Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Butcher Grossman Rex Shevdon Smith Turner

Dead Beat
by Jim Butcher
Recommended Ages: 14+

When we last visited the Dresden Files, wizard-detective Harry Dresden had recently been maimed by an overflow of fire magic, adopted by the Dalai Lama of demon-fighting dogs, and staggered by the discovery that white-court vampire Thomas is his half-brother.

A year or two later, this seventh novel in the series finds Harry rooming with Thomas while the latter struggles to overcome his dependency on the life force of fertile women (please, don't ask) and house-sitting for his cop friend Murphy while she takes a romantic vacation in Hawaii. Then a red-court vampire named Mavra threatens to destroy Murphy's career unless Dresden brings her a grimoire by a notorious necromancer.

The book is going to be hard to get hold of, what with Halloween coming up and a reunion of the late necromancer's disciples converging on Chicago with plains to raise all kinds of hell. Whichever one of Kemmler's disciples succeeds in cooking the recipe in The Word of Kemmler has a chance to become the next god, and a lot of people are going to suffer in the process. Harry's considerable powers are stretched to their limit and beyond as not one, not two, but three demonic duos come at him with battle-magic galore.

Besides this, Harry has to protect an innocent mortal who has been targeted for all kinds of badness, resist the temptation of a demon from hell who has taken up residence in his subconscious, and join forces with—rather, let's just say "join"—the wizardly Wardens who have made his life a pain until now, thanks to their side's massive losses in an ongoing war with the vampires which is, ultimately, Dresden's fault.

And so Harry gets a tantalizing touch of romance, an extra helping of violent action, a test of his ability to make snap decisions, and a wild ride on the back of a tyrannosaur(!), all to prevent the Apocalypse from coming early in Chicagoland. Gumshoeing the dead never looked like a livelier beat. You won't find a series that packs in more hardboiled sleuthing, hardcore action, magic, humor, and sex appeal, page for page. And the series continues with Proven Guilty.

The Magicians
by Lev Grossman
Recommended Ages: 16+

What if you grew up wishing that you could really go through the wardrobe to the perfect world of Narnia and stay there forever, and then you found out that you could? Wouldn't that just make you insanely happy? Well, don't be so sure. Quentin Coldwater, this book's hero (in a a loose sense of the word), believes the elusive secret to happiness lies in such a world, the magical world of Fillory depicted in a series of famous children's books. But when an unexpected twist in his pursuit of college entrance exams leads him to a real school of magic in upstate New York—a sort of post-secondary Hogwarts, if you will—he brings his unhappiness with him, right into the very fantasy world he used to dream of.

Unlike most of his classmates, Quentin doesn't seem to have a magical specialty, only a generally strong talent. Nevertheless he gets moved to the head of his class (promoted to the next year up, in fact), and grouped with the elite students of the Physical discipline (which blends, like, magic and physics). He experiences the pressure of competitive exams, the horror of a classroom lecture gone hideously wrong, the marvels of being transformed into a goose, the rigors of a semester in Antarctica (a.k.a. "Brakebills South"), the diversion of a game called Welters (which is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike Quidditch), the joys and disappointments of first love, and a graduation ritual absolutely guaranteed to surprise you. And then, all too soon, he is turned loose on the world, a fully qualified magician...

...And remains as unhappy as ever. He has lots of reasons for it. His family isn't particularly warm and fuzzy. His high school pals did not live up to his hopes for them. He is dissatisfied with his career prospects, and even his love affair with the brilliant Alice (who is like Hermione Granger might have been, had she been born to an all-magical family). He spends most of his time wasted on drugs and alcohol. And then... and then, out of nowhere, one of his former classmate shows up, claiming to have discovered the way to Fillory. For real.

Fillory turns out not to be the happy, morally instructive place the books depicted. Things have deteriorated. The country needs human kings and queens again, to set right all that has gone wrong. But are Quentin and his friends the right humans for the job? As they fight their way through hordes of Fillorians—giant, talking animals and half-human creatures who seem fanatically opposed to their quest—the Brakebills alumni cope with Fillory's ugly, violent reality in different ways, ranging from a rampage of deadly magic to being sickened by what they must do, to falling apart entirely. In the unspeakably awful disaster that awaits them at the end of their quest, Quentin—the one who wanted this more than anybody—achieves unheard-of levels of unhappiness.

I won't tell you more about what happens. It would be unforgivable to cheat you of the opportunity to experience this emotionally gripping adventure, probing the very boundaries of fantasy as such, except to say that Quentin returns alone to the mundane world, scarred by a terrible loss and nearly fatal wounds... and that, even at the lowest conceivable ebb to which his quest for happiness arrives near the end of this book, the story is not over. And I think we can expect still more mythopoeic marvels from Lev Grossman, crusading book reviewer at Time magazine by day and novelist by night. Besides this novel, Grossman has also written a science fiction novel titled Warp, an antiquarian thriller called Codex, and the recent sequel to this book, titled The Magician King.

The True Meaning of Smekday
by Adam Rex
Recommended Ages: 12+

They've landed. And they've taken off again. And now an eighth-grader named Gratuity Tucci ("Tip" to her friends) has been given a writing assignment about it. The winning essay on "The True Meaning of Smekday" will be placed in a 100-year time capsule. This book is, at least to start with, Tip's entry in the contest. By the end, however, it has become a very private memoir of how one girl joined forces with a many-limbed alien to save her family, and her world, from a menace from outer space.

With her tough mind, tender heart, and sharp wit, Tip is an enjoyable character and a belly-laugh-on-every-page narrator. The humorous stakes are raised by the fact that, writing for a classroom assignment, she has to watch her language. For example, in an early draft of her winning essay, Tip writes: "I nearly puked. Can I say that in a school paper? That I puked? Because when I said 'nearly,' what I really meant was 'repeatedly.'"

According to Tip's memoir, her mother was kidnapped by aliens in 2013. At least, so her mother said. Tip thought her mom might have gone a little crazy, but she changed her mind when she actually saw the aliens kidnap her again. The second abduction happened at the same time that the Boov - little tech-savvy people with eight limbs and a bubble-based language - conquered our planet in a bloodless coup and started herding everyone in the United States into Florida.

Tip decides to make a road trip of it, rather than fly the unfriendly skies with everyone else. By the time she reaches Florida, and finds that the United State of America has been relocated to Arizona, Tip and her cat Pig have been joined by a Boov named J.Lo, who for reasons of his own is on the run from his people. The first parts of Tip's essay read like a parable about imperialist whitey herding indigenous peoples onto reservations, reneging on treaties, changing the names of places and dates (such as changing Christmas into Smekday), and generally assuming their own superiority over the cultures they (we) have trampled on. The similitude cuts to the quick, right up to the point where a Native American character points out that the Boov are behaving no differently than the white man before them.

But then the stakes change. Another alien threat, even more disastrous than the Boov, arrives on the scene. Something even weirder and nastier is in store for the people of Earth, unless one girl, one Boov, and one cat (more or less) can put a stop to it. Though history doesn't remember it that way. Whatever history may remember, the time capsule will know the real story. And, privileged with an early peek at it, so will you. It is a peek you will enjoy, decorated with illustrations of polaroid photos, excerpts from a graphic novel depicting the history of the Boov, and (at the risk of spoiling the climax) over four solid pages of the word "meow" repeated over and over.

Adam Rex is also the author of teen novels Fat Vampire: A Never Coming of Age Story and the just-released Cold Cereal, which is supposed to be the first book in a trilogy. He has also written several appealing picture-books for even younger readers, including Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich.

The Road to Bedlam
by Mike Shevdon
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this sequel to Sixty-One Nails, Niall Petersen is still training to be a Warder to the Council of the Feyre when a personal blow forces an early launch to his career as a sort of supernatural cop. While fellow faerie Blackbird carries his child, drained of her magical powers by the pregnancy, Niall and his ex-wife Katherine are crushed by the death of their teenage daughter Alex. What's even worse is to find out that Alex is actually alive, possessed of dangerous powers, and being held somewhere by humans who will kill her the instant they suspect that her father is trying to rescue her, and whose plans for her are part of an inconceivably evil experiment in biological warfare.

Niall, meanwhile, has been packed away to a seaside village, where it is hoped his first case as a faerie sleuth will keep his mind off Alex, the diplomatic talks between the Council and his own estranged Seventh Court, and the danger Blackbird and his unborn child may be in when those mortal enemies of all who have mixed feyre and human blood come a-calling. At first it seems the case of five missing girls may be quickly explained as a series of unconnected runaways. But as Niall learns new uses of his power, he comes to suspect that two young lives have been taken, and that it has something to do with an otherworldly being that lurks behind the quaint, dying town.

