Category: Blog

Apr 20, 2018

Five Books With Deadly Pop Music

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If reading has taught me anything, it’s that pop stars are not to be trusted. They’re all up to something—whether they’re fleshy marionettes of literal spiders from Mars (as in David Lapham’s Young Liars) or just run-of-the-mill Satanists and serial killers. And that’s just the talent. If you have the extreme misfortune of meeting a producer… don’t take their card or shake their thick, ring-encrusted hand; just run.

(Some spoilers below.)

KILLER HITS In Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Zoo City This is—first and foremost—a book in which perpetrators of serious crimes are saddled with a physical manifestation of guilt in the form of an animal, a literal monkey on their back. It’s called animalling, and our protagonist, Zinzi, is “cursed” with a sloth. Also: an ability to find things, through which she gets involved in a number of missing person investigations that all seem to lead to a sinister producer and a brother/sister super group. Come for the always-fantastic Lauren Beukes; stay for the giant albino crocodile (and the sloth).


DAVID BOWIE DOOMSDAY in Coin Locker Babies by Ryū Murakami

Coin Locker BabiesThe premise: two brothers abandoned in a train station locker grow up with the singular purpose of destroying their mother, Tokyo, and the world. I originally picked up this book by accident, and have lovingly referred to it as “The Wrong Murakami” ever since. Amazon reviewers agree that the first sentence is a horrifying endurance test, and the rest of the novel is an exercise in nausea… but, if you can make it through the violence and nihilism, you get a glam rock star ruling over Toxitown (it’s exactly what it sounds like) while developing a doomsday poison from eggplants. These are spoilers, but trust me, it doesn’t really matter.

Fun fact: as in Zoo City, twins and pet crocodiles loom large in Coin Locker Babies.


DRUM AND BASS AND BASHING SKULLS in King Rat by China Miéville

King RatIt’s the 90s, and the Pied Piper of Hamelin wants in on London’s burgeoning dance underground. In a scene right out of Edward Gorey’s High Fidelity. Pete (the Piper) convinces a skeptical DJ (Natasha) to let him lay some elaborate flute tracks on top of her Jungle beats. Just to be clear, that’s not a euphemism. Pete wants to use enchanted club music to hypnotize and kill our protagonist, Saul—a freshly orphaned rat prince coming to terms with his new life living in shadows—and if the rest of the world becomes slave to the Piper’s killer beats, so much the better!


BLACK MAGIC MOSH PITS in Hellblazer: Rare Cuts by Jamie Delano

Hellblazer“Everyone who moved in occult circles knew Alex Logue as a crap-head of the first order—a sex and drugs magician,” begins Hellblazer #11 (“Newcastle: A Taste of Things to Come”), “but he had this club, and we’d needed a gig for the band.” The band is Mucous Membrane, a Sex Pistols knock-off fronted by John Constantine, the antihero of the comic that got me into comics. Sure, Mucous Membrane isn’t necessarily trying to kill you… but Constantine invoked a demon at their first gig (in a haunted abattoir, obviously), and that was just a taste of things to come.


SEX BOB-OMBINGS in Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’Malley

Scott PilgrimScott Pilgrim is such a powerhouse in this genre—Pop Music Trying To Kill You—that it almost doesn’t feel fair to include, but I can’t write this list and not mention evil ex-boyfriends Gideon Graves (mastermind of the League of Evil Exes and owner of the Chaos Theater) and Todd Ingram (fake vegan, telekinetic bassist for The Clash at Demonhead, and all around terrible person). They’re not trying to wipe humanity from the face of the earth or create a dance party army, but they are standing in the way of true love, and that almost feels worse.


Bonus Round!

REPTOID CHAMBER MUSIC IS A-OKAY in Lizard Music by Daniel Pinkwater

Lizard MusicI was tempted to make this a list of five Daniel Pinkwater novels since he’s been my favorite author since I was nine years old and has written four of my top five favorite novels (in order: Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars, The Last Guru, and Borgel). Pinkwater doesn’t write many psychotic pop stars, though… even if Victor, the eleven-year-old protagonist of Lizard Music, does worry that “lizards who can play clarinets and saxophones might be capable of anything” (emphasis mine). Instead, in Lizard Music, we learn that five feet tall, talking lizards are generally pretty nice.


Originally published in April 2015.

Nick Courage is a New Orleans-born writer who splits his time between Brooklyn and Pittsburgh, where he lives with his wife and two cats. His work has recently appeared in The Paris Review Daily, Story, and Full Stop. His novel The Loudness is available from Sky Pony Press.

Apr 20, 2018

The Word-Worlds of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem

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Anathem, by Neal Stephenson, is one of my favorite books of all time—a thousand-page journey to another world that feels just a step removed from ours. It achieves this “existence-next-door” effect in a hundred different ways, but one of the most significant and pervasive is the book’s vocabulary, the very language Stephenson uses to tell his story.

The tale is set in a society that has apparently moved on in some way, very much like an Earth that has traveled along a trajectory where engineers and scientists come to be viewed at an increasingly distant remove from non-technical types. Knowledge of even basic scientific principles is relegated solely to a specific class of citizens with the desire to understand such things. The scientists become something like monks, called “Avout” in the book. They live in segregated communities called “Concents” organized in smaller communities called “Maths” based on seniority. These Concents are only opened to the public once per year, during a ritual known as “Apert.” Their version of monkish kung fu is taught in a place called the Vale, and is therefore called “Vale-Lore.”

