Paradox

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“Yes, we will watch and enjoy Zoë Bell in anything.”

paradoxEven as a scientist. Seemed like a bit of a stretch for one of our favourite two-fisted heroines, but here, it turns out she’s actually an undercover NSA agent. She is only pretending to be a brainiac, whose cover identity of “Gale” is sent in to infiltrate a mysterious, highly secretive project being run in an underground facility by the equally mysterious “Mr. Landau” (Yoba); he has made a fortune on the stock exchange with an impeccable knowledge of its future movements. Perhaps related, turns out his team have been working on a time-machine, though it requires so much power, it fries the grid over a wide area – not unimportantly, sealing them into the underground base. Their first effort involves sending one of the group, Jim (Huss), ahead an hour; the plan is then for everyone else to “catch up.” A few minutes later, he returns, having seen a future where most of the scientists are dead, and the survivors stalked by an unknown assailant. Can their rapidly approaching. lethal fate be changed, or is it immutable?

I’m a sucker for time-travel films, but they need to be rather more rigorous than this one, which feels sloppy both in tone and execution, as if the makers couldn’t decide quite what they were trying for. One minute, it’s hard sci-fi, the next it’s a slasher pic. No, hang on – it’s a romance between Gale and one of the scientists! Wait, it’s suddenly Zoë Bell kicking ass? Not all of these work equally well, and the shifts between them are rarely less than jarring. There are also plot-holes – not so much with the time-travel aspect, which is handled relatively well, despite a film title that almost appears to be apologizing in advance. Most obviously, how does this underground facility have absolutely no stairs? Or, given the first use of the time-machine triggered a massive black-out, why is it then used repeatedly thereafter without issue?

The cast is equally inconsistent. Bell is, naturally, the best, but Yoba (whom we recognized from Alphas) is okay as an enigma dressed in a dark suit. The rest of the performers, however, appear to have been picked up at random from a local community college; someone needs to check if the director owns a white van or has made large, online purchases of chloroform. For the other actors appear capable of delivering lines or showing emotion – just not both, and certainly not at the same time.  This may be where the film comes closest to the slasher film, in that you care precious little for most of the victims or their fate. I’ll admit that we did not see the final twist coming, and like most time-travel films, may merit a second viewing, just to figure out whether or not it still makes sense, in the light of the late reveal. But there are an awful lot of movies further up the list.

Dir: Michael Hurst
Star: Zoë Bell, Malik Yoba, Adam Huss, Bjørn Alexander

Robot Revolution

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“The revolution will not be televised.”

My heart sank when I saw the production company’s logo in the opening credits, as I realized this was from the same people who brought us Earthkiller, which… Well, wasn’t very good, to put it mildly. Four years and several features later, has Bellware and his micro-budget associates improved? Yes, actually, they have. Not that this is “good”, by any neutral standards, especially if you’re expecting anything like glossy, big-budget SF. However, it does seem more aware of its own limitations, and works within them a lot better than Earthkiller.

robotrevolutionIt’s set somewhat in the future, where Constable Hawkins (Logan) and her android partner have been ordered to pay a visit to the apartment of a researcher (Murphy), who is allegedly working on a weapon for a notorious terrorist. Unfortunately, the terrorist’s henchmen show up at the same time, and the weapon is activated. It consists of a swarm of nanobotz that can “hack” into anything containing electronics and control it. Which is unfortunate, since in this future, all adults have been implanted with an identification chip. Fortunately, the scientist has a somewhat effective countermeasure, but she and Hawkins still have to try and make their way out of the apartment, dealing with both the infected human residents and the automated cleaning robots, that are intent on preventing them.

