Death By Cliche

The heroes all meet in a tavern: a human, an elf, a dwarf, and a woman. An evil overlord sits upon a throne of skulls and plots the destruction of the world. Spells will be cast, saving throws will be failed, and rocks will fall. It’s Death By Cliche, by Bob Defendi.

Synopsis:

To Sartre, Hell was other people. To the game designer, Hell is the game.
Damico writes games for a living. When called in to rescue a local roleplaying game demo, Damico is shot in the head by a loony fan.
He awakens in a game. A game full of hackney’s tropes and clichéd plots. A game he was there to save, run by the man who murdered him just moments ago. A game that has just become world-swap fantasy. Damico, to his horror, has become the heart of the cliché.
Set on their quest in a scene that would make Ed Wood blush, Damico discovers a new wrinkle. As a game designer, he is a creative force in this broken place. His presence touches the two-dimensional inhabitants. First a peasant, then a barmaid, then his character’s own father…all come alive.
But the central question remains. Can Damico escape, or is he trapped in this nightmare? Forever.
Wait, what? This is a comedy?
Ignore all that. Death by Cliché is a heartwarming tale of catastrophic brain damage. Share it with someone you love. Or like. Or anyone at all. Buy the book.
Based on a true story.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

If there’s one thing Death by Cliche is not, it’s middle-of-the-road. My experience of the book was an extremely polarized: the parts that I thought were good, I very strongly liked; but the parts I thought were bad, I extremely strongly disliked. Not just mildly liked or mildly disliked; my feelings were violently jolted from one extreme to the other as a very funny and clever joke would be followed up by one which not only bombed but was downright offensive, and a scene that made me feel a deep investment in the plot and characters would suddenly be stopped cold for mood-destroying fourth-wall-breaking metahumor.

What did I like? Mostly, the jokes made at the expense of bad and cliched RPG adventures. The perfectly rectangular hallways leading to perfectly square rooms, the evil overlord who engages in pointlessly self-defeating behavior simply because it’s generically evil, the monsters which take a dozen sword thrusts through the torso without showing the slightest sign of pain or inconvenience but then instantly keel over dead the moment they lose their last hit point… There’s no point compiling an exhaustive list of every joke and parody in the book, so suffice to say that on the whole the jokes in this vein were fun, clever, and creative, and I found myself really enjoying the book.

What, then, did I so strongly dislike? The jokes which were made at the expense not of bad RPG tropes, but of RPG players. In particular, stereotyping them as fat, sweaty, smelly, nerdy losers who still live in their mothers’ basements and are of course still virgins. The villain of the novel is of course supposed to be an embodiment of all the most negative aspects of bad gamers rolled into one – the ultimate That Guy. But the novel doesn’t just aim its insults at him – no, it stereotypes all gamers, painting them with the same broad strokes you’ve seen a thousand times before, as if “Ha ha, nerds are virgins” was still the foremost cutting edge of humor.

“The only thing our type of gamers gamble with is their own virginity, and much to their chagrin, they never lose.”
– Chapter One

“They wouldn’t cross the street to stop a bully half their size. They seemed to have no courage at all. A single word from a girl, and they might wet themselves.”
– Chapter One

Hey, I’ve got some news for you. Here’s an example of a person who plays RPGs:

VinDiesel

So, do you want to go ahead and repeat those comments to Mr. Diesel’s face? Or can the whole “gamers are fat, sweaty virgins living in their mothers’ basements” trope just go ahead and die already?

Another thing which really grates are the immersion-breaking postmodernist asides where the author breaks off narration in order to directly address the reader. This is an extremely difficult writing technique to use without coming off as extremely annoying and suspense-breaking. Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, manages to pull it off by making his idiosyncratic narrator an actual character in the world he’s writing about. Within the framing device of Lemony Snicket writing about things he witnessed or uncovered through investigation, it makes perfect sense that he might have strong personal opinions about some of the people, places, and events which had a significant impact on him and might thus go on tangents regarding these things to the reader. In Death by Cliche, however, there is no sense that the omniscient narrator is a character within the world; it’s just Bob Defendi putting the story on hold every one in a while in order to make aside remarks to the reader. And each time he does it, it reminds the reader that the story is just a story; snapping them out of their immersion and ruining any emotional investment they may have been developing.

Finally, there is the resolution to the real-world plotline – or rather, the lack of a resolution. Throughout the book, it is hinted that time is continuing in the real world at a faster rate than in the RPG world, and that Damico’s body might still be alive in a coma somehow. So what did happen to Damico’s body after he was shot? And will Carl ever be caught and punished for his crime? Eh, who knows, the book decides to just leave those plot threads dangling. I don’t like dangling threads; I like endings where everything is nicely tied up. It’s excusable for the first book in a series to resolve certain plot points while leaving other mysteries and challenges pointedly remaining in order to serve as a sequel hook; but when a book doesn’t explicitly advertise itself as “Book 1 of the X Trilogy” or subtitle itself as “The X Saga” or “A Book of the X Series”, I tend to implicitly assume that it’s a standalone work. And while a very good book might leave me wishing for more stories set in the same universe, I am very unlikely to think anything along the lines of: “that book had a lackluster ending which left me feeling terribly unsatisfied – that sure makes me want to read more of his books! I hope he writes a sequel so that I can be disappointed by it, too!”

