Next Generation for StorycastRob

In the latest episode of my podcast, listen to two new stories by guest authors Claire Buss and E.M. Swift-Hook. And I give you my top five audio plays from Big Finish (after I exclude all of the obvious well known choices).

Follow our guests on Twitter

Follow Claire  at https://twitter.com/Grasshopper2407

Follow E.M. at https://twitter.com/emswifthook

Support StorycastRob on Patreon

You can now support StorycastRob on Patreon, for an opportunity to get occasional bonus content, e-books, and even signed paperbacks. Become a patron by visiting  https://www.patreon.com/storycastrob

 

At the very least, go watch my intro video, to see me out from behind the microphone and feeling vaguely uncomfortable!

 

Show Me The Sky Beam 1: Die Hard

These days it seems like you can’t go grocery shopping without someone trying to show you a superhero movie. With three studios making Marvel movies, DC making Wonder Woman, Netflix shows, the CW’s Arrowverse, truly we are in the superhero golden age.

But I’m here to tell you this goes back further than you might think. Many great movies of yesteryear are, at their core, superhero movies. Films that are only missing the technology to CGI a giant beam shooting at the sky in the third act to complete the deal. In this series, I aim to look at some classic movies and show you what might have been… if only they could show me the sky beam!

Figure One: Screen grab from Avengers, Fantastic Four, Suicide Squad or Man of Steel

Die Hard (1988)

Now, hold on, don’t get ahead of me here. I know what you’re thinking. “Oh sure, lone hero fights bad guys, swings around skyscrapers, throws quips, obvious!” But I’m not suggesting that John McClane is some sort of Batman/Punisher hybrid… I mean, he is, and I could stop right there. But I want to dig a little deeper than that, and show that down in its bones, Die Hard was really trying to be a superhero flick.

Secret Identity

Modern superhero movies have largely done away with secret identities, particularly on the Marvel side, but they are a big part of the genre. “I keep my identity a secret, so my enemies can’t target my loved ones,” says Spider-man, Superman, Flash, Daredevil… Well this is precisely what McClane does in Die Hard, adopting the identity of Roy Rogers so Hans Gruber won’t target his wife. I mean, as code names go, it needs work, but the idea is there. Point!

He even maintains this secret identity when dealing with the police. Sergeant Al Powell in the film is basically Commissioner Gordon complete with moustache and high-powered lights. Welcome to the party, pal! Point!

Costume

Again, look at the comic book roots of superheroes and you will see them travelling around with their costume on under their street clothes, so they are ready to burst into action at a moment’s notice. McClane’s costume, like his code name, needs work, but when he battles bad guys, he’s taken off his shirt to reveal his superhero costume underneath… an increasingly grime-ridden vest. Point!

Swinging around skyscrapers

Okay, I conceded this point above, but come on, he swings on a rope/hose around the outside of a skyscraper. Also, there are quips. Double point!

Super Powers

If all of that is not enough to convince you, we probably need to address the elephant in the room, and talk about the fact that the villains, and later McClane, all have superpowers.

What!? I know, right? Buckle up, people, we’re going through the looking glass now.

First of all, I want you to consider Gruber’s henchman Karl. If you don’t remember, he’s the big guy that McClane strangles with a chain after a brutal beat-down, who then appears alive and ready to fight at the very end of the movie, so Commissioner Al can shoot him. How does Karl manage to do all that? Because he has superpowers given to him by the special cigarettes that most of the terrorists use.

These super-soldier-serum containing death sticks grant increased durability, strength, speed, but come at the cost of over-confidence and reduced empathy. Karl almost wrecks the plan right at the start of the movie by chain-sawing through the Nakatomi phone lines before his brother can isolate them. Why take that risk? Because he’s hopped up on cancer-ridden super-power-giving cigarettes (Don’t smoke, kids) and thinks he’s invincible.

Surely that’s just one guy, right? I mean, yes, all the terrorists have a certain amount of swagger throughout the movie, but are they all suffering the side effects of the super drug? No. Theo the tech guy takes a dose before the movie, and starts a little hyper, but Gruber needs him to focus on the job so he isn’t allowed another dose, and slowly calms down over the course of the heist. By the time Argyl punches him his, Theo has lost the advantages and drawbacks of the serum.

Still not convinced? Okay, try this. Both McClane and Gruber suffer the same side effects at different points in the movie, both after smoking the power cigarettes!

Figure Two: John McClane. The smoking gun?

McClane spends much of the early movie just trying to stay alive. He keeps hidden, gathers information, feeds that to the police. He fights only when he must to save himself. Even when he sees Gruber execute Takagi, he has a very sensible reaction. “Why didn’t you try to stop him, John? Because then you’d be dead too.” Yet, later in the movie, after smoking the cigarettes he took from the first terrorist he beat, suddenly he’s all gung-ho about finding out what the bad guys are doing with the explosives, and strapping guns to his back. And he succeeds! Over-confidence and superpowers.