It’s actually not a bad idea, even if derivative of Dread [which was, itself, derivative of a truly superlative Indonesian action film, The Raid] With just a single location, it’s a good setting for a low-budget film – except Bellware, for some reason, still injects repeated, really crappy CGI exteriors, and the static-laced camera shots, whether from the android’s POV or elsewhere, are also far too excessive. He should just have kept things claustrophobic. A bigger problem are the infected residents, who are about the least threatening monsters I’ve ever seen: a trickle of blood from the nose and five minutes of Zombie 1.0.1. training do not make you scary. [Indeed, it’s probably less horrific than their attempts at acting] The cleaning robot is far more impressive: in form and execution, it appears to have strayed in from a much bigger, better movie.

Logan, sporting a fetching eyepatch, for no readily apparent reason, isn’t bad, projecting a degree of no-nonsense competence appropriate to the character. However, in the film’s second half, it does degenerate into a long series of sequences in which people creep around corridors, that are neither as tense or as interesting as Bellware seems to think. Though I did appreciate the discussion on whether or not these should be considered as zombies, and whether shooting them in the head is the only way to kill them. If Earthkiller’s 1½-star rating was charitable, this one is perhaps a tad harsh, though my appreciation may in part be due to expectations that were not so much low, as subterranean. At this rate, by 2030 or so, Bellware might actually be making decent films.

Dir: Andrew Bellware
Star: Virginia Logan, Mary Murphy, Matthew Trumbull, Dirk Voetberg.

Garm Wars: The Last Druid

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“In serious need of more tell, don’t show”

garmwarsOshii is best known for his anime work, but this isn’t his first foray into live-action; we already reviewed Assault Girls, and this has much the same strengths and, unfortunately, weaknesses. It looks wonderful, but the script here is virtually impenetrable, leaving the viewer on the outside, looking in. I had to watch this twice, because an hour into the first time, I realized I had absolutely not been paying the film any attention for at least 15 minutes. The setting is the planet Annwn, where a long, ongoing war has reduced the original eight tribes to Columba, who rule the air, versus the land-based Brigga, who also have the support of the few remaining members of the Kumtak tribe, who specialize in information technology. When an Brigga escape pod is retrieved, it contains Kumtak elder Wydd (Henriksen) and a druid (Howell), which is a shock, because druids, who provide a direct line of communication to the gods, are supposedly extinct. Wydd offers the druid’s potential power to the Columba in exchange for his tribe’s freedom, but the Brigga mount an attack and re-capture them. Pilot Khara (St-Pierre) leaves in hot pursuit, but is forced to crash-land and team up with Brigga warrior Skellig (Durand, a ringer for Benicio Del Toro), as Wydd’s agenda becomes clear.

Well, somewhat clear. Like many of the other plot elements, it’s never quite clarified to the point you’d be willing to swear to them. For example, the druid’s power is shown when plugged into the central computer, resulting in… a swirling, red-tinged CGI sphere. What is it? Why should we care? Oshii is untroubled by such concerns, being more concerned with creating a universe that, like Sucker Punch, appears almost entirely green-screen. It looks very nice, certainly, but only occasionally provokes anything more than wondering “Is this available in a format suitable for framing?”. An early narrated sequence gives you the setting; after that, you’re on your own, and the visuals come wrapped in some particularly leaden and indigestible pseudo-philosophical dialogue, that is neither as deep nor as interesting as Oshii seems to think.

Once the foursome reach their heavily wooded destination, things perk up somewhat, with a nicely-staged battle against a set of robotic guardians that is likely the film’s high-point. There are other potentially interesting, yet under-explored aspects, such as the way dead soldiers on both sides are resurrected to continue fighting – Khara is currently on her 23rd incarnation. However, the film ends just as things look about to kick off seriously, in an Attack on Titan kinda way, with far too many plot threads left unresolved. I can only presume this is intended to be the first in a multi-episode saga, since on its own, it feels severely incomplete. If I can’t argue with Oshii’s amazing eye for visuals, he really needs to ensure his scripts are  better developed.

