Quag Keep: The First D&D Novel

Lo, those many years ago (1981) when I read Andre Norton’s novel Quag Keep.  A copy presented itself in my Middle School library. A dragon appeared on the cover and fantasy had just fastened into my pubescent consciousness, leading to a reading.

Quag Keep is a queer duck of a novel.  Neither fish nor fowl, it slumbers in obscurity.  Set in the Greyhawk campaign world created by Gary Gygax, it is extremely referential to Dungeons & Dragons as a hobby, rather than game mechanics.  Literally.  Magic transforms a bunch of RPG nerds into their characters in Greyhawk via ‘cursed miniatures’.  No, really.

I know what you’re thinking.  This must be a stupid concept that breaks the fourth wall or just comes across as pretentious.  Surprisingly, it’s not.  Is it great?  No, but it’s not bad.  It moves quick, has enjoyable scenes and the characters (especially the main caracter, Milo Jagon) are interesting.  Moreover, because there is little to no attempt to shoehorn game mechanics, Andre manages to describe the world and situations without worrying about such trivia.  The game mechanics, ironically, are actually far less visible because they are literally part of the story.

Later books placed modern people into fantasy settings via games (such as the enjoyable Guardians of the Flame books) but this is the first.  Greyhawk wouldn’t be published for another two years.   This version of Greyhawk is misty and incomplete.  Andre takes that incompleteness and fills in the gaps with her own writing skills–not without success.  Unfazed by whether or not wizards are allowed to wear armor or wearboars cast spells, she does her level best to tell an interesting fantasy tale.  Quite honestly, I’d prefer the authors who presently crank out gaming novels to take a page from her playbook and do the same.

While researching this I noted that a sequel to Quag Keep, unimaginatively titled Return to Quag Keep, came out a couple of years after Andre Norton died.  I have zero desire to read this, since it smacks of pillaging a dead author’s stories for ideas.  I suspect Andre had little to nothing to do with this ‘sequel’.  I’ll pass.

If you like your gaming books bereft of gaming mechanics, would like to delve into the history of the hobby, or just read a fast, enjoyable fantasy romp, you could do far worse than Quag Keep.

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Television That Needs More Love: Brimstone

brimstone-01Brimstone came out in 1998, roughly the time another hellish series called GvsE (Good versus Evil) appeared.  Both series were similar in plot, and I don’t know if one copied another.  I do know I enjoyed Brimstone, whereas I found GvsE forgettable.

Basic plot goes like this: Ezekial “Zeke” Stone (played by Peter Horton) is a NYC cop whose wife is raped.  Zeke tracks down the rapist and murders him.  Shortly thereafter, Zeke is murdered and goes to Hell for the sin of murder.  Jump forward fifteen years and Zeke is sprung from hell by The Devil (played by a bombastic John Glover.)  Turns out there was a jailbreak from Hell.  113 damned souls are free and loose on Earth.  If Zeke uses his detective skills to find and return all of them to Hell, he gets a second chance at life.

brimstone-02Great hook.  Grabbed my interest from the start.

Any catches, you ask?  Several.  The damned souls are impossible to kill unless you destroy their eyes.  Also, it turns out the longer you’re in Hell, the more of Hell comes with you.  This translates into the longer souls are in Hell, the stronger they are on Earth.  Nearly all of the souls are older than Zeke, and some are hundreds or even thousands of years old.  Even worse, not only are they stronger, but many of them have hellish ‘magic tricks’.  Some can turn invisible, spread hellish diseases or cast magic brimstone-04spells.  Zeke relies on old-fashioned police work and his own immortality.

The sole reason I even know this series exists is because the Sci-fi Channel (before they called it “SyFy”,) had a marathon one Saturday afternoon.  Lasting a grand total of 13 episodes, it was a mid-season replacement that fizzled.  A pity, since it had great promise.

brimstone-03Lori Petty fills out an enjoyable minor role as a hotel clerk.  (Usually people either love or hate Lori–I am one of the former.)  John Glover as The Devil chews scenery like a teething beaver.  No joke, he’s a pleasure to watch.  My favorite episode (“It’s a Helluva Life”) has John playing both The Devil and an angel.  The two of them take Zeke through is life, alternately showing him every bad brimstone-05thing he ever did and the good he’s accomplished.  It’s surprisingly moving.

