Winter Tide, by Ruthanna Emrys / ****

WinterTide_hi_compWhat I knew about Winter Tide before I read it was that Ruthanna Emrys had written a sort of homage to H.P. Lovecraft – but not the kind that we’ve seen all too many of in recent years. Instead, what I knew is that it was something unique; less of a pure homage to Lovecraft and in some ways a response, or a story that felt inspired by Lovecraft’s world but had no interest in exploring the style he had created.

Here’s, perhaps, what I wish I had known: what all of that means is that, yes, Ruthanna Emrys has written a Lovecraftian story…but one that’s not a horror story, nor has any interest in being one. Instead, it uses Lovecraft’s complex cosmology to tell the story of the town of Innsmouth – or, more accurately, the few survivors of that town after the government raid depicted in Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” What might they have been like, wonders Emrys? What if what the agents saw wasn’t the horrors Lovecraft depicted, but simply saw an unfamiliar religion, one that felt primal and dark, but truly was just something alien to them? Such a reaction – fear, imprisonment, government action – certainly wouldn’t have been atypical of the period. What might it be like if you envisioned a world where Lovecraft’s tales happened, but they represented the fringes and the lunatics of that religion, and not the norm?

If you can picture that, you might have a sense of what Winter Tide is going to be – that, instead of the Lovecraftian horrors, what you get is a story of outsiders who are feared by much of society; whose religion embraces the unknown and places humanity as a tiny speck in the cosmos; who believe and practice magic not for power, but for knowledge; who see the fringe lunatics that practice the darker side of their religion as horrors, and not representative of what they do. And if, perhaps, some of this seems darkly familiar to you, Emrys underlines her point by giving the Innsmouth survivors a group they met and bond with – the Japanese citizens placed in internment camps during World War II.

What this all comes to is a fascinating, wholly unique take on Lovecraft’s legacy, one that’s inspired less by his prose or his unspeakable horrors and more by the underlying ideas of that horror: that mankind is just a speck in the universe, looking outward an unknowable creatures that might as well be gods to us – creatures that maybe don’t even care about us. All of this is integrated into a loose plot that finds our heroine trying to reconnect to her roots in an effort to work with the same government that attacked Innsmouth – this time to prevent the Soviets from using some of their magics to win the Cold War.

But really, Winter Tide is less about its story than it is the mood of the thing, and the immersion in a world of magic, strange gods, and fascinating creatures. It’s a world where unknowable things can take notice of us in horrible ways, but also a world in which outsider races commune under the ocean, or ancient groups find unity in back alleys. Winter Tide has a story, but what’s lingered with me is the strangely quiet, thoughtful take on a mythos that’s so often been about madness and devastation. As a book, it feels a bit slow and meandering, but as an experience, it’s something wholly unique and fascinating.

Side note: Winter Tide is actually the second story Emrys has written in this universe. The first was a novelette entitled “The Litany of Earth”; it’s included with the eBook version of Winter Tide, but having read it, I can’t help but feel that it provides an easier entryway into Emrys’s world, as well as setting up some of the main characters nicely. Luckily, it’s available here for free on Tor.com; it might give you a sense of how Emrys’s world before you jump into Winter Tide.

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Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song / N/A

c26ce0996ccaf71aca521ee2c809c8c0I’m an enthusiastic fan of blaxploitation cinema; even though I wouldn’t consider myself an expert by any means, I feel like I’ve seen a lot of the staples of the genre – ShaftCoffyFoxy BrownBlaculaSuper FlyAcross 110th Street, and more. But one of the big gaps in my blaxploitation knowledge has been Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Melvin van Peebles explosive and controversial film that’s often held up as the originator of the genre. Originally rated X (“by an all-white jury,” as the posters reminded you), Sweetback is “Dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man,” and stars “The Black Community.” It’s a defiant, angry film that features corrupt police officers, constant racism, police brutality, and any number of issues that have yet to become less relevant, sadly. And on that level, it’s a completely compelling film.

It’s also, at the same time, an insane mess – badly filmed and edited, haphazardly thrown together, not particularly well-acted, and simultaneously ambitiously avant-garde and incredibly amateurish. It is, in almost no uncertain terms, a bad film – and yet one whose influence and impact can’t be denied, nor can its strangely compelling mood.

