TLRFA-3

Max cleared his throat. “Well, I suppose this is as good an opportunity as any for turning it over to you, Mrs. Lurge. Can you tell us why you’re so sure  Mr. McIntyre had a hand in your husband’s death?”

“Why, the McIntyres have been rivals with the Lurges since the beginning! You know—everyone knows. This city has been the home of the robotics industry ever since the war. The Lurge family was first of course,” she said firmly.

“Of course,” said Max.

“—but the McIntyres have always been nipping at our heels. You know, they say that even at the height of the war in ’57, the McIntyres were sending spies in to steal our designs.”

“Surely all that’s behind you now,” said Max hastily. “The Robot Wars are history—military robotics have been banned.”

“Oh, sure,” said the widow sarcastically, “but, well… R&D doesn’t just stop.  Prototypes don’t just disappear. The government may have outlawed military robotics research officially, but we’re still a key part of industry, and the McIntyres are just green with envy about it.”

There was a long pause. Venus glanced at Sandra, hoping for a cue as to how to reply.

“As I understand it, most of the Lurge revenue these days comes from tourists and historians interested in the old family plant,” said Max finally.

She gave a most un-lady-like snort. “Only because the McIntyres hired out-of-state lawyers who could find them ways to leech up IRRP funding, forcing us to do something to stay in the game,” she spat. She paused a moment, trying to restore her demure manner.  “But yes, it so happens that we have been able to carve a very lucrative niche for ourselves as a number one attraction for visitors to Gelunbu.”

“It certainly is,” Venus jumped in seeming eager for the diversion, “Uh,  I saw a fascinating piece on it from the ChamCom just the other day.  It’s hard to miss the holoverts on the bypass, especially this time of year.”

Mrs. Lurge gave a small but warm smile towards Venus. “Thank you, dear. Our Haunt-omaton tour gets more popular every year. We’re very proud of it, and what it means to the community.”

“Hold on,” said Sandra. “What is this now?”

Mrs. Lurge turned to her with an air of disapproval. “The annual Lurge factory Haunt-omaton tour and Robo-ghost Factory attracts tens of thousands of visitors every year,” she said coldly, “Not to mention all the paranormal historians who come to investigate.”

“Oh… well, good,” said Sandra.

“It’s been an excellent source of revenue for the company since the government outlawed their original raison d’être after the war,” said Max, and, as if sensing Mrs. Lurge’s icy glare, added hastily, “And the tour provides a wonderful night of thrills and chills for young and old alike.”

He sounds like he’s reading off a brochure, Sandra smirked inwardly. Still, she marveled at Max’s ability to be so fast on his feet and to come up with these tidbits of trivia . 

Mrs. Lurge seemed as though she might continue on this tangent, so Sandra gently nudged her back on topic.

“And the McIntyre outfit… they’ve got nothing like this tour, I take it?”

“No,” the older woman sniffed. “They lack our vision.  As does the state bureaucracy. Don’t get me started on the government. They’ve been trying to buy out the factory from us every other day. But that’s not the key issue here.”

Mrs. Lurge leaned in closer, almost conspiratorially: “Do you know, Lothar has been convinced that McIntyre and his goons have been sabotaging our factory for years? It started as simple vandalism, or stolen goods. But lately it’s been escalating—missing components from the displays, pipes breaking, electricity flickering on and off at random times.”

“Why would McIntyre do that? Seems like a good way to get his keister charged with corporate espionage,” asked Sandra.

Mrs. Lurge pursed her lips. “There are many reasons: first and foremost, jealousy. But more than that, as I said, the state wants to buy us out. Don’t you see: McIntyre would love nothing more than to see us crushed by those do-nothing bureaucrats. So he was trying to make it impossible for us to operate.”

“Do you have any, ah, hard evidence of this, Mrs. Lurge?” asked Max.

She shot a stern look at the base station. “I have Lothar’s word.”

“Yes, well… I’m afraid that wouldn’t hold up in a court of law.”

“That’s why I’m hiring you people,” she snapped, rising from her seat abruptly. “Do some digging! McIntyre’s been working every angle he can since he took over from his father.  I’m sure you’ll find out plenty about what he’s been doing—and I’m sure you’ll find it includes complicity in the murder of my husband. She narrowed her gaze in the direction of the comm unit.  “As we discussed, I’m prepared to pay whatever it takes to make this happen.”

“We’ll do everything we can, Mrs. Lurge,” Venus assured her.

“Good. I suggest you start by questioning McIntyre. I’m sure that snake will crack under the pressure.” she picked up her bag and turned towards the door. “I will let you get to work. Good day.”

And with that, she strode out of the office.

Venus and Sandra exchanged surprised looks. 

“She sure is hung up on the McIntyre angle, isn’t she?” said Venus.

“She is indeed,” Max agreed. “Probably unreasonably, if I do say so myself. Still, there may be something to it.  There’s obviously no love lost between the families. I’ll be interested in your impressions of the man.”

“What can you tell us about him? If we’re going to talk to him, we’ll need a plan of attack.”

“Well, my sources indicate he’s always eager to do press pieces in order to keep his company’s name in the news, he’s on the point of concluding a very lucrative deal with the Department of Defense, his office is on the 20th floor of the McIntyre building, and you ladies have an appointment scheduled with him at 3PM tomorrow, your cover story being that you’re reporters for Gelunbu Business Magazine.”