To solve this mystery, save the next life that may be sacrificed, and get his daughter back, Niall must accept help offered by one of his own kind of feyre, in spite of the terrifyingly dubious motives behind the offer. And whether he can live with what he finds in the bowels of the secret government facility to which his daughter has been taken... that's a question that remains to be answered, even after the explosive and fiery bloodbath at the climax of this book.

If you like your magic served with the grit and action of a crime novel, the creepy darkness of a horror novel, the subtle intrigues of a spy novel, and an urban fantasy's juxtaposition of modern settings with creatures out of medieval folklore, shop no further. This series has something for fans of the Dresden Files, the blooming genre of London-under-London fantasies, and many other adult thrillers with a tint of the supernatural. It is a worthy sequel to Sixty-One Nails. And look out as Book 3 of "The Courts of the Feyre," titled Strangeness and Charm, materializes in 2012.

Cryptid Hunters
by Roland Smith
Recommended Ages: 12+

Meet Marty and Grace O'Hara, thirteen-year-old twins who are amazingly close, considering how totally unlike they are. One way they like to put it is that Marty is a foot taller, and Grace is a foot smarter. The fearless brother, blessed with talents for art, cooking, and trouble, is fiercely protective of the genius sister, even though both of them have spent most of their lives in the safety of an exclusive Swiss boarding school while their parents, a writer-photographer team who make journalism look like an extreme sport, travel the world in search of danger and adventure.

All that changes when their parents' plane goes down in the Amazon jungle. Even though no bodies have been found, and the kids don't know whether they're orphans or not, they are pulled out of school by a mysterious uncle they have never heard of. Travis Wolfe, a bear-like man who owns his own island off the coast of Washington State, likes to keep a low profile so that he and his high-tech partner Ted Bronson can follow their true calling—protecting the earth's last big-game creatures unknown to science—without their discoveries being scooped by a phony preservationist, and genuine psychopath, named Dr. Noah Blackwood.

Learning all this is sort of like finding out that a one-man combination of Jacques Cousteau, Marlon Perkins, and Jane Goodall is actually a gangster who lines the walls of his inner sanctum with the stuffed heads of the last members of extinct species. But that's only the beginning of the learning curve for Marty and Grace. Suddenly they are supposed to believe that creatures like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster really exist. Scarcely have they arrived on Uncle Wolfe's secret island when they are whisked off again as Wolfe's team races to find the last Mokèlé-mbèmbé—that's Tyrannosaurus rex to you—before Blackwood's team of cryptid-hunting thugs, led by the pictorially named Butch McCall. The kids aren't supposed to get involved in the hunt for Mokèlé-mbèmbé, but after they free-fall out of an airplane over the Congolese jungle, they don't have much choice.

After that, their adventure is only a simple matter of surviving in one of the world's last completely untamed wild places, staying out of the clutches of McCall and his goons, finding a secret safehouse, and getting in touch with a man of the forest who can only be seen when he wants to be seen. Oh yes, and discovering the lair of the Mokèlé-mbèmbé. Surprisingly, considering that she has always been so easily frightened, Grace takes all this in stride... as if she's been there before... as if she is not, in fact, Marty's twin sister, but a child whose lineage poses a danger even greater than the creature that killed her real mother.

Created by an author who specializes in wildlife stories for young readers, the O'Hara twins are great fun. Their vivid personalities, and especially Marty's sense of humor and mischief, raise this book above the common-or-garden adventure-thriller for middle-school and junior-high-age readers. I bought this book so that I could finally with good conscience read its sequel Tentacles, which I'd had on my bookshelf for way too long. You, meanwhile, might come at it from the other direction and find that the thrills, laughs, and creepy foreshadowings of this book lure you irresistably to the sequel.

Tentacles
by Roland Smith
Recommended Ages: 12+

By the beginning of this sequel to Cryptid Hunters, ex-twins Marty and Grace have found out that they're not even siblings. In fact, they are cousins—Marty the son of an adventure-journalist couple still missing after a plane crash in the Amazon jungle, Grace the daughter of cryptid hunter Travis Wolfe, who is now their guardian. Grace's father is the brother of Marty's mother; her mother, meanwhile, was the daughter of celebrity philanthropist and private monster Noah Blackwood, whose worldwide chain of wildlife parks and highly publicized voyages of discovery are only a front for a fiendish compulsion to capture, kill, and gloat over the trophies of the same cryptids Travis seeks to discover and protect.

What are cryptids? Well, if you had done your homework and read Cryptid Hunters, you would know that they are rare creatures unknown to science, often recognized only as tribal myths and quaint legends. Creatures such as the Abominable Snowman, the Loch Ness monster, and the Kraken. Currently Wolfe and Blackwood are in a race to capture the first live specimen of a giant squid from the deepest, darkest trenches of the Pacific Ocean. But even higher on the agenda is for Wolfe to protect, and for Blackwood to capture, the baby dinosaurs whose eggs Wolfe found in the Congolese jungle in the previous adventure. Hatched aboard the good ship Coelacanth, the last two offspring of the Mokèlé-mbèmbé (a.k.a. Tyrannosaurus rex) don't do much except eat, poop, and blow the minds of the few people who know they exist. Still, Blackwood and his henchman Butch McCall are ready to kill any number of people, including children, to get them.

Blackwood also intends to "liberate" his granddaughter Grace from Wolfe's protection. And in that pursuit he has one extra advantage: the fact that Grace is so confused about who she really is. But the Blackwood-McCall conspiracy has to go up against the high-tech resourcefulness of Wolfe's partner Ted Bronson, the no-nonsense defense skills of their security chief, and the ever-unpredictable wild card of Marty, who has a knack for making quick decisions that are equally likely to get him into as out of trouble. But then there are surprises on both sides: a traitor within the trusted inner circle... a too-smart chimp on a drug-induced rampage... a boatload of pirates who are as clueless about their true role as the people they are about to attack... an experimental vessel that brings reinforcements from where it is least expected—from below...

There will have to be a sequel to this book, but I don't know what or when. On the other hand, I hear tell that a character who briefly pass through this story is the star of another series of books by Roland Smith. For more on the Lansa father-son safari team, look for Jaguar and The Last Lobo. Other titles by this author include The Captain's Dog, Elephant Run, Jack's Run, Peak, Sasquatch, and Zach's Lie, plus mostly outdoors-themed non-fiction books and an upcoming installment in the 39 Clues series.

A Conspiracy of Kings
by Megan Whalen Turner
Recommended Ages: 13+

Book Four in the "Attolia" series focuses on Sophos, the prince of Sounis and sometime mage's apprentice introduced in the earlier books. Now, in as painful and dangerous a way as you can imagine, he becomes the king of Sounis. How a sweet-natured bookworm with a distinct lack of military skills can gather the strength to claim this throne, and at the same time to save his country from conquest by the ever-encroaching Medean empire, is the matter of this entire book.

With the skill to be expected of the author of the previous three books in this series, Megan Whalen Turner brings to life not only the manners and intrigues of courtly life in her dangerous alternate-history version of the ancient world, but the movements within the heart of the sensitive yet courageous youth at the center of the story.

Through Sophos, or rather Sounis as he soon becomes named, we come to see Eugenides (hero of the earlier books in the series) in a new light: as a leader of Machiavellian sublety. At times, Gen comes across as coldly ruthless, especially as he forces his sometime friend to submit to a strange alliance on which the fate of three small kingdoms may depend.

Meanwhile, we are touched by the delicate, hesitant romance between two sovereigns whose physical ugliness—in Sounis' case, recently acquired—conceals inner beauty. And we are left, once again, to wonder how long we will have to wait until Megan Whalen Turner brightens our world with another one of her delightful books.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Greatness under the Gun

+++ This post about a weekend at the Symphony in which the last-minute-replacement conductor and soloist triumphed brilliantly, has been delayed by the demise of my computer. Please stand by! +++

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Early Adams & Late Breakfast

+++ This post about "Adams Week" at the Symphony has been delayed pending the replacement of my 10-year-old computer, requiescat in pace. +++

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Musical Film & Filmic Music

+++ PHOTOS PENDING (when the anti-SOPA blackout is over) +++

This weekend I went to a brand new, black-and-white silent movie called The Artist, and I saw international opera star Christine Brewer sing Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs in person.

I chose to see The Artist on Friday evening because it was starting immediately. Otherwise my choice might have been The Iron Lady, a Margaret Thatcher biopic starring Meryl Streep. While I still may see the Streep flick another weekend, I'm glad I saw The Artist. It was really a beautiful movie, and fun to watch too. Using a minimum of dialogue cards to explain what people are saying, and accompanied by a steady stream of really good film music, the movie tells the story of a silent film actor whose career goes into crisis with the advent of "talkies." Meanwhile, his young female protege takes off like a Roman candle. Their life trajectories pass in many different ways, until a romance grows up between them.

