Cadaver In Chief–Steve Hockensmith

Cadaver In Chief

“Hello,” Woods said as she walked to her car.  “Hello.  Hello.  Hello.  Hello.  Hello.”  She said, “Hello” to everyone she passed, and they all said “Hello” to her.  Anyone who didn’t say “Hello” would get looked at pretty hard.  Maybe even shot. 

The end times were hell on shy people.

The end times were also pretty much hell on the newspaper industry.  Already under siege by the rise of on-line media, the zombie apocalypse put the last coffin nail in a dying industry.  After all, if people were taking their lives in their hands every time they left the house for work, they certainly wouldn’t want to venture out in search of a People magazine or their favourite daily.  Besides—all the paperboys were dead.

Jan Woods, reporter for the Washington Tribute, is winding down her last couple of days before retirement, reporting puff pieces on dog grooming that no one is likely to read.  She’s going through the motions: research story…shoot a zombie…write the story…run down a zombie with her car…etc. etc. Just another day in the big city.  However, when that city is Washington, from time to time one must forget about the mindless undead and write about the brainless living.  Send in the politicians!

As it so happens, Jan’s editor has an interesting story for her to pursue. A nasty rumour has surfaced online, “Nasty” being the term used these days to describe the walking dead.  Nasty, as in the President’s been dead for a while, but he’s still walking around, glad-handing and kissing babies (nasty!) and all the assorted duties of the commander in chief.  Or, Cadaver in Chief, if the rumours are true.

Not since Watergate had such a juicy tip fallen into the hands of a Washington reporter, crazy though it sounds.  If the president is really a former president, a “ManChompian” candidate of sorts, then it’s a conspiracy that reaches to the highest level of government, and Jan’s got herself a scoop that could end her career on a high note.  However, if the plot goes as deep as that, Jan’s got a scoop that could end her—permanently.

There is a bit of a snag—the juicy tip comes from one Rick Klinger, on-line conspiracy freak and blogger for Truthbuffet.org, a left wing “political” site akin to the Huffington Post.  Known as a bit of a loon, Klinger (who bears a striking resemblance to the odious Alex Jones—minus the obvious psychopathy) has a source within the Republican administration that claims President Brick Bradley died months earlier during a political fundraiser and the man making the rounds is actually an imposter.  However, Klinger is also a paranoid loon (again, Alex Jones) and won’t divulge his source for Jan to check out. As for her queries to the White House:

“Quote: The President is alive and well and you’re an idiot and don’t call here again. Unquote.”

Jan is nothing if not persistent, and during the course of the next several days investigates the hotel (and morgue) where the president was rumoured to have died. Next thing you know, there’s a parcel in her apartment, containing a dwarf zombie with a huge appetite.  He’s also got an explosive personality.  Maybe there is something to the rumours after all?

From there it’s an action packed adventure through Washington and its surroundings as Jan searches for answers while avoiding the attentions of mysterious government operatives and having conversations in dark parking lots with the likes of, “Debbie Does Dallas”, the “Deep Throat” of this decidedly anti-first amendment administration and their zombie minions.  Luckily, Jan is very pro-second amendment (who wouldn’t be in a world where take out dinner describes what might happen to you?) and has gotten pretty good with that hot pink Uzi she got at 7-11.  The story climaxes with a literal assault on the first amendment as Jan and her coworkers fight for their lives in the offices of the Washington Tribune, and shortly thereafter, a reelection rally that no one would forget—if they survive it.

Cadaver in Chief is a tongue in cheek political mystery that pays homage to movies like The Manchurian Candidate and All the Presidents Men—with zombies.  It’s also a nice little novella.  However, if there’s any problem with this mini-novel, it’s that it could use a little fleshing out.  Steve Hockensmith creates an interesting mystery full of government operatives and smarmy politicians, political apathy and conspiracy nuts (who may not be so nutty) and the type of experiments that might get a scientist branded “mad”,  but ten chapters is barely enough space to scratch the surface.  By the end of the novella, I felt a bit—unsatisfied.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not because the story was lacking, rather that it lacked a bit of story.  Or, to put it another way—this novella screams for a sequel.

As for the main character, Jan Woods may be the stereotypically “plucky” reporter, but she’s also days away from retirement, much like “that cop” in any police procedural, and it’s refreshing to see a character who’s not a young, perky blonde with crazy computer skills and a body to die for.  Nor is she the grizzled Ed Asner type, simply a good reporter who’s become slightly apathetic in an age where no one respects her medium (newsprint) yet still wants to get the truth out there.

Of course, good dialogue is something I’ve always appreciated in a novel, and it’s something Steve Hockensmith excels at.  Granted, in real life not everyone is witty or wittily sarcastic (although they might like to think so), but, as I’ve said before–smart, funny dialogue is a defining feature of his previous novels.

I was a little worried at times that this was simply going to be a put-down of conservative (read that as Republican) politicians, but as time went on, the satiric vitriol came down pretty much equally on both sides of the aisle.  If there’s one thing that crosses party lines, it’s the capacity of politicians to set themselves up for ridicule.

Overall, Cadaver in Chief is a bit of zombie fun that partisans of both liberal and conservative bent can sink their teeth into.

B

(A word of apology to Steve Hockensmith: He was gracious enough to send me a preview copy of Cadaver in Chief back in November and grant me an interview, yet it’s taken until now for me to get a review together.  I’ve no readily available excuse except to claim a bit of “zombie fatigue” which has resulted in the delay.  Steve Hockensmith is a great writer and a good guy, and if you’d like to learn more about his works and process, he maintains a blog at http://www.stevehockensmith.com)

Mogworld-Yahtzee Croshaw

mogworld

“Me, I’m just here for a nice clean death, and Dub said he can give me one.  I don’t care who ends up running the world.  I just want it to stop being my problem.” ~Jim Bottomroach.

