Monthly Archives: May 2007

Black Powder War, Naomi Novik

Del Rey, 2006, 365 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-48130-5

After the long trip to China in Throne of Jade, it’s good to see Naomi Novik come back to a more conventional military novel in Black Powder War, the third volley in the Temeraire series. Given that the high concept of the series has been “the Napoleonic War with dragons”, it’s only fair that at least one novel would take place in the trenches of the war itself. If the first volume was a book of discovery rudely interrupted by combat and the second was a voyage to China capped by a bit of palace intrigue, this third volume sends Temeraire and captain Laurence on the Eastern European battlefields.

It starts as Temeraire and company are enjoying life in China after the events of the latest volume. Suddenly, a courier appears and orders them back home by way of the Ottoman Empire: Three dragon eggs there await transport back to the home islands as quickly as possible. If the voyage to China took place over sea, the trip back will have to go overland, straight toward the eastern front lines of the war.

Naturally, the trip proves to be far more complicated than simply “bring three eggs back home”. Events in Turkey don’t go as planned, stranding Laurence and crew in Eastern Europe even as Napoleon’s armies are doing well on the battlefield. If the Temeraire series has been amiable so far, circumstances soon spiral into desperation as the British crew is forces to care for the eggs in its custody, forage for food and help their allies as much as they can. Unexpected allies and even more unexpected enemies don’t make things any easier.

At this point in the series, there’s no doubt about the appeal of Novik’s prose: It’s accessible, it’s gentle, it’s fun to read and makes a good attempt at replicating the flavour of Regency-era narrative without losing the directness of more contemporary writing. Black Power War is no exception, despite the inevitable loss of the novelty effect. In terms of plotting, Novik is starting to allow herself longer dramatic loops than in the first two volumes, and the return appearance of Lien makes for a nice bit of continued tension. The narrative is not always interesting or gripping, but that may be a consequence of the events of the book themselves: No one will be fond of seeing Temeraire and Laurence stuck in the mud in Eastern Europe, so it’s only natural to wish that thing could move a bit more quickly during that time.

On the other hand, it allows Novik to showcase even more historical details about her chosen time period, and the way she integrates her fantasy elements in that framework. Napoleon himself has a walk-on role in the middle of the narrative, and there are a few intricate descriptions of dragon-boosted military operations.

Thematically, the series is also developing on a number of social issues. Temeraire is an independent thinker, and the impact of seeing how the Chinese treat their dragons is starting to be felt even as he returns home. I wouldn’t be surprised if dragon emancipation ends up forming a significant portion of the upcoming arc of the series, with consequent social commentary.

From an external perspective, it’s worth noting that this third volume of the Temeraire series is the last in Del Rey’s initial push for the series. The fourth one has been delivered and is currently making its way through the editorial process, but Black Powder War was the last volume written more or less in isolation, before the series earned widespread acclaim, got optioned by Peter Jackson and earned Novik a spot on the Hugo/Campbell ballot. It will be interesting to see how the feedback loop starts affecting the series from now on.

One thing is certain: this isn’t a closed trilogy. It’s obvious from the end of the third volume (let alone the special sneak preview of the fourth book bundled at the end) that the Napoleonic wars continue, and that Temeraire has a number of adventures ahead of him. While the series remains a bit light and has not managed to resolve the internal contradiction of being a “Napoleonic war… with dragons!” alternate history, it remains a piece of solid entertainment, and shows little signs of fatigue as it heads toward a fourth instalment.

Storyteller, Kate Wilhelm

Small Beer Press, 2005, 190 pages, US$16.00 tpb, ISBN 1-931520-16-X

If you’re not familiar with the subculture of Science Fiction writing, it can be difficult to explain the reputation that the Clarion Writers’ Workshop enjoys within the SF community. Clarion was the first big SF writing workshops for neophytes, and still remains (even after its mitosis into Clarion East and Clarion West) one of the finest. For six weeks, a small community of aspiring writers congregates in a campus, living as a group and spending their time either writing short fiction or critiquing the work of their fellow participants. It’s an intense experience: imagine living and breathing genre fiction for six weeks with little pause for anything else. (Now imagine the let-down of a return to normal life, and understand why a web search for “Post-Clarion Stress Syndrome” will net a dozen hits) Nearly every Clarion participant emerges from the experience a much better writer, which testifies about the workshop’s effectiveness.

