First Watch (2017)

One of my favorite series of all time is the Garrett files series by Glen Cook, which did urban fantasy before that was even a thing, although it doesn’t take place in a modern setting but a second world fantasy. But apart from that, it’s detective fiction set against an urban landscape that trots out all the cliches you expect from fantasy seen through the lens of a protagonist who is more modern than medieval.

Another favorite of mine are the Night Watch novels of the Discworld series, which again are urban fantasy apart from taking place in a second world fantasy setting with coppers looking into crimes. Both series feel very modern in outlook, both have characters that look at their world and recognize problems that to a large extent feel very contemporary.

First Watch is a bit like that, it has coppers, crime and a second world setting with slightly modern problems. It’s about a young noble who run away from home and tries to make his way on his own and by accident gets in with one of the local wards (the equivalent of a police precinct), gets partnered with an older cop, a dwarf, and solves a cop murder that leads to uncovering something much bigger. The city this takes place in is part of a generic second world, there are orcs, dwarves, elves and probably even more fantasy races and monsters that can be found in this kind of setting.

Nothing about the city, the bigger setting or any of the other elements feels unique or even somewhat fantastic. It’s fantasy, sure, but somehow it winds up feeling utterly mundane and uninteresting. Not the main POV and the ongoing case, which was compelling enough to make me finish the book, but the world itself just feels utterly tedious and bland.

If I were younger and didn’t have read better examples of the genre, I probably would look at the book much more favorable, but since I am not and I have, whenever I try to think about the book, I can’t stop comparing it to its betters. It’s not a bad book, but it’s not great either. And there’s nothing here that makes me want to check out its sequels.

High School DxD S3 (2015)

I watched the first six episodes of this, then stopped watching for no particular reason and picked it up again a few months later. And was completely confused about what was going on. The enemies are so generic at this point, so interchangeable, that who they are supposed to be doesn’t really matter as they don’t really represent anything other than random barriers for the hero to overcome.

And since the very first episode of the first season, the MO of the show has never changed, something stronger than our hero comes along, there’s a lot of posturing on both sides, but after his initial defeat our hero either just boost his strength to high enough levels or discovers another power-up that allows him to defeat his enemy. Coupled together with his lusting after his harem, his harem getting another female member and so on.

So while I wasn’t really clear on what was really going on, I could just push through and finish the season and be done with it. Unlike the previous two seasons, it felt a bit more lackluster, with no massive fight at the end and some big boss to beat, and instead with a few smaller arcs and smaller enemies getting their due. At this point, the show is pretty much set in its course and don’t expect to change it.

I probably won’t watch the fourth season even if they make one, as amusing as the show was at the beginning, this one was really boring overall and the quality dipped here or it was always terrible (it sorta was but in an amusing way) and I just caught on.

SSSS.Gridman (2018)

What does it say about a series that is on the surface all about giant mechas fighting giant monsters (kaiju), when the most interesting bits and pieces are the character interactions and every fight makes me wish the creators would have glossed over those (damn well animated) fights and just gone back to the characters.

SSSS.Gridman is a reboot/sequel of an older series that focuses on three school kids who get roped into fighting those massive kaiju, which only of them can see at the start of the series. From there, things get more complex and as it turns out, the main character of the series in none of those kids but the villain, a lonely girl whose emotional landscape is the backdrop the real villain needs to fuel his kaiju.

In some ways, this reminded me of Re:Creators, where the main setup was somewhat of an inverse of what happens in SSSS.Gridman. Instead of fictional characters coming to the real world, here it’s a real-world character coming to a fictional one and by its very nature being able to operate like a god. But the main conflict, a villain who is pretty much driven by her loneliness and who can’t be defeated by normal means, feels very much similar.

And I liked that they couldn’t win just by getting another power-up, but instead needed their very humanity to solve this tangled knot. Since the villain is basically god in this small world (just one city) and created most of its inhabitants to love her (but even in a fictional world thing can get messy, and even a god can get depressed when its own creations reject it), you would expect all of this to be a pretty one-sided battle, but Gridman and its assistant power-ups (sorta people in their own way) are from some hyper-reality that transcends the nature of both the fictional world as well as the power of its god, and throw a wrench into the villain’s plan again and again.

For something that starts out so simple, it covers a lot of grounds and there’s almost no filler. Except for the battles, they take too damn long.

Examination Night (1992)

Very unusual early short story by Charles Stross that is unlike anything else he has ever written. Most of the time when he has done fantasy or something close to it, his approach was often deeply influenced by a mindset more prone to think in a science fictional way, but this story reminded me more of the university pieces of Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter. A setting somewhere between the middle age and modernity, upgraded by real magic and with lots of spells and summons that aren’t really interested in the underlying systems, but in presenting the real danger of playing around with magic and with a more realistic and nuanced depiction of characters than what you get in heroic fantasy (or alternatively grimdark).

It was written for an anthology called Villains (about which I know nothing else, but the title is suggestive enough and the story fits the theme perfectly) and is about an apprentice of magic getting involved in a murder mystery, trapped between the inquisition hunting for a potential dark lord and the DL himself.

