Monster Hunter International #2: Monster Hunter Vendetta

I know my uses, I have my pride, but my heart is still untamed. I learned my lessons, I’ve conquered death, I go on and I’m unashamed. Let’s take revenge on Monster Hunter Vendetta, by Larry Correia.

Synopsis:

Owen Pitt never met a gun he didn’t like, or a monster he couldn’t shoot. But now, the monsters are shooting back . . .

Accountant turned professional monster hunter, Owen Zastava Pitt, managed to stop the nefarious Old One’s invasion plans last year, but as a result made an enemy out of one of the most powerful beings in the universe. Now an evil death cult known as the Church of the Temporary Mortal Condition wants to capture Owen in order to gain the favor of the great Old Ones.

The Condition is led by a fanatical necromancer known as the Shadow Man. The government wants to capture the Shadow Man and has assigned the enigmatic Agent Franks to be Owen’s full time bodyguard, which is a polite way of saying that Owen is monster bait.

With supernatural assassins targeting his family, a spy in their midst, and horrific beasties lurking around every corner, Owen and the staff of Monster Hunter International don’t need to go hunting, because this time the monsters are hunting them. Fortunately, this bait is armed and very dangerous . . .

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Monster Hunter Vendetta starts off on a much stronger footing than its predecessor. Owen is now a well-established veteran Monster Hunter rather than a newbie thrown into the deep end, so his incredible all-around skill and competence no longer strains credibility so much; and he no longer has a personal Obi-Wan Kenobi-type spirit advisor assisting him or an old prophecy guaranteeing his victory, so there’s room to generate suspense about the future. Yes, thing are certainly looking up.

And then the book goes and ruins it by revealing that Owen is the subject of another prophecy that he will save the world, one his father knew about and has been training him his whole life to fulfill. Because heaven forbid he ever fight a battle without Destiny and Fate and Divine Providence assuring him beforehand that he’s totally got this, no big deal, go ahead and schedule the victory party now because it’s a sure thing. Heck, he could probably go to the villain’s lair alone, drunk, blindfolded, with one arm tied behind his back, riding a pogo stick, and he’d end up somehow winning anyway – it’s been prophesied by the infallible seers, after all. No need for any “tension” or “suspense” or “narrative stakes”.

Well, this book does have one major redeeming factor: Agent Franks. In the first book, he was an extremely two-dimensional antagonist, a stereotypical jackbooted federal thug which the bloated, obstructionist government bureaucracy sent to make clear they don’t approve of MHI, to threaten to arrest them if they get out of line, to talk big while ultimately being far less effective than the Monster Hunters, so on and so forth. I wouldn’t have believed it possible, but Monster Hunter Vendetta takes this cardboard cut-out grunt and actually makes him interesting. Seriously, he’s the best part of the book. Seeing him display some actual characterization as he works alongside the protagonists, slowly revealing his backstory… talk about a surprising turnaround for a minion who didn’t even warrant a first name!

Ultimately, while this book was pretty uneven, it was an improvement over the first in the series.

Final Rating: 3/5

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The Custard Protocol #1: Prudence

Just keep on trying, keep on flying; I will be the light. It’s a Cloud Age Symphony with you, towards the direction the light shines beyond the sea of clouds… Oh, ahem, right. Let’s very carefully, cautiously, and judiciously peer into Prudence, by Gail Carriger.

Synopsis:

When Prudence Alessandra Maccon Akeldama (Rue to her friends) is given an unexpected dirigible, she does what any sensible female would under similar circumstances – names it the Spotted Custard and floats to India in pursuit of the perfect cup of tea. But India has more than just tea on offer. Rue stumbles upon a plot involving local dissidents, a kidnapped brigadier’s wife, and some awfully familiar Scottish werewolves. Faced with a dire crisis and an embarrassing lack of bloomers, what else is a young lady of good breeding to do but turn metanatural and find out everyone’s secrets, even thousand-year-old fuzzy ones?

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

A brief note: while Prudence is numbered as the first in the Custard Protocol series, I discovered upon finishing it that it is actually a sequel to the author’s previous Parasol Protectorate series. It’s always embarrassing to discover I’ve started reading a series in the wrong order; but in all fairness, this could be more easily avoided if authors would give their books more consistent numbering schemes. Heaven knows how I’m going to arrange the Cosmere books in any sort of sensible order if I ever get around to writing reviews of them. In any case, on with this review.

The thing that drew me to check out Prudence was the setting. Steampunk on its own is cool enough, but urban fantasy steampunk where werewolves and vampires are integrated into society? Count me in. I quickly found myself intrigued by Rue’s ability, to temporarily steal the powers of any other supernatural being she touches. I was also extremely interested to learn about the cosmology of this world, particularly the aetherosphere. The way the sky looks normal from the ground, but crossing an invisible barrier will plunge a ship into previously unseen turbulent currents… it reminded me quite a bit of the Grand Stream from Last Exile. That parallel actually got me really quite excited. You might call me a bit of a fan of Last Exile. I may, for instance, have bought the DVDs in order to go through each scene frame-by-frame so I could transliterate all the phrases written in Greek letters. I may even have been an admin on the Last Exile wiki, To The Sky. I admit nothing.

