Friday, October 30, 2009

Superpowers by David J. Schwartz

Five college kids get superpowers for no reason and decide they should be superheroes. The basic gimmick is that it's real people having a realistic experience with superpowers.

I wanted SO hard to love this, but I didn't. Why does "realistic" have to mean boring and annoying? The second page gives us this fantastic quote: "This isn't some snooty book where people nobody likes do things nobody cares about for reasons nobody can figure out. That's what they call literature." It'd be an even better quote if it didn't exactly describe this book!

I didn't like any of the characters. The ones I liked in the beginning got more and more boring, and the ones I disliked in the beginning got worse and worse. At first I kind of wanted things to turn out well for them, but by about halfway through I just never wanted to see them again. Plus, there are a lot of characters and they're all the same. They're written in the exact same style and their backgrounds are the same, so it's really hard to keep each of their arcs coherent.

There are a lot of POVs and that puts way too much distance between the reader and the action, or lack thereof. MINOR SPOILERS: There's no supervillain. There's no villain at all. At this point every superhero novel is experimental and this is a good choice for what Schwartz was trying to do, but what he does instead doesn't work. The novel starts on May 19, 2001, and you can guess where it's headed... The lasy 75 pages consist of "9/11 was sad," over and over and over. That's true, but when that's all you do for 75 pages it gets old fast, and it doesn't actually constitute a climax. 9/11 WAS sad, and if you're going to use it in a book it should make me feel something besides boredom. END MINOR SPOILERS.

Like so many literary novels, there were a million interesting places this story could have gone, but it didn't go to any of them. It got bogged down in "nobody's perfect," and even more than that, "everyone is terrible." Thanks a lot, literature.

Superheroes are about setting an example, an ideal to reach for. They're about inspiring people to try harder and be better. They aren't supposed to be realistic.

Skip this book and read Hero instead.

Buy Superpowers

Friday, October 16, 2009

Vampire of the Mists by Christie Golden

The Fickle Hand of Fate is a year old! The anniversary was actually ten days ago, but I had no idea I'd been blogging for so long. Woo!

This week, through sheer happenstance, I bring another video game novel for your reading pleasure. This one is the first novel of a series based on the D&D game Ravenloft, and any bias I had toward video game novels is now completely gone, because this book is amazing too. I promise you don't need to know anything about the games to appreciate it, I sure don't, so read on!

Jander Sunstar is a golden elf from Evermeet, and he's been a vampire for 500 years. The day after the woman he loves is killed and he swears vengeance, he is magically transported to the secret country of Ravenloft which is ruled by the mysterious Count Strahd von Zarovich (read: Dracula.)

This is a seamless blend of gothic horror and high fantasy, combining the best elements of both. Jander is at once tragically villainous and sympathetically heroic, and his story is so subtle. The core of the novel is his relationship with Strahd, the flaws in both of them and how they're trying to manipulate each other, the sympathetic parts of each of them and why they do the things they do. But still one is firmly the hero and the other is firmly the villain.

You know, I never really understood why vampires whine the way they do. I knew, but I didn't understand. Now I do. The speed with which time passes for (and passes by) Jander is striking... One day he's talking to a young woman and the next time he leaves the castle he meets her child. He didn't even realize it had been thirty years, and every time he looks around someone else he knew is dying. There are so many things he loved that were taken away when he became a vampire, like the colors that you never see at night. All you see are shades of gray, and eventually that's all you see morally as well as physically. I understand how terrible it must be now, and at the same time Strahd and Jander are truly frightening.

I was frustrated for all the right reasons reading this book: I was desperate to know what was coming and unable to figure it out. I would have plot epiphanies and await events eagerly, only to discover the characters were going in a completely different direction that was even better. Every element is in its place.

There are a lot of recommendations I could make, because Vampire of the Mists falls on a cross-section of so many things (just like Ravenloft does.) You've got Dragonlance etc. for the heroic fantasy, Dracula, Interview with the Vampire for the love/hate vampire relationship thing... There are also a lot more Ravenloft books. I hear the quality varies with the author, but there are some big names. Several more by Christie Golden, some by Tanya Huff, Laurell K. Hamilton, Gene DeWeese... Several more feature Count Strahd. Jander features in short stories collected in the books The Best of the Realms and Realms of Valor, both of which I will be trying to find in the near future.

Buy Vampire of the Mists

Friday, October 9, 2009

Batman: The Rise of Sin Tzu by Devin Grayson & Flint Dille

Okay, so, this is the novelization of a Batman beat-em-up video game from 2003. You're well within your rights to expect it to suck, right? I sure did, but hey, it was a Batman novel, and I'm working on a superhero story right now, so I figured what the heck. I'm glad I did, because it was so good.