Is Brimstone great?  No.  Plot stumbles and misfires are in evidence.  The special effects are dated and clunky.  I will say that there was enough there that I wanted more.  It picked up steam as it went, and the writers and actors were hitting their strides–just in time to be cancelled. 

Should someone with a modicum of power in television get a chance, resurrecting this brimstone-06series wouldn’t be the worst idea. 

Go dig up the 13 episodes or watch them online somewhere.  You won’t regret it.

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Adam Warlock and the Magus (Forgotten Gems)

adam-warlock-01Adam Warlock was a Marvel Comics character who first turned up in the pages of Fantastic Four in 1967.  Cobbled together by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and originally called ‘Him’, Warlock appeared sporadically for several years.  Roy Thomas later turned him into a kind of superhero messiah, inspired by (I’m not kidding) Jesus Christ Superstar.  Several goofy religious elements were used, including a death and resurrection. 

Jim Starlin entered the scene in 1975 as both writer and artist.  Warlock turned from a Christ figure into a paranoid schizophrenic.  To add insult to injury, Warlock battles a cosmic Universal Church of Truth (a thinly-veiled jab at Catholicism.)

(Side note: Jim later took another jab at Catholicism with his “Church of the Instrumentality” in Dreadstar.)

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It’s at this point that Adam Warlock gets interesting.  Jim’s take on Warlock struck me as a superhero version of Elric.  Starlin admits he was reading the Elric books at the time, but claims he read them after Warlock (I have my doubts.)  Parallels with Elric were obvious to me long before I read his claims.  Instead of a soul-drinking sword (Elric’s infamous Stormbringer,) Warlock has a soul-drinking gem on his forehead.  More than that, the existential angst of the two characters is nearly identical. 

adam-warlock-07Battling the Universal Church of Truth and its sinister leader, The Magus, Warlock engages the help of several characters familiar to younger readers–Gamora and Thanos.  Following several battles where Warlock devours enemies souls, he begins to go insane from the experience.  Finally encountering The Magus in person (complete with an Afro inspired by Angela Davis) he discovers that The Magus is his future self.  The Magus is what he will become after a thousand years of cosmic torture.

Cheery stuff, eh?

Thanos enters into the story when his protege, Gamora, fails to keep The Magus from adam-warlock-02‘marking’ Warlock to summon the being that will torture him: The In-Betweener (No, I didn’t make that up.)  Battling to save Warlock from his fate, it turns out that Thanos is only doing it because The Magus is the ‘champion of life’ and Thanos is ‘the champion of death’.  Even though The Magus is evil, he still aids life and civilization, whereas Thanos wants universal genocide.

To prevent becoming The Magus, Warlock commits ‘cosmic suicide’ by erasing his timeline in which he becomes The Magus.  Doomed to die in the near future, Warlock flies adam-warlock-06off after The Magus disappears from existence.  Thanos later kills Adam while in battle with The Avengers, only to have Warlock’s soul briefly return from the Soul Gem and turn Thanos to stone.

While melodramatic, the artwork and writing (especially at the time) are pretty damn good. Overly-melodramatic and angst-ridden, but good.

Much later, Starlin retconned the Soul Gem as just one of the six Infinity Stones in the adam-warlock-08Infinity Gauntlet storyline.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe is right on the cusp of introducing the last of the ‘Infinity Stones’–the Soul Stone.  Figured now was a good time to recap its origins.

Go dig the original or reprints up and take

You thought I made it up, didn't you?

You thought I made it up, didn’t you?

a look.  Well worth a second glance.

