Category Archives: Not by the Cover

Reviews of stories, whether found in books, games, movies or whatever medium can be stretched to accommodate a narrative.

Locus Reviews PSFIV and A Time for Dragons

Note: Been having internet problems so updates might be intermittent. I’ll be updating the Twitter account, visible from here, if there’s breaking/interesting news.

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The July 2009 issue of Locus, the U.S. magazine of the science fiction and fantasy field, carried a pleasant surprise for fans of Philippine speculative fiction: a review of not one, but two local anthologies, namely “Philippine Speculative Fiction IV” and “A Time for Dragons” by Rich Horton.

The two reviews are not available online, but with the help of relatives I was able to order a copy (which became a less arduous  task when I called off the bookstore hunt after I learned that Locus wasn’t being sold in brick-and-mortar stores @_@). I just got my hands on it this weekend and thought I’d share some of the contents of the review, given the fact that an issue of Locus can be a tad difficult to chase down.

In his dual review, Mr. Horton stated that “[i]n feel these two books are entirely consistent with similar products from the American and English small press” and the fact that many stories are set in the Philippines makes these stories “just unfamiliar enough to most readers to pique additional interest.”

Mr. Horton went on to name a few of his favorites from each anthology, which I’ll list here along with any comment he might have had that didn’t involve a summary of the story. Note that some of the praise he had for these stories was tempered by less positive comments, usually having to do with predictability, but since he did cite them as the best stories, I’m probably safe in assuming that the good he saw in each outweighed the bad.

[The list can be found after the break.]

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Jeffrey Ford Reviews Philippine Speculative Fiction IV

Awesome news for Philippine Spec Fic: Jeffrey Ford, world renowned fantasy author  (whose works have won and/or been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the Theodore Sturgeon Award, the International Horror Guild Award, the Fountain Award, the Edgar Allan Poe Award) recently reviewed Philippine Speculative Fiction IV, edited by Dean Alfar and Nikki Alfar, and found much to his liking, singling out in particular stories by Andrew Drilon, Noel Tio, Maryanne Moll, Charles Tan, Celestine Trinidad, Isabel Yap, Paolo Jose Cruz, Kate Aton-Osias and Adam David.

From the review:

I don’t know how many US readers and writers are aware of it, but there is a vital and growing SF/F community in the Philippines these days. Good evidence exists for it in this latest volume of the anthology, Philippine Speculative Fiction IV.

One need not delve too deeply into this Philippine literary phenomenon to quickly realize that there is a treasure trove of talent there. Volume 4 of the series is, in my humble opinion, the best yet in the series.

I’ve only touched on a representative handful of stories here. There were other pieces in the anthology that I liked as well as these. The book is well worth your time.

Congratulations to Dean and Nikki, as well as to all the authors-especially those given special mention. Now all you guys need to do is make the 5th even better right? No pressure.

If you want to show Mr. Ford some love, his website can be found here, and he keeps a livejournal account here. His excellent books and collections are also available on Amazon amongst other fine retailers (can’t recall if I’ve seen any here).

Review: Philippine Speculative Fiction IV (3 of 4)

It has been awhile since the last, but here is part 3 of my story-by-story review Philippine Speculative Fiction IV, edited by Dean Alfar and Nikki Alfar. Here are my thoughts on stories thirteen to eighteen, with my thanks to each author for sharing their story with us.

I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum but nevertheless, fair warning: Here There Be Spoilers.

“Breaking the Spell” by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz

I remember a famous writer was giving advice on the use of different POV modes to aspiring authors, and he was asked when he thought it was appropriate to use a second person point of view. His answer:  don’t. While I don’t quite agree–a result of a childhood steeped in Choose-Your-Own-Adventures perhaps–second person present tense is hard to pull off, especially as in the case of this story, where the viewpoint character has actual characteristics (a young girl with long black hair and a beautiful voice).

