Month: March 2007

Elantris, Branson Sanderson

Tor, 2005, 622 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-35037-8

Hold on to your hats: I’m about to say nice things about a classical genre fantasy novel.

Yes, I know: I’m not supposed to like fantasy, especially if it’s in the overdone “medieval societies, kingdoms, lost magic, palace intrigue” vein. But there are exceptions, and Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris is one of them.

For one thing, it fits in one single volume. Though follow-up stories are certainly possible, Elantris is its own 600-pages beast and it closes on a satisfactory conclusion that doesn’t need a sequel. One-shot novels seem so rare in fantasy that this is a welcome distinction, if not even an innovation.

The theme continues with the book’s opening blurbs, which will really try to make you believe that this is an unusual fantasy novel. No quests! No elves! No mages in robes! And that’s true enough: Elantris manages to avoid the typical quest narrative and keeps the usual genre decorations to a minimum.

And yet, if you look closely at the novel, it’s easy to apply John Clute’s structure of fantasy: You have a kingdom in which magic is thinning away, and protagonists who are actively working at solving the issue, some treating the symptoms while others try to understand the deeper roots of the problem. The entire narrative schematic of the novel is one that points toward healing and redemption —literally in the case of one character and metaphorically for the entire land where Elantris takes place.

But never mind the question of whether Elantris is traditional fantasy or not: The real reason why I’m so pleased with the novel is far less abstract: it’s all about the fun of reading. Sanderson’s clear writing and the strength of his characters make it impossible to put down the novel once it starts going. From the first few pages, Elantris establishes a strong trio of viewpoint characters that will carry us to the end of the story: Raoden, a young prince who wakes up “dead” and is condemned to exile; Sarene, his fiancée (soon to be a “widow”) who’s coming from far away to unite two kingdoms through marriage; and Hrathen, a priest who is sent to the city in order to cleanse its rot. Polished but transparent prose add to the characterization to form the essence of strong storytelling. Clearly, Sanderson’s got some talent if he can make a fan of even anti-fantasy curmudgeons like me.

I particularly enjoyed following the Sarene chapters, as she proves herself a formidable presence in a court where she’s either seen as an interloper, a nonentity or a victim. Trained in the diplomatic arts, she sets in motion a number of intricate schemes even as members of the court underestimate her. There’s dramatic irony is our knowledge that her fiancé is not completely “dead”… and that she even comes to meet him under very strange circumstances. Meanwhile, Raoden wastes no time in exile in trying to solve the mystery of the once-radiant city of Elantris, and Hrathen has plans of his own to take control of the kingdom on behalf of his master. But Raoden’s a goody-goody two-shoe and Hrathen is another one in a long line of unpleasant fantasy priests; it’s really Sarene who ends up forming the backbone of the novel’s appeal.

Strong scenes, terrific descriptions and an eventful plot do the rest: Elantris is the kind of novel that rewards lengthy reading sessions. There’s an intricate relationship at play between the names, magical system and glyphs (complete with graphical appendix!) that proves how much thought went into this novel. That Elantris is a first novel is a minor wonder: The writing is assured, enjoyable and skillful to a degree that confirms why Sanderson has spent two years on the Campbell Award ballot.

Heck, it’s good enough to make me think that I’ve been too quick to dismiss classical fantasy. It certainly leads me to suspect that I’ll be spending some time paying attention to Sanderson’s next few books. The qualities that make Elantris work so well -plot, characterization, prose- are a writer’s strengths, not particularities of genre. This very impressive debut bodes well for the rest of Sanderson’s career… and maybe even for fantasy in general.

Vulcan’s Forge, Jack B. DuBrul

Forge, 1998, 371 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-56461-8

Even since Clive Cussler grabbed the modern American adventure novel by the throat and gave it a wedgie, writers have been struggling to imitate his success and rip off his formula. There may be a few forthright mimes in the bunch (Craig Dirgo’s The Einstein Papers was a conscious attempt at aping the formula, but Dirgo has the distinction of being a frequent Cussler collaborator), but there are also outright copycats such as Jack Du Brul’s Vulcan’s Forge. (But don’t think that Cussler disapproves. There’s a big honking blurb from him on the cover of the Forge paperback edition.)