You can read all about the film’s many controversies – the way that van Peebles financed the film by claiming that he was making a pornographic movie; the fact that he supposedly contracted an STD from an actress and successfully filed the equivalent of a workman’s comp claim with the DGA, using the money to finance the film; the fact that he had his 14-year-old strip naked and simulate sex with an also naked actress; the use of a then-unknown Earth, Wind, and Fire to create the film’s soundtrack, which he marketed ahead of the film’s release in an unheard-of move at the time – on and on come the stories about Sweetback, to the point where you can’t help but wonder if a movie about the making of Sweetback wouldn’t be more interesting than the movie itself. (There is such a movie, directed by van Peebles’ son, playing his father; I’m very interested to watch it, but have not seen it yet.)

But ultimately, for all of its impact, watching Sweetback today is a strange experience. It doesn’t have anything resembling a clear storyline; apart from the basic hook (a male prostitute kills two policemen to stop them from beating a black suspect, and goes on the run), scenes feel disconnected from each other, dialogue doesn’t clearly advance the story, performances feel either over the top (I’m thinking especially of the chief of police) or non-existent (most notably van Peebles himself), the sex scenes feel uncomfortable…on and on. It’s a film that feels groundbreaking and unique, undeniably, and even today, more than forty years after its release, it still feels like something primal and incredible – a scream of defiance and refusal to play by any sort of rules set up by an establishment run by white men.

And is there something more pure about the fact that this is a movie written and helmed by a black man, while so much blaxploitation was created by white executives? Undeniably. Sweetback feels genuine and never contrived – no matter what else you say about it, it feels like the vision of one man, trying to create the hell that he felt like America had become and using jarring, discomfiting techniques to create a world that doesn’t make much sense and feels terrifying and unreal.

Or maybe I’m giving Melvin van Peebles too much credit. Maybe the movie is just amateurish and cheap, and its bizarre nature is the result of a lack of experience and not conscious choices. (I don’t entirely buy that, but I think it’s part of it.) There’s certainly no denying that the movie is shaggy to an insane degree, that scenes go on forever or add nothing, that it sometimes feels just like a bizarre fever dream that’s not making much sense, or that there’s no sense of escalation or progression. Whether that’s a conscious choice or not, none of it makes for a film that’s “better”.

But it certainly makes for a film that’s fascinating, and I can’t imagine what seeing it was like in 1971 – particularly for a black audience who had never been given a chance like this to see themselves on screen. And if the film is deeply flawed with its sexual politics and fetishization of black sexuality, there’s no denying the impact of the score, or the gutsiness of some of what’s on screen. Is it good? I’m not sure; I don’t think so. But is it fascinating and compelling? Undeniably. And the fact that I’m still wrestling with my feelings about it several days later speaks to that sharp divide in what the film accomplishes versus how well it’s made.

IMDb

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? / *****

mv5bmjm1ndg1mjuznf5bml5banbnxkftztgwntaxnjizntm-_v1_sy1000_cr006741000_al_The trailer for Won’t You Be My Neighbor? has already become a bit notorious for its capability to choke up audience members, even those who didn’t expect to find themselves moved by a documentary about Fred Rogers and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. And so, it wasn’t like I wasn’t prepared for the chance that the room would get a bit dusty during my screenings; I remember growing up on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, even though I couldn’t remember much of anything about the show. And I knew the reputation of Fred Rogers as a fundamentally decent, caring man.

This brings me to two things.

  1. I didn’t remember much about Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood until about 30 seconds into the documentary, when memories came flooding back to me – the voice of Daniel Tiger, the trips on the trolley, the way he’d take his shoes off, his calming voice, and so much more.
  2. This movie destroyed me at points. Absolutely wrecked me…but in a good way.

Because here’s the thing: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? isn’t a sad film in any way. If you’re worried that there’s some scandal about Fred Rogers, some sort of shadow that’s going to ruin this show for you or the memory of the man, rest assured, there’s nothing here. And it’s not as though the movie is skirting some unpleasant secret or anything; it’s just that Fred Rogers was who he appeared to be – every bit as decent and kind and warm as he seemed to be on television.

No, the reason Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is so tear-inducing is because of its genuine heart and kindness. In an age so drenched in irony, cruelty, anger, and misunderstandings, here is a portrait of a man who genuinely loved children and treated them with respect and kindness; who truly believed that every person was special and deserved to know that about themselves; who saw the importance of quiet and calm in the hectic nature of the modern world; who believed that we should spend as much time listening to other people as we do talking, if not more so; and who truly lived out a life not only of service to others, but a life in which he tried to be kind and respectful and warm to every single person. And there’s little way to watch all of this and not be moved by the earnest, true humanity on display.