Are you starting to see how it works? The Concents are both convents (of a sort), and concentric circles, rings of increasingly senior Avout—people very devout in their avocations. Apert: aperture, an opening. Vale-Lore: valor. The novel is full of this sort of thing. Even its title, “Anathem,” refers to a rarely-sung mass of expulsion when an Avout really screws something up. An anthem of anathema. As the story continues, we become more fluent in this vocabulary, understanding the reasons this world, called Arbre, is organized the way it is. Our own path of initiation into the mysteries of Anathem follows that of the main character, a young Avout named Fraa Erasmus, as he also slowly figures out the bigger picture of his existence and delves deeper into the various Concents.

It all feels juuuust familiar enough that we’re never completely lost, but it also feels very other, very different, very fresh. That alone is an incredible feat or writerly engineering. It’s hard enough to come up with one cool name for something, much less a hundred or so, each feeling appropriate and right. But then, the really, truly awesome thing—Stephenson pulls yet another card out of his deck, and reveals that Arbre feels similar to Earth because it almost is Earth. It’s a parallel dimension where the language evolved slightly differently—but that doesn’t mean our Earth isn’t part of the story too. We discover this when a minor character in the story is revealed to have been an alien interloper all along… an alien from our world, Earth, called “Laterre” in the book because the alien also happens to be French. Our own history on our own world exists within the world of Anathem—you and I are part of the story— it’s just mostly left off-stage.

The reveal lands so completely and well you can almost feel Neal Stephenson standing over your shoulder grinning with glee as you read it. It makes everything in the book make a new kind of sense, and also elevates it to an entirely new place.

It is, without a doubt, awesome, and as a writer myself, it’s the kind of thing that left me awestruck. May I build something half as cool in one of my own stories one day.

Charles Soule is a musician, attorney and the New York Times bestselling author of numerous comics titles for Marvel, DC, Image and other publishers, with over 2.2 million individual comics sold in 2017 alone. He is best known for writing Daredevil, She-Hulk, Death of Wolverine, and various Star Wars comics from Marvel Comics, as well as his creator-owned series Curse Words from Image Comics and the award-winning political sci-fi epic Letter 44 from Oni Press. His novel The Oracle Year is now available from Harper Perennial.

Apr 20, 2018

“I’m not the bad guy” — Daredevil

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Daredevil was created in 1964 by Stan Lee and Bill Everett, based on a character design by Jack Kirby. DD has one of the more ingenious superhero disguises, as his secret identity is a blind lawyer named Matt Murdock. Thanks to the early-Marvel catch-all of radiation = super-powers, young Matt was blinded by a radioactive canister, but his other senses were expanded a hundredfold.

The character was always something of a B-lister, never having the same level of prominence as Spider-Man and the Avengers and the Fantastic Four throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and in the 1980s, the title was on the verge of cancellation, when writer Roger McKenzie departed the title and his artist, Frank Miller, was given the chance to write the book. Under Miller’s guidance, the book was increased to monthly and became immensely popular, as Miller built on the darker tone McKenzie had started, and focused on DD as a city vigilante, fighting gangsters and such, in particular a minor Spider-Man villain, the Kingpin of Crime, as well as ninjas—lots of ninjas.

DD’s popularity meant that the spate of early 21st-century movies featuring Marvel characters almost had to include ol’ Hornhead.

Miller’s work vaulted Daredevil to the A-list. In addition to bringing in the Kingpin, he also utilized several elements that previous writers had created, from the incredibly skilled assassin Bullseye (created by Marv Wolfman) to Daily Bugle reporter Ben Urich (created by McKenzie). Urich actually figured out that DD and Murdock are one and the same.

Perhaps the biggest thing Miller did, though, was a retcon regarding Murdock’s pre-Daredevil past. He introduced Elektra Natchios, a diplomat’s daughter whom Murdock met while he was at Columbia University. They had a tumultuous relationship, he confided his secret to her, but then her father was killed, and she went home.

He went on to become a superhero, she went on to become a ninja assassin, and their tumultuous relationship got even more so when they crossed paths again years later. And the issue in which she died at Bullseye’s hands, issue #181, remains regarded as a classic comic book. She was later resurrected, and has continued to be a presence in DD’s life, and elsewhere in the Marvel milieu.

Like so many Marvel properties, Daredevil was optioned by a studio. The backdoor pilot for a DD TV show in The Trial of the Incredible Hulk didn’t come to anything, so they sold the film option to 20th Century Fox, which wound up being the first of many. It bounced around to Columbia (after failed negotiations with Disney), and finally New Regency, who used Fox to distribute it. Cha cha cha. Chris Columbus was attached for some time, and he even wrote a script, then Mark Steven Johnson was brought in to write a new script, and when the rights settled with New Regency, Johnson was also hired to direct.

Early-21st-century “it” couple Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner were cast as Daredevil and Elektra, respectively. (Garner would star in a solo spinoff two years later, which we’ll cover next week, and it was meeting on this set that led to their being that couple.) Michael Clarke Duncan was cast as the Kingpin, with Colin Farrell as Bullseye. While Kingpin is white in the comics—and the other two times he’s been done on screen he’s been played by John Rhys-Davies and Vincent D’Onofrio—he was cast with a black actor here. Having said that, Duncan actually looks most like the Kingpin of the comics of the three of them (though all three have the requisite massive physicality required for the role).

The rest of the cast included longtime character actor Joe Pantoliano as Urich, David Keith and Erick Avari as the fathers of, respectively, Murdock and Elektra, and Jon Favreau as Murdock’s law partner Foggy Nelson. (Five years after this, Favreau would be one of the first movers and shakers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, directing Iron Man and appearing in it as Happy Hogan.) Paul Ben-Victor, Jude Ciccolella, Leland Orser, and Robert Iler rounded out the cast. It was particularly entertaining in 2003 to see Iler, who played Anthony Soprano Jr. on The Sopranos, as a bully.