ToTheSky

What excited me less about the setting, though, was that it was all tied up in Victorian cultural trappings. I know, I know: some steampunk purists out there will scream that all “true” steampunk must by the very definition of the genre be set in Victorian England. Well, I have to say that I’m a dissenter: I much prefer steampunk settings which break the association with the Victorian period and transpose the conventions of the genre into other places and times: the strange, divided world of Last Exile as previously mentioned; the steam levels of the technologically segregated tower Spearpoint in Terminal City by Alastair Reynolds; or the steampunk-versus-biopunk take on World War I in Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld. In any case, whenever the main characters started getting in a tizzy over societal expectations like the importance of wearing the proper dresses to a formal party, my eyelids started growing heavy.

Where the book really disappointed me, though, was the plot. Namely, the fact that for about two thirds of the book, it didn’t seem to have one. Rue and Prim decide in the beginning to take a merry jaunt via zeppelin to India in pursuit of some exotic tea, and then there are hundreds of pages of absolutely nothing whatsoever happening. No, I don’t count Prim worrying that their stores of milk might be running low as compelling conflict. Then, when they do arrive, they immediately get tangled in a horribly convoluted political muddle involving a kidnapping, missing tax money, unintended consequences on India’s established political power structure caused by trade with the East India Tea Company, and the arcane details of the treaty dictating the British government’s policy towards indigenous supernatural sub-populations. Fascinating. Not to mention the fact that everyone involved seems to have a pathological obsession with evading questions and speaking in cryptic phrases just ambiguous enough to make Rue think that everyone is still talking about the tea – without going into the kind of over-the-top farcical misunderstandings that would make the story interesting in a humorous The Man Who Knew Too Little kind of way. As a result, until far too near the end of the book, I wasn’t sure which side I should be rooting for or even what the sides were. By the time I actually figured out what the conflict even was, it was over. Thus, the book ultimately came off to me as a tedious slog through archaic mundanity with no real payoff. Interest in the aetherosphere could only sustain me for so long, especially when it became apparent that it was being treated as a trivial background detail rather than a central mystery of the setting. “What lies beyond the furthest reaches of the sky?” Apparently, no one cares.

So, in conclusion, I’d have to say I prefer Alex Row over Prudence Akeldama. Still, since I did make a bit of a faux pas picking up this book before the Parasol Protectorate, I’m willing to cut it some slack. I mean, I don’t really think I’ll be able to overcome my hangups about the series, given how heavily it indulgence in all the Victorian melodrama I dislike, but giving series a far shake sometimes means giving them a second chance. So, I might return to this literary universe some day. Don’t ever expect me to love it as much as Last Exile, though.

Final Rating: 2/5

Downside Ghosts #3: City of Ghosts

There’s a ghost down in the hall, there’s a ghoul upon the bed. There’s something in the walls, there’s blood upon the stair. And it’s floating through the room, and there’s nothing I can see. And I know that that’s the truth, because now it’s onto me. I don’t understand it! Hey! I don’t understand it! Ooh! …No, seriously, I don’t understand it. And by “it”, I mean “psychopomps in this series”. Look, I’ll explain in the review; for now, let’s just descend into City of Ghosts, by Stacia Kane.

Synopsis:

IT’S A THIN LINE BETWEEN ALIVE AND UNDEAD.

Chess Putnam has a lot on her plate. Mangled human corpses have started to show up on the streets of Downside, and Chess’s bosses at the Church of Real Truth have ordered her to team up with the ultra-powerful Black Squad agency to crack the grisly case.

Chess is under a binding spell that threatens death if she talks about the investigation, but the city’s most notorious crime boss—and Chess’s drug dealer—gets wind of her new assignment and insists on being kept informed. If that isn’t bad enough, a sinister street vendor appears to have information Chess needs. Only he’s not telling what he knows, or what it all has to do with the vast underground City of Eternity.

Now Chess will have to navigate killer wraiths, First Elders, and a lot of seriously nasty magic—all while coping with some not-so-small issues of her own. And the only man Chess can trust to help her through it all has every reason to want her dead.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Chess has got herself a new case, and boy is it a nasty one. It’s so top-secret that she has to be bound with blood magic to ensure her silence – which could pose a bit of a problem, considering she has two different drug dealers expecting her to act as their informant. Not helping matters is the fact that she’s been partnered with the Grand Elder’s spoiled and less-than-competent daughter. And with the Lamaru’s black magic users whipping up an army of twisted psychopomps while warring with a tribe of inbred cannibals living in the tunnels beneath the city… it’s jobs like these that drive Chess to do drugs.