Featuring an international cast, including French leads and several supporting American actors (notably John Goodman), plus an adorable dog, it's a delightful fantasy that plays around with the idea of silent films giving way to the sound era in a variety of ways. For example, there is a dream sequence in which the protagonist starts hearing sound effects intruding into his silent world; and later, a nightmarish scene in which he can't seem to hear anything anybody says. The movie is loaded with gimmicks and in-jokes—I was the only one in the theater who laughed when the starlet told her chauffeur, "Take me home. I want to be alone"—and did I mention that the music is awesome? I would like to see David Robertson conduct a performance-to-projection version someday.

But this evening, I saw him conduct three other pieces of music. In the first half of the program, he played the socks off of Dvorak's 7th (Sorry, I meant to paste in the spelling of his name with all the strokes and squiggles, but as I write this Wiki is down in protest against SOPA). Robertson's pre-concert lecture really sold this symphony short. Dark and brooding at the start, with a complex and mysterious slow movement, a wildly rhythmic scherzo, and a finale that moves from horror to triumph, I thought it absolutely was the type of piece that would have brought down the house at the end of the concert. But in his lecture, Robertson opined that, although he considers it the greatest of Dvorak's nine symphonies, it lacks the blockbuster appeal of the 8th or 9th that make for a really good closer. So, instead of the usual program order, he put the symphony first, then after the intermission he programmed a 20-minute piece by modern composer George Crumb and the Four Last Songs.

Robertson may or may not be surprised to hear that some, like myself, felt that the concert order of which he was so proud ran counter to order in which the pieces interested us. But even I was surprised to discover that I liked the Crumb piece ("Haunted Landscape") better than the Strauss. The first reason is that the Crumb piece was actually cool to listen to. I disagree with the patron I overheard bitching about "New Age music" at the end of the concert. I heard an intelligible structure with distinct musical ideas. I heard a composer playing around with sound, really quite like Robertson's pre-concert comparison between Crumb and a child messing around with fingerpaints. And I picked up on a real, scary-movie type of spookiness which I believe the music was intended to convey.

As for the other reason I preferred the Crumb to the Strauss... at the risk of exposing myself as a complete boob in the world of high culture... I have to admit that Richard Strauss' music generally leaves me cold. I can't explain exactly why. But the Four Last Songs was no exception. I've given many of Strauss' works several chances each, and I just can't seem to get excited about them. In the case of Four Last Songs, I'll admit the harmony is very expressive and the orchestral colorings are deep and lush, but I was constantly irritated by the balance between the orchestra and the voice part. Christine Brewer has a wonderful voice, so I don't doubt the fault lies with Strauss, but only rarely does the vocal line soar above the accompaniment; seldom is it even very interesting. More often, it seemed to me that Strauss only gave the voice part a minimum of notes to cover the syllables of the text, then stretched them out to fill enough of each movement's length to make it seem worthwhile. And then he scored the orchestra so that it would all but drown out even as renowned a Wagnerian as Christine!

I'm a Christine Brewer booster, so I have to assume there's something to this piece. After all, according to Robertson, she fell in love with it at an early age and has performed it dozens of times worldwide. But the way I look at things, it seems odd that an opera star would choose to be upstaged by the orchestra. What they played was worth hearing; but I still don't understand what Christine sang that was worth singing. I've felt the same way about certain other pieces, including (here I go) Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, so my quibble may really be with an aesthetic of setting words to music shared among composers of the Strauss-Mahler generation; it may simply be a sign that I am a dyed-in-the-wool Rossinian, or Mozartian, or maybe Bach-and-Handelian, where the relationship between lyrics and music is concerned; but even if there were valid principles that drove Strauss to treat his leading lady so, I think these four brief songs took those principles to an extreme.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

War Horse

My weekend debauch was a plate of goat meat at a Mexican restaurant and a matinee showing of the new Spielberg picture, the beautiful War Horse.

I like to drop names of cast members, but the average Yank isn't likely to recognize a lot of the faces in this movie. This is chiefly because most of them are British faces. Harry Potter fans might recognize David Thewlis (lately "Prof. Remus Lupin") as the sharp-tongued landlord and Peter Mullan (lately pony-tailed Death-Eater "Yaxley") as the hero boy's broken-down father. Emily Watson, late of Breaking the Waves and more recently The Water Horse, plays the boy's mother. Eddie Marsan (lately "Inspector Lestrade" in the Sherlock Holmes movies) plays a sergeant in the trenches of World War I.

The boy himself, who is most likely on his way to becoming a big star, has a face that you'll feel you've seen before, but in fact this is his first movie. The actor, whose screen name is Jeremy Irvine, is already featured in three upcoming films, including the role of Pip in Great Expectations. Maybe that gives you an idea of his type & the direction his career is going. Topping the bill of an epic, tear-jerking, Spielberg-directed war movie must be a great way to start a career in the movies. Being a really good actor with male-model looks and the ability to shed tears on cue make him a threat to a whole generation of up-and-coming leading men.

The movie is a love story between a young man and a horse, a handsome thoroughbred stallion he raised and trained, in defiance of what everyone in his Devon village considered possible, to be a serviceable plowhorse. Albie (the boy) and Joey (the horse) are meant to be inseparable, but thanks to a crop-destroying rainstorm and the outbreak of World War I, they are indeed separated. Sold to a young cavalry captain, Joey sets out on a series of heartbreaking adventures, passes from owner to ill-fated owner, and finally—in a scene that made me cringe and groan, "Oh no"—gets tangled in barbed wire in the no-man's-land between the British and German trenches at the Somme.

Albie, meanwhile, undergoes his own hardships among the machine-guns, the mustard gas, and the insanely high cost in human life of a few yards of muddy wasteland. Even when boy and horse are miraculously reunited, the chance remains that regulations and rival claims will separate them again. The movie ends with a scene shot in amazing light, with a silhouette-like composition and hardly any dialogue, proving that the filmmaker can be a more powerful storyteller than even the writers and the actors. It is but one of many Spielbergian stylistic touches, another notable example being the use of a moving windmill blade to render a firing-squad execution both less gruesome and more dreadful.

To be sure, however, credit for the emotional power of this movie must also be given to composer John Williams (whose score is steeped in British folk melody), cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (who won Oscars for two previous Spielberg movies, Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List), and of course, all those magnificent horses. Assuming that some of them were actual, live animals and not just CGI effects, a lot of effort must have gone into training them to act, and remain calm, among crowds of extras, battalions of war-machines, and heaps of oozing mud. I can't believe that they would subject a live animal to some of the strains depicted in the film; there must be laws against that sort of cruelty. So the effectiveness of these gut-tearing images must be due, at least in part, to special effects.

Where No Tackiness Has Gone Before

This week's lighted-sign fiasco at the neighborhood ELCA parish:

EPIPHANY--AN ENTERPRISING STAR TREK!

Aaargghhhh... That turns my stomach on so many levels that I feel myself becoming a ruminant. Most disturbing of all, once the vomit backs down my esophagus, is the question: "In what way do they mean 'enterprising'?" Did I miss the verse in Matthew 2 where the wise men received double their investment in gold, frankincense, and myrrh?

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Voyager Season 4

Season Four of Star Trek: Voyager originally aired between 1997 and 1998, roughly my second year of post-B.A. studies. As was the case with Season 3, I only remember seeing a handful of its episodes when they first aired; the rest I am now seeing, for the first time, as Netflix sends me one four-episode DVD at a time. Still, I was aware of the overall arc of this season, which introduced Jeri Ryan's role as the sexy Borgette in recovery, Seven of Nine. As Seven was eased into the show, the first two episodes eased out Jennifer Lien's character of Kes (still a sore point for me). I can only fondly imagine how different this year's storylines would have been with both characters in the cast.

Meanwhile, it was a season that didn't quite justify Season 3's ominous buildup toward a year of conflict with the Borg and Species 8472. Indeed, after the season-opening conclusion to the previous year's cliffhanger, the Voyagers don't encounter the Borg, except in the form of Seven's memories and hallucinations, and indirectly through other aliens who have issues with them. Maybe this was because the development of Seven's character was enough Borg for the writers' taste. As for Species 8472, their one appearance after the first episode of the season is upstaged by the development of a new alien threat, the predatory Hirogen, who figure in no less than five episodes this year.

