The White Wolf’s Son

The White Wolf's SonThe White Wolf’s Son
by Michael Moorcock, Published by Warner Books
Reviewed by Cheryl Barkauskas

The White Wolf’s Son continues Moorcock’s Albino Underground series, an epic fantasy series tracing the battles between Law and Chaos. The main character is twelve-year-old Oonagh von Bek, and she begins her tale as old friends of her grandparents gather around her in Ingleton. Old friends of their type attract old enemies, and Prince Gaynor von Minct and Klosterheim return with a pointed interest in the girl. In an attempt to escape the two men, Oonagh accidentally falls through a rift to another world, ending up in a city named Mirenburg. Among those who aid her as she searches for a way home are the giant fox Lord Renyard, dandy and thief lord; an oracular building named Mrs. House; and Oonagh’s grandmother, Oona, who can travel between worlds on the moonbeam paths.

Unfortunately, Klosterheim and von Minct pursue Oonagh to this new world for reasons Oonagh still doesn’t understand. She learns, though, that she’s not the only object of their interest. By chance, she meets a blind albino boy enslaved in a factory and discovers that he’s a relative of her grandmother’s. Before she can arrange his rescue, she’s forced to flee Mirenburg. Their paths cross again, though, and the reason why Klosterheim and von Minct need them both turns out to have dangerous implications, not only for Oonagh but for the balance of Law and Chaos in the multiverse.

Interwoven with Oonagh’s tale is the story of Elric, the patriarch of the family at the end of a thousand-year dream quest. He senses that his descendants are in danger, and although he is dying in his own world, he manages to send his spirit on a mission through the multiverse to protect them. Elric is well-known throughout the multiverse, and he goes to some pains to avoid old enemies as he searches for Oonagh. However, he is prepared to risk his own life to defend his family.

The White Wolf’s Son spans a broad array of settings, from the gloomy underground realm of Mu-Ooria to the opulent and corrupt empire of Granbretan. In scope and imagination, the novel excels. Since the events are narrated mostly by Oonagh, who necessarily has a limited perspective, the mythology of Elric and the worlds takes a secondary position to the events that immediately affect her. The story is Oonagh’s, not Elric’s. Though she lacks the destiny of her renowned ancestor, her adventures are just as intriguing on a smaller scale, and fantasy lovers will find them worth the telling.

May 15, 2007 – Cheryl Barkauskas for Senses Five Press

Book Review: The Crimson Shadow

The Crimson ShadowThe Crimson Shadow
by R.A. Salvatore, Published by Warner Books
Reviewed by Cheryl Barkauskas

The Crimson Shadow collects R. A. Salvatore’s novels about Luthien Bedwyr—The Sword of Bedwyr, Luthien’s Gamble, and The Dragon King—into one volume for the first time. Luthien begins the trilogy as an idle younger son who spends his days fishing and training with his father’s gladiators. For his entire life, his homeland of Eriador has been occupied by neighboring Avon and its monstrous allies, vicious one-eyed beings called cyclopians, but Luthien is oblivious to it. Everything changes for him when a cyclopian kills Luthien’s best friend in the arena at his father’s order, and his older brother Ethan is banished for speaking out against the crime. Distraught and disillusioned, Luthien kills the cyclopian in revenge and flees. His fight against injustice eventually leads him to spearhead a rebellion against the evil wizard-king Greensparrow, and in the end, he becomes the famed Crimson Shadow, hero of Eriador. Along the way, there’s plenty of action, suspense, and humor to keep the reader involved.

The characters, if not profound, are vividly drawn. Luthien and his lover Katerin are honorable warriors, and Greensparrow is suitably wicked. The standout among the supporting characters is Oliver de Burrows, “highwayhalfling,” who gets most of the best jokes. The lines between good and evil are clearly drawn; even when Luthien must resort to thievery to survive, he never forgets the honorable path.

Action is Salvatore’s specialty. Especially in the hand-to-hand combat scenes, his talent shines. He has the gift of describing action minutely enough for a vivid image, yet his pacing is good enough that the scene never bogs down. Banter among the companions and some humor in the actual fighting (such as Luthien firing an arrow point-blank at a cyclopian and missing) break the tension at strategic points.