I really enjoyed the book’s climax, a big final dramatic showdown which occurs in the underground City of Eternity; but I have to admit that the path the book took to reach it was a bit convoluted. A big part of the problem, I think is that I don’t really understand how psychopomps work. The book hasn’t made their nature properly clear at all, resulting in a confusing mass of apparently contradictory statements about psychopomps. They are artificial soulless constructs ritually created from animal skulls, but there are also wild psychopomps hanging around in nature? They cannot be killed, except they sometimes can? I mean, look at this:

“Psychopomps don’t usually require death to make, but theirs aren’t – ow! – normal. And it’s… it’s a capital crime to kill a wild one, you know. An executable offense.”

– Chess, City of Ghosts, Chapter 25

Psychopomps couldn’t be shot, couldn’t be stabbed, couldn’t be killed.

City of Ghosts, Chapter 30

“The night you got shot, I mean, the night at that house. I didn’t know what was going on, I was on the ground, and I saw you. You weren’t moving or anything, and a psychopomp was coming for you… I killed it. Oliver Fletcher tried to stop me, but I held the gun on him, I almost shot him too…”

– Chess, City of Ghosts, Chapter 40

So, it’s a capital crime to kill a psychopomp, they can’t be shot or killed, and Chess shot and killed one; got that?

But, to reiterate: psychopomp-related confusion aside, I really did enjoy the story which this book told. It may not be the strongest entry in the Downside Ghosts series, but it’s by no means a bad book. And so, given the goodwill that the series has managed to build up with me so far, I’m going to cut it some slack and assume that the problem is on my end: maybe psychopomps were fully explained back in the first book, and I’ve just forgotten. In any case, I’m still looking forwards to reading the next novel.

Final Rating: 3/5

The Spill Zone #1: Spill Zone

I’m waking up, to ash and dust. I wipe my brow, and sweat my rust. I’m breathing in the chemicals… Let’s take a trip into Spill Zone, by Scott Westerfeld and Alex Puvilland.

Synopsis:

Nobody’s ever really explained the Spill. Was it an angelic visitation? A nanotech accident? A porthole opening from another world? Whatever it was, no one’s allowed in the Spill Zone these days except government scientists and hazmat teams. But a few intrepid explorers know how to sneak through the patrols and steer clear of the dangers inside the Zone. Addison Merrick is one such explorer, dedicated to finding out what happened that night, and to unraveling the events that took her parents and left her little sister mute and disconnected from the world.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Are you perchance familiar with Roadside Picnic, by the Strugatsky brothers? It’s a classic piece of science fiction literature which inspired the movie Stalker and the video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. While I can’t be sure, I believe I see a strong influence from it in Spill Zone. I mean, maybe I’m completely wrong and the authors were actually inspired by something else, but there are definitely some big parallels.

A mysterious “spill” has turned PoTown into an eldritch location, where the undecaying corpses of the dead hover in the air and strange phenomena warp the laws of physics. Addison is a former resident of the town who now sneaks over the border in order to take pictures to sell to wealthy collectors. It’s extremely dangerous work, but she needs the money to care for her younger sister, who was altered by the spill – she’s now nearly mute, and interacts mostly through a creepy possessed doll named Verspertine. When Addison is offered a million dollars to retrieve on object from within the spill zone instead of merely photographing it, she thinks its her big break. So what if it means breaking some of the strict rules that have thus far kept her alive? Well, naturally, nothing’s as simple as it seems…

Also, there’s a subplot involving a North Korean spy. However, nothing actually comes of it; at least, not in this book. I initially picked this one up thinking it was a standalone, only discovering when I reached the end that it’s apparently the first in a planned series. It ends with a “to be continued…”, but I’ve been burned before by promised sequels which never seem to materialize. (How’s that Abarat series coming along, Clive Barker?) In this case, I’m interested enough in the story that I hope it does continue – though there is some small pessimistic part of me that whispers that in stories like this, centered around bizarre and inexplicable phenomena, any answers which might eventually end up being provided are usually disappointing and less interesting than the mystery was. (Yeah, I’m looking at you, Lost).

I should mentioned: since this is a graphic novel, the spill zone is depicted in art rather than described through text. There are both strengths and weaknesses to that approach. On the one hand, I can’t deny that it is visually gorgeous: a beautiful depiction of this abandoned and warped town. The art employs a lot of interesting visual effects of convey a sense of unreality: blockiness, pixelation, and color bleed. However, I also need to point out that there are times when I found the art ambiguous; particularly regarding motion. For instance, I couldn’t tell if the swings in the playground were supposed to be swinging back and forth with nobody on them, or were hanging suspended in the air at the apex of their arc without ever swinging back. (To be fair, I also couldn’t decide which would be creepier). I also find it ambiguous whether Addison could hear Vespertine’s speech: it was drawn like thought bubbles rather than speech balloons, but she sometimes seemed to respond to it.

Minor flaws aside, I found this book to be very enjoyable, and do hope that it receives a continuation.

Final Rating: 4/5

Hoodoo #1: Black Dust Mambo

Time to meet our newest urban fantasy protagonist, Kallie Riviere. She’s got voodoo, she’s got hoodoo, she’s got things she ain’t even tried. Let’s dance to Black Dust Mambo, by Adrian Phoenix.