Now, if that’s all there was to Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, that would be enough. But what elevates the film is the way it subtly but undeniably sets itself up as a response to our modern world – not just our hectic pace, but the tenor of the times. Only directly referencing the modern world in the last bit of the film, Neighbor nonetheless constantly reminds us of the importance of earnestness and kindness, especially in a world that never has much time for it. The film makes its case not by hammering home its points, but by showing us the impact that kindness can have on the world – the way that treating human beings with respect, listening to them, treating everyone with patience and earnestness, can lead to positive change in the world. And though the film shows Rogers himself struggling with that message at times (most heartbreakingly, in response to 9/11), the film nevertheless makes clear that this is something that the world would benefit from, if we could only learn from that example.

That’s no small message to teach, and one that’s maybe more important in our toxic times than ever. That director Morgan Neville does it while never letting the message overcome this portrait of a fundamentally good man is what makes Won’t You Be My Neighbor? not only so great, but also so necessary in our modern world. I defy you to watch it and not come away wanting to make the world a better place – and anything that can do that is worth seeing.

IMDb

All Systems Red, by Martha Wells / ****

71koskvyoblWhen the only thing you know about a book is that its narrator and “hero” is a android named “Murderbot”…well, that’s a pretty outstanding hook for a novel, isn’t it?

Such is the case with Martha Wells’ All Systems Red, the first novel in a series called “The Murderbot Diaries,” about a corporate-owned security droid that refers to itself as Murderbot – an indication of the conflicted, morally dubious, darkly humorous world that you’re about to plunged into. Murderbot makes for a wonderful host for this novel; deeply iffy about the humans its supposed to be protecting, uncomfortable with its place in life (not quite property, not quite sentient life), more interested in watching downloaded TV than talking to the human clients who need it, Murderbot is a wonderfully odd, unique creation. More importantly, thanks to Wells, Murderbot’s voice is fantastic – funny, idiosyncratic, and the perfect blend of antihero and hero.

All of which is good, because the actual story of All Systems Red is pretty generic. It’s not a bad story, mind you; it follows a team of planetary scientists who become slowly aware that the planet they’re on may be occupied by something hostile to them, and need Murderbot’s help in staying alive. That’s all fine, but there’s little here to write home about from a plot perspective. Things unfold at a nice clip, and there are enough developments and reveals to keep things moving. But there’s no real surprises, nothing too out of the ordinary – it’s a plot that serves as a framework for the novel, and not much more.

But that doesn’t really matter, because it’s clear that the plot is here to support Murderbot, and not the other way around. And given that Murderbot is such an engaging narrator – even before you get into the way the book carefully and cleverly engages with the line between sentient life and non-sentient life and how we would treat synthetic life forms manufactured by corporations – that justifies things here. All Systems Red is about introducing us to this world, and our conflicted, socially anxious, uncomfortable hero who just wants to be left alone and watch TV, and not deal with a bunch of humans who aren’t sure if it’s a computer or a human being – a question Murderbot isn’t entirely sure about either.

All Systems Red feels like a trial balloon for the rest of the series, and it’s solid enough that it’s sold me on the idea more Murderbot novels. I don’t know what to expect after this, but I had enough fun here to see what happens now that Wells has established a world and set up looser, more inventive adventures to come – and I’ll definitely be checking them out.

Amazon

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver / ****

y648The story of a Free Will Baptist preacher who takes his family to the Congo in the early 60’s to perform missionary work – albeit a story told entirely through the perspectives of his wife and four daughters – Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible has a lot on its mind. On one level, it’s a powerful and moving family saga, the story of a family ruled by a domineering, strictly religious man with little interest in the opinions of women or anything that flies in the face of his own theology – and that includes anything African tradition or civilization might have to offer. On another level, it’s the story of how European and American powers worked to topple the democratically elected government of the Congo, manipulating the nation to satisfy their own greed. And while the book nicely interweaves those two levels, I wouldn’t say that it entirely succeeds on both of them.

It’s that second level – the political one – that often gets the best of Poisonwood, pulling the book away from the sharply realized family dynamics and personal struggles that represent the book at its best, and turning it into something more didactic and lecturing, to say nothing of how it tends to turn its narrators into symbols representing different perspectives on Africa. That’s not always the case, mind you – for much of the first, say, two-thirds of the book, Kingsolver successfully immerses the reader in a first-hand view of these revolutions and their effects not on the power structure of the nation, and not on the Western influencers, but on the citizenry and tribes of the Congo. It’s those moments that most succeed in this aspect of the book, demonstrating just what the installation of a dictator wrought about this land.