Dir: Mamoru Oshii
Star: Melanie St-Pierre, Lance Henriksen, Kevin Durand, Summer H. Howell

The Quiet Hour

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“Alien apocalypse? Time for a nice cup of tea.”

quiethourIt took me forever to figure out where I’d seen the heroine before. Turns out Richards was also the young central character of The Golden Compass though in my defense, she was two-thirds of the age she is here. The film takes place some time after an alien invasion has effectively destroyed humanity, in order to strip-mine resources from the earth’s core: for all except a brief period of two hours each day, anyone found outside is ruthlessly tracked down and killed by the aliens’ craft. Hiding out in their rural farmhouse are Sarah (Richards) and her brother, Jude (McMullen), the latter having been blinded during the initial assault. Their isolated security is disrupted by the arrival of the wounded Tom Connelly (Davies) – he is being pursued by another group of survivors, with highly unpleasant dietary habits and led by Kathryn (Millar), who lay siege to the house, demanding Sarah hands over Tom to them.

By coincidence, I watched this the same week as the similarly-themed (though alien-free) October Gale, with Patricia Clarkson as the woman under siege after helping a wounded guest. This is actually better, with the director here having a better handle on the escalating tension, and Richards giving a solid performance, trying to put a brave face on a steadily-disintegrating situation, for the sake of Jude. What’s curious here, is how the aliens are almost irrelevant to the rest of proceedings: for virtually the entire movie, they’re just a backdrop in front of which the bigger threat, of Kathryn and her clan, plays out. It’s a strange approach. I kept expecting the extraterrestrial angle to be more significant, and if you’re expecting something like a British version of Independence Day, you are going to be very, very disappointed, as this is much more slower-paced, almost to the point of glacial.

However, I can’t say I minded too much, as that makes for a more character-driven movie, and the aliens’ almost-complete indifference to humanity is, in some ways, more chilling; it’s as if we were insects, worthy only of swatting. On the other hand, it feels a bit of a bait and switch, being little more than an excuse for why there’s no external help coming for the siblings – a slightly more sophisticated version of waving a cellphone around and saying, “No signal”. Still, Sarah has a nice sense of English resolve to her, in a ‘Keep calm and carry on’ kinda of way, and Richards shows enough here to make her a name to look out for. Hopefully, The Golden Compass, will not be her sole big-budget effort, since on the evidence here, she deserves better..

Dir: Stéphanie Joalland
Star: Dakota Blue Richards, Karl Davies, Jack McMullen, Brigitte Millarof

Wreaths of Empire, by Andrew M. Seddon

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2

wreathsIt’s often frustrating to me that in today’s two-tiered fiction market, in which the big-time tier is practically a closed caste and the tier that admits everybody else is so glutted that gems get easily buried beneath the mountains of slag (and nobody knows where to look for them), it’s really difficult for some first-class authors to get the recognition and readership they deserve, and would have had a generation ago. Andrew M. Seddon is definitely one of these authors. He and I have been Internet friends for over ten years; I had the privilege of beta reading this excellent novel a couple of years ago (and Andrew is kind enough to mention me in the acknowledgments, though he truly didn’t need much if any help from me!) and now, since he’s generously given me a signed copy, I have the added privilege of being one of the first persons to review it anywhere.

Andrew writes high-quality historical and supernatural fiction, but it’s probably fair to say that his literary first love is science fiction. A medical doctor, his training and experience in the life sciences gives him a predilection for the genre’s “hard” tradition, in which science is handled accurately and the speculative element builds on credible extrapolation from actual knowledge. Wreaths of Empire stands in this tradition; it’s also a work of “space opera,” set in a far-future galaxy with far-flung human settlement, against the background of “a clash of civilizations,” humans vs. aliens in a high-stakes interstellar war, with battle scenes, intrigue, and plenty of action. In its roots and for much of its history, this tradition tended to be associated with shallow characterization, a simplistic “us against them” orientation, and heavy concentration on description of hardware and display of technological and scientific speculation to the neglect of the human element. Happily, none of those features have ever characterized Andrew’s work, and don’t here. This is a novel where the key element is people (whether they’re human or alien) and the choices they make –people and choices we come to care about greatly.