I give two-star reviews to two kinds of books: those which are generic, bland, and just generally uninteresting; and those which are actually quite interesting in some regards but also significantly flawed in some manner. Death By Cliche is of the latter type: it is a funny and interesting story which I could actually see myself quite liking, but it just has too many problems for me to overlook. Thus, I cannot recommend it.

So, like I said: Rocks fall, everyone dies.

Final Rating: 2/5

Wild Cards #2: Aces High

Call them Tyranids, call them Zerg, or call them TIAMAT; they’re an unstoppable all-devouring alien swarm hive-mind, and they’ve shown up in the Wild Cards universe to be your one-shot villain of the book. It time to ante up for Aces High, edited by George R. R. Martin.

Synopsis:

It all began in 1946, when the bizarre, gene-altering Wild Cards virus was unleashed in the skies over New York City. A virus that created super-powered Aces and bizarre, disfigured Jokers. Now, thirty years later, the victims face a new nightmare.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Aces High is a rather odd entry in the Wild Cards series; a book that demonstrates uncertainty about what direction the series will ultimately take. It’s been thirty years since the outbreak of the Wild Card virus, so the story is no longer dealing with the immediate ramifications: the mass death of people who drew the Black Queen, the sudden appearance of Aces and Jokers in a world completely unprepared for them, and people adjusting to their sudden transformations. But rather than transitioning into stories about how major historical events play out in this world significantly altered by the Wild Card, it ignores real Earth history in favor of a story about alien invasion.

The Swarm Mother isn’t terribly original or exciting: just your standard all-consuming organic alien hive-mind. Any fan of science fiction has seen it a hundred times before: the Zerg from StarCraft, the Tyranids from Warhammer 40,000, the Flood from Halo, the Hive from Tour of the Merrimack… the list goes on. And I can’t say I find its evil plan very compelling: it wants to absorb all life on Earth into itself… so it plans to start a nuclear war that will destroy all life on Earth and render the planet an uninhabitable radioactive cinder? That doesn’t seem to be the most productive course of action.

Well, give the authors this much credit: they seem to have realized that giving Mai the power to heal Jokers with a touch was something of a mistake, narratively speaking, so they take the opportunity to write her out of the series – and in an elegant and respectful manner, no less, rather than being hacked to pieces and stuffed into a fridge. It’s sad that I feel the need to mention that, but given the series’ treatment of a certain other female character who is in fact introduced in this very book… but no, let’s not talk about that now.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that this book is the introduction of James Spector, aka Demise; a character who I like far more than I probably should, given that he’s an unrepentant murderer. However, this isn’t really the place to talk about that, since he doesn’t really do anything notable in this story; his role is only to serve as another of the Astronomer’s lackeys. Likewise, Jay Ackroyd, Popinjay, makes his first appearance; and while he will go on to great things in later books, there’s really not much for him here.

A character who does actually get a full, meaningful story arc is Jube the Walrus. His story forms the backbone of the novel, propping up a narrative that otherwise might have fallen limp. He isn’t actually that relevant to the overall story, since he neither plays a role in the Swarm Mother’s defeat nor ends up using his Shakti Device to contact the Network, but the focus on his small and intensely personal struggle made him very sympathetic and relatable; reading about him determinedly pursuing a last-ditch mission that even he admitted was probably futile was a lot more interesting than the descriptions of Aces slaughtering wave after boring wave of generic Swarm monsters.

Likewise, the brief diversion which Tachyon, Captain Trips, and the Great and Powerful Turtle are abducted by Tach’s cousin Zabb and have to escape is extremely compelling because of how personal the stakes are: Tachyon must break free of his family ties, and aid Turtle in overcoming the psychosomatic failure of his psychic powers caused by the loss of his shell just as Turtle once helped him after Blythe’s death. Indeed, it’s so compelling that it’s possible to forget for a time that it is only a diversion – it does nothing to advance the overall plot of saving the Earth from the Swarm Mother.

And finally, as in the first book, the best thing in the Wild Cards universe is Croyd the Sleeper – in this case, the best-written chapter of the book is “Ashes to Ashes”, where Croyd and Devil John Darlingfoot get into a series of wacky mishaps while trying to steal a corpse. It’s pretty tangential to the main plot, but as you’ve seen that’s pretty standard for all the best parts of this book: the main story arc about the Swarm Mother is the least interesting part, with all the true entertainment lying in the side-plots that the various characters get drawn off into along the way.

Aces High is a book that ultimately works in spite of itself. The Swarm Mother plot which serves as a frame for all the other stories in the book is plodding and unoriginal, but those other stories are entertaining enough that they hold up on their own merits.

