Warhammer Sampler

Title: The Hammer and the Eagle:
Icons of Warhammer
Author: Dan Abnett, Graham McNeill, Guy Haley, etc.
Genre: Grimdark Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Pages: 800
Rating: 3.5 of 5
(Thank you to the publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

This anthology serves as a perfect introduction to the most popular characters in the Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer: Age of Sigmar universes. By page count, the split is approximately 70% WH40k sci-fi and 30% Sigmar fantasy.

Some familiarity with the Warhammer history and universes is helpful but not necessary for enjoying the grimdark escapist vignettes of violence (you can always check a wiki if you’re completely lost). Characters run the gamut through space marines, commissars, inquisitors, witch hunters, stormcast eternals, and a massively overpowered dwarf.

Before this, I had not read any books in the Age of Sigmar universe. However, I had read a few of the older Warhammer fantasy books (mostly Gotrek & Felix) and found the characters seriously overpowered…and the new Sigmar version seems to amp that up even more. I doubt I’ll be picking up any books from that side of things, but I did appreciate the chance to sample the universe.

On the 40,000 side, I recognized a handful of the stories from other anthologies, and several of them are a bit unsatisfactory as stand-alones since they were originally written to bridge a gap between two novels. Other than that, they were decent military sci-fi. I still prefer just about any character to the flat, overpowered loyalist space marines, but it’s all good/grim escapist fun with a nice variety of characters (and some variety in storytelling, though there’s only so much you can do in a universe where “there is only war”).

Overall, a decent collection: story-wise I’d give it 3 stars (my usual rating for most things Warhammer) and tack on an extra half star for the broad sampling of characters.

Flat Franchise Fiction

The last three free eARC books I received from NetGalley were franchise fiction, and I’ll be reviewing two of those today. No one expects great literary genius from shared-world, movie spinoff sci-fi, but I was hoping for a little better than what I got. Thank you to the authors and publishers for the free copy via NetGalley (this in no way affects the content of the reviews as we shall see).

Marvel's Black Panther: Sins of the King Episode 1 by [Ira Madison III, Mohale Mashigo, Geoffrey Thorne, Tananarive Due]

Title: Marvel’s Black Panther: Sins of the King
Authors: Ira Madison III, Steven Barnes, Tananarive Due, Mohale Mashigo, Geoffrey Thorne
Genre: Superhero
Pages: 183? (not quite sure…numbering in the eARC was squiffy)
Rating: 2.5 of 5

The episodic plot of this book would make a decent movie or TV series. There’s plenty of action, intrigue, brooding, magic-science… all the usual superhero stuff. I would pay to watch that movie.

However, what works in a movie, cartoon, or comic book does not necessarily work in a novel. Much of the writing was stilted and clunky (to say nothing of uneven since different “episodes” were written by different authors working singly or in pairs). To be charitable I’ll assume the problem lies in the genre rather than the authors’ writing talent…I have tried a couple other (DC) superhero novels in the past and found their writing similarly awkward. Perhaps superhero stories need to be told in a visual medium?

Title: From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back
Authors: Too many to list
Genre: Star Wars Fanfiction Short Stories
Pages: 576
Rating: 2.5 of 5

Any short story collection is a mixed bag, and the mixture in this collection tends toward the “meh.” You can only read so many stories about the evacuation of Echo Base, Vader force-choking an incompetent, or the chaos caused by Lando’s announcement that the Empire has taken over Cloud City before they all start blending together.

To me, the more memorable stories focused on what main characters were doing/thinking when off-camera. Perhaps some of the ones from the “everyman”/”everystormtrooper” point of view would have stood out if there hadn’t been so many of them (and let’s not forget the compulsive need to check the “woke” box by having all 3 or 4 instances of (non-explicit) sex/romance be LGBTQ). Overall, if you’re a big Star Wars fan, you’ll probably enjoy at least some of this collection, but (as with many thematic anthologies) you should only read a story or two at a time to keep the “didn’t I just read this?” feeling at bay.

