Thursday, September 24, 2015

Kaiju Rising - Part 1

Kaiju Rising by various authors. Edited by Tim Marquirz & Nick Sharps. Originally published by Ragnarok Publications, February 2014. Approx. 552 pages.

Two years ago, I was honored to be one of the Kickstarter backers for Ragnarok Publication's ambitious kaiju-themed anthologies. Rooted in a theme near and dear to my heart (giant monsters), and brought to life on paper by an prospective array of talented authors (including a quartet of Black Library veterans), this was a no-brainer.
However, my own problems, namely the infamous glacial reading pace, exacerbated by the even more glacial writing pace, and a severely limited amount of reading time, has consigned way too many anthologies to dusty to-be-read heaps.
I finally said "no more". I was dedicated to getting a comprehensive review of Kaiju Rising up. Especially since the second Ragnarok anthology, Blackguards, which I also backed, is accumulating a noticeable layer of dust as well. Plus, later this year, the Mech anthology goes up for backing too.
Anyway. Fact is, though, these anthologies are real doorstoppers. It's going to take forever to get even this one done, and, to be honest, I want to start chipping away at some other anthologies too. So, the only fair thing to do is to break the review up into parts. Roughly 25 stories here, so, five at a go.
Without further ado, here are the first five stories from Kaiju Rising....
(And don't forget; at the end of each story is a picture of the kaiju from the tale. There are some real winning pics here.)

Big Ben and the End of the Pier Show by James Lovegrove (20pgs):
The opening story in the anthology, Big Ben and the End of the Pier Show gives off a real "Pacific Rim" type vibe. There is a rampaging kaiju, and a country-specific robot to defend against it (here called "KRV"s - Kaiju Response Vehicles). The storytelling is fun, and the action is solid. Lovegrove wisely puts the right amount of humor, never going overboard.
What the story lacks, however, is a sympathetic human linchpin. Not to say that all kaiju tales need a human character to evoke emotion. Not at all. But, in this story, while we are introduced to a human lead, not much is done with him. His involvement bookends the story. Ergo, we have no real concern for the Pier Show, or what happens to it.
Again, the main stars here - Big Ben (the KRV) and Red Devil (the kaiju) shine in their own right. Their climactic battle is very satisfying.
The end, however, is another story. I outright hated the ending. It is very tacked-on, and saccharine beyond compare. Not to mention that it isn't grounded in any conceivable logic. There are a few jabs by Lovegrove throughout the story at soulless corporations that bully others due to excess capital, and yet, at the end we are supposed to buy that the government is capable of grand benevolence and generosity? Ok. Giant monsters are more believable than that any day of the week.
In the end, big Ben and the End of the Pier Show is like a monster movie DVD that works best when you fast forward over the talky bits and just watch the action.
Score: 6.5/10

The Conversion by David Annandale (20pgs):
Let me just lay it out there before I get into the review itself: this story blew me away. Veteran Warhammer 40K scribe Annandale flexes some serious horror chops in a splendid kaiju tale about a creature, very aptly named the Eschaton, unleashing biblical Hell upon England.
Written in a very dark tone, and interspersed throughout with stanzas from William Blake's powerful poem "Jerusalem", The Conversion is a seriously character-driven story that goes beyond the monster and destruction and focuses on a more powerful force: faith.
Anchoring the human portion of The Conversion (quite well too) is Joyce Caldwell, a Brigadier General in the British Army. Caldwell is a well-rounded character; she is strong, shrewd, caring, and soul-crushingly weary. She has seen firsthand the evils of both man and monster in the seven years since the Eschaton first arrived. And now, she finds herself tasked with maintaining a last line of defense in Manchester, knowing full well the ultimate futility of it. For, you see, England is one of the last stops on the Eschaton's world tour. It is known that no weapon known to man has yet had any impact on the creature. Plus, there is nowhere left for the residents to evacuate to.
Adding to Caldwell's stress is the constant harrying of her religious fanatic brother, Sam Bickford, a strong leader of masses who have found that faith is the only thing they have left to cling to. Bickford has a plan that he is sure will work. And a lot of it hinges on Caldwell giving him something that she does not believe is at her disposal...
On the monster side, I absolutely love the Eschaton. Annandale wisely portrays this walking doomsday as an exercise in contradictory appearance, with ultimate lethality being the only constant. I really don't throw this term around casually, but the first appearance of the creature was literally frightening.
Another aspect that was done extremely well was portraying size and geography. Instead of just talking about stomping and smashing, Annandale gives you a real sense of the mass of the Eschaton; the length of its strides and a feeling of being an insignificant human gazing up at more than thirty stories of ambulatory doom. Also, he really brings the landscape to life, making you feel the loss of destroyed landmarks, instead of just name dropping famous targets. And finally, Annandale also pens the best description of "death breath" that I have read yet (I know, there are many more stories to come).
All of these things add up to a great story, but just as important is the underlying message; and that is a message about faith. Whether you are religious or fall into the secular side of society, faith is an integral aspect; faith in humanity, faith in what is truly right and wrong, and faith in the truth of some sort of higher power. It may be easy to turn from a name recorded in a book, but not so much the physical embodiment of the End of Times. What a great story.
Score: 10/10