Final Rating: 4/5

Women of the Otherworld #2: Stolen

The women of the Otherworld return in the second book of the series that began with Bitten. It’s time to steal a look at Stolen, by Kelley Armstrong.

Synopsis:

It was in Bitten, Kelley Armstrong’s debut novel, that thirty-year-old Elena Michaels came to terms with her feral appetites and claimed the proud identity of a beautiful, successful woman and the only living female werewolf.
In Stolen, on a mission for her own elite pack, she is lured into the net of ruthless Internet billionaire Tyrone Winsloe, who has funded a bogus scientific investigation of the “other races” and their supernatural powers. Kidnapped and studied in his underground lab deep in the Maine woods, these paranormals – witches, vampires, shamans, werewolves – are then released and hunted to the death in a real-world video game. But when Winsloe captures Elena, he finally meets his match.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Stolen is, in my opinion, an improvement over Bitten. This is not to say that everything about it is perfect. For instance, there’s the presentation of the villain, Ty Winsloe. The moment he started describing his “Most Dangerous Game”-style hunting field as a real-life video game, my eyes started rolling. Are we really indulging in the cliche of the geeky gamer who conflates his violent video games with reality? For the record, I myself was once an avid player of Mario Kart, and yet I never developed the urge to fling turtle shells at people in real life.

The first major improvement it makes is to expand the world of the supernatural. In Bitten, there was no indication that anything supernatural other than werewolves existed. That’s common enough; while there are of course some literary universes where all sorts of creatures from folklore hobnob with one another, there are also plenty of books which are content to just be werewolf stories without feeling the need to include the existence of yetis, rakshasa, and whatnot. For a long ongoing series, however, I feel that a broader supernatural bestiary is preferable, as it opens up many more story possibilities. Allow me to once again compare Women of the Otherworld to Rachel Vincent’s Shifters series, which I feel makes a very useful contrast. Just as Bitten is about pack werewolves fighting rogue werewolves, Stray, first book of the Shifters series, is about pack werecats fighting rogue werecats. But the second book of the Shifters series is then also about pack werecats fighting rogue werecats. And the third book of the series? Once again, pack werecats fighting rogue werecats. What started as an interesting premise started getting old real fast once the same basic conflict was recycled for the third time. By introducing shamans, witches, vampires, sorcerers, half-demons, and so forth, Women of the Otherworld opens up a whole world of new possibilities to prevent its future installments from falling into a stale and repetitive rut.

The second improvement I feel Stolen made over Bitten is that there’s less moral dissonance. Yes, the werewolves kill humans. But unlike the first book, where Elena spoke with casual disinterest of Clay eating human children for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the kills in Stolen are all against members of an evil paramilitary organization which is abducting and murdering people – justifiable self-defense, in other words. It’s also portrays Cassandra, a vampire who necessarily kills humans to fulfill her dietary needs, as much more morally grey than the werewolves, who do not need to and attempt to avoid eating humans. It’s still not perfect – Elena’s horror and disgust at Bauer eating someone after becoming a werewolf comes off as a bit hypocritical considering that we know she did the same herself when she was newly infected. Winsloe even tries to call her on it – probably the only time in the novel he has anything even remotely approaching a valid point – only for her to dodge the question.

Winsloe: “You ever do stuff like that?”
Elena: “I’m a Pack werewolf.”
Stolen, Chapter 33, “Rampage”

In case you’ve forgotten:

“Unable to reason, barely able to think, I was driven entirely by the needs of my stomach. The rabbits and raccoons weren’t enough. I killed people.”
Bitten, Chapter 4, “Meet”

Still, even if it’s not perfect, an improvement is still an improvement; and Stolen represents a definite move in the right direction for the Women of the Otherworld series – and considering I already liked the first book despite its flaws, the result is a pretty enjoyable read.

Final Rating: 4/5

The X-Files #2: Whirlwind

Today, on The X-Files: is it possible for an author to plagiarize himself? Mulder and Scully are on the case. Time to blow through Whirlwind, by Charles Grant.

Synopsis:

Serial killers come in all shapes and sizes, but this one is particularly puzzling.There’s no pattern to the mutilated bodies that have been showing up in Albuquerque: both sexes, all races, ages, ethnic groups. There is no evidence of rape or ritual. Only one thing connects the victims. They were the victims of a natural disaster. One of the most unnatural natural disasters imaginable, leading to a most painful, most certain and most hideous death….

Mulder and Scully, FBI: the agency maverick and the female agent assigned to keep him in line. Their job: investigate the eerie unsolved mysteries the Bureau wants handled quietly, but quickly, before the public finds out what’s really out there. And panics. The cases filed under “X.”

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Many people have accused Charles L. Grant of simply recycling the plot of his Oxrun Station novel The Bloodwind for this installment of The X-Files. Personally, I just don’t see it. I mean, the Bloodwind is a lethal snow devil, a whirlwind of snow and ice which is formed by using a statue as a mystic focus for one woman’s hatred and malice, and is sent by that woman to kill her enemies and those she believes have slighted her. By contrast, the Sangre Viento is a lethal dust devil, a whirlwind of dust and sand which is formed by using a medicine bag as a mystic focus for one man’s hatred and malice, and is sent by that man to kill his enemies and those he believes have slighted him. Not to mention, The Bloodwind is set in Connecticut during winter, whereas Whirlwind is set in New Mexico during summer. Clearly they’re not a thing alike, those two books.