Venus looked at Sandra in amazement. Sandra responded with a knowing smile. “He does that. You’ll get used to it.”

“How…?” Venus asked.

Max added with a wry, false-modest chuckle, “I have to wear a lot of hats at once, but I try cover all the angles. Consider that the compensation for my not being able to join in person. Although many women would say seeing my chiseled visage would be well worth sacrificing my many other talents.”

“Well, thank you very much,” said Venus, while Sandra rolled her eyes. 

A Feast for SightThis is a short story set in Painter’s world of Osteria. Osteria is a sort of post-apocalyptic setting in which many of the Ancient Greek and Roman traditions and beliefs have been revived.

A Feast for Sight is a story that fits this setting well. It deals with three oracles, who tell their clients the future–for a price. What the price is, I won’t describe, but the sensitive reader should be warned that it is quite macabre; and increasingly so as the story unfolds. I have only a little knowledge of Greek drama, but this seems entirely in line with the usual tone of the classic stories. The Greek tragedies are full of gruesome and unsettling elements, and this story is full of the same.

It’s also rather funny, in a very dark way, obviously. Fans of twisted humor will certainly enjoy the ironic ending. It has a very Ambrose Bierce-esque approach to humor in that regard.

The book is available for free through Painter’s website by subscribing to her newsletter. It certainly is effective as a promotional device, because after reading it, I was quite eager to learn more about the world of Osteria. And as a rule, I am not someone who enjoys stories as dark as this, but I have to give credit where due–the premise is interesting enough that it made me want to read more. A Feast for Sight probably won’t be for everyone, but for those who enjoy classic literature and dark humor, it will be a treat.

 

TLRFA-2

Sandra blinked several times. There was something downright intimidating about this woman. Although she was very attractive, Sandra immediately rethought her guess about why she had been hired— she just didn’t seem like the type to have used a physical relationship with Max to get a job. 

“Uh, hi,” said Sandra, shaking the stranger’s firm, well-manicured hand.

An awkward silence stretched between them.

“So,” Venus said, her smile tightening as she sensed the tension, “Where do we start?”

“What did Max tell you?”

“That you would fill me in.”

Great; I’m training my replacement. Aloud, she said, “Okay, first how about you fill me in on who you are?”

Venus shrugged. “Well, sure, but there’s not much to tell. I was an officer in the Federal Espionage Service for the past seven years—handled various projects; breaking up arms dealers, smugglers; stuff like that.”

Yeah, boring stuff like that. “Why’d you leave FES?”

Venus bit her lip slightly before answering. “I just felt like I needed a change—needed to spread my wings a bit, y’know?”

“RIF’d in the big defense draw-down, huh?” Sandra said, an edge to her voice.

“Uh… yeah,” Venus replied softly.

“Well, look; I dunno how they did business in the Service, but here, we don’t have big budgets and lots of support staff to throw at a problem. We use our wits, and we do everything we can to help the clients. Because the client is the bottom line, okay? The way we stay afloat is by providing the best service we can to everyone who hires us. The client comes first, last, and in the middle, got it?”

Before Venus could respond, Max’s voice crackled over the comm cube on the desk. “Wonderful!” he said, “Now that you two ladies have gotten acquainted, let’s get started. We’ve only got a few moments before Mrs. Lurge should arrive.”

Venus took a chair at the conference table, while Sandra hastily swept the bulk of the detritus on the spare desk into one of its empty drawers and perched atop the desk.

“Here’s what we know.  On the morning of October the 1st, at about 4AM, an emergency call was received from the Lurge Robotics Factory. The night watchman reported that he’d found the body of Mr. Lothar Lurge on the old factory floor, cut to pieces by a laser grater.” Both of the women grimaced.

“To the watchman’s knowledge, there was no one else inside the factory that night. He said he had remained in his office throughout the night, except for checking on the assembly lines and floor area only every three hours, as outlined in his schedule. This puts the time of death for Mr. Lurge at some time between 1 and 4 AM. The record of the watchman’s keycard swipes corroborates his story.”

“Did the watchman say why Mr. Lurge was there so late?”

“No, he did not. He says he was not notified of his presence there. Which brings us to another important point: Mr. Lurge entered the factory through a little-used back door, rather than via the main entrance, which all personnel are required to use. There is no record of him swiping at the front door, and this maintenance door was left ajar.”

“Hold on a sec, Max,” said Sandra.

Venus had been hesitantly raising her hand while Max had been speaking, and she now pointed over Sandra’s shoulder. “Now what?” she said with more annoyance to Venus.

“Is that lady at the door our client?”

Sandra whirled around, and saw a woman in a black dress and jacket standing outside the office door, staring at them with some confusion.

“Oh, uh, yeah, maybe,” she said, scurrying across the room and opening the door. “Sorry about that, ma’am.” 

The petite middle-aged woman walked in and took the chair Venus offered her. Her demeanor was haughty and reserved, but her face was drawn, and her eyes were tired and a little puffy.

 “Mrs. Lurge, so sorry to meet you under these sad circumstances. I’m Sandra Darcy, this is Venus Miles.”