Day of the Demigods by Peter Stenson (14pgs):
And now for some unquestionably lighter fare. Peter Stenson's Day of the Demigods tells the story of Sweetgrass, a self-loathing son of a whore kaiju turned 'roider who decides to make his mark in Hollywood.
Stenson plays up the obvious comic ramifications of that absurd premise, but there is more here. He also hits the mark on many aspects of the self-loathing stigma that affects personalities lacking in self-esteem and confidence. It's just that the snarky tone makes it hilarious too.
There's not much else to say here; it's a pretty short tale. Sweetgrass' big stomping moment is done very well; and the first person narrative really shines here. You get a real idea of his frustration as what he thought was a given (that the people would be happy to see him) doesn't go as well as planned, like pretty much everything else in his life. After the dark mood of The Conversion, Demigods supplied some much needed levity.
Warning: a lot of cursing and sexual references. Be prepared if that isn't your thing.
Score: 8/10

The Lighthouse Keeper of Kurohaka Island by Kane Gilmour (28pgs):
On an uncharted island off the coast of Japan, a father indoctrinates his son into the family business; keepers of a lighthouse on this peculiar landmass. As he shows him around, they open up to each other about another family secret, a special talent gifted upon first-born sons: the ability to see monsters.
What follows is a family flashback that serves as an alternate history account of what really happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For, even though only the gifted can see the kaiju of this world, they can apparently leave tangible damage.
There are some things that really work in Lighthouse Keeper. Gilmour does a serviceable job with the writing, and he excels when depicting the creatures. He tries to add some valid detail of what Japan looked like in the 40's as well, which is admirable. In fact, as far as details are concerned, the destruction scene plays out something like this video:

Minus anyone going Super Saiyan, of course.

That's all well and good. Characters here are nothing spectacular. The skill of sight is a fine novelty and all. 
But there are some annoyances too. One is repetition. Gilmour restates the specifics of the firstborn son gift time and again, plus another instance of repeating blatantly telegraphs any surprise that might have been contained in the last few lines. Also, some descriptive terms aren't integrated as seamlessly as they could've been. For example, we learn that there is a wide diaspora of kaiju sizes, which makes sense. Fine. Then, later on, as the giant monsters are fighting, there is a line referring to them as "omega-class" kaiju. these creatures that most normal people cannot even see now have official designations? Doesn't make sense. 
Also, another pet peeve of mine is when an author discovers a word they like about halfway through the narrative and then uses it a little too liberally. One of the combatants here is a giant, two-headed snake creature. A good deal into the battle, Gilmour describes it as ouroboros-like. From then on, he keeps referring to it as an "ouroboros". Not for nothing, but for most readers, the term ouroboros does not denote "serpentine", it more implies "self-devouring". If the creature in the story wrapped itself around, it would be French kissing itself, not eating.
All things aside though, the monster action is good here. The kaiju concepts are solid, and the "good" kaiju has many shades of under-appreciated daikaiju icon Gamera. Actually, I was wondering how deep the Gamera comparisons went, especially since one of the death scenes involved a rather useless, portly youth...
"If you can't save them all, let the annoying ones go first." ~what Darwin should have said.