Since the beginning of the workshop, dozens of the genre’s best writers have been to Clarion, many of them returning to teach a few years later. The program now benefits from academic sponsorship, widespread recognition and institutional respectability. But it wasn’t always so, and part of Kate Wilhelm’s Storyteller describes how the Clarion workshops developed from humble beginnings and through some rocky years. The other part of Storyteller is a compendium of Wilhelm’s writing advice, distilled from numerous Clarion workshops and her own considerable experience writing in and out of genre fiction.

The impatient will turn to the penultimate chapter, “Notes and Lessons on Writing”, as a handy summary of the writing advice offered through the book. How and where to begin a story, how to realize characters; how to describe setting; how to develop a plot. Wilhelm explains the distinction between the various forms of stories and takes some time in exploring the means and meaning of living like a writer. It’s simultaneously simple and complex writing advice. Simple, because it can be boiled down to a few pages of self-evident advice. Complex, because these axioms were derived from years of experience, and numerous attempts in finding out what works. We’re left with the results, but the proofs are left to the students.

Veteran of how-to-write books may not find anything startlingly new here, but it doesn’t matter as much as you think: the basics of writing are universal, and Wilhelm’s voice is entertaining enough that she’s captivating even when explaining the obvious difference between a novel and a short story.

But there’s also the historical-Clarion side of the book to consider. For some students of the genre, this is the part of Storyteller that makes the book worth its price. Wilhelm and her husband Damien Knight were, for decades, the backbone of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Storyteller is her memoir of life at Clarion, through cohorts of students, evolving teaching methods and variously supportive environments (for a few years, Clarion students were so rowdy that the workshop was never allowed to take place more than once at the same place).

For fans of the genre, anecdotes about budding writers are what makes Storyteller sparkle. Page 151 alone is crammed with affectionate memories: “Ted Chiang, quiet and mostly silent, who never missed a word or a nuance… Kim Stanley Robinson, already deeply serious, and George Alec Effinger, who never was… Lucius Shepherd, a mobile disaster zone… Robert Crais, as debonair and handsome then as he still is.” (Yes, that Robert Crais went to Clarion.) More interesting are the unnamed participants, those who fell by the wayside and were never nominated for Hugo awards: “the woman who seduced everything that moved, then apologized to the director because she had run out of time before getting to him.” [P.152] (Well, I’m assuming she was never nominated for a Hugo.)

Those moments, the water-gun fights and concerns about places to eat, the story of “The Red Line of Death” and dormitory troubles, are what sets Storyteller from other books, and possibly why the book earned Wilhelm a Hugo Award in 2006 for best related non-fiction book. It’s a short but perfectly enjoyable read from the fine folks at Small Beer Press, who continue to publish quirky books that may not have much of a chance otherwise. If you can’t make it to Clarion, have a look at this book. It’s decades of writing advice and experience compressed in less than two hundred pages.

Foundation’s Triumph, David Brin

Harper Torch, 1999, 392 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-105639-1

Necrophilia is a terrible thing, but some people can do anything as long as enough dollars are dangled in front of their eyes. As I write this, the “latest-last-conclusion-we-promise!” of “Frank Herbert”’s Dune series is in stores, where it takes up valuable shelf space alongside a wholly-unneeded sequel to A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan and Spider Robinson’s “collaboration” with Robert A. Heinlein. If there’s any comfort in this sad state of affairs, it’s that these cash-in experiments thankfully fade away in time and there is little better proof of this transience than the “Second Foundation trilogy” that briefly blipped in bookstores at the end of the nineties.