Daredevil became one of the most successful February releases in history, but given the movies that are generally released in February, this is rather like being the finest ice skater in the Bahamas. Critical response was mixed, and when Elektra failed at both the box office and critically, the planned DD sequel (which would possibly have adapted the “Born Again” storyline by Miller and David Mazzucchelli) never came to be. Aside from a cameo in Elektra, Hornhead wouldn’t be seen on screen again until 2015 when Marvel’s Daredevil would inaugurate Netflix’s collection of MCU shows.


“I need a fucking costume!”

Written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson
Produced by Gary Foster and Amon Milchan and Avi Arad
Original release date: February 14, 2003

Daredevil is clutching a cross atop a church. He falls down into the church itself, where Father Everett finds him. A voiceover talks about how your life flashes before your eyes when you’re dying, and that prompts a flashback…

Young Matthew Murdock is tormented by bullies growing up in Hell’s Kitchen. His father is Jack Murdock, a former boxer who now works as an enforcer for a mobster named Fallon. However, Jack’s been lying to Matt and when Matt discovers the truth, he runs away angrily, only to get involved in an accident that causes radioactive waste to hit his eyes.

While the gunk blinded him, his other senses are heightened greatly. He can use his increasing hearing as a kind of sonar, his increased touch enables him to hone his athletic skills, and he soon becomes quite the bad-ass. He beats up the bullies who were after him, and also saves the life of an old man who looks just like Stan Lee from being run over while crossing the street.

Jack makes Matt promise to make something of himself, to become a doctor or a lawyer. Jack also gets back into boxing, but he’s still in Fallon’s pocket. Fallon orders him to take a dive, but with Matt in the audience watching (well, listening), Jack wins the fight, only to get pounded to death by one of Fallon’s enforcers, a big guy from the Bronx named Wilson Fisk, who leaves a rose on the corpse.

Matt grows up and goes to law school, starting a practice with his best friend Franklin “Foggy” Nelson. Matt insists on only taking clients who are innocent, and he can tell who’s innocent or guilty by listening to their heartbeats. Most of the cases are pro bono, too, or at the very least are clients who can’t afford lawyers. (One client pays with fluke.) Foggy wants to branch out to actual rich and possibly guilty clients, but Matt insists.

In addition, Matt has honed his athleticism and use of his enhanced four remaining senses to dress up in a red devil outfit (inspired by the devil-style outfit Jack wore) and dispense justice when the law isn’t enough. We see him in a case against a rapist named Jose Quesada. Matt and Foggy lose the case, and so Daredevil chases down Quesada from a bar and into the subway, where DD watches him get run over and killed by the C train. Later, he stops a mugging and chases the bad guy into a building. A kid observes DD beating the crap out of the mugger and cowers in fear, but DD insists that he’s not the bad guy. The kid looks unconvinced.

Battered and bruised, Matt returns home and showers and tends his wounds. He hears a woman getting shot and killed as he’s getting into his isolation chamber for sleep, but does nothing about it.

While Foggy and Matt are in a coffee shop, a woman walks in. Matt immediately starts hitting on her for reasons that aren’t particularly clear. He gives her his name but she doesn’t give hers as she walks out. Matt follows her and they wind up having a friendly sparring session in a playground. She introduces herself as Elektra Natchios (while holding a side kick near his throat), the daughter of Nikolas Natchios, the billionaire.

New York Post reporter Ben Urich has been doing stories on Daredevil—most people believe him to be an urban legend—and also has been gathering evidence on the so-called “Kingpin” who runs all organized crime in New York City. Not everyone believes he exists either, but even those who do believe don’t know who he is.

As it happens, it’s Fisk, who has risen to prominence as the head of Fisk Corporation, and Nikolas is one of his investors. However, he wants no part of this anymore, and asks Fisk to buy him out.

Elektra tracks down Matt and he takes her to a rooftop he used to love as a kid, as it provided a great view of the city. Their romantic interlude is cut short when his hyper senses pick up a crime in progress and he leaves her to help the victim as Daredevil.

The woman Matt heard getting shot before sleeping was a prostitute, and they found a man named Dante Johnson passed out nearby. Johnson hires Nelson and Murdock to defend him. Matt is confused, though, as Johnson is telling the truth—but Detective McKenzie, the cop who seems to have set Johnson up, also appears to be telling the truth.

Fisk sends for an Irish assassin who goes by the sobriquet “Bullseye.” Bullseye can kill anyone with anything—he kills a bartender he doesn’t like in Ireland with paperclips, and suffocates his seatmate on the plane to New York with peanuts.

Matt confronts McKenzie, and discovers that he has a pacemaker, so that the heartbeat trick won’t work. McKenzie also says that the Kingpin, whoever he is, calls all the shots and there’s nothing some pissant lawyer can do about it.

Bullseye goes after Nikolas. Daredevil tries to stop him, but Bullseye grabs DD’s billy club, and uses it to kill Nikolas. Both Elektra and the cops believe that DD killed Nikolas. Fisk is pleased, as DD has been a thorn in his side for a while now and having him be wanted for murder works out nicely. (Of course, he’s already wanted for the murder of Quesada, but never mind.)

A forensic scientist shows Urich the murder weapon in the Natchios case, and Urich recognizes it as Matt’s cane.

Elektra goes after Daredevil, stabbing him in the shoulder with a sai. She unmasks him and is appalled to realize that it’s Matt. She believes Matt (a bit late) when he says he didn’t kill Nikolas, and then Bullseye shows up and Matt says he killed Nikolas. (How everybody found each other on this rooftop is left as an exercise for the viewer.)

