Book Review – The Poppy War

  • Title: The Poppy War
  • Author: R.F. Kuang
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 09/26/2018

**Spoiler Alert** The Poppy War is an engrossing first novel, that was hard to put down at times. Most fantasy novels have a Medieval European background to them – the technology, clothing, weapons, armor, use of animals or other transportation, etc. is all based on a Medieval European background and then other magical forces are added into that based on how the author wants magic to work in their world. Even more modern fantasy novels are set in the Western world, most of the time. The Poppy War is the first fantasy novel I’ve read personally set in China – with Chinese history, technology, and mythology at its heart. Now, the author gives original names to her fantasy country and it’s enemies and allies, but even in the map – it’s China. That makes this a unique novel. Going beyond the background this is also a good story and it’s hard to put down at times.

Fang Runin is a war orphan. By order of the Empress, after the Second Poppy War, all families with less than three children were ordered to take in one of the many war orphans in the Nikara Empire. Runin, who goes by Rin, thus is raised by shopkeepers in Rooster Province. Rooster Province is one of the poorer and more rural provinces of Nikara. At fourteen, her foster mother informs her she’s made a match for Rin – and older, wealthy man that if they form an alliance will increase her foster family’s drug smuggling profits by making it easier to access the nearby port. Rin does not want to marry – and really doesn’t want to marry the disgusting older man her family has picked for her. So she makes a bargain and manages to talk her foster mother into letting her wait and study for the Keju Empire-wide test for admission into one of the Empire’s academies. No one believes Rin will be able to do well on the test so her foster mother agrees to the two-year delay. Rin then finds a tutor to help her study for the test – paying him in stolen drugs from her family’s business since she has no money of her own.

The novel opens with Test Day for the Keju, where a great deal of emphasis is placed on stopping cheating. A few days after taking the test, Rin gets the news – she passed. And not only did she pass, but she got the highest score in Rooster Province, securing her a place at the exclusive Sinegard Military Academy. A place at Sinegard is exactly what Rin wanted – it gets her away from her arranged marriage, it gets her out of Rooster Province, and it will secure her a good job after college (so to speak). She’s frightened but excited and she and her tutor set off for the capital city and Sinegard.

Rin’s first year at Sinegard proves to be extremely difficult – she’s bullied by other students and teachers alike. She learns that because she has dark skin and comes from the rural Southern part of Nikara, she has to prove herself over and over. She is actually attacked by a bully in her Combat class, and sees her bully suspended from class for a week – only to have her Combat instructor who had berated her with racist comments throughout class – kick her out of class entirely. Not only is she prevented from attending a required class, but she’s barred from training with other students, using the training room, or obtaining her combat training in any other way.

However, Rin is determined to succeed, so she goes to the library and starts studying martial arts books. She eventually borrows some texts forbidden to First Years and tries to teach herself martial arts (not her best idea). She also has a class called “Lore” but the teacher never arrives for class and by the time Rin is kicked out of Combat class, the rest of the students have given up on even pretending to show up for Lore class. Since the outdoor or indoor (depending on the season and weather) classroom for Lore is empty, Rin uses it for training. She catches the eye of the Lore instructor who sees something special in Rin and begins to train her. Rin also slowly but surely becomes adept at Strategy and catches the attention of her Strategy teacher in a good way.

After several more months, Rin gets used to life at Sinegard, starts to learn Lore, is given an insane exercise program (consisting of running up and down a mountainside carrying a piglet on her back. The pig, of course, grows heavier and bigger, until it’s time for it to be slaughtered for food. As crazy as it sounds – as an exercise program, it works.) Rin is also taught martial arts by her Lore instructor and gradually does better in her other classes, especially Strategy.

At the end of the year, all the students have to take finals. If they pass their finals they will be invited by their instructors to be apprentices in a particular track (Strategy, Medicine, Combat, etc). Lucky students may even be able to pick a specialty from multiple offers. Those who fail a test will be kicked out of Sinegard. The Combat final includes a series of bracketed fights or matches. Students do not have to be the best or number one standing to continue at Sinegard, but they must do well enough. And Rin has missed most of her first-year Combat class. However, between the power in her now muscular body, her self-taught footwork, and the martial arts taught to her by her master, Rin does well in her fights – even against one of the boys who bullied her. She gets into the final, and is forced to fight someone much bigger and more powerful than her. The two really beat each other, and when it seems Rin will lose she erupts in fiery power. She runs to the Lore Master for help, and he knocks her out with cold power. She wakes up tied down in the school basement, having no idea what happened.

Rin gradually puts things together, with help from a few friends. She is given two offers: Lore and Strategy – and even though the Combat Master wants her kicked out, she’s allowed to stay at Sinegard. Rin chooses to pledge Lore.

For the next two years, Rin is apprenticed to her Lore Master, while continuing to take other required classes at Sinegard. The students also know tensions are rising between the Nikara Empire and the Federation of Mugen. Mugen had fought Nikara in the First and Second Poppy War. Nikara lost the First Poppy War to Mugen, and barely won the second one thanks to intervention by a Western power called Hesperia. These Wars had left behind large numbers of war orphans like Rin, an Empress who forbid all dealings in narcotics (that is, poppy flower products), and a political policy of isolation. Yet Nikara and Mugen are again rattling the sabre. Border skirmishes and minor attacks continue through Rin’s second and third year. Sinegard being a military academy, these skirmishes are the daily talk of the students and everyone expects a new war to happen soon. The summer of Rin’s fourth year – it does and open war is declared. Mugen attacks the city where Sinegard is located and the military academy itself. The attack looks extremely bad for Sinegard, when the students get involved in the middle of the battle. During a particularly intense battle – Rin again calls fire powers. She manages to kill the leader of the attack but also hurt one of her fellow students. Once she’s recovered, she is sent to the Cike – elite soldiers, assassins, and shamans.

