Monday, July 13, 2020

Book Review: The Roads of Heaven

Book Review: 'The Roads of Heaven' by Melissa Scott
5 / 5 Stars

‘The Roads of Heaven’ was published by Doubleday / The SF Book Club in May 1988. The cover art is by Ron Walotsky. It compiles all three volumes of the so-called ‘Silence Leigh’ trilogy, consisting of ‘Five-Twelfths of Heaven’ (1985), ‘Silence in Solitude’ (1986), and ‘The Empress of Earth’ (1987), all of which first appeared as mass-market paperbacks from Baen Books.

With the paperback editions long out of print, the compilation is probably the easiest and most affordable way to acquire the series. That said, it took most of the month of June for me to finish all 760 pages of ‘The Roads of Heaven’.

Melissa Scott (b. 1960) began publishing in the early 80s and continues to write today, in both the sci-fi and fantasy genres. She also has published novels for the ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Stargate’ franchises.

‘Roads’ is set in the far future, with most of the colony worlds of known space under the rule of the quasi-Islamic Hegemony. The Hegemon, an otherwise despotic ruler, tolerates some degree of malfeasance among the more independent-minded trade worlds....... provided such malfeasance serves his purposes. Within the Hegemon, women are relegated to a subservient status, obliged to obey the orders of their male guardians, and required to go veiled and escorted on those occasions when they must go out in public.

[‘The Roads of Heaven’ is subtle, but effective, in its allegorical examination of the subjugation of women under Islam, particularly in its second volume, ‘Silence in Solitude’, which revolves around the fate of women held under a kind of futuristic Purdah.]

The heroine, Silence Leigh, is an anomaly in the world of the Hegemony: she is a fully qualified starship pilot, taking her grandfather’s merchant ship The Black Dolphin from one world to another. However, in the opening chapter of the inaugural novel, ‘‘Five-Twelfths of Heaven’, the death of her grandfather has left Silence’s future, and the disposition of ownership of The Black Dolphin, in the hands of her male guardian, the oleaginous and self-serving Uncle Otto. But when Uncle Otto is a no-show in Secasian Family Court, Silence finds herself destined to serve as the employee / consort of a local merchant, the loathsome Tohon Champuy.

In desperation, and needing a male guardian, Silence agrees to a marriage of convenience with two men from the ship Sun-Treader : pilot Denis Balthasar, and engineer Chase Mago. For the two men, it’s a chance to acquire an experienced pilot to lend assistance to their trading flights among the planets of the Hegemony, and for Silence, it’s a chance to retain her independence.

Without disclosing any major spoilers, I’ll simply remark that the major underlying theme of the trilogy deals with the efforts of Silence, Denis Balthasar, and Chase Mago to find the quasi-mythic planet called Earth, a world which no one has traveled to for centuries, due to the absence of accurate navigational data. Their efforts will bring them into contact with the unforgiving military of the Hegemon; the Satrap of Inarime, whose offer of assistance comes with a potentially lethal price; and a journey through a region of space jealously guarded by the Rose World coalition, who do not take kindly to intruders…………

‘The Roads of Heaven’ is one of the best space operas I’ve yet read. Its prose style is straightforward and engaging, and while the narrative's pacing is deliberate (and devoid of the over-the-top themes of many space operas - there are no mile-long spaceships travelling through black holes to confront computers the size of planets in ‘The Roads of Heaven’), it benefits from having well-drawn characters, and genuinely suspenseful passages (notably, these passages deftly avoid cliched actions in arriving at a resolution).

Another interesting aspect of the trilogy is its use of magic – specifically, a mixture of astrology and alchemy – to underpin technology and space travel. While the mechanics of interstellar travel using ‘tinctures’ and ‘harmonies’ and mystical symbology does sometimes get a bit labored, its eccentricity brings something new to the trope of how to get your spaceship from point A to point B.

