Archive for March, 2021

Pure Pepper Power

When I heard this book was coming out, I got excited. I pre-ordered it as soon as I could, rejoiced when it finally arrived in the mail, and had to practice a lot of discipline to avoid reading the entire thing in a single sitting. Did it live up to the hype? Let’s look at Pepper Page Saves the Universe! by Landry Q. Walker and Eric Jones.

First of all — Walker and Jones — weren’t they the creators of Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade? Yes, indeed, they were, and when the team behind one of the most fun superhero comics in ages gets back together, you get whatever they’re making. This isn’t a pure clone of the Supergirl comics, no matter how much we might like to see that series continue, but it has some fun similarities.

We start out in the distant future where Pepper Page is a lonely 15-year-old orphan. She’s an awkward nerdy kid with only a couple close friends, Tally and Zola, and a deep, obsessive love for ancient comic books, especially about the superheroine Supernova.

But she’s got angry rivals, particularly the jock Strona, who’s furious with Pepper for constantly missing games of Holo-Ball. And she has to deal with an unfriendly teacher, Professor Killian, who’s pompous and sneering and maybe a liiiiiittle bit shady. So Pepper just doesn’t enjoy school at all. The only thing she wants to do is hang out with her friends and read her Supernova comics.

Things start to go really wrong one night when Pepper and her friends escape Strona and her bullies by hiding out in the school. They soon find Professor Killian in the midst of some sort of strange hyper-tech project — and cruelly experimenting on a stray cat! Pepper tries to intervene, but finds herself — and the cat — caught up in a field of quantum energy. Killian only expresses disappointment that she’s ruined his experiment, kinda proving that he’s a lot past just kinda shady — and then Pepper vanishes into the timestream.

And things get really weird at that point, what with the blasts of light, the gigantic voice of the cosmos, the furious blobs of evil eyeballs, and the all-seeing glowing heads — which tell Pepper that she herself is Supernova, that she always has been, that she always will be. But that couldn’t possibly be true, right? Right?

That’s right around the mid-point of the story — and beyond that be spoilers, so we won’t get into it.

Verdict: Thumbs up. Such a big thumbs up. This comic is just fantastic from beginning to end. I loved pretty much everything from first page to last.

The plotline is plenty of fun. It starts out with low-stakes, high school melodrama stuff, sometimes even moving downright slowly to make sure everyone gets the idea of how miserable Pepper’s life is, and by the time it crescendos up to the cosmic scale, things have gone way beyond high stakes — and it’s still a story of Pepper’s struggles. It’s just her struggles writ on a much wider scale. Plus there’s energy blasts and super-powered punches, so that’s pretty great, too.

Characterization is excellent, too, though the best developed characters are (obviously) Pepper and Mister McKittens, the hyper-intelligent, utterly droll cat who serves as Pepper’s personal sounding board and infodump generator.

The artwork by Eric Jones (and colors by Michael Drake and Pannel Vaughn) is absolutely spectacular. It’s got a lot of appealing cartoony qualities, but when it comes time for someone to get rocketed through space, to get blasted by quantum energy, to transform themselves, or to get thunder-punched clear across the city, that’s when the art jumps up to another level entirely, full of energy, motion, and power. It turns a thoroughly excellent and fun comic into a joyously, thrillingly exciting one.

Looking for a great comic to share with a younger reader? Looking for a great comic to share with a grownup reader, too? You’ll definitely want to pick this one up.

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Destination: Lagos

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to reviewing this, ’cause it’s been something that’s really stuck with me ever since I read it. Let’s take a look at Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor.

Okorafor published this Africanfuturist sci-fi novel back in 2014. The basic premise is: What if first contact between humans and aliens didn’t take place in a large, rich Western nation? What if it took place in Lagos, Nigeria?

Our lead characters are Adaora, a marine biologist whose husband’s religious devotion is pushing him into abusive rage; Agu, a soldier on the run after he attacked comrades attempting to rape a woman; and Anthony, best known to the world as Anthony Dey Craze, a hip hop superstar from Ghana. These three strangers find themselves on Lagos’ Bar Beach one night and end up getting startled by a tremendous sonic boom and then pulled out to sea by a strange wave.

