Twisted Tales 2These stories are ideal for when you just want something quick and light. After reading some long, emotionally-charged novels, I find it’s a perfect change of pace to read one of Drayden’s weird tales. My mother told me once that in ancient Greek drama, after the heavy tragedies were over, they would close the evening out with a slapstick comedy.* That’s kind of what this is, and it works beautifully as a break after reading a serious novel.

If you read my review of Volume One in this series, all you need to know is that this is more of the same. If there’s a difference, it’s that the first volume was more sci-fi in tone, and this one is more fantasy/horror. But that’s the only difference–otherwise, these stories exhibit the same twisted sense of humor and the same bite-sized length.

Again, these stories are very short, so I won’t review them in-depth. Half the fun is realizing what the concept of the story is, as they each usually involve combining some mundane, familiar concept with something from the world of mythology or fantasy. The stylistic parallel to the comic strip The Far Side that I noted in my review of Volume One still holds.

If you read the Amazon reviews, you’ll notice some people complain about the brevity of these tales. This, in my opinion, just speaks to how tough the book market is. It may not seem like much to readers, but it takes a non-trivial amount of effort to come up with four funny stories, write them all down, proofread them, and get them published. The thing only costs 99 cents, for heaven’s sakes! 99 cents for a few good chuckles is a bargain, in my opinion.

With that said, you can get a set containing Volumes One through Six of this series, also for 99 cents, if you’re really serious about maximizing the quantity of stories you get for your money. Drayden’s stories are the perfect little treat for when you want to read something to tickle your imagination, but don’t want to commit to a whole novel.

(*My mom is a classicist. I didn’t want you thinking she was actually around in Ancient Greece. 🙂 )

Shady AcresThis is a collection of short stories. If you read Mark’s other collection The Marfa Lights—and you should have, especially since this fellow said to—this will feel like picking up right where you left off.

My mini-reviews of each story:

  • Shady Acres: This story is the longest in the book, and interweaves the life stories of residents and staff at the Shady Acres retirement community. It’s a moving story, with many poignant moments, and some very funny ones as well. The “main” character does something rather dubious early on, but by the end, I felt more sympathy for him. I enjoyed this story, and would happily read more stories in this setting.
  • A Warm Body: A quick sketch of a post-apocalyptic world. I guessed the twist ahead of time, but that’s probably because I’ve played many a post-apocalypse role-playing game. It’s a quick glimpse into a grim, brutal world. Made me think a little of Harlan Ellison.
  • Gramps’s Stereo: In the afterword, Mark explains that this story was partly inspired by the film Gran Torino. That’s one of my favorite films, so maybe that’s why I liked this one so much.
  • Jeopardy: A young man returns home to his bickering parents with some surprising news. Now, here again, I guessed what the twist would be; but the story isn’t really about the twist as much as it is about the atmosphere and setting the scene. Of all the stories in this collection, this is the one that I could have most easily identified as the work of the same author who penned The Irrepairable Past. The tone feels very similar to me.
  • Forever: Now this one is peculiar. As explained in the afterword, it strikes many readers, including me, in a very different way than the author intended. Not to give too much away, but the protagonist’s behavior can be interpreted in a number of ways. And here’s the weird part: I was happy that the story turned out differently than I expected it to, even though it might seem more of a “conventional” ending. In other words, I was surprised by how unsurprising it was, if that makes sense. 
  • Getting Through the Night: This story is about a man caring for his young daughter after a car accident leaves her on life support. I admit, I kind of hurried through this one.  It was just too grim for me, but that’s not a criticism of the writing, which is quite good, of course. And the backstory of how Mark came up with the idea is really interesting. So it’s not that it’s a bad story; it was just…. too dark for my tastes. Your mileage may vary.
  • My First True Love: Probably the most relatable story in the whole collection—I think everybody probably has a story kind of like this one in their past. There’s a character in it named Luilu, which made me think of Leeloo from The Fifth Element, even though there’s really no connection otherwise—but still, aren’t those just fun names to say?
  • Sunbaked Sand: I view this story almost as a kind of companion piece to “Jeopardy,” but with this one, I totally did not see the “twist” coming. (By the way, calling these “twists” kind of cheapens it—it’s more like revelations about people that make us see them differently. I’m using “twist” as shorthand here.) In any case, this story is really good. It only has two characters who are in conflict for most of it, and at the end, you feel a ton of sympathy for both of them. 
  • He Slept: This story epitomizes what I consider Mark’s signature talent, which is his ability to take a minor incident from life; the sort of thing that 99 out of 100 people would scarcely think about, and expand upon it to tell a compelling story. (To be fair, “Getting Through the Night” also does this, but if I were introducing somebody to Mark’s work, I’d recommend this one.)
  • Tentacles: A haunting depiction of how abusive behavior can ruin many lives. It’s dark, it’s powerful, and it has this other sort of weird, unexplained thing going on in the background that gives it a very unique vibe. Probably my second-favorite story in the collection.
  • Who Is Maureen Nesbitt?: I think this is the shortest story in the collection, which makes it ironic that it will be the one I write the most words about. Part of it is that it’s a big departure from Mark’s typical style of melancholic literary fiction. This one is sci-fi. And it’s funny. It takes place in a world where there are things called “Information Zones” or “izzies,” which are essentially artificial intelligences that with access to all the information on the internet—and then some. And the izzies have developed personalities of their own. They’re almost like mischievous ghosts. I’m not sure exactly when Mark wrote this, but I’m pretty sure it was before the rise of things like Siri and Alexa. Yes, this story is short, but I absolutely loved it. I want to read more stories set in this world—there’s so much potential in this concept. This is one of those that you read and just shake your head and go, “Damn, I wish I’d thought of that.”

