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Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 A Year In Review

Even though I didn't begin seriously blogging until the end of the year, not even the addition of a new baby to our family could prevent me from indulging in the genre. Sure, books got read in pages rather than chapters, TV got watched days or even weeks later on the DVR, and movies became an occasional indulgence, but I think I appreciated it all even more for the fact that my dose of spec fiction was so hard to come by.

So, in anticipation of blogging regularly through 2012, here's my year in review:


TOP 5 READS
This was harder to narrow down than I expected, but my top 5 reads (in no particular order) are:
  1. 11/22/63 by Stephen King (vintage King with an ending that really works)
  2. Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay (also my most pleasant surprise of the year)
  3. The Dinosaur Hunter by Homer H. Hickam Jr. (the man who brought us the stars brings us dinosaurs)
  4. The Enterprise of Death by Jesse Bullington (weird, wild, and wonderful)
  5. Shadowplay by Tad Williams (once Barrick began to man up, the series improved dramatically)


MOST SURPRISING READ
After a few lackluster reads (The Last Light of the Sun & Sailing to Sarantium) that strayed too far from the kind of epic fantasy that initially drew me to him, Guy Gavriel Kay absolutely amazed and delighted me with Ysabel - an urban fantasy. I only gave it a read because I was looking for something shorter than Under Heaven that I could read at doctor's appointments with my wife, but I found it one of his strongest books. Beautifully written, with strong characters, it also tied in very nicely to the Fionavar Tapestry. That subtle (but critical) tie is what made a 'good' read a 'great' one.


MOST DISAPPOINTING READ
Without a doubt, the read that most disappointed me in 2011 was Steven Erikson's final entry in the Malazan Book of the Fallen saga, The Crippled God. This is a series that constantly blew me away, challenged what I expected from epic fantasy, and shocked me with some of the twists. Erikson really knows how to tell a story, and how to build a history/mythology that rivals anything in or out of fiction. So, with all that said, why was this my most disappointing read? Well, as superb as he is at telling a story, I'm afraid Erikson did an atrocious job of ending one. The story just fell apart at the seams, abandoned it's unpredictability and edginess, and betrayed the intellectual and emotional commitment of 9 books, brining us to a conclusion that was as boring as it was incomprehensible.

Dishonourable mention goes to Last Gleaming, the final story arc of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's season 8 comic book arc. The entire season was wildly uneven, indulging too much in the limitless FX budget of a comic book, but the final arc was ridiculous and lazy.


BEST TV MOMENTS
I'm going to go with two picks here. First, the moment I look forward to every week is the flashback appearance of Rumpelstiltskin on Once Upon A Time. Yeah, the show is cheesy, and I'm not sure it can survive beyond a single season (where do you go once the fairy tales are revealed?), but as good as Robert Carlyle was in Stargate Universe, he completely steals the show here.

Second, the one moment that made me jump off the couch an pump my first in the air was the Trojan Dino scene in the Terra Nova season finale. It was a total surprise, and if seeing that dino emerge from the cargo container was good, watching it eat the head off that bastard from the Phoenix Group (in a total homage to Jurrasic Park) was epic.


BEST MOVIE MOMENTS
With a pregnant wife for the first half of the year, and a newborn baby for the second half of the year, I didn't get out to the movies as often as I'm used to. Transformers: the Dark of the Moon was fun, although not nearly as good as the second movie; Contagion just bored me to tears (there wasn't a single moment where I felt the slightest bit of emotional involvement); and Paul was a great flick (Kristen Wiig's alien conversion to atheism made me laugh until I cried), although a bit of a disappointment compared to what I expect from Simon Pegg.

In the end, the one movie that made me smile and reminded me of being a kid was The Muppets. It was as close to a perfect film as I've seen in years, right from the 80s nostalgia (the movie won me over the moment 80s robot offered up Diet Tab and New Coke), to the cameos (Jim Parsons was a particularly inspired choice for 'human' Muppet), to the villain's 'maniacal laugh' (and the Muppet henchmen suddenly wondering if they're on the wrong side).