Readers of Andrew’s earlier novel Iron Scepter will recall that there we find the malevolent Hegemony, which dominates human space, plotting to gin up a war against another space-faring race, the Gara’nesh, in order to use fear and hatred of an outside enemy to solidify its own control over its hapless subjects. This new novel is set in the same universe, like much of Andrew’s SF. (Despite the broad chronological framework that ties them together, though, these books aren’t a “series;” they can each stand alone and be read independently.) Here, though, our setting is much later; the bloody Gara’nesh war has dragged on for decades, shaping the lives and attitudes of a whole generation that’s never known anything else. When we meet Jade Lafrey in the prologue, she’s an ensign in the Hegemony’s space fleet –an ensign who’s destined to make a crucial choice that will have far-reaching consequences, for the galaxy and for two sentient species.

Eleven years later, as peace negotiations are finally opening, Jade’s a (space) Naval Intelligence officer, called on to deal with a complex behind-the scenes intrigue that may threaten the diplomatic efforts, if not the survival of humanity itself; and it will be very difficult to tell friend from foe. She’ll get her share of fighting action and physical jeopardies and challenge as a result. As an added bonus for action heroine fans, the author actually gives us two action-oriented ladies here; besides our protagonist, one of the secondary female characters, interstellar smuggler Trevarra, can also handle herself well in a fight. (In fact, while the one-star kick-butt quotient above rates Jade’s performance, if I’d rated Trevarra’s it would have been three.)

Earlier this year, I was asked if I could provide a blurb for the cover copy of this book. I can’t think of a better way to finish this review than to quote it. “Top-notch SF author Seddon creates possibly his best novel yet in Wreaths of Empire, bringing a new depth and freshness to the space opera tradition. A wonderful heroine to cheer for; a well-crafted, character-driven plot; some of the genre’s finest writing; excitement, suspense, and food for thought –what more could a reader ask for?”

Author: Andrew M. Seddon
Publisher: Splashdown Books, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Earthkiller

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“In space, no-one can hear you yawn.”

earthkillerIf one and a half stars is likely kind, I know how much work goes into micro-budget film-making, and this is clearly a labour of love. However, if ever there were evidence more than that is needed… this would be it. At some point in the future, an android, “Helen” (Kurtz), reboots to find herself on a space-station with no memory of why she is there. It turns out, she was part of a mission sent to the space-station, involving a massive weapon located there, capable of creating a black hole and destroying the Earth below. Some want to destroy the weapon; others want to set it off, in order to fulfill religious prophecy. Helen initially assists the former side, but as her memories return, it turns out that may not have been her originally programmed mission. As well as the fanatics, there are also nanobot-infected zombies [I think – my notes grew a bit vague on the details of some elements, as my interest waned!] who must be avoided or fought, for Helen to make her way through the station to the Doomsday device’s location.

Which would be okay, if the film-makers could deliver anything approaching the productions values necessary for this kind of epic science fiction. Instead, we get what feels like the same three sets, shot repeatedly from slightly different angles, in a touching and severely-flawed belief that no-one will notice; “zombie” make-up which looks like an Alice Cooper look-alike contest got left out in the rain; and perhaps one of the worst “acting” performances of the decade. Though, I have to say, this does not belong to Kurtz, who acquits herself adequately as a robot. She spends the first 20 minutes of the movie naked, for no reason ever satisfactorily explained, and I wondered is she was going to go all Lifeforce here. Kurtz is – how can I put this? – more reminiscent of Tilda Swinton than Mathilda Maym and it’s about the least erotic nudity you can imagine, but I kinda respect her and the director for that. Anyway: no, the acting Razzie for this one gives to whoever is playing her boss, who delivers his lines with considerably less enthusiasm than the zombies. It’s certainly memorable; unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons.