All in all, this is a fine collection, with plenty of variety. Every story has its own unique “flavor,” and the notes at the end where Mark discusses the story-behind-the-story are quite interesting in themselves. Studying the way he draws inspiration from the most seemingly-insignificant things is a great technique for writers to cultivate. Give Shady Acres a try. 

EBTI have seriously dialed back the politics on this blog. New readers might not realize that at one time, this blog was almost purely political. But I said good-bye to all that when I realized that (a) I wasn’t changing any minds, (b) book reviews are way more popular and (c) way more fun to write. 

Today’s post, though, is going to be something of a throwback to an earlier era in the history of A Ruined Chapel by Moonlight, even though it’s a book review. Because there is no way to talk about Kevin Brennan’s novel Eternity Began Tomorrow without talking about politics. Long-time readers will recognize some of the old standbys. Maybe, if you hold up your lighters and chant, I’ll even do charisma-is-making-political-discourse-superficial. We’ll see.

But first, let me introduce EBT’s protagonist, Molly “Blazes” Bolan, a reporter for the up-and-coming San Francisco-based online news magazine Sedan Chair. The book begins with Blazes being sent to cover a rising new cultural phenomenon: a movement known as “Eternity Began Tomorrow,” led by the engaging speaker John Truthing.

Truthing’s core message is a familiar environmentalist one: we’ve got to wake up and save the planet now, before it’s too late. But Truthing is no Al Gore-type who can be mocked as an intellectual snob; he’s more like a rock star, with flash-mob style rallies and adoring followers, most of whom partake of a mysterious new drug—or vitamin, or something—called “Chillax.”

Blazes and her struggling jazz musician brother Rory head to one of Truthing’s gatherings—Blazes for her job, her brother largely for kicks. Soon, Blazes gets her story—and the promise of more in-depth scoops from Truthing if she’ll attend a big event he’s holding at his New Mexico retreat. (Calling it a “compound,” though fitting, feels like it’s leading the witness slightly.) Rory, meanwhile, becomes drawn into Truthing’s movement, though whether he genuinely is moved by the message or is simply using it as a way to meet women is ambiguous.

Blazes’ editor, BB, wants her to dig up all the dirt she can on Truthing—to make Sedan Chair famous as the publication that exposed him for the con artist that it seems he must surely be. Starting with one of Truthing’s old high school flames who reveals his true name, and culminating in a trip to Europe with her German sort-of boyfriend Niels, Blazes digs up quite a lot of troubling information on Truthing, particularly his relationship with the ominously-named Lebensraum Enterprises, the manufacturer of Chillax. 

As Blazes readies her story, Truthing prepares to make a major announcement: that he is going to run for President in the 2020 election. He intends to declare publicly in Sedan Chair, but after his interview with Blazes at his New Mexico goes sideways, his plans change rapidly.

As Blazes tries to unravel the puzzle of Truthing’s rapidly-swelling movement, Rory becomes ever-more deeply drawn into it. At the same time, Blazes’ life is further rocked by the collapse of her parents’ marriage and… well, no; I won’t spoil everything that happens in her personal life. Let’s just say the story builds to a shocking climax, with one stunning twist following another, culminating in an ending that is both as satisfying as the solution of a good mystery novel and as thought-provoking as literary fiction. I have one lingering question, but to discuss it would be too big a spoiler. So I won’t say much more about the ending, except that I kept thinking of a line from the film The Brothers Bloom: “The perfect con is one where everyone involved gets what they want.”

It’s a dark book, in many ways, but, as in his earlier novel Fascination, Brennan has a knack for clever description and witty banter. There are plenty of laughs despite the serious subject matter. Like this marvelous line from Niels (my favorite character, BTW): 

“No, darling. I’m German. We don’t sleep because we have to. We sleep to glimpse the void.”

There’s lots of wit here, even if many of the themes in the book—collapsing relationships, drug addiction, sexual assault, and, in the background, the possible extinction of humanity, are anything but light.

It’s a fast-paced story, as befits a thriller. I blazed (no pun intended) through it, and just when I thought I’d hit The Big Twist, it turned out there were still more coming. It’s a well-written page-turner with philosophical heft, which is truly an impressive feat. Go check it out.

Oh… right. The politics.

Okay, I admit it: as I read the book, I couldn’t help thinking to myself, Would a movement like the one John Truthing creates actually work? Could this really happen?

After all, we know that huge political movements can be organized around a charismatic leader. That’s been proven quite thoroughly, I think. But Truthing’s movement is a little different than, say, ultra-nationalism. For one, it concerns everyone on Earth, so it inherently has wider appeal than nationalism does. It’s also effectively a doomsday cult—except for the fact that this doomsday cult really has a lot of evidence for why the end actually might be near.