Likewise, Hans is in control, goal-oriented and calm, until he meets McClane near the roof, shares a cigarette, and suddenly he’s all controlled rage, threatening Holly and falling out of windows. Over-confidence and… superpowers? Harder to be sure on that, but he’s facing off against the hero at the climax of the movie. Like Spider-man/Venom, Superman/Zod, the now super-powered McClane is facing off against a similarly-powered dark reflection in Gruber.
I think the case is compelling. We’re just lucky Gruber didn’t gain the power of flight.

Points!

The Sky Beam

Die Hard is clearly a superhero movie, I think we’ve proved that now. What you may not realise, is that it tries hard to include a nascent sky beam in the film. It’s already in there, something shooting up from the ground to the sky, occasionally with dramatic light shows, explosions, debris and helicopters circling it. That’s right people, we didn’t have the CG for a sky beam, but Nakatomi Plaza is trying its hardest to be one anyway. Boom! Looks like we’re going to need some new FBI agents, because that’s got to be hella points!

Conclusion

So, there we have it, clear proof that, for want of a proper sky beam, Die Hard is a superhero movie. Also, a Christmas movie.
Join me next time, when we look at Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and ask… is this just Justice League?
Show me the Sky Beam!

Review: Mercury’s Son by Luke E T Hindmarsh

My last indie read of 2017 was Luke E T Hindmarsh’s Mercury’s Son, and while it’s unfair to pick a favourite from such a diverse and fascinating array of books, this one, I have to say, rings all the right notes for me.

Valko is a Moderator, a cold passionless investigator who was technology which lets him enter others’ minds to draw out information, including the recently deceased. He and his team are called in to investigate a double murder, an investigation which will take Valko to all levels of his society, planet, and beyond.

In this book, Hindmarsh builds a hugely detailed dystopia, and uses the Moderator’s investigation to show off its tech, history, politics, religion and metaphysics. It’s an impressive feat, and Valko is a fascinating protagonist, his journey leaves him very much changed as he comes to terms with a world that is not at all what he believed.

Mercury’s Son is a great read, but I do offer one caveat. The writing is dense, there are a whole lot of words on display, and on occasion this can lead to a few wobbles in pacing.

That aside, this is a cracking read, and I’m happy to give it five stars.

Get Mercury’s Son on Amazon now!

 

Reviews: Christmas Movies on Netflix

At about this time every year, Mrs Storycast and I sit down to binge as many daft Christmas movies as Netflix can offer us. This year, I thought I’d give reviewing them a go. These aren’t going to be serious movie reviews, because, frankly, I’m judging these movies on a whole other scale. Quality here is not must-see-at-cinema quality. Still, there is fun to be had in their own way.

A Christmas Prince

Amber is an editor at a magazine looking for her first writing credit, who poses as a tutor to gain access to the castle and get the scoop on the wayward Prince Richard.

Blond ambition: Perky young journalist with heart of gold has hair to match.
Power of the press: Undercover journalism puts romance on the rocks.
It’s a kind of magic: No magic, but a drawer, and an acorn conceal a secret. So that’s a bit like magic?
Time Limits: The Prince must be crowned on Christmas Eve, of course
The Christmas Factor: Snow, gifts, parties, a Christmas message

Rating: ****

  Continue reading Reviews: Christmas Movies on Netflix

Review: Elvira Wonders by Sanna Hines

Let’s talk about Elvira Wonders by Sanna Hines.

The town of Elvira is opening for tourism and it has a lot to offer its visitors. Fairies, Giants, Werewolves, Vampires (two flavours), Thunderbirds, Naiads, Ghosts, psychics and… Egyptians. But as opening day approaches, artefacts are stolen from the Egyptian temple, the feud between the vampire factions escalates and Josh Seldom discovers a murdered fairy.

I was pleased to discover this was not about a vampy mistress of the dark speculating about things. That’s a good thing. In fact, when Josh stumbles across the body of the murdered fairy friend, my interest was well and truly piqued. Hines writes well, I find her style readable, and she does a great job at pulling these various factions into the story, and giving each of them a role in the resolution of the story.

So: a promising start, and a deft conclusion. My problem, I’m afraid, was with the bits in between.

For me, there are a few structural problems with the plot. The elements set up at the start, the murder and the pressure to be ready for the start of tourist season, is all-but dropped in favour of soap opera. We focus on crushes, bickering, mystical curses played for comedy, and for reasons I couldn’t fathom, the ongoing damage to a Hummer is probably the most consistent through-line. While the resolution of the murder does kick off that conclusion I enjoyed, it arrives in an unsatisfactory, almost accidental manner.

There is some interesting world building mixed in here, and I think there is a lot of potential in the Elvira setting for either a much darker story, or a lighter romp without the murders. As it is, it falls betwixt and between, and I can’t give it more than 3 stars.

Review: The Rose Thief by Claire Buss

The Rose Thief by Claire Buss is a loving homage to the works of Terry Pratchett, with particular nods towards the Guards books in the Discworld series. This is both the book’s strength and its weakness.