The volume concludes with a brief interview with Salvatore in which he discusses his writing and his worlds. Of future forays in this world, he says: “I fall for my characters (those that survive). Right now my contractual obligations prevent a peek at [Luthien and Oliver], but I never say never.” If he does return, many of Salvatore’s fans will be eager to make the journey with him.

April 9, 2007 – Cheryl Barkauskas for Senses Five Press

Trail of Time – Book Review

Trail of TimeDC Universe: Trail of Time
by Jeff Mariotte
Published by Warner Books

Reviewed by Eugene Myers for Senses Five Press.

Trail of Time is the final novel in the DC Universe series of original stories. It features ensembles of superhero characters from the expansive DC history. Superman (who previously appeared in the first installment, Last Sons) returns for a new adventure that spans two universes and hundreds of years. Completing the cast are heroes that may be unfamiliar to even the most faithful comic book readers, including the Phantom Stranger, Jason Blood/Etrigan the Demon, Jonah Hex, Bat Lash, and El Diablo. These unlikely allies join forces to combat a trio of magical supervillains–Vandal Savage, the Dark Lord Mordru, and Felix Faust–who are bent on nothing less than world domination, naturally.

This is likely the most ambitious entry in the DC Universe series, a story that could easily demand a multi-title comic book event, akin to the ongoing 52 Weeks. Trail of Time begins in an eerie alternate universe: Earth revolves around a red sun, America is locked under strict military control to guard against foreign terrorists, and there is no Superman. Most of this book’s target readers will realize that red suns rob Superman of his powers, which leaves Clark Kent as simply a mild-mannered reporter, turning out government-approved stories that downplay the people’s lack of freedom in favor of their safety. Readers might also suspect that in a world without a Superman, Lois Lane has a much-shortened life expectancy. After Clark’s wife is killed while investigating a man named Vandal Savage, the Phantom Stranger and Jason Blood tell him of his heroic destiny in another reality and the role he must play to save it.

Still grieving Lois’s death, Clark joins them on a journey through hell to the proper DC Universe, where he merges with Superman (regaining his powers but retaining some memories of the other world’s Clark) and learns what is at stake. Vandal Savage and his cohorts have spawned a parallel universe which threatens to wipe out the original, leaving them in control. The heroes must locate the branching point in history and attempt to stop the magicians before they can put their plan into motion. Meanwhile, in the Old West, Jonah Hex and the others of his time find themselves inexplicably drawn together to fight some unknown force. Trail of Time follows a large number of characters in multiple parallel plotlines, most of which tie together satisfactorily in the final conflict. The novel is filled with time-hopping from one period to another, from a Camelot under siege to ancient China, with demons and magical menaces waiting at each stop. Aside from Kryptonite, Superman has always been susceptible to magic, which puts him in as much jeopardy as his companions.

The plot is heavy on action, but fortunately Mariotte is up to the task of describing it all as vividly as if it were drawn in comic book panels. Mariotte’s dialogue and prose truly shine with the characters from 1872—no surprise given his experience with his “Weird West” comic series, Desperadoes. The story skirts some sobering political and moral issues that would add some depth and resonance to the plot, and there’s little character development beyond a cursory summary of their origins, but the pace is quick and consistent with what you might find in the pages of your favorite superhero comics. Trail of Time is a grand and bold adventure that would be a challenge to present in any other medium, and it easily delivers more of what fans want in their favorite monthlies.

The Top Ten Movies of 2006

The Top Ten Movies of 2006

By Mercurio D. Rivera

More than any other year I can remember, the first half of 2006 was a veritable wasteland for movie-goers. Fortunately, the second half came through big-time, led by a triumvirate of Mexican directors (Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Fernandez Inarritu, and Guillermo del Toro) who left their mark on American cinema with three truly outstanding films (more later). This past year also saw Hollywood’s first attempts at tackling the subject of September 11th with the release of United 93 and World Trade Center, two very good movies that straddled the line between honoring and exploiting the heroes of that day. As a New Yorker who works across the street from Ground Zero, I can only say that, for me, it was still too soon. We also saw dueling movies about late-Victorian era magicians, The Illusionist and The Prestige, which provided solid—if not top-ten worthy—entertainment (the former a much better film than the latter). Other notable critics’ favorites that didn’t make my list include the flawed Flags of Our Fathers, which suffers from a lack of narrative drive and an unfocused viewpoint; Spanish director Pedro Aldomovar’s average-fare Volver, which can’t decide whether it is a realistic drama or a foray into surrealism: characters react to the return of their dead mother as casually as if they’d had a letter returned for insufficient postage; Will Smith’s vehicle, The Pursuit of Happyness, an uplifting but formulaic tale of the American dream, which makes for an excellent rental; and Borat, which provided a few good belly laughs, but which ultimately—like much of reality TV—I just didn’t trust; I couldn’t tell whether reactions were real or scripted.