And then a few minutes later, they get pushed back out of the ocean, accompanied by a woman who calls herself Ayodele. She looks perfectly normal — as long as you don’t look close enough to fall into the uncanny valley — but she’s not human. She’s not even biological. Ayodele is more like a collection of shapeshifting alien glass nanites, and her mission is to learn what she can about humanity, make friends, and decide what happens after that. So the four go to Adaora’s house, which she shares with Chris, her Christian fanatic husband, and her two children, so they can decide what to do.

It’s not long before word gets out. And all hell breaks loose in Lagos. While one bunch of goons decides to kidnap Ayodele, Chris’ church members, including the manipulative Father Oke, decide to hold an intervention to either convert her or kill her. And Anthony has announced an impromptu concert at Adaora’s house so they can tell everyone in the city about Ayodele and her people. And once a trigger-happy soldier shoots the alien, the biggest riot in the city’s history erupts.

Can the trio of humans escape the violence, convince Ayodele not to give up on or destroy humanity, retrieve Nigeria’s dying president, placate the monstrous human-eating highway that’s been roused to life by the chaos, discover the secrets that brought them together, and survive attacks by the ocean’s newly intelligent and upgraded sea life so they can meet with the aliens in person?

Verdict: Thumbs up. Okorafor is the American-born daughter of Nigerian parents, and she’s spent much of her life in Lagos. So she knows the city and the people there very well. She knows their strengths and their weaknesses, their nobility and less-than-nobility. She knows what makes the city succeed and what makes it fail. She brings all of this to this novel, giving us a strong but broad overview of life in Nigeria’s largest city.

And what we see is something very much unlike what we see in Western nations — except for all the ways it’s really, really similar. Yeah, it’s a different culture on a different continent. People think differently about life and death, gods and religion, money and jobs, law and crime, government, entertainment, poverty, and more. But it’s also been heavily influenced by the West. Nigeria isn’t Wakanda, an African paradise untouched by the decadent West — it’s a nation that’s grown up being told it should be more like the West, even while trying to hold on to the old traditions.

There’s also a lot of Nigerian slang and pidgin, which can be a little difficult. You can generally figure out the gist of what’s being talked about through context. However, Okorafor does provide a glossary of Nigerian language and slang in the back of the book, which I didn’t discover ’til I’d finished reading. So if you find yourself stumped, you can go check the glossary.

I often feel that Okorafor’s characters are a little touch-and-go — some of them are very strong, some feel more like they’re placeholders. In this novel, Adaora gets the most screen-time, but often feels like one of the least developed characters. Agu is pretty interesting and well-developed, but I most wished we could spend more time with Anthony, who felt like someone with a very interesting story to tell but no time to tell it — we barely even get to hear him rap, fer cry-eye. Ayodele is a mystery from beginning to end — we never learn much about her or the aliens, and often what she says once is contradicted by something else a few pages later.

But many of the best characters are less important ones. Chris and Father Oke are basically strawmen, but they do offer a look into the over-the-top evangelical mindset that seems to rule much of Christianity in Africa. Fisayo is a minor character with a fascinating backstory — office worker by day, prostitute by night, and with the coming of the aliens, a newborn proselytizer about the end of the world. A mute beggar boy gets a chapter of focus, just to make sure you really care about him before he runs into serious trouble.

Once the riots really get cooking, several chapters are devoted to individual Lagosians who witness the chaos and interact in some way with something strange or frightening, and these interludes are some of the best short character studies in the book.

And some of the most fun — and often most tragic — characters aren’t human or alien — namely, a furious and dangerously upgraded swordfish, a handicapped but admirably optimistic tarantula, and the most enlightened bat in the world.