Synopsis:

“There will be times, girl, when all your magic ain’t going to be enough, times when it will seem to dry up like mud under the noonday sun, or even make matters worse . . .”

Kallie Riviere, a fiery Cajun hoodoo apprentice with a talent for trouble, finds herself smack-dab in the middle of one of those times her mentor warned her about when she visits New Orleans to attend the Hecatean Alliance’s annual carnival: her hard-bodied conjurer hookup ends up dead in her blood-drenched bed. And he was killed by something that Kallie would never dream of touching – the darkest of dark juju, soul-eating juju – a black dust hex that may have been meant to kill her.

Now Kallie has to use every bit of hoodoo knowledge and bayou-bred mojo she possesses to clear her own name and find the killer – even as that dark sorcerer hunts Kallie and her friends. But Kallie’s search for the truth soon leads her in a direction she never anticipated — back home to Bayou Cypres Noir, and to Gabrielle LaRue, Kallie’s aunt, protector, and hoodoo mentor . . . who is looking more and more like she just might be the one who wants Kallie dead.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Time to crack open another urban fantasy series. This time, it’s magic with a voodoo theme. Or perhaps, given the title of the series, a hoodoo theme. I should note that my own knowledge of the religious roots of voodoo/hoodoo/whatever-you-want-to-call-it is pretty tenuous; but from what I can tell, the author did their research: the book goes beyond the standard Hollywood voodoo tropes and delves a bit into the actual origins of vodoun and santeria, the blending of worship of Caribbean loa and Catholic saints. It makes for a rich and interesting magic system, so bravo on that.

I should note that I felt the POV jumped around a bit much; if Kallie weren’t the only character whose name was given on the back of the book, it might have taken me a while to figure out that she was supposed to be the main protagonist. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the secondary characters; I liked quite a number of them, particularly Basil Augustine and Felicity Fields. Unfortunately, due to the way the novel plays out, it seems they will likely be one-shot characters within the series; isn’t that always the way it is?

The synopsis makes this book sound like it’s going to be a mystery story, with Kallie having to clear her name of murder and find out who was really responsible, but it doesn’t really play out like that; among the many POVs the narrative shifts through, two belong to the villains, so it’s pretty quickly clear what’s going on – revenge mixed with a case of mistaken identity. Rather, the plot plays out more like a suspense story, with us getting to see the evil schemes woven against the hero from the villain’s POV, then switching to Kallie’s POV to see if she can manage to evade or overcome them.

The book ends with some plot threads still dangling. Some of them are clearly sequel hooks, but one just confused me. Throughout the book, it was suggested that Doctor Heron was not the ultimate villain, but was in fact being manipulated by the ghost of his deceased wife. Did anything actually come of that? It was suggested at one point that one of the protagonists would go to her old house and investigate; but what with one thing after another coming up to distract the heroes, he never actually got around to it. Maybe they’re trying to save the ghost to be a recurring villain in the sequels, but I really didn’t get that impression; it seemed at the end that we were done with Doctor Heron and were moving on to a new conflict centered around Kallie’s mysterious past.

Well, in any case, I enjoyed reading it, and plan to continue with the series.

Final Rating: 3/5

Allie Beckstrom #9: Magic for a Price

As your nightmare comes to life, you should’ve known the price of evil. I’ve certainly paid a price for reading the Allie Beckstrom books. My tragic fate is looking so clear, so let’s finally cash out of this series with Magic for a Price, by Devon Monk.

Synopsis:

For most of her life, Allison Beckstrom has used magic and accepted the heavy price it exacts. But now that all magic is poisoned, it’s no longer just using people—it’s killing them.

With Portland about to descend into chaos, Allie needs to find a way to purify the wells of tainted magic beneath the city. But the only options left to her are grim: attempt to close down magic forever, or follow her father’s plan to set magic into the right hands—even though she’s learned to never trust his word.

Now, Allie will have to make a choice and face the darkness of her own deepest fears, before time runs out for them all…

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

And now, we arrive at the climax: the grand conclusion to the Allie Beckstrom series. Magic has been poisoned, spreading deadly disease among the residents of Portland; thousands of Veiled wander the streets, feeding on the life energy of those whose paths they cross; and the undead shades of Leander and Isabelle have possessed the Overseer of the Authority and are coming to raze the city to the ground in the pursuit of their quest to gain control of all the world’s magic. You can certainly color me impressed – impressed that the book manages to make all this come off as so boring.

