Saturday, October 31, 2020

Empire of Ivory

Empire of Ivory
by Naomi Novik
Recommended Ages: 13+

In the alternate world where the Temeraire series takes place, the war between Regency Britain and Napoleonic France – or rather, by 1807, between Regency Britain and the rest of the world – is fought not only on land and sea, but also with dragons crewed by men, women and children, fighting in the airspace over both. Former Royal Navy Capt. Will Laurence and his Chinese Imperial dragon companion Temeraire have seen a lot of the world and done a great deal for the war effort in only a couple years. They've halted a French invasion on British shores, using Temeraire's rare ability known as "divine wind" – a roar that can shatter bones and sink ships. They've ensured the Chinese Empire's neutrality – getting Laurence adopted as an emperor's son. They've secured the first fire-breather in the British service – stealing her in the egg from the Sultan of Istanbul. And they've escaped from Napoleon's ransack of Prussia with 20 semi-feral dragons recruited from the mountain passes of Central Asia.

But now they have to circle back to a place they've already visited – Capetown, Africa – in search of the cure for a disease that threatens to wipe out all of Britain's dragons. Thanks to whatever it was, Temeraire got over his sniffles pretty quickly, during his first trip around the world. Figuring out what it was proves easier than finding more of it, enough to dose his squadron and then the rest of the corps. At first, it seems this is because this life-saving medicine is a rare fungus that the colonists and cattle-hearding tribesmen near the coast have almost eradicated, because it makes cows sick. But the real reason these strange mushrooms are hard to get proves much more dangerous to know.

It's related to the real reason, which no one has correctly guessed, that colonists, missionaries and explorers have never gone deep into the dark continent and returned to tell about it. Everyone thinks it has to do with wild beasts and feral dragons ruling the African interior. But actually, it's due to a great civilization so powerful that it has managed to keep its existence secret from the outside world. Once again, like when they visited China, Temeraire and company bear witness to an entirely different way to order the relationship between men and dragons – only this time, the knowledge brings danger and disaster.

I wish I could go on in more detail about what happens in this book, but I'm already afraid I may have spoiled too much of it. There's a lot more to it, though – including the full range of dramatic scope, from characters telling each other off to colossal battles, over the morality of slavery. This book revises history more radically than the previous installments in the series. For example, the implications of Nelson surviving the battle of Trafalgar begin to hit home. Also, there's all the stuff I said about the interior of Africa, and why it has never been colonized like in our reality; modern African history swerves even more sharply at the climax of this book. But at the very end of the book, something happens that will make you question whether that was really the climax – something that leaves matters so radically changed that as I closed this book, I inwardly kicked myself for not having pre-ordered the next installment.

This fourth of nine Temeraire novels comes between Black Powder War and Victory of Eagles. It only took me one book to get hooked; I plan to work my way through the whole set, if only I can manage my impatience until my next book order arrives. When an unread Naomi Novik book is on my hands, I find, other books that I've started to read lie neglected. Less than halfway through the series, I'm already dreading reaching the end and wonder whether she'll write more of them. It's got just about everything that a fan of Patrick O'Brian or C.S. Forester could wish for, plus dragons – and if you're not convinced that dragons are a plus, just try His Majesty's Dragon (alternate title, Temeraire) and see if you don't get hooked, too.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Black Powder War

Black Powder War
by Naomi Novik
Recommended Ages: 13+

Capt. Will Laurence and his dragon companion Temeraire have had an eventful year. Pairing up moments after the latter hatched, they've undergone a whirlwind training into King George III's Aerial Corps (Laurence having been a Navy captain, before), helped repulse a naval and aerial attack on Dover by Napoleon's forces, sailed around the horn of Africa, survived multiple assassination attempts, and experienced the Imperial Chinese culture where dragons and humans co-exist as equals. Temeraire, one of only eight Celestial dragons in the world, has met his mother, had his first love affair, and acquired a lifelong enemy in the albino dragon Lien. Laurence, for his part, has had his worldview shaken, has become an adopted son of the Chinese emperor, has prevented the French from forming an alliance with China, and now – without even a pat on the shoulder for a job well done – receives brusque orders to Istanbul, where he is to take charge of three dragon eggs the British are purchasing from the Sultan.

Part 1 of this book concerns the perilous journey of a man, a dragon and their crew across the vast width of Asia, including some serious desert trekking where the margin between life and death is very slim. They acquire a Chinese chef, a guide – an enigmatic, contradictory man named Tharkay, who has grown just a bit cynical after being snubbed by society due to the irregular circumstances of his birth – and even, for a spell, a pack of feral dragons from a mountain range in Central Asia, who mostly come along on the promise of beef. The situation changes suddenly when they arrive in Istanbul and find that the British ambassador has been killed, his secretary has disappeared with a million pounds, and the Sultan doesn't want to let them go – with or without the promised eggs.

Of course, Lien shows up again, vowing revenge against Laurence and Temeraire over the death of the Chinese prince who was her whole world. Thanks to Lien's strategems, the Temeraires (if you'll pardon me for calling the crew that) are already caught in a trap, and it continues to close around them more tightly. As time runs out for their escape, they must run the dangerous gauntlet of a sultan's harem where any man who enters, other than the eunuch guards, must surely die. But collecting the eggs and escaping are only one moment of danger in an adventure that proceeds, in Part 3, to reimagine Napoleon's 1806-07 Prussian campaign with dragons. More or less conscripted into the aerial defenses of the doomed Prussian side, the Temeraires witness and, indeed, take part in the crushing defeats at Saalfeld, Jena and Auerstedt, before finding themselves boxed in by the seige of Danzig.

