Review of by “Not Pounded by Romance Wranglers of America: The Endless Cosmic Void” by Chuck Tingle

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Since the meltdown of the Romance Writers of America over racism charges is trending, I should probably take this opportunity to make another comment on author bullying. No surprise; I’ve been beaten to the punch by the ever-ready Chuck Tingle, so I’ll preface my remarks with a review of his story. His newest release is now available on Amazon, adding to a fairly extensive bibliography. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Chuck Tingle, he normally writes witty porn and crashed into prominence with a Hugo nomination in 2016 for Space Raptor Butt Invasion, a novel about an over-sexed dinosaur and an exotic dancer. Tingle seemed to be thrilled by his Hugo nomination and responded with Slammed in the Butt by My Hugo Award Nomination. Lately he seems to be leaning to satire and has produced several non-sexual adventures. As part of the promotion for this e-book release, Tingle put up a website for Romance Wranglers of America.

Gorblin Crimble has been writing romance novels with some success, but he’s starting to feel burned out. For support in getting through his next novel, he joins a local writers’ group. The first meeting goes well, and Gorblin makes friends with Amber, who suggests he should also apply to the larger romance writers’ organization Romance Wranglers of America. Their headquarters is only a short distance away, and Amber drives Gorblin there in her car. On the way, the two of them bond and start to wonder if they might be characters in a Chuck Tingle story. On arriving at the headquarters, they see a humanoid dinosaur stumbling away from the building, covered with a yukky tar-like substance. The building itself looks to have been infected with a black, cancerous growth that sticks out of huge cracks in the façade. It breathes softly like a horrific, living thing; pools of black ooze drip onto the sidewalk, and the whole place stinks like burning. They are greeted by a man named Demon, who explains the black ooze is a “remodel” project. Can Gorblin and Amber escape before they become infected?

Okay, so Tingle makes his points with a sledgehammer. This doesn’t have a lot of depth, characterization or world-building, but its strong points are timing and social commentary. Gorblin and Amber are both nice people, as are the other writers in the small group. They write about love and relationships. They’re very welcoming, and some are even fans of Gorblin’s work. However, on a greater scale, the Wranglers are tarred black and oozing cancerous sludge. They’re administered by a demon, and it smells like the place is burning down.

Three and a half stars.

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

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This novel dark fantasy/horror and is a finalist for the 2019 World Fantasy Award. It was published by MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux. This review contains spoilers.

Soldier Dana Mills was captured by the enemy and video of her beheading circulates. Somehow not dead, she is recovered, scarred but alive, and pregnant. She returns to her ancestral family home, now replaced by a subdivision called Herot Hall, and takes shelter in caves under the mountain. She delivers a son she names Grendel, and the two of them continue to live on the fringe, outside the bounds of the estates below. Willa Herot is the carefully groomed wife of Roger Herot, a doctor and heir to the property. She resents the way her mother has orchestrated her life and despises her husband and son Dylan. Grendel is attracted by the sound of the child Dylan playing the piano, and the two become secret friends. Mills is horrified when she finds out. What will the Herots do when they discover her son at the house?

In case the names don’t ring a bell, this story is a retelling of the Scandinavia epic Beowulf. Headley has modernized the tale and made some symbolic substitutions, a scarred soldier for Grendel’s mother, a police hero for Beowulf, a philandering doctor for the king, a bored socialite for his wife, and a watch and/or train for the dragon. Headley also name-checks the Beowulf Nowell Codex, making Nowell into Willa’s maiden name. The symbolism in the story is fairly postmodern (a.k.a. inconsistent) but various clues lead me to think this is about 1) the monsters that live inside us all, and 2) how the rich make monsters of the disenfranchised (a.k.a. from Beowulf, the children of Cain). There’s a lot of social commentary here. Reading this, I got a really strong feeling that Headley comes from a small town with a full quota of mean girls—she’s characterized them very well here, as well as the men they use as pawns in their machination. In a modern twist, it’s Mills who lives to get her revenge in the end, something that feels satisfying.

