Friday, August 28, 2015

Demon Squad: Aftermath review

    The ninth of Tim Marquitz's Demon Squad novels, Aftermath has a hefty task ahead of itself as it not only has to re-establish its lead character after the traumatic events of the last three books but rock the foundations of the setting by moving from a Judaeo-Christian worldview to a more all-encompassing mythology involving the deities of multiple pantheons.

    For those who don't know anything about the series, Demon Squad follows the adventures of Frank Trigg, the Devil's Nephew (later revealed to be his son) as he works with an organization called DRAC to fight the supernatural after God and the Devil leave the world. The series straddle the line between urban fantasy and epic fantasy given one day Frank might be fighting demons in his hometown in one book only to be trapped in an Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom-inspired dimension another.

    The book opens with Frank on a three-month-long bender of alcohol and hard drugs designed to numb himself silly after the murder of his love interest. Frank has descended into a self-hating funk not only because he can't resurrect Karra from the dead but because he wrecked a horrifying vengeance on her killers which would make Saw's Jigsaw proud.

    Abandoning his daughter with his angelic cousin Scarlett, Frank knows he's being both a horrible father as well as person in general but can't help himself. Tim Marquitz captures Frank's emotions extremely well while maintaining the character's trademark wit. I really think it's some of Tim's best writing and I think he's outdone himself writing it.

    Then someone nukes the hick town Frank's staying in.

    Aftermath seems to be a novel designed as a "jumping on" point for new readers in much the same way comic books frequently make it possible for new readers to catch up despite ages of continuity porn. This is an odd choice for a novel but one I don't think is a bad idea in today's digitized world. Aftermath re-introduces the cast to Tim Marquitz's world, re-establishes their relationships, and gives a self-contained plot which broadens the scope of the world significantly.

    The biggest change Aftermath produces, with no spoilers as this is revealed in the opening chapters, is the introduction of other cosmologies than the Judaeo-Christian one. God, it turns out, is just one of many gods which have been there all along. The Demon Squad Yahweh has always been morally ambiguous in the series but shifts over to outright villainous when we find out he's stolen the world from the other pantheons.
    Speaking as a religious person, I don't mind this as I'm able to separate my real-world beliefs from my fiction. Other individuals may prove to be bothered by this change but since Demon Squad was always a series drawing heavy inspiration from the Hellblazer comic, this doesn't come as a huge surprise to me. It also provides Frank with potentially hundreds of opponents ranging from Surtur to the Aztec pantheon.

    I also liked the depiction of what the mortals have been up to in the past situation. With the many cosmological fights against gods and demigods, they've been often left behind. Discovering what the government, DRAC, and other groups have been doing to fight the many supernatural threats unleashed in the wake of Frank's actions. While I will always hate the character of Shaw, she's one of the few characters who can stand up to Frank as an antagonist while remaining alive. She's deliciously hateable.

    In conclusion, Aftermath is an awesome book. If you want to see the series at its best, you should pick this book up. Its got snark, humor, drama, anger, angst, despair, and world-building all combined together.


Hitman (2007) review

    Having reviewed Hitman: Agent 47 very positively here, I decided to check out the original movie starring Timothy Olyphant. I was a big fan of Justified and while I think he's a peculiar choice for the role of 47, I knew he had the acting chops to pull off a complicated role. On the other hand, Hollywood has a very mixed record with video game movies due to their inability to capture the sense of over-the-top silliness with epic drama that most popular franchises run on.

    So, what is Hitman like? Eh, it's a decent movie but it feels less like a Hitman movie and more like a movie about a hitman. This is a film which feels strongly like it was the script for another movie which was re-tooled and 47 added to replace the lead. This isn't a deal-breaker as the Hitman franchise is grounded enough that this isn't as noticeable as it might be in, say, Super Mario Brothers.

The troops from Jin-Roh shows up at one point. I kid you not.
    The story begins with 47 (Timothy Olyphant) being hired to kill the President of Russia. After successfully completing his mission, he discovers that his target has seemingly returned from the dead. Worse, the Agency (called "The Organization" here) has taken a contract on their best agent's life.