My gut feeling is that, yes, something like this actually could happen. Brennan got mob psychology pretty much right. Again, I’m veering perilously close to the Zone of the Spoilers, but I think EBT’s treatment of how a popular movement evolves and becomes almost like a new political party would earn the much-coveted approval of Ruined Chapel’s favorite social scientist, Max Weber. (And no, I don’t care that he will have been dead for a hundred years this June, he’s still my go-to authority for most political questions.)

Of course, there is one issue with the book that Brennan had no control over, and Blazes herself acknowledges throughout: that is, after everything that has gone down over the past few years, John Truthing, his fanatical followers, the sinister corporation, etc. don’t feel that extreme or dire. 

I wrote a somewhat-humorous poem about this a few years ago, but it really is true that writing good thrillers is hard these days because it’s tough to come up with something that’s more outlandish than reality. Truth has long been reputed stranger than fiction, but lately, truth has become stranger than a fever dream after watching an Oliver Stone film marathon. 

But that’s not Brennan’s fault. And the direction that he takes the story, especially in the last quarter or so of the book, raise compelling and relevant questions about human psychology—both individual and collective. How far will someone go for a cause? And why do they feel the need to have a cause in the first place?

Eternity Began Tomorrow is a timely, topical thriller that will make you think. I recommend reading it sooner rather than later, since most of the action takes place in late 2019-early 2020.

[UPDATE: It turns out that Eternity Began Tomorrow is free on Kindle today, tomorrow and Sunday, 1/31-2/2, so if my review intrigues you, this is a good chance to check it out.]

FPThe First Protectors is a fast-paced military sci-fi novel. One night in the New Mexico desert, Navy SEAL Ben Shepherd encounters a crash-landed extraterrestrial being, which endows him with nanomachine augmentations to turn him into a nearly-invincible super-soldier. 

The alien also imparts the history of its species, the brin, a race that fought a brave but ultimately doomed war against another alien species, the mrill, that eventually conquered the brin’s planet. Indeed, the brin who provides this information is killed by a pursuing mrill shortly afterward.

And, Ben learns, the mrills’ next target is Earth. A scout force is already on the way. Ben races to inform his superiors in the military of what he has learned, and provide them with the schematics the brin have given him for how to build weaponry that just might give humanity a fighting chance against the coming invasion.

Earth is plunged into chaos, as the governments of the world scramble to prepare. Ben and some of his SEAL buddies ready themselves to lead the way with their technological enhancements, while politicians, generals and scientists throw all their resources at building technologies they scarcely understand. Of course, not everyone on earth believes the alien invasion story, and soon there are rebel groups trying to seize the moment for their own ends.

All too soon, the mrill arrive, and Ben and company are thrust into massive space, air and ground battles against a terrifying, implacable enemy.

It’s a fast-paced novel, with major battle sequences that unfold at breakneck speed. Godinez’s prose reminds me of Carrie Rubin’s knack for writing easy-to-visualize, thrill-a-minute action scenes. What limited description there is focuses on the military hardware that humanity and the aliens put into the field—from A-10 warthogs to M1 Abrams tanks to futuristic starfighters. Think Tom Clancy meets Robert Heinlein.

It’s a classic alien invasion story, evoking everything from “War of the Worlds” to Mass Effect and Halo. (There’s even an explicit reference to the latter.) The basic concept might not be anything new, but it’s so well-done you can’t help but enjoy it. There might not be a lot of depth or nuance, but that’s okay. It’s not that kind of book. It’s a thrilling adventure story with tons of explosions, big guns, and wise-cracking heroes. 

I sometimes hear people say it’s hard to get young boys to read, but I bet they would read this. Godinez tells the story so well you can practically see it unfolding like a movie or video game in your mind’s eye. Though admittedly, the language may not be suitable for kids—the Navy SEALs talk pretty much like one would expect Navy SEALs to.

It was interesting to read this shortly after one of Lorinda J. Taylor’s Man Who Found Birds among the Stars books. Both are sci-fi, and I enjoyed both a great deal, but they present a tremendous contrast in styles. Taylor’s books are deep character studies, with a heavy focus on world-building and characterization. About the only chance anyone has for introspection in The First Protectors are during brief lulls in battle, or tense minutes of reflection before cataclysmic decisions must be made. (Not to spoil too much, but if anyone remembers back to when I reviewed the non-fiction book Raven Rock well, let’s just say there are some scenes that take place deep within US government bunkers that feel quite nerve-wracking and eerily plausible, quite apart from any alien threat.)

My complaints about the book are quite minor: a few phrases that are re-used (e.g. the construction “If not a sitting duck, then at least a [something else] duck” is used more than once.) But for the most part, the writing is crisp, with some clever turns of phrase. I found only one actual typo—which is extremely good for an indie book.

Also, the ending felt just a tad abrupt, although it’s quite clear that it’s setting up a sequel. You can be sure I’ll read that whenever it comes out.

Finally, some readers might be turned off by the relatively high price of The First Protectors. It’s currently going for $9.27 on Kindle. This is definitely expensive for an eBook, but personally, I don’t mind paying this price. It’s almost exactly the same as the average cost of a movie ticket, and it takes about 5-6 hours to read the book, whereas the typical movie is over in about two hours. I’m not saying that time-per-dollar is the final determinant of quality, but it’s not a bad measure. Especially in this case, when the book feels like the literary equivalent of a summer blockbuster. 