The verdict ? ‘The Roads of Heaven’ is a solid 5-star trilogy, and well worth searching out.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Wham Bam by Silver

'Wham Bam'
by Silver
July 1976
Let's go back to the Summer of 1976........... and an underappreciated song: Wham Bam, that, in a summer that had its share of memorable songs, managed to get its own deserved moment of glory.

Silver was a U.S. country-rock band, formed in 1971, that featured among its musicians Tom Leadon (brother of Eagles guitarist Bernie Leadon) and Brent Mydland, who would go on to join the Grateful Dead in 1979.

In 1976 the band released their eponymous (and one and only album), with the track 'Wham Bam' selected as the single. It peaked on the Billboard Hot 100 chart at position 74 in the week of July 10, 1976. 

The song underwent something of a pop culture resurrection when it was used in the 2017 film Guardians of the Galaxy 2.

Starry nights and sunny days
I always thought that love should be that way
But then comes a time when you're ridden with doubt
You've loved all you can and now you're all loved out
Oh Oh Baby we've been a long long way
And who's to say where we'll be tomorrow
Well my heart says no but my mind says it's so
That we got a love that isn't a love to stay

We've got a wham, bam shang-a-lang
And a sha-la-la-la-la-la babe
Wham bam shang-a-lang
And a sha-la-la-la-la-la babe

Lookin' at you I wanted to say
I think a little emotion goes a long long way
But careful now don't get caught in your dreams
Look out baby this is not what it seems
Oh Oh Baby you've been so good to me
But please Don't make it what it's not
Well I thought we agreed on what we need
So listen to me I'll tell you what we've got

We've got a wham, bam shang-a-lang
And a sha-la-la-la-la-la babe
Wham bam shang-a-lang
And a sha-la-la-la-la-la babe

I think you're seein' what I've been sayin'
'Cause I hear you singin' to the tune I'm playin'
And now that it's said and we both understand
Let's say our goodbye's before it gets out of hand so
Bye Bye Baby I'd really like to stay
But we'll remember the best time in our life

We had a wham, bam shang-a-lang
And a sha-la-la-la-la-la babe
Wham bam shang-a-lang
And a sha-la-la-la-la-la babe
Wham bam shang-a-lang

And a sha-la-la-la-la-la babe

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

MODOK: Head Trips

'Head Trips'
Marvel, 2019
'Head Trips' (456 pp) was published by Marvel in December 2019. This is a well-made slab of a trade paperback, printed on glossy paper with good-quality color reproductions.

It includes the following comics:

Tales of Suspense #93 and #94 (1967)

Captain America #133 (1971)

Iron Man King Size Annual #4 (1977)

Incredible Hulk # 287 – 290 (1983)

Super Villain Team-Up: MODOK’s 11 #1 – 5 (2007 – 2008)

Marvel Adventures: Avengers #9 (2007)

Marvel One-Shot #1, The Fantastic Four in ‘Ataque del MODOK’ (2010)

MODOK: Assassin #1 – 5 (2015)

I remember reading those issues of Tales of Suspense back in '67, and thinking that MODOK was a cool villain……. much, much cooler than supervillains like Braniac, or Lex Luthor, or the Joker, or the Green Goblin.

The initial appearances of MODOK are sure to bring feelings of nostalgia to those who remember him from 'way back when', i.e., 1967. But it's certainly true that Jack Kirby's design for the character was imaginative - a giant head in an anti-grav chair ?! And No Pupils ? Far-out ! 

But also, there was a touch of pathos to the character that made him a bit special...........
Some of the comics included in this compilation offer some interesting twists on the MODOK character. Without disclosing spoilers, I'll say that the issues of The Incredible Hulk give us an unexpected wrinkle on the theme of creating an evil super-genius. And while it's handicapped by being a 22- page, 'all ages' one-shot, Marvel Adventures: Avengers #9 brings an offbeat sensibility to its treatment of the theme.