A good year, and I'm looking forward to an even better one as I begin exposing our newest addition to the joys and delights of the genre.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"Waiting On" Wednesday: The Sacred Band by David Anthony Durham

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill over at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

This week's pre-publication "can't-wait-to-read" selection is:

The Sacred Band by David Anthony Durham :

With the first two books in the Acacia Trilogy, Acacia and The Other Lands, David Anthony Durham has created a vast and engrossing canvas of a world in turmoil, where the surviving children of a royal dynasty are on a quest to realize their fates—and perhaps right ancient wrongs once and for all. As The Sacred Band begins, one of them, Queen Corinn, bestrides the world as a result of her mastery of spells found in the ancient Book of Elenet. Her younger brother, Dariel, has been sent on a perilous mis­sion to the Other Lands, while her sister, Mena, travels to the far north to confront an invasion of the feared race of the Auldek. Their separate trajectories will converge in a series of world-shaping, earth-shattering battles, all ren­dered with vividly imagined detail and in heroic scale.

David Anthony Durham concludes his tale of kingdoms in collision in an exciting fashion. His fictional world is at once realistic and fantastic, informed with an eloquent and dis­tinctively Shakespearean sensibility.

With this, the epic conclusion to David's Acacia Trilogy, it looks like I have yet another series to get caught up on. Acacia was an amazing read, and the only reason I didn't finish it was that it fell into the Niagara River one afternoon on a hike. I've just picked up the first 2 volumes as e-books, so I'm looking forward to getting back into things.

Friday, December 23, 2011

In Memoriam 2011 - Authors and Artists

2011 was a harsh year for science fiction and fantasy fans, with several notable authors (and artists) passing on to forever wander the landscapes of our imagination. My apologies if I have missed anyone, but as we contemplate the joys of family and friendship over this holiday weekend, I'd like to pay homage to those who will not be joining us in 2012:


 

Our shelves are a little emptier, and our imaginations a little darker, without them.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Dark Shadows: The Original Series Story Digest by D. J. Arneson

Unless you've been sleeping the days away in a pine box, deep inside some dusty old cellar, you likely know that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are bring Dark Shadows to the big screen in 2012. Given that Arneson's story takes place outside the main Dark Shadows storyline, at a time when Barnabas is no longer a vampire, it seems an odd choice to tie into Burton's movie, but it's still a wonderfully nostalgic look back at the origins of the franchise.

Over 40 years after it's original release as a Gold Key Comics Original Series Story Digest, D. J. Arneson's Interrupted Voyage is being republished, complete with the original artwork, beautifully recoloured to match the original printing. 

Interrupted Voyage is slightly cheesy, completely melodramatic, and so earnestly romantic it hurts. If that sounds like a complaint or a criticism, nothing could be further from the truth - Arneson captures the original soap opera feel perfectly, almost as if this were an unfilmed episode of the series. This is a story with as much atmosphere and emotion as plot, which is exactly what we should expect from a Dark Shadows tale.

That's not to say that the plot here is particularly thin or unimpressive. Transporting an ex-vampire and a ghost back to Salem to rescue a young lover's soul from the clutches of an evil witch, is genius. The paranoia and the tension is almost palatable, creating a situation that drives the story along at a breakneck pace. What makes it even more interesting, adding a note of dread to the proceedings, is the fact that the beautiful Angélique is waiting in the wings, ready to reclaim Barnabas' soul should he fail.

There are also some impressive narrative touches to the tale. The scene in which the Captain's room slowly devolves back into a storm-tossed ship, prompted by Annabella's tale of her own demise, is particularly mesmerizing. It's so carefully crafted, you don't quite realize what's happening until Barnabas is drenched with seawater. The transition is so seamless, without relying on any surprises or dreamlike states to help bring it along, you can't help but reread it to see how Arneson accomplished it.

Even though I suspect the audience for this will be slightly different from that of Burton's film, it's still nice to be reminded of the saga's roots, and to once again experience the melodramatic thrill of so many years ago.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"Waiting On" Wednesday: Skirmish by Michelle West

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill over at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

This week's pre-publication "can't-wait-to-read" selection is:

Skirmish by Michelle West:

At long last, Jewel is preparing to announce her candidacy to become the next Terafin and claim the House Seat. But it is a decision that has her targeted by demons who will stop at nothing to destroy Jewel and her allies as the House War begins...

As this is the penultimate volume of The House War saga, it may just be time for me to get caught up. For those new to Michelle, the series does share a universe with her previous The Sacred Hunt and The Sun Sword sagas, but can be read alone - in fact, Michelle recommends new readers start with The House War, and then move onto the other series.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Dark Tower: The Wind Through The Keyhole (Excerpt)

The good folks at Tor have just published a excerpt from Stephen King's upcoming Dark Tower novel, The Wind Through The Keyhole, which takes place between books four and five in the series.