Not bad, but not reinventing the wheel either.
Score: 6.5/10

Occupied by Natania Barron (18 pgs):
Five stories in, and Occupied by Natania Barron is the most fiercely original kaiju piece yet. The creature featured in this tale is not a product of nature, but a writhing amalgamation of fallen angels (drawing inspiration from the Book of Enoch) awoken from a million year slumber.
The concept of angels as a destructive force is a brilliant stroke, somewhat reminiscent of the Angels of Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Barron writes with wonderful style that will haunt you for a good while after reading. The first pages focus on a two-sided dynamic between creator and creation, although it seems more "awaker" and "awakened". Barron does not waste time with lengthy expository background setting; she cleverly weaves the notions of how the society operates through well-places cues.
All of this builds up to a pretty stirring climax; one that is well imagined and greatly realized.
Barron does her creations a great service by fully realizing them; these fallen angels have such a wide range of emotions; fear, sadness, anger, passion. This investment in creating the characters allows the reader greater investment in sympathizing with them. Tell me after reading this that you cannot personally feel Penemue's excitement upon release, fears for the damage his brothers may cause, and his urgency in his attempts to stop them.
Dark, poetic, evocative, and moody, are some of the words that first come to mind when describing this tale. But also beautiful. For all the dark, frightening images, there is true beauty here. Beauty terrible to behold. Very, very good story.
Score: 9/10

Monday, September 21, 2015


Dishonoured by Ray Harrison. A Warhammer 40,000 short story, Day 5 of the Summer of Reading 2015 (Week 1). Originally published by The Black Library, August 2015. Approx. 36 pages.

Dishonoured offers an interesting slice of Warhammer 40K history; the tale of how High Marshal (Chapter Master) Helbrecht of the Black Templars suffered a crushing defeat, and lost his hand (I'm actually surprised this wasn't put under the banner of Lords of the Space Marines or Space Marine Battles). This is a fairly engaging story, but some choices in execution plant it firmly as a middle of the road tale.

The story kicks off as Helbrecht and his command squad are embroiled in yet another massive onslaught by the Necrons on the mining world of Schrödinger VII. All the while, they are receiving reports of other detachments of Templars faring not too well at all.

To make matters worse, at the end of the battle, a cryptek steps in and takes off with Helbrecht's standard and standard bearer. Truly enraged at the loss (but also needing to get back to the main outpost), Helbrecht guilt-shames his champion into undertaking a geas with the purpose of retrieving them.

To be fair, it really is worth hunting down...

And so, here Dishonoured bifurcates. Helbrecht and the last of his command team start to head back, and champion Aergard heads off to retrieve standard and bearer.

What works here are the ways Harrison pens her action scenes, and her depiction of the necrons. She etches them out in very vivid detail, which is crucial because there is very little you can do with them in terms of personality.

Unfortunately, emotion, which should have been a linchpin of this story, is not realized. There is anger, rage, etc., yes. But we really needed to see the pits of despair at the sheer losses, and the peaks of rage from injured pride.

The dialogue here, while not bad, is pretty generic. In any situation, you get some bold declarations, moral statements, and jocular quips. That's pretty much it as far as emotive tools. Well, there is also a scene where a human gives one of the Templars a token of faith that is an almost word-for-word parallel of a scene in Rynn's World.

The taunting in the climactic duel between Helbrecht and Necron Stormlord Imotekh is pretty stilted as well. Honestly, I'd have no idea how to pen goading dialogue between a commander of an ancient alien race and the Master of a Chapter of genetically-engineered superhumans. But this mockery is on a direct-to-VHS action movie bad guy level.

Yet, again, for all the issues I have with Dishonoured, there are still the elements which work. For example, Harrison effectively portrays an atmosphere of time and spatial distortion when the rescue party is searching within an Necron monolith.

In the end, Dishonoured is a decent actioner. It should have been a tale that conveyed the roots of rage, and the need for redemption (springing from heavy underpinnings of shame). Instead, it is a historical footnote that reads as "oh, so that's how it happened. Cool."