Other developments, however, remain on pace. Tom and B'Elanna increasingly become the couple Season 3 suggested they would be. A two-part episode fulfills the previous year's foreshadowing of the "Year of Hell" which, after all the cards were laid down, turned out not to have happened anyway. (Maybe if Kes had still been on board, she would have remembered...) Leonardo's studio, introduced at the end of last season, becomes a regular holographic retreat for our characters, and Leonardo himself (played for the second and last time by John Rhys Davies) even gets an away mission of sorts, with help from the Doctor's mobile holo-emitter. The Voyagers finally succeed in communicating with Starfleet, ensuring that somebody back home will be trying to find a way to bring them home. The same episode also provides a point of reference to where Deep Space Nine was at during the same period, dropping a hint about the Federation's war with the Dominion. (Who?) And the show's list of big-name guest stars grows to include Virginia Madsen of Sideways, Kurtwood Smith of That '70s Show, and Andy Dick of TV's News Radio.

Scorpion, Part II kicks off the season with Captain Janeway making an alliance with the Borg. In exchange for the technology to defend themselves against Species 8472, the Borg are to escort Voyager safely through their space. While this is all right in theory, reality tests the alliance to the limit. First Janeway gets hurt and, while temporarily in command, Chakotay pulls back from what he considers a reckless plan. Then the spokesBorg, a ruthless and arrogant number with a trim waist-line, tries to get the ship assimilated. Just when Janeway has no choice but to save the Borg from their even worse enemy, she learns that the Borg provoked the war she is helping to end. All that and a visit to a fantastic realm known as "Fluid Space"... Wow!

The Gift is the transitional episode in which Seven of Nine makes the difficult adjustment to being cut off from the Collective and forced to begin exploring her humanity; and in which Kes makes the transition to being some kind of non-corporeal life-form. The latter seems to be the more traumatic of the two adjustments, if you measure trauma in terms of how close it comes to annihilating the entire ship, but in the end the Voyagers end up ten years closer to home (Kes's parting gift). It's a grueling episode for Janeway in particular, as she has to hand-hold both women through this difficult time in their lives. Especially effective is her tearful "I'm going to miss you" before hugging Kes goodbye. The ethics of her decision to force Seven to live without the Borg Collective are more likely to stimulate discussion.

Day of Honor is partly a story about a rough day for B'Elanna Torres and partly an illustration of the risks of giving to charity. The aliens in this episode come to Voyager with open hands, begging for humanitarian aid. Having gotten as much as the Voyagers can afford to give, they come back with reinforcements and try to take what they want—including Seven, who will be punished because of what the Borg did to their society. Meanwhile, B'Elanna is torn as to whether or not to observe the Klingon Day of Honor. On the one hand, she always resented being forced by her mother to partake of Klingon traditions. On the other hand, a part of her is ashamed of not living up to Klingon standards of honor and courage. It epitomizes the inner conflict that has kept her aloof from others all her life, but during a disastrous shuttle mission that finds her and Tom stranded as pictured here, the vacuum of space boils her dilemma down to the essence: that only under threat of imminent death will she confess that she loves Tom Paris.

Nemesis is the one where Chakotay's shuttle is shot down over a war zone. Welcomed by a unit of young Vori defenders who are holding out against their Kradin "nemesis," Chakotay expects to be escorted to a command center where he can signal his ship. Instead, he finds himself drawn into the conflict between the seemingly good-natured Vori and the Kradin, whose atrocities have earned them the name of "the Beast." Only when Chakotay has so completely identified with the Vori that he is willing to kill or die for their cause, does he realize that the Kradin Beast at the end of his rifle barrel is actually Tuvok, trying to reason him into lowering his weapon. Yes, kids, Chakotay has been brainwashed by a Vori combat-training simulation, like thousands of their own people, to say nothing of waylaid aliens, who have been conscripted in this way. It is, after all, the snaggle-toothed Kradin who help the Voyagers recover Chakotay—though this doesn't help the Commander overcome his revulsion toward them. As he says in the final line of the episode, "I wish it were as easy to stop hating as it was to start." A grim, action-filled, perhaps heavy-handed episode, it sticks in the memory partly because of the Vori culture's strange lingo and partly because of the sympathy elicited, then betrayed, by its illusory people.

Revulsion is the Trek franchise's answer to the movie Dead Calm, featuring four-time Trek guest Leland Orser as Dejaren, a psychotic maintenance hologram who murders the crew of his ship. B'Elanna and the Doctor don't realize this until they're trapped on the ship with him, alternately humoring his flights of fancy (which include one especially nasty tirade against "organics") and trying to shut him down. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Tom Paris has been recruited as a medical assistant and, more interestingly, Harry and Seven have been assigned to work together to design a new astrometrics lab. For Harry, who is both intimidated by and attracted to the former Borg, their partnership is excruciatingly awkward. For the rest of us, particularly when Harry tries to explain to Chakotay why he doesn't want to be paired with Seven, the result is comic gold.

The Raven is part of a series of terrifying dreams and hallucinations that begin to plague Seven of Nine as Voyager approaches the territory of the paranoid and highly territorial B'omar (a representative pictured here). While the B'omar offer to let Voyager cross their space only under ridiculously restrictive conditions, Seven goes off the reservation in search of a Borg signal that both fascinates and terrifies her. Whether this is a sign that she is returning to the Collective, or discovering a new facet of her humanity, only becomes clear when she and Tuvok (whom she captures when he tries to bring her back) reach the source of the signal and find that it's a Raven of another kind—the ship of that name on which she and her human parents lived until the Borg assimilated them some 20 years ago. Seven's vulnerability as she gets closer to this discovery is very touching, but the episode is equally fulfilling for fans (like me) who also enjoy the sight of spaceships shooting at each other.

Scientific Method is a little talking piece about the ethics of medical research, as well as a creepy story about unseen invaders who can mess you up on so many levels, including a molecular one, that even if you knew they were there you couldn't do anything to stop them. When members of the crew start developing weird symptoms caused by overstimulation of certain parts of their genetic code, the Doctor and B'Elanna discover that somebody has stuck eensy-weensy transmitters to the victims' genes. It seems the Voyagers are being studied by someone on Voyager. But before they can alert anyone else to their findings, or do anything about it, the baddies incapacitate B'Elanna and drive the Doctor into hiding. Later, with modifications to her bionic eye, Seven becomes able to see the aliens; she finds the ship crawling with them, sticking nasty probes into everybody and monitoring the results. Fighting back is tricky when you have to pretend you don't see the invaders and you can't talk to anyone about them. Eventually, Seven takes the only course left to her: she blows the cover of one of the aliens, shifting the dilemma onto the Captain's shoulders. What Janeway does to get rid of the unwanted visitors is just plain crazy. But the most unnerving part of the episode may be how the captured alien seems so reasonable and, well, clinical, while justifying her people's atrocities and threatening even worse. Besides being a creepy and intense story, the writing of this episode is marked by some hilarious dialogue, including Tuvok asking Janeway whether he should flog people (you'd have to be there), and Neelix and Chakotay trying to outdo each other with medical complaints.

Year of Hell guest-stars John Loprieno (late of One Life to Live), three-time Trek guest Kurtwood Smith, and four-time Trek guest Peter Slutsker in his only non-Ferengi role in the franchise, all as members of the Krenim Imperium, a civilization that has risen, or fallen (depending on what timeline you're in), through the use of weaponized time. The episode begins with a Krenim time-ship commanded by Annorax (pictured here), blasting an entire planet with a weapon that erases its inhabitants from history. Their plan is to do this to as many civilizations as necessary to restore the timeline in which the Krenim had a huge empire. Meanwhile, Voyager finds itself under attack by Krenim ships which either grow or shrink, along with the Imperium itself, according to the results of each "temporal incursion" attempted by Annorax and his crew. Over a period of several months, things go pretty badly for the Voyagers, and they don't even know that their enemies are changing history until Seven of Nine invents a shield that insulates the ship from both chroniton torpedoes and changes in the timeline. In doing that, however, they make a personal enemy of Annorax, who moves in for the kill. The first half of this two-part episode ends with Tuvok blinded by an accident, Tom and Chakotay captured by the enemy, and most of the crew abandoning Voyager in escape-pods... Could it be the last one they ever made?

Year of Hell, Part II concludes the two-parter with Janeway leading a crew of six to try to put out all the fires on Voyager, seek out allies against the Krenim, and risk everything on a reckless gamble that will either destroy the ship completely or reset everything to the status quo ante. Annorax, meanwhile, regales his guests (Tom and Chakotay, remember) with the cuisine of cultures that, outside his weapon-ship's envelope of technobabble, never existed. While Tom cultivates a mutiny against Annorax, Chakotay tries to understand the villain's obsession with tweaking history until he restores the one thing that matters: his wife and the colony she lived on. For Annorax, this goal has eluded him for 200 years, driving him to commit acts of temporal genocide against countless races. Chakotay is convinced that there must be a way that both Annorax and the Voyager can benefit from a temporal incursion that doesn't hurt anybody, but his open-mindedness is matched only by Annorax's impatience. In the end it is Tom's plan that saves the day—or rather, erases it—in one of those frustrating time-travel-story endings in which all the events of the two-episode arc turn out never to have happened, and nobody even remembers them. So it was all, ultimately, pointless!