The Cike, having just lost their own leader in mysterious circumstances are now being led by Altan, an older student from Sinegard. They are assigned to protect a port town. They have an early win – but it makes Altan over-confident and doesn’t help with the other provincial warlords assigned to protect the port. The Federation pulls a very sneaky attack, which kills a lot of civilians, and then the port gets stuck in a very long siege. Even the arrival of another warlord and his troops doesn’t help matters much.

After a very long stalemate, the Cike get some new information. They thought they were protecting the Port to prevent Mugen from getting a beachhead and advancing to the wartime capital to the South. Unfortunately, the Federation has found another way to get to the other city and attack it.

The sequence of the warriors from Cike heading into the Southern capital city is one of the most horrific in the book. They go by boat because it’s faster than marching or even on horseback – and the boats encounter a river of blood and corpses. They get to the city, and it’s all over – everyone is dead. The city is a city of corpses – often laid out in grotesque ways meant to intimidate whoever finds it. Even women, children, and babies suffer and are killed by the Federation. This disgusts and angers the Cike. They eventually find a handful of soldiers who hid under corpses or deep within buildings. The soldiers confirm what they know and they try to figure out what to do.

Altan gets the brilliant idea to go to the stone mountain to release insane shamen to continue to fight the war. It’s a bad idea. They release Rin’s master who had released his god, but he pleads to be encased in stone again. They release an old friend of Altan’s – but he goes mad and escapes as the wind god. And to make things worse: Altan and Rin are attacked by the Federation and taken to a lab to be studied and dissected. Altan had been in a lab before and is freaked out. He uses his fire powers to get out and destroy the lab – but ultimately has to destroy himself. Rin escapes into the water and swims to Speer – Altan’s home, and home to the people massacred in the Second Poppy War. There Rin again contacts the Fire Goddess or Pheonix and uses it to strike out at Mugen. She learns just how dangerous calling a god can be – but is also oddly calmed by what she does. She’s rescued by her fellows in the Cike. She’s informed that Altan named her his successor before they even left on their final mission together. The last two paragraphs suggest there will be a sequel.

This was a truly different novel. The mythology and history are different than one is used to in European Medieval based fantasy novels. Rin is a very strong character, and the novel is completely in her point of view, if Rin falls sick or is knocked out – we don’t know what is going on until she wakes up. If Rin is confused – so is the reader, but in a good way. There is one brief bit not in Rin’s point of view, and it honestly seems to be there so the reader realises than when something is revealed to the Cike later, the reader understands it and believes it – rather than thinking like some of the Cike it can’t be true. This seems to be setting up a book two. I liked this book – Rin is a badass, and her fellow students and later fellow warriors in the Cike are interesting, well-rounded characters. Plus it was just fun to read a different type of fantasy novel. I highly recommend this novel.

Note: This novel is not for young readers – there is swearing, rough language, and some very intense descriptions of warfare. Overall, I’d give it a PG-13 though, rather than an R rating.

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Book Review – Titans vol. 2: Made in Manhattan

  • Title: Titans vol. 2: Made in Manhattan
  • Author: Dan Abnett and James Asmus
  • Artists: Brett Booth, Norm Rapmund, Minkyu Jung, Lee Weeks, Reilly Brown, Scott Hanna, Andrew Dalhouse, Adriano Lucas, John Kalisz, Tony Aviña, Carlos M. Mangual, Corey Breen, Josh Reed
  • Line: Rebirth
  • Characters: Titans, Wally West, Nightwing (Dick Grayson), Wonder Girl (Donna Troy), Tempest (Garth), Omen (Lilith), Arsenal (Roy Harper), Bumblebee (Karen Duncan)
  • Publication Date: 2017
  • Publisher: DC Comics
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 09/23/2018

Volume 2 of Titans in DC Comics’ Rebirth continuity starts off in the middle of a fight scene. The Titans (Nightwing, The Flash (Wally West), Donna Troy, Omen (Lilith), Arsenal) are fighting a big guy determined to tear-up New York and disagreeing with each other about how to do it. However, Arsenal manages to trip him up, without destroying any buildings, though a couple of parked cars are flattened (to Wally’s chagrin). Superman arrives but the Titans have taken care of everything. Superman lets slip that it’s “good to see Wally again” then runs off.

Wally runs after him. Superman and Wally talk, and it turns out that Superman also remembers the pre-Crisis / pre-Flashpoint universe that Wally comes from. He encourages Wally to fight for his old girlfriend, Linda Park, who currently doesn’t even remember him.

Meanwhile, Bumblebee (Karen Duncan) and Mal Duncan head to Meta solutions to find out more about Bumblebee’s new powers. Meta Solutions promises to remove unwanted meta powers and to help metas train to learn how to control their powers if they want to keep them. While Karen talks to Psimon (who claims he is now reformed) Mal waits in the waiting room. When Mal sees Mammoth arrive he has a panic attack. Omen (Lilith) recognizes his panic and the Teen Titans arrive. Psimon had Karen try on a suit (costume) to measure her powers and control them. Karen loves her new Bumblebee suit and powers. When the Titans arrive they run into the Fearsome Five – who claim they are “good guys now”, having given up their powers and in the case of Psimon dedicating himself to helping others, especially other new metahumans.