Bullseye kills Elektra. Daredevil goes after Bullseye. They wind up at the church where the movie started, and we’re back full circle. They fight each other, Bullseye realizing that loud sounds annoy him when they crash into the organ and ringing the church bell to disorient him. During the fight, Bullseye reveals (a) that Fisk is the Kingpin and (b) that Fisk used to be Fallon’s enforcer and he was the one who killed Jack.

Daredevil tosses Bullseye out a stained-glass window and he lands on Urich’s car. Bullseye is taken to a hospital and put in traction, while Urich reveals that Fisk is the Kingpin, based on information he got from Nelson and Murdock—he has no proof, but he gives the cops Fisk’s right-hand man.

Battered and bruised, DD goes to Fisk’s tower. They fight each other, and DD breaks the Kingpin’s legs. But he doesn’t kill him, leaving him for the cops, declaring again that he’s not the bad guy, because he only committed assault instead of murder. Yay?

Johnson gets off and is eternally grateful. Urich warns Matt that he knows his secret, and he actually writes the article about who DD really is, but then he decides to delete it.


“You sure you’re blind?”

The biggest problem with Daredevil is that he’s always kind of been a second-rate Spider-Man. Numerous attempts were made to make DD stand out, but he always lagged behind the web-head as the top red-suited acrobatic hero in town. Even when Frank Miller revitalized the character in the 1980s, the character was often in Spidey’s shadow.

This extended to the movies, as Daredevil came out the February following the first Spider-Man film, and it was inferior in every way.

What’s frustrating is that it’s obvious that Mark Steven Johnson is familiar with the comics. He elegantly fuses together the various elements—DD’s origin, Elektra, Kingpin, Bullseye, Nelson and Murdock’s law career—into a single storyline. And I do like the fact that several of the side characters are named after creators who worked on the Daredevil comic—Lee, Everett, Mack, Bendis, Miller, Quesada, Colan, Romita, McKenzie—plus the cameos by DD writers Frank Miller and Kevin Smith, in addition to the ubiquitous Stan Lee. Johnson also re-creates several comics panels, most notably Bullseye’s murder of Elektra.

For all that he shows awareness of the character’s comics history in the abstract, though, he doesn’t get the context at all. To start with, the Matt/Elektra pairing is a complete failure. It worked in the comics (and in the Netflix series) because it was seeded in a flashback to Matt’s college days. The flashbacks give the relationship a chance to breathe, and gives it depth.

In this movie, there’s nothing. They barely know each other, Matt’s reasons for approaching her are never explained, and his going after her is one very small step below stalker. The playground fight is fun, but it’s the opening salvo of a long relationship, and we don’t get that. Instead we get two characters who suddenly are each other’s one twue wuv without anything to justify it. And everything happens so fast that Bullseye stabbing her has very little impact—made worse by the aping of the structure of Daredevil #181, but with none of that classic issue’s emotional resonance.

The worst, though, is that this isn’t a superhero movie, because at no point is Daredevil remotely a hero. Johnson systematically removes everything noble about Daredevil, starting with his origin. In the comics, Matt was blinded saving the life of an old man. In the movie, it’s just a dumb accident. At no point anywhere in the film does Matt or DD act heroic.

To make matters worse, Johnson has no understanding of how the justice system works. It’s bad enough that Daredevil murdered Quesada in cold blood, a moment at which I lost any interest in the character. But to make matters worse, DD only went after Quesada after the latter was declared innocent in a rape case against Matt and Foggy’s client.

Here’s the thing: victims of crimes don’t have lawyers in criminal cases. The district attorney’s office prosecutes the alleged perpetrators. The only way for Nelson and Murdock to be representing a rape victim in a courtroom is in a civil case, where the burden of proof is far less than it is in a criminal case.

And Matt and Foggy still lost. Which doesn’t mean that the justice system failed, it means that Matt and Foggy failed as lawyers. And because Matt and Foggy are shitty lawyers, Matt decided to suit up as DD and commit murder.

At one point, DD tells a little kid that he isn’t the bad guy, and he repeats it, hoping he can convince himself. He never convinced me. Supposedly he’s better by the end because he “only” broke Fisk’s legs (likely crippling him for life) and threw Bullseye out a window (almost definitely crippling him for life), but that just makes him a different class of criminal. It’s left annoyingly unclear why, exactly, Urich doesn’t expose Daredevil, as he’s a violent vigilante who shows no evidence of even being beneficial to the community.

For the second time on this site, I’ve done a rewatch of a movie I hated, which had a later director’s cut. In both cases—the other one is Star Trek: The Motion Picture—I never saw the director’s cut until I did the rewatch here on In both cases, I was told repeatedly that the director’s cut would cure all the ills of the theatrical cut.

In both cases, those people were full of it, as the director’s cut is just as bad as the theatrical release. The subplot with Johnson (played with amusing goofiness by Coolio) and Detective McKenzie (played with Jude Ciccolella’s usual sliminess) is an unfocused mess that displays more of Matt and Foggy’s lawyerly incompetence. (Talking to the wall? Really?) And it’s never made clear what evidence, exactly, was provided to help bring Fisk down. The additions in the director’s cut add nothing of consequence, and still keeps in everything that’s actively bad in the film

That includes the two leads. While the supporting cast is very strong, Ben Affleck is phony and awful for the most part. He’s only good when he allows himself to relax, which is in his romantic scenes with Jennifer Garner’s Elektra and in his delightful banter with Jon Favreau’s Foggy. But as the square-jawed vigilante, he’s dreadful. Garner’s not much better, though she has the physicality for the role. However, she never sells the tragedy. Elektra is a complex character who lost everyone she loved and turned to violence, but in Garner’s hands, she’s a talentless dilettante who pouts a lot and doesn’t even know to tie her hair back when she goes out to kill people.