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A Good Lovecraft Film: Pontypool

pontypool-01Pontypool showed up on my radar screen a few years ago by accident.  It was recommended as a ‘zombie movie’–which isn’t entirely incorrect, but isn’t the whole story.  My expectations were fairly low since the movie screamed ‘Canadian Indie Film’.  As it turns out, this movie is layered in weirdness and is excellent.

The premise is straightforward.  The main character Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) drives to work at a local radio station on a snowy morning in Pontypool, Ontario.  Grant is a shock jock who has seen better days.  On his way in, a woman comes out of the dark and babbles incoherently before disappearing.  It’s nicely disconcerting and sets up the whole mood for the film. 

pontypool-02Grant’s day only gets weirder as strange events trickle in from the radio station’s reporter and listeners.  Pontypool does a great slow burn by using disembodied voices over the radio to paint a picture of something going horribly wrong.  The wrongness appears, at first, to be a standard zombie apocalypse.  Only after a creepy end to the ‘roving reporter’ does it become pontypool-03apparent that it’s nothing so mundane as walking dead men.

It’s hard to tell much about the nature of the ‘zombies’ without wandering into spoiler territory.  Suffice to say that their nature has an otherworldly creepiness to it.  They are a manifestation of something alien and hostile that invades language and minds.  That’s pontypool-04what makes it Lovecraftian.  H.P. would have enjoyed it.

Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) is the station manager who starts out getting pissed at Grant for his antics, only to later look upon him as a source of strength as the insanity grows.  Romantic chemistry between the two is low-key, but it works.  “Kill is kiss” is a great moment that highlights their pontypool-06attraction and a clever bit of deductive reasoning.

Again, I don’t want to give too much away.  The entire movie except for the opening scene of Grant driving to work occurs inside a single room.  Details of the disaster come at the audience through verbal presentation.  An ingenious–and effective–way of making the most of a small budget.  It’s doubly effective since what is happening escapes visual or rational explanation.

pontypool-05For those of you Lovecraft fans who haven’t seen it, the movie is on Netflix.  I recommend it unreservedly.  I discovered only while researching this that it is based on a book titled Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess, which I plan on reading at my earliest opportunity.

 

 

 

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Zarkorr! The Invader: A Fun, Bad Kaiju Movie

zarkorr-01Back in 1996 when I was living in New Jersey, a friend and I spotted Zarkorr! The Invader in the local Blockbuster (You youngsters can look that up.)  To be honest, I got it just to piss my friend off since he couldn’t decide on what to rent.  We go back home and watch the thing.  Lo and behold and it turns out to be just as bad as expected, but surprisingly entertaining.  We’re given this gem through a sub-label of Full Moon Features: Monster Island Entertainment.

The plot goes thusly: an alien race decides to ‘test’ Earth by sending a giant monster (Zarkorr) against a champion of their choosing.  This champion is a New Jersey postal employee.  No, I’m not kidding.  The employee (Tommy) is contacted by an alien mental projection that looks like a ‘tiny mall tramp’.  zarkorr-02The aliens chose him because he’s literally the most average man on Earth.  Zarkorr (which has emerged from a mountain on the west coast) is traveling east towards Tommy–to kill him.  Tommy must figure out a way to kill it before it reaches him and kills him. 

Tommy panics and rushes to the local Jersey television station where he sees a ‘cryptozoologist’ (Stephanie) talking about it.  She thinks he’s a nut and he panics, grabs a gun from a security guard and takes her hostage.  Police arrive and it zarkorr-04looks as if Tommy’s going to jail or an asylum.  Fortunately for him, one of the two policeman (George) is a conspiracy nut and believes Tommy’s tall tale.  He helps him escape and Tommy eventually convinces Stephanie he’s not a lunatic.  The three of them spend the rest of the movie figuring out how a postal employee can defeat a 180 foot tall monster.

zarkorr-06Okay, this movie is bad.  One might have a decent Bar Mitzvah with the entire budget.  Maybe.  Zarkorr’s costume design is decent, but the special effects were probably generated with an Amiga.  Cherry bombs are likely the pyrotechnics, and acting varies from acceptable to abysmal. 