Life was so much simpler for Jim Bottomroach when he was dead.  Being undead, now that was a trick.  Killed during a skirmish between St. Gordon’s Magical College and the warrior schools of Stragonoff over a mystical stone that doesn’t exist, Jim was quite satisfied to join the stone in its nonexistence.  His two years of magical college hadn’t amounted to much.  Learning just three spells, the most useful—and by extension most entertaining—being one that would turn a rival into a rabbit (momentarily).  Just that would be enough to turn anyone off the magic business.  Jim had begun to seriously regret his career choice in the moments before a training war hammer knocked his soul right out of his body.

And that’s where it should have ended, all bright light and life reflection and then nothing.

However, things never turn out how they should, as Jim quickly learns (well, okay, 60 years later is not all that quick) when he’s resurrected by the necromancer Dreadgrave, who seeks to create an undead army to pillage the land around his impenetrable “Doom Fortress”.  Jim is quickly impressed into this undead army of the unwilling and put in charge of the rat pit, a rather unsavory fate–or savory, from the rat’s point of view–for any adventurers caught raiding Dreadgrave’s (impenetrable?) compound.  Distraught at his fate, Jim promptly jumps from the first tower he can climb.

Imagine his surprise to find that yes, he can die again, but no, it just won’t take.  Sure, his body is in worse shape, an eyeball here, a lung over there, but his consciousness is as intact as his body isn’t.  From then on, Jim’s goal is to search for a permanent means of death.  In the meantime, unlife goes on, until that fateful day a horde of angels descend from the sky and delete the Doom Fortress, Dreadgrave and all, yet somehow missing Jim and two others.  Meryl is an overly earnest young woman (she’s been dead as long as Jim, but she died young) and Thaddeus is a religious zealot who considers himself and the others to be a blasphemy against God.

It’s no small irony that only when they’ve stopped running and have a moment to think, Jim realizes his missed opportunity to end it all.  During the course of their flight, Jim discovers that while he returns to his body in a slightly more damaged state, for the past fifteen years, anyone else who dies is resurrected in a new body, a phenomenon people have come to call “The Infusion.”  Nobody dies permanently, not people, not cows, not blades of grass.  However, no births occur either.  So life goes on, perpetually and death doesn’t have the cache it used to.  Especially when you’re not granted a new body, and technically aren’t alive.

But fate isn’t done kicking Jim and his cohorts around just yet.  There’s a new Vicar in town, name of Barry, and he’s been endowed with almost God-like powers by the great God Si-Mon.  He’s also got it in his mind that Jim and his fellow undead are an aberration that Si-Mon requires be deleted to make the world right again.  At this point, Jim realizes that he’s not just fleeing aimlessly; he’s on a quest.  Defeat Barry and the great God Si-Mon by restoring the laws of nature, and by extension, find a way to die permanently.

Jim is helped along the way by a rogue adventurer/dolt by the name of Slippery John, who suggests his best bet to correct the natural order lies with the Magic Resistance, a group of sorcerers whose motivations parallel his own.  Especially the necromancers, who are finding it hard to get good help when no one stays dead.  Slippery John has his own motivation for tagging along, namely to find a cure for his beloved Drylda, who’s suffering from a malady known as the “Syndrome.”  The Syndrome only seems to attack adventurers, causing them to strike heroic poses and become obsessed with completing quests, right up until they become catatonic.  However, some might say Drylda’s catatonic state explains Slippery John’s “date rapey” interest in her.  So, add finding a cure for the Syndrome to Jim’s to-do list.

As a final obstacle to their quest, the adventurer’s guild has sicced a pair of stone cold murderers on their trail to find the Magic Resistance and stop their efforts.  Questing is good business, after all. Summing it up, Jim simply has to find the Magical Resistance, enlist them to help him change the laws of nature while dodging the attentions of the Adventurer’s Guild and simultaneously find a cure for the Syndrome.  If he weren’t already dead, I’m sure Jim would wish he was.

One other thing—every time Jim dies, he sees words in the air, disturbing words that make him question existence, or what he thinks it is.  Once he finally realizes what’s going on, what existence really is, that’s when the book really pays off.  It’s also a spoiler I’m not willing to reveal.  You’ll figure it out, especially if you figure out what MOGWORLD really means.

Reading MOGWORLD, I’m reminded of Tom Holt, Christopher Moore, Robert Asprin or maybe A. Lee Martinez, all authors who’ve put their stamp on the genre of comedic fantasyMogworld has the same quirky sense of humour and horror I found while reading any of the above authors, but especially Tom Holt, an author for whom reality is usually just a mask disguising what’s really going on.  Both hilarious and touching, Jim’s exploits to become “just” dead reveal a character that’s not nearly as nihilistic as he’d like you to think.

Just look at how he interacts with his fellow travellers.  Jim’s outward disdain for Meryl cannot mask his concern for her well-being.  Given several chances to leave her to her fate, he never actually does.  Time and again he suggests Thaddeus lay off all the “smite this” and “aberration that” but never kicks the former minister out of the party. Drylda and Slippery John really aren’t his problem, nor is finding a solution to the Infusion when he can simply let Barry delete him, but his desire to die permanently is always put behind the welfare of the world.  Jim chooses time and again to dodge the death he claims to welcome in his quest to fix the world.

Yahtzee Croshaw’s debut novel is hilariously entertaining.  I went into it thinking it was just going to be an interesting take on the sword and sorcery genre, focusing on a character that generally doesn’t get the limelight, just like Star Trek’s redshirts, or any super villain’s henchmen. You won’t be disappointed, especially if you’re a fan of the underdog, or find yourself rooting for the zombies at the movies.  If you’ve ever spent hours down at the arcade playing Gauntlet or long nights of misspent youth at D & D sleepovers, then this novel is for you.  If not, well, it’s still for you, because it’s a delightful look at the henchmen whose job it is to make the heroes look good.