The good news is Ms. Rochita pulls the second person POV off well… the only thing is, I’m not sure what the use of second-person really added to the story. The other POV in the story is set firmly in the third-person, and works just as well. Perhaps the shift in POVs is meant to higlight the different worlds (literally) inhabited by the main characters, but again, I think it would have been fine without it. POV necessity aside, while I did have some plot quibbles (why were such dangerous items being stored in a residence?), I really enjoyed the airy, almost fey character of the prose and I’m all for hero(ines) who break out of established gender roles.

“The Dance of the Storm” by Isabel Yap

I liked the first line of the story “It is raining when he first sees her”–although perhaps unintentionally, the first paragraph left me with the mistaken impression that the POV character was a kapre, at least until the last line of said paragraph. The prose is very well done, very fluid (pun unintended), so much so that it took me awhile to realize that this was the second straight story–going in sequence–that was told in present tense. I particularly like the second section of the story, with the short contrasting sentences used to show confusion and ambivalence. The story maintained an ethereal atmosphere all throughout, and was exactly the length necessary to tell its tale and tell it well. My only quibble was that some of the poetic structure of the prose bled into the dialogue, making the latter feel a bit stiff and unnatural–but then, I don’t know if Ms. Isabel purposefully sought that kind of formality of speech.

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Review: Terminator Salvation

Wow. Even with lowered expectations that was painful.

People who know me will attest to the fact that I love fanfiction, and that there are some works that match the original. When Hollywood takes on an old, venerable franchise after a long hiatus, sometimes the sequel produced has less of the feel of a sequel and more of the atmosphere of a fanfic. Sometimes this is done well–the new Sylar-powered Star Trek reboot has been described as J.J. Abrams Alternate Universe Star Trek fanfic… and it worked.

Sometimes though, as with actual fanfic, you get a dud, and one of the more common causes for bad fanfiction is the inclusion of the infamous Mary Sue character type. It’s not one you get to see often in a professional production, because it is an amateur-ish mistake…

Apparently whoever came up with the character of Marcus Wright didn’t get the memo. Actually, much of the the story of Terminator Salvation is a case study in how not to write a good narrative.

[Spoiler and Rant Warning]

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Review: METAtropolis (Audio) (Stories 1 and2)

What’s better than a good book? Why, a good free (audio) book of course. METAtropolis is a shared world anthology orbiting around the central notion of cities in a post-apocalyptic future. The book is described thusly:

Welcome to a world where big cities are dying, dead – or transformed into technological megastructures. Where once-thriving suburbs are now treacherous Wilds. Where those who live for technology battle those who would die rather than embrace it. It is a world of zero-footprint cities, virtual nations, and armed camps of eco-survivalists.

Welcome to the dawn of uncivilization.

METAtropolis is an intelligent and stunning creation of five of today’s cutting-edge science-fiction writers: 2008 Hugo Award winners John Scalzi and Elizabeth Bear; Campbell Award winner Jay Lake; plus fan favorites Tobias Buckell and Karl Schroeder. Together they set the ground rules and developed the parameters of this “shared universe”, then wrote five original novellas – all linked, but each a separate tale.

Bringing this audiobook to life is a dream team of performers: Battlestar Galactica‘s Michael Hogan (“Saul Tigh”); Alessandro Juliani (“Felix Gaeta”); and Kandyse McClure (“Anastasia ‘Dee’ Dualla”); plus legendary audiobook narrators Scott Brick (Dune) and Stefan Rudnicki (Ender’s Game).

I jumped at the chance to read hear the work of some spec fic authors who have been receiving rave reviews, but whose works I hadn’t yet gotten around to which was basically… er, every author in this book. @_@. It took me awhile to register at Audible.com for the free audio book, and a little longer after that to figure out how to put it in my iPod touch (largely because I downloaded it in one computer and loaded it in another) but hey, I’m willing to sweat a bit for free spec fic–and hey, in case you are too, then I’d advise you hop to it as the April article on SF Signal mentions it is a “limited time” thing. In fact I couldn’t find the free version searching audible directly, but the link posted in SF Signal still works.

