Review of “I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land” by Connie Willis

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This is a speculative fiction novelette released by Subterranean Press in April of 2018. It runs 88 pages. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Connie Willis, she is an old hand at SFF, a multi-award winner and New York Times Bestseller. This review contains spoilers.

Jim is in New York City to make contacts for a book about the uselessness of nostalgia for obsolete technology. He does a radio interview where he gets in an argument with the host about how this applies to books. On the way to a meeting with a Random House editor, Jim is caught in a terrible rainstorm and ducks into a shop for rare books called Ozymandias Books. Although the store seems small, it opens into a storage area where Jim looks through the collection and eventually gets lost. He is rescued by a busy clerk and hurriedly catches a taxi for his appointment. When he tries to find the shop again later, he can’t.

“Ozymandias” is a Percy Bysshe Shelley sonnet from 1817 about great works that crumble and disappear. That states the story’s theme pretty clearly, about how we’re in danger of losing the body of knowledge contained in out-of-print books, now generally dumped in the landfill because they’re replaced by electronic media. Willis is excellent at creating entertaining characters and making things go wrong, and her work is always entertaining to read.

On the not so great side, nothing happens here. Jim leaves his interview, walks around, ducks into the store, looks at the books, leaves, and then can’t find the shop again. That’s it. It could have been a piece of flash fiction, but instead it’s been padded out to 88 pages. I was left feeling this is pretty empty.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Netflix’s Daredevil Season 3

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This MCU show premiered on Netflix in October of 2018, produced by Marvel Television in association with ABC Studios, with Erik Oleson as the showrunner. Principal stars include Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock, Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page, Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson, Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk/Kingpin and Wilson Bethel as Poindexter/Bullseye. This review contains spoilers.

Daredevil is thought to have been killed in a building collapse (see The Defenders review), but a badly injured Matt washes out of the city storm sewer and is found by a passer-by. He refuses to be taken to the hospital, and takes sanctuary at Clinton Church, where Father Lantom places him with Sister Maggie, back in the orphanage where Matt grew up. He makes a slow recovery, emotionally, physically and spiritually, and eventually starts going out as a vigilante again. Results are poor at first, but as he gets stronger, he finds that Fisk is gaining power again as an organized crime boss. Convincing the FBI he is a valuable informant, Fisk has moved into a penthouse apartment in Manhattan where he gives out enough information to eliminate other crime bosses, while working to establish a new protection racket. He subverts the agents guarding him, including Nadeem and the psychopathic Poindexter. Meanwhile, Foggy Nelson is still working at his job with a new firm and Karen Page has taken a position as a reporter for The Bulletin. The two of them continue to pay the rent on Matt’s apartment, but they are losing hope that he’s still alive. After Fisk’s release hits the papers, Foggy is surprised by a sudden encounter with Matt, who steals his wallet and uses the IDs to gain entrance to Fisk’s prison. He is identified and manages to escape, but is intercepted by a taxi driven by Fisk’s man and plunged off a dock into the river. He escapes there, too, and when Fisk sends the FBI to get him, they find only wet clothes in a pile on the floor of Matt’s apartment. Foggy and Karen insist that they need to work through the law, and Matt joins them to try to find witnesses to turn on Fisk. The stakes continue to rise, as Fisk gains more power and outfits Poindexter with a fake Daredevil suit to make trouble for the trio. Eventually Matt decides that the law won’t prevail, and that he needs to kill Fisk. He misses once because Fisk has Page cornered at the church, but with Karen safe, he crashes Fisk’s wedding with his love Vanessa in order to try again. Confronted with the dark Daredevil, Matt has to make a final decision about how his life will go.

So, this season is absolutely brilliant. Completely reduced by events, Matt Murdock has to totally rebuild his life from nothing. He lurks around in a parka and a baseball cap, and he’s back to basic black for his vigilante work. He’s got no friends, no ID, no money, and depends on charity at the church to eat. He’s haunted by his father’s ghost, his missing mother, an ephemeral Fisk, and a fake, sneering, evil Daredevil that’s exactly what he could become. However, he’s shed Matt’s disability, too—now he’s just himself. In this season, the black of his mask is relieved by a touch of white lining, though at the end we see a red edge peeking out from under his tee-shirt. On the action side, Matt’s escape from the prison is pretty awesome, and all shot in one take. Plus, in the unrelieved grimness of the series so far, suddenly this season presents some completely hilarious moments.

Check it out on Netflix. Five stars.