This time, it’s Isaac Asimov’s corpse that is up for ritual desecration. Oh, hired writers may ward off critical sarcasm with such noble incantations as “authorized by the Estate”, “I, at first, declined the contract” and “We’re the ‘Killer Bs’ of hard SF and none of us are named Kevin J. Anderson”, but the fact remains that nobody wanted another Foundation trilogy more badly than Asimov’s estate. Self-serving rationalizations about “exploring issues left open by Isaac” conveniently leave out the fact that the entire Foundation concept was invented in the 1940s and then patched up (to growing critical dismay) by Asimov himself until his death in the early nineties. If Isaac couldn’t fix it himself, what makes you think that you’d do a better job?

I lack the patience and innate cruelty to fully review all three books in the series. Oh, I could go on and on about Gregory Benford’s Foundation’s Fear and how it was twice as long as it needed to be, with a dumb subplot about artificial intelligences that seemed cut-and-pasted from another novel. (And that’s saying nothing about another useless monkey-sex subplot. Yeah, you read me right.). I could be even meaner about Greg Bear’s Foundation and Chaos and how it was 100% too long and represented yet another of Bear’s “Bad Bear!” books. But why drive the knife even further when it’s enough to state that David Brin’s Foundation’s Triumph is the least disposable tome of a wholly unnecessary trilogy?

Sometimes, it’s not enough to say that the story is dull, that the characters are not sympathetic, that the “plot” is not interesting. Sometimes, you have to go all the way up and question the very assumptions that underly a project.

Yes, there are problems with the Foundation series. Logical problems, moral problems, political problems. As a piece of pulp magazine SF in the forties, it was exceptional. As a historical marker in the history of the genre, it remains essential. But SF has moved on since Asimov’s teenage years, and what should have been left alone wasn’t. First Asimov got the supremely ill-conceived notion of tying together all of his fiction, patching up the holes between his Imperial, Robots and Foundation series with a series of rationalization that became shakier with time. Alas, the buyer’s appeal of the “Foundation” franchise did little to dissuade Asimov from adding to the mess with later novels that became less and less worthwhile.

But death is no obstacle once scruples can be papered over with lovely green banknotes. Benford, Bear and Brin thought they could continue the story, patch over even more holes and make a few points about the human condition within an increasingly artificial Foundation universe. So they bring in another layer of conspiracies, fancy new socio-technical concepts, a nonsensical plague, artificial personalities, more robots and even alien creatures in an effort to fill in the tiny holes in Hari Seldon’s life left unspecified by Asimov’s work.

But even if some of the rationalizations are very clever (even Trantor’s population density is explained), trying to patch Foundation’s badly broken model is like putting spoilers and nitro boosters on a Model T Ford: It may look modern at first glance, but the framework isn’t built to accept the add-ons and tears itself apart during the first serious test drive. If the chief appeal of “The Second Foundation Trilogy” is conceptual, so is its biggest failing.

Alas, the trilogy isn’t really better as genre entertainment. Faithful to their respective reputations, Benford’s book is overlong, Bear’s book is dull and only Brin’s book comes closest to entertainment (although even his amiable writing style is no match for the other writers’ leaden concepts). This is easily some of the weakest work all three authors have ever produced: Little wonder if the trilogy has been practically forgotten less than ten years after publication. Simply put, reading this series is a waste of time, unless you’re fresh off the entire Asimov oeuvre and wouldn’t mind nearly fifteen hundred pages of further aggravation.

That, in a more rational publishing universe, would be a warning against literary necrophilia. But as the current state of the SF shelves in bookstores indicate, there’s still more than enough money in the SF industry to make hungry authors writer whatever desecrations are authorized by the estates…

Eifelheim, Michael Flynn

Tor, 2006, 320 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-765-30096-6

Michael Flynn is a very, very smart man. Perhaps too smart for us, in fact.

One of his early success in the Science-fiction genre was a novella called “Eifelheim”, a 1986 story about two modern scientists deducing an alien visit in Black Plague-era Germany from historical evidence. “Eifelhem” earned a few bravos from Analog readers and went on to be nominated for a Hugo Award. Now, twenty years later, Flynn has turned the novella into a much longer novel.