 Venus added, “Mr. Lurge was so important to the community,”

“Thank you, I appreciate that.”

“My condolences as well, Mrs. Lurge,” Max’s voice crackled over the comm. base station on the desk, causing the older woman to jump slightly, while Sandra only folded her arms in annoyance at Max’s love of joining unexpectedly. 

 “My apologies for not appearing in person. When you’re spread as thin as I am, you have no choice but to try to be in multiple places at once. My team and I have just finished reviewing the basic facts surrounding your late husband’s demise. Perhaps you can shed some light on certain points in the police report. To begin with, did your husband tell you why he was going to the factory in the middle of the night? ”

“He did not.” replied the stone-faced widow.

“Do you know why he would have used the back entrance?” Sandra tried again.

“No! He wouldn’t have,” the older woman snapped. “And even if he did, you can be damn sure he’d lock the door behind him! That’s why I know it was no accident! That’s how I know he was—was…”

She trailed off, choking back a sob.

Max coughed softly and resumed. “Curiously, the police made a thorough search of the area, and about 300 yards out from the factory, they found a trail of footprints leading down from a back road a mile or so behind the complex.”

All three women leaned forward on hearing this.

“Were they Lurge’s footprints?” Sandra asked.

Max paused portentously. “Definitely not. They were a size smaller and did not match the dress shoes Mr. Lurge was wearing when he was discovered. They appear to have been a man’s work-boots.”

“Now, you say they were about 300 yards out,” said Venus, a little hesitantly. “So what, these prints just stop 300 yards away?”

“Well, yes—they stop, turn around, and go back the way they came. The police’s working theory is that someone parked on the road, approached the factory, and left.”

“Well, hell; Max that’s suspicious as all get out,” exclaimed Sandra. 

“Yes, it is. But at the same time, there’s no obvious connection between that and the death of Mr. Lurge. It’s an odd coincidence, to be sure, but—”

“McIntyre,” said Mrs. Lurge. She spat out the name like an obscenity. “It had to be that bastard McIntyre!”

fhI recently reviewed Henry Vogel’s Sword & Planet book Scout’s Honor. While browsing his other works, this book caught my eye because it appeared to be more traditional spacefaring sci-fi, which is one of my favorite genres. And it features a pair of likable characters going on adventures, another premise that I like.

Matt Connaught is the heir to the GenCo fortune–except that while everyone else believes his parents are dead, his psychic abilities tell him they are still alive. Matt sets off to find them, accompanied by his bodyguard, Michelle. Michelle, the daughter of Matt’s primary security chief, Jonas, has been guarding Matt for years, in the guise of being merely his classmate.

As it turns out, the two have been in love with one another from afar for years, and when they set off on the galaxy-trotting adventure to find Matt’s parents, their romance blooms. The middle section of the book is almost a rom-com in space. I typically don’t read romance, unless it’s blended with some other genre, and that’s exactly what Vogel does here: a romantic road comedy, but in space!

And it’s not all romance–there are plenty of chases, shootouts, and even a few space battles. It’s first and foremost a sci-fi romp, with elements of a techno-thriller sprinkled in. Matt and Michelle are a good couple, and some of the supporting characters are really fun. Flight Commander Nancy Martin is great, and Jonas, with his extreme competence and formal style, is also highly enjoyable. I don’t know that this was the author’s intention, but his manner of speaking made me automatically hear his lines in the voice of Stephen Fry as Reginald Jeeves, which was another plus.

My biggest complaint is that the villains of the story are so nebulous that I was barely even aware they existed. There is some foreshadowing, but when Matt uncovers who is behind the whole thing, it felt a bit out of the blue. (Or is that out of the black, since this is space, after all?)

But in the scheme of things, that isn’t really a problem, because what makes this story enjoyable is the feeling of romance and adventure. The resolution of the plot isn’t as important as the thrill of following Matt and Michelle from one daring escape to the next. It’s an unashamedly fun book. It’s much like Scout’s Honor in that regard: a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and invites the reader to come along on an exciting space operatic joyride.

Now, lately in my reviews, I’ve found myself talking more and more about covers. I haven’t meant to do this, and we all know the ancient wisdom “not to judge a book…” etc. This are just my opinions on aesthetics, and independent of my take on the books themselves. I’ll try to cut down on this sort of thing, but I just have to talk about it here.

The cover above is on the Kindle edition that I have. And it’s fine. It maybe makes the book seem a bit more cartoonish than it really is, but it’s distinctive enough.

But, over on Goodreads, I saw this cover:

M and M

I love this cover. The font might be a little plain, but that artwork just screams “classic space opera adventure.” There are a couple different scenes in the book this could be depicting, and I feel like seeing it helps me imagine the whole universe of the story. It perfectly captures that throwback, Golden Age of sci-fi vibe that Vogel’s books evoke.

TLRFA-1

Sandra Darcy was lounging on her back porch, savoring the smell of coffee wafting from her mug and the golden-orange leaves rustling in the October breeze, when her phone emitted a familiar synth riff. It was the ringtone reserved for her boss, Maximillian Pallindrone.

“Howdy, Max.”