Now, if you’ve read my reviews of previous books in the series, you know that many of the Allie Beckstrom books have this problem where they spend the whole first half of the book spinning their wheels with irrelevant subplots before anything of significance actually happens. What with this book being the final, concluding entry to the series, you might think that it would be out of ways to waste time and have no choice but to get down to the main business of resolving the immanent apocalypse. Oh, how wrong you are, you silly naive fool. Want to know what happens in the first half of this book? Here’s a brief summary:

Allie and the other protagonists decide that they need to seal Portland’s wells of magic so that Leander and Isabelle won’t be able to draw on their power. They go to one of the wells, and seal it. Then they fight a bunch of Authority goons. Then they go to another one of the wells, and seal it. Then they fight another bunch of Authority goons. Then they go to another one of the wells, and seal it. Then they fight a bunch of Veiled. Then they go to the fourth and final well, and seal it. Then Leander and Isabelle finally show up… and they have minions open magical Gates to other wells in other cities so they can draw through magic from elsewhere. The protagonists realize that, instead of denying magic to Leander and Isabelle, they’ve only denied it to themselves. Welp, since Leander and Isabelle are going to have magic after all, the heroes need to be able to draw on magic of their own in order to fight back; and so they need to go back and unseal all the wells.

In other words: once again, the entire first half of the book was a waste of time. How do you even…. AAARGH!

Also, that last line of the synopsis? “Allie will have to make a choice “? Nope. Allie doesn’t do shit in this book. Zayvion doesn’t do shit. Collins doesn’t do shit. Shame and Terric… well, I guess they do some shit, but nothing that actually matters in the end. No, what everything comes down to is the ghost of Allie’s dad. He’s the one who defeats Leander and Isabelle, he’s the one who holds the future of all magic in his hands and makes the fateful decision, he’s the one who ultimately resolves everything. Everyone else might as well not have bothered coming. Because that’s the mark of a true work of literary genius, isn’t it; when everything the main character does is irrelevant and someone else fixes all the world’s problems off-screen. Way to be a proactive protagonist, Allie. Maybe this should’ve been titled the Daniel Beckstrom series.

Well, at least the ending was fairly thorough in tying up loose ends. Like, remember how using magic sometimes causes Allie to lose memories? I don’t blame you if you don’t; it was relevant like one time at the climax of the first book in the series, then hardly mattered at all following that. Anyway, we get an explanation of why that was. And we also get an explanation about the origins of Stone the gargoyle, which I remember as being something that bugged me way back when I still had hopes for this series.

Yes, this series ended up being a pretty big disappointment. The first book made me think it had a lot of promise; but most of the ones in the series were only mediocre, and a few were outright pretty lousy. Recurring problems such as nothing happening in the first half of the book or Zayvion Jones acting like an utter fucking asshole and Allie just falling deeper in love with him because of it prevented me from ever being to fully lose myself in the stories. All in all, I’d have to advise giving these books a miss.

But at least they’re finally over with… right?

Ahahahahaha… no. Of course not. Because this is torture that never ends, there are not one but two separate sequel series to the Allie Beckstrom books: Broken Magic and Shame and Terric. I may decide to review them eventually, for completeness’s sake – nine books in is a little late to be giving up on a series right? Gotta ride this train wreck all the way to the finish – but, needless to say, I am in absolutely no particular hurry to do so anytime soon. I think I’ll try and let the painful memories fade a bit and try to cleanse my palate with some better books before returning to this particular well.

Final Rating: 2/5

New Year, More Posts

Welcome to the year 2018. And with the arrival of the new year, I’m announcing a change to my review publishing schedule.

When I started this blog, I wanted to keep it to a steady schedule. I knew that I read on average around 2-3 new books per week, so I decided on a publishing schedule of two per week: Sunday and Wednesday. Further, just in case some unanticipated event prevented me from reading as quickly as planned, I also built up a small buffer of pre-written reviews before I began publishing them.

As it turns out, however, the number of books I read trends closer towards the 3 side than the 2; and thus, over time, my buffer has grown into what could more accurately be described as a backlog. Therefore, in celebration of the new year, I’m increasing my posting schedule to publish reviews on Fridays as well.

I don’t expect this to be a permanent change; it’s just until I’ve caught up with the reviews I’ve already written. For reference, as I write this, I’m currently in the process of reading Wild Cards: Mississippi Roll; so once my published reviews reach that point, I’ll reassess if my buffer has shrunk back down to a more reasonable size and, if so, resume my old publishing schedule.

In the meantime, enjoy 50% more book reviews from me per week. Happy new year.

Wild Cards #12: Turn of the Cards

Don’t you disrespect Mark Meadows, man; don’t you denigrate or deride. You’re in his book now, not your book; and he’s got friends on the other side. Let’s flip over Turn of the Cards, by Victor Milán and edited by George R. R. Martin.

Synopsis:

The Rox is history and Mark Meadows is on the run, pursued by the CIA, the DEA, and the Wild Card mistress of the winds, Mistral. But the renegade biochemist has his own secret weapon: three personalities buried in his psyche, each possessing Ace powers, each activated by mind-bending drugs.

Fleeing across Europe and Asia, Mark meets a crazed Vietnam veteran with an astounding plan — to lead an army of Jokers in a war of conquest. Caught between Jokers who despise him and nats who want him dead, Mark must decide whether to unleash his Ace powers for a madman’s bloody dream, or to stay true to his peaceful ideals – and die.