Later, Wally tells Nightwing that the man they fought earlier who had Mammoth’s powers, previously had no priors and no metahuman powers. They discover a black market in superpowers – superpowers that Meta Solutions is siphoning from other metahumans.

Returning to Meta Solutions, the Titans confront the “former” Fearsome Five – only to discover they were lying about giving up their powers. There’s a big fight, but Bumblebee arrives in her costume and in control of her powers and rescues everyone. Karen is disappointed to learn though that her husband gave up his powers.

In a special holiday issue, Arsenal invites the Titans to Times Square for the New Year’s Eve ball drop – but they end up fighting a pair of metas instead. They manage to get the two thieves to drive their car into the harbor where they are rounded-up by Tempest. Arsenal explains that New Year’s is special to him because having struggled with addiction (he was a heroin addict) he now sees each new year as a new beginning and a chance to further improve his life. The Titans then realize how important it was to Roy to spend time with them on a day that he considers special in a personal way.

In Titans Legacy – four Titans and their four mentors find themselves stuck in a box together. Nightwing, Batman, Donna, Wonder Woman, Wally, The Flash (Barry Allen), Tempest, and Aquaman are actually at first suspicious – wondering if someone is a ringer. They then realize they need to work together to discover how they ended up in the box, who locked them up, and how to get out. Wonder Woman is especially cold towards Donna. A couple of challenges are thrown into the box to fight our heroes and keep them busy, first Metallo (who is a copy and not the original) and then a group of Parademons (also projections). But throughout these fights, and Batman trying to figure a way out, Wonder Woman and Donna are having issues. When Batman scans everyone, Donna doesn’t register as human. Wonder Woman explains Donna was made from clay, brought to life, and given false memories and history. Donna is completely broken by this revelation. She’s so hurt, despite Diana’s apologies, her mental anguish reaches Omen who is able to call in rescue troops, including the Justice League. They discover the Key was behind the abductions but he escapes into a metaphysical door.

This was a very fast read, with enjoyable characters and a good team. I like Nightwing, Flash (Wally) and Arsenal together – they are good friends and work together. Omen and Donna are new to me but their characterizations were clear and it easy to see how they fit. I also liked Tempest. I recommend this series.

Also, read my review of Titans vol. 1: The Return of Wally West.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 4 Review

  • Series Title: Star Trek: The Next Generation
  • Season: 4
  • Episodes: 26
  • Discs: 7
  • Network:  First-Run Syndication (produced by Paramount)
  • Cast: Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Gates McFadden, Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Marina Sirtis, Michael Dorn, Colm Meaney, Whoopi Goldberg
  • DVD: R1, NTSC DVD

The first episode of Season 4 of Star Trek: The Next Generation is actually part two of Season 3’s cliffhanger, and since I watched and reviewed it with Season 3, so I skipped it here. The first episode I watched (the second of the season) was “Family” which shows the aftermath of the Battle of Wolf 459. Picard returns home to France on Earth and his brother’s family vineyard. He spends time with his nephew, his sister-in-law, some old friends, and naturally – his brother. His brother is rude, mean, self-centered, and practically Amish in his attitudes towards technology (he uses only traditional methods to harvest his grapes and make wine, he doesn’t allow his wife to use a replicator and forces her to spend hours cooking from scratch, and he constantly discourages his son’s interest in technology, space, and especially Star Fleet). The brother is extremely rude and mean to Picard as well. Meanwhile a friend of Picard’s shows up to talk to him about his plan to raise the ocean floor to create a new continent and more living space on Earth. Picard suddenly shows an interest in this fantastic project, having read the relevant journal articles. His friend comes back with a job offer, stating they need to have someone in charge of the project who has a real sense of command and commitment. Picard considers it, but when he runs into his brother on a walk in the family vineyard the two start fighting. The verbal insults turn physical and the two end-up literally rolling around in the mud. Eventually, they break out in laughter. Picard and his brother finally talk and Picard admits he was terrified and disturbed by his experience with the Borg. The brother tells him, “Well, What do you know? The great Picard is human,” or words to that effect. Picard returns to the Enterprise. The secondary or “B-plot” of the episode has Wolf hosting his human adoptive parents on the Enterprise. They are Russian Jews but did not force their culture on Wolf – in fact, his mother says that Wolf insisted everything be Klingon as he grew up, including his food. Wolf’s parents did their best to raise him in his own culture instead of their own.