 In King’s own words: “What happened to Roland, Jake, Eddie, Susannah, and Oy between the time they leave the Emerald City (the end of Wizard and Glass) and the time we pick them up again, on the outskirts of Calla Bryn Sturgis (the beginning of Wolves of the Calla)? There was a storm, I decided....” 

 As a HUGE fan of The Dark Tower saga, I've already been salivating over this newest addition for months. I can't say much for the cover (maybe that will grow on me), but the artwork that accompanies the first two chapters has an eerie beauty to it.

You can check out all the details, including the artwork and excerpt, here:  


For those of you counting the days, we still have 4+ months to wait - forget December 25th . . . it's April 24th that can't get here soon enough!

Apeshit by Carlton Mellick III

The back cover describes Apeshit as "perhaps one of the most f*cked up books ever written." That's an apt description. This is either the most revolting, graphic, offensive piece of splatterpunk horror I've ever read, or the most brilliant, original, insightful piece of satire upon the genre ever written.

Then again, maybe it's both. Or neither.

 As far as basic plotting goes, this is part Friday the 13th, part Evil Dead, and part The Hills Have Eyes. Basically, a bunch of teenagers (the requisite mix of cheerleaders and football players) decide to head out for a weekend of drunken partying at a cabin in the middle of the woods (where, of course, there is no cellular service). Right from the star, however, Mellick begins messing with the conventions of the genre.

Beware, spoilers abound from his point on.

First of all, the three hot cheerleaders are seriously messed up. One is a tattoo addict with a bright green mohawk, involved in a threesome relationship with two of the football players (more on them in a moment). One is a total germaphobe, completely unwilling to be touched, who gets off on erotic abortions (I don't even want to know if that's a real fetish). The other is obsessive-compulsive, pregnant by her own brother, and afflicted with the mythological condition vagina dentata.

As for the football players, let's start with the 'normal' one - he's your typical jock, hyper masculine, aggressive, and the son of a sadistic father who has tortured the fear out of him. As for the other two, one is a loving sex-addict who would rather infect the threesome with AIDS than tell them the truth about his affairs and thus lose their friendship. The other is a nice guy who is about to break up with the cheerleader part of their threesome, and who has been using the cover of a urinary tract infection to hide the fact that he's healing from a sex-change below the waist.

As for the mutant monsters in the woods, they're your typical horror movie fodder - cranked up a few notches on the weirdness scale. Either lovers or siblings (or, as is suggested, both), they're hideously deformed, with half-formed fetal limbs growing out of their heads, completely wild, and maniacally bloodthirsty.

What follows is a few days of absolute carnage, with acts of dismemberment, torture, and rape that strive to top each other with new levels of depravity. Adding to the weirdness is the fact that (as we learn later) nothing can die in the cursed territory of the forest. This allows for some disgusting sexual adventures with a headless cheerleader, and for a disemboweled cheerleader to use her dragging entrails as a rope for rescue and bondage. What puts it over the top, though, is the sex-change jock who gets impaled upon a tree branch that rips through to his mouth, but who still desires human penetration.

 It's a story that would be comic, if it weren't so revolting . . . that would be absurd, if it weren't so sincere. As a straight-forward horror novel it's simply too much, but as a satiric take on the genre, it's an interesting read.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Demon Seed by Dean Koontz

I've always had something of a love-hate relationship with Dean Koontz. When he allows himself to be dark and edgy, giving his imagination free reign, he can rival just about any horror author out there. When he gets self-conscious and plays it safe, however, allowing the morality of the tale to tale precedence over the story . . . well, more often than not, he gets violently tossed into the did-not-finish (DNF) pile. In many ways, it's as if he is one of his own creations, a schizophrenic author with two wildly distinct personalities.

Demon Seed, probably more than any other title, gives us an insight into those personalities. The original version, written in 1973, is definitely the product of his darker side. It's a sexually charged tale of psychological and physical domination, with an emotionally scarred young woman falling prey to the sentient computer that controls her home. Told mostly from Susan's point of view, it's an intimate tale that sinks its hooks into you, making you share her claustrophobic terror. Paying homage to Lovecraft (or, perhaps, anticipating Japanese anime), it spends a lot of time focusing on the pseudopod tentacles being grown by the computer, with which it intends to impregnate Susan in order to bring forth a new creation.

The original version was a very sexual book - almost embarrassingly so - with Susan spending a lot of time walking around naked, touching herself, and experiencing an orgasmic thrill when she illegally plugs the computer into herself. With her parents dead, and a history of abuse at the hands of her grandfather, there is a lot of emotional baggage to the story.