Somewhat surprisingly, it's the more recent storylines that are the best of the comics collected here. Super Villain Team-Up: MODOK’s 11 has MODOK assembling a team of Z-List supervillains to steal an artifact called the Hypernova. There is an undercurrent of facetiousness that makes this miniseries an engaging read.

MODOK: Assassin is one of the 30-odd spinoff series shoveled out in the wake of the stupefyingly bloated 2015 Secret Wars / Battleworld Marvel Universe 'reboot'. It turns out one of the Battleworlds created by God-Doom is called 'Killville', and MODOK is its chief enforcer - although he chafes having to be under the command of Baron Mordo. 

When a female member of the 'Thor Corps' gets caught up in the infighting between MODOK and the Assassin's Guild, there is plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor. 

The only real dud in this compilation is Marvel One-Shot #1, The Fantastic Four in ‘Ataque del MODOK’. It's primarily a vehicle for Marvel to introduce a new superhero ('El Vejigante') aimed at a Puerto Rican / Spanish readership. The cartoony art style used in this comic really didn't mesh well with the storyline, which primarily is devoted to Reed and Sue getting all lovey-dovey during their second honeymoon............meh !
Summing up, if you are a fan of the MODOK character, than this compilation is well worth the investment.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Book Review: Thongor Fights the Pirates of Tarakus

Book Review: 'Thongor Fights the Pirates of Tarakus' by Lin Carter
3 / 5 Stars

'Thongor Fights the Pirates of Tarakus' (160 pp) was published by Berkley Books in July, 1970. The cover artwork appears to be signed by Jeffrey Jones. A second edition was issued in June 1976, also by Berkley, and features cover art by Vincent Di Fate.

Lin Carter began his 'Thongor' novels in 1965, with 'The Wizard of Lemuria' (1965), but the series really gathered momentum after Lancer Books began publishing its 'Conan' paperbacks starting in 1967 and introduced the sword-and-sorcery genre to an entire generation of Baby Boomers. 'Thongor Fights the Pirates of Tarakus' was the sixth and last of the novels, although Carter continued to publish Thongor short stories and novelettes until 1980.

'Thongor Fights the Pirates of Tarakus' has several plot threads, all of which eventually coalesce in the closing chapters. It seems that Kashtar, the lord of the pirate city of Tarakus, has come into the possession of an eldritch artifact recovered from a ruined city of the wasteland territory of Nianga. This artifact spews forth a beam of light, called the Grey Death, that instantly can convert men into raving lunatics. With the Grey Death as his superweapon, Kashtar intends to lead a fleet of pirates against the great city of Patanga and its ruler, Thongor.

Can Thongor and his comrades-in-arms Barim Redbeard, Karm Karvus, and Charn Thovis counter the menace of the Grey Death and defeat the armada of the Pirates of Tarakus.......or will Patanga be reduced to rubble, its Liege Lord put to the sword, and its people enslaved by their conquerors..... ?

As with the other pieces in the 'Thongor' genre I have read, 'Thongor Fights the Pirates of Tarakus' is a serviceable pastiche of a Conan novel. It maintains the same reverence for purple prose that marks the pulp fiction of the 1930s: few nouns appearing in the pages of 'Pirates' are unaccompanied by an adjective. 

Indeed 'Pirates' is the first time in my life I have encountered the adjective 'flamly' twice (which - according to a Google search - is not a word at all). I also was unprepared for the term 'heavily-manicholated', which Carter uses to describe battlements........ ?!

Given that the novel is only 160 pages long, the narrative is necessarily terse, and the chapters brief.

If you are someone who enjoys those Old School sword-and-sorcery tales, and recognizes the genre's limitations, than 'Thongor Fights the Pirates of Tarakus' will be worth picking up, although the fact that it was printed 50 years ago means that surviving copies can be expensive (the 1976 second printing is a bit more affordable).

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Deathblow and Wolverine part two

Deathblow and Wolverine
Part Two
Image / Marvel, February 1997