Here is the list of stories:

  • “In the Forests of the Night” by Jay Lake, read by Michael Hogan
  • “Stochasti-city” by Tobias Buckell, read by Scott Brick
  • “The Red in the Sky is Our Blood” by Elizabeth Bear, read by Kandyse McClure
  • “Utere Nihil…” by John Scalzi, read by Alessandro Juliani
  • “To Hie from Far Cilenia” by Karl Schroeder, read by Stefan Rudnicki

Since it sometimes takes me ages to finish an audio book, I decided to post my reviews for the first two stories now, rather than wait until I’ve finished all five–at which point I’d likely have to listen to the first two again in order to remember them @_@

[SPOILER WARNING ON]

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Review: Fist Fight Manifesto: the Midknighters #1-7 (Mangaholix)

For reference: the Official Mangaholix Midknighters page.
(Better change the Episode 1 synopsis though – unless there was an Aporia cross over and I missed it @_@)

Created by: Emmanuel Javier
Writer: Emmanuel Javier
Artist, Inker and Colorist: Dennis Menese
Letterer: Jon Zamar

I’m a fan of fighting/martial arts manga (HSD Kenichi, Change Guy, Hajime no Ippo) almost despite myself. The genre has a certain rhythm to it that makes it predictable to a certain extent (Dragonball Z – a series I’m not a fan of – being the most notable example) but even then, when done right, there’s nothing like the payoff I get when I see a the hero (either the former weakling or jaded loner) I care about finally show the fruits of his 25 chapter (8 months in real time, 1 week in Manga time) training in order to beat down a particularly arrogant bad guy.

While FFM hasn’t been around long enough for that loss-train-win scenario to come to fruition (Cisco didn’t seem all that formidable), what set the story apart for me (and one of its strong points) from the get go was it doesn’t start with the traditional weakling/bad-ass lone hero, but instead with a team. It started out with a plan, more like a caper story (think Ocean’s 11/ Lies of Locke Lammora) and that’s a good thing. Team-focused stories are some of my favorite kinds because having a constant set of interacting characters makes for good, dynamic character development. It’s clear that the Midknighters have a history together, and they show good chemistry together.

What makes the story a bit problematic for me though is that the team from the get go is a team of 8. Making sure that 8 people with strong, diverse personalities can each have their time to shine and distinguish themselves over the course of, what, 12-20 pages an issue is a daunting task. What makes it more daunting is there is a large cast of characters beyond the team of 8, who themselves need to be shown. The synopsis on the website already shows 24 characters – that’s a LOT.

I think that’s what made issue #1 of the series a bit weak for me, pacing-wise – it was more a roll call than a story. (I don’t think we needed the 4 kings to be shown yet at the time for instance); however, as the series moved forward, the pacing improved – largely because while there are a lot of characters, the POV seems to stay focused on a primary one for each issue. Pacing problems aside, the plot seems to have legs and if all of the team have a history like Casey, that’s a lot of fuel for plot development.

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Review: Aporia #1-7 (Mangaholix)

For reference: Official Mangaholix site for Aporia (Hasn’t been updated in a while though.)

Created by: Kevin Libranda
Writer, Artist and Inker: Kevin Libranda
Colorist: Cristina Chua
Letterer: Jon Zamar

I’m a sucker for stories that take Philippine folklore as a launching point for a setting, especially when the anitos are anthromorphized to an extent (i.e. given culture and individuality, not just used as monsters of the month). I liked the way the kapres all have different types of ears, since ears are one of the indicators of status in Aporia.

The art is very distinctive, with a unique style (i think it has something to do with the facial shape.) This works for the most part very well (although Apo on the cover of #7 seemed a bit too angular for my tastes). The coloring, as with the other Mangaholix titles, is vibrant and excellent. Panel design is generally good. I had some trouble at the end of #6 though, when Sierra stumbles upon Banahaw and the other two children. I thought one of those children was Sierra.

The story is evidently to be of epic proportions, as is usual in a setup involving deities and multiple conflicting races. It starts off well, the pacing in #1 establishing the main characters succinctly before getting the ball rolling by booting Apo out of the underworld.

Afterward however, things get too complex, too quickly in my opinion. Where at the start you had the Apo plot-line and the Underworld plot-line, there is a sudden influx of characters and suddenly we have, by my count in #7, eight plotlines (Apo, Ara, Sierra, Taal, Muusan, Mayon, and the redhooded lady with Mariposa whose name escapes me), many of which intertwine, then separate, and each of which raise mysteries/questions of their own. As a reader I found it all a bit confusing, and its hard to give any of these arcs the proper attention/advancement in around 12 pages per issue.

