Star Wars VII: How Not to Sequel

Here’s my review and late-night rant about Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.  [Solid Spoiler Alert!]  There’s some profanity involved, and I believe it’s appropriate.

Star Wars: Episode VII, exploiting the audience…
Here is my review of Star Wars Episode VII, The Force Awakens.

Other links:
The original episode 7-9 stories are told (much better) in Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire series: This is how it SHOULD have gone, and how it DID go before Disney needed to betray the audience to get more cash, and hate families. (Original story for Episode 7) (Original story for Episode 8) (Original story for Episode 9)



A Charming Surprise

I almost passed up Charming: Pax Arcana, Book 1 shopping for Audible books and I’m glad that I took a chance.

Don’t let the cheezy chick-lit character name fool you.  This urban fantasy romp has a main character who is the last in a long line of monster-hunters (all named Charming which is why they show up so often in fairy tales).  That was clever enough, but writer Elliot James does a great job adapting mythologies from several continents and plops them believably in a small middle-American town.

The last time an urban fantasy surprised me this much was almost twenty years ago when Joss Whedon took the rights back from the farcical Buffy the Vampire Slayer film and made some seriously entertaining TV out of it.  Charming has a great blend of noir, action, banter, and back-story.  The diversity of characterization elevates it above more paint-by-numbers urban fantasy such as Harry Connolly’s Twenty Palaces and the mixture of perseverance and  loyalty makes the story more endearing than Simon R. Green’s Nightside stories.  It’s a noir tale, to be sure, and everyone has wounds and rough edges, but too many authors depict nothing but collections of miserable jerk-wads working each other over in the face of an even larger danger.  Elliot James gives us people we can root for, and wounds we can sympathize for.

The plot seems to wander sometimes, but later parts of the story make what seemed like side tangents plot-relevant before too long into the tale.  The action is a great blend of fantasy and realism.  Technical and dramatic climaxes come right on schedule with good effect.  It is rare to see characters with such long back-stories change significantly in the narrative without breaking verisimilitude, since 100-foot oak trees don’t typically have a lot of right angles in their trunk, and James impressed me with showing characters bending just enough, or if the dramatic changes happen they are the result of long-standing tensions and we just happen to see the tipping point on-screen.

Like many mainstream authors, James operates to the left of my world-view.  Like the liberal authors I truly enjoy, James joins McMaster Bujold in having enough sympathy and understanding of other points of view that his works should be palatable on both sides of the increasingly-divided American political scene.

I have saved Charming‘s best quality for last: Elliot James is a master of voice.  I don’t think there are any casually chosen words in the novel.  That’s usually the case with more literary books (One for Sorrows is a prime example) but is more rare in genre fiction.  Elliot James does the best job of raw banter and narrative voice that I have encountered since Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series.

It has its flaws, and I could wish for some deeper ethical truth in it, but there is no mistaking the charm of Elliot James’ latest work.  Don’t take my word for it!  Read it yourself!

An Honorable Stand

H. Paul Honsinger’s To Honor You Call Us was rough around the edges in several places, but it had enough potential to drive me to check out For Honor We Stand as a recent Audible purchase, and I am glad that I did!

Honsinger’s sophomore effort is one of those rare sequels that carries the wonder and energy of the first book at the same time that it addresses its weaknesses and continues forward.  The Cumberland is back in action once more, with super-soldier Max Robicheaux in command and all-scholar Dr. Ibrahim Sahin at his side for some civilian-esque contrast.  The space opera continues onto its second movement of their war against the Krang (those dirty rats, literally) like a symphony revising its theme.

In case you can’t tell, Honsinger’s improvements wowed me, and I’m a relatively tough sell as a critic.

The adolescent chest-thumpings of To Honor You Call Us have been largely toned down without losing Honsinger’s crackling pace and admittedly good plotting.  When I say pace, I mean pace!  The second novel picks up right where the first left off, which was a gutsy move for an author because it doesn’t take advantage of an “off-screen” time period to change characters.  All development and advancement has to take place under the same rugged pace requirements as the story that is actually shown.

This  very element addressed my harshest criticisms of the first book with some rewarding narrative courage.  Robicheaux’s seemingly effortless transformation of his crew is not complete, which would have been quicker and easier as part of the story.  Dealing with issues such as courage, criminality in the military (sort of a third rail in American military fiction right now), drug addiction, Honsinger takes some surprisingly nuanced stances between compassion for the reasons people are driven to fail in certain lights, and the way that justice and mercy must be balanced in a wartime naval vessel.  These subplots add a great amount of humanity to characters so bold they risked cartoonish proportions in the original story.