The story really feels like its written just on spec, there’s no deeper theme than interesting characters clashing with each other and the exploration of said characters again common fantasy themes twisted into realistic, somewhat dark directions, but its neat to see an excellent story by Stross in a mode he has (according to what I read of him) never deployed elsewhere. To be honest, I wouldn’t have thought he had this kind of fantasy in him, and it’s intriguing to think about alternate histories where he went on to write more in this style.

The Midlist Bombers (1992)

Early Stross short story that is about midlist writers of a publishing house who are about to get cut due to a merger of their publishing house with another and who devise a “cunning” plan to get rid of computers and other technological advances to make books relevant again. I put cunning in quotes because the plan is so ridiculous it’s hard to take the story serious. At. All.

Not that Stross didn’t know that, he just run with the joke as far as he could. It’s okay, but like many stories that are basically well argued jokes, it feels kinda stupid and pointless and honestly more something that worries writers than readers (yeah, the death of the midlist should in theory worry readers as well, but the current environment means there are so many books available, it’s hard to worry too hard about this, except when it’s your favorite midlist writer who stops publishing).

Something Sweet (1991)

Collaboration between Simon D. Ings and Charles Stross that evokes early cyberpunk aesthetics without all the technological glitter. The core idea is more wetworks than cybertech, with a brain implant that starts talking to its bearer and helps him get away from those hunting him down. The story is okay, not great or anything, not terrible, just somewhere in-between. Solid but forgettable.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

I heard a lot of good buzz about this one, but even that couldn’t have prepared me for just how good this movie was. It’s definitely my pick for best movie in 2018.

The main character is Spider-Man, many incarnations of him but the most prominent is Miles Morales and an older Peter Parker. Miles originally was conceived in the Ultimate Marvel universe, where he replaced the Ultimate version of Peter after he died in the line of duty. As I was reading and really enjoying Bendis Ultimate Spider-Man at the time, I was majorly pissed off about how he killed him and stopped reading the comics altogether and never gave Miles a chance.

I’m not saying that Bendis was right how he approached it then, but I was probably wrong about not giving Miles that chance. This version of these events does the whole thing better, by killing Peter off as well, but a version of Peter we as the viewers aren’t emotionally vested in. It’s a sad thing to be sure but doesn’t have the same impact. This version of Peter was never our viewpoint character, we see it all from Miles perspective.

And then realities start to collide and we get another Peter, a much older version, still proficient and who feels like the Spider-Man of my youth if he had been allowed to grow up. He’s far from perfect, but his flaws make him even more human and seeing the old, weary version of Spider-Man interacting with a young Miles who doesn’t even know yet if he wants into the superhero gig, but whose moral compass is already quite strong, is pretty fun.

If there’s one thing I dislike about legacies in superhero comics, it’s that its all about giving the mantle to the next generation and the older generation giving their lives in a grand gesture. This is not that movie. Yes, the original Peter Parker of Miles’ dimension died, but the older version from another dimension is not the old, Ben Kenobi-style teacher who dies so that Miles can rise to the occasion.

Instead, its Miles who saves old Peter and gives him the opportunity to turn his life around. Miles learn from Peter, true, but like any good teacher, so does Peter learn from Miles. It’s never a one-way street and there’s no need for sacrifices. Everybody lives, and the movie is better for it. And it’s not just Peter and Miles, it’s all of the varied versions of Spider-Man who in their own dimension usually fight alone, but learn that they are never alone, but really legion throughout the multiverse.

The movie is about lots of things you would expect in a movie about a young person growing up: taking up responsibility, learning that you can’t do it all alone, understanding that being a grown-up means not knowing what the outcome of some of your choices will be and still making that leap of faith. It’s not exactly new, but the execution is perfect. Story-telling, music, animation, character design, everything is utterly flawless to weave a yarn that sucks you in, makes you laugh and at times brings tears to your eyes.

A Court of Thorns and Roses (2015)

It doesn’t happen often that I like a book so much I read up on the sequels and then decide not to continue. ACoTaR is a really well-done retelling of Beauty and the Beast, the underlying plot-structure of the original tale is still there but Maas has changed enough to make it her own story. We have the faery-lands, we have the human world, our heroine who gets dragged to faery to atone for killing one of them and then, as usual falls in love with her captor.

It’s the age-old Stockholm syndrome story we all love so dear, only with a lot of bells and whistles added in the form of a big amount of setting rather befitting an epic fantasy than a mere fairy tale retelling. There are many different faery courts, there’s a war from the past whose shadows still loom over everyone, human and faery alike and there are some sins so deep nothing can ever wash away all that hate and blood. Which is a damn good setup.

There are our main chars. Feyre who at the beginning of the story is a young woman hardened by her living conditions, a less than supportive family and just no money or food around. Hunger is her constant companion as well as her all-around positive disposition toward life in general. And then she gets whisked away by the beast for murdering one of his own. The rest of the plot runs mostly on rails, until the moment she fails to lift his curse, has to go back and there’s still a hundred or more pages to go.