Review of Netflix’s Daredevil Season 1

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This MCU show premiered on Netflix in April of 2015, produced by Marvel Television in association with ABC Studios, DeKnight Productions and Goddard Textiles. Steven S. DeKnight served as the showrunner. Principal stars are Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock, Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page, Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson, and Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk/Kingpin. This review contains spoilers.

Matt Murdock is the blind, orphan son of a dead boxer in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC, and Foggy Nelson is the son of a local butcher. Matt and Foggy graduate from law school together, form a partnership and set up a law practice on their old home turf. One of their first cases is defending a woman named Karen Page from murder charges, as she has been found in her apartment covered with blood, leaning over a dead co-worker. They are later approached by a man named Wesley to defend another questionable client, and with info from this case and from Karen about bookkeeping at the company Union Allied, they start to make connections about local organized crime. They hire Page as an office manager/legal assistant and begin investigating. Matt was blinded by a toxic waste spill in a car accident when he was a child, and after his father was killed by organized crime, the orphanage staff brought in an old martial arts expert, also blind, to help him cope. Matt learned how to compensate with unusually sharp senses, and unknown to Foggy and Karen, starts to work as a vigilante at night to take care of problems the law can’t reach. Local residents begin calling him the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. When Foggy finds out about the extralegal activity, the two have a huge fight that endangers the practice, but they manage to bring down crime boss Fisk regardless.

The strongest of Marvel’s superheroes are that way because of how Marvel creators connect with the murky symbolism of the ID. That’s one of the things that makes Daredevil hard to carry off, but also makes it resonate. Matt’s blindness and his search for a moral compass in a complex world where good and evil intertwine is the heart of this show. He channels his rage at the world’s injustice into his nightly endeavors, while seeking the counsel of his local priest by day.

This show looks expensive because it is—the creators have been given artistic license. It spends huge amounts of time in character development and suspense, as we watch Fisk linger over his morning omelet and follow Matt’s difficult childhood. There is also a constant stream of imagery featuring blood, fire, hell and the devil. The award-winning opening sequence paints blind justice, the city and Daredevil’s mask all with red. Matt is constantly scarred and bloodied by his encounters with the world’s realities; the yakuza call him “fire demon,” and he sees the world in burning flames instead of black. His priest Father Lantom provides us with philosophical discussions about the nature of Satan and how good and evil reside within all of us—trying to help Matt sort it out.

The show isn’t for the faint of heart because of the violence, and it may seem to move slowly for the action-oriented because of the time spent in suspense and character development. Matt wore black for most of his nightly activities in this season. The Daredevil costume debuted toward the end of it and was criticized as pretty ugly. The first season made the show 7th most popular on TV, and it was nominated for a slew of awards. Cox was honored for his portrayal of the blind Matt Murdock at the American Foundation for the Blind’s 19th Annual Helen Keller Achievement Awards. He deserved the honor.

Highly recommended. Four and a half stars.

Review of New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

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This novel is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s science fiction, is published by Orbit and runs 613 pages. This review contains spoilers.

The lower end of Manhattan is now intertidal, flooded by two major pulses of sea-level rise. However, people still live and work there, assisted by new waterproofing technologies to keep basements dry, plus sky bridges and boat docks to assist in getting around. The intertidal economy has been stable for some time, but it’s becoming obvious to residents of the Met Tower that the structures not grounded on bedrock will eventually fall—they need a better housing solution. Hurricane Fyodor appears on their horizon, certain to leave destruction in its wake. Can they take advantage of the disaster to establish a new world order?

This is a fairly complex book. First, there is a broad cast of main characters, all of whom live in the Met. This includes coders Mutt and Jeff, market trader Franklin, cloud star Amelia, building manager Vlade, police inspector Gen, Householders Union rep Charlotte and two kids who live under the docks, Stefan and Roberto. Everybody has their own busy life, but their activities start to overlap as they fend off a hostile takeover of their building, find lost treasure for financing and come up with a workable scheme to remake the world. The book includes a lot of history, economics, finance and science, which weaves through the text, but this is actually character driven. The characters offer each other acceptance and support, and conflict and failure are minimal, which means it comes off as fairly warm and fuzzy. The amount of knowledge and research that must have gone into this is highly impressive, as it covers all of the above, plus the various occupations of the characters, all with detail and authority.