Blow the trumpets, unfurl the banner and release the doves; here are the best movies of 2006:

10. Happy Feet. Moulin Rouge meets March of the Penguin and hatches a gorgeous, breathtaking animated adventure superior to either of those films. The protagonist, a young Emperor penguin (voiced by Elijah Wood), finds that he can’t sing the traditional mating call or “heartsong” of other penguins—but boy can he tap dance! When a fish drought is attributed to his un-penguin-like ways, tribal elders cast him out of the community, sending him on an odyssey to meet the “aliens” (human beings) who have been over-fishing the waters. With stunning, magnificently realized frozen landscapes, dizzying chase scenes, a wonderful score, and the traditional theme of individuality versus conformity—combined with modern lessons in global environmentalism—Happy Feet is the best computer-animated movie since Toy Story 2.

9. Dreamgirls. Bill Condon’s electrifying adaptation of the Broadway musical shows us the rise of the faux-Supremes girl-group, The Dreamettes, and the member they cast out along the way, played, ironically enough, by American Idol cast-off Jennifer Hudson in a bring-down-the-house-and-vaporize-the-rubble vocal performance. (When I caught a late-afternoon showing of Dreamgirls in a near-empty theater, the man sitting in front of me gave her performance of “And I’m Telling You, I’m Not Going” a standing ovation.) When she’s not singing, Hudson’s acting is so average it seems unfair she’s the favorite for this year’s Oscar for best supporting actress. Beyonce, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx also shine, and while it doesn’t quite have the razzle-dazzle of Chicago, Dreamgirls is still wildly entertaining.

8. Apocalypto. Say what you will about Mel Gibson (he’s an anti-Semitic zealot with a drinking problem; there, I said it), the man is a master filmmaker and storyteller. This audacious epic, set during the decline of the Mayan empire, dares to tell us a story from the perspective of a young hunter in a rain forest community of hunter-gatherers whose bucolic existence is shattered when marauding tribesmen from the capital city, on the prowl for human sacrifices, decimate his village. When our protagonist and his tribesman are captured and transported to the city, he must find a way to escape and find his way home to rescue his pregnant wife and young son. Despite the boat-loads of blood and gore, this pulse-pounding adventure accomplishes what only the very best movies do: it transports us to an utterly alien world and makes us care.

7. Notes on a Scandal. Judy Dench plays an obsessed lesbian stalker and Cate Blanchett a pedophile who’s the object of her twisted affections in this delicious British melodrama. Densch’s character, a battle-hardened London schoolteacher (who also serves as the film’s unreliable narrator), slowly finds herself smitten by the young Bohemian art teacher who joins the faculty. When she catches her in a compromising position with a 15-year-old student, blackmail ensues, along with twists and turns and reversals galore that keep the audience spellbound as both ladies ignite the screen in a showdown for the Oscar.

6. The Last King of Scotland. An adventure-seeking Scottish doctor travels to Uganda where he winds up treating and befriending the country’s charismatic leader, Idi Amin (Forrest Whittaker in a sure-bet Oscar-winning performance) in this pulse-pounding drama. Seduced by the luxurious, hard-partying lifestyle of those in power—even winding up in a dangerous romantic tryst with one of Amin’s wives—the young doctor abandons his fellow aid workers (including a superb, unrecognizable Gillian Anderson) and becomes Amin’s personal physician and adviser only to realize, slowly, to his horror, that his patient is a bloodthirsty, psychopathic despot. I expected a political drama and instead enjoyed one of the year’s best thrillers.

5. Letters From Iwo Jima. Clint Eastwood’s deeply affecting war movie chronicles the lives and death of Japanese soldiers on the ultimate suicide mission: defending the island of Iwo Jima from U.S. forces. Unlike Flag of our Fathers, Letters hones in on the viewpoint of a few compelling characters, including an Olympic equestrian gold medal winner, a dashing general (Ken Watanabe), and most compellingly, a young baker aching to return home to his wife and baby. Eastwood uses their letters to loved ones as a dramatic device to humanize enemy forces like never before.