Random Thoughts guest stars Gwynyth Walsh, who appeared five times between TNG, DS9 and the movies as Klingon villain B'Etor. Here she plays a magistrate on a planet of telepaths where, over the previous three generations, they have virtually eliminated crime by purging violent thoughts from their minds. A marketplace mishap momentarily triggers B'Elanna's combative instincts. Minutes later, a man is beaten senseless, the victim of a telepath who had B'Elanna's violent thought in his mind. Naturally, in Star Trek logic, B'Elanna gets arrested and faces something called an "engrammatic purge" in the machine pictured here. But Tuvok insists on running his own investigation, made even more urgent when the same thought of B'Elanna's causes a murder days later. Obviously one passing thought could not have led directly to the second crime. Tuvok's suspicions lead him to uncover a black market in illicit thoughts, and an especially creepy telepath who hoards images of brutality. Tuvok's mind-meld with this character is one of the most ruthless things we have seen him do—very scary!

Concerning Flight features larger-than-life actor John Rhys Davies, who at that time was probably best known for his work in the Indiana Jones movies, in an encore of his third-season appearance as a hologram of Leonardo da Vinci. While wincing every time a crew member calls him "Mr. Da Vinci" (which is sort of like calling Seven of Nine "Miss Of Nine"), you can thrill to a caper in which the 16th-century master, aided by the Doctor's mobile emitter, finds himself running around an alien planet, and even going airborne in a flying machine of his own design. Leonardo has a gang of space pirates to thank for this opportunity. Using their high-powered transporters to loot Voyager of crucial pieces of technology, including the main computer core, the robbers retire to their network of high-security warehouses on a mercantile planet. Janeway joins her holographic mentor to sniff out the computer core's hiding place, snatch it back, and make a low-tech getaway. Apart from the opportunity to enjoy John Rhys Davies in a long white beard, and the fun of seeing a 16th-century holo-character rationalizing his experiences on a 24th-century alien planet into his worldview, it actually isn't all that hot an episode. There are, in fact, moments when one wants to ask, "What is the point of this?" And, most damagingly, what was meant to be a climactic moment (Leonardo's flying machine taking off) comes over as rather anticlimactic and even, forgive me, ludicrous. Oh well...

Mortal Coil is the one in which Neelix takes one on the chin, waking up in sickbay some 18 hours later to learn that he has been dead. This leads the crew's morale officer into a serious existential crisis. Surprisingly, it isn't due to the fact that he has been brought back to life by Seven's Borg nanoprobes. It is simply that, after experiencing nothingness during his spell as a cadaver, Neelix can no longer believe in the Talaxian traditions about the afterlife. Since all his loved ones perished in a war (see Season 1's "Jetrel"), the belief that his family, and especially his sister Alixia, await him in the Great Forest has been all that kept him going. Now, without that belief, he has nothing to live for. Neelix tries to seek answers through a vision quest guided by Chakotay, but this only drives him deeper into depression. Finally, on the point of suicide, Neelix is brought back by his sense of duty, especially to a little girl who needs him to tuck her in at night. (Don't ask.)

Waking Moments finds the Voyagers being attacked by a race of aliens (representative pictured here) who are always asleep in the waking world, but who have serious kung-fu in the dream state in which they live their whole lives. Plus, they have a gadget that broadcasts technobabble over a wide region of space, causing anyone who passes through to fall asleep and become trapped in a shared dream in which the sleep aliens use said kung-fu to capture them. The only people on Voyager with a chance against them are the holographic Doctor (who doesn't sleep) and Chakotay, whose "ah-koo-chee-moya" shtick includes a lucid-dreaming subroutine. He manages to kick his way to the surface of all the dreams-within-dreams, breaching the waking world just long enough to point the ship's photon torpedoes at the sleep aliens' planet and set a three-minute countdown, before falling back into the dream to explain to the crew's not-really-there captors that they're about to become really not-there. I think it's Chakotay's level of commitment, being willing to die himself to make his point, that finally scares the aliens off in an episode whose concept is so ridiculous that it could only be Star Trek, if not more so.

Message in a Bottle is the episode in which the Voyagers finally get a message back to the folks back home in the Alpha Quadrant. Situated appropriately at about the midpoint of the series, it's sort of the "hump" beyond which the rest of their journey is, more or less, downhill—at least in the sense that, from now on, people at both ends are working on a way to bring them home. But first, the Doctor must survive being transmitted through an ancient network of alien communications relays, then take back an experimental Starfleet vessel whose entire crew has been slaughtered by Romulan agents, assisted only by the Emergency Medical Hologram "Mark 2," played to comic perfection by Andy Dick. Mark 1: "Stop breathing down my neck." Mark 2: "My breathing is only a simulation." Mark 1: "So is my neck. Stop it anyway." Playing one of the Romulans is Judson Scott, who besides a first-season TNG role also had a notable (but uncredited) role in the second Trek feature film. This also happens to be the episode that introduced a new alien threat, the savagely single-minded hunters known as the Hirogen.

Hunters further develops the wolf-like Hirogen culture, whose hunters—alone or in pairs, and occasionally in packs—stalk aliens across fantastic distances. They take satisfaction from a long and difficult chase, but even when their prey is as easy to capture as Tuvok and Seven (whose shuttlecraft only puts up a few moments of resistance), they are also into possessing the "relics of the hunt" (i.e., the clean white bones), being the first to bag a new species, and bagging it on their own. Their quick study of these characteristics proves to be Tuvok and Seven's only defense, but it gives them just enough time to avoid being skinned before Voyager comes to their rescue. Meanwhile, messages from home have started to come through the alien relay network to which the Hirogen lay claim, adding a layer of urgency and expectation to the drama on the Voyager's decks. The "Alpha" Hirogen in this episode is played by the same ironically-named Tiny Ron who played Maihar'du (Grand Nagus Zek's footman) in seven episodes of DS9.

Prey features Tony Todd, who played Worf's brother Kurn on both TNG and DS9 as well as a grown-up version of Jake Sisko in DS9's "The Visitor," as another Alpha-Hirogen who is brought on board Voyager, barely alive, after attempting to bag a Species 8472. Unfortunately his quarry also finds his way onto the ship. This leads to spooky scenes in which the alien is seen crawling on the outside of the ship's hull, and spacesuited crewpersons stalk darkened corridors lit only by the lights on the barrels of their phaser rifles. It also leads to an intense showdown between the Captain, who intends to help the wounded and demoralized Species 8472 back to the dimension it calls home, and Seven, who thinks they should give into the Hirogen hunter's demand for his prey before his buddies arrive and blow the Voyager up. This conflict between the ethics of Borg pragmatism and human compassion forms the heart of an episode which, nevertheless, will be best remembered for making you think, "Could the Hirogen be even badder than Species 8472? Cool!"

Retrospect guest-stars Michael Horton, late of Murder, She Wrote and a role in two TNG feature films, as an ill-fated weapons dealer named Kovin in a story that dramatizes the limitations of recovered memories as evidence of a crime. The Doctor, trying out some new "Ship's Counselor" subroutines he has added to his program, observes Seven of Nine having an anxiety attack while he gives her a routine exam. Using memory regression techniques of his own devising, the Doctor teases out a repressed memory in which Kovin stunned Seven, extracted Borg nanoprobes from her body, then covered up the assault with false memory engrams about an accidental technobabble overload. Seven warps directly from having no memory of the crime to being determined to see Kovin pay for it. Between technobabble and psychobabble, the investigation eventually proves Kovin innocent, but not before the trader, convinced that he is being set up, gets himself killed trying to escape. The whole affair opens new emotional vistas for Seven and leads the remorseful Doctor to ask Janeway to reset his program to its default settings. Which, of course, would be boring; so, request denied!

The Killing Game finds the Voyager in the hands of the Hirogen. Several weeks after being captured, the ship has become a prison for most of the crew, while the senior officers are forced to take part in holodeck simulations of the most violent periods in history. They don't know that it's only a shadow play, thanks to neural implants that keep them in character. So we find Janeway leading the French resistance in a small town overrun by Nazis, while the Americans led by General Chakotay close in. When the flesh-and-blood characters are injured, the Hirogen force the Doctor to patch them up and send them back into the fray. The Doc uses an opportunity to treat an injured Seven of Nine to break the implant's hold on her, so that she becomes the seed of a resistance within the resistance, fighting not only against a holographic German occupation force but against the very real Hirogen one. Either of these enemies may be equally deadly since, with the holodeck safeties turned off, the holographic weapons are as deadly as the real ones. And so this first half of a two-parter ends with an explosion blasting an opening between the holodeck and the corridors of the Voyager, which the Hirogen have just rigged with emitters, enabling World War II to spill out onto the decks of a 24th century starship...