And a few deities show up for the festivities, too, specifically Papa Legba, a god of languages and crossroads in a few different cultures, appears in more than one disguise, including a 419 scammer, and Udide Okwanka, an Igbo spider spirit who serves as a trickster, a master storyteller, and the bedrock of Lagos itself. Plus there’s the Bone Collector, a highway given monstrous life and an endless appetite for tasty humans.

And the biggest non-human characters in the book are the city of Lagos itself and the ocean — it’s the first place the aliens visit, the place where they offer the creatures there all the enhancements they can dream of, the place our heroes must travel through to speak with the aliens.

So is it worth reading? Heck, yeah. It’s a rapid-fire thrill ride through science fiction, fantasy, and a real city you’ve never heard of but probably won’t forget. There’s lots of action and excitement, short chapters so it’s easy to burn through, and a host of cool and weird characters, all wrapped around a crash course in a culture you’ve probably never experienced. Go check it out!

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Living After Midnight

It was just a few months back that I reviewed Jane Yolen’s story collection “The Emerald Circus,” and it was while I was writing that one up that I discovered there was a sequel to that book! (Actually, a couple of sequels, but I haven’t gotten the other one yet.) I grabbed it up as fast as I could, and now it’s time for a review of The Midnight Circus by Jane Yolen.

If you’re not familiar with Yolen, she’s one of the most prolific and admired authors around. She’s been writing for at least 50 years and has authored at least 400 books, ranging from fantasy and science fiction to children’s books, from nonfiction to poetry — and even a few comic books.

While “The Emerald Circus” featured Yolen’s short stories that were more fairy tale-focused, this book is considerably darker. Very few outright horror stories, but definitely many more dark fantasy tales.

Some of Yolen’s stories in this book include:

  • The White Seal Maid – A very well-told tale of a man and a selchie.
  • The Snatchers – Who is the strange stalker following a young man? And what’s his connection to a dark corner of Jewish history?
  • Wilding – When future technology allows young thrillseekers to change their shape, who will be the predators hunting them? And who will be the protectors keeping them safe?
  • Winter’s King – The bittersweet tale of the hard, cold life of a small boy born into hardship and dreaming of his lost people in the snow.
  • Inscription – A young woman turns to magic to ensnare her love, but doesn’t reckon with the toll she must pay.
  • Become a Warrior – The story of a princess who flees her fallen kingdom for the wilderness and eventually takes vengeance on her enemies.
  • An Infestation of Angels – A reboot of the Biblical Exodus, complete with a plague of genuinely dreadful angels.

And like Yolen’s previous collection, the book is rounded out with a section on “Story Notes and Poems,” which include her notes on how the stories were written, along with one of her poems on the same general theme.

Verdict: Thumbs up. It’s a really wonderful collection of stories, again holding to a general fairy tales theme, just with a bit more violence, a bit more blood, and a bit more sorrow.

No story collection is perfect, of course. I think I may have preferred “The Emerald Circus” — this edition had at least one story I thought was weird in all the wrong ways. But for the most part, these are thoroughly excellent tales, and they more than drown out the stories I didn’t enjoy as much.

Particular favorites of mine included the beautifully sad “Winter’s King,” the brutally downbeat “Dog Boy Remembers,” the twisty “Little Red,” the filthy but still powerful “Infestation of Angels,” and “Become a Warrior,” which lures you in with a princess fairy tale and then jams a hatchet through your sternum.

If you enjoy stories that put the Grim into the Fairy Tales, you’ll certainly want to pick this one up.

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Preacher Comforts

Ah, my wee fair ones, I’ve been sitting here pondering what I wanted to write about, and there ain’t nothing. Truly does the power of absolute laziness hold me in its grip. Shall nothing go on the blog? Shall none of ye wonderful bastiches receive my mad leet wisdoms?

Or shall I, mayhap, just say feckit and post an RPG character?

Aye, my wee fair ones, let’s do a GURPS thing.

Before we get too far, let’s review the usual GURPS background material.