By contrast, the 1997 rewrite is coldly clinical and apologetic, snatched away from the talons of his darker side, and stripped of everything that made it compelling. Susan's viewpoint is abandoned, with the computer (Proteus) narrating the story instead. While this could have been an interesting approach, it removes the emotional hook, and creates an artificial distance between Susan and the reader. As for Susan, she's been given a feminist makeover, transforming her into more of a heroine and less of a victim.

Again, it could have been interesting, but it completely changes the tone of the story - without that vulnerability, and without the looming threat of suicide, she's far less sympathetic. Similarly, Proteus is transformed from the sinister, calculating, 'father-lover' figure of the original, and into an almost childishly malicious prankster. Gone are the phallic pseudopods, the creepy voyeuristic elements, and the overtones of mechanical rape. Gone as well is the taboo relationship with her abusive grandfather, replaced instead by an abusive ex-husband.

While neither version ranks among Koontz's best reads, the original makes for a far more compelling read.

Friday, December 9, 2011

11/22/63 by Stephen King

Wow. I literally just finished 11/22/63, so I wanted to write a few things about it while everything is fresh in my head, and before I begin analysing it too deeply and obsessing over misremembered details. First of all, it’s an oddly structured novel, told in 4 arcs.

The first is the introduction, which establishes Jake and introduces the concept of time travel. It reminds me of a short story, the kind of intentionally amusing oddity he would have included in the Night Shift or Skeleton Crew collections. It’s a little far-fetched, but played out so casually, as if there’s nothing to it, that it works. Little details, like buying the same pound of meat hundreds of times and then using it to sell 21st century hamburgers at 1960s prices ease us past the point of disbelief.

The second arc is Jake’s first extended visit to the past, which is really just an homage to King’s past. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – in fact, this was my favourite part of the book – but I suspect some readers will find it self-indulgent. Personally, I loved revisiting the town of Derry, seeing the evil that permeates through an outsider’s eyes, and running into the kids of IT. Later on in the book there are also some obvious nods to Cujo (rabid dogs come up a few times) and Christine (a sinister Plymouth Fury plays a role), as well as to Hearts in Atlantis and The Dark Tower saga.

The third arc comprises the bulk of the story, and deals with Jake’s second extended visit to the past. Here we get an interestingly (perhaps too) nostalgic look at the world of the 60s, one of King’s best stabs at developing a romance (between Jake and Sadie), and a healthy smattering of social and political commentary. This part definitely drags in parts, and is largely the reason I had to put the book down and give myself a break for a week or so before continuing. As events take us closer to the JFK assassination, and we really get to see how the past struggles to harmonize and protect itself, the story does take off, but it is a bit of a slog to get there.

The final arc of the story is one that I am sure will polarise audiences. Personally, I loved the Twilight Zone eeriness of it, and the unexpected way in which King deals with the aftermath of Jake’s intervention in the JFK assassination. It’s a bit heavy-handed, for sure, and easily the most fanciful part of the story, but it really brought everything to a satisfying conclusion with no lingering what-ifs.

Overall, a solid King story, and one that I suspect will end up ranking in my top 10, once I have a chance to digest it.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Nights of Magic, Days of War by Clive Barker

Days of Magic, Nights of War is the book I had hoped Abarat would be – and then some! Abarat felt like an old fashioned travelogue, a book written solely to describe the people and the places that Candy encountered in her travels. Instead of advancing a story, the focus of each new chapter was seemingly to top the one before in terms of magic, weirdness, and the surreal. I found that I could put it down for weeks at a time (something I’ve never been able to do with a Barker book before), pick it back up, and effortlessly resume mid-paragraph. Not only that, but it felt . . . well, childish. I realise it’s meant as a young adult read, but so was The Thief of Always, and that was an all-night, single-setting read for me.

Fortunately, it seems Barker got the ‘Disney’ out of his system with Abarat, and is back to doing what he does best with Days of Magic, Nights of War. It’s still a story of magic, weirdness, and the surreal, but it’s just that – a real story. Here, we get into the thick of the plot, exploring who Candy really is, what brought her to the Abarat, and what role she has to play in its future. Things actually happen in this second volume, and there are consequences for all of it. What’s more, this is a much darker story than the first, allowing Barker’s imagination to shine.

The first book hinted at the evils of Christopher Carrion, and showed us glimpses of Mater Motley’s cruelty, but really restrained them. Here, Barker lets them loose, exposing their plans for the Abarat, and confronting us with the depths of their hatred, their cruelty, and their selfish vindictiveness. There’s a very real tension to this volume, a palatable sense of dread and danger that was missing from the first. As a result, I felt an emotional attachment to the characters that I hadn’t been able to form in the first, compelling me to read on, to cheer their triumphs, and to mourn their losses.