A much, much longer novel.

On one hand, it not possible to just dismiss Eifelheim-the-expanded-story. Flynn has obviously done his research, and the novel’s most distinctive trait is how it really manages to describe life in Dark-Ages rural Germany. Even before the alien’s arrival, Flynn painstakingly describes the true state of society and technology at the time and how the characters relate to each other. This in itself isn’t what you’d expect: Flynn overturns a number of commonly-held beliefs in what the Middle Ages were like, and the result is a rich strain of historical fiction describing a way of life that is far more alien than anything we can imagine on other planets.

When the aliens land (for them, a sad case of being broken down somewhere in the galactic boondocks), the culture clash is profound, though maybe not as much as you would expect: Flynn’s protagonist, a scholar named Dietrich, is instrumental in smoothing out the problems between the stranded aliens and the superstitious villagers. As the alien work to repair their spaceship, Dietrich maintains the peace even as other powerful human entities start paying attention to what’s happening in the small village… and that’s without counting on the ever-popular black plague.

Meanwhile, in a “Now” section more or less reprinted from the original novella, a couple of scientists uncover traces of the alien presence through historical records, allowing one of them to make a fundamental breakthrough in theoretical physics.

I have said that this is a novel from a smart man, but it bears repeating. Looking at the mass of research that has been crammed into Eifelheim, one can’t help but feel overwhelmed. An entirely different alien race, plus historical fiction, plus modern fiction about the inner working of science? Gee, Flynn must be not just be smart, but a bit of a masochist. The details, the details…

So I do feel like a chump for thinking that the entire novel is a bit unnecessary. Even though the “Now” segments are saddled with an annoying voice-of-God narration that reminded of Flynn’s insufferable The Wreck of the River of Stars, I found them more interesting than the medieval bulk of the book. A sufficiently determined reader could chapter-skip the historical chapters and still get a satisfying story. At times, if you’re not overly fascinated by medieval history, Eifelheim feels like show-off fiction, like an accumulation of trivia designed to make you go “wow!” in amazement.

It makes up for a curiously fragmented reading experience. I might had had a different reaction had I encountered Eifelheim in the wild, but this has become, almost against everyone’s expectations, a Hugo-nominated novel against much-lauded competition. Comparisons between it and the other nominees are inevitable, and not necessarily flattering: Of the five novels in the running, Eifelheim feels like the slowest, the least accessible and the least fun.

But I suspect that this is as much a reflection of my own reading tastes (not necessarily partial to historical fiction) than any serious problem with the novel itself. Looking belatedly at the other reviews around the web, I see that many reviewers liked the medieval plot and dismissed the modern subplot. Oh well. I’ve always considered Flynn an uneven writer, capable of the best and the dullest. Eifelheim is no exception.

Move Under Ground, Nick Mamatas

Prime, 2004 (2006 reprint), 158 pages, US$14.95 tpb, ISBN 0-8095-5673-1

(Also freely available at www.moveunderground.com )

As I get older/wiser/crustier, I’m making efforts to change my reading habits. Schooled in the typical genre mindset that “plot is king”, I realize that sooner or later, I’ll have to appreciate reading the words themselves. Not every author wants to write according to plot, and the sooner I can accommodate that, the happier a reader I’ll be.

Move Under Ground is definitely part of my education. It may be a lot of things, but it’s not a novel built to amaze readers through mind-bending plot twists. The high concept here is “Jack Kerouac meets H.P. Lovecraft”, and if you think that plot has anything to do with those two writers, you may want to pay more attention in class next time. What if a burnt-out Kerouac, years after On The Road, journeyed back across America to save the world from an Elder God invasion? Would that be literary horror or ghastly comedy?

Well, why not both?