The Killing Game, Part II continues the Voyagers' struggle to retake their ship from the Hirogen, while the chief of the hunters battles his own subordinates in a campaign to use holodeck tech to build a new future for his people. Janeway and Seven have to do some nimble footwork to free their crewmates from Hirogen thought-control while keeping up the charade that the World War II holonovel in which they are all trapped is real. Alpha-Hirogen Karr, meanwhile, fears that the hunt has spread his species too thin, that in a few generations their culture will no longer exist unless they can find a way to come back together. He believes holography is the key, but he is killed by one of his own men just when he and Janeway are about to make a deal. This ensures a final, climatic battle in which holographic Nazis, Americans, French resistance fighters, and Klingons get mixed up with flesh-and-blood Voyagers and Hirogen. This two-parter features guest actors Danny Goldring (who played 5 guest roles in various Star Trek spinoffs), Mark Metcalf (of Animal House fame), Mark Deakins (a Star Trek: Insurrection alum who provided a love interest for Seven of Nine in a later two-parter), J. Paul Boehmer (in his first of five Trek roles, including another Nazi), and Paul Eckstein (whose six Trek roles all involved heavy prosthetics).

Vis à Vis features Dan Butler (late of Frasier) as an alien named Steth who... Nope. Wow, this is going to be hard to describe without getting the facts mixed up! Let's try again. The male alien pictured here, played by Dan Butler, is actually Tom Paris; the woman next to him is really the male alien named Steth who owns the body Tom Paris is... No, that isn't right either. The character played by Dan Butler at the beginning of this episode calls himself Steth, but really isn't Steth, and after he swaps genomes with Tom P. (a little trick the unnamed alien is good at), he sends a stunned Tom flying off in his experimental spaceship, looking like Steth, while he (the alien) tries to pass himself off as Tom back on Voyager. This proves to be harder than the alien expected, which leads one to suspect that the alien isn't very bright except when it comes to genome-swapping, which he also does with Janeway. And so, at one point, Janeway finds herself looking like Tom Paris. All of which is pretty confusing for everybody, but remarkably fun to watch. For a moment (e.g., when the fake Paris is trying to find sickbay), you might actually sympathize with the dastardly alien as he struggles to cover his ignorance of all the things one would have to know to pass as a Voyager crewman; for reasons that soon become obvious, psychotic tricks like his only mix well with a solitary lifestyle. Which is why he/she/it (in the image of Janeway) eventually makes a break for it in a shuttlecraft. They have to catch the alien, at the very least so that Janeway needn't look like Paris for the rest of the series. It's wicked fun and, again, as loopy as Trek can be.

The Omega Directive shows early signs of being about a standing order so secret that only Starfleet captains know of it, so important that it supercedes all other priorities including the Prime Directive, and so implicitly tied to the assumption that it will be carried out within the borders of the Federation that a captain in Janeway's position might encounter unforeseen difficulties in carrying it out. But in fact, what the episode is really about is Seven of Nine's first "spiritual experience," an encounter with an elusive, infinitely complex, perfect, and dangerously powerful particle called the Omega. To Starfleet, the Omega means the ultimate threat to spacefaring civilization; to the Voyagers, it poses a serious danger to their hopes of ever getting home; but to the Borg, Seven included, it is all but a god. The Borg pursue it with religious desire; captains like Janeway are briefed to destroy it at any cost. Janeway worries that Omega could make warp travel impossible throughout half a quadrant; the aliens she finds trying to synthesize it hope Omega will provide their civilization with a much needed power source; but when Seven gazes at Omega for a moment, the crucial moment before it must be destroyed, she feels it gazing back at her. It adds up to yet another unusual episode, riding the far outside edge of the Formula Trek speedway and even, in one quick throwaway line that is nevertheless astonishing given the franchise's history of pro-evolution bias, suggests that the Big Bang theory is a creation myth!

Unforgettable features sci-fi/horror film maven Virginia Madsen as Kellin, a "tracer" serving the fanatically closed Ramuran society. Her people are not allowed to leave their homeworld without being tracked down and brought home, their memories of the outside erased. On the rare occasions they encounter aliens (like our Voyagers), they protect their world from discovery by, first, secreting a pheromone that makes it impossible to remember them and, second, planting a computer virus to erase all records of them. Kellin's problem is that, after working with Chakotay to flush out a Ramuran stowaway on board Voyager, she realizes she has fallen in love with him and decides to defect. It is difficult enough to convince the Voyagers that she has visited them before and to consider her plea for asylum; even trickier is getting Chakotay to fall in love with her a second time. She has only just managed it when another tracer stuns her with the Ramuran technobabble that causes her to forget the whole affair, leaving a heartbroken Chakotay to take the only step possible to prevent this from becoming yet another Episode that Never Happened: writing his log entry by hand, with pen and paper that no computer virus can destroy. Also appearing in this episode is three-time Trek guest Michael Canavan.

Living Witness takes a sneak peek perhaps farther into the future than any other Star Trek episode—and then looks back on the mission of the Starship Voyager as ancient history. 700 years after the Voyager flew through the space disputed between the Vaskans and the Kyrians, the two races live in a common but unequal society, taut with interracial tension. Amidst the Kyrians' frustration at being discriminated against and the Vaskans' dislike of always being blamed for their problems, an archaeological discovery at a museum devoted to "the Voyager encounter" drops like a bombshell. Quarren, the Kyrian who runs the exhibit, implicitly believes the simulation depicting the Voyagers as black-gloved, bloodthirsty warriors who exceeded their Vaskan allies in atrocities against the Kyrian people. So when he unearths a long-buried data module and activates a backup version of the holographic Doctor, he is at first hostile and skeptical toward the Doc's claims that the historical reconstruction is wrong. By calling into question the Kyrians' most cherished beliefs about their own victimhood, the Doctor unwittingly triggers race riots... leading to another historical epoch from which, centuries later, the backup Doctor's arrival on the scene is viewed in its turn as a simulated reenactment. Directed by cast member Tim Russ, it's another wildly atypical episode of Star Trek, affording the main cast a gleeful opportunity to act out of character and leaving a wistful aftertaste, reminiscent of the Season 4 finale of Babylon 5. The cast includes three-time Trek guest Henry Woronicz (seen as recently as Voyager's 3rd Season), Rod Arrants (who had previously played a hologram on TNG), Craig Richard Nelson (who, as in his previous TNG role, plays a magistrate), soap opera star Brian Fitzpatrick, two-time Trek guest Morgan Margolis (whose father Mark also guested on TNG), and The West Wing's Timothy Davis-Reed.

Demon takes its name from the class-designation of a planet, also known as Class Y, to which the deuterium-depleted Voyager limps in hope of collecting some of that crucial substance. It is so named because it is about as inhospitable to humanoid life as a planet can be, with a poisonous atmosphere, surface temperatures that could roast human flesh, and deadly radiation that makes it risky even to fly close. But they are so desperate for deuterium that the ship sends two plucky crewmen, Tom and Harry, to the surface in spacesuits to look for deposits of deuterium. They find it all right, but they also find a "silver blood" substance that, to make a long story short, makes identical copies of Tom and Harry—identical except for their ability to breathe demon-class air. Now that the silver blood has tasted of sentience, it wants more. It doesn't want the Voyager (which has since landed on the planet's surface) to leave; it wants to copy everybody and experience life as a community of intelligent beings. The resulting episode is a little weak, in that it seems undecided whether to be a knockoff of Invasion of the Body Snatchers or a more visually compelling remake of TNG's first-season episode "Home Soil." The ending is so abrupt that one gathers the writers could never make up their mind until, finally, they ran out of time. Nevertheless, the concept seems to have struck a nerve, since (spoiler alert!) this episode has a sequel in Season 5.

One is the one in which the ship has to fly through a huge nebula full of technobabble that makes everybody sick except Seven and the Doctor. Eventually even the Doctor starts having trouble holding his photons together. So, with the whole crew in stasis, Seven has to take care of all the ship's maintenance needs and endure weeks of being all by herself. It would be trying for anyone, even without being an ex-drone used to having millions of minds inside her head at one time. Seven starts to hallucinate, making the Voyager look like a creepy, haunted-house kind of place. It's one of the few episodes of this season that I can remember having seen when it first aired, and frankly it isn't as strong as I remembered; but Seven's distress and the Silent Running vibe do make a deep impression.