Honsinger’s second offering gives me one of my favorite treats in fiction series; He carefully and deliberately shows the consequences, both good and bad, of the heroes’ choices in the first book.  This essential characteristic is one of the markers that distinguish the genre of epic (Odyssey, Honor Harrington) from merely serial fiction (Simon R Green’s latest few series have fallen into this mire).  Robicheaux and Sahin’s larger-than-life status is more acceptable when the fate of entire worlds rest in their hands.

The cast of supporting characters steps up in this second series in ever-more-pleasing fashion.  Superior officers play a much larger role as Cumberland has more direct contact with the navy.  Honsinger uses a matched set of foils in the upper and middle ranks of the military to cut his lines of heroism and duty like a Ginsu Knife infomercial.

Honsinger’s pace and plotting were already tight, and he has refined his technique so that the 14.5-hour audio book flew by.  By the time the story ended, I was already planning how to juggle my budget to buy the net book.

If we were in a literary criticism class I could go into more depth, but for the sake of spoilers I will end with this: I recommended the first book as filler between better science fiction and fantasy author’s leavings, but For Honor We Stand has changed my opinion.  The series may have started with a lurch or two, but by the second book the Man of War series has hit its stride and it’s off to the races we go.

If you have already picked up To Honor You Call Us, your next installment will be a treat.  If you haven’t, the first two books in this series promise great things to come.  I’m revising my recommendation.  Grab your imaginary cutlass and sidearm and join an away team to the Cumberland, where adventure awaits.


Beautiful Features

For the sake of variety I picked up the Audible version of Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.  I sort of didn’t dislike the film, so I was surprised by how much I am enjoying the audio book.

I’m not an unreserved fan of the mythology or the romance.  Let me get my objections out of the way first.

Everything Supernatural Is Real Except Jesus.  (Next point…)

I dislike random and incoherent magic systems.  This has to be one of the sloppiest “magic works this way… because shut up, that’s why” sort of magic systems I have stomached in a long time.  Harry Potter‘s was worse, but not by much.  It isn’t that powers work differently so far in the first book, as it is that there’s no reason or rhyme behind why magic works the way it does, or doesn’t work the way that it does.  Not everyone can be Jim Butcher or Patrick Rothfuss, but for the love of lizards… at least make some effort!

I’m going to be blunt for emphasis.  Girls should not write guy POV characters as the primary voice for chick lit.  I am not a fan of military sci-fi authors (cough David Weber cough) who write men with boobs and pretend they’re doing something groundbreaking by writing women.  Garcia and Stohl write Ethan as a girl without boobs.  He’s a sixteen-year-old boy who by the middle of the first book has a girl reading his mind, sitting in his lap, and frequently spending the late hours of many nights around her.  She’s the love of his life and the theoretical “boy”‘s man-parts never become involved in his thinking at all.  In writing terms, this goes to characterization and verisimilitude.  Unless you have a very good reason to explain why your 10-year-old boy character isn’t into comic books, puppies, sports, and climbing trees, you have a problem called “that’s not really a normal/believable 10-year-old”.  This is, in fact, one of the requirements of a good story that the ancient Greeks were griping about two thousand years ago and the rules Have Not Changed.  Folks, anyone who posits that dating and romance for a 16-year-old-boy is not at least 50% groin-related is lying, obtuse, or a space alien from a planet of androgynous vegetable beings.  If you aren’t comfortable saying, much less dealing with, the concept of an erection you need to write the supernatural romance from the girl’s POV.

But Ethan isn’t worried about her noticing his biological reactions, or even noticing that he has any.  He is worried about what name he should use for their relationship… that’s what’s going through his head when they have long extended kisses.  In other words; Ethan is secretly a woman.  I can handle a lesbian romance, if I must, but I still can’t believe that Ethan is biologically male.

With those two gripes out of the way, I have fallen in love with the story of Gatlin County.  Beautiful Creatures combines a comfortable fondness for Southern life and small-town living with colorful characters that somehow manage to be delightfully wacky and frighteningly believable.  Three spinster great-aunts who live together?  Make it two instead of three and I don’t just believe it, I’m related to it.  But the foibles and dynamics of Gatlin are not presented with the condescension of a Yankee or the scorn of Faulkner who held his own society in undisguised contempt.  These authors are not blind to the pitfalls of the small-town South, but they love it warts and all and present that love in the scenes.  That goes a long way towards saving the story.