Throw in poorly conceived and badly-executed CGI blood (something I generally dislike and rarely used except out of laziness),  exposition that manages to be uninteresting during the minority of the time when it is intelligible, and digital effects that run the gamut from acceptable – the space-station exteriors aren’t bad – to 8-bit video game, and you have something which even the best will in the world can’t save. Sometimes, reining in enthusiasm is good; sometimes, realizing you aren’t yet ready for public consumption is better.

Dir: Andrew Bellware
Star: Robin Kurtz, Lisa Marie Fabrega, Stacey Raymond
a.k.a. Total Retribution

Haphead

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“Virtually worthless.haphead

A good idea goes entirely to waste in this woefully-executed cyberpunk webseries, with the episodes now combined back into something more or less feature-length. The heroine is Maisie (White), who gets an entry-level job working in an electronics factory belonging to the murky Asteri*k corporation. They’re making “haptic” cables which allow computers to interface directly with the brain; the potential in this idea is massive, but here, it’s explored only in a few scenes of Maisie playing a VR game in which she controls a rabbit with ninja skills. There’s some kind of rumblings that the skills learned stick in your brain, so as you become good at fighting in the virtual world, you become good in the real world. Except, this doesn’t go anywhere either – although this is probably wise, considering White’s fighting abilities, charitably described as wobbly. Instead, the film diverts in its second half into her investigation of the mysterious death of her father (Strauss), a security guard who took an unwanted promotion so she wouldn’t have to work in the factory, only to be killed by a “haphead”. Maisie investigates this, and soon discovers things are not quite what they seemed.

The problems here mostly stem from the script which comes up with any number of initially interesting concepts, including the positive and negative uses of technology, through corrupt practices of big business… and then discards them without doing anything significantly more than bringing them up (never mind even scratching the surface), instead scurrying on to the next one. The end result is less a frothy cybernetic souffle, and more a leaden lump of undercooked plot elements strapped together with old USB cables, like the parkour which shows up for no apparent reason, other than someone thought it would be cool. Or, equally likely, the film-makers’ mates wanted to be in the film.

You don’t even need big-budgets or incredible effects to do something like this justice. The makers could, and should, have learned a great deal from something like David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, which covered a fair amount of the same ground, but did so with a script which truly explored the possibilities of virtual reality – and saved a lot of money, because the VR world was very, very similar to our own one. Of course, no doubt it helped to have Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Willem Dafoe, etc. However, a low budget is no excuse for a bad script: indeed, the reverse is true, if your means are limited, you’d better be damn sure your script is engaging and well-written. Throwing a bunch of semi-“edgy” cyberpunk elements on top of a story painfully ill-suited to handle them, is not an acceptable substitute.

Dir: Tate Young
Star: Elysia White, David Strauss, Joanne Jansen, Kwame Kyei-Boateng

Son of the Morning, by Linda Howard

Literary rating: starstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2

sonofthemorningTime travel! A smart, strong-inside heroine who learns to kick some butt! Secrets buried in long-lost documents! Medieval knights, and a castle in the Highlands! Action! Danger! Romance (sort of)! What more could one want for a great read? Well –quite a bit, actually, as my literary rating indicates. (To be fair, though, the book has genuine positive points, and my wife –we read it together as our “car book”– has stated that she’d give it four stars.)

The most obvious positive feature is main character Grace St. John. An intellectual, gentle, slightly overweight woman of about 30, who’s never been exposed to violence or significant hardship, in the first chapter she witnesses the sudden, brutal murders of both her husband and her brother, who are her only family and the center of her world. Framed for their killings and forced to flee for her life, with no warning and nothing but the clothes on her back and her laptop, she’s forced to learn to survive on the street, and off the grid. Driven by a determination to avenge her loved ones, take down the killer, and translate the documents that contain the mystery he’s willing to kill for, and needing to stay alive to do that, over time she believably transforms into a street-smart woman who can take care of herself, fight and use a gun if she has to. (And on a couple of occasions she does have to.) She’s a very well-drawn, admirable character that the reader readily likes and roots for.

