Monday, July 29, 2013

DRAGON WING by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

Dragon Wing is a 1990 fantasy novel by Dragonlance core authors Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, and the first in the seven-volume Death Gate Cycle. Here, in one of four realms created following the apocalyptic sundering of the earth, an assassin is hired by the king to kill the prince, a dwarf works for social reform among his people, and the vanguard of a powerful, long-imprisoned race foments discord while searching for his erstwhile captors.

In Dragon Wing, Weis and Hickman have taken the old, worn blocks of fantasy fiction – elves, dwarves, dragons, wizards – and constructed something very interesting. The vertical world of Arianus is imaginative in terms of both its geography and its denizens. Yes, a number of characters wander too far into caricature at times, and if the evil wizard had a mustache, he would twirl it every chance he got, but the protagonists feel natural: there are no real heroes, only people with conflicting agendas, and for the most part, their arcs are well handled (although in the interest of time, Limbeck’s arc falls rather by the wayside at the end in a manner the reader may find disappointing).  

This lack of an obvious hero (apart from Limbeck) gives the book suspense and uncertainty, and the authors use it to good advantage, as the plot takes several nice turns. Dragon Wing also shows evidence of a well-thought-out magic system, which is vital to fantasy of this sort.  

While Dragon Wing does a lot of obvious setup for the rest of the series, it also works well as a stand-alone novel (in fact, the protagonist of the series doesn’t appear until page 120, and is never more than a supporting character). The world building – and there’s a fair amount of it – is never unduly expository. There are footnotes, an appendix, and sheet music, but most of the backstory and setup are incorporated naturally into the story itself (given the inclusion of four distinct worlds in this series, the authors are forced to paint much of Arianus with broad strokes and vignettes, but it suffices).  

In the end, while it has some rough edges, Dragon Wing amounts to considerably more than the sum of its parts. It’s immersive and cleverly done, and it practically begs further reading of the series.  


Monday, July 22, 2013

STAR TREK: LOG FIVE by Alan Dean Foster

Star Trek: Log Five (1975) includes three TV-script-to-novella adaptations by Alan Dean Foster based on episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series: “The Ambergris Element,” “Pirates of Orion,” and “Jihad.” Here, Kirk and Spock get turned into fish people, Spock contracts a terminal illness, and an inter-species task force seeks to prevent a war.

Filling this many pages with stories from half-hour teleplays has been a challenge throughout this series, but here, Foster does a quality job of expanding and adding to these episodes in interesting ways. Foster opens, for example, with ten pages of backstory on M’ress; while this doesn’t make for the most fluid narrative (she doesn’t feature in any of the stories), it’s interesting enough. And Foster’s detailed descriptions give these exotic settings far more depth than the Filmation cartoon ever could.

The stories themselves aren’t phenomenal – “The Ambergris Element” is meandering, yet fairly predictable, and the reveal at the end of “Jihad” is underdeveloped, but Foster really gets the most out of his material here, and the pacing never gets too bad.

We also get the usual silliness and un-Trek-isms from Foster. We’ve got Scotty calling McCoy “Bones,” Spock using contractions and, more egregiously, such imprecisions as “a minute or so,” Kirk’s got a trash can built into his chair, and the Enterprise doesn’t seem to have a second science officer or navigator on board.   

In short, it’s nothing wonderful, but Star Trek: Log Five is certainly one of the more readable books in the Log series.


Monday, July 15, 2013

ANOMALY by Krista McGee

Anomaly is a 2013 young adult science fiction novel by Krista McGee. Here, in a post-apocalyptic eugenics lab, a girl is singled out for execution because she experiences emotions.

Anomaly is reminiscent of a number of books and films, including The Hunger Games, The Island, and THX 1138. The problem is not that Anomaly ever feels too derivative, but that it never really carves out its own niche. A little more setting and world building would have gone a long way toward making the book more immersive and giving it a distinct identity.

Anomaly follows all the traditions established by The Hunger Games for the currently popular female-protagonized dystopian young adult sci fi genre, no matter how forced, such as writing in the first-person present tense and including the obligatory two love interests, regardless of how believable. This doesn’t help Anomaly’s quest for identity, either.

Anomaly turns out to be an overtly Christian book, and McGee does a nice job of presenting the Gospel accurately and exploring faith in the face of death. Unfortunately, the Gospel presentation itself feels forced, like McGee has an agenda, and this contrivance saps meaning from Thalli’s obviously inevitable conversion.

Contrivance, which turns out to be widespread throughout the book, is Anomaly’s biggest problem. Things happen because McGee needs them to happen, perhaps leading the reader to ask things like “Why on earth don’t they ever lock Thalli’s door?” “Why doesn’t anybody seem to care that she has constant access to John?” and “Who the heck is responsible for the cameras around here?” (never mind questions like “Why do they call them ‘the Ancients’ when this is like two generations later and at least one is still alive?” and “Why don’t they ever kiss?”).

Complicating this criticism, however, is the fact that McGee tries to address nearly all these contrivances in the last few pages. It’s a nice try at getting away with it, I guess, but it’s pretty unsatisfying, it may make the reader wonder at just how oblivious these characters are, and it really doesn’t have the air of competence about it.