Here's what it is:
How Helbrecht lost his hand. Nice Necron scenes too.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

One of the nicer pictures of Marshal Helbrecht. Wish they would've cropped it so I could see the full sword. What is a Templar without his sword?

Cover Final Score:


Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Hollow Beginnings

Hollow Beginnings by Mark Clapham. A Warhammer 40,000 Space Wolves short story, Day 4 of the Summer of Reading 2015 (Week 1). Originally published by The Black Library, August 2015. Approx. 20 pages.

Space Wolves. Space Wolves everywhere. In the buildup to what I am guessing will be a grand mal Wolfgasm surrounding the release of Aaron Dembski-Bowden's Ragnar Blackmane, the lupine space vikings have infiltrated pretty much all of the new release slots over at the Black Library (still waiting for them to pop up in Age of Sigmar, which would be a marked improvement). Really don't need to restate that the wet leopard growl Sons of Fenris aren't my favorite Chapter, so what I will say is that so long as they are written in as fun a manner as we get here in Hollow Beginnings, I don't mind them one bit.

Another simple story premise here: we meet up with a Space Wolves pack, led by one Sergeant Anvindr, as they are helping to close up a campaign on the planet Durrl, spearheading a mission to retrieve the head of the warboss Stumpgutz. Well, actually, the first few pages of the story focuses on a detachment of Tallarn Imperial Guard, as they run cleanup duty on the perimeter of Stumpgutz's smoldering fortress. This is a nice little treat; since the Tallarns get almost no page time in recent Black Library offerings.

The actual action setpiece involving the retrieval of Stumpgutz's noggin comprises the middle of hollow Beginnings. And it is a very nice piece. The inter-pack banter is fun without teetering into obnoxiousness, and the action is solid. There's something about two primal warrior groups like the Space Wolves and Orks going literally toe to toe that makes the action extra crunchy. And it's not just the fight scenes that are done well. Clapham does a superb job setting tone, as evidenced in lines like this:

"Victory required someone to take the head of the warboss, even if it was just hacked from its scorched corpse. Proof of death was required, a trophy to take for the glory of the Emperor, and Anvindr decided that he and his squad would be the ones to take it."

Nice stuff there.

So, if the main battle is resolved 3/4 of the way through the story, what else is left? Well, first of all, let me state this. I did not realize heading into Hollow Beginnings that this isn't the first outing for Anvindr and his pack. Clapham actually penned another tale featuring them, In Hrondir's Tomb, which you can get in its original release in Hammer & Bolter 20 (along with a bunch of other good stories) for $2.99, or you can buy it on its own from the Summer of Reading program for $4.99 a la carte. You don't need to be a business major to spot the better value there. Anyway, I hadn't read it before, but now most likely will. This is a fun pack to follow, and further adventures with them look promising.

That brings us to the ending, which serves as a segue to the next tale (and also clarifies the wordplay of the story title). For this portion of the story, I'm thinking that reading In Hrondir's Tomb probably clarifies the emotional response much better, but even the first time reader can piece together what's transpiring.

In closing, reading In Hrondir's Tomb isn't a prerequisite. This story is very enjoyable on its own. The Space Wolves are done well, the Orks are done well. I just wish we could've seen more of the Tallarns.

Small Nitpick (Minor Spoiler):
I will mention one portion of the big action piece that did bother me. During the clash between the Wolves and Stumpgutz, Anvindr gets his bolter knocked out of his hands, leaving him to rely on his chainsword. Once his chainsword is destroyed, he is immediately charging in using his bolter. It might seem too particular to harp on this minor detail, but just one sentence would have clarified that a speedy retrieval had taken place. Anyway, very minor thing.

Here's what it is:
A pack of Space Wolves head into a burning fortress to give a nasty ork warboss the unkindest haircut of all.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

See? Much better without the all-black background, especially when the character image is done in muted colors.

Cover Final Score:


Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Crossings

The Crossings by Jack Ketchum. Originally published by Cemetary Dance Publications, June 2003. Approx. 110 pages. 