The characters are generally likable.  I think The Lost Generation started the trend of “literature” where every character is some form of disagreeable person or other, at least I blame Hemingway for it.  People have been trying to recreate the miserable company of The Sun Also Rises ever since.  Not true here.  From a saucy family housekeeper, a not-vampire-honest of a crazy recluse uncle, to the best-friend-forever, there are any number of memorable, enjoyable, and often hilarious characters.  The characters also generally like one another!  It is a delight to see friendship, loyalty, happiness, and fellowship presented without apology.

Throw in a halfway-decent plot with a lot of event (it doesn’t have to be overly original), and you have a novel at least worth a once-through.

The tone and spirit of Beautiful Creatures far outweigh its deficiencies.

Filtered Fiction and New Page

I’m thinking of adding a new page to the site.  I used to have a lending library next to the door of my apartment, full of the best assortment of paperbacks that I could give out.

I’m thinking of posting the list on a separate page, and incorporating a great point I heard from Jim Butcher in an interview.  His basic point was that you have to filter your fiction.  “There is one Matrix movie.”  That’s true for a lot of fiction, where the original story was excellent but market-driven sequels, or the author’s failure to maintain performance levels, ruins the rest.  Frank Herbert’s Dune is perhaps the greatest example of all time.  The first book, and only the first book, should be required reading by freshman year of college.  The rest… compost.

In television this principle shows up best with Babylon 5 and Supernatural.

B-5 thought they were being cancelled in season 4 so they crammed all of the critical final plot into the last few episodes (it shows, but it’s still worth it.  I would really have enjoyed watching Boxleightner spend 4 or 5 episodes as a POW it would have been very powerful.)  When season 5 renewed they had no original plot left, so the act of introducing new threats never bore real fruit.  The end result was season 4’s triumphal ending.  Season 5 basically just showed that the triumph was empty and the ending went to hell as everything good and golden rotted before your eyes, and up yours, viewers…

Similarly the TV show Supernatural was invented and produced as a 5-season story arc.  I stand it utter awe of creator Eric Kripke.  He envisioned a unique (frequently blasphemous, perpetually innovative) mythology for urban fantasy, threw “Luke and Han Solo on a road trip” into the mix, and told a solid and coherent story for five years.  Characterization, rising levels of power and tension, the reasoning behind all motives and plot from episode one to the season five finale, they all work together as well as anything I’ve ever seen.  SPOILER: If you’re really quick, he even answers the final two season’s question, “The apocalypse is coming, where is God?!” in the final episode.  I won’t say where or how.

When the series was to be continued, Kripke walked off the project.  He basically said, I have told the story.  My story is done.  Folks, if you are ever in the same room with the man, shake his hand because very, very few people in California have that sort of intestinal fortitude and integrity.

The show was still bringing in the ratings, but with a new producer, the ending must be un-made, and the characterizations and mythology quickly disappear under the tires of the mercantile bus, sacrificing story for sales in seasons 6 and 7 (seasons 8-10 are all right if you relax and accept that this is a parallel, slightly crappier universe with less coherent logic and no God).  The pro-family, hunting-values character has to have conflict with his new family, so suddenly he goes from eternally grateful for his training and knowledge to hiding and ashamed of it, refusing to teach his son how to survive the supernatural world (which, go figure, ultimately leads many times to his near death and helplessness in scenes were pre-teen Sam and Dean would have simply shot the monster and had McDonalds), the mechanisms behind humanity and demons is destroyed so a character can have no soul, but not be a demon, though that was how demons were made in the mythology…  Every single character’s path had to get shredded.

As a perk, in the 200th episode, when the final 5 seasons were summed up, the writers put in the line from a character, “That’s the crappiest fan fiction I’ve ever heard.”

Amen.  Preach it.

This has happened for most every continuing series that I know, and most that I love.  (Macross is a fantastic story, Southern Cross ruins Robotech…)

I’m a writer and a monk.  In American terms, I have no life outside of fiction.  So I am planning on starting a page to highlight what’s great, and where to avoid the pitfalls that can ruin the best stories I know of in our age.

Sound off with requests and comments.

To Honor you Call Us (with the volume cranked to eleven)

Without anything in particular to spend my credit on this month, I picked up the Audible copy of To Honor You Call Us: Man of War, Book 1 by H. Paul Honsinger.

I had passed this title over for a while because there is only so much arm-pumping in military fiction that I can handle.  I am a huge fan of genuine military history (We Were Soldiers Once, and Young was only returned to the detachment library because I feared the colonel’s secretary more than life itself), and I love well-balanced military fiction that has human and accessible protagonists.  I re-read the first ten Honor Harrington novels by David Weber and the Vatta’s War series by Elizabeth Moon pretty much yearly.  (If you have not read those series, yet, I would recommend them highly.)