GURPS is a point-based character system — stats over 10, advantages, and skills cost you points; stats under 10 and disadvantages get you some points back. Quirks are worth a negative point each (and limited to five) and must be roleplayed. Numbers in the square brackets are how many character points were allocated to each item. This is all done in GURPS 3rd Edition, ’cause 4th Edition was garbage.

In GURPS, 100 points is considered a good starting point for beginner-level, unpowered characters, being significantly above the average person, but not strong enough to power through every obstacle. Some campaigns, particularly those dealing with high-level fantasy or superhero games, can be much stronger, up to 500 points, 1,000 points, or even more.

This is Father Frank Franklyn, a Catholic priest.

Name: Father Frank Franklyn
Points: 100 Points
Appearance: White male; Age 32; 5’9″, 195 lbs.; thinning black hair; blue eyes; always wears his priest collar.

ST: 10 [0]
IQ: 13 [30]
DX: 11 [10]
HT: 11 [10]
Speed: 5.50
Move: 3
Dodge: 5/3
Parry: 8

Clerical Investment 1 [5] (Reaction: +1)
High Pain Threshold [10]
Strong Will +1 [4] (Will: 14)

Gluttony [-5]
Overweight [-5] (Extra body weight: 45)
Stubbornness [-5]
Vow (Catholic Priest) [-10]

Quirks: Gets angry with people who litter; Likes big-budget action movies; Loves to talk about philosophy; Tries to get bookish students to learn boxing; Loves to eat Mexican food. [-5]

Skills: Area Knowledge (Detroit)-15 [4]; Bard-14 [4]; Bicycling-12 [2]; Boxing-12 [4] (Parry: 8); Brawling-12 [2] (Parry: 8); Chess-14 [2]; Computer Operation-14 [2]; Detect Lies-13 [4]; Driving/TL7 (Motorcycle)-12 [4]; Exorcism-11 [1]; Fast-Talk-13 [2]; First Aid/TL7-14 [2]; History-12 [2]; Interrogation-11 [½]; Leadership-13 [2]; Philosophy-13 [4]; Streetwise-13 [2]; Teaching-14 [4]; Theology-15 [8]; Writing-13 [2]

Languages: English (native)-15 [2]; Latin-11 [½]; Spanish-12 [1]

Biography: Frank had a rotten life growing up, and had been abandoned by his parents by the time he was five. He grew up in a few better-then-average orphanages and foster homes in Detroit and was eventually enrolled in a Catholic boarding school, which led to a Catholic college education, and by then, he was happy to sign on as a priest. He admits he enjoys being a priest because it’s not hard work, and he retains a love for the city and a fondness for hard-luck kids.

Design Notes: Father Frank is a 100-point character. He was designed for modern-day settings, though he can be adapted to other settings and genres with little effort.

Honestly, I feel like he’d fit best in a horror campaign. But there ain’t no way he’s gonna live to see the final credits. He’s almost guaranteed Monster Chow.

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Convention Invention

Well, it’s been a year of lockdowns and quarantines and Zoom meetings and sourdough bread — and I know a lot of people have been missing going to conventions. So let’s take a look at a new novel about sci-fi conventions — with a few twists. Here’s The Con by J.D. DeLuzio.

This is the story of a convention. Two conventions, actually, both booked into the same Canadian hotel on the same weekend. One con is a very traditional science fiction convention; the other is a weekend-long meeting of the Jane Austen Society.

And because you can’t write about conventions without writing about people, this book is about a large-ish group of people attending one or the other con.

There’s Telfryn Tyde, a middle-aged geek with a history of mental illnesses; Brian and Augusta Slesak, married nerds with secrets; Patti Washington and Chelsea Ashe, supergeeks supreme; Thomas and Mark, nerd brothers chasing girls; Denise Moon, frustrated musician; Kate the Athlete, attending a con she doesn’t understand solely to chase her love; and Lady Susan Vernon — or rather, the hardcore roleplayer cosplaying as the minor Austen character.

Oh, and also Azogo of Uirtkauwea’ki, who might be someone wearing a stunningly complex costume… and might not be.

