Sunday, April 23, 2017

Review: Dune

Dune Dune by Frank Herbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have to write this review without rhythm so that it won’t attract a worm.

In the distant future Arrakis is a hellhole desert planet where anyone who doesn’t die of thirst will probably be eaten by one of the giant sandworms. It’s also the only place where the precious spice melange can be found so it’s incredibly valuable, and the honorable Duke Leto Atreides has been ordered by the Padishah Emperor to take over control of Arrakis from his mortal enemies, the House Harkonnen. While this seems like a great offer on the surface the Duke and his people realize that it’s actually a cunning trap being set by the Emperor and Baron Harkonnen.

The only hope seems to be allying with the local populace called Fremen whose harsh environment has led them to become an incredibly tough and disciplined people, but they have their own vision of what Arrakis should be. They also have a prophecy about the coming of a messiah figure who will lead them to freedom, and the Duke’s son Paul looks like he may be exactly who they’ve been waiting for.

This is classic sci-fi that really deserves the label. What Frank Herbert accomplished in one novel is stunning because he built a fascinatingly detailed universe in which the politics, religion, economics, espionage, and military strategy are all equally important. He then blended these more grounded concepts with bigger sci-fi ideas like being able to use spice to see through space-time, and the scope of that encompasses trying to pick the proper path through various potential timelines as well as free will vs. fate.

I think one of the factors that helps this story stay timeless is that so much of it is based on what humanity becomes vs. trying to predict what futuristic technology would be like. This is a society that once had a war with machines and has since rejected any type of computers so people have developed to fill the gap with the help of the spice. The Mentats are trained to use data to predict outcomes. The Navigators of the Guild have used so much of the spice to help them move through space that they’re mutating. The all female Bene Gesserit have developed a variety of skills to place their members alongside positions of power to help advance their breeding scheme that spans generations. Herbert also cleverly came up with an excuse that explains why knives and hand-to-hand combat are so important with the idea of the personal body shields.

So even though we still got a good sci-fi’s novel worth of cool gadgets the emphasis is on what the people can do and how that’s developed over a long period of time. It also adds a lot of depth to the political dimensions because all of these groups have different agendas that cause them all to mistrust each other, but because they all fill these various roles none can exist with the others.

There are also parallels to our world that are still in play because the idea of a desert people caught up in the power struggles of various outsiders because of their valuable natural resource is an obvious allegory to the Middle East that still works today. Plus, the classic film Lawrence of Arabia came out a few years before Herbert published this, and you have to think that it had some influence on him because there are elements of the story that seem very much inspired by it.

While the whole concept of a Chosen One has gotten a bit worn over time that’s not Herbert’s fault, and this is still a fantastic sci-fi story with big ideas that also works as space opera as well as being an epic adventure story.

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Saturday, April 15, 2017

Review: Doctor Strange, Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment

Doctor Strange, Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment Doctor Strange, Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment by Roger Stern
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Greetings, Dr. Strange. I, Victor von Doom, have come to offer you an opportunity to assist me in a magical quest.”

“You must be mad, Doom. As the Sorcerer Supreme you know that I’d never use my powers to help a villain like you. I’ll see you in hell first!”

“Funny you should say that….”

Dr. Strange and Dr. Doom are summoned to a magical trial with some other contestants to determine who will be the next Sorcerer Supreme. Strange walks away with the title, but Doom wins the right to make a request of him. Doom wants help in freeing his mother’s soul from Mephisto which means going to Hades and fighting the devil himself on his home turf. Hilarity ensues.

This one started out with two strikes against it with me. First, it was written back in the late ‘80s so I knew going in it’d probably seem somewhat dated. Second, I’m not a fan of Mike Mignola’s art. However, I was pleasantly surprised by this.

While the dialogue is very overblown and comic booky it actually kinda works when you’re dealing with a couple of verbose characters like Strange and Doom. Teaming up a hero with one of Marvel’s worst baddies adds a fun mismatched partners dynamic like you find in a good buddy action movie. The story itself is pretty strong and the battle between them and Mephisto features some really clever twists in the way it uses as magic and plays with the idea that Doom will almost certainly betray Strange to save his mother’s soul.

I also liked it because I generally find Doom to be a hoot because he is just such an unbelievably arrogant jerk, but this manages to add a tragic dimension to the character. By the end you feel almost bad for the guy.

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Saturday, April 8, 2017

Review: The Ridge

The Ridge The Ridge by John Rector
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy of this via NetGalley for review.

I’ve lived in the suburbs for years and despite what books, movies, and TV would have you believe I’ve yet to see any evidence of evil lurking beneath the surface. Except for leaf blowers. Leaf blowers were created by the devil for morons to run for hours on end and drive me insane because how in the world can you possibly have that many leaves in April and will you just PLEASE TURN IT OFF BEFOREIHAVETO COMEOVERTHEREANDBEATYOUTODEATHWITHAHAMMERINFRONT OFYOURCHILDREN?!?!?!?!?!