But, again, too often, especially in the book’s last third, Kingsolver lets her characters become mouthpieces or strawmen, reducing the complexity of her novel into something more lecturing and heavy-handed. And that can be frustrating, because up until the book’s climactic turning point – probably about two-thirds of the way through, I’d guess – I was fairly well sucked into Poisonwood‘s portrait of a family struggling to survive in a hostile environment and forced to choose between adapting to the land or forcing it to break underneath them. Yes, once again, Kingsolver’s allegory is obvious (after all, here’s a white Christian coming to Africa and attempting to “civilize” them while having no interest in them as a people as all), but by telling it through the perspectives of the four young girls who experienced it all – and occasional interludes from their mother, long after the fact – Kingsolver creates a rich mosaic effect, building a world and a philosophy all through these separate incidents and allowing the reader to come to their own decisions about it all. More than that, in finding a rich voice for each character – Rachel, with her flippant attitude and malapropisms; Adah, with her dark thoughts and love of palindromes; Leah, with her desperate desire to please her father; and Ruth Ann, the youngest, who sees everything through the eyes of a naive child – Kingsolver brings not only them to life, but the novel as a whole, turning it into the story of their experiences and how it changed them as much as it is about Africa and the West’s relationship with it. And in doing so, she finds what makes the novel so compelling – this family, and these women, each of whom are shaped forever by their time in this country and the things they see and experience there.

After the novel’s climax – that aforementioned turning point – it goes on for too long, and hammers home the points that were already clear, doing a bit too much “telling” and not enough “showing”. But Poisonwood never becomes a screed, and Kingsolver’s characters and their story are so rich and so compelling that her passion can’t detract from it all. Indeed, with her attention to detail about life in tiny tribal villages, or the way we so often see politics unfolding in hints and allusions, or the style in which she plays with our perspectives on events by only showing us one character’s view and expecting us to extrapolate, Kingsolver’s book is so well-crafted and incredibly well-written that it’s not hard to see how it became so beloved. These characters – particularly the four girls – are so well-drawn, so quickly, that each new chapter feels like you’re sitting across from one of them as they tell you about the things they experienced, and by the time you’re into the book’s rhythms, you truly feel like you know each of them, not just as characters, but as people. It’s a remarkable piece of fiction, one that manages to both tell a compelling story about a damaged family and examine our country’s relationship with Africa, and that’s no small feat.

Does it go on too long? Yes. Does it lose its subtlety – and hurt its characters a little bit in the process, robbing them of some of their complexity? Most definitely. But that shouldn’t hold you back from the book, not when it’s this vivid and descriptive, and this well-crafted as a work of fiction. For a while, you can live in a small village in Africa, seeing the world through the eyes of a naive Westerner who thinks that they know best, even as history is looming in the background – and if that’s not the magic of a book, what is?

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On Dracula 3D, Solo, and the Power of Expectations

argentodracAbout a week ago, I endured the roughly 18-hour ordeal that was Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D. (IMDb says the movie is less than two hours, but I can tell you, it feels infinitely longer than that.) Bringing almost nothing new whatsoever to the classic Dracula story, and telling it without any sort of visual style, inventiveness, humor, new angle, or any sort of compelling performances, Argento brings Dracula 3D to the screen as if he was dared that he couldn’t strip every bit of life and originality out of Stoker’s tale. (There is, admittedly, a single moment that’s unexpected in the movie, but is so gloriously badly executed and bizarre that it inspired not joy but absolute bewilderment and some sustained laughter in the theater. Three words: giant praying mantis.)

Now, the thing is, Dracula 3D isn’t the worst movie I’ve seen. It’s not even the worst one I’ve seen in recent memory – it doesn’t compare to a low-budget freak show movie called Side Sho that I saw a few weeks ago, which couldn’t even light its shots correctly. And yet, Dracula 3D undeniably feels like the worst movie I’ve seen in years, and inspired more vitriol and anger from me than any number of demonstrably worse low-budget slashers I’ve seen. But why is that? Why did I hate this movie so much more than low-budget trash without any redeeming qualities whatsoever?