    Running from the FSB (formerly known as the KGB), Interpol, and the Organization, 47 seeks out the other target of the manhunt in a young woman named Nika (Olga Kurylenko). Nika is the mistress and sex slave of the late President who is one of the few people who would know the secret of the seemingly-resurrected President. Bonding with her almost against his will, 47 decides the only way to deal with his situation is to take the fight to his hunters.

    Plot-wise, there's precious little to complain about as everything more or less makes sense. The movie's biggest flaw is it only takes a little thinking to realize, while it all hangs together, it's also thoroughly unnecessary. 47 is being targeted by the villains because he "knows too much" and might reveal the truth to the public. Yet, 47 has killed over a hundred people for various governments and the Agency has a reputation for thorough discretion. There's no reason to kill 47 to cover up loose ends, which, of course, unravels their complicated plot. The same can be said of Nika as there's no way a the late Russian President's abused prisoner is going to be a reliable source of information.

He has two guns, his enemies have eight. They don't shoot.
    Olyphant's 47 is very close to the character in the games with his asexuality, professionalism, and deadly efficiency. The 47 in this movie is highly intelligent and defeats the majority of his opponents not by being more badass, though he is, but because he's smarter than them.

    Unfortunately, Olyphant's 47 is a little too brutal. It's not that he's not a professional killer and utterly ruthless but the bullying, threats to families, and overt cruelty seems unlike the character from the games. 47 is a murderer-for-hire but not someone I consider to be a sadistic in his actions. Rather, he's more like a living machine.

    Olga Kurylenko's Nika is a tragic character and one I would have bought 47 bonding with if he'd been a little softer. I did, however, buy the character bonding with him. Having been tortured and abused for years, she's psychologically dependent on people. 47 being the first person not to sexually abuse or torture her, despite how close he comes, is enough for her to swiftly fall in love with him despite 47 having no interest in such things. I like the fact 47 is confused why he doesn't kill her as he doesn't have enough experience with emotions to understand he's feeling sympathy for her plight.

Olga Kurylenko is gorgeous in the movie. No surprise there.
    This is one of the rare occasions when nudity is actually important to the story and, for this reason, I recommend viewers pick up the Unrated version of the film versus the theatrical cut. Olga's nude scenes as Nika help establish her vulnerability under the dead President's power as well as her returning sexual desire as she starts to fall for 47. The fact some still-human part of 47 desires Nika even as it's been brutally suppressed is handled well in this film and isn't as strong without the parts where she's undressed. Surprising but true.

    The action in the movie is pretty good but nothing exceptional. The best parts aren't when 47 is shooting things but when we get to see his Jason Bourne-like ability to think his way out of situations. 47 hides guns in an ice machine, for example, so he has access to them if he's forced out of his room. Likewise, he comes up with a number of complicated plans to force his enemies out of hiding like delivering their brother to them for a bounty or killing a (criminal) family member so they're forced to attend the funeral. These are very true to the games and some of the best parts of the movie.

There's a sword-fight for no reason at one point.
    The supporting cast is nothing exceptional but I think Olyphant and Kurylenko are capable of handling the movie on their own. Really, I would have eliminated the Interpol agent from the story as he contributes very little despite his large role and given more room for Kurylenko's character to shine. While 47 and Nika's relationship isn't sexual, despite how much she wants it to be, it's an interesting relationship and I would have liked to have seen more of it.

    In conclusion, there's nothing wrong with Hitman but I can't help but think it's above-average rather than great. The film would have been far stronger if there had been more focus on Nika and 47 rather than the politics involving Russia's president. I also think killing the "real" President who kept Nika as a slave was a mistake since it would have made the confrontation between him and 47 all the more interesting. Here, fundamentally, is the same sort of man who enslaved 47 and treats people as objects. Instead, he's just the guy who sent some assassins after 47 and Nika, which is a far less interesting motivation. While this is a more technically proficient film with a stronger story, I tend to think Hitman: Agent 47 is the more enjoyable of the two films.


Thursday, August 27, 2015

Hitman: Absolution review

    I don't have much experience with the Hitman series. I knew the iconic character from cultural osmosis but never played any of his games. I decided to give them a try after the enjoyable Hitman: Agent 47, though. I was so enthusiastic, I actually moved my Xbox 360 back into the bedroom to play Hitman: Absolution and the remastered versions of the three games preceding it.