I also liked the fact that we returned to the ‘real’ world in this book. I think it was the development of events outside the Abarat, and the progression of the stories there added something to the book I didn’t realise was lacking. Maybe it’s the contrast, or maybe it’s the connection, but returning to Chickentown turned this from a good read to a great one. There’s still a wonderful fairy tale of fable feel to the Abarat, especially with the developing backstory and the new aspects of the mythology, and I hope Barker never loses that.

However, I like this darker turn towards events of significance, and I really hope Absolute Midnight carries that forward. Of course, if you’ve read the series then you understand that the title alone promises things aren’t about to get happy any time soon.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Diviner by Melanie Rawn

Although the writing is stellar, and there are definite touches of the old Melanie Rawn here, the story suffers from the same problem as The Golden Key (to which it is a prequel). Both are multi-generational epics, with a focus on families, as opposed to a single protagonist.

In that sense, The Diviner is really two books, with a rather abrupt change of both plot and pace about halfway through, as Azzad al-Ma'aliq gives way to his son, Alessid. The problem is that the son cannot hold a candle to his father, either in personality or deeds. Azzad is a wonderful character, a man who rises above his flaws to become more than just means of retribution. He develops as he matures, exposing hidden facets of his personality that make him more endearing as the story progresses. I loved him as a hero, as a father, as a husband, and as a warrior. He is, without a doubt, one of Melanie’s strongest characters. It’s just a shame the book couldn’t remain focussed on him.

Alessid, by contrast, is entirely unlikable from the start, and what limited development he displays is, unfortunately, in the wrong direction. I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt at first, understanding where he’s come from and what kind of legacy he’s inherited, but he was a disappointment. I neither liked nor respected him, and every time he disparaged his father’s memory (which is far too often), he simply reminded me of the gulf between the two.

In all fairness, Azzad’s half of the novel was the far more interesting story, briskly paced, and interspersed with a few moments of reflection. I cared about what was happening, and I found myself anxiously turning pages, desperate to know what would happen next. Alessid’s half of the novel was far less interesting, sluggishly paced, and bogged down with far too many marriages, births, and alliances. Instead of being anxious to find out what happens next, I found myself desperately flipping through pages, hoping to pick up a thread of story that would pull me back in.

It’s a shame Melanie couldn’t maintain the magic of the first half, because there’s a lot about the story to like. If she could have just given us more of the Sheyqa Nizzira, the truly chilling, scene-chewing villainess behind Azzad’s flight into the desert, maybe there would have been no need to dwell on Alessid. Unfortunately, once we get beyond the bloodbath that begins the novel, she ceases to be anything other than a name, a title, a character who exists off-the-page as a focal point for vengeance. She had such promise - I would have really loved to explore her more.

Characters and plotting aside, the Middle East flavouring is a nice change of pace from the typical European fantasy setting, and I loved exploring the origins of the magic that made The Golden Key so enthralling. There were some really nice stylistic touches here, and the quality of the writing itself is full of hints and promises of a return to form for Melanie. I’d like to think this was just a contractual obligation she forced herself through, to give her the freedom to do something new.

Time will tell, but here’s hoping her new trilogy follows through on that promise of a return to form, and once again demonstrates the love for her material that seemed lacking here.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

EXPLORATION: Devil's Hole (and beyond)