At this point, the ending is pretty much a foregone conclusion, but getting there and reaching that happy end is pretty damn satisfying. And then I read that Maas pretty much tore down one part of the equation to stuff another bad boy down our throat in the sequel. She could have sent him away or killed him or anything else, but damn what she did (and thankfully I only read the summary) is just ghastly. Seems to be also her MO in general, so I won’t touch any of her other books as well.

Still, I really enjoyed this one as a stand-alone. Not just for the big strokes or the overall romance, but for the little things. Feyre’s love for paintings, which probably made me like her even more from the moment I met her. How the story starting with two evil sisters, only to show them as more complex halfway into the book and that there was more to them than we saw in the beginning. Maas really managed to imbue almost every character here with more complexity than I was expecting and near the end, I was almost sure that even the arch-nemesis of the book would get a redeeming moment. Not so, but still would have been neat.

The Labyrinth Index (2018)

This book is a lot of things, a spy thriller, a fake heist and even a romance of sorts. It’s also one of the most depressing books I’ve read in a long time and even when the two main lovebirds of the story get a happy end, it makes it all the more depressing. We’re in the darkest timeline, and if you’ve read the previous 8 books in the series, you know this to be true. Case Nightmare Green has officially started and things can only go worse from here.

What started out as a unique spin on urban fantasy (or urban horror) with the Atrocity Jungle all the way back in 2004, has over the years morphed into an evermore accelerating rush towards doom, but with the last book all delusion of ever reaching a happy ending have truly been rendered unthinkable. The UK is controlled by one of the old ones who requires lots of sacrifices to fuel all his plans and minions and the Laundry (the “Good” guys) were the ones who asked him to do it.

And it was the lesser of two evils, given the other choice. The Labyrinth Index shows us what happens next and how the Magnate, the public face of the Black Pharaoh, deals with his adversaries in the US. Because while he was the lesser of two evils, the American counterpart of the Laundry has chosen as well and took over their country to get the resources to wake the old one they’re working for. And to make it happen they made every American forget that they ever had a president.

To solve this crisis, the Black Pharaoh sents one of his minions, former Laundry operative and vampire Mhari Murphy, to the other side of the big pond, and things go haywire fast. As usual, there are plans inside plans, the main characters are unreliable narrators at best (sometimes they withhold information or outright lie, at other times they are primed by their Masters unknowingly) and lots of action and terrible choices to be made.

How do you face a world where the doomsday clock has rung and you’re still alive (albeit your very existence means innocent people have to die, vampires in this universe are a really ugly breed), where you’re still able to fall in love, feel like human beings, but deep down know that everything is doomed to be enslaved or die (the better choices) or die in truly horrible ways.

I like the Laundry series and always felt that the Code Nightmare Green scenario was an excellent spice to make it really exciting to read, to see where everything was going and wonder if Stross had the guts to fully commit to his scenario. But now that this Rubicon has been crossed, as well written and as compelling as this book was, it also feels bone-tiring and depressing to think just about what is happening in the background, how many people are sacrificed to let the “good” guys survive, not to speak of the what the “bad” guys are doing.

And Stross is all-too-willing to remind us in detail what both sides are up to. It’s almost impossible to think of anybody left standing as the good guys. This is just pure, concentrated tragedy boiled down to the essentials of insanity, depression, guilt and terror.

It’s a good read, but damn it makes me want to read something full of sunshine and rainbows and unicorns next. Wait, scratch that, no damn unicorns.

Voltron: Legendary Defender S1-S5 (2016-2018)

So I watched the first 5 of the 8 seasons of the Voltron reboot and I was a bit at a loss to explain why the show just wasn’t working for me. At. All. In theory it has a grand setup (humans discover a galaxy full of aliens who are lorded over by an expansionist empire and who they fight with a massive space-walking robot Japanese style), it has most of the time pretty good animation and some of the combat scenes in the final episodes of each season are breathtaking to watch and marvelously animated.

But damn didn’t I care for the characters and felt bored watching the series from episode to episode. It’s a show that would be easy to like as a kid, but when you look at it with adult eyes feels slightly hollow with character more props to propel the plot forward than anything else. And sadly even the overall story felt less than coherent (sometimes too predictable and with cheap-ass villains), with new characters turning up when old got wasted (sometimes senselessly), odd character dynamics that too often descended into cheap comedy and never managed any sense of real drama and maturity,  worsened by odd personality shifts.

It feels the later seasons were a mess entirely due to un-aligned interests of those at the helm of the show, and after reading up on all brouhaha surrounding the series and the problems it had starting with season three, I can see why it never managed to find what made it unique. Which is a problem for any show, but most of those either get canceled or they find their core in season two or three, Voltron meandered messily on until the end. Given how unexciting the first 5 seasons were, I can’t see myself wasting more time to catch the rest.

And I do like space opera where humanity slowly ventures out into space, discovers alien races and gets involved in galaxy-wide conflicts. I usually eat stuff like this up, but damn was the execution lacking here and that the main characters were human wasn’t even relevant. Earth and humanity played no role at all, the main five characters could have been Martians for all that their identity mattered to the show.