“Good morning, Sandy,” came the gravelly-yet-melodic voice of her employer. “I do hate to disturb you on this fine Sunday, but we have a client who is most insistent about meeting.”

She groaned theatrically. “Really, Max? Can’t it wait until tomorrow?”

“I’m afraid not. This is a big enough case I can promise that it will be worth our while, and it hits close to home. It’s Widow Lurge.”

Sandra nearly spit out her first swig of coffee. “Lurge? The robot factory Lurge?”

“The very same.”

“I assume it’s about her late husband?”

“Your assumption is correct, as usual. I’ll fill you in on the details on your way over to the agency. She will meet us at 12:30.”

“And let me guess: even though I’m supposed to be there in person, you’ll be joining us by remote conference call?”

“But of course.”

Sandra glanced at her phone. 10:37. Barely enough time for her to grab a shower and dress. She glanced mournfully at the nearly full pot of coffee sitting on her counter top.

“Awright. Talk to you then.” she said, walking in through the sliding glass door and ending the call. She set her mug down in the dishwasher and scurried to the bathroom, shrugged off her robe, and stepped into the shower, activating it with the curt command: “Quick rinse. I’m in a hurry.”

After showering and doing her hair, she slid into her grey bell-bottom slacks and a purple and grey paisley blouse. She tossed her JEK-17 pistol into her purse and slung it over shoulder. The hefty, boxy weapon felt awkward jostling against her ribs, but she’d left her holster at the office. She made a mental note to grab it when she got there. The automated kitchen assistant had transferred her coffee to the colorful geometric-patterned thermos waiting for her by the stove. She grabbed the thermos and trotted out the door and down the covered walkway that led to the resident garage and her bright orange hatchback, parked on the 3rd floor.

Even in the gloomy lighting of the garage, the vehicle stood out, like a burst of sunlight breaking through a gap in the clouds. Compared with the surrounding cars, it was smaller, sleeker, and more stylish. It had a singularly elegant shape, with its sharply downward-sloping backdoor arch flowing into a long, low front, like a big cat about to pounce. Sandra had it detailed every two weeks, and on the stipend Max paid her, could afford all the best for it—ceramic coatings, chrome spoilers, and, as she would say, “all the fixin’s.”

She hopped into the pilot’s seat, flung her purse on the passenger chair, and keyed her code in to activate the onboard assistant. 

“Voice Authentication?” the machine prompted.

“Sandra Darcy,” she affirmed crisply.

“Password?”

“Disco.” 

“Welcome, Captain Darcy. Where to today?”

“Work,” she said with a slight grin. The computer’s default mode of address was simply “operator,” but she had selected “Captain” instead. It seemed altogether more appropriate.

The microbotic cushion flared out beneath the car, and it rose up over the pavement and zipped off. Sandra sipped her coffee as the hatchback wound its way down the garage ramps and out into the bright autumn day, while the pleasantly cool sensation of the Personal Pilot’s Cosmetic Assistant she’d recently installed applied foundation and lipstick to her face.

There wasn’t much traffic; being a Sunday morning most were still inside, and so the AI easily navigated into the invisible lane leading to the city of Gelunbu. Sandra watched lazily as the skyline grew closer.  In the cluster of curved, asymmetrical spires at the heart of the city was a cylindrical tower, its tinted green windows glistening in the morning sunlight. The McIntyre Building, Gelunbu’s signature landmark, dominated the cityscape. It’s like a giant middle finger, and the other buildings are knuckles, she thought. 

The crackling of Max’s voice in her earpiece distracted her from her architectural musings.

“So, you know all about the circumstances of Mr. Lurge’s demise, right, Sandy?”

“Just that he was found dead at that old factory a couple weeks ago. Is there more to it?”

“Yes—the night watchman said Lurge didn’t enter by the front door, and he didn’t sign in as protocols require.”

“Well, it was his family’s factory, wasn’t it? If anybody could wander in after hours—”

“True, but Mr. Lurge was a very careful and security-conscious man. He wasn’t one to disregard procedures lightly; especially not those of his own design.”

“What else did the guard have to say?”

“Well, you’ll have to follow up on that. But first, you need to hear what Mrs. Lurge has to say.”

“I guess since she’s coming to us, it’s pretty clear she thinks it was foul play, huh?”

“You know it. But there’s something else I want you to do before you meet with Mrs. Lurge.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

There was a pause, as if Max was trying to figure out how to word something. “Well, it’s like this… you’re not going to be working this case alone.”

Sandra nearly spit out her last swig of coffee. “WHAT? Are you saying—”

“Now, calm down. It’s no reflection on your performance,” Max said hurriedly, his low voice warming into his most paternal tone. “You know I have the very highest opinion of your abilities. It’s just… well, I received an applicant whose talents I just couldn’t say no to. Once you meet her, you’ll see what I mean.”

She’s a her, huh? Sandra thought. She suspected she knew why Max had hired her already.

“Ya coulda at least asked my ‘pinion first!” 

“I knew you’d be upset.”

“I’m not upset.” 

“You always lapse into your accent when you get upset or excited.”

“Don’t ya’ll change the subject! Have I ever failed to crack a case? Ever?”

“Never, Sandy. Like I said; it’s not about you. I think you and Venus will make a great team.”