Located on the American side of the Niagara River, not far from the Queenston/Lewiston hydro plants, lies a hiker's paradise called The Devil's Hole. Carved into the bedrock by the eroding path of Niagara Falls itself, this sheltered cove was the site of a 1763 massacre in which the Seneca Indians ambushed and killed over 80 British soldiers. Today, it's the entry point into a Tolkien-esque world of beauty. Those who follow the winding stone staircase down through the trees find themselves upon a remarkably flat, too-even-to-be-natural, solid path of stone. More on that later. Unlike the meandering trails of the Canadian side, which demand that you climb up and down, into and out of immense rock formations and ancient trees, a hike along the American side is like a walk along the boardwalk. With a sheer drop off to the raging rapids on one side, and a loose jumble of rocks leading up to a jagged cliff-face on the other, and you wonder why anyone would have taken the time to carve out such a path. But, again, more on that later. One of the few exceptions to the view is a limestone cave further down the path. Cold, wet, and looking as if were literally carved out with an ice-cream scoop, the cave is beautiful to behold. Its walls are veined like marble, revealing striations of colour in the bedrock, with green bits of mould and algae coating the bottom-most portions of the wall. Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the cave is the spectacular view upon your exit. Continue along the trail, and you will continue to be rewarded with stunning views of the whirlpool rapids, which are so close you could reach out and touch them. The hike from here requires a bit of fancy footwork in places, where falling rocks have covered or altogether obliterated the path. You really have to wonder why anybody would build such a thing but, again, more on that later. It can be a taxing hike to the end of the trail, so much so that you'll likely be tempted to obey the immense STOP sign. Anybody with even a sliver of curiosity, however, must wonder why the trail continues. Is it unsafe? Actually, it is. Are they trying to hide something? Actually, they are. Should you allow curiosity to chase the cat? Absolutely. Otherwise, the oft promised later will never come, and the ruined beauty of Devil's Hole will never fully be revealed. Before long, you'll come across signs that the pathway was once more than just that. The ruins of an iron railing are still visible in spots, bent and twisted, sticking out of the broken ruins of a stone wall. The trail begins to disappear here, buried by rock, and overgrown with forest vegetation, without the benefit of booted feet regularly passing through to keep it clear. Ignore common sense, throw caution to the wind, and proceed with the adventure. You'll soon discover that's a sentiment that has survived over a century. Soon enough, you'll stumble upon a final staircase down to the river. Although little of the railing has survived, the stairs themselves are in remarkably good shape. Having first seen the passage of human feet in the summer of 1895, these stairs marked the point where tourists boarded the Great Gorge Route Railway. That remarkably flat path of stone that brought you here? That was the bed of the railway. Continue on just a little bit further, and you'll come across further evidence of what an immense (and immensely foolish) undertaking the railroad was. Little remains of what appears to have been a drainage tunnel, likely intended to divert runoff away from the tracks. Given the history of the railway, it's little surprise. In 1899, a one thousand ton rock fall angrily pushed yards of track into the river. In 1907, an avalanche of ice killed nine people. In 1915, thirteen passengers were killed and over sixty injured when an overloaded trolley derailed and hit a tree. In 1917, twelve people were killed and dozens more injured when a trolley derailed, rolled down a thirty-foot embankment, and landed upside-down in the river. Finally, in 1935, over five thousand tons of rock came crashing down to destroy over 200 feet of track. The track was never repaired or replaced. When the rocks above are falling, and the water below is more white than blue, you may wonder how anybody thought a railroad was a good idea, but you also have to say thanks for opening up the way.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

What can I saw about The God Delusion that hasn't already been said? Is it the most stunning piece of secular literature ever written? Hardly. Does it resolve, once and for all, the endless god/no-god debate? Not at all. Will reading it cause the Pope himself to fall upon his knees and cry to the empty heavens above that he was wrong all along? Not a chance.

What it call comes down to is this -- should you invest your time and attention in reading the book behind the hype? Absolutely.

The first section (A Deeply Religious Non-Believer) serves as a good introduction to what Dawkins intends to cover. However, unless you're a hardcore atheist looking for solid debate material, you can safely skip sections 2 and 3 (The God Hypothesis & Arguments for God's Existence). I found them to be dry, tedious, and often over my head - not so much because I couldn't follow then, but because I couldn't be bothered. It's as if Dawkins dedicated these 2 sections to convincing his fellow scientists that his book has merit and that it should be studied. Skim away and you'll miss nothing.

Section 4 (Why There Almost Certainly Is No God) gets things back on track with some serious discussion about natural selection. The distinction between random chance or luck versus natural selection is very well laid out and throughly engrossing. It's sections 5 and 6 (The Roots of Religion & The Roots of Morality) that should be mandatory reading for anybody with the slightest interest in the philosophies behind faith and atheism.

Section 7 (The Good Book And The Changing Moral Zeitgeist) is one of the most fascinating things I've ever read. Dawkins will probably be accused of picking and choosing to illustrate the most heinious acts of the the Bible, but (as he points out) that's exactly what the church does - they pick and choose the good bits, the nice bits, the bits that support their faith. The rest? It just gets swept under the rug.

The next 2 sections (What's Wrong With Religion & Childhood, Abuse, And The Escape From Religion) are certainly the most controversial portion of the book, but Dawkin deserves full credit for not shying away from the uglier side of religion. Much of what's discussed here should be obvious, but that's the whole point - for most people, it's not. Sadly, the final section (A Much Needed Gap) serves as weak wrap-up, and a huge dissapointment after the true meat of the book. It needs to be said that Darwin is not, as his critics have claimed, simply a bible basher and tyrant against religion. He identifies and recognizes the perceived need some people have for their faith, and doesn't ridicule them for it. Several times in the book he holds up one religious personage or another as being worth of respect and esteem for their actions.