How is it a copycat? I’m glad you asked. Grabbing my steel pointer and a schematic plan of Vulcan’s Forge, allow me to poke at the novel’s protagonist, a true squared-jawed American hero named Philip Mercer. Take note: Mercer is built according to the precepts of serial fiction, not simply the needs of a single novel. He is single (though handsome and suave enough to be able to seduce any woman easily, at least once per novel), independently wealthy as a freelance geologist, and tough enough to be willing to travel anywhere on the globe to deal with the problem at hand. Proficiency with survival techniques, big vehicles and weaponry is assumed. Aficionados of Dirk Pitt will oooh in recognition at the Mercer home, an innocuous building that has been completely re-built to act as a museum, research library and depository of cool toys.

Cussler fans will also nod whenever one of the two main antagonist is revealed: A rich man with dastardly plans for a chunk of the United States, a plan that plays well with the schemes of the other main antagonist. The threat, of course, directly links to Mercer’s professional credentials as a geologist, suggesting that further books in the series will all depend in some way or another on a series of rocky premises. The plot is ludicrous and the science is worse, but that should be seen less as a problem, and more as a further proof that Du Brul is writing in the Cussler vein. Heck, there’s even some underwater action built-in.

Fortunately, it work relatively well. Though no one will recognize this as a fine piece of literature or even a superior thriller for the ages, Vulcan’s Forge goes through the right motions with some skill, and the result is readable enough. It is a bit longer and blander that it ought to be (some editing would have been able to tighten the action), but not enough to matter. There’s also a late late plot twist that doesn’t matter one bit and makes the novel even more preposterous than it already is. But since it’s a Cussler copycat, can it actually be too preposterous?

Your answer to that question will determine whether you’re likely to enjoy this novel. It’s strictly a formula thriller meant to launch a series, and as such it’s better than many other attempts. I certainly prefer it to Craig Dirgo’s The Einstein Papers, to name only one such recent example. Philip Mercer’s not an unlikeable protagonist (though I can’t say the same of the company he keeps), so there’s a very good chance that I’ll pick up his next few adventures. Of course, it’ll remain to be seen whether Du Brul will stick to the Cussler formula, or branch out to something of his own.

[April 2007: Ew. Du Brul’s follow-up, Charon’s Landing, is a step down in almost every way: Not only is it considerably duller and lengthier, it’s also taken with a rabidly conservative viewpoint that keeps poisoning whatever enjoyment is left in the novel. Here, Good old Philip Mercer has to fight big bad environmentalists, but don’t worry: his manhood is sufficient enough to turn a convinced antagonist into his love-kitten in a matter of pages. Virulent denunciations of environmentalist excesses may net Du Brul the usual Crichton-loving readership, but it makes the novel unpalatable to everyone else. Not that a correction there would have helped the rest of the novel as it muddles through a plot that offers little of note. Not the most auspicious follow-up novel.]

[May 2007: Huh. Du Brul novels keep going but don’t necessarily feel like they’re part of a consistent series. Third volume The Medusa Stone is much better than either the first or second volume as it pits Mercer against a complex web of international intrigue in Africa. The action is unusual, the pacing keeps up and there are a number of fairly interesting scenes here and there. It’s not so successful as far as characters are concerned: Mercer can’t keep a girlfriend and presents a serious risk to his acquaintances, but characters are almost irrelevant in this type of novel. It’s acceptable beach reading, though it still falters even as a simple Cussler copycat. It’s good enough to make me grab the next Du Brul novel at used book sales, but certainly not good enough to go and buy them new.]

The Black Echo, Michael Connelly

Warner, 1992, 482 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61273-1

I’ve been a fan of Michael Connelly ever since discovering Trunk Music a few years ago. Since then, I have read most of his early masterpieces and fan favourites (The Poet, Blood Work, The Concrete Blonde…) but, like some oenophiles storing great vintages “for another day”, simply accumulated his novels without reading them.

Well, this insanity ends this month. For this is the start of the Michael Connelly Reading Project, a comprehensive effort to read one Connelly book per month, every month, until I’m done. In chronological order, skipping over those I’ve already read (with potentially hilarious consequences).

Obviously, I have to start at the beginning: Connelly’s debut, The Black Echo.

It’s not just Connelly’s first novel, but also the introduction of his best-known character, LAPD investigator Harry Bosch. Vietnam veteran, jazz enthusiast, laconic and taciturn, Bosch makes for a protagonist in perpetual tension. He’s incapable of living outside a rigid hierarchy, yet he’s got a problem with authority. He fits the mold of a classic Private Investigator, but chafes away in an unglamourous police job after a brush with celebrity. He comes to the series with a fully built past made of a lousy childhood, a stint in Vietnam, a police career and no permanent romantic entanglements.

