Dead Set (2013)

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This is quite different from the usual output of Kadrey, who is rather more known (currently) for his violent and over-the-top urban fantasy Sandman Slim series. Dead Set on the other hand is a much more restrained, young-adult story of a girl who tries to connect with her dead dad and gets in all kinds of trouble when she reaches him in the city of the dead.

It’s a nice read with some cool ideas about the world of the dead, but if you come from the Sandman Slim series, expect a very different vibe and tempo. I stalled halfway into the book and only picked it up a few weeks later again, mostly because I wanted to see how it ended rather than because the writing itself compelled me.

The climax is neat and works quite well (even if the good guys win more by luck than anything else), the characters feel more real and realistic than anyone you meet in the Sandman Slim series (which can be good or bad depending on what you want) and for such a radical departure from his usual stuff, it’s well done (just not my cup of tea).

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

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Of all the recent superhero movies (BvS:DoI and CA:CW), XM:A is the one I enjoyed the most. Like the others, its not without flaws and a far weaker entry than the previous one (Days of the Future Past), mostly due to an enemy who while scary in terms of what he can do, is terribly uninteresting as a character.

The movie’s second major misstep is Magneto, who does a short repeat of his whole story arc: from personal tragedy to global mass-murderer (the stunt he pulled with the Earth’s magnet field will have killed thousands if not millions of people, if we’re entirely honest) to redemption (not actually earned) and its all acted very blandly. If they don’t know what to do with him, maybe he should sit out the next one before he becomes a complete joke.

That said, the X-Men themselves are all great, from McAvoy, Hoult and Lawrence as the old guard and the newcomers with Sheridan, Turner, Smit-McPhee and Shipp (the new Ororo was utterly perfect, but sadly completely underused). Whether they made jokes with each other or fought for their survival, every scene with them was fun to watch.

They were and are the heart of these movies and Singer managed to make them shine even against a less than interesting threat. Sadly, while this took place in the eighties, it didn’t felt like it and only a few reminders that this is actually not current but past reminded us. Feels like a missed chance, especially as both First Class and DoftFP managed this somewhat better.

The Winter Long (2014)

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The eight part of the urban fantasy series about a changeling that works as a hero for the hidden faeries realms offers intriguing major new developments, but like many of the previous parts is not very good at weaving a good plot around those revelations.

For the most part, October Daye, the titular hero of the series, runs around like a headless chicken, which doesn’t look much like detective work (or even the fake detective work we expect from urban fantasy) but merely the actions of someone with no clue or plan who looks up people for often no good reason at all.

It’s just busy work to fill out the book and it makes October look slightly scatterbrained, though this isn’t the first time in the series (and probably not the last). That said, I love those books unabashedly, because even if they lack something in the plot-department, all the emotional beats hit the right tone and the climax with the new-old enemy is perfectly orchestrated and makes up for the rest of the book.

Commando (1985)

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The quintessential 80ties action movie starring Arnold as an ex-Delta Force operator who has a 10 hour time limit to safe his daughter from the clutches of a dethroned former dictator. Despite a never ending stream of snarky and eminent quote-worthy one-liners, Schwarzenegger plays his role entirely straight even when uttering utter LOL-worthy-comments, and strangely enough the movie still works in a semi-serious fashion.

The black humor, directed at his dying or soon to be dead enemies, should break suspension of disbelief, but doesn’t (the jump out of the plane is much more problematic) and more or less substitutes weak characterization with something better and more effective, finely honed action cliches that just for that movie are elevated to a higher level. Say what you want about Schwarzenegger, but he makes what should be an utterly generic and unremarkable action movie into a riveting thrill ride that makes you feel like you never know what will happen next.

The Age of Scorpio (2013)

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This was all set-up and despite its length didn’t gave up much in terms of who and why. On the other hand it’s a neat balance act of three plot threads (fantasy-like ancient past, conspiracy in the present and a far future space opera) that are all equally compelling, if you like your fiction laced with well written non-stop violence and abrasive, oftentimes cruel yet still gripping characters. At the end it feels like you almost know whats going on, and are pretty much invested in seeing where the author is going with it.

Every Heart a Doorway (2016)

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I have to start by saying that EHaD does exactly what it sets out to do: telling a fascinating story about the lost kids of fantasy tales (most of them girls), who once having fulfilled their quests and ejected back into the mundane reality have to deal with the fact that they seemingly had it all, gave their all and all they got was a t-shirt, so to speak.

McGuire manages to evoke all those fantastical tales while going further than the happy endings those tales offered and make you realize that they were very likely far from happy. This is not so much about girls and boy who found a fantastic reality where they could play heroes, but rather the outsiders of our world who found a place where they could fit in perfectly, unlike our world.

It’s as much about escape, like most of these stories were in the first place, as it is about finding a place that accepts them for who they are, but then throws them out again. That must be a double-whammy, hard to understand at that age. The question most of them asks themselves afterward What did I do wrong (as an adult it’s easy to see that they didn’t, but these are all kids without much experience).