Another episode, I found, perfectly illustrates both the best and the worst of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and that is “Data’s Day”. The episode is told in first person from Data’s point-of-view as he writes a letter of a typical day aboard the Enterprise to a friend and colleague. Data is meant to be “father of the bride” to Keiko for her wedding to O’Brien. Keiko gets cold feet but the wedding eventually goes on as scheduled. Meanwhile, we discover that Data has a cat (whom we will later learn is named Spot). I like Data – and I love his cat, Spot – who’s adorable. I can even forgive the issue that several different cats played Spot – and it’s a bit obvious. And I like this episode – nothing Earth-shattering is going on, it’s just a character-focused episode that’s enjoyable to watch. But it perfectly illustrates major issues with Next Gen. First, who is Keiko? I think we might have seen her once – in the background, maybe, and now she’s marrying O’Brien? Did they ever think of maybe introducing this relationship just a little bit more gradually? Keiko says she wants Data to be the father of the bride because he introduced them – and that’s all the background we get. It would have been much more satisfying if the relationship between Keiko and O’Brien had been teased throughout the season with the wedding at the end of the season. Second, Where did Spot come from? Now, I love Spot – and I’m a cat person. And I actually think it makes sense to have a cat on a spaceship. Sailors had cats on their ships to catch mice and rats. And considering that cats are proven to have a calming effect on people, it makes sense to have them on a spaceship. And I’m sure they have some type of technology for cleaning the litterbox. But where did Spot come from? I missed Spot in season 3 – and I was hoping that by watching ST: TNG in order I would find out where Data got Spot. Was Spot found on a rescue mission? Did Data adopt the cat from a previous crew member? I even did an Internet search on the subject and nope – Star Trek: The Next Generation just never explains the addition of a new cast member.

The second to the last episode of the season is also a Data-heavy episode, which has a wonderful scene with Spot. “In Theory” begins with Data and a young woman working together in Engineering. It’s obvious the two are friends. Their friendship develops into a romantic relationship – but in the end, she dumps Data because he isn’t human. But the final scene of the episode has Data sitting in his quarters, in semi-darkness, when Spot meows at him, comes over and jumps on his lap. Data continuously strokes his cat as the episode fades into final credits. First, this shows Spot’s emotional acuity – s/he knows Data’s hurting (despite his insistence he has no emotions) and seeks to help his owner. Second, Data is stroking his cat, both seeking comfort and offering it. Spot purrs, and the bond between android and cat is obvious. It’s a bittersweet ending to the episode.

The rest of the season consists of mission episodes, episodes focused on a single cast member, one episode featuring the return of Q (played brilliantly by John DeLancie) – this time with a Robin Hood theme, and another episode with Barclay (played by Dwight Schultz). It’s pretty standard, though the writing quality and the direction is definitely improving. Some of the episodes are depressing – but not as many as in Season 3.

There is a bit of a not-quite season-long arc plot as we are used to in US television now, but more of a theme and that is the relationship between the Federation and the Klingons and also the Romulans. The Federation is now allied to the Klingons. However, the détente between the Federation and the Romulans seems to be breaking down. Last season, Worf experienced discommendation (being formally dishonored) by the Klingon Empire. His father (deceased) was blamed for selling out the Klingon outpost at Khitomer to the Romulans. Even though Picard and Worf had not only found evidence that Worf’s father was innocent – but that the actual traitor was the father of Duras who was maneuvering his way into a majority position in the Klingon high council. Fearing a Klingon Civil War – Picard and Worf decide to let Worf take the blame. In Season 4, this comes back to haunt them both. The Leader of the Klingon High Council chooses Picard to be the Arbitrator in choosing the next leader of the High Council. He also tells Picard he knows he’s been poisoned – and then he dies on the Enterprise. There are two candidates for the position- Duras and Gowran. Duras is a traitor and in league with the Romulans. Gowran is violent, stupid, much older, and not well liked, especially by the Klingon military. In the final two-part episode (which again carries over to Season 5) Picard and the Enterprise travel to the Klingon homeworld. Picard chooses Gowran as the new leader of the high council. Although Worf had killed Duras in a previous episode – his “long-lost son” appears and tries to take his father’s position on the council. Picard and the temporary Klingon leader shoot this down. Work comes clean about his father’s innocence and presents evidence to the Klingons against Duras and his family. The entire mess leads to the feared Klingon Civil War. Worf resigns from Star Fleet to join his brother in the war. Picard goes to extraordinary lengths to try to stay as neutral as he can and to observe the Prime Directive. But he does convince the Federal high council that even though they need to stay out of Klingon affairs – they can prevent the Romulans from “secretly” arming the Duras side in the war. He gets Star Fleet to set-up a blockade at the border between Klingon and Romulan space. Picard meets a Romulan commander who claims Tasha Yar was her mother. Guinan, a time-sensitive, thinks this is somehow possible – and mentions the disappearance of Enterprise C at Khitomer – she also says Picard may be to blame. Besides this continuing Klingon plot – there are other episodes in which the Romulans are shown to be behind various nefarious events such as trying to start civil wars on Federation colonies, etc.

Wesley leaves early in Season 4 to attend Star Fleet Academy. His last episode is actually pretty good as he, Picard, and a miner are heading back to a planet when their shuttle crashes. Wesley has to deal with an injured Picard and a pig-headed miner as well as an unusual alien on a dessert moon. The limited cast is used to good effect, and Wesley gets to “do stuff” without being an overly arrogant brat. Meanwhile, Riker is on the Enterprise stopping a spaceship of radioactive waste from crashing into a densely populated planet. Even though they eventually get a report that Picard and Wesley’s shuttle never arrived at its destination – Riker cannot leave right away, an entire planet’s population is at stake and Riker does the smart thing and takes care of that first. This is a major change (and a good one) from Classic Trek. Kirk would drop everything to save one crew member, especially one of his bridge crew (such as Dr. “Bones” McCoy or Spock) – Riker, quite rightly, decides that saving an entire planet is a bit more important than trying to find two people from his crew – even someone as important as Picard. He has people from the planet do searches and contacts Star Fleet for help but stays on mission helping the Federation colony. This makes much more sense, frankly, even if it might seem a bit cold. And, as pointed out earlier – Wesley and Picard bond, but Wesley also has to care for Picard and solve problems on his own, so I quite liked the episode.