All of the other major characters are also vivid and well-developed, including a really hateful villain. The plot is nicely constructed, in the main; some aspects are broadly predictable, but it also included a couple of major surprises I did not see coming. Howard writes well, for the most part; there are a lot of finely-turned phrases, touches of wry humor that balance the serious tone, and effective construction of scenes and evocation of atmosphere. (One reviewer complains about the time devoted to Grace’s paralyzing terror, right after the trauma of the killings, over crossing a street to use an ATM machine, and to her problem in finding a place to relieve herself; but to me this was a way of showing the situation she started from, in all its extreme difficulty, and gets us right inside of her head in the midst of it, with no sugarcoating.)

For me, though, the negatives were significant. A major one is the treatment of the Templar angle. Since the 1950s (beginning with a now-discredited hoax which any number of pundits and writers still pass on as fact) a pop-culture mythology has grown up around the Templars as guardians of Deep Dark Secrets that supposedly discredit Christianity. The classical version is that Christ didn’t die on the cross, but rather lived on to marry Mary Magdalene and sire the line that became the Merovingian royal family of France. Howard leaves out the Mary Magdalene-Merovingian scenario, but she creates her own wrinkles on the theme. Regardless of their beliefs about religion, readers with any grounding in serious historical or biblical studies will recognize this as the kind of thing that you might read in a supermarket tabloid. It’s not helped here by the fact that, even taking the book on its own terms, the Templars’ interpretation of the physical evidence that leads them to their supposed theological discoveries is so logically flawed and implausible as to be ludicrous. But this whole motif isn’t introduced until the penultimate chapter. (And on the other hand, Howard does take the existence of God seriously, and has a relatively high Christology; and Grace, in the same chapter, offers an excellent simple explanation of theodicy in terms of free will. So while many Christians will have problems with the book, it won’t please hardcore religion-phobic readers either.)

Howard’s writing background and credentials are rooted in the romance genre; and though the cover of this edition and the cover copy don’t clearly identify this book as a romance, it does embody some of the genre conventions. One of these is explicit sex –of course, not all romance novels feature this, but this one does, to a considerable degree. Except where crucial dialogue is embedded in these scenes, they can usually be skipped over by readers who don’t appreciate that sort of thing (so if you want detailed evaluation of those parts, you’re reading the wrong review!). But the problematic elements here go deeper; for a “romance” genre novelist, Howard can be singularly tone-deaf to what makes for real romance.

It’s no spoiler that Grace and medieval Templar knight Black Niall will be a couple, since the cover copy tells us so. Grace and Niall, during the course of the book, experience a cross-time psychological connection (at first, just in dreams) that allows them, at times, to experience each other’s voice and presence. This is never explained, and doesn’t really come across as credible. But it focuses strictly on intense sexual attraction; there’s very little if any element of getting to know each other as anything but sex objects. That continues when they meet in person. Given that Grace is portrayed as a person who takes sex seriously and has never been with any man but her husband, this comes across, as even she recognizes, as out of character. It isn’t really plausible either, and rather than making the relationship come across as a “love for all time,” as the cover copy bills it, it seems more like a heat period. I didn’t feel any kind of personal emotional connection between hero and heroine for most of the book. And while I respect Grace for her past scruples, the juxtaposition with Niall’s background of womanizing, and the unspoken implication that this somehow verifies his virility and desirability as a partner, tends IMO to reinforce a really unhealthy double standard for males and females.

A couple more quibbles are worth mentioning. Howard has done some historical research, shown by the array of apparently accurate factoids she can muster here and there. But it’s apparent that her research consisted of mining for factual snippets in areas where she realizes that she’s ignorant. She does not have a general warp-and-woof knowledge of the medieval world, and that allows her to make a few noticeable (to me, at least) errors. I was also frustrated with the plot device of a character being secretive without any good reason to be, simply to artificially exacerbate the conflict. So on balance, I did like the book; but it wasn’t the four or five-star read it could have been with different handling.