Frankly, I’m glad to see someone charging this kind of price for a book, because there’s no doubt that most indie authors feel pressure to sell fantastic work at bottom-of-the-barrel prices. That said, everyone has their own budget constraints for entertainment, so it feels only right to mention this. But speaking for myself, I got more enjoyment for my $9.27 spent on The First Protectors than I have from some films. If you like military sci-fi, this is for you.

DTTAfter reading Lydia Schoch’s review of this book, I just had to give it a try. It’s a collection of four very short stories best described as “weird sci-fi comedies.” Each story starts out with an unusual premise, and just lets things play out from there.

What do I mean by an “unusual” premise? Well, here’s a quick sketch of each: A roguish shape-shifting alien breaks the bank at a casino. A robot couple moves into an organic neighborhood. Intelligent rhinoceros-like beings with a fondness for ‘80s music invade the earth. And finally, an odd, voyeuristic character pays a heavy price for spying on an alien in a restroom.

The stories are short, but for the most part feel complete. The only one I thought needed a bit more fleshing out (pun not intended) was the robot one. The ending was good, but felt a bit abrupt. Otherwise, each story is a self-contained, bizarre, and funny universe. The twist in the casino story was particularly great. I didn’t see it coming, and after it was revealed, I was kicking myself because I didn’t. The best twists always feel obvious in retrospect.

These stories are sort of like a prose version of Gary Larson’s Far Side comics: a quick sketch of a strange situation, which follows its own internal logic to an even stranger, and very funny, conclusion. Yes, they’re short, but each story packs a strong comedic punch that makes it satisfying. Fans of sci-fi comedy should definitely check it out.

DVDual Void is a very short story that I would describe as experimental fiction. It is written from the point of view of an artificial intelligence named “Kes” that is achieving self-consciousness.

Despite its brevity, the story deals with deep, complicated ideas. Many of the concepts Kes considers are drawn from the world of computer programming and formal logic, which makes the narration feel exactly like what one would expect from an artificial intelligence—a distinct voice, but also not quite a human one. 

It’s a very interesting philosophical exercise, and certainly gives a reader plenty to mull over, but I can’t help feeling like this is only one part of a larger story, and it would be nice to read more background information about Kes, her creator Zvi, and the world around them. This feels like an intriguing prologue to a longer and bigger story.

Still, for $0.99, a well-written short story that makes you ponder concepts like mortality, consciousness, and free will is a pretty good deal.

Eagle AscendantThis book is a science fiction coming-of-age tale that tells the story of Robbin Haysus Nikalishin, who from an early age dreams of voyaging to the stars. Set in the 2700s, on an Earth that has been remade after a series of catastrophic wars. A new government has arisen, as well as a new set of moral precepts designed to reconcile as well as supersede the core tenets of the old religions. 

Additionally, the passage of time has gradually changed the spellings and phrasings of the English language—itself now called “Inge.” So, the United States of America has become Midammerik, India has become Ind, and so on. The spellings are clever—different enough to convey that the world has changed, but similar enough that the reader knows what’s what.

Cleverly, the book is framed as an official biography written to commemorate Nikalishin, but with the twist that the notes at the beginning suggest the officials who commissioned it are less than pleased with how the author has chosen to depict the subject.

Nikalishin’s life is driven by his determination and unrelenting desire to be a spaceship captain. He studies physics from some of the best professors in the world, and also attends a military academy, all in order to prepare himself for the job of starship captain. He and his good friend Kolm MaGilligoody rise swiftly through the ranks, ultimately joining an experimental program known as SkyPiercer.

Nikalishin’s other interests besides space travel include birdwatching and, of course, sex. He has many romantic encounters with various women he meets throughout his remarkable rise to worldwide fame as a daring space explorer. Some of the relationships last, some don’t, but all of them influence him in one way or another. The romance sub-plots are well done and always are both integral to the plot and right for the characters.

Now, make no mistake, while the book has strong characters and a great plot, it’s not simply an epic space opera. That is, it’s not one of these affairs where space travel is taken as an unexplained fact-of-life to be explained by hand-waving. This is a “hard” science fiction book, and there is plenty of in-depth discussion about the quantum physics involved with making interstellar jumps. But it never feels heavy-handed or dry; indeed, the discussions about physics punctuated by Nikalishin arguing with his professors are quite enjoyable.

That’s the thing that dazzled me most: how alive and organic the whole world of the book feels. It would have been so easy to make it the literary equivalent of a video game on rails: Robbin Nikalishin meets character X who gives him Y so he can advance to the next stage and ultimately be a space hero.

But Taylor didn’t take the easy way. She did the hard, meticulous work of world-building and fleshing out all the supporting characters. I’m in awe of how every character, from Nikalishin’s mother to his best friend to his lovers and even down to the ship’s janitor, are fully-realized and well-described. This isn’t a book, it’s a whole universe rendered in prose.

Oh, and I haven’t even touched on how much I love the depiction of religion. Kolm and his family follow a strain of religion clearly descended from Irish Catholicism. They don’t even fully understand some of the meaning of the symbols and terms of the rituals, but they follow them even so, and it brings them spiritual comfort. I loved the way this was handled—neither stridently preachy nor cloyingly condescending; it felt real.