Source: Back of the book, Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Turn of the Cards is divided into three sections; all focused on Cap’n Trips, but each featuring a distinct plotline. The first part, “Friend of the Devil”, has Mark going on a sort of involuntary world tour as he flees from one country to another in a desperate effort to stay one step ahead of Heckle and Jeckle, a pair of corrupt and generally nasty DEA agents. They’re also pretty incompetent, though; and thank to the machinations of rogue ex-CIA operative and current mercenary J. Robert Belew, they end up dropping the soap in a Turkish prison while Mark escapes to Vietnam.

Hmm, I feel I should comment a bit more about that last bit. After all, I’ve previously given some harsh criticism to the Wild Cards series for featuring gratuitous rape scenes – particularly in Down and Dirty. So how come I’m okay with this book featuring prison rape? Well, obviously I shouldn’t have to say that in the real world, all rape is terrible and shouldn’t be made light of; I hope no one believes I would ever condone actual real-life rape. But in terms of a story, a fictional narrative, this is an appropriate end to a pair of villains. Heckle and Jeckle are a pair of stupid, nasty, brutish, hypocritical thugs who have committed unforgivably evil acts like opening fire into crowd of civilians with automatic weapons. In terms of ironic comeuppance, it is only “fair” that they should become victims of the same sort of corrupt, twisted, kangaroo-court “justice” which they attempted to inflict on others. Karma’s a bitch, and now so are they. In terms of it being gratuitous, I should note that the narrative wisely just leaves us with the implication of the fate they face and then cuts away, rather than describing the scene in such prolonged detail as to make one suspect that the author is secretly getting off on writing about it. So, I didn’t hate this scene.

“I know I should feel sorry for them. But they tried to kill me, they hurt a lot of innocent people, and they endangered a whole lot more. The heck with them.”

– Mark Meadows, Chapter 36

Don’t worry, I’m not going soft: a little birdie told me that there are plenty more completely gratuitous and frankly despicable attempted rape scenes coming up in future books, and I’ll be sure to comment on how awful those ones are once they come up.

The second section, “Ice Cream Phoenix”, is probably the weakest in the book. Mark joins the Joker Brigade in Vietnam, but discovers that despite their noble intentions they’re becoming as savage and brutal as the oppressors they vowed to fight. Standard horrors of war stuff. It gets to be kind of a slog, honestly. There are a few good moments between Mark and Croyd the Sleeper, I guess.

Fortunately, things are much improved in part three, “The Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag”, where Mark finally meets up with Belew. There’s a lot of interesting philosophical talk about the nature of war and rebellion between these two ideological opposites who find themselves fighting for the same cause: Cap’n Trips and the Mechanic, the Last Hippie and the rogue mercenary. And with the opposition bringing in Carnifex and Crypt Kicker to fight Aces with Aces, everything culminates in a massive battle outside of Saigon that sees the advent of Mark’s manifested dark side: Monster. It’s a really intense sequence which made for a perfect climax to the novel.

Finally, the last thing I guess I should talk about is the music. Which is not normally something I would say about a novel, but the end credits page included a playlist. I didn’t have enough familiarity with music of the period to notice at first; but being Cap’n Trips themed, the novel followed his example in using names of sixties songs. Since I’d enjoyed the book, I decided to give the relevant songs a listen: “Friend of the Devil” by the Grateful Dead, “Ice Cream Phoenix” by Jefferson Airplane, “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” by Country Joe and the Fish, “Jumpin Jack Flash” by the Rolling Stones, “Moonchild” by King Crimson”, “Mystic Traveler” by Dave Mason, “Good Morning Starshine” by Beverly D’Angelo, “Aquarius” by Ren Woods, and “Monster” by Steppenwolf. Out of them all, I liked the “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” the best, and feel like it’s the best-fitting theme music for the novel as a whole. I also have to say that I found “Monster” a little disappointing – reading the scene where Monster appeared put me in the mind of something a lot harder. Given my taste in music, the songs that came to my mind were “Monster” by Skillet and “Monster” by the Automatic Automatic, so I was probably subconsciously expecting something more along those lines.

The slow middle portion means this one isn’t quite on par with the best novels in the series, but I still rank it as pretty damn good.

Final Rating: 4/5

Wild Cards #11: Dealer’s Choice

This is the Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny. Good guys, bad guys, and explosions, as far as the eye can see. And only one will survive; I wonder who it will be? Let’s discover the Dealer’s Choice, edited by George R. R. Martin.

Synopsis:

After too many disastrous raids and military embarrassments, the Nats order a full-out, no-holds-barred blitzkrieg against Bloat and his genetic outcasts. The mission is clear: destroy Ellis Island, no survivors. As the final battle rages, the Turtle throws in the towel, Modular Man switches sides, Reflector faces defeat, Legion “dies” – and assassins reach Bloat’s chamber. This is it, folks. The final days of the Rox.

Source: Back of the book (Goodreads link)

SPOILERS BELOW

The Jumper arc comes to a conclusion with the battle for the Rox. It’s basically the Wild Cards equivalent of Civil War, an excuse to pit a bunch of super-powered characters against one another in a massive brawl. One might even call it… an ultimate showdown of ultimate destiny.