It’s pure luck (or is it?) if his latest investigation starts with an anonymous corpse discovered dead in a Hollywood hill drainage tunnel. At first, it looks like a simple case of drug overdose, except for one thing: Bosch knows the victim. They were in Vietnam together as “tunnel rats”, and Bosch can’t let this one go. As he tracks down the threads of the investigation, he’ll discover that the crime wasn’t just the end of a person’s life, but a step in a much bigger plan… one that will see him go back underground.

For established fans of Michael Connelly, the biggest surprise with The Black Echo is how accomplished a first novel it is. It may not be among Connelly’s finest efforts, but it compares favourably to most police procedurals and already showcases the strengths of his fiction: The familiarity with police procedures and mindsets; the clean prose; the use of Los Angeles as a location; the sharply drawn characters; the intricate plotting; the excellent scenes; the mounting tensions between Bosch, the criminals and the hierarchy in which Bosch operates. It’s very slick stuff, and it seems mastered right off the bat. Like all Connelly novels, this one works from the very first page.

There are, inevitably, a number of small missteps. Some of the plot twists are a bit obvious, to the point where I even found myself rightfully thinking “Oh, please, Connelly, don’t go this way.” He does, but part of the strength of the book is how it can survive even that. ( I suppose that my predictive abilities would have been even stronger had I remembered The Concrete Blonde in greater detail.) There is also a bit of a lull at mid-book, between beats of the investigation.

Ultimately, it ends deep under Los Angeles, taking advantage of Bosch’s past as a tunnel rat. The path from the initial examination of Bosch’s friend to the final frenetic pursuit in city sewers is enjoyable and compulsively readable. Connelly knows his stuff, and the hooks he sets in his story make The Black Echo a believable episode in the life of a protagonist who has already seen a lot and will see even more in the rest of the series.

The Black Echo‘s quality wasn’t lost on the book-reading public: Not only did it launch Connelly’s career, it also netted him an Edgar Award for best first novel of the year. For Connelly fans, it’s now an essential read and a bit of a cornerstone. My Michal Connelly Reading Project couldn’t have started on a better note.

His Majesty’s Dragon, Naomi Novik

Del Rey, 2006, 356 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-48128-3

There is something in the DNA code of science-fiction and fantasy readers that makes Napoleon-era nautical adventures irresistible. C.S. Forrester’s Horatio Hornbower, Patrick O’Brien’s Jack Aubrey… those series seem to reach the same pleasure centres stimulated by good SF&F. You can find SF&F readers who haven’t read either author, but you’ll have a harder time finding SF&F fans who didn’t like those books.

So seeing Naomi Novik pick the Napoleonic era as a setting for a dragon-enhanced alternate history series isn’t too much of a stretch. The era is appealing, and her likely readership is reasonably familiar with the historical period, whether through Forrester and O’Brien, or through Austen, Trollope and other contemporary writers. Having the series follow in the wind of the Hugo award-winning Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell doesn’t hurt either.

So, yeah: The Napoleonic war with dragons. Simple enough, right?

But Naomi Novik is one of the first of a new kind of writer: those who have honed their skills in the on-line trenches of fan-fiction. As such, her writing is eager to please and structured around a series of sharp hooks and short dramatic loops. His Majesty’s Dragon starts right off with action and mystery: After a naval battle between a French frigate and an English warship captained by Will Laurence, the victorious English soldiers discover a dragon egg in the hold of the French ship. A dragon egg ready to hatch.

Before anyone can ask what a valuable dragon egg is going in the hold of a frigate travelling without escorts, the entire English crew is scrambling to bring the ship back home and make sure that the dragon is properly hatched. Given how a dragon imprints on the first human it sees, it’s crucial that the right man for the life-long commitment be there when it happens. Alas, that man turns out to be Laurence: within moment, his entire comfortable naval career is jettisoned: Forever attached to the dragon, his arrival in England sees him shunted to His Majesty’s Air Force. Far too old by novice pilot standards, Laurence quickly finds out that his dragon isn’t normal either. Temeraire, as the dragon is called, can speak like most dragons, but is of a very rare breed with above-average capabilities. Most of His Majesty’s Dragon is a novel of discoveries, as Laurence discovers how to behave like a pilot, and as everyone discovers what Temeraire truly is.