Overall, I thought Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 4 was better than Season 3, and I will continue watching and reviewing this series eventually between other shows. The series really suffers from “punch the reset button” issues and not being willing to have true arc-driven plots. The stand-alone nature of the series is annoying and detrimental to the series. As I pointed out in my Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 3 Review other series at roughly the same time such as Babylon 5 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer were starting to have season-long continuing plots. British series from the 1970s and earlier also had continuing plots, so a decade before Next Gen. It just doesn’t make sense for the network and producers to assume the audience can’t remember what happens from week to week on a television series, or to ever show any change occurring for the main characters.

Book Review – Sapphire and Steel: The Surest Poison

  • Title: The Surest Poison
  • Series: Sapphire and Steel
  • Discs: 2 CDs
  • Author: Richard Dinnick
  • Director: Nigel Fairs
  • Characters: Sapphire, Steel
  • Cast: Susannah Harker, David Warner, Richard Franklin
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 09/20/2018

The Surest Poison is a full-cast audio play and an original story set in the Sapphire and Steel universe. Sapphire and Steel was a British SF drama from the late 1970s / early 1980s starring Joanna Lumley as Sapphire and David McCallum as Steel. The show was known for its atmospheric storytelling and spooky haunting stories. Big Finish creates original dramas both original and ones like The Surest Poison based on other licensed universes (such as Doctor Who). This is a full-cast drama with music, sound effects, and actors playing the parts. David Warner plays Steel, sounding very much like David McCallum, and Susannah Harker plays Sapphire – and although she sounds a bit younger than Lumley, she still does a brilliant job.

The Surest Poison begins with an auction of antique and extremely valuable watches. Sapphire and Steel arrive after the auction has concluded and speak with the man whose collection was being auctioned. Sapphire immediately realizes that the man (Mr. Webb) is 156 years old. He admits he’s selling his collection because he knows the watches are responsible for his extraordinarily long life. Sapphire also detects residual time in the watches. Webb is an expert on Breguet – a master watchmaker and had auctioned off Breguet watches in his personal collection. Webb fills Sapphire in on Breguet’s history and his influence in fine watch-making including some of his inventions. Sapphire uses one of the watches as a means of travel for herself and Steel. In the past, they meet Breguet’s assistant and apprentice, Breguet himself, and an apparition who resembles Breguet’s deceased wife. When confronting the ghost – Sapphire and Steel are thrown forward in time to 1986 Jerusalem – a time and place infamous in horology circles because a large collection of Breguet watches was stolen from a museum there. Sapphire and Steel return to the past, find another watch, and then return to the future – and Webb. Knowing how the watches work – Sapphire tries to return to the past, but she is blocked. Sapphire tries other years but is continuously blocked.

Then Sapphire has an inspiration – maybe if she focuses on a specific event instead of a full year she’ll be able to get through. She quizzes Webb on Breguet’s inventions. He tells her about them, and for the rest of the story, Sapphire and Steel travel to specific instances in Breguet’s life.

The second time Sapphire and Steel travel back – they go to the instant of Breguet inventing the pare-chute – an anti-shock device for watches. They discover the apparition again, who resembles Cecile, Breguet’s wife. Knowing this apparition to be Time itself trying to break through, Sapphire tries to talk Breguet into rejecting it – telling him it’s not his wife. The apparition traps Steel and flings Sapphire to 1986 again. In Jerusalem Sapphire meets Webb who has used a watch to travel in time himself. Sapphire is overly hyper, upset, and very worried about Steel whom she is now separated from. Also, standing outside the museum where the collection of watches is on displayed she is affected by the watches – especially as she carries a watch as a means of time travel. Sapphire gets an idea and she uses her own abilities to travel with Webb to the morning of the theft. Once there, she detects that the watches are gone. Not just gone from the building, but gone, destroyed, no longer in the city. She and Webb travel backward and into the museum. Sapphire tries to open the case with the watches but she can’t touch it. Webb smashes the case and the watches are destroyed.

Sapphire and Webb meet up with Steel at the auction house in the present. They travel again to the past, to the invention of the tourbillon – one of Breguet’s most important inventions. Again, Sapphire attempts to convince Breguet that the apparition isn’t his wife and that Time can’t be trusted. Slowly Breguet starts to realize this, especially once Time helps him invent devices to split time into hundredths and even thousandths of a second. Time slips and reveals her plan – with more intricate, accurate, and precise methods of measuring, displaying, and recording time humans will become obsessed with time and productivity: humans will become slaves to time. But her bragging is her fatal flaw and Breguet realizes this is not his wife nor can he save his wife. When Sapphire, Steel, and Webb return they are able to defeat Time. Breguet’s life will return to normal (he is due to die naturally soon) and when Webb returns to his own time, he destroys all the watches at Sapphire and Steel’s insistence. Webb will also now have a normal life.

I enjoyed this story very much. Focusing as it does on watches and watch-making, it works as a Sapphire and Steel story. Webb is a good third partner – adding exposition, and enthusiasm (his joy when he realizes he’s successfully traveled through time is wonderful). I also liked that he was friendly to Sapphire and Steel – and not opposed to them. He doesn’t even object to destroying the watches. The different time zones are established with sound and the accents of the characters so the listener never wonders where they are – even when Sapphire and Steel are being bounced from time zone to time zone by time itself. Time is a cruel mistress and a very effective villain in this story. I also liked the sound design of subtle clock sounds throughout most of the audio play.

Overall, this story really felt like a Sapphire and Steel story, which is essential for any book (or in this case audio play) based on an existing universe or series. Highly recommended.

Find out more about Big Finish audios at their website: www.bigfinish.com.

Sadly, it looks like the Sapphire and Steel range is no longer available from the Big Finish website. But be sure to check out their other audio ranges.

Note: No promotional consideration was paid for this review. I review because I enjoy it!

Book Review – Bombshells vol. 3: Uprising

  • Title: Bombshells vol. 2: Uprising
  • Author: Marguerite Bennett
  • Artists: Mirka Andolfo, Laura Braga, Sandy Jarrell, Pasqualle Qualano, J. Nanjan (colors), Wendy Broome (colors), Kelly Fitzpatrick (colors), Wes Abbott (letters)
  • Characters: Batwoman (Kate Kane), Mera (Aqua Woman), Zatanna, John Constantine, Raven, Renee Montoya (The Question)
  • Publication Date: 2017
  • Publisher: DC Comics
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 09/15/2018

Bombshells is a graphic novel series that was originally based on a series of World War II pin-up style statues of female DC Comics heroes. However, the series has been developed by author Marguerite Bennett into a strong female-led superhero team in a World War II slightly different than the one we know.

This volume begins with the Batgirls, teen heroines inspired by Batwoman Kate Kane to defend their city of Gotham and help the innocent, especially immigrants, Jews, and others who are persecuted by Conservatives and the Right. The book opens with Harper, Cullen, and Felicity breaking up Kate Kane’s poker game with the news that they have found the man who agreed to buy art, jewels, and other priceless artifacts stolen from Jews that the Wilmot brothers turned over to the Nazis. The Batgirls respond and find Penguin is behind the art thefts, taken from numerous black marketeers and thieves as well as the Wilmot Brothers. They find Penguin at his Iceberg Lounge, but he escapes and the Batgirls find the young want-to-be reporter, Lois Lane, who because of her age, gender, and ethnic background as a Puerto Rican, has been unable to get a reporting job. Undaunted, she has determined to find and write a big story that will be her ticket into her preferred career. Penguin, however, convinces Mayor Harvey Dent that the Batgirls are a threat and uses the media – magazines, books, radio, etc., to paint the heroines as villains. Still, the Batgirls investigate and Lois starts her own newspaper, to put their story out there for all to read and understand. The Batgirls discover that Penguin is working with Hugo Strange who is hypnotizing and drugging Dent into doing what Penguin wants so the crime lord can make as much money as possible off others suffering. The Batgirls and the police rescue Dent from Penguin and Strange, but both villains escape. Maggie Sawyer offers the Batgirls use of one of the abandoned apartments in Kate’s building as their new Batcave.

In Ireland, in the ocean near Arthur Curry’s lighthouse, Arthur rescues Mera – who has lost all her special abilities including the ability to break under water. He cares for her, cures her ills, and takes her to the village on the island. But all isn’t simple romance. Priest and Red Cardinal Hagen of Atlantis returns and accuses Mera of abandoning her people. Considering that her sister’s husband convinced Atlantis to abandon its centuries-long tradition of having the most qualified crowned as new ruler when the old one dies or abdicates her throne, and then said husband and now King-Consort threatened to kill Mera’s sister if Mera didn’t leave Atlantis never to return, and then to top it off the husband was the one behind Atlantis’s alliance with the Tenebrae and Nazis – this really is not Mera’s fault. Hagen leads Mera to Atlantis. They discover Hila, Mera’s sister has killed her husband and taken the Atlantean throne under the name, Siren Queen. Siren proves to be very jealous of her sister still. However, Mera expresses her love and concern for her sister. She and Hila become allies and promise to help Mera’s friends, the Bombshells.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Bombshells and main characters are drawn to the Jewish Ghetto in Berlin. Ivy and Harley Quinn are looking for the Joker (aka “Mistah J”) but only find Joker’s daughter. Harley fills in Ivy on her backstory with Mistah J – how the two became bank robbers who gave to “whoever” and caused chaos – only to have Joker’s increasing reliance on illegal alcohol and ethanol to cause him to become cruel. When Joker goes into the swamp – Harley realizes she must leave. Joker’s daughter seems to have some of Elizabeth Moone’s Enchantress powers – carrying a crescent moon staff and having glowing green powers. She even conjures the ghost of Mistah J to confront Harley.

Batwoman, Kate Kane, drops by parachute into Berlin and meets Selina and Renee Montoya. Selina’s knocked out a room full of high-powered Nazis to turn over to the Zambezi for cash for the rebellion. Kate and Renee have a past – having been lovers in Spain before the Spanish Civil War crashed their plans and they ended up fighting the Fascists. Ivy and Harley wait at The Cat’s Cradle basement. Zatanna and John Constantine head there, and run into Raven – another magic user and former prisoner of the Joker’s Daughter – well, they think she’s a former prisoner. Raven’s background as the daughter of a human woman and the demon, Das Trigon, is beautifully and quickly rendered. Raven is initially suspicious of Harley and Ivy but they work it out – and they are joined by Selina, Kate, and Renee. The Huntress meets them at the Cat’s Cradle, bringing her Swing Kids. She tells Batwoman her background as a German youth and a woman – who knows her country is wrong for what it is doing and is trying to help Jews escape. Helena’s story, her determination to fight, and fto ace being tried as a traitor by the Germans, her countrymen, is well-told. We also see Kate is upset not merely by who Helena is but by the recent loss of Stargirl, and the loss, in Spain, of young red-capped Jason who died in the war. The final panel of that backstory mirrors that of the famous panel of Batman holding the beaten and battered body of Jason Todd from A Death in the Family. Kate tells Helena to survive, above all. It is Helena who takes all the Bombshells to the Resistance and they finalize their plans to free the ghetto.

All of the characters: Poison Ivy who alters the ph. of sacramental wine so it will burn, Harley Quinn, who makes Molotov Cocktails, a priest who brought the wine, the Swing Kids, Kate Kane, Huntress, Renee Montoya (also known by the nom de guerre The Question), Zatanna, Constantine, and Raven – work together on their plan. During the battle, it’s revealed that Raven is under complete control of the Joker’s daughter. She’s revealed the rebels’ plan to the Nazis who far from being surprised – are ready for them. Meanwhile, several Jewish children are hidden in a basement. The oldest girl, Miri, (also a friend of Kate’s), reads to the children the stories of heroic Jewish women, such as Esther and Shiphrah, Huldah, Zipporah, Abigail, Asenath, and Miriam. As she repeats the names: Shiphrah, Huldah, Abigail, Zipporah, Asenath, and Miriam – Miri is transformed into Shazam. As the new Captain Marvel (aka Shazam, because: copyright) she and Zatanna confront Raven who is under the control of Joker’s daughter – and has grown to gigantic size. But Miri and Zatanna manage to break the Joker’s Daughter’s conditioning of Raven. She comes to her senses and helps the rebels. Kate and Constantine lead the rebellion anyway – as ordinary citizens come from all over Berlin to help after hearing the signal on the radio. Breaking Joker’s Daughter’s control of Raven also frees Zatanna who gets her magic back. Miri, as Shazam has considerable power – she rescues everyone taking them to a haven. They appear in France – but it is Nazi-occupied France. Joker’s Daughter thinks she’s won. Then Atlantis appears. Mera and Hila are now partners and co-Queens. They offer Atlantis as a haven and home for all refugees from the war. Zatanna attacks the Nazis with her magic – clearing a path to the sea-bound refuge. Harley and Ivy join the fight. Zatanna is able to use her magic to end Joker’s tracking spell on her. Everyone will take refuge in Atlantis, though the Bombshells will no doubt soon go out to fight again, especially as Queen Mari of Zambesi, aka Vixen, wants their help in the next arena.

Bombshells is an excellent alternate-reality historical “Golden Age” graphic novel series. The female leads are strong, and their backstories are well-told (sometimes very different than the ones we know and sometimes very slightly changed if at all). The art in this book is amazing. I liked the colored tile borders for the backstory of Renee, Kate, and Jason in Spain – the red thorny vines for Ivy’s tales, and the other details for other characters. The sepia tones for scenes showing the characters past histories were also well done. The Story of Arthur and Mera, though a well-known romance, had new twists and turns to it – making it work within the larger story. I especially liked that rather than making her sister a villain – Mera and Hila ended-up co-operating together. And Hila cutting off her traitorous husband’s head was an awesome way of showing her independence (this was picked up in one of the tales of Jewish Biblical Heroines that Miri (Miriam) tells Kate or the children when she talks of her pride in being who she is.

I highly recommend DC Comics Bombshells – not only to comics fans but to anyone who likes stories about strong, capable women.

Book Review – Still Life

  • Title: Still Life
  • Author: Louise Penny
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 09/05/2018

Still Life is an intriguing mystery novel set in a small Anglophone (English-speaking) village in Quebec. It features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Quebec, the Quebec Provincial Police, and his associates. When Jane, a retired schoolteacher, is found dead in the woods near the remote village of Three Pines in November, everyone assumes it is a tragic hunting accident, especially as she was killed by an arrow. However, things are not always what they seem, especially in quaint artistic villages.

On the Friday before her death, Jane Neal, who had painted for years but never shown anyone her art, submitted a painting for the nearby village juried art show. The painting is quite a surprise to the committee but Clara, Jane’s friend, who also is a struggling artist, sees the brilliance of the piece – and convinces the jury to submit the painting to the art show. Two days later, on Sunday, Jane is killed.

Gamache and his crew investigate – assuming the killing was accidental, but trying to find the person who did it. Three Pines holds quite a number of secrets – as well as being populated by people who had found success and given it up to do what they always wanted to do by moving to the village (eg. becoming artists like Clara and her husband Peter; or owning her own bookstore, like the former counselor). Gamache also has a new trainee, Yvette Nichol. One of the brilliant aspects of Still Life is how the character of Nichol is written and treated. In general, the book is third person omniscient – letting you discover what the Inspector and townspeople are doing. But scenes with Yvette also change to her point of view and way of thinking. Yvette always, always, manages to get it wrong, no matter what she does. Gamache tries to take her under his wing and train her – but she bristles under any orders or suggestions he gives her. When she manages to give a good suggestion on the case, she assumes she’s solved it – and demands the credit. I found myself wondering just what was wrong with Yvette. At times she seems almost Autistic – completely unaware of how to connect with people.

The story is extremely well-written and the description of people and places really bring them to mind – without being so full of trivial details as to be irritating. The book also is not so breezy and lacking detail as to be bland and superficial either. It’s a perfect balance.

The story really is about perspective. The perspective Jane puts into her painting – and all her art. The way that Gamache perceives his new trainee – and the way she, in turn, perceives herself and her new position. The way the townspeople perceive each other. Just what, one perceives as success. The painting becomes a metaphor for all of this and more. The artistic backdrop is not simply a background for a cozy mystery – it is integral to the plot and who these characters are. Still Life is a brilliant novel – that is also a well-written mystery.

I highly recommend this novel.

Doctor Who – Spearhead from Space Review

  • Series Title: Doctor Who
  • Story Title: Spearhead from Space
  • Story #: 51
  • Episodes: 4 half-hour parts
  • Discs: 1
  • Network: BBC
  • Original Air Dates: 01/03/1970 – 01/24/1970
  • Cast: Jon Pertwee, Caroline John, Nicholas Courtney
  • Format: Standard, Color, DVD, NTSC

“What are you a doctor of, by the way?” – Dr. Liz Shaw
“Practically everything, my dear.” – The Doctor

Spearhead from Space is known for its firsts and is almost what would now be termed a soft reboot of the series. It’s the first story filmed in color, and unusually for the series – the entire episode was shot on film and on location. At the end of the previous story, The War Games, the actor portraying the Doctor, Patrick Troughton left, as did his companions Zoë (Wendy Padbury) and Jamie (Frazer Hines), so as well as introducing a new Doctor, Spearhead from Space introduces a new companion, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, a scientist from Cambridge, and the Brigadier returns, still in charge of UNIT. Doctor Who will now be focused on Earth-bound invasion stories, set in the “near future” (something later forgot by the production team who seemed to assume the stories were contemporary to when they were made).

This story has the Doctor’s TARDIS arriving in a wood, the Doctor stumbling out, and collapsing. He’s brought to a nearby cottage hospital and is unconscious for much of episode one, and erratic for much for episode two. It isn’t until he takes a shower in the hospital and borrows some clothes that the Doctor seems to wake up – eventually working with Liz and the Brigadier to discover just what the mysterious landfall of meteorites and strange goings-on at Auton Plastics factory mean. The story develops somewhat slowly but fits together well, as bit by bit, UNIT, the Doctor, Liz, and other characters in the story, learn what is going on. UNIT’s radar station reports on the meteorites and the Brigadier tells Dr. Shaw a larger group landed earlier. Liz scoffs at the Brigadier using the word, “landed”.

Meanwhile, a poacher in the woods finds one of the “thunderballs” and buries it to hide it. UNIT is looking for the meteorites and finds the Doctor’s TARDIS. The Doctor is unconscious at the local cottage hospital. In episode 2, a salesman returns to his factory only to discover it mysteriously changed, his boss unreceptive to his hard work opening a new market in the US, and a letter of dismissal at his home. He later sneaks back into the factory and discovers an Auton who fires at him. Terrified out of his wits he runs out to the woods and into UNIT’s hands. One of the Brigadier’s men takes his statement. He later convinces the Brigadier something is wrong at the factory. Meanwhile, the poacher digs up his “thunderball” and transfers it to a metal box in his shed.

The alien in this story is the Nestene Consciousness, which has no form to speak of, only a hive mind stored in the hollow plastic-like balls that landed during the meteor shower. The Consciousness can animate plastic and co-opts the manager of a plastics factory. This story features story dummies breaking out of window displays, and plastic duplicates of General Scobie and other civil servants and military leaders. The salesman is instrumental in giving information to the Brigadier and UNIT that something is wrong at the factory – but he’s also killed by an Auton dummy. Eventually, his boss, the factory manager, who was under Channing’s control is also killed by the Autons. And when the Doctor and Liz construct a device to disrupt the signals animating the Auton mannequins and break up the Nestene Consciousness – Channing is revealed to be another Auton dummy. During the final attack, the device works fine on the basic Autons but doesn’t work on the Consciousness itself. The Doctor is attacked by tentacles coming out of a tank, and it’s Liz who, on her own must adjust the device until it works, which saves the Doctor and defeats the alien menace, so to speak.

They return to UNIT, and the Doctor bargains with the Brigadier, getting a job as scientific advisor to UNIT, with access to equipment and tools, plus essentials like clothing (since he borrowed his current outfit from the hospital) and a car (since he must return the borrowed red roadster he used in the episode). The Doctor gives the name of “Dr. John Smith” for his paperwork that will make him official on Earth.

Spearhead from Space starts off a new era for Doctor Who. It introduces Dr. Liz Shaw and changes the direction of the show. The cost savings of staying on Earth with contemporary settings, like offices, and 1970s London, were put into car chases, effects, large-scale practical attacks, and a grander scale for the stories. Spearhead from Space is almost like a pilot in introducing these ideas: there’s a chase scene with the Doctor in a wheelchair, UNIT makes an assault on the Auton Factory, the setting is meant to be slightly futuristic but since people still use corded phones (and pay phones at that) and in one scene all the reporters are male – there’s an old-fashioned quality to it too. But it definitely starts to establish the new rules and new patterns for the next three years. Pertwee would play the part for five years, but only regain the time and space traveling abilities of his TARDIS after the tenth-anniversary special, The Three Doctors. The story itself is a bit slow in spots, but the four-episode length helps it from being extremely slow. I liked that Liz actually saved the Doctor herself without any assistance, but I didn’t like that she gets no credit for this, not even a thank you from the Doctor. Still, this is a great place to start with when watching the Third Doctor, or even for starting to watch Classic Doctor Who.