Alien: River of Pain

January 31, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

riverAlien: River of Pain by Christopher Golden

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This is the third book in the so-called Canonical Alien Trilogy, which ties in with the first two movies in the series. Out of the Shadows covered the time between Alien and AliensSea of Sorrows covered the time two-hundred years after Aliens, and River of Pain covers the time just before Aliens. Specifically, it covers the formation of Hadley’s Hope, the colony on LV426 where all the devastation before the movie takes place.

Interestingly, fans of the movie who watched the extended director’s cut of the movie will already be familiar with some of the details in this book. Golden uses dialogue and scenes straight out of the material that was cut for the theatrical release, as well as using material from uncut scenes. He blends it together to make the book more like an Expanded Universe book for the Alien franchise, telling us more about Newt and her family. It works well, namely because Golden’s characterization skills are good.

By the time Ripley and the Marines arrive on LV426, Newt is the only remaining survivor of the colony after the aliens got loose in the compound, so all the characters Golden creates are new. Newt is the focus of the story, but we also learn about her brother and her parents and all her friends in the colony. Colonial Marines are present in the story, too, which is a revelation, as they’re not mentioned as having a presence in the movie. The strongest relationship in the book exists between Newt and Captain Brackett, a new arrival to the colony and the new CO for the Marines.

The thing is, in order for the book to fit in with Aliens, we know everyone has to die by the end, and we know more or less how it happened. Golden does a good job of giving us more to care about — Captain Brackett has his hands full bringing his marines back under his control and dealing with rogues, for one — but in the end we know it’s going to end poorly for almost everyone involved. This was an issue with Out of the Shadows, too, but I think it works better here because we can flow straight from this story to Aliens to get the full extent of the book. After finishing the book, I re-watched the movie, and I think it helped form my opinion of the book.

I think it’s safe to say that anyone reading this book is already familiar enough with Aliens to get the most out of it. Folks who aren’t familiar with the movie might be confused, and see the ending as a let-down, but seriously, who’s going to be reading this book if they aren’t already a fan? Like me, folks who read this will segue straight into watching the movie again, and that’s the right way to do it. Just make sure to watch the director’s cut to get the most out of the story as possible.

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Honor

January 30, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Quotes) (, )

“… he had learned that sometimes there was no safe path, no decisions from which one could emerge unscathed. In those cases, he had been taught to take the path of honor, even if it led to pain or death.”

–Christopher Golden, Alien: River of Pain

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The Ghoul King

January 27, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

ghoulThe Ghoul King by Guy Haley

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The Ghoul King follows the adventures of Quinn, the Knight granted his position by the Angels, a race of beings that not only rule the devastated wastelands of the United States, but also might be the ones who caused it. Like The Emperor’s Railroad, the story is not told from his perspective, but is instead related to us through someone who accompanied him on the adventure. The story isn’t told strictly from his perspective, though; a beginning and ending chapter give us additional information about Quinn and the world he protects, and we start to see some of what lies behind the complex structure of religion and science that populates these novellas.

The Emperor’s Railroad gave us a post-apocalyptic story with zombies, and The Ghoul King gives us another post-apocalyptic story, this time with vampires. In neither case is the story about the creatures; instead, they’re about this future and how it came about. In the first novella, Haley hints at these Angels as not being as supernatural as the citizens believe, even though we see things that aren’t natural. The Ghoul King follows that same setup, but we start to see more of what lies behind the Angels, and we start to get a clearer picture of just how this world came to be.

Also like the previous novella, Haley spends a good chunk of the story building his world, but not at the cost of the story. We get bits and pieces of what’s happened here as we travel with Quinn on his adventure, but only when it’s relevant to the story. In The Ghoul King, much of that detail has to do with what came before the apocalypse and how it affects the world they’re living in now. We still don’t have all the answers, but I suspect that will be forthcoming in future novellas.

Anyone who enjoyed The Emperor’s Railroad shouldn’t hesitate to start on The Ghoul King. It follows the story Haley began in that novella without being a retread of the entire story, and it gives us further insight into Quinn as a character. These two novellas are rich and detailed, and it makes me look forward to the next story in this sequence. It’s just a shame I have no idea how long it will be before I can read the next one.