Jokes aside, though, The Bloodwind and Whirlwind are in fact noticeably different stories – the most noticeable difference being that, unlike The Bloodwind, Whirlwind is actually a good story. If you recall, in my review of The Bloodwind I pointed out three major factors which I thought severely hampered the story: the writing style, the characters, and the pacing. Whirlwind has managed to correct all three problems.

The style and characterization are likely improved simply as a consequence of writing an X-Files book. By choosing a more traditional narrative style for The X-Files, the author neatly avoids all the issues I head with the meandering, indirect, and frequently irrelevant narrative voice of his “quiet horror” type of novel. Likewise, all the character problems I had with the protagonist of The Bloodwind are neatly side-stepped merely by virtue of introducing Mulder and Scully as the protagonists of this story. Since they already have strong, developed personalities and are strong proactive protagonists unlike the timid Pat Shavers, it is simply a matter of writing them properly; and in that regard, the author has done well.

The pacing is also a great deal better. In The Bloodwind, the story was bogged down by seemingly endless buildup that was supposed to create atmosphere and tension but only succeeded in generating boredom; it was only about three-quarters of the way through the book that anything actually happened. Whirlwind fixes this by having the first few chapters alternate between the first crimes being committed and Mulder and Scully getting assigned to the case and beginning their investigation, keeping things moving fast by interweaving the necessary introductory material with suspenseful murder scenes.

And lest you think I am comparing Whirlwind solely to The Bloodwind, I believe it also represents a marked improvement over the author’s previous X-Files novel, Goblins. The killer this time is someone who meaningfully participates in the story before the reveal, not an out-of-nowhere introduction like that story’s not-really-a-goblin goblin. It also features more supernatural elements, and thus feels more like a proper X-File: while both have serial killers as their villains, this one uses a magic-powered dust devil rather than an ordinary knife to commit his murders and is thus a lot more interesting.

Nothing about Whirlwind really blew me away, so I wouldn’t call it a spectacular book. However, it is one of the stronger installments in The X-Files novel series.

Final Rating: 3/5

Oxrun Station #5: The Bloodwind

Oxrun Station. A friendly Connecticut community where the Sun is hot, the Moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while the residents pretend to sleep. A town where supernatural evil lurks just out of sight; vampires and werewolves and mummies and… a psychic projection of malice taking the form of a carved bear? Sure, why not. Time to put on our snowshoes and trod through The Bloodwind, by Charles L. Grant.

Synopsis:

The Bloodwind is Silent.
It grows from hate and fear and jealousy; rising over Oxrun Station in a miasma of terror and anger. Its target: anyone who dares to speak or act against its master.
To many in Oxrun Station, it is Pat Shavers who controls the boodwind, for it strikes down her enemies. But Pat is terrified of the mysterious destructive force.
The earlier deaths have been accidents – hers will be murder.

Source: back of the book (obligatory Goodreads link)

SPOILERS BELOW

A dead town. Posing for Currier and Ives, refusing to turn around to reveal the blood in the yards, the corpses in the attics, the ghosts and the demons and the preternatural creatures that stalked the valley no matter what time, no matter the season.
The Bloodwind, Chapter 9

Oxrun Station, a small Connecticut town which is a nexus of supernatural evil, is the setting for a series of loosely connected horror novels by Charles L. Grant. While The Bloodwind was the fifth book in the series to be published, there is no convoluted continuity to worry about: each book is a stand-alone story with different protagonists, sharing only the setting. Thus, there is nothing to prevent us from using this particular book as our introduction to the series. Not that this book makes a particularly good introduction to the series; it fails to make a positive first impression because, to be frank, it isn’t that good. Its problems are myriad, including pacing, characterization, and general writing style.

The writing style seems oddly circumspect; forever talking around things for no apparent reason save a reluctance to ever get to the point. For instance, the story begins with Pat Shavers concerned about some upcoming event at work that could potentially make or break her career – but it refuses to tell us what that event is, repeatedly commenting how very important it is for Pat without bother to explain what it is. Or, for another example, take the following passage, about the history of the founder of the university where Pat works:

On his deathbed the old man suggested two years double to four, and when he finally died in 1953 no one complained publicly when the school’s name was changed – especially in light of the trust he had established to maintain the facilities independent of the vagaries of economic and enrollment flux.
The Bloodwind, Chapter 3

This is a passage the apparent purpose of which is to provide us information about the school’s history. Yet, what information does it actually provide? It says that, at one point, the school’s name was changed. What was it changed from? What was it changed to? Not a clue! There’s no particular point to withholding that information, or even for bringing it up in the first place – I probably wouldn’t have noticed that the whole book just referred to Pat’s workplace as “the school” or “the university”, except that this passage made me wonder if there was some significance to the change in name, and then I realized that neither name was ever given. Look, either tell me or don’t tell me; but don’t make a huge production over not telling me when it’s not even important in the first place.