    So what did I think of Absolution (which I played first)?

    It's a really-really fun game.

    Great even.
The gritty noir feel of the game is one of its best qualities.

    The premise of the game is Agent 47, the bald-headed, barcode-sporting protagonist of the games has been assigned to kill his former handler Diana. Diana is as close to a human connection as 47 possesses left in this world, especially after the events of Silent Assassin, and his arguable only friend.

    Despite this, he still chooses to carry out the mission and terminate her life. It's only as she lays dying that 47 discovers why she betrayed their agency (called "The Agency") and brought about her death: a young girl named Victoria has been created via genetic engineering and is destined to become a super-assassin like 47.

    Hating what he's become and unwilling to see an innocent condemned the same fate, 47 kidnaps the girl and takes up the newly-deceased Diana's role in protecting her. Unfortunately, a corrupt redneck arms dealer and the Agency aren't about to let something so valuable as Victoria slip through their fingers.

    So 47 has to kill everyone after her.

The game is Mature rated and earned its rating.

    As plots go, it's not exactly The Last of Us but it works well given the character's history and established personality. 47 is never warm and cuddly but you believe it when he goes Papa Wolf on the various bad guys who want to control Victoria. His subdued emotions are contrasted strongly with his absolute fury expressed in several scenes. This is, after all, one of the few times he's killing for himself rather than as part of a contract. I am very-very pleased, with the storytelling.

    The characters in the game and storytelling are set up in a gritty, Tarantino-esque, exploitation film sort of way. Agent 47 is the ultimate badass protecting the pure and virginal Victoria as well as nuns from the deviant villains. There's a lot of interesting sexual imagery spread throughout the game which is interesting given Agent 47's asexuality.

    The owner of a local strip club is a serial killer, a psycho henchman makes constant sexual jokes, the misguided mentally stunted Lenny is bullied constantly for his lack of manliness, the Saints are assassin stripper-nuns (seriously), and villain Blake Dexter is a greasy Southerner embodying every toxic trope of masculinity which exists. Hell, Blake's bodyguard is obviously a steroid-ed up Danny Trejo.

    The game takes you from the grimy streets of Chicago with its poverty, ruined buildings, and sleazy strip clubs to the deserts of the West. From there, you'll deal with hick gunshop owners, greasers who are much more dangerous than they seem, and bars where fighting is a national pastime. There's Chinatown during New Years, creepy motels, factories, and other wonderful settings for killing people.

Every level is beautiful and full of character.
    One flaw of the game is there's two very different kinds of levels. The first kind of level is the sandbox level where there's a target or a few targets which 47 has to kill. You can kill these any way you want and there's usually several methods to do so. You can garrote them, shoot them, arrange suspicious accidents, or kill them with sniper rifles.

    You can also lay traps for them like where I arranged for the car alarm on an expensive vehicle to go off in order to lure its owner to it, then shot him in the face. These levels are, by and large, a lot of fun. They have a high level of replayability and are never so large you don't want to devote extra time to doing so.

    The second kind of level is a more traditional linear pathway where there's guards looking for 47 and you have a straight line to get past them. These kind of levels are more akin to Max Payne than Deux Ex and aren't as much fun: even if they're still fun. I just wish I'd been given more options for dealing with the situations I faced.

Admittedly, some elements of the game are ridiculous.

    One thing I'm rather leery of the fact is disguises are rather worthless. There's almost no point to disguising yourself as a police officer since they can see through police officer disguises. On the other hand, there's nothing more awesome than finding a disguise which fools police and then just walking around them to do whatever skullduggery you want.

    But yeah, still very-very fun.

    In conclusion, Hitman: Absolution is a great game. It's a hard R-rated game which has some problematic sexual elements but given this is about a amoral hitman with severe issues, it's not one I'm going to criticize heavily. I really hoping they make this game backwards compatible with the Xbox One.


Awesome Q&A session with Ragnarok Publications

My publishers, Ragnarok Publications, were kind enough to sit down and have a talk with me about my books. They asked a lot of really fun questions which I had a great time answering. We got to talk about WRAITH KNIGHT, ESOTERRORISM, and other books which are on my schedule for working on.