4. Babel. Alejandro Fernandez Inarritu’s brilliant 21 Grams and Amores Perros, which made my lists in 2001 and 2003, respectively, explored the theme of fate versus chance through splintered, non-sequential, intersecting storylines. This year’s ambitious follow-up, Babel, employs the same filmmaking techniques and tackles the same theme—along with the basic idea that most conflict arises from miscommunication—when a Japanese man’s gift of a rifle to his Moroccan tour guide triggers three suspenseful, globe-spanning stories set in Japan, Morocco and the U.S./Mexico. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are outstanding as a couple who travel to Morocco to try to salvage their marriage after the death of their baby, but the real standouts are Rinko Kikuchi as a troubled, deaf Japanese teenager and Adrianna Barraza in an Oscar-worthy performance as a Mexican nanny who brings along the two little American children she cares for to her son’s all-night wedding in Mexico with disastrous consequences.

3. Children of Men. Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron’s bleak vision of the future stars Clive Owen as a Londoner trying to save the human species from extinction after a plague has rendered all women infertile. In the year 2027 no child has been born on the planet for twenty years, governments across the globe have collapsed, and London has become a chaotic police state plagued by terrorism, religious cultists, looters and illegal immigrants (“fugees”) who are kept in cages on the streets prior to deportation. When Owen’s character encounters a pregnant African fugee, he embarks on a hellish journey to transport her to the fabled “Human Project,” humanity’s last hope to propagate the species, along the way meeting memorable characters like an unforgettable Michael Caine as a futuristic drug-using hippie. What makes this dystopian futureworld so frightening is that it’s only a slight extrapolation of present-day concerns about terrorism, government fascism, and environmental catastrophe. Intelligent and moving, this one is destined to become a science fiction classic.

2. Pan’s Labyrinth. The third consecutive movie on my list by a Mexican director is Guillermo del Toro’s unforgettable hybrid of political drama and dark fantasy. Set in 1944 Spain, Franco’s fascistic regime has taken over, and a young girl must cope with her pregnant mother’s marriage to a sadistic general looking to stamp out the final resistance fighters. It also happens that the young protagonist may be an amnesia-stricken princess of a fantastical mythological underworld who must complete three tasks given to her by a faun (half-man, half-goat) to regain her memories and take her rightful place in the royal pantheon. Grim, violent and imaginative, this poignant film stays with you long after the credits roll.

1. The Departed. Martin Scorcese is back in his element in this brilliant, brutal crime drama, his best since Goodfellas, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon as flip sides of the same counterfeit coin: one an undercover police officer in the Irish mob, the other a mob-connected cop on Boston’s police force. The labyrinthine plot explores the theme of identity, what makes us who we are, our beliefs or our actions, and has so much ramped-up suspense that you’re guaranteed to wear out the edge of your seat. Featuring a veritable who’s who of tough-guy actors (Alec Baldwin, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen) playing tough-guy characters, Jack Nicholson out-toughs them all as a mob kingpin with a penchant for dildos and threeways. Somebody please hand Scorcese the Oscar he deserves: he directed the year’s best movie.

The near-misses include at least three movies that might have cracked the list any other year: 11. Little Miss Sunshine (oddball comedy about a quirky family’s Vacation-style road trip to a child beauty pageant—with the funniest ending of the year); 12. The Queen (Helen Mirren captures the essence of Queen Elizabeth II in this compelling drama imagining the behind-the-scenes reactions of the Royal Family to the death of Princess Diana); 13. Little Children (dark drama starring Kate Winlset as an unsatisfied suburban housemom who, on a dare, kisses a stranger in a park, and the consequences that follow); 14. An Inconvenient Truth/Who Killed the Electric Car? (Two documentaries guaranteed to educate and infuriate: Al Gore’s lecture on the looming threat of global warming, and Chris Paine’s account of the fate of electric cars that would feasibly reduce our dependence on foreign oil); 15. The Devil Wears Prada (entertaining chick flick about a young assistant’s experience in the fashion industry, with a sensational Meryl Streep as Cruella de Ville with depth); 16. Casino Royale (a terrific character-focused Bond film that almost manages to escape its spy-film genre boundaries); 17. Snakes on a Plane (a hilarious celebration of the B-movie and future audience-participation cult classic); 18. Slither (touch-in-cheek horror movie about parasitic alien slugs who transform ordinary Joes into flesh-hungry zombies); 19. Curse of the Golden Flower (China’s Tang dynasty meets Aaron Spelling’s Dynasty in this visually breathtaking martial arts soap opera).