By and large, the course of history isn't much changed by the participation of dragons. But we view those historic battlefields with a certain thrilling sweep that they might lack (as if!) by not having dragons flying overhead. But besides adding aerial views and thrilling, dragon-on-dragon action, the draconic revision also casts the personality of Laurence up against such real-life characters as Napoleon, Queen Louise, King Friedrich Wilhelm III, Generals Bl├╝cher, L'Estocq, Hohenlohe and Kalkreuth, and Marshal Lefebvre.

Throw in the ticking time-bomb of two unhatched dragon eggs, a vendetta between two dragons, swift-moving battles, surprise reunions and aerial warfare tactics that put everything Laurence has yet learned in the shade, and you have something much more thrilling than just a bit of military history dramatized for novel-reading audiences. It's a simmering, spicy stew of suspense, a grim depiction of what war is like, a thought-provoking tangle of personalities and ideologies (such as Temeraire's dream of improving conditions for British dragons), a rich picture of the manners and lifestyles of that time, and a series of thrilling battles and narrow escapes, all knit together in flawless style and pacing. I was totally entertained.

A beautiful piece of writing all around, this is the third of nine Temeraire novels, coming between Throne of Jade and Empire of Ivory.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Creepy Dream

About a week ago, I woke up from a really weird dream and wrote down a note about it, to remind myself about it later. I didn't really need the reminder; it's been on my mind a lot. What a creepy dream!

I dreamed that I was attending a conference with some old schoolfellows, staying at the kind of motel where guests' rooms open straight out onto the parking lot. As I approached my room, I noticed something hanging on the door that I took at first for a decorative bundle of straw or fine sticks. Then I recognized it as an enormous, daddy long-legs type spider that immediately started chasing me.

As I ran for it, I gradually realized that my initial guess was closer to the truth, and my pursuer was really more of a kind of hollow tumbleweed. It outwardly seemed to be just rolling around, but it really was following me everywhere I went and even seemed to be trying to head me off. It had intelligence and intent. Somehow I realized that allowing it to touch me would be disaster.

I don't know what would have happened when it caught me – whether it was trying to bite me or snag on my clothing or steal my car keys or what – but I woke up pretty freaked out. I also remember that my chase covered some interesting dream terrain.

Well, sweet dreams, y'all!

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Throne of Jade

Throne of Jade
by Naomi Novik
Recommended Ages: 13+

This is the second of nine Temeraire books by the author of Will Supervillains Be on the Final?, A Deadly Education, Uprooted and Spinning Silver. Shortly after reading book 1, titled either Temeraire or His Majesty's Dragon, I ordered this book online as well as the next two after it, Black Powder War and Empire of Ivory. I just couldn't get enough of Laurence, Temeraire and their world, or the astounding intelligence and talent of their creator. When I read in the inside-the-back-cover blurb that she was inspired by a love of Patrick O'Brian and Jane Austen, I fell in love with her a little. If I keep up like this, I'm going to run out of her books again, too soon.

In the current book, Capt. Will Laurence of H.M. Aerial Corps and his remarkable companion, the dragon Temeraire, have just saved the United Kingdom from invasion by Napoleon's forces when they are called on the carpet by an ungrateful Admiralty, who want to break up their partnership and give Temeraire back to the Chinese. A delegation from that country, including the Emperor's brother, reveals that Temeraire belongs to a rare, sacred breed that must never be harnessed or put to hazardous service – a Celestial, the highest order of dragons, bred as companions to emperors and their families. Because Temeraire refuses to give up Laurence, and Laurence refuses to lie to the dragon and say he wants him to, the only way out of the diplomatic impasse is to ship dragon, man and all to China and see what the Emperor has to say about it.

Their journey around the Horn of Africa is fraught with challenges, including clashes of culture with the Chinese passengers, a nighttime attack by enemy forces, a couple attempts on Laurence's life and Temeraire's dawning realization that British dragons live in conditions just this side of slavery. This last concern weighs most heavily on Laurence after they arrive in Peking and Temeraire meets others of his kind. They witness a society where humans and dragons live among each other as equals, where dragons can move about freely and aspire to a variety of careers, where they read and write, earn and spend money. To be sure, he meets a villainous Celestial, but he also bonds with his mother and enjoys a little romance with a pretty Imperial. And the Prince presents him with a little boy meant to be a more suitable companion than Laurence.

Worrying about whether he will lose Temeraire is trouble enough, but Laurence hasn't left behind the threat of assassination as a guest of the Chinese. The book balances desperate battles with a scenic tableau that seamlessly blends historic culture and manners with fantasy world-building. It's a thrilling adventure whose style and literary merit approach that of the authors mentioned above. Beneath all, it is charged with a strange kind of love that perhaps doesn't resemble any relationship we know of, but that nevertheless, touches the reader's heart.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The Book of Secrets

The Book of Secrets
by Cynthia Voigt
Recommended Ages: 11+

Max Starling has settled into his new identity as Mister Max, a "solutioneer" (not a detective) of indeterminate age, who uses disguises and roles learned in his parents' theater to solve people's problems without anyone noticing that he's a 12-year-old boy living alone. Well, not exactly alone; he does have a lodger, and his Grammie lives just across his backyard. But his parents remain mysteriously missing, possibly living in character as the king and queen of a tiny South American country, and now Max has received a cryptic message from his father that may just be a cry for help.

While he struggles to understand what he can do for his parents, Max carries on solutioneering – first helping a little boy who's worried about his father, then a father worried about his son and finally, a young man who wants to know if he can do anything to help a beautiful young woman with whatever she's worried about. Between all these cases, I mean jobs, comes one from the Mayor of Queensbridge that puts Max in the most danger he's faced yet. Someone is vandalizing and setting fires to businesses all over town, and the more Max understands what's going on, the more he becomes a target for the people behind it.

But Max's biggest worry isn't the secrets other people are keeping, but how to keep his own. What he wants most of all is independence, and if anyone finds out about his living situation, he could lose that. So he gets a little snippy with the girl who has appointed herself his assistant. He gets evasive with a schoolmate who sees through his disguises. And at a couple of moments, this need to keep secrets puts him in an awful dilemma – such as whether to ask for, and accept, the help that he really needs.