It’s too bad, because they’re surrounded by great performances. Michael Clarke Duncan is a letter-perfect Kingpin (he’s the best of the three live-action Fisks, and that’s with no disrespect to John Rhys-Davies or Vincent D’Onofrio, who were both also superb), Joe Pantoliano is, as always, a delight as Urich, Favreau’s Foggy is hilarious, David Keith was born to play an over-the-hill pugilist, and Colin Farrell is having such a blast as Bullseye I found myself rooting for him more than DD. (Having said that, he’s a little too over the top overall, and the movie could have done with less of him.)

However, the strength of the support isn’t enough to counteract the drag effect of the leads or of the script’s inability to understand the lead character. Johnson’s directing is fine—the film’s lovely, even if the CGI is noticeably weaker than it was in contemporary Marvel films (even Hulk had better CGI)—and his use of sound is particularly impressive. I would’ve liked it if the film didn’t go out of its way to contrive rainstorms to make DD’s life easier, but whatever.

Ultimately, though, this movie winds up being just like the comic: it’s a weak version of Spider-Man.

However, it did spawn a spinoff with Garner. Next week, we’ll look at Elektra.

Keith R.A. DeCandido‘s birthday was this past week. Please wish him a happy birthday in the comments.

Apr 20, 2018

Fractured Bonds: Revealing Kim Wilkins’ Sisters of the Fire

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We’re excited to share the cover for Sisters of the Fire, the second book in Kim Wilkins’ Norse-flavored fantasy series. In Daughters of the Storm, five very different sisters—the warrior, the magician, the lover, the zealot, the gossip—team up against their stepbrother to save the kingdom. The series continues in Sisters of the Fire, as an old enemy threatens the fragile peace they have built…

Cover art by Jeffrey Alan Love

Sisters of the Fire publishes in January 2019 with Del Rey. From the catalog copy:

Four years have passed since the five sisters—daughters of the ruling king—worked together to restore their father to health and to the throne, while fracturing the bonds between themselves almost irreparably.

Only Bluebell is still at home, dutifully serving as heir to her father’s kingdom. Rose has been cast aside by her former husband and hides in exile with her aunt, separated forever from her beloved daughter, Rowan. Ash wanders the distant wastes with her teacher, learning magic and hunting dragons, determined that the dread fate she has foreseen for herself and her loved ones never comes to pass. Ivy rules over a prosperous seaport, married to an aged husband she hates, yet finding delight in her two young sons, and the handsome captain of the guard. And as for Willow, she hides the most dangerous secret of all—one that could destroy all that the sisters once sought to save.

Apr 20, 2018

The Wheel of Time Named One of America’s 100 Most Beloved Books

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PBS Great American Read The Wheel of Time

Tor Books and are excited to announce that Robert Jordan’s iconic work of fantasy, The Wheel of Time, has been named as one of American’s 100 most beloved books by PBS’ Great American Read series!

Jordan’s epic will be included in its entirety (all 10,173 pages!) making it the longest entry in the list of 100 books vying to be named America’s favorite in PBS’ Great American Read, an eight-part television and online series, hosted by Meredith Vieira and designed to spark a national conversation about reading.

Robert Jordan began writing his multi-volume fantasy epic in 1984, with the first volume The Eye of the World, coming out from Tor Books in 1990. It was originally planned as a three-book series, then a six-book series, but expanded in the writing. The author passed away in 2007 while working on the very final volume, A Memory of Light, which was subsequently completed by author Brandon Sanderson as a three-volume concluding trilogy: The Gathering Storm, Towers of Midnight, and A Memory of Light. The very final scene of the series was written by Jordan himself before his passing, and we’re happy to see this masterwork of modern fantasy included in the pantheon of Great American Reads.

The Great American Read will launch with a special on Tuesday, May 22 at 8/7c on PBS stations. Host Meredith Vieira along with authors, teachers, actors, athletes, and readers of all stripes will discuss these 100 diverse and beloved books that have shaped America. Audiences are encouraged to read along and vote for their favorites as the series attempts to identify the singular most beloved American read.

The series will span themes including “Growing Up,” “Heroes,” “Villains and Monsters,” “Brave New Worlds,” “What We Do for Love,” and, of course, “Being American.” In Fall 2018 seven new episodes will follow the quest to name America’s most beloved book.

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Apr 20, 2018

Black Lightning: The Family That Fights Together, Stays Together

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In the very first moments of the premiere of Black Lightning, a bleeding Jefferson Pierce lies face-up in a bathtub, open wounds gushing all over him, as he gazes into his wife Lynn’s eyes and promises that he will leave the superhero game for good.

Obviously, if you’re watching a show called Black Lightning, it’s because you assume that he will never keep this promise. Part of us may even cruelly want to see how long Jefferson can keep toeing the line between his own sense of duty and the concerns of his family. How does one keep the streets clean and keep their family’s minds at ease at the same time? Many a superhero show would have their protagonist hide from that pressure for as long as they possibly could.

This show takes a different path—not only does Lynn already know the score, but Jefferson’s daughters Anissa and Jennifer learn about his superhero moonlighting quite early compared to other shows of its kind, and they also learn that they’re all irrevocably connected to the troubled history of their hometown itself. As it stands, they have very little choice about whether they will be forced to respond to that history—the only questions are how, and how much will be asked of them.

[This article contains spoilers for the first season of Black Lightning, including the finale.]