Despite all that, I enjoyed the hell out of Zarkorr.  Its strength lies in the humor and silliness of the plot and dialogue.  Zarkorr emphasizes its tongue in cheek nature to hide its meager production values.  Nobody tries to zarkorr-03convince you that you’re watching a serious movie.

Amidst the silliness and one-liners, there is actually a skeleton of a decent plot here.  My fondest wish for this movie is that someone might buy the rights to it and remake it with an actual budget.  With some TLC, it could be the kaiju version of Ghostbusters (1984.)

BONUS ROUND!  Zarkorr’s Theme Song:

 

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A Nifty Kaiju Movie: Gamera, Guardian of the Universe

gamera-gou-01Gamera, Guardian of the Universe (1995) is a giant monster movie that is far better than it has any right to be. 

The Heisei Gamera series is a reboot of the original Daiei Studio Gamera series (1965-1980.)  The series was Daiei’s answer to Toho’s Godzilla series.  Much in the way Dolph Lundgren was supposed to be the answer to Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Like Dolph, it didn’t really turn out so well.  Instead of a prehistoric spawn of an atomic bomb, it was a turtle.  A flying, jet-propelled turtle.  Yes, you read that right.  Flying.  Jet-propelled.  Turtle.

The old series’ charm was its goofiness.  They warmed my coal-black heart.  The best gamera-gou-03way to watch them is via Mystery Science Theater 3000.  The MST3K versions are choice.  I recommend them.  “Gamera is a friend to children.”

Let’s just say they’re not Oscar material.

So when I saw the reboot coming out, I expected more of the same.  I snagged a VHS copy and got together with my friends to watch the cheese.  We sat down and started watching.  About halfway through it, we looked at one another and I said: “It is my imagination or is this pretty goddamn good?”

gamera-gou-04Instead of a goof, it turned out to be (no joke) the best giant monster movie I had seen up to that point.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the Toho Godzilla movies.  I’m a total Godzilla junkie.  However, most of them aren’t very good.  They’re poorly written with paper thin plots plastered over monster fights.  I still love them.

This was better.  There were three Heisei Gamera movies and they were all damn good.  Perhaps this one blew me away because my expectations were low.  They scraped together the ridiculous elements of the original Gamera and somehow managed to make it coherent.  Not only coherent but very entertaining.  (Even the “friend of children” theme.)

In this version Gamera is a biological weapon created by an extinct civilization.  (Makes a touch more sense than a prehistoric turtle that breathes fire.)  It was created to destroy another biological weapon gone amok: Gyaos.  Gyaos is pterodactyl-like monster that gamera-gou-05feeds on humans.  They manage to make the critter pretty sinister.  There’s one honestly disturbing scene with an elevated train that I always remembered.

Typically the human characters are the most boring part of kaiju movies.  Much like the caulk holding together the monster fight bricks.  Not so in this movie.  They have some genuinely likable (and competent) characters that are important to the outcome.

Let’s talk about the fights.  They are mostly the ‘man in suit’ fights, with some animatronic gamera-gou-06and CGI thrown in.  There actually aren’t many of them, but you don’t feel cheated, because they look gorgeous.  Some of the best miniature work I’ve ever seen and crisp editing hides the flaws in the suites/practical effects.

Another thing I like is that human weapons hurt the monsters.  This is a break from Godzilla, where monsters plow through gamera-gou-07them like grass.  The monsters also hurt one another.  Lots of pyrotechnics in the Godzilla movies.  Not the Heisei Gamera.  Blood, wounds and even amputations.  Good stuff.

I unreservedly adore this movie as well as the two sequels.  Dig up a copy and enjoy.

