that are trying to be funny, rather than letting the humour bubble up from underneath." I agree with her sentiment, and I agree that this is a pratfall that too many writers fall into too easily.

It is a pratfall that Seamus Cooper risked falling into in his recent novel The Mall of Cthulhu. The novel, published by Night Shade Books this past June, attempts to use comedy to synthesize the mystery procedural with weird fiction.

The book's plot is relatively simple. Ten years ago, a college student named Laura Harker was saved from being turned into a vampire when a geeky folklore student named Ted charged into the vampire's den -- the Omega Alpha sorority -- and slew all of the undead occupants therein. This act of heroism shattered Ted's sanity, and led Laura to pursue a career in the FBI. Ted now works at a chain coffeehouse named Queequeg's hoping that the mind numbing routine of a service job will help him remain sane, and allow him to lead a normal life. Alas, Ted's fate -- and Laura's -- is not destined to be one of day to day doldrums. Ted has accidentally stumbled upon a group of modern day Cthulhu cultists who wish to use a shopping mall in Providence, Rhode Island as a nexus of power to summon the Old Ones to wreak havoc on the world.

As the back of the book describes it, "[Ted] and Laura must spring into action, traveling from Boston to the seemingly-peaceful suburbs of Providence and beyond, all the way to the sanity-shattering non-Euclideian alleyways and towers of dread R'lyeh itself, in order to prevent an innocent shopping center from turning into...The Mall of Cthulhu.

The book is an entertaining read that hits all of the right plot points for a first novel in a series of comedic weird tale procedurals. The two main characters, Laura and Ted, are extremely likable and Cooper's writing has us empathizing with them as real people in relatively quick order. Especially engaging, for me, was Cooper's ability to convey just how mentally damaging slaying an entire pack of vampires might be -- particularly when the person doing the slaying is an everyday kind of guy. Laura is also affected by the night of mayhem. Nearly being turned into a vampire by someone she was attracted to has had lingering affects on her ability to form long term romantic relationships -- she has a hard time trusting the women she meets.

As a procedural, the story works its way through the mystery at a nice pace and we get to see how Ted's impulsiveness -- and laziness -- interacts with Laura's trained professionalism and adherence to routine. It makes for some nice narrative tension when Ted gets into trouble and Laura comes running to help. Is she too late? The only real problem with the underlying mystery is that it opens feeling like a grand conspiracy and ends as what feels like a few guys with a chip on their shoulder acting out. I understand that mass conspiracies are implausible and unsatisfying, but so is a small group who don't seem capable of some of the tricks they pull early in the plot. I didn't need a huge conspiracy, but one that was a little bigger would have been beneficial. With that small complaint, the book's procedural elements were interesting enough to keep the reader engaged.

The book has a good pace, likable characters, and is an entertaining procedural. it funny or does it fall into the trap of trying to hard to be funny? The short answer is both. At times Cooper has me laughing inside my head at one joke or another. It's pretty amusing to read about a character so disturbed by the mind numbing timelessness of R'lyeh that he begins kicking Cthulhu in the head in the hopes that the Old One will awaken. It's also funny reading about someone sitting in a dumpster, using a milk filled garbage bag as a pillow, while reading a version of the Necronomicon through the eyes of a character in a Sims-like video game. The book also avoids an over-abundance of puns. There are "easter eggs," to be sure, but Cooper refrains from making every other line of the book a pun.

The comedy does break down a little bit in three distinct ways.

First, there are both too many, and not enough, internet porn references in the book. Had Cooper used only a couple such references, they would have remained funny. Had Cooper tossed one out every couple of pages, they would have become funny again. Sadly, Cooper used them to the point where they lose comic value, without using them enough to where they become funny again -- though the foot fetish porn comment was in itself amusing.

Second, the commentary about Lovecraft's racism, and his "ambiguity," became tiresome. No one who has read any Lovecraft can walk away from his fiction without the strong feeling that Lovecraft had some peculiar ideas about race -- and likely eugenics -- but readers don't need to be reminded every chapter. Cooper attempted to use this conversation, as well as a couple of rough asides about role playing games, as witty banter -- banter that also served as an important connection between Lovecraft and the cultists -- but it gets a little over played. It might have seemed less overplayed if Cooper had included more specific examples of Lovecraft's racism by including quotes from stories where Lovecraft's racism really shines through. This is a place where it would have been nice to have been shown rather than told. Give the reader a couple of passages from Dunwich Horror and have your characters talk about how disturbing they were. The same can be said for the mocking of Lovecraft's use of "indescribable." Though it should be noted that Cooper does have a good comedic moment in R'yleh which is only made possible due to previous complaints regarding Lovecraft's prose. Once again, it would have been nice to get some more actual Lovecraftian passages. The purple prose might have been comedy enough all by itself.