Sandy disconnected. She was almost at the agency anyway; she had nothing else to say. The car drifted to a stop in front and gently lowered itself onto the pavement. Sandy climbed out, threw her aviator glasses onto the dashboard, and stormed up the stairs.

She marched through the lobby’s sliding glass doors and into the first floor suite that housed the agency. She was about to angrily throw her purse down in a chair when what she saw before her made her stop dead.

There stood a tall, slender woman—easily five feet ten, dressed in a tailored red pantsuit, and wearing a matching wide-brimmed hat. Everything about her radiated strength; her relatively broad shoulders tapered to a narrow waist and long legs. She was standing at the office’s till-then unoccupied second desk, which Sandra had long used for piling files, bills, scarves, shoes, and other knickknacks, and she felt suddenly self-conscious about this stranger observing her messiness.

The stranger had been studying a tablet, but on hearing Sandra enter, looked up with a brilliant smile that lit up her perfectly sculpted oval face and said, “Oh, hello. You must be Sandra. I’m Venus Miles. Delighted.”

ihuThis is a short science-fiction story. Like Hays’ short story Dual Void, it packs a lot of complex philosophical and scientific ideas into a few words. It begins with a professor of astronomy who specializes in Big Bang Cosmology lecturing to an Astronomy 101 class, and proceeds to take the reader on a whirlwind ride that leaves one questioning the nature of reality, the meaning of the universe, and other such deep questions. It reminded me a bit of Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God.” IHU is more surreal, but just as existential.

I can’t say a lot more about the book, given how short it is. Not that I’m concerned I’d “spoil” it, exactly; because that implies giving away some information that explains the whole story. This isn’t a story that can be explained; rather, it’s one of those fictional works that makes you ask questions, that teases your brain a little.  And I liked that a lot. One of the great things about science-fiction is how it can make you ponder deep questions like these.

IHU is a good, quick read for anyone who enjoys stories that make you think about complex, abstract concepts.

Some facts about me: first, for well over a decade, I’ve wanted to write a story involving an abandoned factory. I didn’t know anything more specific than that, but I’ve long known I wanted to use that setting.

Second: I enjoy watching reruns of cheesy 1970s TV shows. Unfortunately, they quit airing most of my favorites on over-the-air TV, and I am never paying a monthly bill for TV.

So, during the lockdown, which lasted approximately from mid-March through mid-May in Ohio, I amused myself by combining these two elements and writing a story set in an abandoned factory and heavily influenced by 1970s television classics like Charlie’s Angels and Wonder Woman. And, because I just gotta be me, of course it had to have retro-futuristic sci-fi elements and Halloween references, too.

The result is an approximately 16,000 word story that is rather silly, but was extremely fun to write. Instead of publishing it as a book, I decided I’d post one chapter a week over the summer. Each chapter is roughly 1,000-1,500 words long. The first one will be posted here next Saturday.

Oh, and here is what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call the “cover” art:

TLRFA-notitle

Gossamer GlobeThe Gossamer Globe is a very unique book. It has elements of many genres, from political thriller to swashbuckling adventure to biting satire. And the author combines all these in clever ways to make something very original.

The book tells the story of a woman named Lucia Straw, who is being elected as the first Prime Minister of the nation of Zatoria. Zatoria has just abolished monarchy and replaced it with democracy. But as Lucia’s party is celebrating their victory, she receives a message from a rival candidate, Kailani Rhys, accusing her of stealing the election. This casts a pall over everything as Lucia deals with the pains of installing a new parliamentary government.

I love humorous stories about small groups of revolutionaries seizing control of the state. I think it started with my love for Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Grand Duke, a comic opera about a troupe of bumbling actors who take over a grand duchy. The Gossamer Globe has that mood to it–Lucia and her inner-circle all stumble through trying to rule a country, and it’s extremely amusing to read. Before I read it, I saw a couple reviews hinting that it had some funny parts, but that’s an understatement. This book is hilarious, and what’s best of all is that the humor comes organically from the characters’ personalities. Funny lines turn out to not be mere throwaway gags, but jokes that are built upon. I think my favorite example is Lucia’s friend Jevan’s amusing storytelling style.

But it’s not just a silly comedy. It’s also a well-thought-out political satire. I won’t go into too much detail, but the “gossamer globe” the title refers to is a sort of wondrous new technology that has caused major disruption to the Zatorian way of life. This concept is handled very thoughtfully, portraying the new technology as neither an absolute good or evil influence, but simply a technological disruption that the government is only beginning to reckon with.

Ah, the government! That brings me to the core of the book–the struggle for power, the competing philosophies, and all the Machiavellian machinations that drive the plot forward. Lucia chooses to keep the former Queen around in an advisory capacity, and this move proves to be quite controversial. The ex-monarch–now referred to simply as “Ms. Battenbox”–was one of my favorite characters, and the scenes in which she offers her political analysis and shrewd strategizing are absolutely terrific.

All the dialogues are very well-written. I could practically hear the characters speak their lines in my head as I read. It all flowed so well. Also, Evans has a masterful command of how to use profanity. It’s not often, but on the rare occasions when the characters use strong language, it packs a punch.

