Monday, May 23, 2016

Kaiju Rising - Part 2

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

Last September I started reviewing some of the shorts in this monstrous anthology which was published back in 2014. I have been pretty remiss in returning to it to read the next batch; but wanted to catch up, especially with Ragnarok's Mech anthology being successfully backed. So, without further ado, here are the next five short stories from the Kaiju Rising collection:

One Last Round by Nathan Black (36pgs):
One of the nice backing options this Kickstarter offered was a chance to submit your own story. There were, I believe, three available slots, and this is the first one.

What Nathan Black offers here is a homage to all the great Ultraman type tokusatsu shows of old. In this story, one can guess that kaiju attacks occur with some frequency. Also, things are at a point where not only are kaiju movies, featuring authentic kaiju response type robots, a thing, but they are also waning in popularity. In this short, a team of robot pilots, taken out of commission by the government bureaucracies that be, reassemble to try and stop a rampant crocodilian kaiju from leveling New Orleans.

Ok, first of all, congratulations to Nathan Black for getting his work published. There is no better reward for a backer than finding their own work in the finished product. Now, as for the story itself, it's pretty rough. The characters are pretty simple, but I took that as intentional, since this reads like a tokusatsu episode. Just like in those shows, most of the team members fall into standard templates. There is a mouthy rebel type, quick with his fists, a tough, beautiful female member, and an overweight one with a heart of gold.

The winning angles are the kaiju, Grimmgarl, and KRASER, the robot that heads off to do battle with her. Black's descriptions of both are very solid, and he has conceived his kaiju very well.

Also in this tale is Colonel Ausum, who satisfies the Ultraman element as the hero who can transform to kaiju size. What we get mostly of him is a vivid portrayal of his uniform, and well-described descriptions of his special attacks. Two things, however, would have made Ausum more, well, awesome. First would have been even a paragraph or two of backstory on him, letting us know who he is as a hero. Second, one of the things that makes Ultraman exciting is that they use professional martial artists in the suits. There is mention of one of his attacks being an ax kick, but other than that, tying his attack combos to an actual martial arts style would've helped a lot.

Now, the aspect of this story that I personally feel needed the most help is in regards to location. I'm just throwing this out there as a reader's observation. In the beginning of the story, there is some commentary on the toughness of New Orleans and its residents. Ok, fine. Great jumping point. However, after this, there is absolutely no sense that this story takes place there. There are plenty of iconic neighborhoods and architecture in New Orleans, an author should have had a field day letting a monster destroy it. The point is; if the resiliency of a certain area is at the heart of your story, then you should show us how the facade can be destroyed, but the spirit never broken.

Even in kaiju and tokusatsu films, specific cities and areas are recognizable in the model work.

Now, this might seem like a lot of criticism, but the story was still fun, and I'd read another story with this group in a heartbeat. Plus, the kaiju was excellent. HachiSnax Note: Just realized that Grimmgarl is, in fact, a creature from the Colossal Kaiju Combat universe.
Score: 5/10

The Serpent's Heart by Howard Andrew Jones (27pgs):
Jones writes pulp-style stories featuring Cossack/Middle Eastern protagonists in the vein of Harold Lamb. The Serpent's Heart is a good example of this. In this tale, we follow the surviving members of a ship sent by the caliph to kill a sea serpent which has been attacking merchant vessels. Told in the first person by the bodyguard of the scholar (Asim and Dabir of Jones' Desert of Souls series) sent to head up this expedition, the story follows the group as they are rescued by a fearsome Chinese alchemist who has plans of her own regarding the creature.

A little bit SPOILER-Y: What I really like about this story is how Jones turns this "olden times" story into a kaiju vs. mech tale. The characters and dialogue are engaging and enjoyable; the scenes with the diabolical Lady Xin and her dread ship are a blast. In fact, the only thing anti-climactic was the sea serpent itself.

All in all a fun little pulp throwback that evokes the adventures of Sinbad.
Score: 8/10

Monstruo by Mike MacLean (17 pgs):
Short but sweet is the best way to describe this tale by screenwriter MacLean. In MacLean's world, the invading kaiju are weapons of mass destruction utilized by aliens. However, they require a form of intellectual remote control, via a human host. Thus, we have creepy little hatchlings a la Alien which infect the unlucky target.

The story is seen, for the most part, through the eyes of Lieutenant Grimes, a tough Marine who specializes in eliminating these hosts, thereby severing the control. The problem is; the monster that arrives in Mexico where he is vacationing has been tethered to a host who happens to be a nine year old boy.

So, for the duration of the story, we alternate between Grimes and Carlito, the young boy. Grimes faces a pretty harsh dilemma; kill the kid or let millions die. This kind of scenario forces itself on your emotional heartstrings with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but you tend to not mind when it is written well. And Monstruo is written well. The characters aren't deep, but they are recognizable and well-written. The action pops off the page. Best of all, the details of the kaiju are excellent and terrifying; from the great description of its terrible shriek, to the stomach-churning description of the smell it emits. Good stuff.
Score: 8.5/10

The Behemoth by Jonathan Wood (31 pgs):
Next up, we have another story that has a tandem theme to it. This time, it is on the side of the mech operators. In The Behemoth, which takes place in Chicago some hundred-odd years in the future, mechs are a defense mechanism against the Leviathans, kaijus released from the melted ice caps.

Piloting a mech in this world is extremely taxing on the body; so, to absorb the brunt of this physical and emotional toll, proxies are used. There is no sugar-coating it; proxies are effectively punishment sponges. There is no skill involved in the job; and, since no one in their right mind would volunteer for the job, a lottery is held.

In the midst of this world is our protagonist, Tyler. This is his story, and it is told in the style of fractured flashbacks. It chronicles his rise to being a pilot, and his struggles with substance abuse. Unfortunately, Tyler is the ultimate functioning drug addict; and the drugs make him a better pilot than he ever could have been on his own.

Tyler also has Lila, his emotional core and support. In love since first meeting in High School, she has always been his rock. This all falls to pieces when she receives her "winning" lottery ticket....

This is another story that packs the emotional schmaltz on with the world's largest shovel, but it is written so damn well. The narration is great; angry, bitter, emotional. The violence is solid, and the mech and kaiju properly awe-inspiring. And, the love that tries to hold on despite all the hardships; if that doesn't evoke a strong feeling, then you probably don't have a heart.

Great stuff, knockout ending.
Score: 9.5/10

The Greatest Hunger by Jaym Gates (13 pgs):
Another short entry in the game here, Gates pens a dark tale of a world in which kaiju started appearing after World War II and quickly became a commodity for greedy capitalists. Now, kaiju fight in battle pits, working alongside a handler. However, the protagonist here, a handler herself, has a dark secret all her own. She possesses frightening powers that extend far beyond the kaiju empathy that those around her can see.

The Greatest Hunger has a lofty, legitimate premise and some poetic, lurid writing. However, it didn't quite seal the deal. The imagery of the time period isn't fully optimized, and it features multiple occurrences of one of my pet peeves - expository parenthetical statements (especially given that this is a first-person POV).

The main character's kaiju, Derecho, is well realized, and there is some real imagination behind some of the other creatures. Plus, some wickedly sensual situations bolster what we have. But, again, take that final reveal; and, in a story as compact as this, that message should have been driven in like a nail into the temple.
Score: 6.5/10

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