That brings me to the second problem, that of character. Namely, the main character, who is a woman who seems to be forever teetering on the edge of hysteria; perpetually near panic, forever glancing over her shoulder to see if someone’s stalking her, and jumping in fright when the phone rings. Now, that might be perfectly ordinary behavior for someone aware that she’s being stalked by a relentless and implacable force of pure evil; but she’s like that far before anything supernatural happens. Take, for instance, this passage:

She almost panicked. Standing alone in the corridor, listening to Greg chatting with the others as if nothing momentous were about to be discussed, she almost lost her nerve. Her arms folded across her stomach and she hugged herself, anticipating a bout of nausea that did not come, wondering if her face were flushed, her lips trembling, her posture more like a supplicant than one who has courage. It was irrational, this sudden attack, and it came close to shaming her. She had always prided herself on being a woman who had never flinched, who had taken the slings of a man’s world and caught them in her bare hand, flung them back with a smile not of contempt but of competence. And now she was behaving as though the room ahead contained the gas chamber, not a table and chairs and a handful of gossiping colleagues.
The Bloodwind, Chapter 5

Again, that’s not her preparing to face some unspeakable Lovecraftian horror; this is her just about to have an ordinary meeting with her colleagues at the university, with no idea yet that evil is afoot. “A woman who had never flinched”? We hardly see her do anything but flinch! Telling us otherwise doesn’t make it so. If you want Pat to be a strong female protagonist, then you should actually write her that way.

And the final problem: the pacing. Charles L. Grant has described his style of writing as “quiet horror”; for this book, I would suggest that “quiet” be substituted with “boring”. This is a story in which it takes forever for anything to actually happen. That’s probably supposed to build up an atmosphere of mystery and dread, but instead it just got me thinking about how other horror novels were able to build up their atmospheres of mystery and dread much quicker.

All in all, The Bloodwind is a disappointingly weak outing. But you know what might make this premise better? If Mulder and Scully from The X-Files were in it. But hey, what are the odds of that ever happening?

Final Rating: 2/5

Wild Cards #1: Wild Cards

Have you heard the news? George R. R. Martin says that there’s going to be a TV adaptation of the Wild Cards universe. As one of those rare, rare people who is actually more into Wild Cards than A Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones, I figure that makes this the perfect time to review some of the books from that series. So let’s shuffle the deck and deal out Wild Cards, edited by George R. R. Martin.

Synopsis:

Just after World War 2 over New York City, an alien virus transforms human genetics and goes recessive to create super heroes and villains. Most victims die, others experience physical or psychic changes: aces have useful powers, deuces minor maybe entertaining abilities, jokers uglified, disabled, relegated to ghettos.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

I always found the first story, “Thirty Minutes Over Broadway! Jetboy’s Last Adventure!” to be a rather odd introduction to the series. The premise of the series being that the release of an alien virus creates an alternate history where super-powered metahumans exist, you’d think that the arrival of Dr. Tachyon and the virus on Earth would mark the divergence point between our universe and the fictional one. But no, even before anyone gets superpowers, superheroes and supervillains already exist, as demonstrated by Jetboy batting Doctor Tod in his death-blimp. Not that there’s anything wrong with establishing the setting that way; it just strikes me as odd, is what I’m saying.

If I had to pick my top three stories from this volume, I would say – in no particular order – “The Sleeper”, “Shell Games”, and “Ghost Girl Takes Manhattan”. “The Sleeper”, of course, is the introductory story of anti-hero Croyd Crenson, one of the most enduring and popular characters in the Wild Cards universe. There’s a reason George R. R. Martin came right out and said that any TV adaptation of Wild Cards would have to include Croyd in one form or another, and it’s apparent even from his very first story. Due to the nature of his Wild Card, Croyd is someone through whom we can see multiple facets of the Wild Card experience: sometimes a handsome and powerful Ace but sometimes a disgusting and weak Joker; sometimes a hero and sometimes a villain; and constantly adapting as he does whatever it takes to survive in a constantly changing world. “Shell Games” is also an introductory story, the first appearance of Tom Tudsbury, the Great and Powerful Turtle. If Croyd embodies the dichotomy of the Wild Card virus, then Turtle is an incarnation of the positive side of the virus: how from the darkest depths of tragedy, hope springs eternal. Whereas Croyd merely wishes to survive, Turtle wishes to become a force for good: to use the power the virus has given him to repair some of the pain and suffering it has inflicted on others. It is the most positive story in the collection, ending on a triumphant note as Turtle manages not only to save Angelface from her abductors but also Tachyon from his despair; showing that the Wild Card has produced heroes as well as monsters. And “Ghost Girl Takes Manhattan”… well, I don’t really read any deeper meaning into it, I just think it’s a really fun romp which is well-written, fun, and entertaining.