This is not a book of hate, or one written out of spite. You may not agree with it, you may not like it, but it should make you think. Of course, if you're not interested in thinking . . . if faith is the be-all and end-all . . . then the true value of the book will be lost on you. The world is a wonderful, curious, delightful place that works in fascinating ways. Shrugging off those wonders, or crediting them to some imaginary deity, just cheapens the world around us.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Crippled God by Steven Erikson

So, here we are, 12 years, 10 books, nearly 11,000 pages, and nearly 300 hours of reading later. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is, at last, complete . . . and disappointing.

I’m not so much disappointed in the saga itself, but in the way in which it trickled to a conclusion. In hindsight, it feels as if Erikson never really had an end in sight, but decided to bow to the pressure and manufacture an ending. I give him credit for reaching back through all the novels to grasp the myriad strings, but it’s as if some of those strings either snapped or stretched along the way, leaving him to untangle the rest and force them onto the stage like some overwhelmed puppeteer.

 One of the things that initially attracted me to this series was its unpredictability. I appreciated the fact that no character was safe, and that there was no guarantee that good would triumph. More than once I figured a character would survive to the end of the saga, only to have their strings abruptly severed in the middle of a book, and I was OK with that. When their role came to an end, it was as end. Period. Their sacrifices meant something, their loss was felt, and their removal from the stage had consequences.

That’s where my dissatisfaction with the end begins. Too many characters returned, and while I understand the desire to give them a last few moments on stage, it just cheapens their memories. At the same time, other characters who were set up as beings of power, as forces to be reckoned with, simply stepped aside or faded away. There was no severing of their strings, and no meaning to their absence. Even worse, I swear some were just forgotten. At some point it all became too much.

I felt as if I needed a scorecard to keep track of all the names, their factions, their role in the conflict, and whether we were supposed to cheer for them or jeer against them. I hate to say it, but I just stopped caring. I stopped putting in the work to understand them, to evaluate their actions, and to anticipate what was coming next. Instead, I sat back and watched, curious as to what would happen, but not really invested in the outcome.

Hand in hand with the troubling character arcs, entire storylines that seemed to have such overwhelming significance were either not resolved at all, or thrown into resolutions that reeked of deus ex machina. Far too many were simply abandoned, while others became so twisted that they were no longer recognizable when they reached their conclusions. Again, I liked the twists of the earlier books, but those twists added something to the story. Here, many of them just fell flat, taking away from the overall story.

Don’t get me wrong, the book had some epic moments that truly made me grip the page a bit tighter. There were scenes in it that absolutely took my breath away. I really liked a lot of it - just not the entire package. The final 50 or so pages were some of the hardest in the series to slog through, and even after rereading them twice, I'm still not convinced I understand precisely what happened. Even that's not new - other volumes have left me scratching my head and scrambling for a Wikipeda synopsis - but what was new was that I no longer cared to understand.

Would I still recommend the series to a new reader? Absolutely! Final flaws aside, this was still one of the finest fantasy sagas I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Stop with Toll The Hounds, and you’ll likely come away content. Continue on and you'll have to decide for yourself whether the sacrifice is worth it. Personally, I would have been quite content for the series to simply continue . . . this seemed forced and awkward, and left me feeling empty.