Cleverly written and engagingly plotted, Naomi Novak’s first novel is pure reading joy. It reactivates the dormant “swashbuckler” gene in SF&F readers’ DNA and delivers solid adventure, absorbing prose, good scenes and the first glimmer of a long-running series. Even those who think they don’t like dragons will have trouble stopping reading after a few chapters.

Novik has done her research and understands the lineage of dragon-themed stories: There are a few playful pokes at Anne McCafferey’s Dragonrider series, along with a good eye for practical concerns. Novik’s combat dragons are huge and require an entire support crew to man effectively, and that’s not even mentioning the sheer quantity of meat required to fuel those dragons.

This attention to detail, on the other hand, highlights the biggest conceptual trap in Novak’s conceit: The contradiction between a well-established historical era and an alternate world where dragons are an integral part of history. Surely their power would have been recognized and exploited earlier? Surely the entire geopolitical map would have been altered early on by air power and fast reliable communications?

On the other hand, alternate history is a game about how early the departure point should be. Too late, and pickier readers start to kvetch. Too early, and the series’ entire high concept goes away.

More serious is the short-dramatic-loop structure of the novel. While it’s rich in instant gratification and early story hooks, it eventually leads to a lack of continuing tension. Laurence ostracized by his fellow pilots? Resolved within pages. Laurence and Temeraire having a spat? Resolved within pages. A potential traitor within the ranks? Resolved within pages…

But even with those short loops, the novel does a fine, fine job at setting up the world and its characters. By the end of the book, a number of mysteries are kept in reserve, and everyone’s looking forward to the next adventures of Temeraire. By-the-numbers, perhaps, but nonetheless effective. It’s a good thing I bought the entire series so far…

Trojan Odyssey, Clive Cussler

Berkley, 2003, 463 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-19932-0

I may not respect Clive Cussler’s fiction, but I do admire his chutzpah. It takes a special kind of audacity to perfect a thriller-writing formula and keep re-using it volume after volume, decade after decade. It takes even more self-confidence to to farm out that formula to a bunch of other writers, to found an oceanographic research institute, to write books about one’s adventures and yet keep on writing ever-more ludicrous thrillers. Every time I wonder why I keep reading Cussler’s novels, I just have to stop and remember that he seems to be the happiest author on Earth. Certainly the one who’s having the most fun with the money given to him by readers.

His latest non-bylined novel, Trojan Odyssey, is more of the same for Cussler, though with a couple of inevitable twists that suggest a new direction for the series. Fans of Cussler’s “Dirk Pitt” will remember the improbable revelation at the end of Valhalla Rising, when a couple of Pitt inheritors just walked out of the woodwork. Well, this development seems here to stay and endure, as the younger Pitt siblings take on a significant part of the action this time around.

The setup of the action will be instantly familiar: After two optional historical prologues that set up latter portions of the plot, yet another nautical disaster looms on the horizon: A fancy new nautical establishment is being threatened by a hurricane that doesn’t seem to know where it’s going.

(Have a look at Page 52 of the paperback edition: “Hurricane Lizzie is moving due east and accelerating.” Then have a look at pages 53: “Lizzie was also moving at a record pace westward across the ocean.” Later, on page 104, “Lizzie is still heading due east as if she’s travelling on a railroad track.” Later still, on page 116: “Hurricane Lizzie had moved westward to continue casting her death and destruction on the Island of the Dominican Republic and Haiti…”: “My thanks to the previous owner of my paperback edition, who underlined those passages before chucking the novel to a used-book sale!)

But have no fear, because Al Giordino, Pitt the elder and Pitt the youngers are on the case. The hotel is saved and the plot is free to start. A mysterious brown tide is causing all sorts of environmental mischief, and it’s up to the whole NUMA crew to discover something that is apparently invisible to everyone else. But don’t worry, because no one would quite believe the cause of the brown tide.

Despite a problem that could be solved with a couple of well-targeted Tomahawk missiles, it’s again up to all Pitts and friends to stop the menace, fight a reclusive multi-millionaire, go against a neo-primitive cult and still save the day for everyone involved. Oh, and discover the real location of Troy. (Because apparently, this kind of detail can be lost after a few thousand years.)

It amounts to an adventure that is not less ridiculous and yet no less satisfying than previous instalments. It has taken me, mind you, a long time to re-calibrate my ludicrousness sensors to Cussler’s looser standards of reality. But once you get to roll with the improbabilities, it’s hard to stop reading. There’s a panache, almost a wilful daring to Cussler’s method that would be unacceptable in any other context and yet ends up charming his long-time readers.

