The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs (1969) is an oft-overlooked fantasy classic. Two elderly wizards - Prospero and Roger Bacon - meander across the North and South Kingdoms in search of a cure for some ill-defined metaphysical curse that's plaguing the land. The evil is deliberately vague, and all the more horrifying for it: an ancient tome is being read by a dark-hearted wizard, and badness is spilling forth. From damp moths to off-putting mists to an ominous sense of malaise, Bellairs excels at conveying an implicit wrongness that is more atmosphere than overt threat.
Lone Star Planet (A Planet for Texans) by H. Beam Piper (1958) has been skulking on my shelf for ages, and, I'm pleased to say, there's (slightly) more to it than just a goofy cover. In the far future, the entire population of Texas has picked up to go settle a frontier planet - they're keen to get away from the rules and regulations and gov'mints and such. Our hero, the plucky ambassador from the Solar League, has been tasked to woo them back. There's an alien invasion on the horizon and New Texas would be better 'in the tent pissing out'... at least, so the League think.
I use Goodreads weird (bear with me, this is going somewhere, eventually). I like the site as a way of tracking my reading... and that's it. I don't use it to track 'want to reads', I don't use it to discover new books, and I never, ever use it to share reviews.
And to double-weird it: I don't rate books. Except, as a visual shorthand, if I think 'this book is interesting, and I'd like to talk about it', I'll slap five stars on it. That makes it easy to sort, and leaps out when it is buried in a long list. If someone misconstrues that as an endorsement of perfection... eh... no harm done.
ANYWAY, this is all really interesting - or at least, relevant - because that has always been the way I use the site. There is, however, one notable exception: comics. For some reason, my 'five stars' for a comic book is a lot less complicated. I read a ton of comic book collections. And I stick five stars on the stuff that is really good. You know, kind of like the rest of the world uses Goodreads. Go figure. All my deeply-rooted biases against 'objective' reviewing come crashing to a halt.
The Music Box Girl by K.A. Stewart
The gender-swapped steampunk Phantom of the Opera that you never knew you wanted! Stewart's story takes place in a shiny alt-history Detroit, complete with steam-powered robot servitors, mechanical glories and, of course, airships.
The Music Box Girl follows three point of view characters. Tony is our Christine - he's a young man from a (hand-wavey) other country, here to make his destiny as a singer. He gets a job as a stagehand at the prestigious Detroit Opera House, but his after hours crooning earns the attention of the Opera House's very own phantom. Bess is Raoul. She's also from (wherever) and is a childhood friend of Tony. But whilst Tony is carving out a living as a prop-duster, Bess is an international tomb raider. Tired of society and its conventions, she carries guns and buckles swashes and dashes and dives in and out of adventures. But, secretly, she might be craving something a little more... romantic.
There are two things I need you to understand here.
The first is there are many varieties of Star Wars fans, and I’m of the sort whose love for the whole thing is rooted solely to the original trilogy. I never got a proper introduction to the Expanded Universe, I haven’t read any of the new books or comics, and I remember the prequels with the clarity of a fever dream. I’ve seen maybe three episodes of The Clone Wars, which I would’ve adored as a kid but didn’t grab me as an adult. I’ve played the Old Republic games, and enjoyed them very much, but they served as something small and ancillary to the main event: The Millennium Falcon, the Battle of Hoth, philosophy lessons with Old Ben. The small amount of Star Wars tie-in stuff I’ve dabbled in was a good time. The original trilogy — and now, The Force Awakens, which my heart welcomed in with ease — I hold on a different level. That’s hallowed legend to me. That’s my canon.
That’s the first thing. The second is I’m about to throw down some Rogue One spoilers. You have been warned.
There are a lot of 'Best of 2016' lists coming out now, but they're all flawed and wrong because they don't include the things we wanted them to include. More importantly, they weren't written by us.
As our gift to the internet - and therefore the world - we've put together the Absolute and Definite Guide to the Best of Everything. It is conclusive and final, and should be used as a reference to settle all arguments.
Eggy. Rogue One (2016; directed Gareth Edwards)
[Warning: this review contains traces of eggs. Also many spoilers]
Plenty of movies nowadays contain easter eggs, something particularly true of movies that are part of a larger franchise or sequence. These nods and winks to the knowing audience members are, at root, a reflection of the way DVD, TV and digital copies of movies have changed the viewing experience. To see the original 1977 Star Wars seven times would require schlepping out to your local cinema every night for a week. A fan can watch 2015’s Force Awakens seven times over the weekend without ever leaving her couch. Naturally, this has resulted in a change in the logic of movie-making. Directors, designers and SFX teams now craft their visual texts full aware that fans will watch them over and over, sifting the image for every little nugget.
The imaginary must be imagined, accurately and with scrupulous consistency. A fantastic setting requires vivid and specific description; while characters may lose touch with their reality, the storyteller can’t.
Ursula Le Guin, review of The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
Is there any more point to science fiction?
The history of a genre is driven in part by the dynamic between convention and invention; science fiction, though, seems to have an extra feature. Its USP is meant to be its inventiveness, assumed to be found in a given story’s idea or set of ideas. Fans believe that this is proof of the genre’s vitality as compared to others. Critics believe it’s an excuse for what they see as science fiction’s otherwise more general conventionality.
A review of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons from Ares: The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy Simulation. The core rulebooks of AD&D were published between 1977 and 1979, and this review was published July 1980.
The timeline is important here, as Ares was founded and published by Simulations Publications, Inc. - which was also a producer of tactical and strategic boardgames... and role playing games like Dragonquest, coincidentally published later in 1980 (and obliquely mentioned in the final paragraph). Teaser ads for the core rulebooks of Dragonquest appear, coincidentally, in this very issue of Ares. The review of AD&D is certainly not unfair, but the context should also be taken into account.