It’s fair to say that most allusions in this book flew way over my head. I don’t worship Kerouac’s On The Road (in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever read it), I usually find H.P. Lovercraft unreadable and most of what I know about William S. Burroughs comes from the movie adaptation of Naked Lunch. If copyright included the right to decide what kind of reader should read one’s work, Mamatas would have been justified in instructing vendors to forbid me from buying his book. (Worse yet: Since I purchased the last copy of the book on Prime’s table at L.A.Con IV, you can make a case that a more deserving reader was deprived of Move Under Ground because of my actions. Shame!)

And yet, despite those handicaps, I still managed to enjoy this novel. Mamatas’ pastiche is, of course, completely wasted on me, but the elliptical fashion in which he tells a pretty standard “Road Novel/Heart of Darkness” story seems fresh and inventive: I’ve never read apocalyptic gunfights between humans and monsters quite like the ones in Move Under Ground. Even not knowing much about the high concept can’t hide some of the coolest elements in Mamatas’ story: As a reader, one of my biggest thrills of the year so far was seeing William S. Burrough barge into a scene with guns in both hands, killing off would-be murderers with a split-second timing that has to be deduced from Kerouac/Mamatas’ matter-of-fact narration.

In fact, one of the particular pleasures of the book is in how it presents a conventional horror story with a off-beat writing style, looking in directions that are quite unlike what we’d expect from genre horror. Sometimes, it’s disconcerting: action scenes start in the middle of lengthy paragraphs, and are over just as quickly. The narration is, frankly, more interested in other things. Apocalyptic horror scenes are described with staccato minimalism, whereas musings on the American dream and mundane details of physical movement get far more attention. And through it all, Mamatas’ blend of humour and horror hits a note of pure uneasy joy. Even in marrying two clear influences, this is quite unlike any novel I’ve ever read.

Since I spend a lot of time complaining about the excessive length of many novels these days, I should note that Move Under Ground is exactly the right length for what it is: Any shorter, and the story would be closer to a novella; any longer and the high concept would become tiresome.

Keeping in mind that I’m almost the wrong sort of public for the novel, my generally satisfied reaction to Move Under Ground should be a good sign that the novel is, in fact, accessible to less-educated minds like mine. It also promises good things for my continuing effort to read for the words more than for the plot. In fact, I’m now tempted to go back and have another look at Kerouac’ On The Road

Spider-Man 3 (2007)

(In theaters, May 2007) I won’t try to pretend that I disliked the first two Spider-Man films, but it’s fair to say that I haven’t been as impressed with them as most other people have been. Partly, I mourn the Sam Raimi of the Evil Dead trilogy; partly, I can’t stand the lowest-common-denominator approach that has ensured the series’ success. So when Spider-Man 3 comes out and ends up annoying everyone, I’m left muttering “Well, what did you expect?” This being said, there’s no doubt that this third instalment is weaker than the first two ones for obvious reasons: too long, too scattered, too coincidental. Obviously, storytelling standards have fallen when, of all the possible places on Earth, a meteorite carrying an evil symbiont just happens to fall next to Peter Parker as he’s making out in the park. I happen to like the Venom plot thread, but it seems superfluous in a third tome of a trilogy chiefly concerned about the Parker/Harris/Osborne relationship. That it blows up the duration of the film well past its optimal time is just another knock against it. Without Venom, we might have been given a few more scenes fleshing out the Sandman character… although if the alternative is yet another coma-inducing speech by Aunt May, I’ll pass. No, Spider-Man 3 has obviously succumbed to the increasingly common self-importance syndrome of third-parters: the producers’ belief that it can do no wrong and audiences will lap it up any way. They may be right… but that won’t be of much comfort in a few years when hardly anyone will recall such movies with affection.

Century Rain, Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz, 2004, 532 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-575-07691-7

After a series of grim and lengthy space operas set in the far future, Alastair Reynolds breaks from “the usual” with Century Rain, a novel largely set in an alternate 1950s Paris where the Second World War never happened. Fans of the author shouldn’t worry about the different setting, because not much has actually changed about their man’s prose: the tone isn’t necessarily more cheerful and the novel is once again far longer than it should be. Despite initial expectations, this is routine material from Reynolds.