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Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez: An Artist Who Needs More Love

jose-lgl-05Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez first came to my attention back in the early eighties in the DC Comic Atari Force.  The only reason I was aware of this comic was because they included mini-comics in the Atari 2600 games for some titles like Defender and Berzerk.  The mini-comics later became an actual DC Comics series which lasted 20 issues.  Jose’s style appealed to me immediately.

jose-lgl-07Jose was born in 1948 in Spain, later moving to Argentina.  He worked for the (now defunct) Charlton Comics in the 60s.  In 1974 he moved to New York City where he started work with DC Comics.  He says he gets inspiration from Golden Age artists such as Alex Raymond and Hal Foster and his style shows it.  Honestly, I think his style is more dynamic than his inspirations.

(On a side note, there seems to be a penchant in the late sixties and seventies of comic book companies poaching talent from Spain.  Just look at Warren Publishing of the same era.)

I think Jose’s main claim to fame with DC Comics jose-lgl-04isn’t necessarily the books he illustrated.  It’s probably that he put together the DC Style Guide in 1982 that defined the looks of all of DC’s character for years. The merchandising arm of DC Comics used this guide for all licensed merchandise.  Odds are that any merchandise you find from the 80s is either Jose’s artwork, or inspired by it.

jose-lgl-06The art that got my attention was Jose’s run on New Teen Titans.  He followed up George Perez, who left some mighty boots to fill.  It was mentioned by the writer Marv Wolfman that “[H]ad this artist who could draw almost anything”.  Jose only did five issues, but the story was literally Olympian in scope.  Impressed the hell out of me.

(Another side note: George Perez apparently had fans get mad at him when he said Jose was a better artist than him.)

jose-lgl-11Later in the 80s, Jose did a mini-series called Cinder and Ashe.  A rather grim, adult title with nothing even vaguely superheroic.  It was DC’s attempt to create more adult oriented titles as comics readers demanded something more than four-color superheroes. The writing was decent, but the artwork made it.  (The comic has the dubious distinction of being the first depiction of rape I recall in comics.)

Jose received an Eisner Award nomination for his work with Howard Chaykin on Twilight in the early 90s.  Since then, I lost track of him.  I only discovered with this research that he illustrated one of the On the Road to Perdition books in 2003.

jose-lgl-01So far as I know, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez is still working today at age 68.  Check out his work.  An unsung titan of comics illustration.

jose-lgl-02jose-lgl-03jose-lgl-08jose-lgl-09jose-lgl-10

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Moments of Coolness #4: The Incredibles Family Reunion & Dash

the-incredibles-04I absolutely adore Pixar’s The Incredibles.  This is (as has been noted by others) how The Fantastic Four should have been.  Almost everything clicks in this movie.  The animation is great, the soundtrack is stellar and the voice actors are terrific.  This, however, is not the gist of my Moment of Coolness.  There are two moments in it that rise above the rest of the film.

No, I’m not talking about Edna Mode (although I adore her as well.)  There is one scene with Dash and one scene with the whole family.  The scenes are close together in the movie but have two separate impacts.  They’re brief, but rise above the rest of the film in a subtle fashion.

Let’s talk about Dash’s scene first.

On the surface, it’s just a nifty action scene.  Dash runs from the flying evil minions in their hovercraft.  Some people have compared it to the speeder bike scene from Return of the Jedi.  There is some resemblance there, but there’s a lot more to it.  The true Moment of Coolness comes when Dash runs out of the jungle onto a lake.  He didn’t realize it was there, and before he knows it, his feet hit the water.  And he keeps running.  He looks down and realizes what he’s doing and lets out a laugh of pure joy. 

the-incredibles-03This is the first time in his life that Dash realizes just what he’s capable of doing.  He sees what his full potential is and he can’t help but laugh.  No one else is around to hear his laugh or see what he’s doing, but it doesn’t matter–he sees it.  It’s the first time he’s seen his power as a gift instead of a curse.  It’s a powerful–but subtle–scene.  Brad Bird pulls it off beautifully.

The second Moment of Coolness scene happens shortly after the Dash scene.