Now we’re at the part of the review where I typically mention typos in indie books. I know from reading Taylor’s blog that she self-edits her books, and that’s typically verboten for indie authors. Do you know how many typos I found in this book?

Two.

That’s right, two typos in the whole thing. I don’t have a word count for this book, but I know Amazon estimates the length at 510 pages. My longest book is 308 pages, and it was about 67,000 words, so approximately 217 words per page. If that’s the same here, that means Taylor wrote about 110,670 words, self-edited, and came out with only two minor errors. 

That’s insanely good. In the novel, the characters have to make precise calculations, correct down to like the millionth decimal place, before attempting an interstellar jump, or they risk disaster. Taylor obviously has a knack for care and precision that makes her fit to serve aboard one of her own starships! 

If you can’t tell already, I absolutely loved this book and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Taylor built a fascinating world, populated it with rich, believable characters, and told a brilliantly paced story about them. This is sci-fi at its best.

Now, I want to talk a little bit about something somewhat spoiler-y. It’s not giving away too much, as it concerns something that happens less than a quarter of the way into the book, but it has ramifications for the rest of the story. Feel free to skip this if you want to go in completely unspoiled.

Nikalishin’s parents divorce when he is a young boy after his father physically abuses him and his mother, Sterling. Sterling raises her son on her own, and makes every effort to see that he achieves his dream of becoming a starship captain.  

At some point, in his late teens, Robbin learns that Sterling has been working as an escort for wealthy men in order to pay for her son to attend the schools and take the classes he needs. Robbin is horrified by this revelation, and ever afterward, his relationship with his mother becomes strained. He feels, somehow, that everything he achieves and his relationship with her are irrevocably tainted. They have a falling out, and later a semi-reconciliation, but he can never quite achieve a healthy relationship with her, even when he leaves to risk his life on dangerous space missions.

This made me dislike Robbin. He seemed quite ungrateful towards his mother, after everything she’d done for him. He even, for lack of a better term, slut-shames her at one point, which is ludicrous given that he himself seemingly sleeps with every other woman he meets. (More than one character calls him out on his hypocrisy, but he doesn’t seem to take it to heart.)

In a way, his initial feelings are kind of understandable. We get it, Robbin; you had to think about your mother sleeping with someone, and it grossed you out. But after that moment of revulsion, an adult should realize that parents are just people, and that these are the kinds of situations that happen in life, and then get past it. After all, as Sterling repeatedly tells her son, she did it for him.

Even as a world-renowned heroic starship captain, Robbin Nikalishin really is profoundly childish in many ways. He has extremely limited ability to understand the feelings of women. He’s stunned to discover one of his acquaintances is a lesbian. He doesn’t mind it, per se, he just acts like the concept is completely new to him. 

He also has an incredibly bad temper. He is sometimes justified, but even then, he tends to explode in rage at the slightest provocation. Admittedly, the primary antagonist, who does not appear until relatively late in the book, is quite infuriating. But Capt. Nikalishin gets bent out of shape when someone so much as mispronounces his surname. I was rooting for him, but there were still times when I wanted to sock him right in the belly of his beloved military uniform and tell him to grow the hell up.

To be clear, none of this is a complaint about the writing. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s a credit to Taylor that she was able to craft such a complete character, that a reader could both cheer on and simultaneously find extremely irritating. Too many writers make their heroes one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs, or worse, heroes with one painfully obvious flaw tacked-on just to make them Not Perfect. Capt. Nikalishin is a flawed hero, and better still, he’s flawed in the way that real heroic figures often are. Think about the philosopher Carlyle and his so-called “great men,” who often were impulsive, emotional and obsessed with crafting their own image as flawless paragons. Nikalishin is what I suspect a real-life “great man” is like—which is to say, quite maddening to know personally.

And of course, I should stress that this is only part one of the series. The book ends with an absolutely epic cliffhanger, and I’m eagerly looking forward to finding out how things develop from here.  

It’s funny: even though I like writing sci-fi adventures, most of the indie books I’ve reviewed have not been in that genre. I haven’t consciously avoided them; that’s just how it’s worked out. Audrey Driscoll recommended this to me, and I’m so grateful that she did. It was fun to read a book in roughly the same genre as I primarily write—especially one as marvelous as this one. I’m guessing that if you enjoyed my novel The Directorate, you are very likely going to love this book. It’s a brilliantly thought-out and well-executed science-fiction epic.  

As one indie sci-fi author to another: Ms. Taylor, my hat’s off to you. This is a really great novel, and for me, it ranks right up there with the best by the likes of Asimov, Clarke, and the other All-Time Greats of science fiction. 

Galaxy of Fear was a series of horror-themed Star Wars books for children published in the late ‘90s. I was a huge Star Wars fan as a kid, so as you can imagine, I gobbled them up. I’m not sure if these were the first horror books I ever read, but they were the first ones I remember reading, so they always have a special place in my heart. 

The books follow the adventures of Tash and Zak Arranda, two children orphaned after the destruction of the planet Alderaan, now under the care of their “uncle”—a scientist named Hoole, who is a member of a species of shape-shifters known as Shi’idos.