Monday, May 2, 2011

EXPLORATION: The Stone Jug

Despite recent attempts at revitalization (summer festivals and art galleries), downtown Niagara Falls remains a decrepit ruin, a mere shadow of its former glory. Empty storefronts, interspersed with bars and nightclubs, dominate the scene. Walk the streets and you can literally feel the sense of neglect in the air. Stray too far from City Hall and you'll be craving a hot shower by the time you get home. Perhaps that's why a building like the Stone Jug projects such an awesome presence. Located at the corner of Park & Zimmerman, the Stone Jug is three stories of limestone grandeur, testament to an all-but forgotten age when the area was the heart of government and commerce. The building itself was designed by Thomas Fuller, architect of the original Parliament buildings in Ottawa. Apparently, the round-headed archways, stringcourses, quoins, and gables are considered something to marvel at. Really, it's the stone that makes the building. Dark, grey, and clearly carved by hand, each stone has its own unique beauty. Some, particularly those on side of the building, sport fossils of an even older age. Originally a Post Office/Customs House, the building was nearly destroyed by a furnace explosion in 1927. Repairs were made, the Post Office moved out, the Custom House hung on until 1952, and the Police move in until 1976. Yet, as your eye wanders along the building today, it's all too easy to forget all that. As you take in the boarded up windows, gaping holes, and barbed wire, it's all too easy to really, truly believe you are looking at the untouched remains of the explosion. Step around back, and the true history reasserts itself once more, even as the desolation confuses the imagination. Look up to the twisted metal bars, and you can almost hear the men and women screaming for release from the fiery inferno. The cells didn't come along until 30 years after the explosion, but the image still haunts you. There is said to be a tree growing inside the building, one that has taken root in the filth that's blown through over the years. One look up, into the third story windows, and out through the roof, and you no longer need to wonder how the tree gets its sunshine and water. A quick jog across the road, up the hillside, and along the overgrown track of the abandoned rail bridge, reveals the full extent of the devastation. Pitted and pockmarked, burned and broken, the roof does little more than give the pigeons a place to roost, and the bats a place to escape the sunlight. Despite it all -- or, perhaps, in spite of it all -- nowhere is the beauty in ruins better exemplified than here.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Age of Ra by James Lovegrove

Okay, I admit it - I'm a sucker for a pretty face, a hot body, and a flashy book cover. This one caught my eye and, on a whim, I decided to pick it up. If the cover was the tease, then the premise itself was pure temptation.

Imagine a world in which the gods are real, in which they've gone to war, and in which the ancient Egyptian ones have defeated all others. Odin, Zeus, Allah, Jesus . . . all of them, dead and gone. The major powers of the world are still at war (yeah, like that's a surprise!), but under the banners of their own patron Egyptian gods. So, you've got men and women armed with ancient weapons (flails, maces, and sickles), modern weapons (guns, tanks, and planes), magical weapons (god-powered staves and bombs), and even armies of mummies resurrected from the battlefield.

Most of the book follows the adventures of a British Lieutenant, sole survivor of his platoon, who is rescued from the brink of death and taken to Freegypt - an atheist country that doesn't answer to any of the gods. There he encounters the Lightbringer, a masked revolutionary who is leading the atheists of Freegypt into battle to destroy all of the gods. Of course, all is not what it seems, and motives in this war are no more pure than any other.

Ultimately, what sets the books apart from just another Stargate clone are the scenes involving the gods themselves. Lovegrove plays with the stories of the Egyptian mythology and weaves them into his tale very nicely. Incest, bisexuality, homosexuality, and shapeshifting deception all play a role in the petty conflicts that ultimately drive their earth-bound armies. Fun, exciting, and sometimes even profound (without being preachy), this a book worth picking up.

Friday, February 4, 2011

EXPLORATION: Winter Gloom (part 2)

With the counterfeit promise of an Arctic spring dominating my thoughts, I turned from the old ship and marched back to the car without another glance. If this journey was to have any redemptive value whatsoever, I had to cling to those moments of hope, wherever and however they might be imagined.
Entirely on a whim, I chose to follow the sign at the next intersection and head to Ball's Falls. Why? I have no idea. The only thing a frozen waterfall can do is remind you of what February has taken from you - the sound and spray of the raging rapids - and what is continues to deny you - the chance to hike down to the water's edge and gaze up and the torrent of water above.
On first glance, the 'bowl' of Ball's Falls is just as sad and dreary as you'd expect. All colour has been washed away. There are no trees, no bushes, no flowers, no dirt, and no rocks to be seen - everything is shrouded in white. It's as if February has leached the life out of the scene.
Look closer, though, and something remarkable appears. The cold and snow may be able to disguise the beauty of the waterfall, but they can't destroy it. The top of the waterfall resembles a collage, with a still photo superimposed on the running water. You can see the frozen curtain of the waterfall, a thousand tiny icicles dangling inches away from the reduced, yet still raging water behind them.
Follow the water down, and the picture stops even as your breath does. Three months of cold and snow have sculpted the base of the falls into a layered cake, with three perfect plateaus. Look closely, and you can see the water swirling and cascading atop them, before over the edge and into oblivion.
Look closely, and it's almost alien in its beauty. The raging, bubbling, boiling caldron of icewater is something that looks entirely out of place in the drab, dreary, February landscape.
As the sun begins to set, and we take a step back, there is still beauty to be found in winter. The gloom may be back tomorrow, and will likely persist for another month or two, but there are moments where the veil is drawn aside and something of the real world emerges.