My favorite question from the Q&A?

Name one fantasy character your protagonist could best in battle and explain why.

Why restrict myself to one? Here's a short list of fantasy match-ups!

Harry Dresden: Harry would blast Derek to smithereens in a straight-up fight but Derek is the kind of guy who would use a sniper-rifle on our favorite wizard if he could. Both of them would cheat and wise-crack the entire way.

James Bond: Derek would destroy every single one of them except the Sean Connery and Daniel Craig versions. Timothy Dalton might give him a hard time, though.

Bruce Lee: Derek would fanboy out and ask for his autograph.

Jason Bourne: Derek would win, but it would utterly wreck the room they're in and leave him badly injured.

John Constantine: John would tell Derek he needs to "Lighten up, mate." Derek would tell him to quit smoking. It'd end up in a bar fight.

Lara Croft: Lara, because Derek uses a single gun like a normal person. Shannon would kick her ass, though. Derek would also try asking her out...if he survived the first round.

Emma Peel: Shannon would win, then feel terrible about it.

Black Widow: That would be something I'd pay money to see.

Red Sonja: Shannon would lose. Red has a history of fighting her type of person (no spoilers).

Dracula: Shannon and Derek fight him in book #2, no lie!

Hilarious questions and quite a few informative ones too.

You can read the interview here.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Exclusive interview with Edward M. Erdelac

We're in for a real treat here at the UFOC today. Edward M. Erdelac, author of With Sword and Pistol, has decided to give us an interview about his work.

With Sword and Pistol is a Sword and Sorcery historical fantasy collection containing four of his previously-published novellas detailing adventures ranging from feudal Japan being invaded by zombies to a story of Sinbad the Sailor battling an ancient demon for an incalculably valuable treasure. Recently released by Ragnarok Publications, you can read my review here.

Edward M. Erdelac is the author of eight novels, including the acclaimed Judeocentric/Lovecraftian weird western series Merkabah Rider and Andersonville. His fiction has appeared in dozens of anthologies and periodicals including, most recently, the Stoker award winning After Death, Atomic Age Cthulhu, Flesh Like Smoke, and Star Wars Insider Magazine. Born in Indiana, educated in Chicago, he lives in the Los Angeles area with his wife and a bona fide slew of kids. News and excerpts at his Delirium Tremens blog,

1. Can you describe With Sword and Pistol for us?

With Sword And Pistol is a collection of four hard to find previously published novellas with a running theme of outlaw characters who ply their trade by force of arms in dark adventure stories.  The title comes from the Highwaymen song.

2. What are the stories about in two-sentences or less?

The first, Night of The Jikininki is about a sadistic samurai sword tester banding together with two inmates of a Feudal Japanese prison to escape a horde of ravenous undead. Red Sails features a British Marine and a Dominican Blackfriar being hunted across a cannibal isle by a vampire pirate and his crew of savage werewolves. Sinbad and The Sword of Solomon follows the legendary sailor as he travels to an enchanted island to retrieve a magic sword from its demon bearer for the Caliph of Baghdad. Finally, Gully Gods concerns a South Houston gangster who falls in with a gang of ex-Liberian child soldiers and learns the dark secret of their apparent invulnerability.

3. Can you describe what compelled you to make a collection of your novellas?

Basically I had a couple readers contact me about Red Sails, which was long out of print but still showed up on my Goodreads page. I was looking for a way to bring it back out, and also to bring more readers to the rest of these stories, which had gone mainly unseen due to a combination of factors. I recognized a running theme between the stories and decided to bundle them together into a collection.

4. Would you describe "Night of the Jikininki", "Red Sails", and "Sinbad and the Sword of Solomon" as historical fiction or Sword and Sorcery?

I think they’re a combination of both. Robert E. Howard wrote a lot of weird historical stories, like The Thunder Rider, Wolfshead, The Grey God Passes and the Cormac Mac Art and Solomon Kane tales. They’re in that vein. I like introducing the fantastic into historic or real world settings as opposed to pure fantasy worlds, where it’s taken for granted.