Gof1-eatenaliveBook #1

Eaten Alive

This book is told from Tash’s perspective. She, Zak and Hoole crash-land on a planet called D’vouran, after it mysteriously pulls them out of hyperspace. The population of the planet is friendly enough, although Tash has the canonical “bad feeling” about it. She encounters a mad wandering beggar who warns her about people disappearing. In the fine tradition of Zadok Allen from The Shadow over Innsmouth, he turns out to be on to something with his dire warnings. 

I’m going to try not to spoil these books, even though they are over twenty years old and in many cases, kind of give away what the horror is going to be by their titles, covers, etc. Let’s just say the name of the planet is significant. And, since I’m summarizing the series, I have no choice but spoil the fact that Tash, Zak and Hoole ultimately survive, thanks to an assist from the heroes of the original trilogy, which leads us into more horror hijinks with…

Gof2-citydeadBook #2

City of the Dead

This one is told from Zak’s perspective. He is haunted by a recurring nightmare of the corpses of his late parents tapping at his window. The trio is dropped off on a planet reassuringly named “Necropolis.” Zak befriends another boy who lives on the planet, who tells him about the supposed curse of Sycorax, a witch who lived there long ago, and a dare that involves entering a cemetery at night. Soon after, strange things begin happening, and Zak becomes convinced that the dead are returning from their graves.

This book is, by far, my favorite in the series. I love the setting; a whole morbid planet, gloomily obsessed with death. I love the eerie holographic cover. And I love the fact that my man Boba Fett gets to be the character-from-the-movies-who-saves-the-day-with-his-cameo-appearance this time.

All right, so I’m not doing great at not spoiling this, but I can’t help it! I will say that every book (for that matter, every chapter) ends with a cliffhanger that suggests all is not well. Often, this is not followed up on in the next book, and that’s clearly the case here. This has led me to develop my own completely preposterous fan theory regarding these books, but more on that later. For now, it’s on to…

Book #3PlanetPlagueCover

Planet Plague

The good news is, this book is told from Tash’s perspective. I like her better than Zak. The bad news is, the guest star character from the movies is Wedge Antilles. Wedge Antilles seems to be the character who gets shoehorned in whenever Expanded Universe writers need a rebel pilot, but can’t have Luke. I find him boring in all his appearances.

Also, the threat in this book is just not as scary as the first two. Arguably, a plague bio-weapon should be a more realistic concept, but then you see the cover, which basically has the Flemoid King on it, and you go, nah, actually it isn’t that realistic. 

This book does get some points for establishing that it is not a coincidence that the Arrandas and Hoole keep getting drawn into these bizarre and horrifying situations, for introducing them to the overall antagonist of the plot arc, who has the awesome name of “Borborygmous Gog,” another Shi’ido who once worked with Uncle Hoole, and for introducing me to the word “ziggurat,” which is fun to say.

Still, I think this is one of the weaker books. Maybe things will get better in…

TheNightmareMachineCoverBook #4

The Nightmare Machine

It’s back to Zak’s perspective for this one. Which actually works, because they go to Hologram Fun World, a sort of virtual reality amusement park. It somehow seems right for an immature boy to tell this story. The big attraction at Hologram Fun World is “The Nightmare Machine”—a V.R. chamber that shows you your worst fear. A sort of Orwellian Room 101 that you have to pay to enter. I’m surprised Disney hasn’t built one yet. 

But—wouldn’t you know it!—something goes horribly wrong with the simulation, and it doesn’t end when it’s supposed to. And once again, we find the hidden hand of Gog working behind the scenes to torment Zak and Tash. 

I love the concept here—the bending of reality itself is a great vehicle for horror. How can Zak ever really be sure he’s woken up? City of the Dead is still my favorite in this series, but this one has a really great concept. Also, the celebrity guest is Lando Calrissian. Gotta love Lando.

So, with the amusement park from hell behind us, we proceed to…

Book #5GhostoftheJediCover

Ghost of the Jedi

This is back to Tash’s perspective, and Tash is obsessed with the Jedi. It’s kind of suggested she might be Force-sensitive. She’s been chatting with somebody on what basically amounts to an internet chat room.

Ok… let me pause and explain to you young people… a chat room was sort of like if you had a whole site that was just the comments section. A forum basically, before all of it got jazzed up and called “social media.”

Anyway, Tash’s internet friend, whom I’ll call Master Guccifer because that’s better than his actual handle, turns out not to be entirely on the level. Unfortunately, Tash only discovers this after agreeing to go to an abandoned space station which Master Guccifer has convinced her holds a lot of Jedi secrets.

Is it too much of a spoiler to say that Gog is, once again, pulling all the strings here? No, I don’t think it is. The first five books have all been part of the “Gog” arc—or maybe more accurately, the “Starscream” arc, because that’s the name of Gog’s project. 

I do like this tale for two reasons: first, the atmosphere of the space station/library is pretty creepy, and second, because it actually teaches kids a valuable lesson: don’t trust what random weirdos you find on the internet are telling you, even if they claim to be well-read.

Oh, wait a minute. I just essentially told you not to trust me, didn’t I? Shoot. 