What’s more serious is the end of the novel, which suggests a pretty definitive passing of the torch from the elder to the younger generation of Pitt explorers. Only time, and the next novel, will tell whether the trademarked Dirk Pitt will be satisfied with a series of supporting cameos or will take a more direct part in the continuing saga of Cussler’s novels. I’m almost tempted to stop reading and leave him to his well-earned nuptial retirement.

But naah; how else would I get my fix of pure Cussler craziness?

A Gentle Madness, Nicholas A. Basbanes

Owl Books, 1995 (1999 revision), 638 pages, C$29.95 tpb, ISBN 0-8050-6176-2

I’ve got the sinking feeling that I’m going to justly appreciate this book in a few years, once I’ll qualify for inclusion within its pages.

Yes, I accumulate books. I’m not sure that I can call myself a “collector” yet (collecting usually implies a selective focus, and I don’t have much of one unless it’s “stuff I like”), but I like the feeling of being surrounded by books, I like what they represent and I know far too much about resale value factors to claim a mere casual interest in them. Let’s face it: I love looks. I’m a bibliophile.

But even a three-thousand-book collection is chicken feed compared to the monsters of bibliomania that Nicholas A. Basbanes studies in A Gentle Madness, a lengthy examination of book collecting through the ages.

A book about book-lovers, A Gentle Madness starts a long way back. At the time before the concept of books was invented, as a matter of fact. It won’t surprise anyone to realize that there have been collectors since the days of papyrus scrolls, and that the printing press has only popularized the affliction. A Gentle Madness takes a very long time to get to the twentieth century. Along the way, we get to learn about the Pepys collection, about the earliest book-dealers and about the way a bibliophile gave his name to Harvard. Basbanes has done his research, and this dry section of the book shows it most clearly: Often, the pages blur with an accumulation of names, dates, book titles and monetary figures.

My interest in the book picked up as it came closer to the twentieth century. It helps that many stories get more interesting as we get closer to the nineties. Beyond historical research, Basbanes has turned himself into an investigative reporter to witness high-priced book auctions, interview library representatives or rub shoulders with convicted book criminals. A Gentle Madness gradually turns into a gonzo documentary in which Basbanes himself becomes a small part of the narrative. And there are some seriously fascinating stories around the book world. I defy anyone, for instance, to read the chapter on the mysterious (and curiously well-financed) Haven O’More and not look on-line for more information. It’s not for nothing that he gets a chapter by himself (“To Have and to Have No More”), along with an addendum in the preface tantalizing us with the promise of an unsolved enigma.

As soon as the book lets go of historical time-frames, the writing style is clear and detailed. Basbanes walks a fine line between vulgarizing his subject and including enough information to fascinate. There are numerous digressions on a variety of topics. I was amused by the description of “List Collecting” (being guilty of trying to collect all Hugo Awards winners myself), and got a kick out of a not-so-complimentary description of Forry Ackerman’s sci-fi collectible collection.

But most of all, reading A Gentle Madness often felt like a warm and comfortable bath of similarly-minded ideas. Book collecting has never been more popular, and the variety of collectors interviewed and described by Basbanes is enough to make any book-lover feel a lot more normal for accumulating stacks of printed material. There’s a pernicious aspect to A Gentle Madness, especially when using the extreme examples in the book as a yardstick to say “See, I’m not too bad!”

But I suspect better. Midway through reading A Gentle Madness (and at its length, “midway” can be a looong time), I attended a panel on book collecting and told myself that I should really make an effort to build an electronic index of my stacks of books. Weeks later, I found myself purchasing a special book-collection software, along with no less than two different bar-code readers. The time to say “I’m not a collector” has passed: I’m definitely in the game.

I hope to avoid being featured in any of Basbanes’ follow-up books.

[August 2007: Not an auspicious sign: I’ve just completed an email interview with a writer putting together a “virtual panel” about book collecting for the French-Canadian Solaris magazine. The issue should be available in stores in December 2007.]