Speaking of good guys and bad guys, there are both heroes and villains on each side of the conflict. The Rox is home base for the Jumpers, who are all pretty damn evil, but previous books have also established governor Bloat as being extremely sympathetic for an antagonist. Modular Man is programmed to be just and ethical, but is enslaved to the whims of his insane creator Travnicek. Meanwhile, the government side has some pretty big heroes, such as the Great and Powerful Turtle, Mr. Nobody, and Elephant Girl; but they’ve also got Carnifex, who has a real knack for finding himself working for the wrong team. And even Carnifex, stunted as his moral compass might be, is aware enough to be repulsed at finding himself on the same side as the likes of Reflector, Battle, and von Herzenhagen. So, neither side can exactly claim the moral high ground here.

The book also introduces a bunch of new characters with flashy powers for the confrontation. Most of them, however, are nothing more than one-shots. Legion and Patchwork exist mostly as the obligatory love interests to help close out the arcs of Turtle and Modular Man. Herne gets a lot of build-up, being a member of the Twisted Fists terrorist organization and possessing a formidable Wild Card power; but he pretty much fails at everything he attempts, and all mentions of him in future books will be related to his time as a porn star. Really, the only actually significant new Aces are the hero Cameo and the villain Crypt Kicker, who will have future supporting roles as secondary protagonist and antagonists.

Though, if you stretch the definition of “new character” to include previously introduced characters who are only now receiving any sort of actual characterization, there’s the Jumper called Bodysnatcher. As you should know by now, one of my biggest complaints about the Jumpers as antagonists is how flat and interchangeable they are as characters. Though we’re told that there are over a hundred of them on the Rox, only two ever get any sort of actual characterization – previously K.C. Strange, and now Bodysnatcher. Of course, since this is the end of the Jumper arc, Bodysnatcher won’t be making it out of the novel alive. Still, doomed though she may be, she’s kind of an interesting villain while she lasts. Most Jumpers retain an attachment to their original bodies, only jumping others for a brief time and then returning; but Bodysnatcher’s original body is dead, making her purely mental entity with no permanent vessel to return to. She takes and discards one meat shell after another, suffering from a severe body dysmorphic disorder that prevents her from feeling comfortably at home in any of them. Good stuff.

But, the book also has bad stuff. For instance, it’s a major problem that the extent and limitations of Bloat’s powers are never firmly defined. It’s never clear why he can do some things and not others. For instance, he can make flying demonic fish knights, but not a forcefield to block incoming artillery shells? And it doesn’t help matters bringing in Wyungare, the Gaiman Sandman wannabe who is possibly the one character in the Wild Cards universe with even more poorly defined abilities. Apparently, he can use his power to shift the Rox into the dreamtime, thus magically solving all problems, if Bloat just gives him permission. How? Why? Unclear. Well, at least he kicks the bucket and departs the series as well, meaning we won’t have to put up with any more of his vague deus ex machinas.

Then there were the short, pointless plotlines that went nowhere. For instance, Carnifex tries to recruit Lazy Dragon for the government team, but meet his “sister” Vivian instead. This would make sense if it were part of a Lazy Dragon story arc. Unfortunately, the writers are fast forgetting that he ever existed, so it never ends up paying off. Maybe, some day in the far future, someone working on the series will remember that they left Lazy Dragon in limbo and give him some resolution. One can only hope.

Also, there’s a subplot about Dr. Mengele plotting to vivisect Sewer Jack. What the fuck. No, seriously: what in the actual fuck? Who the goddamned hell though this was a good idea?

I need to think about something less stupid. This book marks the departure of Modular Man from the series. Modular Man is a character who just never quite fit into the Wild Cards universe. The series is a parallel history which wants to keep somewhat close to real-world events, just enough to show how the Wild Card made them go down differently, so there really isn’t any room in the universe for super-inventors cranking out technological marvels that have the potential to vastly advance the world’s scientific and technical progress. In fact, the very first book in the series explicitly put the kibosh in this in its little appendix about the nature of the Wild Card virus, stating that nothing created by an inventor-Ace could ever be analyzed or reproduced in any way by anyone else; that any “technology” seemingly born of Wild Card-gifted intelligence was in fact just an extension of the “inventor”’s talent: a crutch, a magic feather, probably just a box full of rocks that only works because the creator believes it does. So someone like Modular Man, who apparently is made of functional technology and exists independently of Tavnicek, just didn’t fit in. Well, at least they decided to give him a somewhat satisfactory ending instead of just unceremoniously shoving him out the door. It could have been worse; just ask Jane Dow.