It all comes down, I think, to expectations. Dracula 3D was helmed by the legendary Dario Argento, responsible for any number of essential horror films, not least of which is the original Suspiria. Now, admittedly, I’m not a die-hard Argento fan – it’s only recently that I even came around on Suspiria. Nevertheless, even the Argento movies I disliked always had style and color to spare. Sure, they’d make no sense and have mediocre performances, but I could never deny just how gorgeous his movies were. Say what you would about Argento, but his motto so often seemed to be “style above substance,” and I could enjoy that at least on one level.

And so, I think much of my anger and frustration with Dracula 3D – and much of my hatred – came from the fact that I went in expecting, at the very least, something to look at. What I got wasn’t just dull and overlong and uninteresting – it was framed without any sense of style or visual acuity whatsoever. Shots featured the blandest backgrounds possible, weren’t even framed well, used almost no color, and just generally felt as lazy and weak as possible – and Argento, whatever his faults, should be better than that. In other words, sure, Side Sho sucked, but it seemed like everyone was doing more or less their best. This, however? This was a phoned-in film by someone who couldn’t care less about his audience or anyone who paid for it, and who could undeniably do something better. In other words, my expectations – even mild ones, like “this is what makes a typical Argento film” – shaped how I felt about the finished product, and inspired my hatred and anger.

soloThe opposite, though, could also be true – that a lack of interest and an assumption of awfulness can so often work in a film’s favor. Take, for example, the new standalone Star Wars film, Solo. Here’s a film I had basically no interest in seeing – was there anything we really had to know about Han Solo that we didn’t already know from the film’s and Harrison Ford’s performance? Add to that the middling to weak reviews that confirmed my worst fears, the behind the scenes drama that ejected the interesting directorial duo Chris Lord and Phil Miller for the bland, generic Ron Howard, and my general irritation at fan-service, and here was a movie that I couldn’t care less about seeing.

And yet, I have a son who’s getting older and older, and who loves Star Wars films, and I’m not going to miss chances to do something together that means something to him. So, off we went to see Solo today, and to my surprise, I found myself enjoying the movie more than I had any expectation of doing.

Now, that’s not to say that Solo is a great film, or even more than “not too bad/pretty good.” It’s a film that’s far too indebted to fan-service and to franchise-building, and in spending so much time belaboring every connection to the past and bludgeoning home every signpost for the future, the film so often forgets to ever exist in the here and now. Worse still are the brief glimpses here and there of the lighter, sillier version of the movie Lord and Miller would have given us; while there can’t be much of their footage left in the final cut, there are moments here and there that feel funny, deft, and enjoyable in a way the rest of the movie rarely does.

For all of that, though, I ended up enjoying Solo far more than I thought I would, and I think that’s due in no small part to the fact that I went in expecting a tedious chore that would never really work for me. Yes, what I got is the dictionary definition of “inessential,” and it feels a bit weak at more than a few points (most notably with the pointless, glossed-over death of a major character). But as the film opened with a fun chase across a grimy Star Wars city, and then gave me a spectacular train heist, before leading to another great heist effort that ends up leading to cries for revolution, well, I couldn’t deny that I was having fun, because I didn’t expect those parts. So much of what I expected about Solo was the stuff that fell flat for me – the ridiculous explanations for things we never cared about (how Han got his blaster! how Han got his last name! what the deal with the Kessel Run was!), or the absurd markers that might as well have come with giant blinking subtitles reading “THIS IS FOR THE SEQUEL”.

And so, every time the film came to life and gave me what I wanted originally – a fun, lighthearted space romp without much debt to the rest of the Star Wars universe – well, I enjoyed it a lot more than I would have going in cold, because I was coming out ahead of what I assumed I was getting. Does it change the overall quality of the film? No more than my knowledge of Argento’s filmography changes the quality of Dracula 3DSolo is still pretty fun, but inessential and weighed down by its inability to stand on its own; Dracula is still bland, awful, and completely turgid, so much so that even a late-film appearance by Rutger Hauer can’t save the film.

But all of this goes to show how subjective a medium film really is, and how silly these reviews I write really are. I can’t tell you what you’ll think of a film, and the idea that there’s some “objective” scale of quality is silly. All I can do is tell you how I reacted, and that includes the way my expectations affected the viewing experience. And the more you have invested in a film, the more able it is to let you down; just the same, the lower your expectations, the more it might surprise you.

(Dracula 3D still sucked, though. No matter what you expect, it’s going to be bad. Except for that praying mantis scene, which rules, although I couldn’t tell you if it does so ironically or unironically.)