As Jim put it himself, he doesn’t want to be a hero, just a protagonist.

A++

Girl Genius: Agatha H and the Airship City–Phil and Kaja Foglio

Girl Genius

“But I don’t have the Spark. I seem to have the opposite.  Nothing I build even works.”

Krosp sighed in exasperation. “What do you think you DO at night?”

Agatha looked wary. “I don’t know. I’m asleep.  What do I do at night?”

‘You build things.”

“But there’s never anything there when I wake up.”

Krosp folded his arms.  “”They always run away.”

Agatha Clay (or is it “H”?) is a frustrated teenager. Essentially an orphan, she lives in the care of Adam and Lilith, friends of the family who promised her uncle years before that they would care for her while he was away. It’s been eleven years and counting.  They’re also “constructs”, the result of some mad scientist (and there are many in Europa) finding a needle and thread and some body parts to stitch together.  A student at the Transylvania Polygnostic University, Agatha works as a lab assistant to the Tyrant of Beetleburg, the aptly named Dr. Beetle.  Yet try as she might, none of her experiments ever work out.  Create a clank (mechanical construct) and it falls to pieces within a few steps.  Try to apply her mind to a problem; the result is splitting headaches.  In a world lit by Sparks–I’ll get to that in a minute–Agatha’s light is much diminished.

It’s especially hard to shine in a time when those that have an almost magical ability to wield science–the aforementioned “Sparks,” create a multitude of wonderful, and sometimes dangerous, constructs.  When the construct is flesh and blood, you end up with her ersatz parents, or the monster soldiers (Jagermonsters) that patrol the streets of Europa.   When it’s mechanical, you end up with Mr. Tock, the giant clank that guards the front gate of the University.  Agatha yearns to fulfill her potential, but fails miserably every time.

A brief word about Sparks: generally, their talent for all things scientific manifests itself at puberty and can be quite disconcerting.  Some go crazy.  Others are just a bit odd, hence the moniker “Madboys” that gets tossed around in any discussion of a Spark.  Being a Spark is a dual edged sword.  They are generally capable of great accomplishments; however, those accomplishments more often than not wind up killing them.

On her way to school one morning, Agatha is waylaid by a couple of destitute soldiers, one of which steals her necklace.  The locket attached is irreplaceable, containing the only picture of her parents she has.  Late to the lab and rightly upset, she discovers that the Tyrant’s Tyrant, Baron Klaus Wulfenbach, has made a surprise visit to the university, bringing with him a cadre of soldiers and a righteous anger.  Years before, a villain known as “The Other” terrorized Europa, wiping out various members of the Spark gentry and enslaving their subjects before disappearing around the same time as the legendary Heterodyne Brothers, two Sparks famed for their ability to take care of just that sort of problem.  The means by which the Other subjugated the people were known as Slaver Wasps, mechanical insects that sprang from Hive Engines to either kill or enslave the populace.  Dr. Beetle has managed to find a dormant hive and in a moment of incredibly bad judgment, tried to keep knowledge of it from Wulfenbach.  Next you know, Dr. Beetle is dead, the town is occupied by the Baron’s troops, and Agatha has been dismissed from the university.

Distraught after this series of unfortunate events, Agatha retreats back to her foster parents and retires for the night. She’s always been a restless sleeper, dreaming of all the things she wants to build.  The next morning Agatha wakes to find that a clank the size of a steam tractor—perhaps formerly the steam tractor Adam was overhauling–has rampaged through town and brought both the Baron and his son Gil–accompanied by a mob of Jagermonsters–to her doorstep.  Even worse, one of the thieving soldiers has dropped by, wanting to know why his brother died after handling her locket for less than a day.  As for the Baron, he’s excited at the prospect of harnessing the power of a new Spark, and before anything can be sorted out, both Agatha and the soldier have been gassed and whisked away to the Baron’s stronghold.

When Agatha awakes, she’s informed by Moloch (the soldier) that they’re hostages on the Baron’s Airship City, and that Wulfenbach has mistaken Moloch for a nascent Spark.  Moloch knows the truth of Agatha’s abilities and needs her to play the role of his assistant while they find a way to escape.  As for Agatha, she’s beginning to realize she can create things that actually work, that the headaches accompanying her attempts at concentration have disappeared, and that she’s in a lot of trouble.

Gilgamesh Wulfenbach, heir apparent to his father’s tyranny, has taken notice of her.

From there it’s one adventure after another as Agatha explores the floating city, meeting its many denizens, malevolent and benevolent alike, trying to keep her secret from the Baron while looking for a way to escape his clutches.  Luckily, Gil seems a bit smitten with her and wants to encourage her development, even if it’s just to spite his father.

***

I’ll grant this description doesn’t live up to the contents of Girl Genius: Agatha H and the Airship City, but it’s a daunting book to describe.  I’ve omitted a lot in my brief synopsis because there’s simply so much going on that it’s impossible to encapsulate everything in a few paragraphs.  Luckily, there’s a Girl Genius Wiki online to keep everything straight.

Clearly a Steampunk novel with great aspirations, Girl Genius is based on the Web comic of the same name by Phil and Kaja Foglio.  When first sitting down to read it, I worried that Girl Genius was going to be a  Harry Potter knock off, what with the main character being a student at a school for gifted children in a land divided into those who are normal and those who possess a special talent, this time an innate talent for science rather than magic.  However, aside from the fact that she’s a university student and that magic has been replaced by science, there are very few similarities between the two novels.