I have to assume the scheme they come up with is the author’s recommendation, as well, which might actually be workable with enough grassroots support. It challenges the way we view politics and business, and suggests the central conflict of our time is between democracy and capitalism. Although many of the elements point to liberal, anarchist, communist or libertarian ideology, events tend to send up these interest groups, as well. Cloud star Amelia is a prime example, the bleeding heart that slept through all the ecology classes in school and thinks it’s a great idea to drop polar bears off in the Antarctic with all those unsuspecting penguins. Other elements make better sense. Europe is pretty well ahead of the US in the ecologically based housing, wind and solar changes recommended here, and we should take note. Robinson has a history of this kind of activism and it looks like he’s reviewing actual theories. I’m suspecting he might be a dedicated revolutionary. As a result, this is the kind of serious, important text that should win awards.

On the not so great side, this moves slowly and is highly idealized. In real life, there would be more conflict and failure. For example, I don’t believe that everyone in the Met tower is a wonderful, caring person, or that the Met can continue to take in and keep refugees without fairly serious plant breakdowns. It’s also hard to believe that the adaptations people have made in the novel (solar, wind, local farms) will have been enough to counter the enormous climate change that the author describes. As a result, this is politically and intellectually provocative, but lacks the kind of emotional impact that would really drive the message home.

Highly recommended.

Five stars.

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Review of Wrap Your Body in Time by David Neil Drews

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This is a first novel, self-published in October of 2017, and runs about 750 pages. David Drews is a Jewish writer and suffers from multiple identity disorder.

Arron has esophageal cancer. He has watched his dad die slowly of chemotherapy and makes the decision to refuse it. Instead, he sets out to really live in the time he’s got left, to exercise, to see the world, to enjoy friends and family—and to deal with the ghost of his abusive father. On the journey he meets his schizophrenic grandfather, finds a potential wife. Can Aaron defeat his own demons before he reaches the end of his road?

This is a pretty sweeping novel that chronicles the bout with cancer on the one hand, while providing human interest through absorbing characters on the other. It didn’t have much of a hook, but by chapter 2 when we got the cancer diagnosis, the book had hit its stride. There’s a touch of magical realism here, including chatty animals and the various ghosts that lurk about. There’s a sort of wry humor that runs through it, and a lot of play-by-play for sports fans.

Four and a half stars.

Review of More Happy than Not by Adam Silvera

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This novel is near future science fiction and published by Soho Teen in 2015. It runs 306 pages. Silvera is a native New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent. This was his debut novel.

Aaron Soto is pretty happy. He lives in a cramped, one-bedroom apartment with his mother and brother. He had a tough time after his dad committed suicide a while back, and tried it himself but he’s over the depression now. He’s got a great group of friends and a girlfriend that loves him. He runs into a new guy named Thomas in the neighborhood and the two become best friends. However, things start to go a little weird when Aaron begins to feel this friendship could be something more. He admits his interest to Thomas, but is rejected. When his friends find out Aaron is gay, they jump him and beat him up. He wakes in the hospital with two sets of memories because the beating has reversed his memory suppression procedure. Will he ever be able to get his life back on track?

The best thing about Silvera’s work is his entertaining humor. He also has a knack for writing dialog that takes the abject terror out of teen experiences and leaves the reader thinking everything is going to be okay, after all. Also on the positive side, Aaron provides a consistently positive role model for teens, even when things start to go really wrong.

On the negative side, there wasn’t any clear action line in this novel. This left it sagging badly in the second quarter, and Silvera’s long description of street games left me bored. Things picked up about half way through when Aaron recalls the memory procedure, but the plot still didn’t rise to the usual climax. This left the structure sort of muddled.

The most striking thing about this novel is the awful experiences Aaron goes through, mainly because of his sexual orientation. Is this standard for the Bronx?

Three and a half stars.

Review of “The City Born Great” by N.K. Jemisin

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I have two stories to read to close out the Hugo ballot short story category. This one was published by Tor.com on September 28, 2016.

A young, homeless graffiti artist in New York City meets a man named Paolo who gives him money sometimes or buys him breakfast. He thinks Paolo wants something from him, but it doesn’t seem to be sex. Instead, the man asks him to listen to the city. It’s big and old, and it’s going to be born into new life, but it needs someone to protect it from ancient evil during its birth. Can the boy provide what it needs?

As seems usual with her stories, Jemisin is working with a very resonant idea here—a sentient, living city in the process of birth. Some of the details are excellent, too, glimpses of how people see Paolo, and how they look at the narrator. But her execution doesn’t quite come off. I can’t accept that this narration is the voice of a NYC street kid, and the battle slides off into metaphor as the boy becomes one with the city to fight against its ancient enemy. I ended up suspecting this is message fiction meant to attack the NYC police. Not only does the boy imagine that he’s being shot or tortured whenever he sees police, but the ancient evil is a cop who morphs into a monstrous beast. Are police the evil he has to defeat? Hm.

Three and a half stars.

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