I was recently trying to make a shortlist of potential horror tales to review for Halloween season, and a friend of mine recommended Jack Ketchum. If I remember correctly, I leafed through The Girl Next Door years ago after watching the movie. Going through some of Ketchum's library of works, The Crossings jumped out at me. A taut novella set in the brutal, real Old West? Sounded good. Since it turned out to be more of a revenge tale than a horror story, I figured I'd put the review up now.

To get things rolling, I am going to start by posting the blurb for the story. I know that I don't usually do this, but this is one of the cases where the blurb sets a far better primer than I could ever hope to type up.

"It's the Arizona Territory. The year, 1848. The year the Mexican War ended. Fate and blazing pistols have just thrown together reporter and part-time drunk Marion T. Bell and the very nearly legendary John Charles Hart, mustanger and scout, in the Little Fanny Saloon. Plying the river-trade across the Colorado to the gold fields of California in the north, and war-torn Mexico to the south, the town of Gable's Ferry has sprung up overnight;lacking only a church, a schoolhouse and a jail.

Though some would say that only the jail was needed.

A rough place in a lawless era. About to become a hell of a lot more so one night when Hart, Bell and the easy-going giant Mother Knuckles stumble upon Elena, a fierce, young, badly wounded Mexican woman near the banks of the Colorado. She's naked. She's been bullwhipped, knifed and branded. And she tells them about the kidnap, rape and servitude she and her sister have endured at the hands of las hermanas de lupo, the deadly Valenzura Sisters and their henchman, the deserter Paddy Ryan, at the well-manned slave-camp across the river aptly called Garanta del Diablo; Mouth of the Devil.

It's just three hundred years since Cortez. Only three hundred years since the Old Gods of Mexico were in their full and fearsome flower.

Tezcatlipoca, god of the moon and the night. Tlazolteotl, Eater of Filth. Xipe, Lord of the Flayed.

Blood for rain. Blood for bounty.

For many, like the Valenzura Sisters, they have never died.

And Elena's sister's still there."

Going from this, let's talk about the things that work well, and the elements that, well, don't work so much.

Ketchum has an exciting writing style. Even though this novella is riddled with tropes and predictable scenarios, the setting is a scorching painting of the Old West; and the characters, familiar as they may be, still elicit a sympathetic emotional investment from the reader.

What I am guessing most people expect from Ketchum is brutal, visceral action and shocking sexual situations. On both fronts, prepare to be satisfied. Blood streams forth in rapid streams, and some sexual boundaries are pushed.

And yet, there is something missing here. Like a finely sculpted chocolate Easter Bunny that you find out after biting into it that it is hollow.

As likable as the characters are, there is just as strong a lack of depth about them. The abysmal fathoms of Hart's inner loss is never charted, the testing of Hart's purity against the horrors he sees before him is not truly contrasted, and there is no tempering of Mother Knuckles' inner softness with the potential destructiveness of his physical bearing.

This failing is felt even more so on the side of the villains. In a story where the good guys teeter on the side of being cardboard cutouts, the bad guys should have a chance to run carte blanche with their wicked whims. Not so much here. The parameters set for Paddy Ryan and the Valenzura Sisters leave endless potential for depravity and plain, nasty old evil, but it isn't optimized. Instead, we get some fairly linear action scenes. Well-written ones, yes. But nothing to make us feel as though these are the very real bogeymen that frighten even our adult souls. Compare Paddy Ryan to Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Holden is the face of terror, while Ryan is just a terrifying face. And no, this isn't the last time I'll be comparing The Crossings to Blood Meridian. More on that later.

It is not only the characters that suffer from a lack of depth. There is so much missed potential in other themes as well. I was pretty excited at the proposal of weaving the gods of Old Mexico into the tumultuous New Land. But let's be honest; for the climactic portions, those gods are simply name dropped. There is no intricate weaving of them as essential elements into the narrative. The ceremonies, both sacrificial and sexual, done in their name are more exploitative than haunting. And I say this because earlier on, Elena, the aforementioned escapee, performs an erotically charged ritual; and this scene does in fact capture the spirituality that is sorely missing in the latter portions.