5. What was the inspiration for "Night of the Jikininki"? 

The biggest inspirations were Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub manga, 60’s chanbara movies like Sword of Doom, Hara Kiri, and Yojimbo, and George Romero’s zombie flicks.

6. How did you come up with "Red Sails"?

Red Sails was definitely influenced by Rafael Sabatini and again, Howard, as well as Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. That story started with a hypothetical conversation with my friend and fellow author Jeff Carter on the way back from one San Diego Comic Con, where he asked me, if I were to put werewolves, vampires, and zombies all into one story, how would I do it? The concept popped right into my mind, I guess because of what I was reading at the time (O’Brian). I ended up excising the zombie plot, and using them in a novella not in this collection, called Dubaku, about a zombie outbreak on an English slaving vessel. But with Red Sails I wanted to a full on actioner with that Most Dangerous Came vibe.

7.  What inspired you to write a Sinbad the Sailor pastiche? 

That one was in response to a call for a New Pulp company called Airship 27. They had the characters of Sinbad and his immediate, motley crew established in their bible, I just came up with the quest, the adventure, and the characterizations. It was the multinational crew that first appealed to me, the Viking and the Japanese swordwoman, the Gaul archer and a Nubian Sinbad. I had been reading Charles Saunder’s Imaro and some Sword and Soul from Milton Davis and wanted to try out a story in that genre. I was going for that old school Ray Harryhausen feel too in terms of the fantasy.

8. You mentioned in your introduction to the story that you didn't want to glamorize gangs in "Gully Gods." What did you want to accomplish with your story?

I don’t think I had any greater ambition in mind other than telling the story as it came to me. I conceived of the basic concept about ten or eleven years ago, but besides the misgivings of writing solely about gangbangers, it just took me awhile to find another layer to it to really get the thing firing in my head. That came when I read Beasts Of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala and saw a VICE news story on child soldiers in Liberia. 

Making the Trip Sixes ex-child soldiers altered the story considerably (they were originally Puerto Ricans and there was going to be this Santeria angle that wasn’t really working) and I was able to work in a thinly disguised Joshua Blahyi and the weird mythology he developed to control his troops, which involved human sacrifice. This is a pretty monstrous practice, and I hoped to draw some attention to organizations like that work with former child soldiers as well as American charities like Homeboy that work to rehabilitate our own native child soldiers, namely inner city street gangs. 

When I wrote Gully Gods and put it out in the collection Four In The Morning, I donated everything I made from that book to Homeboy. It admittedly, wasn’t much. The story’s lurid, and is basically I guess, inner city weird pulp, but I’m proud of how it came out.

9. Do you see any common themes in your book?

These are all stories about men who make their way through the world on the fringe of society, using violence. I think the stories pair up in away. Jikininki and Gully Gods are the closest to each other I believe. Red Sails and Sinbad are more fantasy swashbucklers.

10. Which of the four is your favorite?

I think Gully Gods is one of the best things I’ve written, though I recognize it’s a difficult read. Night of The Jikininki is probably the runner up. But you know, choosing between your babies is a hard question.

11. Who was the most fun to write in your collection?

Sinbad’s first mate, Omar. He’s a sharp tongued grouch that kicks everybody’s butts around the ship, keeps them working, and seems to have no respect for anyone or anything but is also Sinbad’s father figure, doling out real wisdom when nobody’s looking. He’s a bit like Bones on Star Trek. I enjoyed coming up with his Arabian Nights-style curses. 

12. What can we expect from you in the future?

Towards the end of the year April Moon Books will be running a kickstarter for a new series which I think my novel Mindbreaker will be the inaugural book of, so watch for that. It’s a 60’s era spy novel with a Lovecraftian twist, featuring a pretty well-known character. I’m supposed to be doing another Star Wars story for Lucasfilm which should appear sometime next year. Then I’ve got two novels coming from Ragnarok, an Arthurian fantasy called The Knight With Two Swords and a superhero book, Perennial. I’m working to put together a short fiction collection, Angler In Darkness, which I also hope to put out next year. My Judeocentric/Lovecraftian weird western series Merkabah Rider will be returning in the future as well.

Thanks for being here!