Zodiac (2007)

Zodiac (2007)

(In theaters, March 2007) The tag-line of this film says it all: “There’s more than one way to lose your life to a killer”. That’s both the film’s thematic statement and the reason why Zodiac feels fresh after a spate of other serial killer movies. For one thing, it’s well-handled by David Fincher, whose welcome return is a breath of cinematic talent after so many incompetent directors. Fincher know what he’s going, and his mastery of cinematic technique is only exceeded by the skill with which he understands the delicate balance between suspense and cheap thrills. Zodiac sticks close to reality, with all of its ambiguities and doubts, and in doing so attains a higher level of meaning. Meanwhile, we watch the lead character practically drive himself crazy with the unsolved mysteries of the case, obsessing over something he simply could have ignored from the beginning. The period detail is convincing, the special effects are used judiciously and the film has the detail-oriented heft of a good book. While some scenes can drag and there’s a manipulative element to the way the film suggests a solution to a mystery that’s still officially unsolved, Zodiac makes a confident entry as one of the first good films of 2007.

Shooter (2007)

Shooter (2007)

(In theaters, March 2007) There isn’t much more here than a good little conspiracy thriller, but don’t let that be a problem: Director Antoine Fuqua is back in shape after a trio of underwhelming films, and the result is competent enough to satisfy. Updated from Point of Impact, an original novel by film critic (!) Stephen Hunter, Shooter amps up the conspiracy angle of the book to include an entire machinery of government and industry (riffing off the waning power of truth and decency during the Bush administration), yet can’t resist a vigilante-like conclusion. Don’t worry: The protagonist will escape his pursuers, find the real story, prove it to the right people and get the girl. It’s the way in which it’s done that’s worth the ticket, and here Shooter does everything well. Cool supporting characters (including an old man with a historically significant shovel), nice action set-pieces, big explosions and a little bit of courtroom showdown are all we need. The updated references immediately make the film fit in the twenty-first century and mark Shooter as a solid thriller with a bit of a wider vision than is usual in movies of its type.

The Last Mimzy (2007)

The Last Mimzy (2007)

(In theaters, March 2007) Never mind Lewis Padgett’s much-beloved original short story: The Last Mimzy is the perfect example of how an adaptation can misunderstand the story’s fundamental theme and jam it into a generic template. From an original beginning, the film inevitably converges with the plot of just about half of the SF/fantasy films out there. Thematically, the original story was all about superhuman intelligence as a goal in itself and how it doesn’t allow you to come back to normality. The adaptation turns super-intelligence into a minor affliction that makes the afflicted kids help other people and soon goes away to let them go back to normal. But that’s nothing compared to the woo-woo subplot about the crazy Tibetan prophecies, or the way it suddenly turns into a Homeland Security thriller, or the way the conclusion is another one of those “don’t fall in the CGI vortex” cheap stunt. There are, however, still a number of things to like about this film, from the likable kid actors to some of the special effects, to the way that is all comes together acceptably well. It’s certainly not a classic, but it ought to please to most of the family, and that’s already not too bad.

Malicious Intent, Mike Walker

Bancroft Press, 1999, 399 pages, US$24.00 hc, ISBN 1-890862-05-3

Say it, and say it loud: This book is trash, and it makes Mike Walker proud!

What else did you expect from a self-described “weekly gossip columnist for the National Enquirer” whose jacket biography boasts that “He’s done more Geraldo episodes than any other guest”? Walker isn’t a rocket scientist: he’s a fifty-foot shark in the Hollywood trash mag pool.

So when he sets out to write fiction, don’t expect the Great American Novel. Don’t expect a strident denunciation of current American society. In fact, don’t expect much more than a string of salacious anecdotes and passable grammar, because Malicious Intent is what his debut novel is all about. If you’re wondering what a tabloid “writer” would churn out given four hundred pages of prose, this is it. Sex, drugs, and Hollywood.

It starts with a murder and ends in violent death, but don’t make the mistake of taking any of this seriously. This is a thriller where journalist can be two-fisted heroes, where young actresses have older men wrapped around her most tender areas and where everyone’s got a spectacular perversion to hide. Resemblance with reality is strictly optional, but readers of gossip mags will feel right at home.

Malicious Intent‘s so-called plot revolves around Charmain Burns, an up-and-coming actress with a sordid past who will stop at nothing to climb the Hollywood power ladder. As the novel begins, her actions cause the death of a tabloid reporter. As she tries covering up her involvement in the crime, further events are set in motion. Meanwhile, Walker’s narration takes a break in order to explain how Charmaine got to Hollywood, and the trail of broken bodies she has left in her wake.

But as much as we love to hiss at an antagonist, we need a hero to go through the motions of a plot. Enters Cameron Tull, a square-jawed street-smart reporter for the “National Revealer” who won’t accept the death of his colleague. Launching his own parallel investigation into the case, he quickly finds out who’s pulling all the strings… and the only question is whether he’ll be able to resist her.