On the not so positive side, this was really hard to read. First, it is seriously depressing. There’s a lot of darkness in the original Beowulf, and Headley has magnified it here. We know how this story goes. The creation of monsters is a cloud that hangs over the whole narrative, and we’re not disappointed—the characters go down one by one to a bloody end at the hands of their creations. The somewhat satisfying ending didn’t do much to lighten things up. And next, as is usual these days, this was hugely padded. Heatley winds a plot that would have supported a short story out to 300 pages with fairly nonsensical ruminations that, as far as I can tell, are mostly used to create mood.

This is another case where I have to give points for the cynical look at society and the artistic effect, but it’s one of those “read at your own risk” books. Big trigger warnings.

Four stars.

Review of Deadpool 2

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This Marvel superhero film is the second in the series, following Deadpool (2016). It’s directed by David Leitch and stars Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Julian Dennison and Morena Baccarin. It was released into theaters 18 May 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Since the events of the last film, Deadpool (a.k.a. Wade Wilson) has been touring the world, fighting ninjas, yakuza, and whoever else, looking for what meaning might be left in his life. He loses his girlfriend. He tries a stint as an X-man trainee, but it doesn’t work out. However, as a result of this, he ends up becoming the hero of a young boy with dangerous supernatural abilities. He tries to reject this role, but eventually brings together an X-Force team to rescue the boy from the evil, time-traveling cyborg Cable. Can he pull this off? Can he get his girlfriend back? Can he fix Ryan Reynolds’career mistakes?

We have to wait a while to get to the heart of this film, while Wade searches around for the theme. However, once he’s focused on doing the right thing, then we can get on with the plot. The remaining space is taken up with social commentary and jokes that make this pretty much a satire of superhero franchises. The gags go by fast, so pay attention.

The movie did get criticism for the “fridging” of Wade’s girlfriend Vanessa. For anyone who’s not familiar with the term, it refers to threatening, injuring or killing a superhero’s girlfriend to provide motive for the plot. That leaves the woman with a very limited role. Writers and producers agreed they had engaged in this gimmick, and suggested fridging Deadpool in a different movie. Turn about.

This film is all highly creative, of course, and the writing/directing crew doesn’t really care that they pierce the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience. They’re also testing a few boundaries as far as offensiveness goes. I see that Ryan Reynolds is listed on the writing team this time, so I’m wondering how much he has to do with the comedy and commentary. He’s certainly found his niche as the bad guy anti-superhero. Although this film isn’t as impressive as the first one, it carries on the tradition well enough. His X-Force team turns out to be surprisingly attractive, too, so I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of them.

One other thing that merits mention is the choreography and gymnastics stunts in these films. There was only one instance of the gymnastics here, but same as the last film, it was breathtaking air ballet from a real person. Well, okay—I just like gorgeous stunts.

Four stars.

Review of The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

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This novel was the 2017 winner of the World Fantasy Award. It was published by Redhook/Orbit UK, and runs 468 pages.

Most people totally forget Hope Arden within a minute. This means she can’t hold a job or maintain any serious relationships, and she supports herself by being a world-class thief. Hope is affronted by a woman’s death in Dubai, and partially out of spite, steals the Chrysalis diamonds from the Princess Shamma bint Bandar at a party hosted by the Prometheus Corporation. Prometheus markets an app that recommends actions, purchases and treatments to achieve Perfection. Because of the power and reach of the corporation, Hope finds herself on the run. Allied with a darkweb terrorist called Byron, can she bring down Prometheus?

This is a very complex novel. It’s basically a thriller plot, where Hope and her various allies struggle against the powerful minions of the corporation. It’s also an indictment of our worship of celebrity and perfection, here summed up in the app that guides people in how to become rich and beautiful to the ultimate degree, while also making them slaves to the corporation—meanwhile the ordinary Hope remains invisible. Regardless of the thriller plot, Hope continually digresses into stream of consciousness inspection of her past and the failings of society around her. This includes several prominent cultures because of the multinational quality of the tale. Her eventual solution to the battle with Perfection isn’t simple, either, as Hope’s vulnerability and her emotional responses to the people she meets constantly affect her decisions.

Good points: It’s complex; it’s a thriller; it’s got a lot to say as a mirror for our society. There are some artful cliffhangers, beautiful images, great feelings of place and very complex and well-developed characters. The reader forms emotional bonds with these people.