Third, Seamus Cooper's attempts at political humor largely fall flat. The best political comedians skewer both those they agree with and those with whom they disagree fervently. Cooper's political jabs can be summed up as simply as Republicans underfund paranormal defense and Democrats fund it appropriately. Their was one gem of a joke where the post-94 Congress wanted to restrict a certain agency to using only "Biblical Based Defenses." Anyone who has read a Chick tract should get a good chuckle from that conversation, but by and large Cooper misses a couple of real opportunities for humor. For example, why wasn't Nancy Reagan's use of an Astrologer included? One can easily imagine a dozen jokes stemming from that concept alone.

What if Ronald Reagan, after he fired the striking Air Traffic Controllers, had the replacement military controllers have planes fly paths prescribed by the Astrologer? And what if those paths corresponded to a particularly dangerous summoning ritual? One could have a field day with that, as one could also have had a field day with Clinton needed a special anti-Succubus Secret Service Agent, or how Tipper Gore's anti-D&D statements in her book Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society led to some D&D obsessed "occultists" using a ritual they thought was fake against her? There is no limit to where these jokes could go.

Were I Cooper's editor, I would have had him unpack a lot of the political comments and have him transform them into more specific jokes. There's a lot of humor, on both sides of the aisle, to toss around and the book would have been better for it.

These complaints aside, The Mall of Cthulhu was exactly the book I needed when I read it. The book is an enjoyable and light-hearted yarn where underfunded, and under-powered, good guys have to fight against larger than life enemies -- including a hundred plus year-old sorority member vampire priestess named Bitsy.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Does DEXTER IN THE DARK Spell Lights Out for the Franchise?

Dexter is back -- or most of him is back—in DEXTER IN THE DARK: A Novel(those of you who support independent bookstores can buy it at Mysterious Galaxy), Jeff Lindsay’s latest installment detailing the brutal exploits of his charmingly witty and only half-heartless serial killer, preying and slaying by his uniquely strict if lethal Harry Code of Conduct. This newest book finds Dexter in crisis – not of conscience, of course. He doesn’t have one. But in a crisis of identity, for Dexter’s mysterious inner fiend -- that giddy playmate that guides his death-dealing and leaves him elated after bouts of marvelous moonlit mayhem –- Dexter’s Dark Passenger is absent without leave.

As if prepping for a wedding and fatherhood aren’t enough to put Dexter off his game, a peculiar crime scene with macabre theological overtones sends Dexter’s Dark Passenger scurrying away, with troubling results for Dexter and his readers. Being out of communion dulls Dexter’s normally razor instincts, humor, and murderous talents when he, and we, need them most. Once again, he attracts the attention of a very dangerous intelligence, this time with a taste for children, but don’t expect the usual combination of chase, wit, twist, and surprise. Dexter is not only in the dark, he’s down right depressed. Jeff Lindsay takes a daring departure from the optimistic mayhem of America’s favorite avenging monster, but it’s a sad, fumbling new path.

Unlike DARKLY DREAMING DEXTER(at Mysterious Galaxy) and DEARLY DEVOTED DEXTER (at Mysterious Galaxy), DEXTER IN THE DARK leaves the complex realm of psychological vagary and broken psyches to dabble in something entirely outside Dexter’s universe: theology. Sans Dark Passenger, Dexter is befuddled, frustrated, and at risk of becoming normal, with all the emotions and vulnerabilities of any normal person, yet his world turns suddenly (and unjustifiably, despite ample narrative exposition) supernatural. Just when Dexter has no powers (not insight, not humor, and the boy can’t even seem to kill), Miami is overrun with them. The sum effect is a kind of amorphous melancholy, both for Dexter and his dear readers. Little help comes from the other characters made so vibrant in previous pages – the few times Dexter isn’t shuffling around in his own empty head, he’s avoiding conversations or being himself avoided. If you crave the slay-and-play criminology twice before scribed so ingeniously by Jeff Lindsay’s pen, brace yourself for page after unfunny, derivative, ill-conceived, if-it-had-to-be-supernatural-why-couldn’t-it-be-Lovecraftian-good page.

Spoiled until now navigating two books of vicious, psychotic violence on the shoulders of a fantastically entertaining monster, this clumsy foray into Anne Rice/DaVinci Code-esque old-god theology and conspiracy is by comparison plodding, simplistic, and dull. Lindsay abandons his established finesse of raising questions without answers, of suggestion and nuance, of abrasive yet oddly loveable and infinitely entertaining characters, and instead offers an obtuse, paint-by-numbers explanation for evil which abdicates Dexter from all moral responsibility for who and what he is, for his adherence to or abandonment of the Harry Code, and ultimately advocates an incoherent pseudo-loyalty to controlled evil. If Harry had read this book, he would have killed Dexter on sight. I found myself by the end rooting for the kids to get run over, shot, or drowned. Poor Rita.

For those who enjoy the Cthulhu mythos or tales with supernatural explanations, DEXTER IN THE DARK might be a fun romp, but this reader prays, to whatever Dark Gods will listen, that Lindsay returns to the world he tells so well –- Dexter’s Miami: wickedly funny, refreshingly mortal, splendidly violent, and mildly-sociopathic.