At first, we’re allowed some doubt. After all, Century Rain isn’t a part of Reynolds’ best-known “Inhibitors” series. Here, the Earth has been devastated by a nanotech plague, and there’s a serious conflict between two post-humans factions regarding what should happen to the human race. In the first few chapters, archaeologist Verity Auger sees her expedition to the surface turn horribly wrong as one of her teammates is killed. Disgraced, she’s offered a chance to move away from the spotlight for a while: someone powerful at an undisclosed location wants her expert services.

Gradually, Verity discovers that scientists have found a pre-Nanocaust alternate Earth, and that her expertise is needed to find out what has happened to one of the agents already installed in place. Teaming up with a local detective, she discovers hints that there may be another post-human group at work in alternate Paris, and that the other side may be building a weapon of unknown capabilities. But things are about to escalate. Stuck on another world without access to any advanced technology, how will Verity manage to learn the truth and go back home without bringing back the enemy with her?

Century Rain plays a long time with a mixture of futuristic action/adventure and alternate universe noir. It does seem perilously close to a conceit at time: dealing with travels to alternate universes, it’s always tempting to ask “Why just one? And why that one?” The richness of the alternate Paris setting is enough to make one guess that Reynolds first set out to play with a certain jazzy detective fiction archetype, and then wrapped up that particular atmosphere in the more familiar SF rationale. Fans of 1950s Paris will be charmed out of their socks; those who aren’t so fond of the city may have to cling to the more generally familiar action/adventure plot featuring killer children and mysterious engineering projects. Century Rain begins and ends in high-tech settings, so don’t think that this is “just” an alternate-universe story.

Like all of Reynolds’s other novels so far, Century Rain is perfectly adequate Science Fiction marred by a lack of concision. There is little reason for this novel to crack the 500-page mark: a thinner, slimmer, faster edit of the novel would be easier to read and leave a stronger impression. As it is, Century Rain is often spent waiting for something to happen. Waiting for Verity to travel to the alternate Earth. Waiting for Verity and her detective sidekick to agree to collaborate. Waiting for the clues to fall in place. Alas, those part of Century Rain are very familiar: making us wait for their inevitable occurrence just prolongs the reader’s growing exasperation.

But once everything has been revealed and all the elements are finally in place, Reynolds once again shows why he’s one of the most reliable mid-listers of British Science Fiction. His use of genre elements is fluid, his prose and characters are up to contemporary standards, his post-human political conflicts are interesting and his narrative delivers a satisfying conclusion. Not everyone will be so taken by his alternate Paris, but the novel itself is enjoyable provided one has a lot of time to read through it all.

Shrek the Third (2007)

(In theaters, May 2007) If this film has any distinctive feature at all, it’s the way it may mark the transition of the Shrek movies into a succession of episodes starring an ever-larger cast of characters. Despite the impressive progress in computer-generated animation and the lessening importance of pop-culture gags, Shrek and the gang are becoming blander and more beholden to the necessities of shareholder interests. While the film is generally harmless, the comic highlights are becoming less memorable. Stretching my memory, I can dimly recall a union of villains and a fairly good life-flashback gag involving Pinocchio, but that’s about it: the rest just blurs into a series of generally pleasant scenes without much bite. Who wants to bet that there will be a Shrek 4, 5, 6…?

Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)

(In theaters, May 2007) Oh no: Cast and Crew of the series have finally convinced themselves of their utter importance to world cinema. That’s the only way to explain this flaccid and pretentious third entry in what had begun as a perfectly balanced blend of action, horror, comedy and characterization. Oh, there’s still a solid 90 minutes of blockbuster cinema in here. Unfortunately, it’s drowned in another hour of superfluous material that advances nothing. The first act of the film is particularly annoying as the pace grinds to a halt and everything seems so important. The normally sympathetic characters seem bored, and so are we. Fortunately, things pick up longly thereafter, once past a death-world sequence that has escaped from a particularly pointless art film. Still, Johnny Depp is fun, Naomi Harris is hot, Geoffrey Rush is cool and the third act is a little masterpiece of special effects. There’s a lot of pieces in play (even if they don’t all fit together), and keeping track of them almost demands the drawn-out endings that begin to rival the end of the third Lord Of The Rings movie. I wonder if someone will ever have the guts to re-edit this self-indulgent mess properly.