Uh…where was I? Oh, right. Yeah, I haven’t found a beating heart of darkness beneath the surface as popular fiction likes to depict. Still, it makes for some good creepy stories like this one.

Megan and Tyler Stokes have recently moved to Willow Grove for Tyler’s new job at the Institute which sits on a ridge overlooking the planned community. Megan is struggling to adapt to their new area, and she’s got a particular problem with her attractive neighbor Rachel who Megan believes is interested in Tyler. After a few bottles of wine Megan decides to confront Rachel, but a bizarre incident makes Megan start to suspect that there is something very wrong with her neighborhood. However, Tyler thinks that Megan’s unhappiness with Willow Grove is making her imagination run wild.

I’ve read a couple of good noirish crime novels from John Rector, but he’s trying something different here. This is more of a moody blend of psychological suspense and conspiracy thriller, and it’s a nice piece of work. It starts off with just an inkling that there’s trouble in paradise with Megan being obsessed with Rachel, and then it quickly veers into some much darker territory before settling into a mode of gradually increasing the unease into paranoia and then outright terror.

There’s a few very big clues as that made it fairly obvious to me what the underlying cause of the whole thing was so Rector didn’t pull off a major twist. On the other hand, I don’t think that’s what he was really trying to do. This seems more about the journey than the destination, and Megan’s gradual unraveling as the weirdness piles up is what makes it a page turner that will have you feeling vaguely creeped out the entire time.

This is one where I really wish we had those half stars because it’s too good to be an average 3, but 4 seems just a tad high.

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Monday, April 3, 2017

Review: Golden Prey

Golden Prey Golden Prey by John Sandford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy of this from NetGalley for review.

The twenty-seventh book in a series would be when you’d really expect an author to run out of gas and just coast along on the fumes of creativity and the goodwill of hard core fans. So how do you explain John Sandford writing one of the most exciting Prey novels in the entire series now?

You can’t. So just enjoy it.

Lucas Davenport is now a deputy US marshal, and he got the gig thanks to his political connections. In fact, Lucas has so much juice that he gets to pick and choose his cases, and he’s still got a taste for hunting the worst of the worst. That’s why he decides to track down Garvin Poole, an armed robber who shoots first and doesn’t bother asking any questions later because he killed anyone who could have answered.

Poole dropped out of sight until he recently ripped off a massive amount of cash, but a small child was collateral damage on that caper so Poole is back on the government’s radar. He also mightily pissed off a drug cartel because it was their money Poole stole, and they want it back so badly that they’ve dispatched a pair of cold blooded thugs to viciously torture and kill anyone who ever knew Poole on the off chance that they might know where he is.

Giving Davenport a new gig with the US Marshal’s Service was an inspired choice because Sandford writes great manhunts and a big part of what marshals do is chase fugitives. (It also makes me fantasize about a crossover between Lucas and the late Elmore Leonard creations Raylan Givens and Karen Sisco.) So the book immediately plays to Sandford’s strength as Lucas first sniffs around for a lead on Poole, and then finds himself in a race against the cartel to find him.

Having Davenport run around various Southern states gives the whole thing a sense of momentum, and the cat and mouse games between him, Poole, and the cartel killers shows off the kind of fantastic plotting and pacing that Sandford can seemingly do in his sleep. He almost always manages to make everything seem realistic, natural, and intelligent while keeping a reader turning pages as fast they can to see what happens next.

Taking Davenport out of his usual Minnesota setting also freshens things up. I don’t think that Sandford ever fell into a rut, but any long running series is going to develop a certain rhythm to it after a while. Lucas had his home life to ground him along with his cop buddies and a bunch of friends he’d turn to for help regularly, and while it was all still good it was also very familiar. This isn’t the first time that Sandford has mixed things up because Davenport has changed jobs before, and he’s grown and mellowed as a character over time.

That’s all still here, but by putting Lucas into a completely new branch of law enforcement as well as changing his geographic location it took away all the old support systems. Which means that Sandford has to develop new characters, new ways of handling things, and new problems for Davenport. All of which he’s done very well, but Sandford also knows where his bread is buttered so it still seems very much like a Prey novel. It’s like he’s given Lucas a makeover. He’s still the same old ruthless bastard he's always been when he's on the hunt, but now with a new haircut and a spring in his step as he does it.

Also, since I've reviewed a lot of Sandford on here I regularly get asked if it's the kind of series you can read any book or if you need to read the whole series to understand. My standard answer is that most are self-contained stories that can be enjoyed by themselves, but this one in particular would make a great place to jump in for anyone looking to try it out.

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