Review: Hard Spell by Justin Gustainis

Hard Spell by Justin Gustainis
Hard Spell by Justin Gustainis

Hard Spell
Justin Gustainis
Angry Robot, 2011

The first thing that drew me to Justin Gustainis’ Hard Spell is the cover. The layout, title and art style are all explicitly designed to mimic that of Hard Case Crime, itself a recent imprint (founded in 2004) whose covers are known to mimic pulp covers of the 40s and 50s. Always on the lookout for clever use of the fantastic combined with pulpish fun Hard Spell quickly jumped to the top of my read list. While Gustainis has written several other novels in the Urban Fantasy vein this is my first foray with his work.
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Review: Ghost Story by Jim Butcher

Ghost Story by Jim Butcher
Ghost Story by Jim Butcher

Ghost Story (The Dresden Files #13)
Jim Butcher
Roc, 2011

Ghost Story, the thirteenth volume of The Dresden Files is the first that manages to shake the status quo up just a little bit. If you’ve read the blurb for Ghost Story and haven’t yet read Changes then you’ve already been somewhat spoiled. At the end of the last novel you know that everyone’s favorite wizard has been shot and, is in all likelihood, dead. Aftermath, seen in the Side Jobs collection, does a wonderful job of showing some of the aftershocks that occur after Harry’s demise and the change in the magical landscape resulting not only from Harry being MIA, but also due to his choices during Changes remains one of Ghost Story’s primary focuses.

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Some Thoughts on The Phantom Menace

So I, like a many a geek, have my shiny new blu-rays of Star Wars.  Last night I finally had a chance to sit down and watch the first of the prequels (in Pink Floyd’s words: “If you don’t eat yer meat, you can’t have any pudding. How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat yer meat?”, though I hesitate to call these films meat).  This isn’t a full review, just a collection of thoughts as I was watching the film.

I really like the opening 20 minutes or so.  In fact despite the Trade Federation’s silly accents the opening, while a slow burn compared to A New Hope, it is fairly solid.  Things are all well and good right up until we meat Jar Jar Binks.  I’m willing to support decisions that make the prequel films more accessible to younger audiences.  However, I’m not willing to admit that Jar Jar is actually a step in that direction.  He is neither cure nor funny and his constant muttering of “How rude!” is ripped straight out of Full House.

As the film opens the Trade Federation have set up a blockade on Naboo.  We never really know why.  At some point I think something is mentioned about trade route taxes.  Or does Naboo have some kind of export that is worthwhile?  Some have complained about the style of Naboo’s starships and weapons.  I rather like it.  It has a sleek retro-futuristic design that idealizes aesthetics over function.  I think its neat.

Jake Lloyd is about as solid an actor as Hayden Christianson.  Kudos for consistancy.  Between Lloyd and Portman age differences and Christianson’s non-existing acting skill I figure that casting department aught to have been fired.  I am, and always will be, a fan of age appropriate casting.  As things stand now it feels sort of like Anakin ends up banging his babysitter.

The Jedi are inconsistent and baffling.  First off, Padawan haircuts look like something you might see at a Lynard Skynard concert.  Qui-gon’s rebellious nature is mentioned more than once over the course of the film.  This isn’t a problem in and of itself but since this is the first time viewers are seeing organized Jedi there is little impact and no real way to differentiate Qui-gon’s methods with the rest of the Jedi.  There could have been some interesting sub-text here and I thought I got a hint that Qui-gon is sort of like the council’s bullyboy, otherwise the use of a fractious, rebellious Jedi in an obviously delicate situation makes no sense.  The Council’s decision to ignore Anakin on the basis of his fear is as noteworthy as it is baffling.  I get that they don’t want to risk his falling to the Dark Side but as the presence of the Sith is revealed it seems to me that leaving a potentially powerful force user running around untrained would be a seriously bad idea.

There is a lot made about Anakin’s potential to “bring balance to the force” but no one ever openly questions what that might mean.  The Expanded Universe does a better job about exploring that but in the films Lucas barely touches on the dangers of the Jedi’s hard-lined decision between good and bad sides of the force.  There is a sort of laconic arrogance to the Jedi Council, particularly in Sam Jackson’s performance, that felt extraordinarily galling.  Having read enough EU books before seeing this movie the revelation of midichlorians didn’t bother me.

Ian McDermind is awesome and that starts here.  His bald manipulation of Queen Amidala is wondrous to behold and his smarmy smile oozes devious charm.  Terrance Stamp is woefully underutilized.  The same can be said of Ewan McGregor.  I rather enjoy his performance in later films and his ability to mimic Alec Guinness is absolutely fantastic.  Unfortunately all he does here is sit around a lot.  The fight with Darth Maul is cool but I would have loved to have seen more use of force abilities.  Ray Park really owns as Darth Maul and that character wouldn’t really work without him.  As it is the lightsaber battles, starting here, in the prequels blue the staid, stiff combat of the original trilogy away.

The Droid Army is neat and the final battle with the Gungans is cool….up to a point.  The final moments of the battle with the Droid Army and Anakin’s fumbling in the Starfighter are the start of Lucas’ bumbling Benny Hill/Three Stooges homages that mar this film and the next.  Jar Jars bumbling attempt to escape and Anakin’s accidental success are precursor to the vaudevillian antics of C3PO and R2-D2 in the next film.

At its core The Phantom Menace is a solid film marred by poor and questionable decision making and unreachable levels of pre-release hype.  There is the skeleton of a good space-adventure film buried beneath the dross.  The blu-ray transfer of the film looks and sounds great.  There are some spots where the special effects of 1999, especially some of the CGI that is a bit glaringly obvious.  The new CGI Yoda actually looks really good and in truth better than some of the films original effects.  Williams score is as top-notch as ever.