Hope and Fear stars previous TNG guest Ray Wise, lately the devil on Reaper and the epitome of "shark" lawyers on a couple episodes of The Closer, among other memorable characters. Here Wise puts on the big, veiny "conehead" look that Trek fans have been conditioned to interpret as either "super-smart alien" or "untrustworthy rogue"—both of which apply, in this case. Arturis offers his services as a linguistic genius to help decode part of the message the Voyagers had received from Starfleet. The message leads them to a super-fast starship, which it seems Starfleet sent to take them home. But actually the ship turns out to be a trap, programmed to deliver the crew to the Borg for expedited assimilation. Arturis has planned all this as revenge for the Voyagers' treaty with the Borg against Species 8472, an alliance that scotched his people's last hope of resisting the Borg. Luckily Seven has enough Borg left in her to be able to slip through Arturis's force fields, and enough humanity not to want to be Borgified again; so, in spite of her uncertainty whether she wants to be part of the human race, she fixes things so that Arturis gets collectivized and the Voyagers get a few light years closer to home.

And so ends another year worth of tantalizing hopes and heartbreaking setbacks, alien hijack attempts and creepy mysteries, peeks into alternate planes of existence and phony realities, glimpses of the Voyager from strange viewpoints and under grave conditions, and personal challenges for each of the central characters. It is the year in which Kes went digital, Seven of Nine went analog, and Neelix came back from the dead; Tom almost lost his body, B'Elanna almost lost her mind, and the two of them found each other; Tuvok found himself naked on the bridge, Chakotay forgot the love of his life, Harry made first contact with the silver blood, and the Captain went hang-gliding with Leonardo da Vinci. It was a year especially packed with stories for Seven of Nine and the Doctor, but with a healthy prevalence of ensemble episodes showing that the writers weren't sick of the show yet; while, at the same time, several episodes—such as "Living Witness"—stretched the Star Trek formula in a creatively captivating way. It was a year that shined a 24th-century spotlight on such topics as life after death, criminal justice, rape, religion, racial conflict, the ethics of medical studies, the tactics of military conditioning, and even whether a culture threatened with extinction can make a radical change. The message is often deeply embedded in the story—but the story always comes first!

For more on spaceship-based TV series, see my reviews of Star Trek: TOS seasons one, two, and three; of TNG seasons one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven; of DS9 seasons one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven; of Voyager seasons one, two, and three; and of Enterprise season one. See also my review of Farscape seasons one, two, three, and four; of Firefly; and of Babylon 5 seasons one, two, three, and four.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Christmas Season Hymn

Here's a little something for the Twelve Days of Christmas, and not a partridge or a pear tree in sight!

With thankfulness give thanks! Rejoice with joy!
For at the favored hour is born a Boy
Whose ageless might, now clothed in humble birth,
Shall shower gifts o'er all who dwell on earth.

What poverty and rudeness marked His birth!
A den of beasts first welcomed Him to earth;
While men of means despised His kingly claim,
Mean men from flock and fold first praised His name.

With penitence repent! As beggars pray
That now, and on the awful youngest day,
We be rewarded not for what we've done,
But for the sake of Mary's holy Son.

At eight days pierced according to the law,
The Christ first bled to mend our flesh's flaw;
The sonship-covenant He lay beneath
Now gathers in those baptized in His death.

At eight days named the angel-whispered name,
Our Savior fully into office came.
For this alone our God with us did dwell:
To save Immanuel's race from sin and hell.

At forty days presented to the priest,
His mother from impurity released,
They made th' appointed off'ring, though in fact
His soul was pure, her maidenhead intact.

Still, in that hour, He caused the prophetess
Her faith in Israel's Savior to confess,
And brought the light of joy into the eyes
Of him who hoped the Lord to recognize.

Said Simeon: Now, Lord, I go to my rest,
Glad of this Child in whom the world is blessed;
Though sword may cut and tongue may idly play,
The thoughts of many hearts lie toward this day.

Then, while the city murmured of a star
And tidings brought by sages from afar,
They found Him, worshiped Him, and presents gave
Fit for the coffer, altar, and the grave.

Pursued by kings, bereft of home and land,
The holy Child fulfilled what God had planned:
From Egypt, whence His chosen line had run,
God called again His bondage-breaking Son.

With faith, believe the tidings you have heard!
Break forth in song! Repeat and praise the Word
Through whose becoming flesh we have been given
The right to be God's children, heirs of heaven!

All glory be to God among His host,
Eternal Father, Son, and Holy Ghost:
Sending and sent, He shone on us His face
That we might taste peace, pardon, joy, and grace.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Gaiman, Larsson, Gaiman, Pratchett, Gaiman

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
by Stieg Larsson
Recommended Ages: 16+

This is the first book in the "Millennium Trilogy," named after the magazine published by its main character, Swedish financial writer Mikael Blomkvist. The six-part Swedish TV miniseries based on these books is packaged in the U.S. as the "Dragon Tattoo Trilogy." American audiences can now see a big-screen version of this book, starring Daniel Craig in the role of Mikael "Kalle" Blomkvist, a crusading journalist who (like the author who created him) specializes in exposing right-wing corruption—though, unlike Larsson, he does so mainly in the context of business. He is nicknamed "Kalle Blomkvist" after an Astrid Lindgren character known to all Swedes today, but whose stories have not come over to the U.S. in a big way. Adding still more confusion to this background is the fact that the book's original, Swedish title translates as "Men Who Hate Women," so if you try to start a conversation about this book with an acquaintance from Sweden, you are apt to get a blank look.

While you probably know already that this trilogy came out quite recently and is all the rage on both sides of the Atlantic, you might be surprised to learn that Stieg Larsson is no longer around to clear up any confusion or ambiguities in his books. Larsson, age 50, died of a sudden heart attack in 2004 after climbing seven flights of stairs to his office when the elevator was broken (source: Wikipedia). Keep your elevators in running order, people! We can't afford to lose good writers like that! At the time of his death, the Millennium Trilogy was only an unpublished manuscript, and a half-written fourth book was saved on the author's computer. Now see how far it has gone! Unfortunately, conflicting inheritance claims make it unlikely that any of us will live to see Book 4, finished or otherwise. So if you are as crazy about this book as millions of other readers, you will have to settle for the two sequels already published: The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest (whose Swedish title means "The Air Castle that Was Blown Up").

It is obvious from these titles that the American market is more interested in the character of Lisbeth Salander, a 24-year-old, starved-looking, tattooed, pierced, socially awkward genius hacker who provides highly detailed background research for the clients of a major security firm, while at the same time living under a guardian because she is considered legally incompetent. I don't know if this is a result of something like Asperger's Syndrome (which Mikael Blomkvist suspects) or because of some kind of childhood trauma. (The Swedish telefilm, which I watched just after I read this book, drops some hints in that direction, but the book stays mum.) Diffident, self-contained, and elusive, Lisbeth is a hard person to get to know.

Salander gets to know Blomkvist long before he even knows she exists. She digs up his background for a prospective employer, who then hires Blomkvist in the aftermath of a disastrous libel conviction. In exchange for some real dirt on the white-collar gangster who set him up, Blomkvist agrees to write the family history of one of the oldest family-owned industrial firms in Sweden. Henrik Vanger, the retired CEO of the Vanger Corporation, sets the left-wing Blomkvist this unpleasant task mainly as a cover, while his real job is to try to solve the 40-year-old mystery of who killed a beautiful teenager named Harriet. One day, while the only bridge onto the family-owned island of Hedeby was blocked by an accident, Harriet disappeared and was never seen again. Since then, every year on Henrik Vanger's birthday, the old man has received a pressed flower like the ones Harriet used to give him. Vanger thinks the murderer is taunting him. He is convinced the killer is a member of his big, dysfunctional family, that Harriet was killed to hurt him, and that the flowers represent a 40-year campaign to drive the family patriarch insane.

At first unenthusiastic about his chances of finding anything that 40 years of police work might have missed, Blomkvist quickly realizes that he is onto something. A cryptic note in the back of Harriet's diary leads him to suspect that the girl was killed while trying to expose a serial killer in the family. Once Blomkvist brings Salander on board as his research assistant (the beginning of a relationship too complex to be missed, almost too explosive to be believed), the case starts to crack open like lake ice at the spring breakup. Suddenly both the girl with the tattoo and the journalist with a crusader's heart find themselves in terrible danger. And the truth turns out to be far weirder than either of them imagined.