Of course, the collection contains some not-so-good stories as well. But, be they good or bad, all of the stories have a pervading problem that stems from the historical setting. On the one hand, it was a good idea to start the Wild Cards series in the past, so we could see how the existence of Jokers and Aces changes certain significant historical events. But, because the series set in the past, it is rife with period-appropriate levels of racism, misogyny, anti-semitism homophobia, and other such assorted unpleasantness. As a result of this, I had a bit of difficulty getting invested in each new character as they were introduced; I was always on-edge, wary that they might suddenly and out of nowhere drop some incredibly offensive remark that would make me cringe at ever having sympathized with them. (I’m looking at you, here, Fortunato).

The other major point I dislike is that the series is so quick to introduce a cure to the Wild Card virus – cures, multiple, even. The release of the Wild Card is supposed to be a world-shattering event, permanently changing the course of history by giving a small number of people superpowers but leaving a much larger number with irreversible hideous deformities. And yet, by “The Sleeper”, Tachyon is already handing out cures for Jokers. Now, it’s one thing to provide medical aid that alleviates a victim’s symptoms, such as resuscitating Demise after he draws the Black Queen; or giving psychological help so that a victim can gain control over an out-of-control power, as with the Projectionist. But he straight-up turns Bentley back from a dog into a human. That really mitigates the impact of the mutations other Jokers suffer; rather than seeing their condition as a devastating and life-ruining ailment, I see it as something that could potentially be fixed. Don’t worry, everyone; the Wild Card is curable, it’s not as big a deal as everyone thought. And while it’s stated that Tachyon’s treatment doesn’t work on everyone, “Comes A Hunter” goes and introduces another cure in the form of Mai, an Ace whose Wild Card power lets her cure the Wild Cards of others. Well gosh, with a woman who can go around reversing the effects of the virus with a touch, it’s a wonder there are any Jokers left at all. That’d put a pretty quick end to the series, wouldn’t it: “And then Mai cured everyone. The end.”

It could have been worse, though. The authors could have taken a female character the power to heal Jokers not by laying hands on them, but by having sex with them. Because then not only could they write lurid descriptions of this woman having twisted kinky Joker sex – you can already picture the slime and tentacles, can’t you? – but they could also make it a storyline about how all the most hideous and deformed Jokers want to chase her down and rape her in order to cure themselves. Doesn’t that sound like the most atrocious idea you’ve ever heard? Yes, it sure is a very good thing that the highly talented and extremely tasteful authors of the Wild Cards series would never stoop to writing anything so vulgar as that. Ha ha ha ha… Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go pound my head against a wall until I lose all my memories of a certain story in a certain sequel book which I’m sure will never come up on this blog at all.

Final Rating: 4/5

The X-Files #5: Antibodies

Having reviewed Skin, it’s time to move on to the next book in The X-Files licensed novel series. Or should that be the previous book? The answer may be less straightforward than you think. But either way, it’s time to attack Antibodies, by Kevin J. Anderson.

Synopsis:

When a disease-ravaged body is found in the smoldering ruins of the federally funded DyMar genetic research lab, Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully fear that a deadly, man-made plague is on the loose. As the FBI agents investigating the “X-Files” – cases the bureau has deemed unsolvable – Mulder and Scully pursue the truth wherever it leads, even into the labyrinthine corridors of the FBI… and beyond.

Racing to contain the lethal virus before it can spread, Mulder and Scully make a chilling discovery. Before his death, Dr. David Kennessy, a hotshot cancer researcher at DyMar, had been experimenting with a promising but highly dangerous technology: microscopic bio-machines that can cure any disease, heal any wound. In theory, this research could be a miracle cure, perhaps even a doorway to immortality. It was also the only way Dr. Kennessy could save his leukemia-stricken son.

But when a second corpse turns up, savagely mutilated from within, it’s anything but theoretical. Could machines created to cure have learned to kill? Scrambling for answers, Mulder and Scully are opposed at every step by faceless enemies with all the resources of the government – even perhaps of their own agency — at their command. Enemies who will stop at nothing to ensure that the secret of immortality falls in the right hands – their hands.

As sinister forces close in, Scully fights to save the life of an innocent boy while Mulder comes face to face with a crazed and desperate man. A man whose slightest touch brings agonizing death – and perhaps a resurrection more horrible still.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

It’s the final book in the X-Files novel series, and you know what that means: Mulder and Scully will finally uncover the evidence they need to expose the conspiracy once and for – ha ha ha, no. Of course not. The villain of the book escapes, all the evidence is destroyed without a trace, the status quo remains unchallenged, and I remain disgruntled.