Actually, that’s both true and untrue.  The more I think of the Other who disappeared years ago after wreaking havoc on the realm, the more I see the comparison to Voldemort of the Potter series.  However, the story of a girl taken from her home and plunged into a strange and wondrous world begs comparison to Baum’s Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, although in this case, the world seems filled with tin men.  Once I got beyond the inevitable comparisons, I was able to sit back and enjoy a thoroughly entertaining tale.  The Foglio’s have done a bang up job of creating their own Steampunk universe and inhabiting it with various interesting and unique characters.  My personal favourites were the Jagermonsters, an army of Hydes (of the Dr. Jekyll variety).  Ferocious and intimidating, they are also endowed with a certain childlike charm.  They also add a nice bit of comic relief, even in situations that wouldn’t normally seem to warrant humour.

Is this a young adult novel?  That’s a hard question to answer, as some of the scenes are (from the perspective of this forty year old) somewhat racy, although there’s really no more hanky-panky than a stolen kiss.  It’s definitely not limited to teens, being a fun filled romp for anyone with a predilection towards the Steampunk genre.

Fair warning: Agatha H and the Airship City is certainly not meant to be a self-contained novel.  Rather, it’s more of a prologue to a larger story, introducing the main characters and the world they inhabit without resolving the greater issues introduced.  Where are Agatha’s parents?  What of the legendary Heterodyne brothers and the mysterious Other that once terrorized the realm?  Why are the Jagermonsters so obviously smitten with Agatha?  Why does Agatha seem to be so important to everyone around her?  These are a few of the questions that will hopefully be addressed in the sequel: Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess.  This teaser novel has definitely got me hooked.

B+

Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula–Loren D. Estleman

sherlockdracula

“Who is Count Dracula,” he intoned, frowning.  “As well may you ask me who is Lucifer, for the two have much in common.  Perhaps I should begin by telling you who was Count Dracula, and by this means prepare you for the odds we face in dealing with who he is.”~Abraham Van Helsing.

Over the past few years, Titan Books has published a series of Sherlock Holmes pastiches by various authors placing Sherlock Holmes and his stalwart companion Watson in a series of unique situations.  Many involve the good detective interacting with other famous characters of literary and historical fame such as the fictional Dr. Jekyll or the real life serial killer, Jack the Ripper.  Loren D. Estlemen decided to pit Holmes and Watson against one of the literary greats of the 19th century, a character whose influence on the genre of horror may even eclipse Holmes’ influence on the modern mystery.  Who could provide Holmes an opponent of the same intellectual caliber as Moriarty, and yet add a taste of gothic horror to the milieu?

Dracula—Count Dracula.

Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula may seem an odd addition to the mythos, yet Watson admitted on several occasions that the Sherlock Holmes case files were far from complete–some redacted due to their less than interesting nature, but others—perhaps because they would be unbelievable or distressing to the general public?

Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula (a. k. a. the Adventure of the Sanguinary Count) begins with Dr. John Watson’s admission that he wrote the tale to “set the reader straight” about the events described in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  Watson is somewhat miffed by the exclusion of his and Sherlock’s involvement in the investigation of the wreck of the Demeter and subsequent events leading to the Count’s demise.  Why he stored it away instead of publishing is left to the reader’s imagination.

The novel begins with the arrival of a reporter on Holmes’ doorstep, entreating him to come down to Whitby and investigate the wreck of the Russian clipper Demeter, which sailed into harbor the night before and mysteriously ran aground.  Onboard, coast guard officials discovered the crew missing, save the corpse of the captain, tied to the wheel with a crucifix in his hand.  Upon further examination, the corpse was found to be exsanguinated, bearing two fang marks upon the neck and a look of absolute horror on his face.  Sherlock (and Watson) quickly make their way to Whitby and are allowed to board the wreck.  Once he makes his rounds of the deck and hold, Sherlock discovers clues that suggest to him that each member of the crew was killed in a similar manner and then thrown overboard by a being of extraordinary strength.

At this point the investigation is suddenly halted when officials discover the ship’s log and judge it “obvious” that the first mate was deranged and responsible for the murder of the entire crew.  On the basis of his initial observations–and his own examination of the log–Holmes finds this explanation ludicrous.  Clearly there has been a cover up, but without the chance to further inspect the ship or her cargo, he realizes the adventure of the foreign schooner will most likely be unsolvable.

Flash forward a few weeks and Watson receives an unexpected guest, carrying a copy of the Westminster Gazette and a synopsis of what the paper describes as, “The Hampstead Horror.”  Apparently children have been disappearing only to reappear on the heath, shaken and confused but otherwise unharmed, except for slight injuries to the throat and tales of “The Bloofer Lady, an apparition that lures them into the shadows and steals their memories.  Holmes immediately makes the connection between the adventure of the Whitby Horror (a more apt description of the events of the Demeter) and that of the Bloofer lady and has come to ask Watson for his help resolving both cases.

Once on the heath, it is only a matter of time before they find the Bloofer lady and thwart her from claiming another victim.  After tracking her to her lair–even then Holmes has his suspicions as to what she might be–they come across another group of adventurers. This group is not set upon solving the case, but rather embarking upon what Watson might describe as, “murder most foul!”

And thus it is that the dauntless Sherlock Holmes meets the indomitable Abraham Van Helsing and his band of vampire hunters at the moment they release Lucy Westerna from the pernicious clutches of one Count Dracula, a being as near the devil as can be without taking his crown.  Watson, a man of medical science, takes their explanation ( staking her heart and cutting her head off will break the curse!) with such a grain of salt he almost chokes, and even questions Holmes’ sanity when Sherlock explains that what Van Helsing is saying is the truth.  There is a vampire loose on British soil.

Holmes is in turn surprised when his offer to help hunt down the vampire is rebuffed by Van Helsing and company.  Due to Watson’s writings, apparently Holmes has a certain ‘notoriety’ that the hunters would rather not embrace for fear of panicking the general public.  At this point Holmes decides that if he cannot help Van Helsing, perhaps Mina Harker might feel differently…

…and next thing you know, they’re chasing down locomotives, exploring Dracula’s various crypts and generally thwarting the Count’s  efforts to assimilate into British society.  So much so that Dracula finally decides to flee the country, taking Mrs. Watson along as insurance that the intrepid duo will leave him to his business.  Dracula’s choice of hostage proves ill thought out, galvanizing the detective and his biographer to become a threat rather than a nuisance, culminating in a confrontation on the deck of another clipper some time later.