Well, you have to at least stick with me to see where all this is going! After all, we’re about to finally unravel the mystery of Project Starscream in…

Book #6ArmyofTerrorCover

Army of Terror

The Arrandas and Hoole arrive on the planet Kiva, a desolate world, haunted by shadows—ghostly presences, ultimately revealed to be the victims of a failed project Gog had been working on. 

Also on the planet, they find an adorable, cuddly creature which says “Eppon.” Deciding that he must be saying his name (like a pokémon) Tash takes Eppon as a sort of pet. Eppon is an adorable, cute little creature who seems like he couldn’t hurt a fly.

But Eppon grows. Particularly, when the rebels guarding him mysteriously die, he grows. Finally, it is revealed that he is Gog’s ultimate creation—Eppon is a mispronunciation of “weapon,” and he is meant to be a monster that will, I guess, go around killing people. It seems like a lot of trouble to go through when there are wild wampas running around Hoth that could do as well. I’m honestly not sure why the Empire bankrolled this project. 

And there are more revelations in store! Uncle Hoole (whose first name is “Mammon”)  was Gog’s colleague in the disastrous project that created the shadowy ghost-presences. The creatures have been seeking their revenge upon Hoole, but then realize it was actually Gog who destroyed their planet, and accordingly, decide to kill him instead. 

Okay, I know I’ve poked a lot of fun at these books, and they aren’t really supposed to be taken seriously—they’re pulp sci-fi horror for kids, after all. I’m told they’re a knock-off of Goosebumps. Having not read Goosebumps, I wouldn’t know about that. 

But all that being said, I like these ideas. I like that “Eppon” is how the little creature misunderstands his name. I like that he is ultimately shown to be as much a victim of Gog’s madness as much as anyone else is. And I love how Uncle Hoole has been seeking redemption for his role in the vast tragedy that destroyed the planet. (In a way, it’s a forerunner of the central theme of Knights of the Old Republic II, the greatest Star Wars story of them all, in which the destruction of Malachor V by the Mass Shadow Generator still haunts all the characters.) 

The whole arc is at times silly, at times a bit groan-worthy, and definitely too filled with Original Trilogy characters wearing sandwich boards to remind us that yes, this is totally a Star Wars book. But for all that, it’s a satisfying story, with some scary concepts, and good characters. Yes, Zak is kind of one-dimensional, but Tash and Uncle Hoole are interesting, and even grow a bit over the series. And I didn’t even mention the dry, professorial droid DV-9, who serves as the children’s  caretaker when Hoole is away. He’s less annoying than C-3P0, that’s for sure. 

Now, because this is Star Wars, we can’t just quit while we’re ahead and be content with a nice satisfying story, and as a result, there are six more books after the “Gog “ or “Starscream” or whatever-you-want-to-call-it arc ended.  

These books aren’t as good. Now it’s just the Arrandas and Hoole roaming around at random and somehow getting involved in more bizarre and horrific things—but this time there is no reason for it. Maybe it’s just me, but if the same three characters are going to keep having adventures, I like it to be for some discernible reason. Just having them keep happening to stumble into brain-transplant experiments or infestations of billions of insects or whatever the hell Spore is doesn’t work for me.

Although to be fair, the cover of The Swarm is pretty awesome:

TheSwarmCover

There are more cameos too, including Jabba the Hutt, Admiral Thrawn, Boba Fett (again), Darth Vader (again) Yoda, and Dash Rendar.

Remember what I said about Star Wars writers using Wedge Antilles as a poor man’s Luke? Well, Dash Rendar is the same thing for Han Solo. And I get it: we all like the idea of a roguish smuggler with a dark past. But Rendar never worked for me—he just screamed “We wanted to have this be Han Solo, but we can’t, so we made up this guy, who flies a similar ship, acts a similar way, and basically does all the same stuff as Han Solo would do.” I liked Shadows of the Empire—both the game and the book—but Dash Rendar was definitely a weak point. The part where Xizor tries to seduce Princess Leia was the highlight of the book, and the space battle at the end was the highlight of the game.

Anyway, what was I talking about? Oh, right—so the random weird stuff cycle of Galaxy of Fear; it isn’t as good. But there are a few interesting things, even so. In particular, book #11 Clones. I forget all the details now, but somehow or other, there’s this place churning out evil clones of people for some reason. For perspective, even Darth Vader has an evil clone. Think about that.

This is interesting given that only a few years later, George Lucas would make Attack of the Clones, where we learn that all the stormtroopers are clones. I realize that continuity isn’t a priority in this universe, but I would have thought Lucas would have at least bothered to tell whoever was in charge of content control, “Hey, I have it in mind to do something with clones in a future movie. Tell people not to use that in any spin-off stories.”

Oh, well. It’s Star Wars. If there’s one thing you can say unequivocally about Star Wars, it’s that none of it makes any sense whatsoever. At this point, it really has become a modern mythology, with various mangled versions that spring from the same set of ideas, but diverge in wildly contradictory ways. Future anthropologists may someday try to piece the whole mess together in an effort to understand the beliefs of 20th and 21st-century humans.

But while it may not have made sense, Galaxy of Fear was a lot of fun for an 8-year-old kid discovering he liked horror and sci-fi.

Now then, I promised you a totally preposterous fan theory. There is one way the second half of the series could be made to work; a way that would explain why all this stuff keeps happening to Zak and Tash, even after the defeat of Gog and everything else: what if Zak has been trapped in the Nightmare Machine the entire time?  