The book starts out a bit confusing, as a lot of characters are dropped on the reader in the space of just a few pages, and some of them are more important than others. But soon enough, all the characters get sorted out, aided by short spotlight chapters that let us get acquainted with everyone quickly.

It actually comes as a shock when the plot suddenly barrels onto the scene. Telfryn gets a couple sudden shocks that unexpectedly re-awaken the mental issues he thought he’d conquered long ago, and a chunk of the rest of the cast is enlisted in one way or another in locating him and helping him get back on a more even keel.

The story wraps up as the cast members make new connections, new friends, new relationships, ponder the nature of conventions, cons, and truths, and pack their cars to return to their normal lives.

Verdict: Thumbs up. A slow starter, but a book I came to enjoy a lot.

Far and away the most fun part of this novel is the characters — which was a little surprising because there were a few of these folks who I really disliked! Thomas and Mark, the nerdy girl-chasing brothers, were infuriatingly familiar, at least initially, though they got a lot more bearable as the story went on. And I never got to a point where I liked the Slesaks at all.

Lady Susan Vernon was also someone I had a hard time liking. All of her spotlight chapters were told through Lady Susan’s internal voice, which was entirely in-character as a scheming, shallow, seductive, judgmental Regency-era woman — in other words, it’s almost exactly as if Lady Susan Vernon were plucked out of Jane Austen’s unpublished novel and dropped into a modern sci-fi convention.

And I want to emphasize that my dislike of some of the characters was not in any way a bad thing! They were all fully realized and detailed. They felt like real people — it’s just that some of them had personalities I disliked, just like other real people.

The plot itself isn’t the most complex one in fiction, but it’s well-described, engrossing, even intense. And intensely weird, too, as that’s the point where we start to see something that might be science fictional going on — if we can believe our senses, that is.

And outside of the main plot, there are plenty of wonderful moments. The impromptu battlebot tournament in the garage. Kate’s meeting with the Doctor Who cosplayer. The genuinely moving, even glorious, Anglican evensong performed by Denise for the Janeites (and possibly a visitor from another planet).

It’s a great book about real people, even if they’re technically fictional. Go pick it up, okay?

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Time for a Black Superman

So you may have heard the news that there’s a new Superman movie in pre-pre-pre-production, with J.J. Abrams producing and Te-Nehisi Coates writing the script.

Details remain sketchy — particularly as there’s no director yet, and Coates probably hasn’t even started writing — but there are rumors that the Man of Steel may be played by a Black actor.

So the usual suspects — the racist Comicsgate dimwits — reacted the way they usually do when there’s a chance for any diversity in comics, film, or any sort of geek-friendly media.

“B-But Superman’s white! Superman’s always been white! It’s a betrayal of the character if he’s not white! MY CHILDHOOD IS BEING DESTROYED!”

These people are so very tiresome.

So there are lots of reasons a movie with a Black actor playing Superman should be made. If it’s got a good script and good director and good actors, obviously, yes, it’d be a great movie, and that’s enough. Wouldn’t it be great to tell the story of the Man of Tomorrow and how he deals with the prejudices of yesterday?

But to be honest, I want them to make that movie with a Black actor because it will infuriate the racists.

I’m tired of Hollywood — and the entertainment industry in general — tiptoeing around these racist (and sexist and homophobic and transphobic) creeps like they’re actually an important audience. These dudes scream every time there’s gonna be a geeky or action movie starring women or Black people or any non-white, non-Christian non-male, and all too often, Hollywood acts like their backwards opinions need to be listened to.

It’s not so. They’ve been wrong about “Captain Marvel” and “Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman” and “Into the Spider-Verse” and more. Their opinions are shit. And Hollywood should relish it when racist dumbwads get angry at them. They’re angry, stupid, racist, and impotent, so fuck them and their backwards, moronic beliefs.

So yes, we need a Black Superman (and a Black Batman, Black Wonder Woman, Black Spider-Man, and Black Captain America) because Hollywood (and the comics industry) have been catering to racists for much too long — and because pissing off stupid racists is all the reason anyone should need.

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