The family gets reunited in the jungle and there’s a moment of familial affection.  A moment later, the evil minions show up and start attacking.  That’s when mom and dad become Elastigirl and Mr. Incredible.  They take down the minions (who had been giving the kids such fits) in seconds with consummate ease.

the-incredibles-01This is the Moment of Coolness.  For the very first time, Dash and Violet realize that mom and dad aren’t just mom and dad.  Their parents are two veteran, kick-ass superheroes.  This is meant to be a metaphor for the first time children realize their parents had lives before them.  That parents are more than just parents.

This realization is summed up in Dash and Violet in just two words: “Wow!” and “Whoa!”

the-incredibles-05Absolutely brilliant.  Brad Bird, I would bear your children, were I so equipped.

So I guess that’s all I’ve got to say about that.

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The Black Hole: (1979) A Very Weird Disney Movie

the-black-hole-01Okay, let’s roll the clock back to 1979 to take a look at Disney’s first PG rated film: The Black Hole.

Star Wars had come out two years earlier and every studio was scrambling to find their niche in the science fiction boom.  Science fiction adventure films were, for the first time ever, considered an ‘A-list’ commodity.  Every studio wanted their ‘own’ Star Wars. The results of this boom were rather a mixed bag, much like The Black Hole.

First, let’s talk about Disney’s state in the 70s.  They were not in terrific shape.  They’d had a string of mediocre animated and kids’ movies and were struggling to stay afloat and/or relevant since Walt kicked the bucket in 1966.  Their bread and butter consisted of re-releasing old Disney classic animation every few years.  Their main claim to fame at this point was the consistent G rating of their movies.

Then comes The Black Hole.  May seem pretty tame by today’s standards, but the idea of a PG Disney movie was radical at the time.

the-black-hole-03Critics ripped the movie and Neil DeGrasse Tyson gave it infamy by saying it has the worst science in a movie of all time (although one wonders whether Neil has seen The Core.)  To be honest, it’s not a terrible movie.  The visual designs are pretty damn good.  Costumes are decent and sets solid.  The robot designs are interesting (although a bit too cutesy with VINCENT and BOB.)  The antagonist robot Maximilian is especially sinister.  The characters are mostly forgettable, the dialogue is soap-opera-cringeworthy and yes, the science is terrible.

The gist of the plot is that the exploratory space ship USS Palomino finds the long-lost ship USS Cygnus in orbit around a black hole. ( I assume it’s named Cygnus as a nod to the black hole of Cygnus X-1, although this is mere speculation on my part.)  On board is the-black-hole-04the scenery-chewing Maximilian Schell as the kooky commander of the Cygnus–Dr. Hans Reinhardt.  He’s got a crew of robot soldiers and android workers but apparently no other human survived.  He manages to hit every mad scientist note, including having a monstrous flunky robot named Maximilian (as a nod to Schell?)  Dr. Kate McCrae (played by Yvette Mimieux) has a personal stake in the fate of the Cygnus, as her father was one of the crew. Dr. Alex Durant (played by a luckless Anthony Perkins) is the cliched naive scientist who falls under Reinhardt’s sway.  Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster) is the square-jawed captain hero.  Lieutenant Charlie Pizer (Joseph Bottoms) is the impulsive young hero.  Harry Booth (a criminally-underutilized Ernest Borgnine) is the craven, weaselly crewmember.  Those highlights are literally all I remember about these characters.  They have as much depth as a puddle.

The other ‘actors’ are the robots VINCENT (voiced by Roddy McDowell) and BOB (voiced by Slim Pickens.)  Like Maximilian, they are hovering robots instead of walking ones.  I assume Disney did this because it looked interesting and allowed them to mimic the-black-hole-02the ‘cuteness’ of R2-D2 to some extent.  Their eyes, though, are more like anime or cartoon eyes, giving them a bit more goofiness than I think they were going for.  Maybe they were trying to balance the kind of melodrama depressing tone of the movie?  Dunno.