IMDb: Dracula 3D | Solo

Son of a Liche, by J. Zachary Pike / *****

sonofalichecover-mdI get a lot of review books to read these days. Some are good, some are bad, but if I’m being honest, there aren’t that many that are so good that not only do I love them, but that they make the leap from “I enjoyed a free copy of this” to “I would actually buy this for myself.” But J. Zachary Pike’s Orconomics really was that good, blowing me away and giving me a truly enjoyable, fun, smart, clever read. Orconomics drew on the tradition of Terry Pratchett to write a satirical novel about the economic bubble, pre-collapse, all in the guise of a fantasy story about a crew of washed-up heroes on a “fetch quest”. (That Orconomics also served as a fantastic riff on RPG’s only made it all the funnier and more enjoyable.) Even better, not only was Orconomics very funny and very exciting, it managed to be genuinely moving and engaging, giving the reader characters that they could truly care about and find themselves invested in.

Now, after four years, we finally have the second volume in The Dark Profit Saga – and it was worth the wait and then some (and also worth me buying it for myself this time). Son of a Liche picks up a few months after the end of Orconomics (it’s all but essential to read Orconomics first; I re-read it in preparation, and was glad I did), and things are bad. Our heroes are largely hated by almost everyone; a necromancer is amassing an army of the dead to assault the most prosperous city on Arth; and that economic collapse is getting more and more likely, as investors find a new way to gamble on policies that are almost guaranteed to fail.

That may sound like a weird disconnect, or like a book that’s too ambitious, and it doesn’t help pre-conceptions that Son of a Liche is nearly double the length of Orconomics. And yet, somehow, Pike makes every bit of the novel work, juggling incredibly inventive action sequences, satisfying fantasy worldbuilding, gleeful silliness, and incisive economic satire, and makes it all work, giving every single aspect of the book time to breathe and the tone it needs to thrive. That’s even more true for Pike’s ability to give his characters development and genuine emotions – the ability to slide from wordplay and RPG trope spoofing to painful, earnest emotional beats is no small thing, and there’s any number of authors who can’t handle those tonal shifts. But Pike makes it look easy, sometimes even sliding in and out of humor in mid-scene, while never detracting from the honest humanity of his characters (even the non-humans, but you get the idea).

So, yes, Son of a Liche genuinely moved me at times – there’s much here about the importance of hope in dark times, or why it matters to do the right thing even when it won’t help the big picture, or why sometimes saving one life is more important than changing the world, and those are lessons we all need at any time, and maybe more so these days. But none of that would matter if Liche wasn’t as exciting, engaging, and as funny as it was. And trust me, this is a legitimately hilarious book, with necromancers running focus groups to better understand how to appeal to their targets, universal laws of irony and bad timing, undead middle managers finding the best spot in the org chart to do nothing, and so much more. Pike peppers his book with silliness and great banter, giving it all a sense of self-awareness and sometimes trenchant observation, while never neglecting his overarching story.

And, oh, that overarching story is outstanding. Like I said, Liche is almost twice as long as Orconomics, but it earns that length and wears it well, never lagging for a moment. There’s a lot more going on here – a tribe of Orcs reeling from the events of Orconomics, a former investment banker coming to terms with his past actions, royal intrigue, and more has been added to the already complex dynamics of our party of heroes, which in turn has grown since the last novel. But Pike juggles it all well, and there’s not really a plot thread that feels underserved nor extraneous. He weaves them all together seamlessly, delivering a genuinely exciting and riveting piece of fantasy that also happens to be very, very funny, and surprisingly heartfelt. Doing any one of those things is hard; doing all of them at once is nearly impossible.

In short, somehow – and I wouldn’t have thought this was possible – Son of a Liche is even better than Orconomics. It’s funny, it’s exciting, it’s richly detailed, it’s moving, it’s smart, and it’s just plain fun. It’s impossible to go a page without reading something funny, or having a nice character beat, or smiling as Pike demonstrates how good he’s been at building this world and constructing his tapestry. That a book this good is self-published is nearly unheard of to me, and I’ve read a lot of them. If there was any justice, this would be on bookshelves across the country, and fantasy fans would be all rushing to buy this and join in the wait for the third volume in the series. Because let me tell you, Son of a Liche isn’t just “good by self-published standards” or “good by fantasy standards” or even “unexpectedly good” – it’s great, plain and simple, and stands on its own merits as one of the best fantasy series going today. If you’re a fan of Terry Pratchett, this is essential reading for you, but even if you’re just a fan of fantasy, read this and fall in love with Pike’s wonderful imagination and style.

Amazon | JZacharyPike.com