It’s a particularly ironic, then, that these questions are finally answered in a scene that begins with Lynn once again leaning over Jefferson and gazing at him with worry—but this time, with his entire family around him as well, not only ready to support his efforts but ready to join him, to fight for the same cause.

By the time we reach this point, a lot has gone down in Freeland: Tobias Whale has been using the street gang known as “the 100” to flood the neighbourhood with a designer superdrug called Greenlight, with side effects ranging from increased strength and aggression to fullblown superpowers. 100 lieutenant Lala has been arrested, murdered behind bars by Tobias, resurrected and haunted by those he’s killed, and unknowingly brainwashed into doing Tobias’ bidding. Tobias has killed his immediate criminal superior, Lady Eve, and framed Black Lightning for the murder. The clandestine government agency known as the ASA has been kidnapping kids who’ve gained superpowers from using Greenlight, then storing them in stasis. Garfield High School vice principal Kara Fowdy has been scouting for the men in black the whole time. Jennifer’s boyfriend Khalil, after being shot and disabled by Tobias, is now a superpowered hired gun operating under Tobias’ thumb. All of these things have finally come to a head when Jefferson, hiding from the ASA’s armed strike teams and coming to terms with his two daughters’ newly manifested powers, is caught in a fight with Tobias and Khalil in the halls of Garfield High and is almost killed as a result.

The way the aftermath of this clash is handled is arguably what makes the finale so strong: Jefferson spends a lot of it inactive. This isn’t to say that Cress Williams isn’t doing a hell of a job in the role, or that Black Lightning himself isn’t one of the best parts of the show. It is terribly refreshing, however, to give Jeff’s family room to take over the heroic spotlight. Jennifer receives a good portion of it: following entire episodes spent griping about her powers to an almost-annoying extent, she is ultimately the reason her father survives the fight, using her powers to revive him. Throughout the episode, in fact, Jennifer seems to have finally realized that her love of her family trumps her fear and shame about her metahuman status—and it is that love of family, that need to see them all safe, that saves her parents’ lives at least three times over the course of the finale.

This episode also gave us a moment to discover more about Jefferson’s past. We’re shown more of his father, Alvin—the man who taught Jefferson to uphold the ideals that he now tries to instill into his Garfield students—via flashbacks of Jeff’s youth before his father’s murder. Admittedly, I was more than a little torn about some of these moments: On the one hand, it’s kinda corny to show a teenaged Jeff being punished by being ordered to read the U.S. Constitution because his father’s going to “quiz [him] at dinner.” On the other, the show has put so much work into underscoring Jefferson’s insistence, again and again, that African-Americans have to do and know so much more in order to seize their futures that it follows that his father was similarly intense. One of the most meaningful and affecting outcomes of these scenes is the realization of how acutely aware Alvin was of the stakes of investigating the ASA’s stranglehold on Freeland, even admitting that he is really willing to die if it would keep his son safe.

The flashbacks eventually transition into a kind of séance for Jefferson, a moment in which he is literally able to talk to his father. When this happens, he is floored by it, but it gives Alvin the chance to admit that he’s proud of what his son has done, even if that pride follows a hard question: Jefferson asks his father if he thinks dying for the truth was worth it, and Alvin admits, “I don’t know.”

What’s particularly radical here is that this scene gives Jefferson permission to cry. To be sure, the show doesn’t cut Jefferson off from his capacity to be emotive, but instead of sheer rage or the sorrow of immediate loss, this scene allows him to cry in the more genuinely vulnerable, bittersweet state of a son who is glad, if even for a moment, to have his father in his life again.

Of course, there are still bad guys that need to be electrocuted. Gambi even goes out of his way in his first few scenes to infodump about as many of them as possible, now that Jennifer has stepped into the role of our new clueless audience surrogate. Inevitably, the three-way struggle between Tobias, the ASA, and the Pierce family reaches its climax with Lala swallowing a bomb and trying (unsuccessfully) to wipe out ASA kingpin Martin Proctor.

Running out of time to keep their remaining subjects alive with stable metahuman DNA, and thoroughly frustrated with Tobias’ betrayal, Proctor goes all in on capturing Black Lightning by force, even rousing his subordinates with a literal “Make America Great Again” speech—probably a bit too heavy-handed here, which is saying a lot since a marked lack of subtlety has been working in the show’s favour for so long. Regardless, the result is a squad of black-clad commandos busting into the cabin where the Pierces are hiding just as Jefferson wakes, forcing the family to make a decision when he discovers his powers haven’t come back.

This brings us to the second time Jennifer restores her father—upon hearing that he’s determined to fight anyway, in order to draw fire away from his family, a tearful Jennifer embraces Jefferson for what she thinks may be the last time, her powers triggering beyond her control, inadvertently charging him back to full power. While I’m glad that’s a thing she can do, I really hope that in future Jennifer gets a deeper role in the family superhero business than “Black Lightning’s back-up battery.” Fortunately, the show does give us a taste of what an active, badass Jen can do when she roasts one soldier during the confrontation in order to save her mother. It even shows us Lynn gearing up for combat, rocking soldiers left and right with a shotgun like no big deal—more of all of this, please!

The fight at the cabin also establishes one thing we may need to worry about later on: the ASA seems to have a weapon that places metahumans in stasis, and if it weren’t for Black Lightning intervening in the nick of time, they may have put Anissa in a van and taken off. Beyond that, though, the united Pierces make quick work of their attackers and close in on Proctor, hoping to end it once and for all.

This climactic confrontation is one of the best scenes of the episode: the whole Pierce clan, plus Gambi, circling around a sniveling Proctor; the moment is equal parts powerful and comical. Its biggest highlight: Jennifer lifts Proctor up with a lasso of lightning and throws him against the floor like a toy. Her parents’ first response? To scold her for her rashness.