There are other issues. McGee’s writing is at a lower level than one typically expects from this genre: there are a lot of simple, see-Dick-run sentences, and it doesn’t help that Thalli is a master of stating the obvious or that everyone talks to her like she’s a little child (which may be necessary for the character but is grating for the reader). The general lack of contractions in speech makes for some stilted dialogue (but these test-tube kids do use them every now and then), and McGee has a tendency to go back and forth between the past and present tenses in an awkward way.

Thalli herself is just too passive to be a compelling protagonist, as by and large, she’s acted upon by various other characters, clueless, led here and there by their actions. No, the real protagonist of Anomaly is Berk, who perpetually risks both his life and career to act on behalf of Thalli. But he remains on the sideline as a supporting character, appearing when needed to save the day or advance the plot.  

Anomaly is a book I wanted to like, and I take no pleasure in giving it a bad review. But the volume of contrivance and the quality of the writing are deal-breakers.


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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, July 8, 2013


Thrilling Tom the Dancing Bug Stories is a 2004 collection of Ruben Bolling’s weekly Tom the Dancing Bug cartoons.

Tom the Dancing Bug is still the finest in clever, straight-faced satire, and this collection is over 200 pages – three times as long as either of the previous collections. And, like those it’s not a complete collection for any given period. Nevertheless, most all the classic features are here – God-Man, News of the Times, Did You Know? – but we need more Super-Fun-Pak Comix.

There’s a lot more overtly political content here than in either of the previous collections; the majority is post-9/11 anti-Bush material, although Bolling isn’t afraid to stick it to the left here and there. Bolling is spot-on in most of these comics, but they do feel dated now. Never fear, though, there’s plenty of non-political material here, too, and the gems of this sort are the ones that have aged best. Bolling covers his usual wide array of topics, and he also displays an impressive degree of baseball savvy.

It’s not comprehensive, but Thrilling Tom the Dancing Bug Stories is a fantastic collection.


Monday, July 1, 2013


He-Man and the Masters of the Universe #1-3 (DC) are written by Keith Giffen and illustrated by Pop Mhan. Here, the Evil Horde, led by Despara (Adora) invades Eternia.

The murderous rampage of an unstoppable Horde army is a compelling plot – if we could ever focus on it. But Giffen’s focus is always on the Most Powerful Bickering in the Universe! Just like in the miniseries, Giffen feeds us page after page of inane banter and petty bickering between Yellow Cross He-Man and Teela (in issue #2, it’s page 7 before we get a meaningful line of dialogue). This is certainly annoying in its own right, but it’s particularly bad in juxtaposition to Randor’s high fantasy speechifying. Giffen might not be able to deliver a compelling twist, cliffhanger, or narrative, but he is the undisputed king of immature sarcasm.

We’re also sticking with the no-secret-identity business, which is idiotic for a number of reasons, including the fact that Adam still runs off to transform (because he “needs space”? Seriously?) and, most egregiously, that there’s no reason for him to ever be Adam for any reason.

The problems mount. In #2, we get a cynical exchange between Randor and Yellow Cross He-Man about the unlikelihood of some of the characters, and in addition to making no sense in the context of the story, it absolutely shatters the reader’s suspension of disbelief. We also get some pretty severe Mekaneck-bashing, which is both in poor taste and too easy. It’s obvious that Giffen has not bought in to this franchise. To that, I say: Jesus, man, stop bitching about what you have to work with and tell us a story. We know Mekaneck is lame; stop telling us what we’ve known since 1984 and maybe try to do something about it.    

There’s still no development of any of the supporting characters. Roboto gets some significant screen time in #3, but he talks just like everybody else. And here we come to the foundational problem of these comics: Giffen has swept away decades of backstory and characterization, but made only a perfunctory effort to replace them. There is, therefore, no foundation upon which to relate to any of these characters or to care about what happens to them.  

If all of this isn’t enough evidence that Giffen is the absolute wrong writer for the job, there’s also the part where Teela randomly strips to her underwear in front of everybody for absolutely no reason.

On a more positive note, I’m okay with Pop Mhan as the regular artist for this series. His work generally ranges from competent to above average, and even if the backgrounds can be as scanty as Teela’s outfit, it’s the consistency – which was missing from the miniseries – that makes the difference. There are some nice touches with the design, too, as various buildings, characters, and vehicles hearken back to either the Filmation series or the 200X series. To that I say: the more, the better. But while we’re on the subject of the art, why on earth are Skeletor’s minions on the cover of #2?

One more thing. Here’s the alternate cover to issue #1, the one I got from my DC subscription:

That’s right, it’s an ad, complete with the website where you can buy all those toys. It’s terrible. It’s shameful. It’s insulting. It’s the new DC.

In conclusion, then, Giffen isn’t really hammering the square peg into the round hole any better than he did with the miniseries. You just can’t trust him with this property, nor should you. Just because these comics are slightly less terrible than the miniseries doesn’t mean they’re worthwhile.