Review: Hounded by Kevin Hearne

Hounded by Kevin Hearne
Hounded by Kevin Hearne

Hounded (The Iron Druid Chronicles)
Kevin Hearne
Del Rey, 2011

I am perhaps a little behind the times in taking a look at Kevin Hearne’s Hounded. I remember being excited by the initial buzz the title was receiving upon its release but for some reason shuffled it somewhere back into the deep recesses of my memory. Eventually I picked up the audiobook version via Audible and after several long weeks managed to finish it. This isn’t the fault of Hearne’s work merely the thousand other aural delights screaming for my attention combined with my own bizarre decision to only listen while running; truthfully a result of my utter failure to sync Audible apps across multiple portable devices). Yay, technology.

Hounded, with its urban fantasy vibe and male lead, is bound to be compared to Butcher’s Dresden Files but, in truth I’m not quite sure that comparison fits. Hounded stars ancient druid Atticus O’Sullivan who has long been hiding the magical sword Fragarach from the Celtic love god (and all around douche) Aengus Og. As the novel opens it becomes readily apparent that Aengus has once again tracked Atticus down and intends to recover the sword, no matter what. Needless to say this causes Atticus no end of trouble and Hearne deftly navigates his hero through a veritable circus of gods, demons, mythological, and mystical beings of every stripe.

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Review: My Soul to Take by Yrsa Sigurdsdottir

My Soul to Take by Yrsa Sigurdardottir
My Soul to Take by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

My Soul to Take
Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Harper, 2010

Scandinavian mysteries seem to be popping up quite frequently these days. Arnaldur Indridason, Asa Larsson, Helen Tursten, and Yrsa Sigurdardottir represent the vanguard of this Scandinavian invasion. Coming across Sigurdardottir’s My Soul to Take here at the library I decided that I brief respite from my typical genre reading was in order. Subtitled as “a novel of Iceland” My Soul to Take is an engaging mystery with numerous twists and turns that constantly keep readers guessing.

My Soul to Take is the second novel to feature attorney Thora Gudmundsdottir (after Last Rituals). The novel opens with Thora’s client Jonas, a superstitious New Age type, calling her to ask for assistance in determining if he has any legal grounds to contest the purchase of a farm on the grounds that it is haunted. Thora, who reluctantly agrees, arrives at the farm turned hotel just in time for the murder of Jonas’ architect Birna. Birna’s death sends Thora on a whirlwind investigation to discover the killer.

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Review: The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker

The Hellbound Heart
The Hellbound Heart

The Hellbound Heart
Clive Barker
Penguin, 2007

While for a student of history or religion the term cenobite might have one meaning, but for those who have devoured a steady stream of horror films it has a whole different meaning. When I hear the term cenobite I do not immediately think of a member of a religious order but instead flashed to the mutilated forms foisted upon my psyche (likely at far too young an age) by the film Hellraiser. Those cenobites, members of the Order of Gash summoned by the Lament Configuration, that iconic puzzle box designed Phillip Lemarchand (or rather Simon Sayce in the world outside the fiction), are truly horrific sights twisted by their exploration of the outer and distant extremes of pleasure and pain. It apparently escaped my notice that their original incarnation was in text rather than film. Their appearance, and that of the puzzle box, so linked to the medium of film that I never really thought to ferret out if there was some sort of source material.

So when I stumbled across a copy of the 2007 reprint of The Hellbound Heart not too long ago I was surprised and excited (which probably says something about myself I’d rather not linger on) to get home and get reading. Much to my surprise Clive Barker’s novella was rather faithfully adapted in the film Hellraiser, which makes sense given that it was both written and directed by its author. And I also found that the source material doesn’t work quite as well as the film. It is difficult to say how I would fell if I had read the novella before the seeing the film. What I read on the page is so directly linked to the images of cenobites seen over many films that separating those images from the text is near impossible.

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Locke and Key Double-Shot

Locke and Key Volume 3
Locke and Key Volume 3
Locke and Key Volume 4
Locke and Key Volume 4

Locke and Key: Crown of Shadows (Volume 3)
Locke and Key: Keys to the Kingdom (Volume 4)
Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
IDW, 2011

While on vacation a couple of a weeks ago I stepped into a bookshop in Portsmouth, NH and while trying my very hardest to keep my hands jammed deep into my pockets and away from the shelves none-the-less noted the hardcover editions of volumes 3 and 4 of Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriquez’s Locke & Key (signed by Hill) sitting on a display.  My will was weak and in a near haze I found myself forking over a portion of my cash to the bookseller.  My regret was minimal however as the third and fourth volumes of Locke and Key, Crown of Shadows and Keys to the Kingdom, are just as solid as the first two and I would say (surprising as it was) even better than I expected.

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Review: The Dead-Tossed Waves by Carrie Ryan

The Dead-Tossed Waves by Carrie Ryan
The Dead-Tossed Waves by Carrie Ryan

The Dead-Tossed Waves
Carrie Ryan
March, 2010
The Dead-Tossed Waves is Carrie Ryan’s follow up to the lyrical and moving The Forest of Hands and Teeth. Like the first novel The Dead-Tossed Wavesis about growing up in post-apocalyptic community constantly threatened by the presence of zombies. The novel follows Gabry and young girl in the coastal village of Vista. Vista is something of an insular community despite being under the protection of the Coalition and as a result the current generation of young adults knows next to nothing about the world before the Return. The Mudo, the zombies, are a constant threat but one so pervasive that the danger of the presence has engendered complacency rather than caution and a sort of callousness, or perhaps willful ignorance, as to the full impact of the undead presence. It is that complacency that serves as the gateway for the tragedy that propels the rest of the novel forward and sends Gabry on the run.

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