Even though this is a big win, we mustn’t forget that Tobias Whale wasn’t part of this fight, and the results of Black Lightning’s victory gives Tobias a chance to consolidate power. Some secret ASA tech is now in his hands, and while we don’t know exactly what it means yet, it’s clear that some combination of this tech and the metahuman bodies still in stasis will eventually pose a whole new set of problems for Freeland.

But still, a win is a win. Over thirteen episodes, not a great deal about Freeland has changed—the men in black may still be ready to pounce on the town, and crime still lurks in its alleys. But Freeland is safe for another day—and what’s more, the family that Jefferson always worried would be hopelessly fractured by his heroics is stronger than ever because of his actions, smiling warmly at each other as Sly & the Family Stone’s “Family Affair” plays in the background.

I look forward to exploring the full depth of that relationship—the Pierces’ emotional support and activist wisdom keeping them strong as the war continues, becoming a blueprint for unity and commitment throughout. At its core, Black Lightning seems to beabout the resilience of blackness and black community in the face of overwhelming odds, and there is no greater sign of this than a family that refuses to break down. This is the show’s new promise, embodied in the family that fights crime together, a tight-knit unit of black excellence sharing the burden of heroism. And I don’t think many of us would have it any other way.

Brandon O’Brien is a performance poet and writer from Trinidad. His work is published or upcoming in Uncanny MagazineStrange HorizonsSunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-SpeculationArsenika, and New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean, among others. He is also the poetry editor of FIYAH Magazine. You can find his blog at or on Twitter @therisingtithes.

Apr 20, 2018

The Frankenstein Chronicles Is What Grimdark Should Be

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What is this new devilry?

The Frankenstein Chronicles—the ITV Encore production starring Sean “They have a cave troll” Bean currently streaming on Netflix—is exactly what I wish all grimdark fiction would be, and I wish more writers would take a page or two from its book. I may be a high fantasy-loving Tolkien nut, but I’ve also been a fan of horror since forever. The more gothic, the better; the more supernatural, the better. And so, as a period crime show with supernatural elements, The Frankenstein Chronicles is precisely my cup of cold and galvanized tea.

The show is NOT, as other reviews have misguidedly stated, a reimagining of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, though I wouldn’t be surprised if Netflix or its producers have marketed it as such to help draw people in. Still, this isn’t a drawback. It’s a selling point, as far as I’m concerned, in an age so full of reboots and rehashed past works. Here, then, is my largely spoiler-free review.

Calling this series a reimagining of Frankenstein would be like saying Ready Player One is a reboot of all the properties it cheaply references. See, Frankenstein’s monster is not a character here, nor is Victor Frankenstein. It’s not their story. Mary Shelley herself is a character, though, and even in the plot, her famous book has already been out for almost ten years. It’s known, but not by everybody. When the protagonist seeks out a copy, his assistant finally tracks one one down. “I’m sorry it took so long. I had to go to three booksellers.”

Here’s the set-up: It’s 1827 England. Former soldier John Marlott is now a member of the London police (a river cop). While doing his job taking down thieves and smugglers and so on, he comes across a gruesome sight. A body has washed up on the banks of the Thames—a child’s body—with stitches at the joints. And when Marlott examines the corpse there in the mud… it twitches, just for a moment. Which of course only he sees.

When it turns out to be made of the parts of eight different children, all sewn together into one “composite,” things get even more disturbing.

Marlott is assigned to the case by Sir Robert Peel, England’s Home Secretary (who in real life would go on to become Prime Minister) because the “creature” means political controversy. Who made this monstrosity and why? Is it the work of a deranged lunatic, or does it have something to do with the Anatomy Act that some, like Peel, are trying to push through Parliament—a law that would allow physicians to study and experiment with any bodies supplied to them, not just those who went to the gallows. The act threatens to put resurrectionists (i.e. grave robbers) out of business. Perhaps the blasphemous composite, being the parody of a surgeon’s work, is the handiwork of someone trying to discredit those who would advance modern medicine?

Then people start dying, and the deaths begin to become known as “the Frankenstein murders.”

So why Frankenstein? It’s supposed that Mary Shelley’s book was inspired by an actual experiment involving galvanism, and that she herself bore witness to it—and moreover, that her book may have helped to influence, in turn, the actions of this story’s mysterious villain(s). Frankenstein, the novel, is just our starting point, a device from which to toss associated themes into the stew: life, death, science, godliness, godlessness, body snatching. And the possibility of reanimating of dead tissue.

All of this, and Sean Bean, too! Of course, he’s great as Marlott. And he stays alive episode after episode—that alone is worth tuning in for, isn’t it? We all like seeing Sean Bean breathing, don’t we? Now, does he remain alive to the very end? Well, you just need to watch and find out (and not have it spoiled for you, seriously). He’s perfectly cast for this. For a little while his acting seems a bit restrained, until his character’s investigations get more and more personal. He looks older and a bit tired, sure, but that fits John Marlott. He’s a jaded soldier who has lost his wife and child, for which he blames himself. Marlott’s a man of ragged faith who feels that God has abandoned him, but he’s still trying to do right. Everything else about this show tends to look rather bleak—bleak but compelling, with a tiny thread of hope to grasp at. That’s my grimdark. If everyone is irredeemably awful through and through, what’s the point?

Honestly, all the acting is great. I recognized quite a few faces from the all-too-brief runs of Home Fires, The Bletchley Circle, and other solid British dramas. I suppose the only thing that could have made The Frankenstein Chronicles perfect would be the inclusion of Downton Abbey’s Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) somehow. But that’s just me getting greedy.