Grandma’s Boy (2006)

(On DVD, May 2007) Every so often, it’s a treat to find out a little-regarded film that actually manages to deliver a better-than-expected performance. Coming from Adam Sandler’s “Happy Madison” production house, no one really expected nothing from Grandma’s Boy, and indeed it doesn’t deliver much. But it manages to be a decently entertaining stoner comedy, and that’s not too bad considering the material it had to work with. (The film’s comic highlight is a vacuuming scene.) Fratboy comedies can be painful to watch, but this one isn’t too bad as long as the concept of stoned elderly women can manage to get a smile out of you. The look inside the universe of video-game designers is good for a giggle or two, and the pacing of the film leaves little room for boredom. There are better choices out there, but this is still a way above the bottom of the barrel.

Gin Gwai [The Eye] (2002)

(On DVD, May 2007) Argh! The hype, the hype! After hearing so much about this film, here I find myself considerably disappointed. As with so many horror film, The Eye‘s first act is very promising: As a young girl undergoes a cornea transplant to regain sight, she starts seeing things that we, as sighted viewers, know aren’t normal. A bunch of utterly chilling scenes do much to crank the tension as she gets to see death in action. But then the film stumbles during its development, as the explanation it offers for the supernatural events end up being less than the sum of all chills. That would be bad enough, but then the film tackles on an extra act filled with CGI catastrophe and a detour into supernatural disaster. It really betrays the beginning the film, and paints over our initial chills with a generous coating of slick film-making seemingly inspired by action movies. Not quite what the film initially promised, and that’s too bad. Maybe that also accounts for the film’s good reputation: What if everyone remembered the first thirty minutes and forgot the rest?

The Last Coyote, Michael Connelly

St. Martin’s, 1995, 408 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-95845-5

The third volume in my continuing “Michael Connelly Reading Project” (One book per month until I’ve caught up!) is one of the keystones of the Harry Bosch series: a deep and complex investigation that reaches in Los Angeles’ history to illuminate Bosch himself.

Having read The Concrete Blonde a few years ago, it took me a few pages to get back up to speed with Bosch’s tumultuous life, and there’s a lot to learn. His girlfriend’s gone, his earthquake-damaged house has been condemned, he’s been taken off the force and forced to undergo psychological evaluation: you can imagine how well he’s taking that. Driven to drink and despair, Bosch anchors himself to an unsolved case: the murder of his own mother, thirty years earlier. Against everyone’s advice, he starts digging in the case once again, pulling at threads that many people would rather leave undisturbed.

The first chunk of The Last Coyote isn’t particularly pleasant. Bosch has never been a particularly cheery character, but even this particular situation seems like the bottom of the barrel. Loveless, homeless, jobless: It’s no wonder if his investigation into his mother’s death quickly becomes an obsession. For a while, it seems like a wholly historical exercise: digging into LAPD archives, interviewing people who may or may not remember anything about the event, chasing down the investigating officers and so on. But there’s something unusual about the case: as he learns more about it, Bosch becomes convinced that the true events have been covered up. And those who have ordered the cover up are still around…

If the beginning of the novel can be exasperating and depressing, The Last Coyote quickly claws its way back on top of the Bosch sequence as it becomes more and more directly concerned with the detective’s life. This novel becomes the most personal of Bosch’s adventures as he learns the truth about his mother and the people she used to be with.

It’s also Bosch most difficult investigation in that he has to bluff with way through it without the benefit of a badge. He risks a trip to Florida. He acts as if he’s still in the force. He uses someone else’s credentials. He knows that if someone peeks too closely into what he’s doing, he may be fired from the force —permanently. And that’s without considering that the people who ordered the cover-up may still be around, in positions of power.