Note: There is some bad language here, including a number of f-words, which come mostly from the villain(s); but even some of the good characters cuss some.

Author: Linda Howard
Publisher: Pocket Books, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

On Basilisk Station, by David Weber

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: Depends on how you define it…

onbaskiliskThis series opener is one that was been on my radar for a long time, so I was delighted to finally read it last year! Although I’m a science fiction fan, I’m not generally attracted to military SF, which of course this is. But that’s mostly because my impression is that much of that sub-genre concentrates heavily on futuristic military hardware, to the neglect of the human element (and I think the human element is what good literature is all about). But that’s not a problem here. To be sure, there’s futuristic military hardware, and techno-babble (see below). But the human element, and a rousing tale of human adventure, is the core of the book.

Ever since junior high school, I’ve appreciated historical fiction about the British Navy in the age of sail; I like the ambiance, the ethos, and the action of the storylines. Weber’s a kindred spirit in this respect, and particularly a fan of C. S. Forester (to whom he dedicates this novel). The latter’s Horatio Hornblower series provides the inspiration for Weber’s series, and the identity of the initials of the respective protagonists is no coincidence. This has led some Hornblower fans to cry “Foul!” and “Rip-off!” I’m not joining in those cries, however. Yes, Weber has definitely brought something of the flavor of the earlier novels, set in the life of an ocean-going navy in the Napoleonic Wars, to this tale of a space-faring navy in the far future. Honor’s Manticore is a kingdom with an aristocracy and a political system reminiscent of Regency England (the author actually provides a plausible historical explanation for this!), while its rival, Haven, has affinities to revolutionary France. And Honor has heroic qualities in common with Hornblower, as well as her initials. But that’s where the parallels end. She’s her own person, not a Hornblower clone, and I did not see the plot as duplicating anything from the earlier series; it’s original. (Granted, I’ve only read one Hornblower novel.) What we have here, IMO, is an SF homage to Forester’s canon, not a plagiarized rip-off.

Of course, it’s an updated homage, most noticeably in that the all-male world of Hornblower’s navy has finally met the world of women’s liberation. Not only do we have a female protagonist; women in Manticore (which currently happens to have a ruling Queen) enjoy full role equality with men, can occupy positions of power, and serve in the space navy on an equal footing with males. Being an (equalitarian) feminist myself, that’s music to my ears! Moreover, I’m a long-standing admirer of strong, take-charge, combat-capable heroines, and that definitely describes Honor. She’s got the smarts, guts, determination and decisiveness to captain a warship; but more than that, she’s a person of integrity, ethics, loyalty, and moral courage. (Honor isn’t just her name; it’s a quality that defines her.) No, she’s not perfect (she’s got a temper, that she sometimes has to fight to control!); but she’s a woman you can respect and admire. Her “kick-butt quotient” above is ambiguous only because she doesn’t engage in direct or one-on-one combat here (although she’s a strong, solidly-built woman, and back in her naval academy days once defended herself against a would-be rapist, thrashing him soundly). But she does command a starship, with cool-headed resolution and skill, in lethal ship-to-ship combat.

Weber’s supporting cast is life-like as well. His plotting is good, carefully developed and well-paced, with real suspense that rises to nail-biting intensity at the climax. Likewise, his world-building is capable and vivid. Spot-on political commentary with real contemporary relevance is embedded naturally in the storyline; and in the tradition of heroic action adventure, the moral message here is one that’s supportive of virtue, duty, patriotism, and loyalty.