I loved both the setup and the house for those wayward children that McGuire created and I would have happily read a thousands pages just describing their daily life and how they coped with mundane reality again. Sadly halfway in the story changes pace, transforms into a murder mystery and ends on a strange note. Spoiler. The main POV manages to get back to her magical world. Now, while this sounds like a happy ending and McGuire is trying hard to sell it as such, too me it reeks of an esoteric happy ending, where the author thinks or at least tries to sell it as happy based on the text alone, while to me it feels like a complete downer.

Living isn’t about finding a place where you fit perfectly, but rather creating such a place from the stuff that surrounds us (mostly people). And it’s a process that never ends. The ending of EHaD shows the main POV going back to the place where she fits perfectly, a world that never changes, never grows, and neither will she ever. Never learn that there’s so much more to life. Maybe that was the implicit lesson in all those old tales EHaD tried to improve upon, the one lesson nobody thought needed to be spelled out. These kids weren’t thrown out, they had outgrown simplistic fantasies and these worlds had nothing more to offer.

Penetralia (1992)

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Usually I prefer the more melodic variants of Death Metal over the more pure, old-school strains, but while I had a hard time getting into early Hypocrisy coming from their later output, I utterly worship their first album. It’s heavy in the best sense of the word, slower than I usually like my metal, but damn if it isn’t compelling to listen to. The album keeps a consistent, harsh tone that feels like a slow-moving but unstoppable assault, yet each song manages to find news ways to express this and thus keep things interesting. Like an evocation of something unspeakable and terrible, with each song adding a new layer of aggression and menace. It’s pure bliss.

Harrison Squared (2015)

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This is basically the backstory of one of the main protagonists from We Are All Completely Fine, though its tone is entirely different, being more of a young adult story about the first adventure of the monster detective aka Harrison Harrison. Already knowing the rough outline of his story from WAACF, I was expecting to see the full story here, but in that regard I was slightly disappointed as it’s only the first part of that.

On the other hand, what is there, is really great: the characters, both Harrison himself, who at this point in his career is much more vulnerable (emotionally as well as literally, as he’s just a teen here), and the others. His flawed, but enthusiastic and very human aunt Sel, the young dweller from the deep and comic and manga connoisseur Lub, his not-girl-friend Lydia who leads a teenage resistant against the cult in her town and a few others.

The villains are also magnificently drawn: the dragon trope in the form of the Scrimshander, the boss aka the toad mother, and the various cult members of the adult population of Dunnsmouth (yeah, the Lovecraft one). It hits a lot of the usual notes of young adult fiction, the overbearing presence of school as both a place of friendship as well as of menace, the uselessness of most adults, if not their position as a downright threatening force.

This could have easily slid down into depressive territory, if Harrison himself wasn’t so much a force of nature in terms of personality: he never gives up, never loses hope in finding his mother and keeps the story going and bearable by pure force of will and the reader will follow him anywhere. He’s compelling without being perfect, which sort of makes him perfect.

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

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Civil War is pretty much Marvel’s BvS: it has a highly convoluted plot that doesn’t make much sense once you think too hard about it, feels way overlong and expects the viewer to take it seriously. At least the fight scenes are intense and exhilarating and unlike BvS, this is a movie that knows how to make a joke, does it repeatedly, and most of them actually work. Civil War also has great new co-stars with Black Panther and Spider-Man, who steal the show almost all the time they turn up.

But the plot is utterly inane. I went into the movie expecting Bucky’s role to be more than just a gimmick and the whole morality of having vigilantes run around to be questioned or at least explored more than just on a surface-emotional level. This isn’t a movie about that. It’s a therapy session for Captain America and Iron Man to work out their various issues, and it ends with them breaking up.

I’m also sad to see that BvS final part is better staged and more exiting than Civil War’s climax, which on the plus side has a neat, Se7en-level twist, but still feels deficient compared to the Warner Brother offering. I was hoping for some grand scheme from Zemo (who is one of the most disappointing and boring villains in the Marvel universe so far) and a big fight between the heroes and the other super soldiers. Instead we got more in-fighting that just feels like a letdown.

We Are All Completely Fine (2014)

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Don’t believe what the title is saying, nobody is. This novella collects various survivors of supernatural events (think the last, only surviving victim of a group of teenagers in your typical horror movie) for group therapy sessions and things go from bad to worse when it turns out that some of them have unfinished business.

Despite its limited space, the novella packs a lot of content, which is especially impressive when you consider its large cast and how the novella manages to give each of the characters their own unique voice and identity. As the title makes you expect, or even common sense, horror movie survivors go through their own unique hell even after they have survived. While it maps well on various psych conditions, the shared knowledge that there’s more to this world than we know it, and that few people believe it, sets those survivors apart from other trauma victims.

All of this comes out during the various group sessions, which allows the reader to get to know each of the characters in turn and which mostly avoids to common cliches you expect in such a group. Sure, it starts with stereotypes – the asshole, the silent one – but once it dives deeper into these characters it becomes obvious that there’s more to each of them and none of them is just a cardboard cutout easily sorted into just one drawer.

Once the long setup is over and we know all we need to, the novella switches from slow introspection to slightly faster action and tops it off with neat climax that still feels like a natural outcome of the earlier events. And then it leaves you with an itch to know what happens next to these characters, even if this particular story is over. Which is exactly how a good story should end.