Basically the story is that a previously unheard-of villain, a mastermind of war known as Sin Tzu, is going to conquer Gotham City. He's bored, he needs a challenge, and he chooses Batman's city. He leads all the criminals in Gotham as their "general," with three well-known Batman villains as his "captains." As I understand it, the video game is basically you (as Batman, Batgirl, Robin, or Nightwing) beating up enough bad guys to get to the boss battle with each captain, finally culminating in the battle with Sin Tzu.

In light of that, the authors don't pay so much attention to the fighting itself, but delve into the thoughts of the characters. Not just "Why are we fighting this battle?" but "Why do we fight at all?" Each chapter is written from a different 1st-person POV, including all the Bat-family and multiple villains, with several from Sin Tzu's perspective, and the result is a subtle, many-faceted look at the six hours the book covers. It's intense. The pacing is excellent, everything is orchestrated perfectly.

They really get the Batman-ness perfectly. Everything I love about Batman is there, all the characters' motivations and relationships are pitch perfect. Another great thing was that I never wished it was a graphic novel... The story is exactly suited to its medium, the story couldn't have been told like this any other way.

Apparently certain parties who will remain unnamed (because I don't know who they are) were hoping Sin Tzu would be a hit like Harley Quinn was and make the leap into mainstream continuity, but he never did. If I had anything to say about it he would have!

I've only looked at one or two other Batman novels, (The Ultimate Evil is the one that comes to mind,) but I didn't finish any of them because they just didn't get it. If you like Batman, definitely try to find this book!

ETA: Hey guys, look what I found! More Sin Tzu!

Buy Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu

Saturday, October 3, 2009


Today is the last day of Banned Books Week. I meant to do something at the beginning of the week, but I forgot to think of something, so I didn't do anything. So, uh... so there.

Anyway, I just want to say that banned books aren't just for Banned Books Week. They're for whenever you darn well feel like reading them, because ideas are for everyone. We can talk about them, applaud them, condemn them, hate or love them, please just anything but banning them and pretending they don't exist.

In other news, I recently changed my email address and I thought Blogger had the new one, but I haven't been getting my comment notifications, so don't be offended if I haven't responded/don't respond to a comment, especially on an older post. The e-mail I have listed on my profile is the correct one and emails are welcome, as always, especially if you have a burning desire to recommend a book, respond to a review, or otherwise speak your piece. Happy Saturday!

Tesla: Man Out of Time by Margaret Cheney

Raise your hand if you've heard of Nikola Tesla. If you're in an engineering-type field you probably have, or if you've read a lot about the early 1900s, but after relentlessly quizzing everyone I ran into while I was reading this, most people don't know the first thing about him, so it might surprise you to hear that he was the greatest inventor ever, period.

I was first introduced to him in the movie The Prestige, which is an amazing movie that everyone should see, and see more than once. I thought he was a fictional creation for a long time, but when I found out he wasn't I knew immediately that I was going to be fixated on him for a long time. If ever there was a real-life mad scientist, it was Tesla.

Tesla first invented practically everything we ascribe to other inventors like Edison and Marconi. In some cases his early work inspired later inventions, in some cases other inventors used his basic inventions in their apparatus, and in some cases there was outright theft. Tesla patented all of his work, (scientists still find that their "new" inventions now can't be patented because he already did it a hundred years ago,) but the constant legal battles kept the public confused as to who invented what. That combined with his iffy business skills and other random factors lead to him being little remembered today, even though he was a famous and celebrated inventor in his time. (He did get his name on the Tesla coil, which is used to produce the alternating current we use, and he valued making such a contribution to history over the money he might've been making, but I only wish he was remembered for everything he deserved! )

Tesla was truly a visionary. He made intuitive leaps even beyond where our technology is today. He described and demonstrated things, like fire he held in his hand and a "death ray" that could vaporize aircraft (not built and demonstrated) that we can't figure out how to recreate. He did a lot of his work in his head, which only adds to the befuddlement and awe. While other inventors were still messing around inventing with wireless radio equipment he was already building and demonstrating remote-controlled submarines. The government wouldn't buy them.

On top of his brilliance his friends loved him, and even just reading about him made me dream about seeing beautiful, magnificent things that no one has ever seen before. Reading his biography was like reading an amazing science fiction novel, only it was all true!

I don't have enough room to summarize the whole book with all his achievements and ideas, so I highly recommend picking up this biography in its newest revision because it's clearly and thoroughly written, with equal parts emotional prose and technical explanation. I haven't read any of his other biographies yet, just skimmed a few things and read articles, but there seem to be plenty of them available, just in case you can't find Man Out of Time.

Buy Tesla: Man Out of Time