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Alien: Sea of Sorrows

January 26, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads)

sorrowsAlien: Sea of Sorrows by James A. Moore

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After listening to the production of Tim Lebbon’s Alien: Out of the Shadows, I decided to read the rest of the so-called canonical trilogy, since they supposedly tied in with the four movies. Out of the Shadows wasn’t great, but neither was it terrible, and I figured that I like the Alien movies well enough (the first three, at least) to see what others could bring to the canon. If nothing else, it would be like an Expanded Universe for another set of my favorite movies.

Sea of Sorrows picks up about 300 years after the events of Aliens, and takes us back to the world that was featured in Out of the Shadows — LV178. It’s not quite a rehash of that book, but there are certainly some retreads as a new group of freelance marines and a later generation of Weyland-Yutani executives clash in how to handle the threat of the xenomorphs. Much of the action will be familiar, since we (a) know the aliens and their physiology, (b) know that Weyland-Yutani sees capturing the xenomorphs as a prime directive, with any crew being expendable, and (c) know that most everyone will be dead before the end of the story. Morrow at least concludes the story in a different way than expected, and tells the events well, but it feels like a mix of Alien and Aliens without being nearly as good as either movie.

The main problem is the action is very visual, and the aliens themselves are better seen than described. Anyone reading the book will know what the aliens look like, but the book feels like it would make a better movie than a book. Even then, the events are too similar to events that have already been told in the movies, so making a movie would be redundant. In addition, the characters don’t feel fully realized, so we don’t feel the same sense of loss and sacrifice that we did with the characters in the first two movies. Save for one moment of courage near the middle of the book, there weren’t enough moments when I found I cared about what happened to the characters

The story also suffers by having the main character an empath who can pick up on others’ emotions. (This isn’t a spoiler; it’s covered in the first two chapters.) The Alien movies are strictly science fiction, and while it’s not without the realm of possibility for empaths to develop in the future, it’s never been something that’s been a part of that universe. Even when you consider Alien: Resurrection (which I don’t; people have a lot of hate for Alien3, but I save all of mine for the fourth movie), Ripley’s empathic abilities there are due to her being a clone of Ripley and the alien, so there’s no precedent for empaths in that universe.

The story is entertaining enough, but nothing necessary. That it’s set so far in the future makes its connection to the movies tenuous, and it doesn’t add anything to the universe to make it worthwhile. Hardcore fans will probably like it, but like me, they might just wind up wanting to go back and watch the movies after reading it.

Fortunate Musical Connection: “Sea of Sorrow” by Alice in Chains

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The Emperor’s Railroad

January 25, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

railroadThe Emperor’s Railroad by Guy Haley

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The Tor novella series has been pretty reliable this year. I haven’t liked all the ones I’ve read, but of the ones I did like, I liked them quite a bit. I’m usually hesitant to read shorter works, since I don’t always feel like they have enough time to develop plots and characters enough, but I also believe that a work should only be as long as necessary, and they’ve hit that mark well. The Emperor’s Railroad is another good one.

The novella is set in the future of our world, after a world war has devastated enough of the world to knock us back into a Medieval era. There are remnants of the world before — the roads are no longer there, but the tunnels and cuts through the mountains remain as clear signs of the roads — but most of them are gone. The best technology available is steam technology, but even then, its use is seen as blasphemy by many. There’s a religion based around Angels who caused the devastation, and punish the living with dragons and the undead. This future world is also overrun with zombies, though this is far from being a zombie story.

The story centers on Quinn, a Knight who was put in service by the Angels. Most are dead, so Quinn is a relic of sorts, and he takes on an assignment to get a mother and her son through the wastelands so they can start a new life with a cousin. The story is told from the son’s perspective as he retells the story far in the future when he’s an old man, but Haley doesn’t skimp on the details because of that.

The bulk of the novella is in the world-building. He tells us the state of the world and how the religion has developed from the devastation, through events as they happen in the story. The son, the mother, and the Knight are all fully realized characters, but it’s their actions that tell us about this world. Haley also doesn’t overlook a plot through all of this, though, as what compels us to read the story is whether or not the son makes it to the city. It’s a perfect blend of plot and development.

The downside is that the bulk of the story is the world-building, tantalizing us with hints of a larger story that we won’t get in this brief book. There’s a second volume in this series already published (which I will definitely be reading), and I can see many more following if Haley continues it. I expect he will, since even two novellas doesn’t seem like enough space to tell everything about this world.