Having read Fred Saberhagen’s The Holmes-Dracula File a few years ago, I was relieved to find Loren D. Estleman’s take on the odd match up of Sherlock Holmes and Dracula greatly more satisfying.  Lately I’ve been reading the original Sherlock Holmes stories (I know, I know, what was I waiting for?) and was pleasantly surprised to find that during the course of reading Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula, the author managed to capture both the voice and character of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s signature creation.  Estleman’s Watson is very much one Doyle would recognize, and Sherlock is very much true to form, something I would imagine hard to achieve when attempting to emulate the writing style of a master of his genre. After all, Saberhagen was a master in his own right, and his attempt met with much less success.

Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula is also very much Watson’s story, with Sherlock as his main character and Dracula as the man (demon?) behind the curtain, much discussed but rarely seen.  However, on those few occasions, Holmes and Watson only manage to escape with their lives because the Count underestimates their tenacity–and Holmes’ intellect–or is occupied by something else.  Along the way we get a look at Holmes and his process of deductive reasoning, and a fair bit of action, whether hopping a moving train or chasing down a vampire by bloodhound, by carriage, and even steam cutter.

The one complaint I have with this novel is the one that can’t be avoided.  Sherlock’s portion of the story of Count Dracula of necessity has to end before the threat that is Dracula can be resolved, keeping the chronology of Stoker’s novel intact.  Knowing that the villain will not be vanquished by the end of the novel is somewhat unsatisfying, but necessary to the continuity of Stoker’s tale.  However, it leads to a novel which “stops short,” leaving you wanting more.  Luckily, Estleman also wrote Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes, another adventure I plan to pursue in the near future.

Rating: A

Casino Royale–Ian Fleming

‘First of all, and he inhaled a thick lungful of Caporal,’you will be pleased with your Number Two.   She is very beautiful’-Bond frowned-‘very beautiful indeed.’  Satisfied with Bond’s reaction, Malthis continued: ‘ She has black hair, blue eyes, and splendid…er…protuberances.  Back and front,’ he added.~Rene Malthis.

Ian Fleming may not have written the first spy novel, but the genre has been dominated by his presence ever since the publication of Casino Royale in 1953.  James Bond has outlived his creator by 49 years so far, continuing to fight the enemies of Britain in the works of several “official” 007 authors such as John Gardner, Raymond Bensen, Sebastian Faulks and most recently, Jeffrey DeaverWith the advent of last year’s blockbuster Bond flick, Skyfall, it occurred to me that it was time to get back to basics, and with that in mind, re-read Casino Royale.

Reviewing a 60 year old novel about one of the world’s most recognizable pop culture icons might seem a bit redundant, but perhaps it’s time to take a look and remind everyone what originally drew people to the charming yet lethal “Mr. Bond,” and point out that the caricature he’s become (until the advent of Daniel Craig’s films) is not the man who originally endeared Fleming’s readers.

Casino Royale takes place in Royale-les-Eaux, a fictional resort town in France, home to the aforementioned casino.  LeChiffre, an agent of the Soviet Union (in the 2006 movie, his affiliation is updated to the Quantum network to account for the end of the Cold War) responsible for infiltrating the French labour unions to create a fifth column, has gotten himself in a bit of a mess.  As Union paymaster, he’s embezzled funds to buy a series of brothels, but after French authorities crack down on the prostitution industry, his venture falls apart.  His only hope to escape the clutches of SMERSH (essentially a Soviet assassination squad) is to replace the money, and quickly.  In a desperate bid to do just that, LeChiffre uses the last of his embezzled funds to enroll in a high stakes game of Baccarat at the Casino Royale.  If he wins, he can replace the funds.  If he loses, his life is forfeit, and the Soviet Union will have to eliminate an extremely influential (but thoroughly crooked) agent.

This is where a “00” agent by the name of James Bond factors into the equation.  Funded by the British Secret Service and utilizing both his talents and those of a local French agent by the name of Malthis, Bond is to pose as a playboy with too much money and not enough common sense, play against LeChiffre, and bankrupt him.  Assassination would be simpler and more appropriate (after all, 007 is licensed to kill), but the Brits want LeChiffre’s organization embarrassed, and thereby the Soviets.  Bond is also allotted an MI6 contact in the form of Vesper Lynd, a beautiful yet cold agent to assist in his venture.

Of course, no plan survives contact with the enemy, and Bond finds LeChiffre to be a more formidable opponent than he first believed.  Between a failed bombing, being bankrupted at the tables (and thus enlisting the help of American CIA agent Felix Leiter to fund a second attempt), and later the kidnapping of Vesper and his own torture at the hands of LeChiffre, Bond proves himself to be a steely and resourceful character.

But–let’s not ruin the story for you.

Several things impressed themselves upon me during the course of reading Casino Royale, the first being a notable lack of traditionally Bond gadgets.  Bond is a more realistic character (at least in this first novel) than in the movies.  His tool bag consists mainly of his wits and a slim and easily concealed pistol.  No laser watches or jetpacks.  However, LeChiffre has several knives hidden on his person, and his car has a compartment that drops caltrops on the road at the push of a button.  His henchmen also employ hidden weapons in the form of camera bombs and a pistol cane, so the gadget precedent is set.

Nor is Bond the shallow character portrayed in the films.  Beneath a shallow exterior, Bond is revealed to be an introspective character, as evidenced in a conversation with Malthis during his convalescence.  Discussing his torture at the hands of LeChiffre, Bond confides that he sometimes wonders about the difference between himself and those he hunts.  Putting himself in LeChiffre’s shoes, he wonders if those he sees as evil see him in much the same manner.  Not quite moral relativism (Bond is notoriously patriotic and believes he is in the right), but a deep contemplation of whether the evil of the world know they are evil, and how his actions could be perceived much the same by the opposing side.