Max's adventures are both written and illustrated in a quirky, original way that puts emphasis on the theatrical home in which he grew up. The unique way he thinks, the solutions he arrives at for other people's problems, the way he almost disappears into a role and even (once or twice) holds debates between different characters he is dancing between, his amazing strengths and abilities are a lot of fun in and of themselves. But then you see his vulnerability, his weaknesses, the things he simply can't do – from painting anything but a watercolor sky to saving his family without help – and he becomes a living person you would like to know.

This is the middle book of the "Mister Max" trilogy by the Newbery Medal winning author of Dicey's Song and six other "Tillerman Cycle" books, Jackaroo and five other "Tales of the Kingdom," The Bad Girls and five sequels, The Callender Papers, The Vandemark Mummy, and somewhere around 15 other novels for young adult readers. The other "Mister Max" titles are The Book of Lost Things and The Book of Kings.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

277. Transformation Hymn

As brief and deceptively simple as this hymn is, I've been brooding over it for months. It finally hatched today; hooray! Intended especially for Christian youth and young adults, it takes its ideas from Romans 12:2, 2 Corinthians 3:18 and Philippians 3:20-21. As I wrote it, I had no particular tune in mind, but right now it seems to go nicely in my head to the tune REX CHRISTE, FACTOR OMNIUM (below), which I previously paired with this hymn.
Beloved, be not pressed into
The mold this world designs for you;
But be transformed, your mind restored
To what is pleasing to the Lord.

Thus we, with unveiled face, may view
The image He'll transform us to:
His glory overwriting ours,
According to the Spirit's powers.

For heaven is our proper state,
Upon whose King we keenly wait;
He will our body form anew
And all things to Himself subdue.

276. Encouragement Hymn

The idea behind this hymn is a letter of encouragement to a younger member of the congregation who has moved away for college and may or may not be going to church. The only tune I know of that fits this hymn (though not ideally, from a stanza structure point of view) is SINGEN WIR AUS HERZENS GRUND (a.k.a. IN NATALI DOMINI), a 1544 Bohemian Brethren chorale, illustrated here as set to the German text "Auf den Nebel folgt die Sonn" in an 1895 Liederbuch. (See also LHy 110.)
Child of God, abide in faith:
Call to mind your solemn pledge
All to risk, yes, even death,
Lest the foe, with wily wedge,
Sheer you off the narrow path.
Let your Father's teaching serve
As your guide at every curve.

Child of God, abide in Christ:
Know His truth; absorb His word.
Let His body sacrificed,
Let His blood, in mercy poured,
Feed you, like a scion spliced
In the rootstock of the vine,
Burgeoning with choicest wine.

Child of God, abide in love:
Seek the fellowship of grace.
Share the comfort of His Dove,
Heartened by the saints' embrace.
Strive with us for things above,
For the things that make for peace,
Till all din and discord cease.

Child of God, abide in hope:
Looking toward the eastern sky;
Toward the dawning light we grope,
Watching as the hour grows nigh.
Then, no more in figured trope,
Plain to every weary eye,
Christ will beckon us on high.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Lame-Assed Doppelganger

The Lame-Assed Doppelganger
by Gary Jonas
Recommended Ages: 15+

This book wastes no time setting up a killer premise: Lazy, self-centered wizard Brett Masters, who has never lived up to his wizardly father's expectations, comes back from a vacation in Fiji to find that he's been replaced by a more acceptable copy of himself. The other Brett claims that he's the real one and that the Brett we've grown to, well, put up with for the past three books is the doppelganger, doomed to dissolve into sand when he's outlived his reason for being.

Understandably, our Brett isn't happy about this. It can't be fun to discover that the band you've been playing gigs with for the past year has recorded a hit album with the other you just in the last month. Or that the house you lived in was sold. Or that all your friends like the other you better. It's almost enough to make you question whether you're the real you.

The one thing that keeps Brett (Mark 1) pretty sure he's the real deal is that pulling this kind of stunt – replacing his real son with a duplicate who does what he's told – is just the sort of dick move he's learned to expect from his father. The tough part is getting his friends, to whom he hasn't been very nice, to help him when his doppelganger is the best version of him. Nevertheless, Brett survives a series of magical and non-magical attacks and proves that he's grown a lot as a wizard, even if he doesn't give a BLEEP about magic. But finally, it all comes down to a magical trial where, for the prize of getting to go on living as Brett Masters ... well, let's just drop a Highlander quote ("There can be only one") and let your imagination do the rest.

Even after making some progress during his first three adventures, Brett still has a lot of growing to do. He has to work hard, not only to survive, but to earn the reader's sympathy. Amazingly, he manages to do this, achieving the astonishing goal of bringing a four-book character arc to a satisfying conclusion. Adding to the fun are pop culture and pop music references, a touch of satire on millennial cluelessness, culturally subversive and sexually juvenile humor, some knock-out magic-assisted fights and a simmering sense of danger. Adult and Occult Content Advisories are in force. Read at your own risk. But don't sweat the risk too much. It's a trifling but enjoyable literary confection that maybe, once or twice, touches a deeper chord. Maybe it's that magic guitar pick that Brett plays with.

This is the fourth and (I believe) last book in the "Half-Assed Wizard" series. Yes, I read all of them, and I won't say "in spite of the atrocious cover art" because I read them on Kindle and never saw the covers until I was putting my reviews together. Truly wince-worthy, they are; completely unlike how I pictured Brett Masters and (in this book) his doppelganger. But anyway, Gary Jonas seems to put out a lot of titles really fast, and some of them are packaged better than others – such as the Jonathan Shade books whose 12 titles include Anubis Nights, Wizard's Nocturne, and Club Eternity (to choose three at random) and his 2002 debut novel, One Way Ticket to Midnight.