And then of course, there’s all the sword-fighting.  As the cover suggests, swords are a big deal in this book. I was worried this might come off as a gimmick, but it doesn’t at all. Sword-fighting is clearly a huge part of Zatorian culture, and it makes sense that many disputes are settled this way.

Actually, this is a good time for a word about the cover. It’s not that I dislike it. It’s a fine cover. But it wasn’t the image of the world that I imagined as I was reading the book. It’s probably just my own bias, but I am envisioning this as a steampunk-ish, Neo-Victorian or Edwardian world, and the swords as elegant, rapier-like weapons. I’m not sure what kind of sword that is on the cover, actually; it looks like some sort of falchion or scimitar, maybe? If there are any sword enthusiasts reading this, further information on this point would be appreciated.

However you choose to envision the weaponry and the environs in general, this is a rich, magnificently-constructed world, populated with vivid and enjoyable characters. It’s also an excellent depiction of how politics works at the highest levels. There’s a point where one character is descending into frenzied paranoia, issuing ridiculous commands as the whole structure of the government seems to be collapsing. It feels timeless, like a satire that could have been written about any bad government in history, going back to the time of Rome. It’s the same vibe I get when reading George Orwell’s writings on totalitarianism–this is a pattern of behavior that transcends time and place.

Evans manages all this while still telling a fast-paced, funny, sexy, bawdy, and clever story, in a rich and interesting world. Simply put, I loved this book, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who enjoys speculative fiction of any variety. It’s brilliant, and best of all, it’s free. That’s right, you can get it through Amazon or on Smashwords for free. There’s absolutely no excuse. Give this brilliant novel a try.

Sarah LewisThis is listed as a children’s book, which is not something I’d normally read, but this bit of the description caught my eye: “rural sci-fi thriller full of spies, mad scientists, 1980s nostalgia, alternate dimensions, strange new friends, suspense, and mystery.”

Well, that sounded like something I would like. And I was not disappointed. Yes, the protagonist is indeed a kid–13 year-old Sarah Lewis–and the prose does avoid complicated structures and (for the most part) big words, but it’s a book anyone can enjoy. It doesn’t condescend to the reader in telling the story.

Sarah is living with her grandfather after her mother has died and her father has moved away to take a job in another country. She is lonely, and trying to acclimate to a new town and new school in rural Texas, when her curiosity leads her to exploring in the hills near her grandfather’s property.

Long story short, she stumbles into a web of ancient conspiracies, secret societies, aliens, talking animals, magic, and threats of cosmic annihilation from malevolent demonic entities. Imagine The Chronicles of Narnia crossed with The X-Files and maybe a bit of Dan Brown thrown in. It uses a number of the classic YA tropes–a child with no parents discovering her family’s secrets and having to reevaluate her place in the world. Sarah isn’t quite “the Chosen One,” thankfully, but she does turn out to be rather special for reasons which I won’t reveal here. Still, it was quite a fun read for me; and never became boring or predictable.

Before I read the book, I wondered whether it would be too childish for an adult to read. Having read the book, I wonder if it’s too adult-ish for a child to read. It’s touted as “clean,” meaning there’s no swearing or sex, but there is plenty of fighting, references to cancer and dying from it, and strong implications that the villains torture and ritualistically sacrifice people to appease an evil deity. Also, several characters die, including some rather sympathetic ones.

Of course, there are plenty of examples throughout children’s literature of things just as or more disturbing than that. (The classic fairy tales are pretty unsettling, when you think about them.) But everyone has their own ideas of what kids should and shouldn’t read, so it’s important to note that this book was darker than I expected. Not that I minded, and thinking back, I suspect my 10-12 year-old self wouldn’t have minded, either.

While the major conflict of the story is resolved, the book ends on a major cliffhanger to set up the sequel. A sequel which, as far as I can tell, has not been published yet. Certainly, I am eager to see how this story develops–there is a lot of potential in the world that the author has created.

Fifteen years ago today, my mom and dad took me to see Revenge of the Sith. I was not quite 15 years old. We had seen all the Star Wars movies together in the theater, and so of course we had to see what was then expected to be the last one.

TIME
It’s not the most significant thing Time magazine ever got wrong, but this cover didn’t age well.

I loved the movie, as I had loved all Star Wars films. It was dark and unsettling, and it had a message to it. Maybe it was a message only I could see, but it was a message all the same. More about that later.

On the way home afterward, we went to our local Borders bookstore. We always went to Borders (and Toys “R” Us) after the movies. This is something I suspect kids a few years from now will completely cease to understand—bookstores, toy stores and cinemas are all being shuttered, replaced by streaming, online orders, e-books and so on. These things are safer and more convenient, but make for less memorable experiences. If not for brick-and-mortar stores, I would not to this day recall walking across the parking lot with my dad, talking about whether or not it was ridiculous for Obi-Wan to come swaggering up to General Grievous like he does.  I would have no memory of the way the clouds outside the store gathered on the horizon, portending a late spring storm in a way that I thought was just perfect given the mood of the film I’d just watched.

One thing I can’t remember is if we got the novelization at Borders or if my parents had already bought it for me and saved it as a gift. But either way, I recall reading it later that day and being enthralled by Matthew Stover’s prose as he retold the story of the film, adding depth and nuance to the characters, explaining their thought processes in certain key scenes.