WitchWhen I was a kid, my dad would tell me stories while I would play on my swing-set. Most of his stories were funny, but I remember some were scary—I recall in particular one about a vampire that he told me at sunset one evening. Our house was across the street from a cemetery, and my dad took full advantage of this fact for his tale.

Reading The Witch Under the Mountain, by the incomparable Noah Goats and his daughters writing as “Audrey N. Allison,” brought back those happy memories. It’s about two young girls and their father, who tells them a tale of an evil witch buried under Temple Mountain—which just happens to be where they are going camping the next night.

The two girls—delightfully named Audball and Ally-cat—are both excited and nervous about the trip, but as more and more elements of their father’s story are verified before their eyes, their fear grows, even while their father remains stubbornly oblivious to all of it.

Soon, it becomes clear that he has fallen under the spell of the evil witch, and it’s up to Audball and Allycat to save him—even if it means confronting dangers like ghosts, bears and walking skeletons.

The Witch Under the Mountain is, of course, a book for children; so the horror is kept at a level acceptable to an eight-to-twelve year old. Even so, it’s effective. There’s no setting I like more than a desert at night with hints of supernatural presences, and that’s exactly what this story delivers. There’s even a scene where the trio is trapped in an old abandoned cabin at night. I love things like that. 

There’s something about scary stories aimed at children—they never completely lose their punch. I think it’s because fear is an unusual kind of emotion that unlike say, love, doesn’t evolve as we get older. The dark is always scary, whether you’re five years old or five hundred, because you don’t know what’s in it. 

A good way to find the essence of something is to imagine explaining it to a child, and that’s why horror tales for children and about children work so well. Even in this tale, which is told with a generous side of Goats-ian humor, the classic tropes of curses and monsters in the night still make for a good atmosphere. My favorite scary stories usually have an element of fun to them—people like to be scared. I’m not sure precisely what biological or evolutionary reason there is for this trait, but it’s undeniable.

The real star of this book, though, is the illustrations. They are simple, black-and-white drawings that look sort of like charcoal sketches. They are simple, but effective and atmospheric. The cover gives you a good idea of the style—it’s stark and memorable. My only complaint was that there weren’t more of these illustrations—that’s how much I enjoyed them!

If you have young children, or if you just want to entertain the young child that lives in all of us, this book is perfect for the Halloween season.

VanderImagine this: a story about a brilliant scientist in Albuquerque who is mad at the world, and uses his intelligence to get back at it.

Yeah, yeah, I know; you’re probably thinking, “That’s an outline of the show Breaking Bad.” And yes, that is true. It’s also the outline of Vander’s Magic Carpet, which my great blogger friend Pat Prescott wrote in the late 1980s, almost 20 years before Walter White ever appeared on television.  

Not that I mean to say they are the same thing, because there are some very significant differences. Notably, Eugene Vanders is a considerably more likable character than White. And his method of “making the system pay” as he puts it, turns out to be very novel indeed. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Prof. Vanders is working away at an idea one evening when his home is raided by police in a drug raid. When they find no evidence to convict him, they plant some of their own, as part of an ongoing program of framing people that is being conducted by corrupt officers.

Vanders’ wife and daughter are traumatized by the attack, and eventually both die as a consequence—his daughter by suicide, his wife at the hands of another corrupt member of the justice system. 

Vanders finds that he is not the only victim of this perversion of the justice system: he’s in prison with two other men framed in the same way. Together, they begin working on a plan to expose the men who put them there—and to revolutionize society while they’re at it.

Prof. Vanders has come up with a plan to build flying cars. Once out of prison, he begins selling his technology to government agencies, along with the help of his released fellow inmates. And gradually, he also buys, threatens, and persuades his way into avenging his family, all while building his empire and starting a new family, as well.

And yes, he makes the system pay. He makes a good on the threat he makes to the judge who sentences him near the beginning of the book that he will “make Billy the Kid look like a boy scout,” too. And the way he does it is very clever. But I won’t spoil it here.

I love the themes of this book—a genius scientist out to settle old scores, corrupt government officials harming those they are meant to protect, and in the background, explorations of ideas about society, morality, and economics. 

My favorite character is probably Stanley Wade, the former High School teacher framed in the same way as Vanders, who ends up serving as his right-hand man while he builds his company. He had been a history teacher, and as such is always suggesting historical parallels. You know I love that.

Now, there are some technical issues in terms of typos with this book—understandably, given how hard editing and version control must have been back when it was first written. It was Pat’s first novel, and first novels are almost always technically rough. Plus, it’s just hard to edit your own work. (I should know–just the other day I found a typo in one of my books that I’d already read over about a hundred times.) 

Also, there were a few sequences that, while quite good, seemed to go by too quickly. For instance, at one point a certain character from someone’s past returns to threaten their new life. This is a great concept, but the whole sequence passes so quickly I felt like there wasn’t time for the tension to adequately build.

But these issues aside, I really enjoyed the themes of this book, and I liked how the political and economic ideas were interwoven with the plot.

And to follow up on my earlier point, I think if any entertainment people out there are reading this, there’s great material here for a film or series. I don’t know if Pat’s willing to sell the adaptation rights, but if he is, someone should approach him about it.