Twice Magic

Twice Magic
by Cressida Cowell
Recommended Ages: 11+

Xar, the younger son of Enchanter Encanzo, the leader of the Wizard tribe in the wild woods of ancient Britain, has spent the last six months imprisoned by the Droods – a very strict order of Wizards who don't have a sense of humor about things like the Witch mark Xar put on his hand in desperation because his magic wasn't coming in. Already a very naughty 13-year-old, Xar will gradually become completely evil as the Witch mark spreads, binding his will to the evil Kingwitch and his feathered, life-destroying minions. But Xar has had it with being treated like a prisoner, so he escapes from the Droods' escape-proof prison and rescues (or, from another point of view, kidnaps) his friend Wish from the iron fort of her mother, Queen Sychorax of the Warrior tribe. The heist, unfortunately, happens right under the quivering nose of the Imperial Witchsmeller, so now the pair – and Wish's assistant bodyguard, Bodkin – have both the Droods and the Witchsmeller's goons after them, to say nothing of the armies of two tribes that have been at war with each other for years. But that's all right, because their quest is (gulp) to collect the ingredients for a spell to destroy the Witches forever.

Naturally, everything that can go wrong, does. What passes for a plan with these kids would be described, by almost any adult, as preposterous and dangerous. To start, they have to collect the last breath of a Giant in a place called Castle Death, which requires crossing a region haunted by deadly swamp creatures. Accompanied by a giant who's a dwarf compared to the one at Castle Death, some fanged furry friends, a talking raven and a collection of sprites and "hairy fairies" whose magical abilities are about equal to their foolishness, the kids travel into the unknown armed with powers they neither understand nor know how to control. Perhaps the only reason they get to Castle Death in one piece is that a sinister power is clearing the way for them, for dire reasons of its own.

Getting there is one thing; getting away is another – an adventure within an adventure in which a powerful Wizard king and an icy Warrior queen come face to face, each with an army of followers, and the only thing that can stop them from destroying each other is an enemy bent on destroying them all. Scariest of all is the reason the Kingwitch wants Wish in particular; if he gets her, it's all over.

It's a weird, warm, funny story featuring magical kids on the cusp of adulthood, people from different backgrounds and belief systems making friends, imperfect and even downright naughty youngsters trying as hard as they can to fight evil, hints about the power of forgiveness and of grief, some ridiculous adults, a hint of romance and a tantalizing puzzle about the narrator's identity. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Cowell's unique style of illustrations, familiar to those who love her Hiccup the Viking books – deceptively crude and scratchy drawings that somehow express a lot of personality and feelings, and that sometimes made me laugh all by themselves. My only complaint is that some of the pages with very dark shading and reverse writing were hard to read – making Cressida Cowell's handwriting even more challenging to decipher than usual.

This is the second of four "Wizards of Once" books, following The Wizards of Once and followed by Knock Three Times and the upcoming (Nov. 17, 2020) release, Never and Forever. Cressida Cowell is also the creator of the 15-book "How to Train Your Dragon" series, which is very different in book form from the movie franchise. Among her other children's books are The Seasick Viking, One Too Many Tigers, There's No Such Thing as a Ghostie and several "Emily Brown" picture books.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Picard, Season 1

The exciting news that a Star Trek series was being developed around former Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame, came out in mid-2018. The 10-episode first season didn't air until January-March 2020 – a long enough wait for those of us hotly anticipating what Picard might get up to 20 years on from Star Trek: Nemesis. Sometime in that two-month season, I caught the first episode of Star Trek: Picard online, when CBS All Access streamed it for free to set the hook. However, I'm one fish not so easily landed. I don't hold with subscribing, even for a free trial period, to a bunch of different streaming services.1 Heck, I don't even watch TV at home (my set is for playing DVDs only) and when I'm visiting my parents, what isn't on cable isn't on, period. So, I had to endure another long wait until the DVD finally reached store shelves this past Tuesday.

All right, here are the main characters for this new Trek show. Let's start with Picard himself, already well known from seven years on TNG and four feature films. The story picks up, coincidentally, the same number of years it's been since Patrick Stewart last played the role. It finds him at the French vineyard he inherited from his brother, pouting (and sometimes, as in a disastrous video interview, exploding) about the sinister turn the Federation took 20 years ago when they (1) refused to support his project to relocate 900 million Romulans before their star went supernova, and (2) outlawed synthetic lifeforms due to an unexplained mutiny that destroyed the Utopia Planetia shipyards on Mars. He also misses his friend Data a lot, never having quite gotten over the android's self-sacrifice on his behalf (cf. Nemesis). His closest companions are a pitbull named Number One and two devoted Romulan retainers, Laris and Zhaban (pictured with him). Laris, in particular, knows a lot about spycraft and is the first to explain the Zhat Vash, one of the items that will be on our Romulan vocab list later. Laris, played by Orla Brady (late of Into the Badlands), and Zhaban, played by Jamie McShane (Sons of Anarchy), only appear in the first three episodes of the season but, one hopes, will be back for Season 2.

The main cast starts to come together when a girl named Dahj Asha, played by Isa Briones, approaches Picard after an attempt on her life by a Romulan kill-squad awakened abilities she never knew she had. Though Dahj is killed before Picard's eyes before the end of the first episode, Briones continues as a key player in the role of Dahj's twin, Soji. Both sisters begin with no idea that they are actually synthetic life forms whose very existence defies Federation policy, and in some way they are offspring of the late Data. Picard also (eventually) learns why the Romulans particularly want to destroy the synths; they (or at least their ultra-secret cabal, the Zhat Vash) believe that androids are on the threshold of sentience, letting them evolve past which will spell the doom of all organic life in the galaxy.