Another memory that sticks with me from that day is a feeling of gratitude. I can distinctly remember thinking how happy I was to get to see a Star Wars film with mom and dad one more time. I was semi-aware that I was getting older, growing up, and for an instant, at least, was conscious enough to appreciate that moments like this wouldn’t last forever, and that I’d better be thankful for that one. I remember this vividly, because it’s such an important insight, flashed as if spoken by some deity of Greek myth (who were said to do such things) into the mind of an otherwise typically arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled teenaged boy.

For I was arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled, make no mistake about it. I was only dimly conscious of it at the time, but Revenge of the Sith is a story designed to speak to arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled teenage boys. I had but recently been introduced to the joys of literary analysis thanks to Gayden Wren’s A Most Ingenious Paradox, and was far from good at it, but even I was aware, for the first time, that this story was meant to do more than just entertain. It was telling me something else.

George Lucas has talked many times about the deeper meaning of the Star Wars prequels. He has said repeatedly that they were meant to explore how a democratic society can give way to authoritarianism. While drawing parallels to many different times and places throughout history, Lucas once claimed that his fictional galaxy most closely resembles the Roman Republic–and its eventual transformation into the Roman Empire. 

In my opinion, this attempt at social and world-historical commentary is what sets the prequel trilogy apart from Lucas’ original trilogy, not to mention the Disney sequels. Nothing in the original films was explicitly designed as a commentary on forms of government and phases of a civilization’s existence. Sure, there are rebels and there are imperials, but it was only meant as a fun space adventure in the style of Flash Gordon. 

The non-Lucas sequels have turned it into more of a space soap opera—a family saga, like the epics of old mythology. The family saga thread runs through the prequels as well, but only to the extent that Lucas meant for Anakin Skywalker’s personal story to mimic the life-cycle of the Republic itself.

Of course, careful readers will note that above I have said that this sets the prequels apart, and of course, setting apart is exactly what a prequel should not do—its aim is to tie together, to make a coherent whole of a story.

Revenge of the Sith fails catastrophically in this regard. A callback to the original trilogy’s first spaceship interior and a shot of silhouetted figures watching the twin suns set do not begin to make up for all the ways in which Revenge of the Sith not only does not tie-in with the originals, but actively contradicts them. For example: how do Yoda and Obi-Wan even know the Lars family exists? Why do they give the children to them, and not to, oh, say—Padmé’s family? You know, their actual grandparents?

In the novelization, Stover tries mightily to make it all add up, but even he cannot square this circle—or perhaps, circle this square, since the whole idea is supposed to be that we have come back to the beginning.

The prequels are best understood not as an earlier part of the story told in Star Wars: A New Hope, but as a separate series of spinoff films meant to tell an entirely different story. This story is about how a constitutional republic is gradually replaced by a tyrannical government that imposes its will through naked military force. 

To put all this in context: at the time Revenge of the Sith premiered, the United States was divided over the Iraq war and the broader “War on Terror.” Some feared that President Bush, and especially Vice-President Cheney, were expanding the powers of the executive branch far beyond what was normal or healthy. The scene where Anakin tells Obi-Wan, “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy,” was seen as being a reference to Bush’s “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

I was just becoming politically aware at the time, and finding out that my favorite movie series also was relevant to politics was pretty exciting, and I was delighted to study the social commentary aspect of the films. 

But because Lucas was writing a drama, and not simply a dry treatise on forms of government, he needed a protagonist for his exploration of how republics collapse, and that is where Anakin Skywalker comes in.

Nobody much likes Anakin Skywalker as he is portrayed in the prequels, and for good reason. He demythologizes Darth Vader, who was an ideal villain in the original films. Hayden Christensen’s performance is uneven at best; although any actor probably would have struggled with some of the lines he’s given.

I’ll admit, reading the book so soon after seeing the film may have colored my impression of the character. Anakin’s behavior, which on the screen is over-the-top and ludicrously unstable, seems in the novel to be the product of an emotionally-drained, profoundly exhausted man struggling to think clearly. If you understand him to be suffering from extreme sleep-deprivation, as the novel explains, some of Anakin’s actions make more sense.

But even then, there are inherent flaws with his entire story arc that Stover couldn’t completely correct. Although I dislike the term, Anakin is what’s typically called a “Mary Sue,” in that he has everything handed to him on the basis of nothing more than some vague talk about prophecies and midi-chlorians.

Viewed this way, the Star Wars prequels are the story of a spoiled child who gets privileges he doesn’t deserve. In Revenge of the Sith, he’s granted a seat on the Jedi Council and doesn’t even seem grateful for it. (This is somewhat explained in the novel.)  He’s a brat who keeps demanding more and more to feed his insatiable ego, throwing tantrums whenever his older, wiser teachers give any hint of a rebuke. As someone with a far better ear for the English language than George Lucas once put it:

“Ye Gods, it doth amaze me

A man of such a feeble temper should

So get the start of the majestic world

And bear the palm alone.” 

And this is what I mean when I say that Revenge of the Sith is a story about and for spoiled teenage boys. The moment I’ll never forget from Revenge of the Sith—the emotional climax of the film—is the scene on the Mustafar landing pad when, soaking in the afterglow of a rage-fueled bloodbath, Anakin brags to Padmé about his newfound power. When she reacts in predictable horror, he flies into a rage and chokes her—ultimately leading to her death.