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The Life and Legend of Obi-Wan Kenobi

January 24, 2017 at 11:50 am (Reads) (, , )

obiwanThe Life and Legend of Obi-Wan Kenobi by Ryder Windham

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When I went through to add the juvenile books to my Expanded Universe reading project, I got a little picky in which books to include. I wanted books that did more than just retell the stories of the movies, or were too, too basic, so I didn’t add the early reader books or the character journals or the junior novelizations to my list. I figured I was looking for new content, not retellings, and I left those out all together.

The Life and Legend of Obi-Wan Kenobi, though, is mostly retellings. Windham admits this in his foreword, telling us that the bulk of the story is taken from other sources, like A New Hope, the NPR radio plays, and even Kenobi. On the one hand, I understand why he’s pulling from all these sources — together, they make up the life and legend of Obi-Wan — but on the other hand, I already knew most of these details. It reminded me that these books are intended for a different audience, and this book especially isn’t intended for readers already familiar with the Expanded Universe.

There is some new detail to this book which I found to be helpful. The prequels put in details that didn’t make sense when viewed against the original trilogy, like Obi-Wan not recognizing R2-D2 and acting like Darth Vader is someone other than Anakin Skywalker. With this book, Windham tells us that scene from the perspective of Obi-Wan, giving us his thoughts as to how he reacted and responded to all that. In his mind, he was still trying to keep Luke safe from the Empire, and he thought that giving him the information from a “certain point of view” was the best way to do it. It’s a small thing, and still doesn’t answer all the questions, but it was at least something new to the story.

The book is well-written and does a good job of pulling together all the details of Obi-Wan’s life, but I don’t see it as a necessary read, save for someone who is new to the Expanded Universe. Even then, with the new canon, a lot of the details may be rewritten later, so I’m not sure it would be useful for anyone save those who are completionists. If nothing else, it’s a quick, easy, entertaining read.

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Robert Asprin’s Myth-fits

January 23, 2017 at 11:38 am (Reads) (, , )

fitsRobert Asprin’s Myth-fits by Jody Lynn Nye

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If Myth-quoted gave me hope for the new Myth Adventure books written solely by Nye, Myth-fits cemented that hope. Like its predecessor, the book has a better focus, shows more character progression, and feels more like the books published during the series’ heyday in the 1980s than the books that were co-written by the two authors. It definitely helps that the gang is all together again, and that they’re all written from Skeeve’s perspective.

With Myth-fits, the gang is hired to help find the Loving Cup, a magical cup that makes people agree and come to peace with each other. Aahz is hired by an ambassador who needs it for peace talks in his dimension, and their quest takes them to a resort dimension where, for only three gold pieces a day, they can have anything they want. Early on, they realize they can just ask customer assistance for the Loving Cup, but of course it can’t be that easy.

Though the book is an improvement, it’s still not perfect. There’s a lengthy dimensional aside near the beginning of the book that’s significant, but not revisited except in passing near the end of the book. It could be that this dimension will be significant in future books (hints dropped in Myth-quoted are realized in Myth-fits, so there’s a precedent), but it felt a little out of place. It fits the part of the story at first, but given how important it felt to the characters and story, I kept expecting it to play into the larger plot.

Overall, though, these last two books have convinced me to keep reading this series as new books are published. This didn’t feel like a final book, so I’m assuming there are more to come, but it may be a while before we see the next one. Myth-fits was published just this year, and four years passed between Myth-quoted and this book.

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Robert Asprin’s Myth-quoted

January 20, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

quotedRobert Asprin’s Myth-quoted by Jody Lynn Nye

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Here we begin the first of the Myth Adventures books written without Robert Asprin. Based on some interviews I’ve read with Nye, the books she’s written by herself are based on ideas and plots she created with Asprin, but the writing from here on out is all Nye. Given the shaky plots and structures of the co-written books, I wasn’t holding out a lot of hope, but this book pleasantly surprised me. I can’t overlook my lowered expectations affecting my feelings, but it at least featured a more conventional plot than the last seven books.