Adding to Soji's danger is the fact that she works on the Artifact, a deactivated Borg cube in Romulan territory, part of a project to liberate the former drones that have been separated from the collective, remove their cybernetic implants and restore their pre-assimilation identities, albeit with horrible disfigurement. She's right in the midst of the people with the most reason to destroy her, if she awakens to her true identity. And she's also the plaything of a Romulan spy named Narek, played by Harry Treadaway (the boy from City of Ember and a series regular for just this season).

Narek's methods arouse the doubts, and perhaps a touch of incestuous jealousy, in his sister Narissa (recurring guest Peyton List, previously "Poison Ivy" on Gotham, Lisa Snart on The Flash and the lead character on the TV series Frequency; also, one of two actresses by that name listed on IMDB). A member of Zhat Vash, she believes in more traditional Romulan methods of interrogation ("pain and violence"), while Narek tries a gentler approach – seducing the girl and even, perhaps, falling in love with her – which he hopes will prove more successful than Narissa's attempts to nab Dahj.

There's also an expert in synths named Dr. Agnes Jurati, played by fourth regular cast member Allison Pill (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World). Jurati's stated reason for coming along on Picard's rescue mission is that she just has to see the synth that she believes her mentor, Dr. Bruce Maddox, created. Maddox, who appeared in the TNG episode "The Measure of a Man," here played by a different actor (John Ales of The Nutty Professor), has been captured by a gangster named Bjayzl (Necar Zadegan of NCIS: New Orleans) and awaits being turned over to the Romulans for a bounty.

Unfortunately for Bjayzl, her sideline – stripping former Borg, hereafter known as xBs, of their cyber-parts – put her crosswise to Seven of Nine (special guest star Jeri Ryan – you know, from Star Trek: Voyager?). To set up this vendetta, one episode actually opens with a flashback to the death of beloved Voyager recurring character Icheb (also played by a different actor than before), which is really a difficult scene to watch. This season actually pulls a "killing characters from previous Trek series" hat trick by adding Maddox and xB Hugh (from TNG's "I, Borg" – in this case, still played by his original actor, Jonathan Del Arco of The Closer).

A few other regulars from previous Trek series also make special guest appearances, including Jonathan Frakes as Will Riker and Marina Sirtis as Deanna Troi – here pictured with their daughter Kestra (played by Lulu Wilson). The married couple now lives a secluded life on a healing planet that looks a lot like northern Minnesota, to me. They moved there because their older child, now dead, was suffering from a disease that would have been curable had the Federation not banned cybernetic research. The pain of their loss tinges their scenes, even though they seem to have a beautiful life. Then, of course, there's Data, played by Brent Spiner, who appears to Picard in some dreams early in the season and, later, chats with him in a simulation – but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Spiner also plays Altan Soong, the son of Data's creator Noonian Soong, who has continued to build on that forbidden line of work.

While we're talking about actors playing multiple characters, our fifth regular cast member is Santiago Cabrera, whose character on Heroes drew comic books that predicted the future. Besides playing Chris Rios, the owner-pilot of the starship La Sirena, whom Picard hires for this adventure, he also plays all five members of his crew, whose official titles all begin with "emergency" and end with "hologram" but who also have distinctive names, accents and personalities: Emil (the English medical holo), Enoch (Irish, navigation), Emmet (Spanish-speaking, tactical), Ian (Scots, engineering) and Mr. Hospitality (metrosexual, room service and such). I'll mention the five holos again later. For now, what's important to know about Rios is that he was the first officer of a Starfleet ship until his beloved captain did a murder-suicide on two guests, one of whom looked exactly like Soji. So haunted by his captain's actions that he could no longer serve in Starfleet, he has trouble accepting his role on the mission until ...

Enter series regular Michelle Hurd (known for early seasons of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) as Raffi Musiker, Picard's former first officer at the time of his separation from Starfleet. She has developed alcohol and drug problems that alienated her from her son (played, in his sole appearance this season, by Cuba Gooding Jr.'s son Mason Gooding). She almost leaves the ship at that point, and she has a lot of issues to work through. Her role in the ensemble seems to be, first, to hook up Picard with Rios; second, to help Rios work through his issues with Soji and the girl he saw murdered; and third, to be a general-purpose shoulder to cry on. Also, when she's at the tactical controls, she can save the power required to run Emmet. Also, a brief dialogue-free moment in the last episode of the season suggests that she and Seven might become a romantic item.

Filling out the regular cast is young martial arts athlete Evan Evagora, playing a "Legolas the elf" type Romulan named Elnor, who has known Picard since he was a little orphan boy running around a sketchy refugee colony called Vashti. Taken in by the Qowat Milat, a sisterhood of Romulan warrior nuns (words I'm immensely thrilled to have a legit reason to write), he has been trained to follow the Way of Absolute Candor (which puts him at odds with Romulan nature), fight with a sword that can decapitate a man at a single blow (he always asks his opponents to choose to live before he ends them) and passionately hate the Tal Shiar, or secret police, that hasn't let a little thing like a supernova wiping out their homeworld put them out of business. Only his sex prevents him from being a full member of the Qowat Milat, but Picard asks him to bind his sword to his cause and, sensing that it's a lost cause (the order's main requirement), Elnor accepts. Known as "the kid" to the other Sirenas, Elnor becomes separated from the main party and, amazingly, survives a side adventure of his own with xBs, Romulans and fast-moving fight scenes that border on parkour. Being very open about his feelings, Elnor hugs a lot and, after an event that I don't want to spoil for you, sobs like a child. He's basically the most pure, uncomplicated and adorable character in the show, which perhaps accounts for how little time he spends on screen. But maybe, having him in the ensemble will lighten the philosophical color-palette of the series, which is already (in spite of Picard's grievances against Starfleet, stated early on) more positive and joyful than anything seen in the first two seasons of Star Trek: Discovery.