What else is great about this show? Well, here’s an incomplete list of stuff in no particular order:

(1) The Roger Goula soundtrack is understated and delightfully melancholic. The intro is visually and musically lustrous. That zither! Or is it a hammered dulcimer?

(2) There’s a vibrant streak of diversity in the cast. Nineteenth-century England is normally depicted as white as can be, but there are characters of color—good and bad—in this show. As well there should be. At this point in history, the slave trade was being abolished left and right in different regions, and London also had its share of immigrants. In any case, I absolutely love the character of the constable Joseph Nightingale, played by relative newcomer Richie Campbell, and his entire story arc. He’s someone whose honor and basic human decency you can hold onto when the story otherwise gets dark.

Nightingale signs on to assist John Marlott, who is initially rather dismissive of him. But a kind of friendship takes hold by the end of Season 1 that’s worth remembering for Season 2. All along the way, the two of them have run-ins with street criminals, kidnappers, and cutthroats as they peel back the layers of crime that might just be traced to high places.

(3) The women in the cast are all fantastic, starting with Anna Maxwell Martin, who plays Mary Shelley. With their accents and vocal chops, I’d probably enjoy listening to any one of these actresses read an audiobook of practically anything—phone books, Russian novels, the Handbook for the Recently Deceased, *actual stereo instructions*…they’d make it work. Vanessa Kirby (I guess she’s in The Crown also?), who plays the wealthy Lady Jemima Hervey, and Maeve Dermody, who plays seamstress Esther Rose in Season 2, are memorable as well.

(4) This isn’t CSI: Westminster. It’s the 1800s. Forensic science is crap, but Marlott is resourceful without being unbelievable about it. Which brings me to…

(5) John Marlott is no Sherlock. We can relate to him. He’s not brilliant; he stumbles and makes mistakes and guesses wrong. He doesn’t always win. And he’s no Jack Bauer: he might have been a soldier once (“95th Rifles, 2nd Light Battalion”), one who fought at Waterloo, but his fighting days are distant now. He gets banged up easily. And he’s not armed to the teeth. He only sometimes has a pistol, when he gets permission to carry one, and it can (and does) misfire. Because 1827.

(6) The antagonists are enterprising, but they’re often as limited as the hero. They don’t have an army of minions that Marlott has to wade through. Absolutely no one knows kung fu. The bad guys’ chief defense is the good guys not knowing who they are.

(7) Time is against John Marlott in unexpected ways. On top of trying to find a missing girl and preventing further murders, he suffers from the return of a disease that he contracted on his last military campaign—and which he’d unwittingly passed to his infant daughter. (Hence his enduring grief.) And now it’s getting worse.

(8) There’s a troop of carnies in Season 2, featuring an assortment of performers and freaks (I’m a softy for carnival performers, always)—and they’re there to put on a production of Shelley’s Frankenstein, though we only get a few glimpses of that.

(9) There’s a creepy clockwork automaton in Season 2 that’s set to motion with musical box accompaniment. It’s not a major plot point, more of a thematic symbol. She’s put on display at a decadent party hosted by a wealthy and exceedingly haughty German aristocrat. Win-win-win. Gothic horror, man. It’s so good.

(10) The trappings! Flintlock pistols. Horses and carriages. Bowler hats, frock coats, gloves, canes. It’s like A Christmas Carol, but replace the all the street festivities with gruesome murders and Scrooge’s redemption with Marlott’s need to find out who’s killing people and trying to reanimate them. There’s grime covering everything where the downtrodden live, and candles freakin’ everywhere in the abodes of the wealthy.

(11) Ghosts.

So there you are. Is The Frankenstein Chronicles perfect? Nah, there are things I could nitpick. For example, I think the show relies a little heavily on visions and dream sequences, as a lot of horror does. But at least here they’re not just random and and ambiguously thrown in. John Marlott treats his affliction with mercury, which induces hallucinations in addition to not being conducive to good health. And that’s just Season 1. Season 2 supplies a very different reason for his seeing things. Plus I’m sure the show takes a few licenses with history—but it did have me looking up things I’d never researched before: Robert Peel, the real life Anatomy Act, actual galvanism, British soldiers who fought in the Napoleanic Wars. So kudos for that.

My advice to you, if you’ve not already seen it, is to avoid spoilers. The first episode, “A World Without God,” is pretty rich with exposition—especially the first 15 minutes—so pay attention. From there on the pacing becomes more manageable. There are only two seasons (so far?) and the gears do shift considerably between them. At first I wanted Season 2 to bring back more elements from Season 1 that seemed to be unresolved, but then I became invested in the new plot (and the Season 1 stuff did come back, eventually). All in all, this show’s two directors, its writers, its actors, and its whole production team have done a fine job.

Grimdark is usually defined as being dystopian, violent, and amoral. This show embodies nearly all of that—the poverty, the corruption, the sheer loss of life—but there is a sense of honor carried throughout by a few characters. The narrative doesn’t draw too many conclusions for us. Is trying to reanimate the dead an act of science, or is it blasphemy? Where does one draw the line between advancing medicine and playing God? I personally want to see more of The Frankenstein Chronicles, or at least more things like it.

Also, it sure as heck beats the pants off any other grimdark TV shows Sean Bean may have starred in—and mercifully departed from. And on that note, I’m out!

Jeff LaSala, who works for Tor Books, met Sean Bean once at a special “Behind the Scenes of Middle-earth” event a few months before The Fellowship of the Ring premiered. In the men’s room afterwards, Bean, goofing off with Orlando Bloom and Elijah Wood, said “Speak ‘friend’ and enter” to a closed toilet stall. I guess…I guess you just had to be there. Jeff is sometimes on Twitter.

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