Ned and his Thief-catchers, a group of magical investigators including a sprite, a nymph and a firefly, have been given 24 hours to find the criminal who has been stealing the emperor’s prize roses. Along the way they will encounter warlocks, mermaids, journalists, smugglers, family, alternate dimensions, love and its loss. The cast of characters are engagingly quirky, the ideas on display are strong, and there are some genuinely funny moments. The pace never dipped, and Buss’s style is readable throughout.

But I have two problems with The Rose Thief. Firstly, the Pratchett parallels are perhaps a little too on the nose. For example, the description of one region of the city is such a familiar riff on Pratchett’s Shades in Ankh-Morpork that it left me wanting something different. The strongest elements in the book are all the new ideas, and there are plenty, but they are somewhat buried under the Pratchett pastiche (the Pratchiche?). Secondly, the plot is sacrificed to the need for jokes. After a little early set up, there is very little investigation in the Thief-catchers’ story. Ned spends the first half of the book shuttling back and forth between his office and the palace, the original mystery wraps up well before the end of the book to be replaced by a quest which feels rather arbitrary and doesn’t make a great deal of sense. I spent too much of the book wondering why things happened the way they did.

Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the book. While it has its flaws, it was fun, and some of the ideas are well worth further exploration. If Buss writes a follow-up, I will happily read it, but I can’t give The Rose Thief top marks. Pratchett is a tough act to follow, you need to be funny, clever and really tightly plotted. The Rose Thief accomplishes some of that, if that works for you, the book would be well worth your time, but for me, it still falls short. Three stars.

Get your copy of The Rose Thief from Amazon.

A Quantum of Memory

Book launch day! Sometimes, apparently, book launches are like buses. Still recovering from the excitement around the launch of Inklings Press’s Tales from the Underground, but no rest for the wicked, as today sees the launch of the Sci-fi Roundtable’s debut anthology The Quantum Soul. Available in Kindle format right now, with paperback coming later this month.

The theme of the anthology is “What is life?” and for my story, Shepherd of Memory, I wanted to write something that really felt like good solid science fiction. The story follows a team of scientific explorers on the planet Phi Lima Upsilon, where they encounter a life form unlike any they expected. Or perhaps Dr Jim Wilson is imagining it all?

You can catch an excerpt from Shepherd of Memory in this month’s podcast, as well as the latest chapter of my novel.

Review: The Alchemist’s Box

The Alchemist’s Box by Alex Avrio is the first book of the Merchant Blades series. It follows the adventures of Captain Regina Fitzwaters and her mercenary team on a simple mission to recover the eponymous box from a neighbouring city-state. As things go wrong and the mission spirals into complexity, her team must deal with wolves, politics, crocodiles, curses, betrayal and ancient magic beyond their comprehension. All complicated by the presence of her second-in-command, Kapitan Maximillian Jaeger, a down-on-his-luck mercenary that served on the other side of a recent war. They will need to do more than simply co-operate if they’re to get through all this alive.

There’s a lot of good in this book. The style is light and thoroughly readable, the pacing is brisk, and Captain Fitzwaters is a likable and believable character, who goes through the book making reasonably astute and sensible choices (always a plus). The world is fleshed out enough, there’s a sense of place without being buried under world-building (though I am curious what the people who live in South Beyond the Waters call their homeland).

It’s not flawless. Some of Fitzwaters team are rather one-note, and the more the story steered away from the mercenary company roots and into the ancient magic in the third act, the less engaging I found it. There are a couple things that felt like they were being set up as big reveals, and they were all rather thrown away. And while the relationship between Fitzwaters and Jaeger was generally very well handled there were two or three moments which rang strange.

But I do recommend this book for all that. If you’re looking for an enjoyable fantasy romp with a mix of military and dark magic, The Alchemist’s Box would be a fine choice. A no-nonsense, readable, four stars.

Get The Alchemist’s Box from Amazon.

The Lords of Negative Space

The latest anthology from Inklings Press is Tales from the Underground, available from 6th October 2017. You can pick it up from Amazon from Friday.

If the name sounds familiar, and you’re a long time listener to the podcast, you are right, it has been on StorycastRob the podcast for some time. To listen to the story, check out Episode 5, right now. The version in the anthology is a little different from the podcast version, but it is essentially the same story.

Lords of Trivia Space

  • This story started life as a writing challenge I set myself. If you’ve heard or read a lot of my stories, you may have noticed that I have a lot of dialogue, letting reported speech do a lot of heavy lifting in my story. I set out to pare back the dialogue on this one, and we are several pages in before you see any quote marks. That said, the narrator’s voice became a lot more conversational as a result.
  • It pulls from all over my personal history. For example, like Sarah, I worked as a medical records clerk for a while a few years ago, the struggle is real. The corridor I describe in the story exists, or at least it’s based on a corridor in Western Eye Hospital in London.