Turtle, too, got the honor of an actual story leading up to his retirement. Others weren’t so lucky; for, as is perhaps fitting for a superhero-based series, the authors have taken the lesson from comics than any big event is an excuse to kill off a bunch of old minor characters in order to make room for a bunch of new, more marketable ones. Let us have a moment of silence, please, for some departing souls: Cyclone, killed by Molly Bolt. Pulse, killed by Bodysnatcher. Wyungare, also killed by Bodysnatcher. And Kafka, transmigrated to the dreamtime or whatever the hell you want to call it. You will be missed; at least by those of you who remember you existed in the first place. Which isn’t likely many people. Hell, I’m re-reading this whole series to write reviews of it, and I barely remember them. Apparently Pulse’s real name was Cyrus Randall? Was that ever even mentioned before, or did they just now pull it out of their collective asses in an attempt to humanize him a bit so his death would carry some weight?

Well, whatever. With all the mixed good and bad parts, this book averages out at around the middle of the scale. I will say that, of the several different sections of the epilogue, I most liked the sort of ambiguously bittersweet one featuring Slash discovering Charon still making his trip, the destination now unknown but hopefully worthwhile. Ellis Island may be gone, but the idea of the Rox lives on.

Final Rating: 3/5

Valhalla #1: Valhalla

We come from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow. Valhalla, I am coming. Let’s fight the hordes and sing and cry with Valhalla, by Ari Bach.

Synopsis:

Violet MacRae is one of the aimless millions crowding northern Scotland. In the year 2330, where war is obsolete and only brilliant minds are valued, she emerges into adulthood with more brawn than brains and a propensity for violence. People dismiss her as a relic, but world peace is more fragile than they know.

In Valhalla, a clandestine base hidden in an icy ravine, Violet connects with a group of outcasts just like her. There, she learns the skills she needs to keep the world safe from genetically enhanced criminals and traitors who threaten the first friends she’s ever known. She also meets Wulfgar Kray, a genius gang leader who knows her better than she knows herself and who would conquer the world to capture her.

Branded from childhood as a useless barbarian, Violet is about to learn the world needs her exactly as she is.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

In a dystopian cyberpunk future where megacorporations own the planet and solar system, but where ordinary life is a lot less grim and gritty than you’d generally expect of a cyberpunk dystopia, Violet is a teenage girl with violent, sadistic, and borderline sociopathic tendencies. Fortunately, while those aren’t very good personality traits for a person, they make fine material for a kickass hardcore antihero protagonist. And, like pretty much all cyberpunk, even when things look superficially utopian, you only have to scratch the surface to find some evil corporations worth fighting. Hence, it should come as no surprise when Violet is recruited by Valhalla, an elite organization of cybernetically enhanced super-soldiers tasked with taking out the trash which the law can’t touch. I’m down for that.

I do have to admit that, while I was interested in the plot, I found the writing style to be kind of awkward. The narration seems to always take this extremely detached and clinical tone, regardless of whether it’s describing dry setting exposition, Violet’s innermost thoughts and deepest emotions, or intense battle sequences. It just felt weird, and prevented me from getting as immersed in the story as I’d have liked.

Also, I found the ending to be somewhat unsatisfying. Sure, I can see the logic behind one of the villains escaping; it’s only the first book of a trilogy, after all, and you need that plot hook for the sequel. But for both of them to get away? That’s a bit annoying, since it makes it seem like the heroes didn’t actually manage to accomplish anything. But what’s really jarring is how casually the elders take it, pretty much shrugging and saying, “Whatever, let ‘em go.” Sorry, but didn’t you earlier in the novel make a big deal about how no enemy who discovered the secret of Valhalla’s location could be permitted to leave alive?

Compare:

Violet: “They killed all of the intruders, didn’t they?”
Alf: “Yes, they couldn’t be allowed to escape once they knew what and where we were, obviously.”
Violet: “Why weren’t they held prisoner?”
Alf: “Because we have no prison. We take no prisoners.”

Valhalla, “Chapter V: Vadso”

And contrast:

Violet: “On the walls! Take the shot!”
Balder: “Capture Ops are over. We’ve got link activity from him. He heard one of yours, and he’s sending his own. Let him go.”

Valhalla, “Chapter XIII: Valhalla”

So, if any random small-time criminals happen by chance to stumble across your base, they must be exterminated with extreme prejudice. But, if you discover someone within your ranks has been a double-agent for years, has had access to all your most top-secret information and sensitive classified files – well, then you just let them waltz away; because why bother, right? It seems everyone must have gotten a hearty dose of stupid pills in their breakfast that day.

I should mention, though, that the other thing in the novel which I thought was really stupid actually later got a sensible in-universe explanation. See, when it was revealed that toilets in this world use disintegration fields instead of plumbing, I thought that sounded excessively dangerous, and wondered how a technology which made people risk vaporization if their toilet ever malfunctioned could ever have come into widespread use. Then, later on, it was mentioned in an offhand conversation that the rapid growth of megacities far outpaced the ability of the old infrastructure to adjust to accommodate the increased load, resulting in some unfortunate incidents such as the destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral in a massive sewage explosion. Yeah, that sounds like the sort of thing which could have convinced the locals that maybe those newfangled disintegration toilets were an acceptable risk, comparatively speaking.

Final Rating: 3/5