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Review: Xia by Andrew Drilon (FCBD 2009)

One of the most anticipated annual events in comics fandom is Free Comic Book Day, where, on the first Saturday of May every year (unless you happen to be called Fully Booked), participating comic book shops around the world give away comics absolutely free to anyone who comes into their stores.

Of course with the internet there are now other ways by which creators can distribute their free goodies. Case in point: Wideawake Press has just released “The Ancient Age” – a free digital comic download which, in their own words, “gathers fantastic stories about the world’s earliest civilizations, as told by the mighty sequential artisans of today. A monumental mix of new and classic tales featuring heroes, philosophers, creatures, and gods.”

Amongst the aforementioned “mighty sequential artisans” is our very own Andrew Drilon, Filipino artist and spec fic writer, who contributes a wonderful little 65-page gem entitled “Xia.” I urge everyone to download the comic and try it for themselves, but for those on the fence (and unless you have a dial-up connection I don’t see why you would be–I mean, it’s free @_@) here’s a review:

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Bookstore Raid: National Bookstore and Fully Booked (Powerplant)

There was a sale this long weekend at the Powerplant Mall (a fire sale perhaps?) and I thought it would be a good opportunity to investigate the mall’s two bookstores and get a feel for what’s on the shelves now, what catches my eye, and how the books are being presented–particularly the local speculative fiction books and komiks.

(Pictures removed out of respect for bookstore policy because they aren’t allowed for some reason which I fail to fathom *shrugs* I substituted my pictures of the book covers with images of the same I found elsewhere on the net.)

National Bookstore:

Set-up and Presentation:

The NBS in Powerplant is a rather small branch, with a large central portion devoted to children’s books and YA. There are a lot of  display tables where select books and comics are clearly displayed, but since floor space is limited, the counterpoint to this is that there are fewer book shelves, and the books are crammed together library style, with only the spines showing and not the covers of the books.

This makes it even harder to distinguish spec fic and komiks on the Filipiniana shelves. Like most every book store in the country, NBS doesn’t usually place locally published spec fic on the regular “Sci Fi and Fantasy” shelves, nor are the komiks and other local graphic novels alongside the adventures of Batman et. al. Instead they are mixed in with all other books published locally. Since this particular NBS only shows the spines of the books, there’s no chance for the spec fic books/komiks to stand out at all, so unless you already knew what you were looking for, the chances of someone browsing the shelves and being attracted to the cover of say Trese or A Time for Dragons (which is why people work so hard on those covers in the first place) is virtually nil.

Then of course, in the case of some larger books, even if you did find them, you’d have another obstacle: getting them off the shelves. That was the case with the copies of Martial Law Babies–the bottom shelves were packed so tight and the shelves so low strung that you literall could not get the copies out without first removing the neighboring books and tilting it sideways. I’m no marketing guy, but that level of hassle risks either damage to the komik or lost sales due to sheer frustration.

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A Time for Dragons Review at Wandering Star

Spec Fic author ekmisao over at Wandering Star has just penned a review (the first that I’ve found online) of A Time for Dragons, the anthology of Filipino Draconic fiction.

Here’s a snippet:

The anthology has a good eclectic mix of the serious and the humorous, the fantastic and the horrific, high fantasy and urban fantasy, the completely foreign setting and the purely Pinoy setting. Sometimes the dragon took center stage, other times it was a key element for a character piece.

While PSF4 covered most of the spectrum of spec fic writing styles, the dragon anthology mostly stayed within the traditional story format (rising action, conflict, climax, resolution; use of descriptions and dialogue in equal amounts). Therefore the story set sold well with me, and I liked almost all of them.

And no, I’m not linking to the review just because my story is in her top 5 (though to say I’m not thrilled would be misleading ^_^)

I still need to polish off PSF4 before I hit the dragon anthology, but have any of the rest of you finished it? What did you guys think?