I think I've covered the regular and some of the recurring characters and big-time guest stars. Other important ones include Admiral Clancy, played by Ann Magnuson, whose character built an android in the film Making Mr. Right, and who gets to tell Picard to "shut the f— up!" Yes, they use the eff word in this show. Then there's Tamlyn Tomita (The Karate Kid Part II, The Good Doctor) as Commodore Oh, the head of Starfleet security who (ironically) turns out to be a Romulan double agent. There's Dr. Moritz Benayoun, the chief surgeon from the Stargazer, which Picard commanded before the Enterprise, played by David Paymer (Mr. Saturday Night, City Slickers, Payback), who gets to ask Picard, "Do you really want to go back out in the cold?" And there's Amirah Vann (How to Get Away with Murder) as Zani, the head of the Qowat Milat house where Elnor grew up.

I guess all that's left to do is "Three Episodes That Made It For Me." Bearing in mind that I only had 10 to choose from, here goes: (1) Broken Pieces, in which all five of La Sirena's holo-crew are gathered in one place to help Raffi figure out what's ailing Rios. Cabrera shows gifts for comedy and accents in this scene, which made me laugh out loud. It's also the episode where the Romulan bad guys have Elnor cornered and who should appear but Seven of Nine, scoring a big hug from the emotionally available elf, I mean Romulan ronin. (2) Nepenthe, where a healing visit to the Riker's gorgeous log home helps her deal with her new knowledge about herself and whether she can trust anybody. Meanwhile, the fact that Jurati has betrayed the Sirenas (by letting Oh fit her with a device that allows Narek to track them) is revealed when she takes almost suicidal steps to break off the pursuit. (3) A tie between "Absolute Candor," in which Picard faces his guilt for giving up on the Romulan evacuation when Starfleet canned him, and in which he reunites with Elnor, and "Stardust City Rag," which brings back Icheb, Maddox and Seven of Nine only to kill off the first two. It has a certain noir style, with Seven in the hardboiled role, but what Jurati does to Maddox is really the big shocker.

Finally, I appreciate that this season really has gone where no Trek has gone before, by exploring Romulan culture in more depth than ever. Fans who have been following Trek since The Original Series (TOS) may be amazed to realize that, after all these years of being right at the top of the list of villainous alien races, the Romulans haven't really been around that much. They were seen twice in TOS, made it into a respectable 21 TNG episodes (including a two-parter set on their homeworld), 16 episodes of DS9 and six Voyager episodes, appeared in four of the TOS/TNG/reboot feature films, and were seen in like four Enterprise episodes, plus being heard (voice only) in one more. So, OK, it's not like they've only appeared a couple times before; they've been a significant presence since the beginning of Star Trek. But they've never been developed to this degree before, featuring in 10 out of 10 episodes. If you knew a couple Romulan words before Picard, they were probably "Jolan tru" (Hello/goodbye) or maybe "Tal Shiar" (the Gestapo). But now, if you keep your ears open, you can learn so many other words and phrases to try in conversation, if you ever meet a Romulan – such as "Ganmadan" (Romulan Armageddon), "Zhat Vash" (a cult within the Tal Shiar that exists to destroy artificial intelligence), "Pixmit" (Romulan tarot cards), "Qalankhkai" (a Romulan ronin; apparently their sword is called "Tan qalanq"), "Qazh!" (F—!), "Qezhtihn!" (F— you!), "Sharah aroostos!" (Bite me!), "Seb-Cheneb" (the Destroyer), "Vramin gadar" (round ears, a racial slur against non-Romulans), "Vesh ta'jot" (Kill them all!), and Elnor's favorite, "Feldor staam toreht!" (Please, friends, choose to live!). You know what you have to do: Pratice, practice, practice!
1I know from experience that a "free trial period" means either calling the company every month for years to ask them to reverse the charges on your bill, only to be billed again the next month for a service you tried to cancel immediately after the trial; or ignoring the bill until your account is so delinquent that they cancel it, and flame-broil your credit score in the process.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

The Year (or So) of Star Trek

What a year it is – or couple of years – to be a fan of the Star Trek franchise. Between early 2020 and sometime in 2021, there have been or will be five different Trek series airing in first-run broadcast (or streaming service, at least) between CBS All Access and Nickelodeon TV. Plus, there are still struggling hopes of a fourth "Kelvan timeline" original-series reboot movie being made (with rumors that the series is permanently canceled alternating on a daily basis with a director saying he still hopes to shoot it), and even some writer-director or other trying to pitch a Trek feature film headlined by an entirely new cast of characters. 

But let's not lose the pie in the sky. The following series are actually confirmed to be happening between now and sometime in 2021: a third season of Star Trek: Discovery, a second season of Star Trek: Picard, a second season of the half-hour animated comedy series Star Trek: Lower Decks (whose first season I have yet to see), the new Star Trek: Strange New Worlds featuring Capt. Pike and Spock as seen in Discovery season 2, and now (just announced) a children's animated series Star Trek: Prodigy in which Kate Mulgrew is already taping a voice performance as Capt. Janeway, late of Voyager. What a time to be alive, eh, nerds?

Here are my reviews of starship-based TV series, dating back to when I did episode-by-episode commentary:

  • Star Trek: The Original Series seasons one, two, and three
  • Star Trek: The Animated Series – Screw that. I watched a couple episodes and hated the show so much that I sold the DVD box set back to FYE.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation seasons one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine seasons one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven
  • Star Trek: Voyager seasons one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven
  • Enterprise/Star Trek: Enterprise seasons one, two, three and four – Oops, I never watched the last two episodes!
  • Farscape seasons one, two, three, and four – Oops again, I watched the whole fourth season but never finished writing the review.
  • Firefly (alas, only one season)
  • Babylon 5 seasons one, two, three, four, and five
And here are my starship-type show reviews since I went all "Three Episodes That Made the Box Set For Me":
  • Andromeda seasons 1-5 (yeah, all in one review)
  • Doctor Who docs nine, ten, eleven and twelve
  • Lost In Space (2018) season one (so far)
  • The Orville season one and two
  • Star Trek: Discovery season one and two

Like the 1970s Star Trek animated series, I tried to watch Earth: Final Conflict and Alien Nation, but gave up in disgust after only a couple episodes. It was a thing I did; I would buy a season of a TV show on DVD at my neighborhood FYE store and if I hated it so much I couldn't stand watching it any more, I sold it back as used and bought something else. Other shows I remember giving up on in mid-season were Supernatural (when I lost all sympathy for the characters a couple-three-four seasons in), Forever Knight and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (neither of which aged well). So, whether it's starship based or not, if I start to think it's crap, I don't watch any further.