Stephen King’s “Lisey’s Story”

Lisey's StoryLisey’s Story
By Stephen King, Published by Scribner

In Lisey’s Story, Stephen King’s latest work, Scott Landon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, is dead. He is survived by his wife, Lisey (pronounced “Lee-see”). Lisey is trying to reassemble the pieces of her life, and though it has been two years since Scott’s sudden death, for Lisey it feels like yesterday. As she wanders her lonely Maine home, she still hears her husband’s voice echoing through her head. Meanwhile, petulant “Incunks,” as her husband called them, telephone incessantly, seeking access to Scott’s unpublished work. One such Incunk, who calls himself “Zack McCool”, decides to take this goal one step further. After several drunken conversations with a professor at a nearby college, he takes it upon himself to retrieve Scott’s unpublished manuscripts by any means necessary. Zack, if it needs to be said, is a little off his rocker.

But this arc takes up only one half of the story. The bulk of the novel is told in flashback; King fluidly weaves from the present into the past dozens of times. He stops in mid-sentence, changes tense, starts a new paragraph, and continues without pause, without capitalization, as if the story is being told in one long outbreath, one long elegy. We learn of Scott’s and Lisey’s strange courtship, delving steadily into Scott’s past as the novel progresses, learning of odd treasure hunts called “bools,” mind-warping malevolences that the childhood Scott calls “the bad-gunky,” and a dream-like alternate world called “Booya Moon.” After a time, we learn that the talented writer might have received many of his ideas not from his deep imagination but from actual, terrifying experiences. The flashbacks are the most engaging aspect of the novel (besides the highly-satisfying end) because in them we learn of the dark secret Scott has been carrying with him his whole life.

There’s a lot of magic to be found in “Lisey’s Story,” but it’s often buried under long stretches of meandering plot. Monsters don’t lurk around every page as in some of King’s earlier works. Instead, the reader must be patient. Clues are left often, and it is only later that one understands why, for example, Scott cuts his wrists open one night as a “gift” to his wife, or why he has made so many arrangements in his will for Lisey’s catatonic sister, Amanda.

Lisey and Scott frequently speak in their own private slang. They call each other “babyluv” and say “smucking” instead of the F-word. There are about a dozen more such made-up words. Some early critics of the book found this babytalk annoying, and while I found it difficult to wade through at first, I later understood that this language was absolutely necessary for two reasons, to show that Scott Landon is in some sense still a child, haunted by a past no boy should have to face, and to show how much Lisey Landon loves her husband. Scott is a man of words; Lisey, in mourning him, is unable to let a single thing of his go, not even his words.

Having read King’s semi-autobiographical On Writing, I suspect that Lisey’s Story, though not autobiographical itself, took a large part of its setting from King’s life. In both there is an older brother whom a boy loves more than anything, a hand-cranked printing press with messy ink in the basement, In both there is a writer who dwells in Maine, who is a professional and successful horror writer, whose wife has many sisters. The difference is that one is King’s true past and the other is a story. King says in an author’s statement at the end of the novel, “[Lisey] is not my wife, nor are her sisters Lisey’s sisters…” Nevertheless, the analogy is impossible to ignore, and the meta-fictional implications are somewhat creepy. (I.e., is King suggesting that he may have received some of his ideas from childhood experiences? Most likely, no, but the thought is interesting to ponder.)

My only criticism of the novel is its occasional slow pacing. Early on especially, humdrum descriptions of common activities, like frying up some hamburger helper, crowd the pages; tension is slow to build and sometimes frustrating. But once the plot does move, the payoff is well worth it. King says this is his attempt at a more “literary” novel, whatever that may mean to you, but I for one welcome his experimentation in a new area. It may both inspire non genre readers to pick up a horror story, and it might convince some blood and gore fans that there is more than one way to hide a monster under a bed.

More reviews can be found here.