The same holds true of his attitudes and behavior towards women.  In film, Bond is reduced to a caricature of what Fleming created in Casino Royale, merely a male slut, bound and determined to bed any and every female that crosses his path.  However, Fleming sketches a much deeper character, explaining what appears to be misogynistic behavior in a more nuanced manner than you can get on the big screen:

With most women his manner was a mixture of taciturnity and passion.  The lengthy approaches to a seduction bored him almost as much as the subsequent mess of disentanglement.  He found something grisly in the inevitability of the pattern of each affair.  The conventional parabola – sentiment, the couch of the hand, the kiss, the passionate kiss, the feel of the body, the climax in the bed, then more bed, then less bed, then the boredom, the tears and the final bitterness was to him shameful and hypocritical.  Even more he shunned the mise en scène for each of these acts in the play – the meeting at a party, the restaurant, the taxi, his flat, her flat, then the week-end by the sea, then the flats gain, then the furtive alibi’s and the final angry farewell on some doorstep in the rain.

Basically, Bond finds women a distraction in a game where distraction cannot be allowed.

Bond is an exercise in extremes, from his cool demeanor to the passion with which he greets life.  After all, it’s a business for hard men, the type that can compartmentalize their feelings and get on with the mission.  After Vesper’s suicide and his subsequent discovery that she was a double agent, how else could he say this of the woman he loved?

“This is 007 speaking.  It’s an emergency…3030 was a double agent…Yes, dammit, I said ‘was.’  The Bitch is dead now.”

Casino Royale is a splendid example of the genre and gives real insight to a character we’ve all been exposed to over the years—but never really known.

Sherlock Holmes: The Army of Dr. Moreau–Guy Adams

“Science is a fluid thing, Doctor. Like mercury spilled on the laboratory table, it chases away with itself.  Often, it is quite beyond us to restrain or capture it.”~Sherlock Holmes

Within the first several pages, it becomes obvious that Guy Adams in going to have a little irreverent fun with the legend that is Sherlock Holmes. Whether it’s John Watson describing himself as “The Crime Doctor” (a wink to the 1988 movie, Without a Clue), his blending of H.G. Wells’ tale of Edward Pendrick’s visit to The Island of Doctor Moreau, or a nod to his own World House novels in the form of explorer and big game hunter Roger Carruthers, Adams has mashed together works by two literary greats of the 19th century and come out with a winner.

When citizens of London start turning up mauled by a variety of creatures that simply do not exist on her majesty’s island nation, Mycroft Holmes (he who is the government) turns to his brother Sherlock and offers him a chance  to serve Queen and country and solve a seemingly impossible crime. Mycroft knows the story of Edward Pendrick and Dr. Moreau (once in his employ) and fears that Moreau is either not as dead as was formerly believed, or that someone has resurrected his work as a vivisectionist, hoping to create a race of super beasts for their own nefarious purposes.  Sherlock finds himself intrigued, and before you know it, the game is afoot!

The Army of Dr. Moreau is a rollicking good ride, as Holmes and Watson take to the cities sewers, tracing the path of a local gang leader whose description sounds suspiciously canine.  They also meet with a group of Mycroft’s extraordinary gentlemen, from Professor George Edward Challenger (recently of Doyle’s The Lost World) to Professor Lindenbrook (of Verne’s A Journey to the Centre of the Earth) who have been tasked to assist in ways scientific and medical, and of course, Adams own creation, who will later become pivotal to the events of The World House and The World House: Restoration (two must read books if you decide you like Guy Adams). 

The novel does falter somewhat in the latter third, as Adams strays from the traditional Holmesian mystery to a straight up action novel, yet there is enough of Holmes’ and Watson essential nature to carry it to the finish.  What starts out as a charming change of viewpoint (Holmes takes the reins as narrator when Watson becomes unavailable) becomes somewhat frenetic late in the novel, as every chapter is told from a different point of view.  It does feel a bit rushed, and I wonder if his story could have benefitted from another fifty or so pages, perhaps expanding the role of Mycroft and his extraordinary gentlemen in the hunt for whomever has recreated Moreau’s madness in the slums of Victorian London.  However, it doesn’t distract significantly from what is a thoroughly fun, although pulpy, pastiche.

World’s Greatest Sleuth!–Steve Hockensmith

“This, I realized, was what it would look like to go up against a killer who knew more about detectiving than we did–a professional as opposed to talented amateurs like ourselves.  If mystery solving’s truly a game, as Valmont had said at dinner the night before, then there was one conclusion I couldn’t escape.

We were out of our league.”~Otto Amlingmeyer

It’s 1893.  Otto and Gustav Amlingmeyer find themselves convalescing at a Texas Angora ranch (well, Gustav is convalescing; Otto is going stir crazy) after the events of The Crack in the Lens.  Luckily, (for Otto) the downtime has been put to good use–his latest manuscript (being Gustav’s official biographer, Otto acts as a Watson like scribe–minus the doctoring) is finished and ready to be mailed to the New York publisher of their “Holmes on the Range” adventures–one Urias Smythe.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Urias Smythe has been busy, and when Otto heads to the local Western Union to submit his manuscript, he finds a missive from Smythe to hop the next iron horse to Chicago.  Urias has enrolled the brothers Amlingmeyer in a contest at the World’s Columbian Exposition, pitting their talents against other amateur detectives for the title of World’s Greatest Sleuth!

The game’s afoot.  Literally. 