Meanwhile, shows like Lost in Space and Troll Hunters simply tick me off because I can only get the first season on DVD, though there seems to be no good reason for the subsequent season(s) not to be released on disc. I will totally review Season 2 of both series (etc., etc.) as soon as home media shakes loose from the studios' tight fists. Don't give me that song and dance about DVD being a dying medium, studio execs. You're killing it by not releasing shows on it when that's what their fans want, just so you can sell more subscriptions to your streaming service – a medium for watching TV that takes the maximum poundage of flesh out of the viewer and, in my opinion, asks a few pounds too much.

Just this week, I finally got a chance to bring home Picard on DVD, binge-watching it the same day (Oct. 6) it was released. I'll hold off on reviewing it for now. I just wanted to vent my verklemptness and, since I've run out of stuff to say that you can't look up for yourself on IMDB or Wikipedia, to leave any further comment until I've seen the new shows myself. Live long and prosper, Trekkies! (or -ers, if you prefer)

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

The Dumbass Demon

The Dumbass Demon
by Gary Jonas
Recommended Ages: 15+

Brett Masters, a millennial slacker who doesn't particularly care about the powerful magic that runs in his blood, would just as soon have nothing to do with wizardry. But his father, who still hopes to see him make good on some of his potential, has figured out a way to give him a kick in the seat. The old man sends Brett a nuisance demon – a disgusting little red man whom, at first, only Brett can see – and gives him until, say, his sanity breaks to get rid of the little (BLEEP). All Brett has to do – and only Brett can do – is make Kevin, as the demon is known, go away. Just give him a little magic push, and poof! But can he? Or perhaps more to the point, will he?

Brett is so lazy that he can't seem to manage this, even with Kevin making himself a pain in every way imaginable. Exhibit one: The demon wakes him up one morning by peeing on him. I should probably have bleeped that out, too. In case you haven't noticed, this book, and really the whole series, calls for a stiff Adult Content Advisory, and an Occult Content Advisory to boot. But Brett has bigger problems. A beautiful singer, actually a Siren out of Greek mythology, needs his help. The god Apollo is trying to enslave her, so that he can use her backup vocals to create a hit pop song that will convert listeners around the world into his worshipers. It's not just that he won't take no for an answer. He can actually conjure a contract out of thin air, with her signature on it.

Something between hubris and horniness propels Brett to try to help her, even though there's really no way to stop Apollo from doing whatever he wants. As punishment for his disrespect (Brett's second-best superpower, after napping), Apollo enslaves him, too, and dangles a tease of removing the vampire curse from his friend Michael in return for playing bass on his single. Together, this band of supernatural misfits (I'm using the word "band" here in the pop-music sense) puts together a hit single and an almost equally huge B-side. But being part of Apollo's entourage comes with deadly danger, as if the free will of the entire human race and Brett's drive to be a success or (more likely) failure on his own terms aren't high enough stakes. Poor Brett has to grow a spine and fast. I mean, poor us.

In his latest adventure, Brett Masters shows his usual qualities, and thus becomes a less sympathetic and attractive character than ever. He even begins to realize how very unlikable he is, how very adept at losing friends and alienating people. Perhaps waking up to this truth is an important step for him. But it still doesn't immediately translate into being able to banish the demon, save the girl or stop the god. With a smart mouth and a willful stupidity that runs parallel to his essential laziness, he goes a long way toward losing even the reader's goodwill, so that taking pleasure in his discomfort and misfortunes becomes a key to enjoying this book. Full of gross-out shtick, evil humor and mostly music-related cultural references (including a Tom Lehrer song!), it's an entertaining tale in spite of its hero, offering just a hint of hope that he may show better qualities in the future – though perhaps not as soon as his dad would like.

This is the third "Half-Assed Wizard" novel of a four-book set that I've been reading on Kindle, since I got hooked in by a free offer on the first installment. You don't think I chose it for that cover art, do you? The other titles in the series are The Half-Assed Wizard, The Big-Ass Witch and The Lame-Assed Doppelganger. Gary Jonas is also the author of the Jonathan Shade, Kelly Chan and Hitman series as well as such novels as One Way Ticket to Midnight, Night Marshal, Pirates of the Outrigger Rift and Hell Hunter.

Monday, October 5, 2020

The Lost Heir

The Lost Heir
by Tui T. Sutherland
Recommended Ages: 11+

The five Dragonets of Destiny, prophesied to end the three-way war that has divided the dragon tribes of Pyrrhia, have escaped from the clutches of the SkyWing queen and made their way to the SeaWing kingdom, or rather queendom, where Tsunami (they have just learned) is the lost heir to the throne. Her reunion with her royal mother, Queen Coral, at first plays word-for-word like the scene in Tsunami's favorite bedtime story, but that's easily understood once she learns that Coral herself wrote it. Also, the rumor that Tsunami is the last princess proves to be old news; she has a little sister, an adorable dragonet named Anemone whom Coral keeps on a short leash (literally), and two unhatched females remain in the royal egg hatchery.