Well actually, officially speaking, this book is numbered as #5, placing it before Skin, which is numbered #6. The collection I read from, however, placed Skin before Antibodies for some reason. Though I have no way of knowing for sure, I suspect it’s because Antibodies has a scene at the end featuring the Cigarette-Smoking Man, and they figured that his appearance made it a better capstone for the book series. In any case Antibodies after Skin is the physical order I read them in print, so that’s the order I’m reviewing them in. Not that it makes much different storyline-wise, since all the novels tell stand-alone stories. It’s just that having this particular story as the final one in the novel series (there are also two movie novelizations; but those don’t tell original stories and so don’t count) just really drives home how ultimately unsatisfying X-Files stories are when it comes to endings. If you want a story with an actual resolution, best look elsewhere.

To tell the truth, I might have liked Antibodies more if I hadn’t read it directly after Skin. The two books tell fundamentally very similar stories: experimental medical technology shows promise of immortality, and so a shadowy government conspiracy seeks to control it. But whereas in Skin this results in a hunt for a legendarily deadly Thai monster, in Antibodies it causes everyone to run around chasing after a dog – a fine premise for an episode of Cowboy Bebop, but not exactly the level of serious suspense and drama you’d expect from The X-Files. Ultimately, Antibodies is unable to live up to precedent set by Skin; and having read them back-to-back in an anthology collection, the deficiency is difficult to miss.

I would have appreciated the book a bit more if it had been willing to provide some form of resolution. Obviously, it can’t wrap up the entire X-Files conspiracy mythos, with the aliens and the Cigarette-Smoking Man and all; but there’s no excuse for not wrapping up its own internal plot threads. It’s not like Adam Lentz is some big reoccurring mythos character who needs to slip away into the night so that he can return for the next conspiracy story: he’s a one-shot character who is never going to appear again. He was introduced in this story, and he should have been dealt with in this story – if The X-Files weren’t pathologically afraid of closure of any kind.

I also would have respected the book more if it’d had the guts to kill the kid. That’s right, you heard me. Obviously, this being an X-Files novel, all the evidence has to be destroyed by the end. And since Jody has nanomachines in his blood, he is living evidence. That means he has to die, right? Nope: apparently his nanomachines, unlike all the other ones in the novel, were programmed to magically disappear once they were finished working. Two words: cop out. But then, that’s the X-Files novels for you: sticking rigidly to formula, unwilling to take any chances. So, no matter how many nameless redshirts get killed off in gruesomely creative fashion, they aren’t going to kill the kid any more than they’re going to have Mulder actually obtain any proof.

The X-Files novels go out not with a bang, but a whimper: just another rote and derivative case without any shocks or surprises. Antibodies probably isn’t the worst of the book series – I’d have to give that title to Ground Zero – but it is nonetheless a final disappointment.

Final Rating: 2/5

Now, with this review complete, that leaves just two The X-Files novels I haven’t reviewed yet: Ground Zero and Whirlwind. Fear not: I definitely intend to. There’s a reason I’ve skipped over them and done this review series out of chronological order. In Ground Zero’s case, it’s because it’s been quite a while since I’ve read it and I want to refresh my memory before digging in, but I’m having a hard time finding a copy of the book – apparently everyone else also read it once, realized it was total garbage, and threw it away. The other book, Whirlwind, I do own a copy of; but I’m waiting to do a review of a certain other book first. When I finally do write my review of Whirlwind, you’ll understand why.

Women of the Otherworld #1: Bitten

It’s that time of the month again… no, the other time of month, when the moon is full and werewolves howl in the night. It’s time to bite into Bitten, by Kelley Armstrong.

Synopsis:

Elena Michaels is the world’s only female werewolf. And she’s tired of it. Tired of a life spent hiding and protecting, a life where her most important job is hunting down rogue werewolves. Tired of a world that not only accepts the worst in her–her temper, her violence–but requires it. Worst of all, she realizes she’s growing content with that life, with being that person.

So she left the Pack and returned to Toronto where she’s trying to live as a human. When the Pack leader calls asking for her help fighting a sudden uprising, she only agrees because she owes him. Once this is over, she’ll be squared with the Pack and free to live life as a human. Which is what she wants. Really.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

I enjoyed the plot of Bitten. I had some problems, however, with the main character. Now, in general, I’m a fan of kick-ass, tough-as-nails, take-no-prisoners women. When writing such a character, however, care should be taken that they do not cross certain lines into becoming unsympathetic; at least not if one intends them to play the role of a traditional hero rather than a borderline-loathsome anti-hero such as Thomas Covenant. While Elena does not descend to such extremes, there are certain aspects of her character which I find unpleasantly hypocritical.

The first is her treatment of Philip. To be clear, I’m not objecting to the fact that she ends up with Clayton at the end of the book instead: the fact that Philip is unable to deal with her being a werewolf, and Elena realizing that her feelings for him are more platonic admiration rather than the romantic love she feels for Clay, are both perfectly acceptable rationales for her changing partners. What I have a problem with is that she cheats on Philip with Clay even when she is still planning on remaining with Philip, even going so far as to say that it doesn’t count as cheating because she’s known Clay for longer. That is not the opinion of a sympathetic protagonist.