Upon arrival in Chicago, the brothers meet the competition.  There’s King Brady, looking awfully spry, Eugene Valmont, former French policeman (mildly disgraced), Boothby Greene (Sherlock Holmes look-a-like if nothing else), and of course, the team of Diana Corvus (possible paramour?) and Col. C. Kermit Crowe (disgruntled former employer to the Amlingmeyers).  They’ve all been brought together for a publisher funded sleuth, a treasure hunt of sorts for amateur detectives.  Each day, the puzzlemaster, one Armstrong B. Curtis, will supply clues to each of the teams, and the first to bring him and William Pinkerton (son of Allan and judge of the event) a golden egg hidden on the grounds shall be declared that day’s winner.  At the end of the contest, the sleuth with the greatest skills, or at least the ability to solve word  puzzles, would be walk away with $10 000 and the aforementioned title.

Of course, nothing comes easy for the Amlingmeyers.  First of all, Gustav can’t read, so Otto’s along for the ride.  Secondly, Otto finds himself out of sorts seeing Diana Corvus once again.  Diana epitomizes the girl who got away, and she’s working with Crowe, a man who despises the Amlingmeyers.  Thirdly–she’s Crowe’s DAUGHTER!!  One final distraction: by the end of the first day, the puzzlemaster is found dead, face first in a giant wheel of Canadian Cheddar (World’s Largest, they say!).

From the start, Gustav had little patience for the contest, more concerned with justice for the dead than some silly riddles and a golden egg, and with the help of Diana, they’re on the trail of the killer, a killer who has all the skills of a world-class detective.

 Trailed by a never-ending series of bearded men (sinister, eh?), the brothers must compete for the prize, solve the murder and manage not to get killed, preferably in that order.

World’s Greatest Sleuth is the fifth and latest instalment in the Holmes on the Range series and a worthy addition.  If you like witty repartee, a decent mystery, and some historical relevance (such as a walk through the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition), then this tale of the cowboy detectives is right up your alley.

Steve Hockensmith maintains his own blog, aptly titled Steve’s Blog , where you can keep abreast of his latest exploits and browse his earlier works.

The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu–Sax Rohmer.

A few months ago I was trolling the web in search of reading material when I came across a listing for the re-release of Sax Rohmer’s The Mystery of  Dr. Fu Manchu by Titan Books.  After a look at the very pulpy cover art, I said to myself, “okay, I think I might check this out.”  However, already having a free copy (see project Gutenberg’s website for a free download) of The Insidious Dr Fu Manchu, I decided to go the cheap (free) route and see what was there. 

Note to readers–The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu is the same book, with an odd title change for American audiences–why they did that is beyond me.  However, I was not around in 1913 to question the publisher, so whatever, I can live with that.

The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu is the story of Denis Nayland Smith, formerly of Scotland Yard and now an agent of the crown, tasked with bringing to justice and/or thwarting the sinister plans of Fu Manchu, a Chinese agent who has left a trail of crime and death from the shores of Burma to the waters of the Thames.  A master assassin, thief and alchemist, Fu Manchu leads a criminal regime tasked with undermining the Western Powers (specifically the British Empire) to the benefit of his Chinese homeland.

Smith enlists the help of his old friend Dr. Petrie, and the two embark on a series of adventures with the help of Scotland Yard and the irrepressible Inspector Weymouth that invariably lead to their being outwitted by Fu Manchu, the man  Smith continually refers to as one of the greatest criminal minds the world has ever seen.

And that, in a nutshell, is what is wrong with this novel.  I went in looking to Nayland Smith and Watson…err, Petrie, as worthy hunters of the good(bad) doctor, instead finding a couple of heroes that continually bumble around throughout the entire novel, only getting close to the villain with the (inexplicable) help of one of Fu Manchu’s own henchmen (in this case, Karamaneh, a beautiful and alluring Arabic girl held in thrall to Fu Manchu by way of threats to her immediate family).

There are decent moments, ones where Nayland-Smith actually uses deductive reasoning to solve the riddle of how a man can break into a seemingly impenitrable room and safe leaving nary a clue, but too much of the novel relies on him remembering “facts” from earlier cases rather than examination of the evidence around him.  There is also much too much reliance on lovely Karamaneh, whose sole purpose seems to be to lead the two sleuths around by the nose.  Every time Rohmer writes himself into a corner, Karamaneh mysteriously shows up and points the way forward.  She is deus ex machina personified, and (to me) a lazy way of progressing the novel.

The book is not without its merits–Fu Manchu (the original caricature of the “Yellow Peril“) is a delightful addition to the pantheon of super villains.  Using his considerable intellect and preferred method of assasination (various exotic poisons) Fu Manchu is a master manipulator and a delightfully cunning villain.  Too bad he does not have a worthy adversary.

I think the biggest disappointment of the novel is that Fu Manchu does not figure more prominently in the novel.  He and his methods are alluded to time and again, but the reader only meets him personally a number of times, and even then, only briefly.  I will say that his escape from authorities closing in on his lair is brilliant, and gives a greater understanding of the character’s essential evil than anything up to that point.  It’s also what saved the novel for me.

Of course, be forewarned of some obviously racist mindsets while reading this novel.  1913 was a very different time, and, Rohmer’s characters are not in any way politically correct.

The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu  (C+)

The Hunger Games–Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games, first in the trilogy by Suzanne Collins, is the story of Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl living in a community known as District 12, one of a dozen that make up the country of Panem.   Panem itself is a future version of North America, ravaged by war and natural disasters, a dystopian society set in the near(ish) future.

It is a society of haves and have-nots, the haves populating what is simply known as the Capital, the have-nots (or proletariat) inhabiting the rest of the country.  While citizens of the Capital have all the amenities that modern medicine and technology (and wealth) afford, those in the other regions live lives of mere subsistence, each district tasked with a distinct function by the central government.