Soon, the novel lets the historical background fade in order to let the events play out in contemporary L.A. Harry’s action have consequences: a recurring character is killed because of the trail Harry leaves behind him. Soon, it’s Harry himself who’s stuck in a desperate situation. Internal Affairs investigations are just the least of it.

Through it all, Connelly’s top-notch prose does wonders at pulling readers in for “just one more chapter”. Once past the ho-hum opening, the novel just keeps getting better and faster. The focus also shifts from Bosch’s mother to Bosch himself, earning the novel not only a good place in the Bosch series, but also a dramatic resonance that bring to mind other classic L.A. noir novels. The Last Coyote grows in the telling, building upon the image implicit in the title to deliver a novel that, ironically enough, works better because it’s part of a series and not despite of it. Bosch’s unresolved issues with his mother’s murder have been hanging around since the beginning of the series, and the repercussions of the case are likely to be felt in subsequent volumes.

As I’m finding out with this “Michael Connelly Reading Project”, it’s going to be hard finding a Connelly novel that is less than mesmerizing. The Last Coyote brings all sorts of threads together and even acts as a fair conclusion to Bosch’s early novels. Next up isn’t The Poet or Trunk Music (since I read those years ago), but Angels Flight. We’ll see if the streak continues.

Dead & Breakfast (2004)

(On DVD, May 2007) Don’t look any further for this month’s straight-to-DVD happy discovery: This is a fun, unpretentious, often corny zombie comedy in which a bunch of young people find themselves in the grip of unspeakable horror. It’s intentionally goofy and all the better for it when on-the-nose musical interludes enliven the film. This isn’t for everyone, but if you laughed at Evil Dead, Dead Alive or Shaun Of The Dead, this is a B-grade film in the same category. The actors do a fine job, there are a few fun twists and turns and the pacing steadily moves forward despite low production values, uncertain direction and a generally muddled plot. (When some deaths catch you by surprise, I’m not sure it’s by design as much as insufficient setup.) A warning, though: I’m a good sport for such kind of films. Your mileage will definitely vary.

Xi yang tian shi [So Close] (2002)

(On DVD, May 2007) Three beautiful Asian women in a CGI-heavy action movie. Sound promising? It is, but don’t expect too much from the end result. It’s not bad, but as the film twists and turns into something tragic, it’s not hard to see where audiences would have been more satisfied with a few more conventional storytelling choices. At least the action scenes are competently executed and the three lead each hold their own. I suspect that most guys will pant over Lynn and Sue, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s Karen Mok as a gum-chewing tough cop that hold the movie together. Among the action scenes that leave an impression, I count one remote-controlled car chase that feels ripe for a Hollywood rip-off, and a climactic sword fight that’s as good as it feels out of place with the rest of the film. As for the rest, well, viewers familiar with Chinese action movies will feel at home with the stylish action, lacklustre plot, silly MacGuffin and uncertain pacing. It’s still a fine DVD rental.

28 Weeks Later (2007)

(In theaters, May 2007) Faster, bigger and more headache-inducing than the first film, 28 Weeks Later struggles from the onset with a wholly unnecessary premise. Though the aspect of repopulating a devastated London (28 weeks after the rage outbreak of the first film) has its original appeal, it’s no big plot twist when the plague starts again, lending a profoundly depressing atmosphere to the entire film. The rest is strictly routine in zombie-movie terms: The outbreak takes over everyone, our cast of characters slowly dwindles down, and the only interest comes from the various ways they’re picked off. The bleaker-than-bleak conclusion tops the film with an extra dose of futility. Looking more closely at the film’s mechanics, it’s a bit sad to see that the rage-cam is back, speeding up and getting less coherent at every action scene. The individual gags work well (I defy anyone not to be awed at the firebombing of London), but it add up to a profoundly grim experience. As a fun-house mirror held up to our own anxieties (something zombie movies have traditionally been very, very good at doing), it reflects back our horrors of a never-ending struggle, of pandemics run wild, of complete depersonalization against uncontrollable forces. Whew. You might as well bash yourself on the head with a TV tuned to CNN and save yourself the $10.