Honsinger’s work looked more like adolescent flexing in a mirror for my taste, too “balls and bayonets brigade” to borrow from Joss Whedon’s Firefly series.  The prologue certainly had me rolling my eyes.

BUT, if one can wade through the ridiculous introduction, there is something worthwhile in this book.  Honor Harrington is compared to Hornblower in space, then this is the Aubrey/Marturin series redone as a space opera.  An idealistic ship’s doctor and an ambitious militarist captain have their fates thrown together on a tiny ship on the edge of a war for humanity’s existence against, sigh, mutant killer space rats.

The book continues to flow back and forth between the ridiculously overblown and the nicely nuanced.  The captain’s task to simultaneously lead a solo scouting mission while rehabilitating a demoralized and under-performing crew has some nice moments.  I enjoyed thoughts on morale and the interplay between the captain and the ship’s doctor.  There was certainly a greater range of subplots than I hoped for.

As a freshman effort, this novel is a cut above average, if it does have some flaws.  Its main characters are always the best and greatest, with no weakness or disability to them.  The captain has seen more combat than any five other officers put together, to a staggering extreme.  The ship’s doctor speaks every language and understands every culture, in addition to being a crack shot, master swordsman, natural diplomat, and yet somehow has to fulfill the ‘useful idiot’ role for explanations to the all-knowing all-experienced captain.

The novel’s strengths come in terms of a diverse story-line, consistent space mechanics, dramatic exaggeration, and decent space tactics.

If you have already read Vatta’s War and Honor Harrington, this is a decent fall-back while you wait for the next, hopefully faster-paced installment by Weber.  If  you haven’t, check out those better-written series and get to this for your next airplane ride.

Recommended with caveats.

Now for the medieval Christian take on the story:

There is an interesting flip on the Aubrey-Marturin series that Mr. Honsinger is clearly using as a reference in his own story (or he owes someone royalties).  In Patrick O’Brian’s original series the ship’s well-educated doctor and sometimes spy is a naturalist, an evolutionist where Captain Jack Aubrey is a half-educated Christian and something of a bigot.  This reflects the worldview of the dominant intelligentsia at the time of their writing.  Mr. Honsinger follows its own iteration of modern political correctness, in that the captain is an evolutionist and functional atheist whose ignorance of life outside the military is matched by the Muslim super-scholar uber-doctor’s knowledge of everything else.  The super-elite doctor and very-macho soldier routine is less refined in Honsinger’s novels (O’Brian gave his protagonists a shared love of and mastery of chamber music, for example which gets an homage reference to Gilbert and Sullivan but never plays any other role in their interactions) but it does reflect just as accurately the thinking accepted and pushed on the inside of the majority of western universities: Islam is to be publicly praised, honored, and respected.  Everyone knows evolution is true.  And Christianity has no place in society.  The spirit of the age has changed but the submission to the zeitgeist remains from one series to the next.

Royal Yamato Continuation

I have compared indie sci-fi author Christopher Nuttall’s Ark Royal series to the beloved anime Space Battleship Yamato (which was released in North America as Star Blazers).  In both stories a single refurbished battleship carried the fate of the human race against a nearly invincible alien invasion.  Ark Royal was an interesting military science fiction series that took a modern (effectively secular British) interpretation of the 1970’s classic story.  Add some Battlestar Galactica with one-third mixture of Robotech/Macross and you have the elements Nuttall used to bake up a solid and enjoyable fictional war.

The fourth book, Warspite, proved something exceptional about Christopher Nuttall that was not immediately apparent from his remix of previous fictions.  Nuttall has amalgamated space battleship classics with enough rigor to own the resulting universe.  Years after the original trilogy’s war, a new captain and ship will face new challenges.

What follows is one of my favorite delight in serial fiction, as Nuttall proves himself ready to play in the same league as, if he does not quite match the heart of David Weber’s early works, John Ringo, and the like.

Warspite is more than a mere continuance.  One of my scholarly disciplines is archetypal criticism, and the inversions in the unfolding new epic make for a real treat.  The old Ark Royal was an antique ship, outdated in a perfectly useful fashion with a rag-tag crew of outcasts.  Warspite is a human-alien hybrid prototype, the cutting edge of technological lessons learned in the war.  Ark Royal‘s commander was a half burned-out alcoholic who had to overcome his demons to lead his people into the fray.  Warspite‘s new CO is a grieving homosexual ex-pilot, a bright and rising star who has to carry the weight of a crew of political appointees in a quick, easy assignment that goes rapidly south.  The inversions continue as the two crews Shadow one another, but they reflect around a central axis of Nuttall’s enjoyable fiction.  The characters are typical, but likable and understandable.  It isn’t a crime to have stock characters, since the very nature of archetypes go back to the dawn of fiction in theater and religious lessons.