I could write a whole post about Padmé’s death and how it makes no sense. As if a strong woman would “lose the will to live”—after having just given birth, no less! Everything about Padmé up to that point tells us that she would, if anything, be motivated to fight harder for the republic she loves. And that’s not even touching the ludicrous plot hole it creates with Return of the Jedi when Leia is somehow able to remember her mother.

But remember, Revenge of the Sith is targeted at a very specific audience: arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled teenaged boys, and arrogant, narcissistic and spoiled teenaged boys aren’t empathetic enough to realize how contrived this is. No, what I remember thinking at that moment was:

Dude was married to Natalie Portman and he threw it all away because he was angry and wanted power.

Revenge of the Sith is a cautionary tale about where acting like an arrogant, narcissistic spoiled teenage boy gets you: you lose your lover, you lose your best friend, and you get mentally destroyed. (The fact that Anakin is also mutilated and burned alive is in line with the longstanding dramatic tradition of physical injury symbolizing psychic or spiritual wounds.)

As Stover writes, describing in the second person how it feels to be Anakin Skywalker:

“You killed her because, finally, when you could have saved her, when you could have gone away with her, when you could have been thinking about her, you were only thinking about yourself… it is in this blazing moment that you finally understand the trap of the dark side, the final cruelty of the Sith—because now your self is all you will ever have.”

It’s a morality tale, and characters in morality tales are rarely notable for their depth or nuance. This is a key thing to understand about Revenge of the Sith, because it makes a lot of its weirdly clunky dramatic choices more comprehensible. The fact that the entire universe seemingly revolves around Anakin Skywalker—a classic flaw in any story guilty of Mary Sue-ism—is because it’s fundamentally a story for narcissists. Stover himself makes mention of this, in a passage told from Mace Windu’s perspective:

“Skywalker no longer had a shatterpoint. He was a shatterpoint. The shatterpoint. Everything depended on him. Everything.”

The tragic irony is that Anakin thinks he’s doing the right thing; he thinks he’s helping the people he loves, but only because he’s too solipsistic to think beyond what he himself would want. He sells his soul to the devil to buy eternal life for Padmé without ever bothering to think about whether that’s what Padmé would want. In typical Faustian fashion, he is left with nothing at all.

This underscores the other obvious way the prequel trilogy is unlike the other Star Wars film cycles: it ends on a downer. It is a tragedy; a story of decline and defeat. The film tries to de-emphasize this slightly in the final scenes, but the novel’s ending is much more melancholy: “The long night has begun,” the final paragraph tells us, and Stover’s last image is not Owen and Beru watching the sunset, but Obi-Wan riding off to begin his exile. 

By filling in Lucas’ visually stunning but sometimes incoherent sketch with rich details of nuance, emotion, and backstory, Stover’s novelization makes the story of Revenge of the Sith vastly more layered and complex. It’s a story of manipulation, betrayal, and civilizational collapse. Above all, it’s a story of how a young man’s passion and fear cause him to destroy himself.

Perhaps I feel this way because I saw it at just the right time in my life, but more than any other Star Wars film, it’s about coming to terms with the end of something: for the characters in the story, it’s the end of the republic, the end of the Jedi, the end of a romance. For audiences at the time, as well as George Lucas himself, it was about the end of cinematic Star Wars. And for me, it was about the end of my childhood. I grew up with the Star Wars movies—the special edition was released in theaters when I was seven, and I had followed it to the cusp of adulthood.  

Of course, as we all know now, it wasn’t really the end of Star Wars. About a year and a half later, I found myself playing what I still consider to be the single greatest Star Wars story ever written: the video game Knights of the Old Republic II, which to this day remains one of my favorite works of fiction. And, for good or for ill, there has been a whole new crop of Star Wars movies, and no doubt there will continue to be.

But for all its flaws, Revenge of the Sith is the one I always come back to. It’s the darkest one; the one that isn’t about heroes toppling the evil empire, but about how the evil empire can be brought into being when we grow complacent, when we become arrogant or hard-headed, when we give in to our worst tendencies and emotions. 

And it’s also about celebrating those who fight on even amid such dire circumstances, battling valiantly against overwhelming odds. As you can tell, there are many lines I cherish in the novel, but the one that I think of most often is this, from early in the book, as Stover introduces the massive space battle that kicks off the story:

 “[T]he adults are wrong, and their younglings are right. Though this is the end of the age of heroes, it has saved its best for last.”

I love that line. It’s so beautiful and so poignant. It’s about how there can be something noble, even amidst decay. It’s about finding something to hold on to, even when everything is collapsing around you. And for me, that’s what Revenge of the Sith is–at once a final, nostalgic glimpse at the joys of being a child who could be mindlessly entertained by a movie about space wizards, and a recognition that at some point, I had to move beyond such things; that sometimes such hero fantasies lead to more harm than good.

How much of that is the film, how much is the book, and how much is my own recollection of my 15 year-old self’s mindset, I can never say for sure. All three are forever intertwined in my memory, and that’s why Revenge of the Sith will always be special to me.