Now, I make a comparison between The Crossings and Blood Meridian before, and I just want to expand on that. I am in no way saying that McCarthy's magnum opus is the sole reference point for brutal Westerns, just the definitive one. Also, I am not a seasoned enough reader of Ketchum's works to dare dictate what is "his" writing style. That's a level of self-important hubris I simply hope I don't have. What I am saying is that looking over the story; the scene building portions are detailed much better when Ketchum writes in a direct, succinct manner. He manages to paint extremely vivid panoramas of not just the place, but also the time. But then, there are some rambling, run-on, pseudo-poetic sentences which just read as experimental toe-dipping in Blood Meridian's pool.

Maybe it's just my interpretation. Believe me, I am fully aware that I am more often wrong than right.

For all the nit-picking I may have done here, trust me, this is a fun, exciting read. I am just pointing out what would have made it great. Take an afternoon or two, and enjoy the hell out of it. But also tell me that from the get-go you couldn't guess who was going to live, and who was going to die, and in what order.

Here's what it is:
A fairly standard revenge tale gets elevated by the prose of a master of writing sex and violence. A must-read if you like stories of the Mean Old West.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Middle of the road here. You have Elena and the cowboys at the titular crossings, and a shadowy image of Old Eva. Nothing bad, but nothing eye-popping either.

Cover Final Score:


Wednesday, September 9, 2015


Monolith by Chris Dows. A Warhammer 40,0000 short story, Day 3 of the Summer of Reading 2015, originally published by The Black Library, August, 2015. Approx. 25 pages.

Day 3 of the first week of the Summer of Reading 2015 brings us an Imperial Guard (sorry, Astra Militarum) tale focusing on Elysian Drop Troops. I hadn't realized, heading in, that this is actually Dows' second tale featuring Elysian Sergeant Zachariah, the first being The Mouth of Chaos, which appeared in Hammer and Bolter 22.

This might actually be one of my shorter reviews, since the premise here is pretty thin, even for a short story. There is the titular monolith, a mile high monstrosity whose function is never clearly stated. Held for years by a Cadian detachment, it is being overrun by Chaos Space Marines of the Blood Disciples Chapter. It falls on Zachariah and his Drop Troopers to dive in and take it back.

What Monolith might not have in setting, it makes up in execution. Dows is a writer who obviously did some homework involving the skydiving aspects. Well, to be honest, I've never gone skydiving; but the mechanics of the opening drop sequence gave me a genuine feeling of immersion.

In fact, the opening few pages are some of the best that I've read in a recent Black Library publication. This doesn't mean that the rest of the story is sub-par; but it does follow a distinctly by-the-numbers narrative.

All of this got me to thinking, though. In the author bio at the end of the story, there is mention of Dows' work in the comic book industry. The way Monolith is storyboarded, and the way descriptive elements and action scenes are written out, it seems that this tale would have worked much better as a graphic novel. Furthermore, as I mentioned before, the opening scene far surpasses the rest of the story; and a good reason for that is a surgically precise detailing of the action in lieu of any real dialogue. So then I thought; how great would it have been if this entire story ran in that manner; focusing on the absolute efficiency of the Elysians, with a complete absence of dialogue. Kind of like Marvel's classic Issue 21 of G.I. Joe, Silent Interlude.

But, reviewing what we have; you get blistering action, which is nicely over the top in some places (one instance bugged me a bit, but it's a spoiler so I'll put it at the end), great pacing, and truly likable characters. I would love to read a full length novel featuring Zachariah and his troops.

Here's what it is:
A very solid short story showcasing a very interesting Guard unit type. A truly exhilarating opening, excellent action throughout, truly memorable characters, but a standard premise and dialogue that works better in comic book bubbles.

I don't care how tough of a Guardsman you are, and I don't care if the Space Marine is toying with you in a cat and mouse fashion; once a Chaos Marine wraps his mitts around your throat in anger, you are toast. Plain and simple.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Again with a muted character pic with the all black background. Sorry, it didn't work with Whiteout, and it doesn't work here. Plus, there's nothing exciting or eye-catching about this Drop Trooper. I'm sure there are better pictures of Elysians that they could have used.

This one for example.

Cover Final Score: