Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Burn Zone is a blood zone

The Burn Zone
James K Decker
Ace Roc Feb. 2013

Reviewed by Ann Wilkes

I picked this book up off the stack of books I had sent to me for review even though I had others ahead of it. The others weren't grabbing me and I wanted to read something that would suck me in and not let go. The Burn Zone definitely fit the bill. It starts off with impending doom and intrigue and quickly moves to the run-for-your-life phase. In fact, the majority of the book is running, fighting, investigating, running some more, fighting some more, injuries, sorrow, more running, more fighting . . . and dismemberment. Lots and lots of dismemberment. Personally, I'm not a fan of vivisection in my fiction - or anywhere else.

The Burn Zone's protagonist is a surrogate mother to alien babies, who takes drugs to numb the pain from her troubled childhood. No. Not troubled. Horrifying near-dismemberment. Dragon freed her from the meat farm and raised her as his own. The surrogate program is meant to help the aliens who crash landed on Earth to empathize with and understand the humans better. Sam has cared for several of them. It earns her a little scratch and she feels needed.

When Dragon comes home early saying that they must leave with bare necessities right now, she wants to take the baby. While they argue a bit over that, the soldiers come, beating Dragon possibly to death. Sam makes a spectacular escape only to come back to save him, but it's too late. They've taken him. As part of the surrogate program, she has Haan nanomites that connect her to the babies she cares for. Her mites picked up the brain activity of the female soldier in charge. Why would a Haan abduct a human and be so hateful and violent? Everything she has learned about the Haan say it isn't possible. They are uber fragile and have no concept of violence.

She returns the child to the alien settlement to keep it safe before hunting down the people who took Dragon and rescuing him. Dragon is accused of treason, but Sam refuses to believe it. But he has smuggled a woman and two children from the Pan-Slav region and, so the news is saying, a biological weapon.

Sam is helped by a Haan sent to her by the Haan woman that Sam convinced to take the baby back from her. She doubts Nix will be much help and struggles with truly trusting him, but she's desperate and her options are limited.

The deeper into the mystery Sam goes, the more gruesome the truths and the actions. I have to say that I don't recall reading a more gory book ever, and this is a sci-fi novel, not a horror novel. Even the evil werewolf horror novel I read had less dismemberment and gore. And I read this while I had the stomach flu. Really bad timing. Or maybe good timing. I didn't have to worry about losing my appetite. It was already gone.

Nix closed the distance between them and I heard a chirp as he punched through the spot underneath her breastplate.

His fist went straight through, and splintered the latticework bones underneath. I expected to feel agony from her, but it didn't come. Even when he wrenched his fist free and I saw he had dragged something out with it, I sensed no pain. Instead, she looked down at the wormy mass that pulsed between his fingers and I felt fury from her, and something else . . . betrayal maybe.

So, if your stomach can take it, The Burn Zone is a thrill a minute. I really liked the protagonist for her determination to save her guardian and ultimately her world. She had her issues of distrust, fear and insecurities, but she fought them as hard as she fought the enemy.

I would have actually appreciated more down time to recover from the relentless chase scenes, torture and brutal fighting. Sam lost a lot of battles. I kind of wanted her to catch a break more often, to have more hope threaded through. But, I think it's more realistic when it doesn't come easy. She really is fighting against insurmountable odds.

I'd like to say something about the ending, but I really can't without spoiling it. I'll just say it will surprise you. It's dark, but leaves hope for a future.

You might not recognize the author's name, but you might be familiar with his Revivor's Trilogy as James Knapp, the first book of which won the 2010 Compton Crook Award and was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award. This is his debut novel under the pseudonym, James K. Decker.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Minister of Chance - A Look Behind the Scenes

My faithful readers know how nuts I am about The Minister of Chance, which I’ve been calling alternately an audio series and radio play. I stand corrected. Though it seems a bit of a contradiction in terms, it’s a sonic movie, according to Dan Freeman, it’s writer, producer, director, sound effects wizard, etc.

My favorite characters in The Minister of Chance are The Minister (Julian Wadham) and Kitty (Lauren Crace), though I enjoy the dry humor of Professor Cantha (Jenny Agutter – remember her in Logan’s Run?) and love to hate the Witch Prime (Sylvester McCoy). Kitty, though an ineloquent barmaid (love the cockney!), is determined, fearless and smarter than people think.

In the first episode, The Sezians, a magic-based race have invaded and conquered Kitty’s country of Tanto and outlawed science “own good”. Kitty meets The Minister and embarks on an adventure with him, even going through doors he creates for walking from one world to another. The Sezians “seize” Professor Cantha and force her to help them complete their rocket to protect them against the greater threat that is headed toward Kitty’s world.

As Kitty and The Minister enter the “broken world that has no name”, they see a large group of alien creatures coming their way while looking for The Minister’s friend, The Horseman. When Kitty wonders why they might not be friendly, the minister says, “People rarely round up a gang and run anywhere to perform acts of charity.” The wit keeps coming as well as the tongue-in-cheek humor and puns. Love it!

This fun-packed thrill-ride doesn’t let up in the succeeding episodes. The mysterious Horseman begins killing off Sezians, and Kitty and The Minister have further adventures as things heat up for her world.

Radio static is a small outfit mostly consisting of Dan and Clare. And there’s no payroll. Clare is officially the executive producer. Unofficially, she and Dan are chief cook and bottle washers. Dan’s the creative side while Clare is the organizer. Below is a picture of Dan rehearsing with Jenny Agutter and Beth Goddard (Sunflower - ep 3).

 ©Ian Nolan/ Radio Static 2010-12 www.ministerofchance.com 
You’d never know it by listening to these phenomenal episodes. I don’t know how Lucasfilm (when it still existed just south of here) or Hollywood could do better. The special audio effects, script and acting are top-notch. Here’s to crowd-funding and humble beginnings – or middles and ends, so long as it reaches the masses.

I interviewed Dan late afternoon on Wednesday – that’s 5:30 AM my time. We had a fantastic chat before I went back to bed in the hopes of catching some zzzzs before interviewing Clare a couple hours later.

The Minister is a character created by Dan some nine or ten years ago for Doctor Who  and was then played by Stephen Fry. Dan and Stephen wanted to give the character a life and a universe of his own, independent of the Doctor Who series, and initially that's what they intended to make together, but when Fry’s surge in popularity put a crimp in his available time, and the commissioning editor at the BBC took so long with it, the two agreed to let it go – at least for Fry’s involvement and the BBC. Dan turned instead to podcasting.

Dan has done voice-over work since he was young because he has the ability to alter his voice a great deal. Over the years, he said, he’s worked up to ever-bigger parts. Here is Dan cutting up with Tamsin Grieg (Sage of the Waves - ep 3).

 ©Ian Nolan/ Radio Static 2010-12 www.ministerofchance.com
Dan eventually joined forces with Clare Eden, an experienced actor’s agent, whom he met through Dan’s voice-over agent, and together with her knack (or balls?) for approaching talent and Dan’s amazing script, an all-star cast convened. Clare is pictured below with Sylvester McCoy.

 ©Ian Nolan/ Radio Static 2010-12 www.ministerofchance.com
They do have an ad hoc crew when in production. Jonathon Barnes has worked as script editor for episodes three through five. Chris Mock has been their soundman throughout although Jim Armstrong ran sound on the location days for episode three. Clare pointed out that though they are many times literally working for “a pie and a pint”, they stay on because of the quality of the work, and they are proud to be a part of it.

Clare said they occasionally record at her house, which means she and Dan roll up their sleeves and cook and clean all day. She added that they strive to keep it fun for everyone. She credited their success to their great cast that stays on board, Dan’s excellent scripts and the fun atmosphere and camaraderie.  And Clare said that the audience support has been amazing. Fans are not only giving money to the project, but offering their time and talents to help promote the work.

What will the future hold for The Minister of Chance? CDs might be on the horizon according to Clare and Dan is toying with a visual movie. Episode four will be released soon and episode five only awaits some final editing and mixing.

Clare said she hoped that young people would be plugged into an audio drama on their gadgets that they are already listening to music on. Though CDs are a possibility, it comes with greater budget needs and the cost would be greater to the end user. As it is, when Clare and Dan send thank you merchandise or promotional materials to its supporters around the world, the shipping runs them “six or seven Quid” a pop.

When asked what attracted their superb, talented cast, Clare pointed to Dan’s script first and foremost. The world he has created for the Minister is unique, not just a continuation of the Doctor Who world, but one perfectly suited to this Minister. “Everyone [we asked] pretty much said yes,” she said. They both were independently saying, “We need someone like Julian Wadham,” Clare said. Finally, they up and asked Julian Wadham. For those on this side of the Atlantic not familiar with his work, Wadham has been a staple in Britain, appearing in movies and TV series for more than twenty years.

The Minister of Chance will be the Guests of Honor at the BritSciFi convention at the Space Centre in Leicester, UK on March 9th and 10th, When will they be at a convention near you? Beg your con com to invite them next year and see what happens. Maybe they’ll say yes right off, too.



Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Dance with Dragons picks up the pace

A Dance with Dragons
Book 5 of A Song of Ice and Fire
George R. R. Martin
Bantam (2011)

Review by Clare Deming

After the publication of five massive tomes and two seasons of an HBO series based on his books, I think it's tough for anyone who is a fan of fantasy fiction to be unaware of George R. R. Martin's series, A Song of Ice and Fire. A Dance with Dragons is the long-awaited fifth installment in the book series, and finally brings back those favorite characters missing in the previous volume.

If you haven't read through A Storm of Swords (book three), then just beware that this review may contain spoilers for you. Anyone who has only watched the television series will be lost. In A Feast for Crows (book four), Martin continued his technique of rotating through different point-of-view characters on a chapter-by-chapter basis. However, some notable characters had been left out. Whether you agreed with this decision (as explained in an afterward to book four) or not, the absence of Daenerys, Tyrion, and Jon Snow rankled with many fans. Although this new volume returns to those characters, the events overlap with the timeline from book four, creating some déjà vu as news spreads across Westeros and beyond.

Tyrion Lannister's whereabouts have been a mystery, as he is one of the most wanted and recognizable men in Westeros. Accused of murdering Joffrey at his wedding, the Imp has also slain his father and vanished from King's Landing. In the opening of book five, he turns up in the free city of Pentos with Magister Illyrio Mopatis, who had helped sell Daenerys to the Dothraki in book one. Illyrio's motives are mysterious, but he convinces Tyrion that drowning himself in alcohol is not a worthwhile profession for someone as intelligent as the black sheep of the Lannisters. Tyrion heads toward Volantis with a group of mysterious companions, presumably to team up with Daenerys and her cadre of dragons.

Daenerys Targaryen sits ensconced as queen of the slaver city of Meereen. Her dragons have grown and cannot be trusted to roam free. She is threatened by armies from neighboring cities, as well as murderous rebels within Meereen's own population. Despite her original intent to return to Westeros to claim the Iron Throne as the Targaryen heir, she becomes bogged down by the machinations of numerous councilors, shady politics, and her own uncertainties.

In the north, Jon Snow guards the wall against the dark threat of wights and beasts of legend. He is also swamped by his newfound responsibilities, but deals with them more decisively than Daenerys. Surrounded by wilding prisoners, insubordination among his own men, and demands from Stannis Baratheon, Jon Snow makes his decisions and stands by them.

Like the previous books, there are so many major characters that if I try to count them I know I'll leave someone out. Bran travels with Jojen and Meera Reed, looking for more information about his dreams. Quentyn Martell, heir to Dorne, has a secret proposal for Daenerys. The Iron Fleet is on the move, but Asha Greyjoy has fled after her failed bid for the Seastone Chair. Davos Seaworth smuggles himself again. Jaime Lannister travels around a bit, flashing his golden hand and forging peace in the Riverlands. Arya Stark appears briefly, moving on to the next stage of her training, and Cersei Lannister must finally face some consequences for her actions.

Despite the length of this volume, you won't see Samwell Tarly, Rickon or Osha, Sansa Stark, Littlefinger, or Brienne in this one.

One of the most interesting perspectives in this book comes from Theon Greyjoy. No, he's not dead. But after we learn what he has been through, it would have been kinder if he had been slain. As disturbing as some of his scenes are, I was fascinated to read his interactions with his captor. I have also found someone to hate more than I did Joffrey, and that's a feat.

I thought that the pacing of book four dragged, so A Dance With Dragons is exciting in comparison. However, the dragons play only a minor role and nothing that happens in this book can top the events in the second half of A Storm of Swords. Still, the world is as richly drawn as all of Martin's writing, and the story expands to cover a larger geographical area as well as pulling in more characters.

The most intricate plot twists and shocking events occur in the north of Westeros. Unfortunately most of the characters in the rest of the world spend the entire time traveling with little resolution to their story arcs. I was also disappointed in Daenerys because I just can't make myself care about the plight of the slaver cities and all of her entourage. It's time for her to ride a dragon to Westeros, already!

For fear of sounding too critical, I just need to say that this is still a great book. The characters are phenomenal and the writing is better than almost anything else out there. If you loved A Storm of Swords and felt let down by A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons takes the series and reinvigorates it with newfound direction and hints at the fire and darkness to come.