Nuttall provides solid secular adventure.  His view of the military goes beyond the offerings of Hollywood and the BBC.  I can really only name David Weber and Timothy Zahn as the other military SF writers who make as thorough an offering of multiple levels.  Political conflicts trickle in from the upper nobility to the ramifications of a yeoman’s duties.  Few of the fiction books written by actual military veterans, that have this fabric in the writing also manage to keep the wide-eyed sense of adventure that space opera needs to thrive.  Few space operas have the detail work that Nuttall carries through in space travel, military logistics, and colonial economics.

Nuttall isn’t the best at any one aspect of genre fiction (that non-‘literature’ stuff that has been the vast majority of written and enjoyed works for the past two hundred years or so), but he continues to establish himself in the realm of up-and-coming indie authors whom I will pick up whenever they have something new and I have the price of a Happy Meal to spare.

Affordable, enjoyable, and solid, I recommend the Ark Royal series to anyone who enjoys military SF.

Finally, the take of a literary monk:

A quick comparison of Nuttall’s first four Ark Royal books and the first four Honor Harrington novels highlights the difference between American and British society over the past fifty years, where Britain abandoned God at the end of WWII and America in general waited until the first Clinton administration to go whole-hog-secular.  Two generations of cultural drift away from our former common faith show through.

The differences are not always negative.  If an American author offered a homosexual captain, it would be an active, brash, and probably obnoxious assault in the ongoing cultural conflict between the religious and the anti-theistic.  Nuttall’s captain is neither transgressive nor pioneering.  It’s simply a descriptor of his past, not a definition of his every waking moment, and his happiness and goals do not revolve around the nature of person he used to take to bed.  That genuinely is a rare treat these days.

For all the bright spots, the innate futility and pessimism of the godless worldview, or perhaps it is more accurate to say a constant cast of the godless, carries its own weight through the tone of Nuttall’s otherwise excellent work.  With no concept of grace or undeserved forgiveness, justice is a bleak and hopeless thing.  The same proves true with victimization of the powerless.  Without the hope of supernatural intervention, crises like rape, imprisonment, and conquest result in lifelong damage.  Likewise, those who lose loved ones have no recourse for their grief, no hope of reunion.  Those whose loved ones are not dead, but injured, are on the other side of that despair, where the universally accepted truth is they won’t have the strength of character or enduring emotional commitment to put the damaged relationships back together.

So it isn’t a big surprise that Nuttall’s world revolves largely around pornography and self-gratification for personal pursuits.  I don’t object to the inclusion of Sin City, a lunar base dedicated to every illicit fashion to press your YES button over and over again.  Indeed, I see it as the inevitable conclusion of the worldview.  “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”

This is not a puritanical judge-fest.  I enjoy Nuttall’s fiction.  I have bought four of his books and I will buy the next in this series.  But I am glad that I have a hope for more, and the assurance of help for the troubles, injuries, and love for the journey.  I’m also glad for the color and life that religion adds to cultures.  Nuttall’s Russian culture is collectivist, secular, and frequently savage, but here in the real world Russian iconography, songwriting, classical music, dancing, and their churches are vital and beautiful additions to a culture rife with conquest and war.

I believe that the inherent optimism from faith, even from legalistic or liberal faiths that tend to view religions as socio-political constructs more than actual interactions with an invested divinity, colors plot and story.  Weber’s Honor Harrington series starts off with political corruption, innovative space travel, and attempted victimization in On Basilisk Station, covers many of the same topics throughout the first ten-novel series, but they are dealt with in a much more hopeful tone.  The prisoners of war aren’t just dehumanized property who cave in and give up.  They band together, keep their morale, and emerge stronger than before.  Back-woods planets become powerhouses, and though their faith undergoes change, it doesn’t just survive but becomes a source of power and adaptive drive for the Graysons.

So, I prefer it in my space opera not simply because I believe in it, but because I prefer optimism to pessimism, progressive improvement to nihilism, and idealism to hedonistic escapism.

I enjoy both series, but sometimes I come across something I really enjoy that reminds me how, even while I wait for the true joys of heaven, my faith and others’ brings joy and life to the daily experiences as well.