Besides being a queen and an author, Coral is (unfortunately) an ally of Blister, one of the claimants to the SandWing throne behind the long-running conflict. She has Tsunami's fellow Dragonets of Destiny locked up until Blister can come and look at them. More bad news quickly follows. First, Tsunami now discovers that the SeaWing she was forced to kill in the SkyWing queen's arena was actually her royal father, driven insane by thirst. Second, someone in Queen Coral's court wants to kill her, Tsunami, and is trying to assassinate the other princesses either before or after they hatch. Third, a certain dragon that Tsunami fancies, turns out to be a spy for the Talons of Peace, who aren't as nice as they sound; meanwhile, two of the dragons who raised Tsunami and her friends are found near the SeaWing court, one of them dead and the other under a sentence of death – but something about their arrival suggests that the security of Queen Coral's court is at risk, and danger is coming. Finally, Tsunami herself struggles to decide where she belongs, whether her place is alongside her mother or with the diverse group of friends she brought with her, and whose fate remains uncertain.

Told from the point of view of young adult dragons in a fascinating and complex world of wing, claw, fire and gills (because, don't you know, Tsunami's folk can breathe underwater), this adventure mingles mystery, action, family drama, epic quest and just a hint of romance. Switching point of view from the previous installment's central character (Clay, the MudWing), it shows a brash, arrogant young creature being cut down to size a bit, learning to listen to others a bit instead of just bossing everybody around, and delicately juggling a bunch of dangerous secrets with the ultimate aim of making peace and saving lives. The dragon worldview is a bit scary when you look at it long enough, and even the creature who pronounced the prophecy has some pretty ruthless ideas about how to bring it to reality. But at bottom, the bond between Tsunami and her friends Clay, Glory, Sunny and Starflight looks, sounds and smells like their world's best chance for peace – if they can survive long enough.

This is the second of going on 14 "Wings of Fire" books, starting with The Dragonet Prophecy and continuing through the December 2020 release The Dangerous Gift. The next installment after this is The Hidden Kingdom. Other titles by children's author Tui T. Sutherland include the "Avatars" trilogy, eight "Pet Trouble" books, The "Menagerie" trilogy (co-authored with Kari Sutherland), a handful of "Wings of Fire" spinoffs, the young adult novel This Must Be Love, an installment in the multi-author "Spirit Animals" series titled Against the Tide, the non-fiction book Who Was Harry Houdini? and some kiddie picture books.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Bloody Genius

Bloody Genius
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

Barthelemy Quill, a rough-around-the-edges neuroscientist at the University of Minnesota, is sneaking into the Wilson Library one night with a female companion when he surprises someone who (like himself) isn't supposed to be there. The intruder bashes his head in with a laptop computer and escapes without seeing, or really being seen by, the woman. Two weeks later, the case is still unsolved, and the dead man's sister puts a bee in the britches of the Governor of Minnesota, who passes the word for Minnesota BCA Detective Virgil Flowers. And as fans of "that f***ing Flowers" would expect, as soon as he's read in on the case, weird stuff starts to turn up.

The lead Minneapolis detective on the case is at first resentful, then impressed, but pretty soon both she and Flowers are just as baffled by the overabundance of leads as she was by their previous lack. Was Quill's death connected with an apparent blackmail tape apparently involving a breach of medical research ethics? A drug deal gone wrong? Sexual intrigue? An estranged wife's chances of inheriting big money? A lawsuit against the university? A theft of some maps from an adjacent archive? A philosophical conflict with the cultural sciences department that, in a couple of recent incidents, moved past incivility to outright violence?

Red herrings everywhere. At one point, something between copyright piracy and industrial espionage seems to be on the ticket. A cultural sciences student getting beaten half to death could be just a random mugging, but signs that he was targeted suggest that a connection to the Quill case is likely. Then a stoner-dude friend of Quill's daughter turns up dead of an overdose that could equally likely be an accident, suicide or murder – but, again, seems somehow connected. Someone has a screw loose in or around the U of M, and Virgil's laid back approach, listening seriously to suggestions by people outside the investigation that most cops probably wouldn't put up with, somehow seems to cut through all the false trails and zero in on the truth.

The Flowers attitude makes for a fun ride-along, as always. The man truly has amazing resources, from fellow BCA agents Del Capslock (who can always put you in touch with the right dirtbag) and golf-obsessed thugs Jenkins and Shrake (whose scenes are reliably the funniest pages in the book), to a guy at the hotel bar who correctly predicts (based on TV crime shows) that the killer will turn out to be somebody Flowers has already met but didn't consider a suspect at the time. If memory serves, it's actually an idea the surviving victim has while he's staring at the ceiling of his hospital room that cracks the case. If by "cracks" it is possible to mean "sets Virgil and Co. on a final, perilous, high-speed chase against a homicidal loony who's been hidden in plain sight all along and now has another victim at his mercy."

This is the 12th and, to date, latest "Virgil Flowers" novel by the author of 31 "Lucas Davenport" thrillers and several more. I wouldn't have read all 12 if I didn't like that f***ing Flowers and his coterie of supporting characters. His mysteries often dip into dark, chilling scenes of death and evil, and the good guys don't always come away unscathed. But whether he brings it or simply spots it along the way, when Virgil's at the wheel, laughs and sex appeal and intelligence and interest in the outdoors and a sense of good, solid, dependable character always climb aboard for the ride.

I also don't mind that his cases also tend to showcase the charm of urban neighborhoods, small towns and rural areas that I know because I've been there myself. For example, Virgil lives in the town where I went to college, and my grandparents lived in the next neighborhood over from where much of this book takes place, and every few pages he stops somewhere I've been. He's even a Lutheran pastor's kid, like me. So, Virgil's like a friend of mine, and I wish him the best, and I hope things work out all right with him and his girlfriend Frankie and their twins on the way and the novel he's thinking about writing, etc. Just as long as it doesn't mean this is the last novel he stars in.