De-bigoting Lovecraft

Reimagining Lovecraft: Four Tor.com Novellas: (The Ballad of Black Tom, The Dream-Quest of Vellit Boe, Hammers on Bone, Agents of Dreamland) by [Victor LaValle, Kij Johnson, Cassandra Khaw, Caitlin R. Kiernan]

Title: Reimagining Lovecraft
Four Tor.com Novellas
Authors: Victor LaValle, Kij Johnson, Cassandra Khaw, Caitlin R. Kiernan
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 342
Rating: 4 of 5

I enjoy stories that incorporate H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, but some of Lovecraft’s stories can be cringe-inducing for the wrong reasons. The man was virulently xenophobic, racist, etc. (I would say well beyond the “product of his era” racism/sexism that you would expect in many older authors), and his prejudices made their way into much of what he wrote.

The Four novels in this collection skillfully riff on Lovecraft’s mythos while avoiding (or even subverting) his bigotry. A general knowledge of the Cthulhu mythos will make these more interesting, but isn’t strictly necessary. Here is a quick mini-review for each one:

The Ballad of Black Tom: (4.5 out of 5)
This story follows a young hustler from Harlem who gets involved in the events described in Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook. Having a relatively sympathetic black protagonist showing us “what really happened” turns a lot of the story’s racism and xenophobia on its head. This is the only straight-up retelling in this collection, and a knowledge of the Lovecraft original definitely gives it some extra punch.

The Dream Quest of Vellit Boe: (3.5 out of 5)
I find Lovecraft’s “dreamland” stories to be his least interesting (preferring his alien god-monsters), so this novella set in the world of The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath wasn’t my favorite. That said, it was clever to reverse the story by featuring a resident of dreamland on a quest to the waking world rather than the other way around. At times the author seems to be more interested in making a point (“patriarchy & theism bad”) than telling a story, but overall this tale of a middle-aged woman on a reverse dream quest was a more interesting than the original.

Hammers on Bone: (4.5 out of 5)
This novella fuses hardboiled detective fiction with the Cthulhu mythos and places it in a more-or-less modern setting. The author doesn’t follow any particular Lovecraft story, but rather pulls elements from all over the mythos. It’s really weird (and gross), but it definitely works.

Agents of Dreamland: (4 out of 5)
This first installment in the aptly named Tinfoil Dossier combines Area 51/tinfoil hat/black helicopters style conspiracy theories with Lovecraftian horror (especially The Whisperer in Darkness). It’s trippy, disturbing, and pretty open-ended. It was a bit more profanity-laced than I usually like to read, but another well-thought out reimagining of the mythos.

Grim Christmas

A Midnight Clear by [Hooker, Sam, Leyva, Alcy, Morrison, Laura, Windwalker, Cassondra, Storm, Dalena, Jane, Seven]Title: A Midnight Clear
Authors: Sam Hooker, Alcy Leyva, Laura Morrison, Cassondra Windwalker, Dalena Storm, & Seven Jane
Genre: Short Story Anthology (5 Fantasy & 1 Mystery)
Pages: 250
Rating: 3 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/5/19 (Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of my review.)

Black Spot Books tapped six of their authors to pull together this short story anthology under the overarching theme of “not-so-merry Yuletide whimsy.” The result is truly a mixed bag [insert lame Santa’s sack joke].

The Good: The opening story by Sam Hooker is far and away the best of the lot. Who knew you could combine a sugary cute version of the North pole (reminiscent of what it’s like in the movie Elf) with a visit to R’lyeh? Laura Morrison’s hellish (yet humorous) riff on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is imaginative and entertaining as well, and Dalena Storm’s dive into Slavic mythology wasn’t bad. I wouldn’t take my theology from any of these stories, but they were a lot of fun to read.

The “Meh”: The other three stories left me cold. In a couple, the Christmas element felt shoehorned in, and they all had the kind of pacing that I associate with lousy Christian fiction: the majority of the page count taken up with the protagonist moping, sulking, or mooning around followed by a burst of action at the very end that may or may not connect well with all the repetitive morbid introspection that came before it. Obviously, your mileage may vary.

Overall, the oft repeated descriptor for short story anthologies is “mixed bag,” and that holds very much true here. If nothing else, you need to read Sam Hooker’s cutesy elf/Cthulhu mythos mashup.