Lisbeth Salander is, make no mistake, a fascinating character. Her fascination affects the men around her in fascinating ways. While they worry that she may be the perfect victim for a male predator who likes to hurt women, Lisbeth proves surprisingly resourceful, not to say relentless, in deflecting danger back onto the "men who hate women." And when you get down to brass tacks, violence against women is what this book is really all about. A lingering stench of Swedish Nazism, a brusque polemic against financial journalists who toady up to big-business interests, a subplot about corporate espionage in the journalistic field, and some "adult content advisory" worthy bedroom scenes add dimension to the tale; but what will really shock you, what will echo in your mind, what will haunt your dreams for days after you open this book, are the statistics of violence against women, including physical assault as well as rape and murder, quoted at strategic points throughout this book... and the steps the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo would take to punish the men who perpetrate it.

Good Omens
by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett
Recommended Ages: 14+

Two of my favorite authors teamed up in 1990 to write this irreverently funny take on prophecy, the Antichrist, and Armageddon. Then audiobook reader Martin Jarvis joined the party and kept me in stitches for a week's worth of my daily drive to and from work.

The full title of the book is Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. We find out, within the book, that Agnes had the misfortune of being the only 100% accurate prophet in English history. As a trade-off for all her predictions coming true, Agnes couched them in bizarre riddles which are impossible to decipher until after their fulfillment; and she made sure that her book of prophecies, its only surviving copy handed down through generations of her descendants, focused specifically on the fortunes and misfortunes of her own family. So, where it comes to predicting the winners of the next World Series, Mrs. Nutter will be no help. But she has plenty to say about the End of the World.

Meanwhile, in the hilariously twisted cosmos imagined by Messrs. Pratchett and Gaiman, the powers of Good and Evil have their own plans. An eleven-year countdown to Doomsday begins with the birth of the Spawn of Hell in a tiny, rural hospital run by a very talkative order of nuns who are secretly satanic. The nuns are supposed to swap the Antichrist-child with the son of an American diplomat and his wife, but due to a farcical mix-up, he gets raised by a salt-of-the-earth family in a small English village and turns out, by sheer chance, to be a rather nice boy. Adam Young unwittingly uses his reality-bending powers to keep his hometown safely isolated from the rapidly changing outside world. Even the hellhound sent to Adam on his eleventh birthday becomes, at his master's whim, an adorable little mongrel with one twisted ear. Adam's small gang follows him in an endless series of games driven by the power of sheer imagination... hardly guessing how much power that is. And the angels of light and darkness haven't a clue.

Two of those angels have formed an unlikely friendship over the millennia, in spite of being on opposite sides. Aziraphale (the flaming-sword guy from the Garden of Eden) and Crowley (formerly Crawly, the serpent from ditto), disapprove of each other's methods but get along like an old married couple. They rather like the world, particularly the comforts of twentieth-century life, and aren't in a hurry to see it end. But what can they do, when those higher up (and lower down) will brook no interference in the Ineffable Plan?

Whatever they do, it's going to be a mess. For not just the two angels, but a lot of other confused people with conflicting points of view show up for the party, including an apprenctice witch-finder whose heart isn't quite in it, a nice young witch with an encyclopedic knowledge of coming events, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who are now more accurately described as the Four Motorcyclists and who enjoy their work a little too much. The tension of worldwide catastrophe builds and builds, not (as one might expect) in the Middle East, but in a sleepy village in the English countryside where all depends, finally, on whether young Adam's nature (being the Seed of Satan) or nurture (his nice upbringing) win out.

Here is a book that impishly pokes at millennialistic notions about the End Times, the interpretation and re-interpretation of obscure medieval prophecies that fill pages of each week's supermarket tabloids. It might, perhaps, poke a little harder than one quite likes at Judaeo-Christian cosmology in general, and it certainly deserves both "occult" and "adult" content advisories. But if you lighten up a little, you might enjoy it anyway; enjoy it for its quirky characters, the comic-opera pacing of its various plot-lines, the goofily bizarre imagery, the cutting wit, and the disarming silliness of the sayings and doings it describes, from the revenge of a medieval witch about to be burned at the stake to the good-natured bickering of four children in an idyllic small town. All that and a funny dog too! How can it go wrong?

The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman
Recommended Ages: 12+

This novel for young readers by the author of Coraline won the 2009 Hugo Award, Carnegie Medal, and Newbery Medal—a hat-trick unique in the the history of these three awards—respectively the highest honors for English-language fantasy novels, children's novels published in the U.K., and ditto in the U.S. When I got around to reading it some three years later, it achieved another honor that only applies to the very best books: It made me cry. But that happened at the end of the book; let's not get ahead of ourselves!

It's the story about a boy who grew up in a graveyard. His name: Nobody. Nobody Owens, adopted by a couple of kindly ghosts on the night his parents and older sister were murdered, has been given the freedom of the graveyard until he grows up. This means that, for the time being, he can "fade" so that ordinary mortals cannot see him; he can "haunt" by putting the frighteners on the living; and he can slide through solid stone and earth to visit the crypts and coffins of the neighborhood, whose owners form a sort of extended family to him. Because, don't you know, it takes a graveyard to raise a child.

Nobody's adventures bring him into contact with some strange beings, including ghouls, a werewolf, a witch, and a vampire. But he is only really in danger from a secret organization whose motives for killing his first family, and for planning to kill the boy himself, are revealed at the very end of the book. Though Nobody is pretty safe while he remains inside the cemetery gates, his danger remains very real because—well, because boys will be boys. Sometimes they rebel. Sometimes they sulk. Sometimes they get lonely for the company of kids their own age. For a while, Nobody even tries to go to school. In spite of all his mistakes and near-disasters, he remains a spirited and active youngster whose wits make him a match for men far stronger than himself.

Whimsical and weird, moving and macabre, this story is like a cross between Tim Burton's The Corpse Bride and Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Books. You can laugh at the little ways of all the denizens of Nobody's graveyard, but because he loves them, you can't help but love them too. And while the character of Silas, Nobody's undead (but also unliving) guardian, is not the first vampire in fiction to be depicted as a sympathetic character, the reason why he is one in this case comes across (at least to me) as the final twist of the corkscrew, unstopping the tear ducts all the way to the book's messy, nasally congested finish.

Neverwhere
by Neil Gaiman
Recommended Ages: 13+

One of the most enjoyable weeks I have spent commuting to and from my workplace was the week I borrowed the CD book of Neil Gaiman himself reading his "Author's Preferred Text" of this novel. This is the novel that, in 1996, really put him on the map for those of us who missed the Sandman graphic novels and the BBC teleseries (co-written by Lenny Henry) on which this book was based. In fact, it is now regarded as something of a classic, the starting point of a flourishing genre of "London Below" fiction, so that the dust-jacket blurbs of such books as Mike Shevdon's Sixty-One Nails and China Miéville's Un Lun Dun tout them as "Neverwhere for the next generation," or the like. Having read those books before this one, I can't help sensing that I've fallen behind the class!

Well, thanks to the miracle of audiobooks, I'm not so far behind now. And I can't complain that the book reader didn't know the author's intentions. With Gaiman himself reading his preferred text, I learned that he has a good voice for storytelling, that he knows how to sell a variety of character voices and British dialects, and that he may even be as good an actor as writer. An all around entertainer, our Neil is. And judging from the fact that London seems to occupy more alternate realities than any other city on Earth, his influence appears to be spreading.

Neverwhere is the story of Richard Mayhew, a young London office worker with a gentle spirit, a bossy fiancée, and a blissfully ordinary life. One night as Richard is walking to a dinner date, an encounter with a gravely injured street person knocks his life out of its comfortable groove. Because he stops to help a filthy and bleeding girl named Door, Richard loses his fiancée, his job, his flat, and finally, his connection to reality as he knows it. Suddenly people can no longer see or hear him, or remember that he existed. So Richard goes underground. Literally. Down into the London Below, from which Door came and to which she has returned.

All Richard really wants is a way back to the life he knew. But before he can get it, he must learn to believe six thousand impossible things, and without the benefit of breakfast. He meets people who can communicate with birds and rats. He encounters an angel, a vampire-like creature called a velvet, a legendary beast, and a dead man come back to life. He makes friends with a girl who has the power to open any door, even where there wasn't a door before; and he makes enemies with two characters who have been torturing and killing for fun and profit since the world began. He visits a "floating market" where more or less fabulous beings swap more or less fabulous items; he undergoes an ordeal that many have tried before, but none have survived; and he demonstrates a curious blend of abject cowardice and heroic courage that ensure, whether or not he gets home to London Above, that London Below will never be the same.

Richard and Door are a likable couple. So are some of their dodgier neighbors in the underworld of magic, menace, and outright madness; though you may not immediately guess which ones are and aren't to be trusted. Through Gaiman's written and spoken word, they live vividly in my imagination. I am actually afraid to watch the BBC series, lest the world of Neverwhere become an obsession. I already have plenty of obsessions. But my inner world has plenty of room for another first-rate fantasy like this!