Anyway, turns out Dr. Reinhardt is nuttier than a fruitcake (who could have known?) and wants to go into the black hole.  Also turns out his ‘android workers’ are the lobotomized human crew of the Cygnus.  When this is discovered, Maximilian kills Durant as he tries to the-black-hole-05escape with Kate.  The rest of the crew comes to her rescue except Harry, who does the craven move and tries to escape on the Palomino and instead crashes into the Cygnus. 

The rest of the movie is the crew escaping from the haunted castle spaceship by getting on the probe ship used by Reinhardt to examine the black hole.  They try to fly off, only to discover the probe ship is locked onto the black hole.

What follows is a weird, surreal, eschatological series of scenes with Maximilian and Reinhardt merging into a Satan-like figure and the crew flying through a heavenly the-black-hole-06cathedral.

Or something like that.  It’s not as weird as the end of 2001, but it’s pretty damn weird.  The ship ends by coming out the ‘other side’ in some unknown solar system.

Again, this isn’t a terrible movie.  Mostly it’s just a lot of misfires.  There were decent ideas in it and moments of interest.  I suppose the annoying part is that there was a great deal of unused potential.

Still, it’s worth checking out at least once.

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Piers Anthony: Apprentice Adept

Piers Anthony is a best-selling fantasy author who most people associate with the apprentice-adept-01pun-filled Xanth books (of which there are 39!)  However, he’s been prolific for several other science fiction and fantasy series, such as the sci-fi/fantasy series called Apprentice Adept.

Piers is an oddball writer.  I’ve read a lot of his books and his tone ricochets all across the emotional and intellectual spectrum.  The Of Man and Manta series is a quasi-nihilistic and psychedelic experiment, while the Xanth series is a pun-filled goof.  As strange as Piers gets, he is typically entertaining.

The Apprentice Adept series takes place in two parallel worlds.  The science fiction world is a barren mining world called Proton.  The fantasy world is called Phaze.  The two can be crossed over at certain spots and there are parallel social systems on apprentice-adept-02each world.  Both are essentially a kind of feudal system.  On Proton, the worlds are controlled by the Citizens, who rule over the serfs.  Wealth is measured in the rare mineral called Protonite.  The serfs are in a form of indentured servitude but can win a kind of Olympic game called the Tourney and become citizens.  Serfs are unable to own anything on Proton, including clothing.

On Phaze, there are super-powerful Adepts (wizards) who rule over all the lower classes.  The Adepts each have a unique form of magic and a color they’re identified with (which seems to have little connection apprentice-adept-03with their unique magic.)  The magic of Phaze is powered by a rare mineral called Phazite (which reminds me of Larry Niven’s The Magic Goes Away.)  The two worlds are (for the most part) unaware of one another.

The main character, Stile, is a serf who discovers a plot against his life in Proton.  With the help of a female robot named Sheen, he escapes through a portal to Phaze.  There, he discovers that the other ‘him’ on Phaze is the Blue Adept.  He inherits Blue’s magic on Phaze, which allows him to cast spells by rhyming (which isn’t actually as goofy as it sounds.)  He discovers that the plot against him extends to Phaze as well.

The plot jumps back and forth from Proton to Phaze as Stile unravels the scheme against apprentice-adept-04him with the Adepts on Phaze and the Citizens on Proton.  There’s a meta-plot involving Stile entering the Tourney so that he might become a Citizen.  The individual competitions in the Tourney are actually pretty enjoyable and eventually becomes an integral part of bringing down the Red Adept (who is his primary nemesis.)

The series is an enjoyable middle ground between Piers’ experimental nihilism and his silly puns.  The story never flags and the characters are quite likable.  The science of the science fiction setting is somewhat soft but not too silly.  The magic of Phaze has a decent level of continuity and the fantasy elements aren’t played for laughs like in Xanth.  I recommend the trilogy apprentice-adept-05without reservation.

* – For disclosure, I’d like to mention that I only read the first three of this series and wasn’t even aware there were more books.  I do know the first three are a tight, well-written trilogy and am, frankly, afraid to read the rest.  I know what happened after the first three (pretty apprentice-adept-06solid) Xanth books.  (Hint: they became awful.)