But never mind the plot, because it’s all structural framework for tawdry titillation, cheap Hollywood caricatures and saucy anecdotes which just may have something to do with real-life Hollywood. It takes merely twenty pages to get to the book’s first S&M orgy. And you haven’t seen the straight-razor castration, the psycho stalker calling himself Randak 2000 or the deaths by immolation.

Oh yes: sex, violence, money, romance, beauty and celebrity: it’s all in here, slathered with double helpings of every deadly sin. Unflappable Cameron Tull gets his girl (though to make it easier, it turns out to be a long-lost love), fights temptation, sets things right and rides off in the sunset under a killer headline. Meanwhile, we get a look at the fairyland underbelly of Hollywood, learn entirely misleading information about the glamour of gossip magazines and mentally relax for four hundred pages. This is perfect beach-side reading as long as you leave the red pencil home. It’s nearly impossible to stop reading once it gets going.

Even the clunky style of Walker’s prose gets in the act. Clearly, no editor at the lower-tier Bancroft House (“Books that Enlighten”) has dared suggest that a professional writer shouldn’t overuse narrative ellipses, written accents and SHOUTING ALL CAPS like that. No one dared suggest that the clichés and ethnic stereotype (“[they arched] their backs to accentuate that most devastating Latin male magnet: the big, shapely ass.” [P.192]) was a bit too much over the top. And why would they? If you’re going to knock down the markers of good taste, you might as well hit all of them.

The result certainly won’t be remembered for anything more than a very guilty pleasure, an instantly-forgettable piece of raunchy trash and beautiful sleaze. If we must judge books on their objectives and how well they fulfil them, then Malicious Intent is a complete success. It hits the centre of the target and stays embedded there. Mike Walker may have little writing talent and a complete lack of literary ambition, but he knew what he was doing in writing his novel, and he ought to be proud of the result… in his own way.

Fido (2006)

Fido (2006)

(In theaters, March 2007) With time, I’m learning that everything is possible, including seeing my tax dollars finance a zombie comedy. A good one, even: Like the best zombie films, Fido understands the satirical social relevance of zombies, and starts off strongly with a critique of suburban America mixed with a metaphor for slavery and/or racism. The alternate-history nature of Fido is clever and amusing, and so is the first act of the film, which plays off zombie archetypes against a brightly-coloured suburban background, with a plot that seems inspired by Douglas Sirk . At times subversive and amusing, gruesome and wholesome, Fido is a great deal better than you’d expect from a B-movie. Sadly, the imagination of its creators seems to run out at the same time than their budget, leading to a flat conclusion that is visibly hampered by shoestring film-making: the climax is a muddle, with no great thematic denouement and hesitant staging that can often feel more ridiculous than suspenseful. But three-quarter of a good film is better than none, and so Fido earns a marginal recommendation on the strength of being better than expected. That Carrie-Anne Moss has a leading role certainly doesn’t hurt.

Dawn Of The Dead (1978)

Dawn Of The Dead (1978)

(On DVD, March 2007) Nervous nellies who think that remakes destroy the original work can relax a little: I’m one of those weird people who have seen the Zack Snyder remake before the original Dawn Of The Dead, I can reassure everyone that the original remains unspoiled and enjoyable on its own term: It’s a tight and terrific horror film that shares a premise with the remake but almost none of the plot. The satirical intent is certain clearer here than in the 2004 version: The idea of the mall both as a fortress and a gathering point is amusing, and the very idea of running around a mall for weeks on end smacks of wish-fulfilment. But the horror scenes also work well, and the mounting dread of the zombie apocalypse going outside the mall is frightening enough. Decades later, some pieces aren’t as successful: the introduction takes up too much time, the truck-running sequence is flabby and the character balance feels wrong. (All of which were improved in the remake.) Still, Dawn Of The Dead remains a pretty enjoyable film even today, and there aren’t a lot of films from 1978 who can still claim that.