That’s not to say it’s an unflawed debut. As other reviewers have noted, Weber’s partial to the info-dump technique. There are a couple of long ones here. The first one explains Manticore’s political system, and at least has the merit of being interesting in its own right. The second attempts to explain the mechanics of FTL space travel and hyper-space currents, as they work in the author’s imaginary view of the galaxy, in such a way as to provide a veneer of hard science. How valid any of this is (even by the standards of modern quantum theory, which I don’t understand or necessarily even fully accept!) I don’t know, and don’t care; and the excursion through it left me slightly glassy-eyed. I don’t have to have a solid basis in known science for my SF, so I’d have been happy with much less explanation –just a basic indication of what the spaceships can or can’t do. (If he wanted to include all this techno-babble, IMO, Weber would have been better off to put it in an appendix, as he does with his extensive discussion of Manticorean chronology –though my copy is missing a page of this. I didn’t miss it!)

There’s also a significant amount of profanity and obscenity here (though not from Honor); mostly from villains or military types under severe stress. (Readers who dislike extremely grisly violence should be warned that they’ll find some of that here, too!) But despite these factors, this was easily a four-and-a-half star read for me!

Author: David Weber
Publisher: Baen Books, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book. But the first two volumes, this and Honor of the Queen, are actually for free from the publisher, in electronic formats.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Mutant World

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“Well, it’s no Sharknado 2. It’s not even Sharknado 3.”

mutantworldThis SyFy original movie takes place mostly after an “Earth killer”-sized meteor has struck the Eastern seaboard of the United States. A group of Doomsday preppers, with slightly more warning than most, are able to take shelter inside their refuge, a former missile silo, and settle down to wait out the apocalypse going on above ground. 10 years later, they’re forced to send a small group back up to the surface as the result of damage to their solar panels. Leading that patrol is Melissa King (Deveaux), whose father Marcus (Kim Coates, whom you will recognize if you’re a Sons of Anarchy fan) was the leader of the group, but was trapped outside their sanctuary when the meteor hit. The patrol discovers that the radiation resulting from the impact has wiped out most of humanity – but the survivors have been mutated by it, and turned into thoroughly unpleasant monsters. Exploring further, they find what appears to be sanctuary, populated by other survivors, only to discover that when the sun goes down, they too are no longer human. Fortunately for them, assistance is at hand in the former of the Preacher (Ashanti), a motorcycle riding, warrior-priestess, who appears to be in contact with the actual remnants of mankind.

Oh, dear. The potential is here, but is buried deeper than a nuclear fallout shelter, because there is hardly any aspect that is not badly botched, right from the start: Coates, the only real “name” in the cast, is barely in the film, the kind of bait-and-switch which is rarely a good sign. The script is just terrible: what’s supposed to be a quick mission up top to fix the power, somehow spirals off into a jolly road-trip, with no apparent regard for the people back in the bunker. While the mutants’ glowing green eyes are kinda cool, that is about as far as both the imagination and the budget goes; there’s no explanation provided either, for why some people are totally mutated, some are only mutated at night (!), and others, like the Preacher, are apparently entirely untroubled by mutantism, despite wearing no more protection than a long trench-coat. And don’t even get me started on Ashanti’s performance, which is about as unconvincing as you’d expect from a singer-slash-dancer-slash-whatever.

The film is clearly trying to establish Melissa’s credentials as some kind of a bad-ass, judging by the poorly-choreographed fight she has with the shelter leader, before heading up top [also worth noting: no-one appears to have aged or been changed in the slightest by the passage of a decade, whether underground or on the surface]. Outside of very intermittent moments, it doesn’t work, though in comparison to Ashanti, Coates is positively an Oscar-winner. I did somewhat appreciate the element of role-reversal found here, with the most bad-ass roles given to the actresses. However, good intentions are never enough to overcome execution as horribly flawed as we see here. By the end, I was hoping for another meteor strike, to put both the characters and the viewers out of our mutual misery.

Dir: David Winning
Star: Holly Deveaux, Ashanti, Amber Marshall, Jason Cermak