With Myth-quoted, the series moves into the world of politics, when the M.Y.T.H. Inc. gang (all back together, woo hoo!) are hired by two competing politicians in another dimension who want them to ensure that the election is fair. The reason for this is these two politicians have been running against each other for five years, since they keep delaying the election over what they see as underhanded manipulations every time they get closer to the election day. Once Skeeve and the crew get involved, though, they discover the interference runs much deeper than they first anticipated.

A lot of factors contributed to this being better than the other co-written books. Having the crew back together again definitely helps, as did the usual antics that went along with all of them trying to work a job. It felt much more focused than, say, Myth-gotten Gains, and had a standard progression of character and plot that made much more sense. It still doesn’t reach the levels of Asprin’s early books, but it’s at least a step back in the right direction. I was a little surprised to see the books improve with Asprin’s departure; considering that Nye was the new element to the co-written books, I had expected her influence to be what caused the problems. Then again, the best thing that ever happened to the Star Wars universe was to get Lucas away from it, so it shouldn’t be that surprising.

To say reading this book when I did was timely is an understatement; if only we in the US had a system where we could halt or postpone an election over illegalities and interference with the process. At least I have this kind of fiction to serve as a distraction over the next year. And longer.

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The Christmas Spirit

January 19, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

spirit“The Christmas Spirit” by Brian James Freeman

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This seasonal short story was provided free by Cemetery Dance as a Christmas present for their customers. I can’t pass up free, especially when it will only take a few minutes to read, and it’s from Cemetery Dance. It has to be good and creepy, right?

Well, not always. This story is about a family who embraces Christmas, and this is the year they plan to win the neighborhood decoration contest. The main character is described as someone who had a rough time as a younger man, but who has embraced life and positivity thanks to a kind stranger who gave him a button at his darkest point that reads, “Remember the reason for the season!” He does (he still wears that button, in fact), so the beginning of the story comes off as a bit preachy. By the end, we realize he’s playing with us, but it was a bit off-putting at first.

Freeman does a decent job of setting up the expectations for the story before turning it on its head, but nothing else about the story makes it worthwhile. There’s zero characterization here. The characters are broadly drawn, and are described more than they’re presented. The family is an idyllic one, but we don’t know that through their interactions; we know that because Freeman tells us so.

The ending is sudden, and feels rushed, and it seems overly graphic. I think Freeman was trying to create a dichotomy between the pleasant Christmas season and the violent end of the story, but it felt forced to me. It felt like a bad episode of The Twilight Zone, and I can see this being a perfect story for the show, but as a story, it doesn’t make much of an impression.

Sure, the story is free, but it’s not really worth the time. Freeman can capture atmosphere well, but this story feels like an outline for a larger work and not a story in and of itself. Skip it.

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Black Hat Jack

January 18, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

jackBlack Hat Jack by Joe R. Lansdale

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Lansdale gives us another straight-up western, told in the usual Lansdale style. That means it’s crass and profane, though that shouldn’t stop anyone from reading it. Crass and profane is what you should expect from a Lansdale story, unless it’s written for the young’uns.

Nat Love has been a subject of interest for Lansdale for a long time, according to the afterword of this novella. He’s been working on the book that became Paradise Sky for over thirty years, because he’s felt like blacks in the Old West haven’t been given their due. Of course, the story is fiction, but Lansdale draws on enough history to flesh out the story. Aside from using Nat Love as his narrator, Lansdale also uses the Second Battle of Adobe Walls as its main plot. He brings in enough facts to satisfy the historians, and enough action to keep his story humming along. And hum it does.

Thematically, the story focuses on the brutalities that Native Americans performed on whites, but Nat acknowledges that the whites did the same to Native Americans, as well as to blacks. Toward the end, Lansdale gives us a piece of Texas history, showing how black men, even those who fought against Native Americans and saved white men and women on the way, are mistrusted and treated like animals. He also draws a divide between white and black society during that time, and shows how white people can talk and act big when they’re outside of their own group, but clam up when they’re back inside. It’s a sad take, but it makes the story more than just a shoot-’em-up western; as usual, Lansdale has something to say outside of telling us his story.

Of all the Lansdale novellas I’ve read lately, this is the best of the bunch. Without bringing up the thematic elements at the end, it would have been just another Lansdale story (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but by doing so, he elevates it above that. It touches on what made Sunset and Sawdust such a fine novel, which makes me want to read Paradise Sky as soon as possible. If he can do it in a novella, I can’t wait to see what he can do with an entire book.

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