300 (2006)

300 (2006)

(In theaters, March 2007) Prepare to be overwhelmed by manufactured cool! This fantasy action film is a rarity in how it glorifies war and aggression by making it look neater than it’s ever been. Even splatters of blood are used as design elements in a film that’s more a series of violent tableaux than a sustained narrative. (The credit sequence alone is wonderful.) The images, almost all post-processed digitally, show how it’s now possible to film even a wide-screen war epic in a warehouse. The effect is a bit claustrophobic, but the film won’t let you realize that until far too late: the rest of the time, you’ll be pummelled into submission by the loud soundtrack, macho sound bites, constant special effects and almost unbearable self-importance. There’s certainly something here for all the boys and the girls: naked torsos, dripping violence and simple subplots will do much to compensate for the quasi-constant decapitations, shaky-cam cinematography and dumb anachronistic details (such as, ahem, a pre-Roman mention of the month of “August”). It’s all very loud and big and impressive, but I can’t help but reflect that 300 is now a watershed of sorts in my evolution as a moviegoer: For the first time, I’m feeling left behind by a marketing effort addressed to the younger ones. I was never cool, but this film drives the point that I’m forever leaving that particular demographic behind. I’m not sure I’m sad about it if the alternative is movies like 300.

Chasm City, Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz, 2001, 524 pages, C$26.95 tpb, ISBN 0-575-06878-7

There are killjoys out there who will argue, at length, that the modern word processor has killed the novel as it ought to be. Those spoilsports will keep saying that the ease with which modern writers can just keep typing and editing without physical consequences (that is: sore fingers and the consumption of draft paper) has made it too easy to overuse words. These entirely fictional straw men (er, “older curmudgeon whose opinion I claim to have heard”) will tell you that real men once hacked out fifty-thousand words in stone tablets with a chisel, and that even Hemingway was a big softie for using a typewriter.

It’s a silly argument, but it’s hard not to think about it when looking at Alastair Reynolds’s brick-sized novels. Helped along by Gollancz’s habit of using thicker paper stock, Reynolds’ books intimidate well before they’re cracked open. So many words! The story inside has to be important: Other writers have described the rise and fall of the Roman Empire in fewer pages!

Yet Reynolds’ novels are nothing but good old-fashioned space-opera with modern polish. Solid thriller plots with SF twists and alien locales. In Chasm City, this means another man on the run from dangerous criminal forces: hardly the stuff that justifies a book an inch and a half thick.

Of course, that means that you get a whole lot of thrills for your money. Expect to spend at least a week of reading time in Tanner Mirabel’s company as he first pursues an assassin, then finds the chase turned against him. His trip eventually leads him to a nightmarish alien environment: the eponymous Chasm City in which humans are prey and stranger forces lie beneath the mist… and that’s not even counting the other story interleaved between Tanner’s run: What could possibly be the link between those subplots? As Chasm City goes on, little blips in the narration lead us to a bigger revelation that conveniently twists the usual certitudes of a thriller.

It’s long, it’s overwritten and it can get pretty exasperating at times, but Chasm City is a solid middle-of-the-road SF thriller. Those looking for a good example of genre fiction could do much worse: this one has good dollops of sex, action, violence and grimness: Reynolds isn’t afraid to pull punches, and the atmosphere of his books has little to do with the shiny futures once imagined by Science Fiction. The prose is verbose but well handled. Although a shorter book may have strengthened our grasp of the novel’s universe (rather than diluting it with sheer verbiage), this one does a pretty good job at carrying the reader from start to finish. The events keep piling up, Tanner is a tough protagonist, and the mystery of the intersecting plotlines is enough to keep anyone reading.

Readers of Reynold”s debut novel, Revelation Space, will get a related novel that’s just as competent, dark and intriguing than its predecessor. Despite my constant harping about the length of Chasm City, it’s more focused than Reynolds’ first novel, with more consistent bursts of action. It amounts to a prototypical example of the “New British Space Opera” at the turn of the century. There is strong kinship here with other writers such as Richard Morgan and Neal Asher: Reynolds may use twice as many words in making his atmosphere noir and his aliens squishy, but the feeling is similar.

All isn’t lost, though: Latter Reynolds novels, post Absolution Gap, show clearer signs of self-control –at least when it comes to page length. His last two novels, for instance, don’t even crack a comparatively slim 460 pages. (The Prefect is even down to 410 pages.) Since the length of Reynolds’ work is just about the only thing worth complaining about, you can bet that I’ve got his entire oeuvre on my shelves… even though I’m understandably reluctant to pick up one of his tomes when shorter books beckon. But we’ll get there eventually. Hopefully before retirement age.

[January 2008: I’m not even going to review Redemption Ark at length, as disappointed as I am with the way Reynolds has blown up a perfectly enjoyable space opera into an interminable slog. The conclusion wraps it up together decently, but there’s some serious fat to be trimmed off this novel.]