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

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