The other problem I have is the double-standard regarding murder of humans by werewolves; though this applies to all the werewolf characters, rather than just Elena. Elena is rightly appalled by the casual murder of humans by the villainous werewolves, for instance being disgusted by Cain’s belief that he has the right to hunt humans. But then she talks about her own and Clay’s backstories with lines like these:

“Unable to reason, barely able to think, I was driven entirely by the needs of my stomach. The rabbits and raccoons weren’t enough. I killed people.”
– Chapter 4, “Meet”

“He’d been living the swamps and tenements, eking out an existence killing rats and dogs and children.”
– Chapter 4, “Meet”

I’m sorry, but that is not a line that you casually toss out there and then move on from without acknowledgment. This is actually one of the few things that I’d say Rachel Vincent’s Shifters series does right. I wouldn’t recommend that series by any means – I found it largely boring with only the occasional actually intriguing plot occurrence – but I believe that the third book in the series, Pride, handled the depiction of a lycanthrope who inadvertently ate humans while out-of-control in animal form a lot better. Which is to say, it actually deals with it as the sort of traumatic event which might have consequences, rather than a throw-away line which is never mentioned again.

Eating children should not be something you just drop in passing. It should be, if not the revelation of the villain’s ultimate depths of depravity, at the very least be a major horrifying revelation (Pride) or else foreshadowing of a plot where Yuri Varkanin hunts the protagonist down for revenge (Overwinter by David Wellington – and look for a review of the Cheyenne Clark series to be posted sooner or later, because that was a damned good werewolf story).

Those points aside, though, the book is enjoyable enough to be a promising introduction to the series.

Final Rating: 3/5

The X-Files #6: Skin

This week in The X-Files licensed novels, a secret government conspiracy is creating supersoldiers… again! You know, if these supersoldiers really were as great as they were talked up to be, the government would be able to stick with a set instead of having to come up with a new type every other week. Lets take a look into Skin, by Ben Mezrich.

Synopsis:

When moonlighting medical students harvesting skin from a corpse for temporary use accidentally take it from the wrong donor, the results are catastrophic: a New York City hospital ward is destroyed in a bloodbath, and an elderly professor, admitted for a routine skin graft, is suddenly the city’s most wanted fugitive. Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully are the only ones to suspect something more ominous than a medical procedure gone awry. As the FBI agents investigating the “X-Files”-strange and inexplicable cases the bureau wants to keep hidden-Mulder and Scully are determined to track down the forces they suspect are behind the murders. While the police hunt the fleeing professor, Mulder and Scully track the skin that was grafted onto him, a trail that leads from the morgue to the headquarters of a cutting-edge biotech company to the jungles of Thailand. Together they begin to uncover an unholy and undeniable alliance between a battle-trained plastic surgeon, international politicians, and a legendary Thai monster known as the Skin Eater.

Source: the back of the book

(I know, normally I use the Goodreads description for the synopsis; but for some reason, the Goodreads entry for this book is in German. See for yourself)

SPOILERS BELOW

Another X-Files novel? Well, that can only mean one thing: a villain who gets away, leaving Scully and Mulder no evidence of the conspiracy. But despite the typically disappointing non-resolution, this one is actually a pretty fun read.

Like Goblins, this is a story about the government creating supersoldiers. Skin, however, takes that premise in a much more interesting direction: it focuses on Scully and Mulder attempting to unravel the greater conspiracy of who is creating these supersoldiers, and how. This makes the story feel much bigger than the mission to stop Goblins lone serial-killing supersoldier, with much higher stakes. In Goblins, the antagonist may be stated to be a supersoldier, but it still ultimately boils down to hunting a single murderer who just so happens to be the project of a supersoldier experiment. Skin also gives much more depth and background to the conspiracy, providing inspiration and motivation beyond “another generic government scientist decides to create another generic supersolider”. A doctor obsessed with treating burns decides to create the perfect synthetic skin by hunting down a legendary immortal Malaysian monster and harvesting its hide? Now that’s the basis of an interesting X-File.

Which is not to say the book is perfect. While I was willing to suspend my disbelief that Paladin had managed to secretly acquire hundreds of presumed-dead soldiers as experimental subjects, I had to roll my eyes at the discovery that he had in fact managed to accumulate a whole two thousand of them. That would imply that about 1 in 3 U.S. casualties of the Vietnam War did not actually die but were secretly conveyed to Paladin as test subjects – a little on the high side, if you ask me. I also couldn’t help but notice how awfully convenient it was that the two villains to die just so happened to suffer accidental but karmically-appropriate deaths: Quo Tien stumbling into an autoclave and being skinned (just like his victims!) and Paladin being burned in an explosion (just like the soldiers he used as test subjects!) This isn’t a Disney film where the heroes are forbidden to kill and so the villain must find a high precipice to accidentally stumble off of; Mulder and Scully are FBI agents who carry guns and are permitted to use them in self defense.

Thinking about it, I suppose it also counts as an ironically appropriate death that the original Skin Eater, which took victims’ skins in order to maintain its immortality, had its own skin stolen to grant immortality to others. How’s that for karma?

Final Rating: 3/5