Not so good points: It’s slow-moving because of all the digressions—I had a hard time getting started because of the pace. The thriller plot could have been a short story or a novella without all the asides, so it’s not the book for people who like fast, hard-hitting action.

I’m going to go five stars on this one. I was impressed.

Review of “The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe” by Kij Johnson

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This fantasy story is a Nebula finalist in the novella category. It was published by Tor.com, and ended up with 10 recommendations on the Nebula Reading List.

Vellitt Boe is a professor at Ulthar Women’s College. She is awakened in the middle of the night by a student who reports that Claire Jurat, a third year mathematics student, has run away with a dreamer. In her youth, Boe was a far-traveler, and she volunteers to go after Jurat to save them all from the gods’ wrath. She makes up a pack, receives funds from the college bursar and sets out. She just misses catching up with the couple, as they have already passed through the gate into the real world. Boe then sets off on a quest for a way to pass through. Assisted by a gug, finds a passage through the land of the ghouls that opens into a real world cemetery. The gug transforms to a Buick, and Boe finds she has knowledge of the world. An artifact she picked up on her travels turns out to be a cell phone. Can she find Jurat and convince her to save the dreamworld?

This is another novella that could have been a really short short story. It’s also an book full of well-written prose for people who just like reading. Not much happens—we travel along with Boe, and for a while, a little cat, meet people and see layered realities. It’s a very creative concept and we get a really good feel for what the dream world is like as it is revealed through the narrative. It has an emotionally satisfying ending, but I’m not sure it holds water. How can you change a world that’s generated by dreams in the real world? Minor social commentary.

Four stars for the quality of the prose.

Review of “A Taste of Honey” by Kai Ashante Wilson

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This Nebula finalist is a novella published by Tor.com. It ended up with 11 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List.

Aqib is a royal cousin in the kingdom of Olorum who is talented with animals and works in the city menagerie. His family has recently lost status, and his father expects Aqib to marry well to increase the family fortunes. The boy is young and starting to attract the attention of marriage brokers, but he also attracts Lucrio, a Dalucan soldier stationed in the city for a peacekeeping mission. The two become lovers. Aqib later charms the highborn Femysade and the two wed. The marriage is harmonious and the couple produces a daughter, but Aqib keeps a long term relationship going with Lucrio, even though his brother tries to interfere. Femysade is talented in women’s work, a savant in math and science. She is tapped by the gods to go to their distant city and work, which leaves Aqib to raise their daughter alone. When his tour of duty ends, Lucrio has to go back to Daluz. He begs Aqib to go with him. Should he go or stay?

Well, this is different. I read somewhere that it’s supposed to be epic fantasy, but it’s actually science fiction and a love story. It’s described as a follow up to Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, which presumably explains more about the universe where Aqib lives. It does have characteristics of fantasy, but it’s written in a science fictional framework–it’s just that to the non-technical people of the city, science is the work of the gods and therefore something distant, arcane and magical.

Pros: You have to hand it to Wilson for writing a straight-out love story, which is sort of out of fashion in SFF. Also, you have to give him credit for turning a few social conventions on their heads, making science and math women’s work, for example; for putting the beautiful Aqib on the marriage market, and also for avoiding the subject of race. The figures on the cover are black, presumably because Wilson is an African American writer, but actually he doesn’t give many clues to the racial identity of his characters. The writing also has a good flow which makes it easy, comfortable reading. Cons: The characters aren’t well developed and I didn’t engage with them very deeply. The narrative skips around in time and into alternate realities, so the story has very little in the way of plot or structure.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Daedelus” by Niall Burke

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This story is a Sad Puppy recommendation for Hugo Best Short Story. It was published in issue #6 of Holdfast Magazine.

Alistair has been sent to a secret facility to sabotage the city’s AI, which is out of control. The story reviews the history of the AI’s takeover of City Hall and discusses its reasoning and methods. Terrified, Alistair looks for a way to complete his mission and get out of the facility alive.

This is still another philosophical work. I’d classify this one as literary as well as philosophical, as it includes social commentary and a subtext. It depends heavily on exposition and is low on characterization, imagery, etc., but makes up for it in what it has to say. I’d give it a medium score for originality, as it’s not saying anything really new or striking. It runs a bit dark.

Three and a half stars.

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