Katniss and her family live in what was formerly called the Appalachians–coal country–and eke out an existence supplying the Capital with fuel.  Having lost her father many years before in a mining accident, Katniss has become a skilled hunter, supplementing their meagre supply of food with poached game and various nuts and berries, painstakingly collected day by day.  It is a life of fear of starvation and starvation, interspersed with the daily struggle to make sure the former does not become the latter.  Yet Katniss is content with her family, if not her situation, and shoulders the burden without much complaint. 

However, there is one other thing each district must supply the Capital.  Every year each district supplies contestants  for the spectacle which is The Hunger Games.

Inaugurated 74 years earlier after a failed rebellion by the Districts, the Hunger Games pit two teens (between the ages of 12 and 17, one male–one female) from each District in a battle royale with their counterparts from the others.  It is a battle to the death with only one possible “winner”.  Used both as a means to terrorize the populace and demonstrate their absolute authority, the government of Panem ruthlessly exploits the children to keep the people submissive.

When Katniss’ younger sister Prim is chosen for the games, she makes the choice to volunteer in her stead,  knowing that it’s a death sentence, yet willing to make that sacrifice for her kin.  Within days she and the male contender of District 12, the baker’s son Peeta, are whisked off to the Capital for a bit of training and a lot of promotion.  And then the games begin.

Dropped into an arena consisting of varied environments and climates, each competitor must rely on their wits and physical skill with (if they’re lucky) a weapon to eliminate the others.  They also have to make it a show–if things get boring, the gamemakers will “move things along” by either altering the environment in an unpleasant manner or introducing deadly obstacles such as mutated animals, flame throwers, etc.  Of course, without giving away too much, this is the story of Katniss and her time in the arena.

For a young adult novel, Collins has crafted a remarkably serious yet not overly graphic tale that manages to hold the attention of her market audience while appealing to those of us who fall into the category of adult.  Not just a story for kids, Collins manages to explore several complex themes: oppression vs. liberty; authority vs. non-conformity; proletariat vs. oligarchy, etc.

Her novel can have different meanings to the reader depending on your political persuasion.  A progressive might see it as the story of fascism stifling the free expression of the people, while a conservative might see it as an example of the intrusive nature of big government–the aforementioned liberty to live our lives without too much interference.  I think Collin’s intent falls somewhere in between–more of a cautionary tale of how easily society can be controlled once they cede authority to a small minority, and also a condemnation of today’s “reality television” society.

It’s also a ripping good read that doesn’t require a huge time investment–just an emotional investment in several appealing characters, knowing that not all will survive The Hunger Games.

B+

Ex Heroes–Peter Clines

“If we do this, if you want my help with it, it isn’t some stupid selection process where we pick and choose a few hundred who we decide are worth it.  We just save everyone we can.”

 St. George, a.k.a. ‘”he Dragon”, a.k.a. George Bailey (seriously?), is an ex-hero.  Just a year before, he was the darling of humanity, saving the innocent from the not so innocent of Los Angeles and making headlines everywhere he went.  Whether rescuing a woman from being raped in an alley, smacking around some gang bangers on the prowl, or attempting to deal with a strange biological outbreak that re-animates the dead, he was the best at what he did.  And what he did was be a hero.  Invulnerable, invincible, the result of a freak lab accident, the Dragon kept the city from falling into anarchy, aided by a cadre of fellow super-humans, all of whom developed their powers in the recent past.

There was Gorgon, whose gaze would tap the life force of others and convert it into super strength.  Zzap, a cripple, confined to a wheelchair, capable of becoming a being of pure energy, blessed with all the powers of a God.  Imagine the Sun with a personality.   Cerberus–a girl and her power armor.  The Regenerator—I think that one would be self explanatory.  And then there was Stealth, the supermodel vigilante, combining genius level intelligence with supermodel level sensuality.  

I did say ex-heroes though, didn’t I? 

What happens to a hero when all he (or she) has vowed to protect is gone?  When the situation goes from bad to worse (to worst) and it’s no longer a matter of keeping humanity safe, but rather keeping humanity alive?  And what could possibly bring such a situation to pass? Peter Clines’ EX-HEROES answers those questions with one answer. 

Yep, you guessed it…the answer is Zombies.

Bouncing back and forth between the times before and after the zombie apocalypse, EX-HEROES chronicles the exploits of those few super heroes that have managed to survive (they’re not the only “ex-heroes” in this story), trying to maintain a small enclave of humanity that remains uninfected.   Day by day they struggle against the hordes of undead clogging the streets of Los Angeles, ever watchful for the appearance of their undead brethren.  Dead superheroes have no control over their powers, but they have them nonetheless.

At the same time, several of their members are trying both to trace the source of the outbreak and to find a cure (or at least a vaccine) for those who are left.  They’ve known for some time that if you die—you turn.  What they don’t know is that one of them has intimate knowledge of how the outbreak began.  Complicating their search is the competition, a loose coalition of former gangs united under the aegis of “The Seventeens” who have fought tooth and nail with the heroes for the spoils of a dead civilization.  So far, it’s a dead heat.

When my copy of EX-HEROES arrived in the mail, I got a little worried.  Wrapped in an almost amateurishly bound trade paperback, it appeared as though I had been snookered into reading another author’s self-publication.  Thank God I got beyond that.  What I found inside was a first rate blend of apocalyptic zombie fiction, combined with some good old fashioned super-heroism. 

When I say old fashioned, I don’t mean to imply that the heroes are black and white cookie cutter caricatures—they’re real people, simply blessed with extraordinary abilities.  As is the fashion these days, the lines between good and evil are blurred, and no character is without flaw.  Whether it’s Stealth’s lack of empathy, or the Regenerator’s apparent cowardice, Clines treats his superheroes as flawed beings–much like the rest of us.  Hell, some of them aren’t even likeable—but then who said superheroes had to be nice?

Of course, like every good zombie novel, there’s a twist, which I’ll leave you to get to on your own. 

Once you’re done with this zombies vs. superheroes mash-up, never fear.  The fun continues in Cline’s sequel, Ex-Patriots.