Dracula – Bram Stoker

DraculaWell this is quickly becoming the year of the vampire. Having torn through a streak of Castlevania games like a box of Oreos the day after abandoning a diet, I thought it best to remind myself that actual horror aims to be frightening. Since fear necessarily requires some degree of permanency in death, anything truly horrifying about these games tends to be mitigated by chronic resurrection and the power to murder hoards of tiny monsters to do a few extra points of damage against Dracula. Other than possibly explaining Renfield’s behavior, these video game conventions don’t so much hit the spirit of vampire horror as they do an episode of American Ninja Warriors where all the competitors are professional dominatrixes. So since October somehow became my month to call up all things Halloweenish, I thought I’d go back and read the original Dracula, by Bram Stoker.

Dracula is best described in several parts, the first part being “Jonathan Harker Becomes the Victim of History’s Most Passive-Aggressive Serial Killer.” Don’t get me wrong; the first four chapters of the novel on their own make a story terrifying enough to sell adult diapers to anyone who isn’t Jeffrey Dahmer or Hannibal Lecter. But if we had any doubt if the Count was dead, his neurons definitely need a fresh set of spark plugs. After imprisoning Jonathan Harker, haunting him, threatening him, climbing up the wall like a lizard, and murdering children plainly and openly, Harker asks to leave, saying he’ll walk if necessary, and the Count feels it necessary to give him his blessing, open the front door and kindly wishing him a safe trip as they both stare down a ravenous pack of wolves. I’ve never understood why some people insist on keeping up pretenses like this when their sadistic evil shines out for the world to see, but I’ll let you know as soon as I figure out why my grandmother does.

Part two, I call, “Everyone is Sad When the Hot Chick is Dying.” Here, Dracula has packed up and moved from the whithering, dwindling Transylvanian countryside to the bustling, overpopulated London, which for the Count must be like a starving Somalian kid renting an apartment in the produce aisle of a Cub Foods. Yet somehow, despite being surrounded by an afterlifetime supply of giant walking Twinkies, Dracula decides to pick one girl—coincidentally and inexplicably a friend of his tormented house guest—and slowly drain her over the course of several months. He must have been a real fun guy to take to Old Country Buffet. Spend twenty bucks to get in and he spends the entire time nibbling on half a pack of oyster crackers. The vampire himself more or less drops out of the story at this point and turns into the creepy roommate who never leaves his room; there’s a smell like something died, but you know it’s not him because stuff keeps disappearing from the fridge. However unlike the creepy roommate, I was disappointed when he disappeared. He’s the main antagonist of the book–which is named after him–and has become one of the most iconic villains of all time. So why the fuck did Stoker decide to give the titular character less screen time than Waiting for Godot?

The other side of the equation, of course, is the legendary vampire hunter himself, Abraham Van Helsing, everyone’s favorite badass, grizzled, genius, super-hero slayer. At least, that’s how pop culture envisions him. In the novel, he’s just grandpa in a tinfoil hat who finally has the proof that he was right all along. Actually, I treat him unfairly. Stoker wrote him as an impressive man, but then I’m almost positive that Stoker wrote him as a self-insertion (Note: “Bram” is short for “Abraham.”). Reading Mina’s descriptive paean of Van Helsing—right down to his “sensitive nostrils”–I wondered why she didn’t just ditch Jonathan and mount the geezer right there.

Anyway, Van Helsing really shines in part three, “Revenge for Killing the Hot Chick.” It is here that he swoops in to slay the vampire with the frightful speed of medical research. Fitting, as he is a doctor, and moves at the pace you’d expect from modern medicine. (Call to make an appointment for a staking and his earliest opening will be about three months from now.) I mean, the care he puts into Lucy, both as she’s dying and then after she turns, is complete and thorough and slightly less exciting to watch than someone’s battle with leukemia. If Stoker wrote a sequel, the most horrifying thing in it would likely be Van Helsing’s bill, followed by Dr. Seward learning that his insurance considers “unholy purification” elective surgery. You don’t often see Buffy staking out tombs, watching individual vampires, learning their patterns and stalking them for months like some crazed serial killer. The only reason she wouldn’t stake a vampire immediately is that she isn’t strong enough (or, I guess, that she’d prefer the vampire stake her instead). Van Helsing, though, does just this, cautiously scoping out the grounds and seemingly passing up dozens of chances to shave the heads off some vampires, as well as about 150 pages off the book.

I may have given away a few more spoilers than I normally do in my reviews, but I’m calling in the statute of limitations—the book is a hundred twenty fucking years old. Here’s another spoiler: the vampire dies. But we don’t get the epic boss fight with Simon Belmont, or even the showdown between Sirius Black and the guy from Princess Bride. In fact, our Great Evil sleeps through the whole thing. The most fascinating thing about stories like this come down to the interactions between the heroes and the villains. I can’t remember more than a single line of dialogue that the Count has from chapter five onward. At the end, they catch up to his box of dirt, rip it open, and knife it, making the hero-villain interaction akin to the DEA seizing a shipment of cocaine.

Let’s face the truth, World, Dracula is an awesome, classic, and enduring novel; however, except for Van Helsing somehow reaching Boba Fett levels of popularity, the book’s reputation today rests entirely on the first four chapters. Read those chapters and save yourself sometime—Nosferatu is free on Youtube. The film with Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins is another good choice. Personally, if you want a recommendation, though, you can’t go wrong with Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

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Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

Clockwork.jpgGreetings, O my brothers! My appypolly loggy for this. I don’t mean to gavoreet about every book read, but this one is real horrorshow for the sarky, so I couldn’t resist the urge. Most of you likely slooshied about Clockwork Orange through the sinny, but it turns out it was a horrorshow book long before that Kubrik veck got his rookers on it. Problem is, as you might viddy by now, is that chelloveck, Anthony Burgess, used some bezoomny slovos, so that one viddy at the page and you feel like you’ve been tolchocked hard in the gulliver.

So really I don’t have much to say about Clockwork Orange, other than it sounds like it was written after Anthony Burgess had a stroke in his college Russian class. Oddly enough, by the end of chapter one I felt like I had remembered everything I forgot from my college Russian class. Having successfully finished the book, I think I can safely list Nadsat as a foreign language on my resume.

The story follows Alex, your average trendy, fashionable teenager with a group of close friends, a keen interest in music, the strength of a drunken gorilla and the charity and goodwill of a nest of wasps. Alex’s hobbies include Beethoven, nights out with his friends, milk bars (guess that means he’s a Zelda fan?) and sprees of motiveless violence that would make the most hardcore Neo-nazi, Khmer Rouge member, and GOP voter put down their guns and say, “Dude…you might want to cool down a bit.” After a few romps through the town, bullying and robbing random bystanders, raping anyone between the age of ten and ten thousand, and swimming in enough blood to negotiate with a pharaoh, Alex’s droogs (friends) challenge him for leadership of the gang and betray him to the millicents (police).

While not a fan of prison at first, Alex soon realizes that the state, in attempt to prevent him from committing anymore acts of ultra-violence on helpless victims, has thrown him into close quarters with people full of blood who are helpless to leave the cell. After he playfully stomps another prisoner’s head into mush underneath his boot, the state rethinks their rehabilitation techniques, and throws Alex into an experimental program that aims to create a Pavlovian sickness every time he witnesses acts of violence. It works, and they release him into the wild to go his merry way, find himself, and to get so violently ill that the only reason he doesn’t vomit out his stomach is that it’s roped to his anus by his intestines.

The story is simple and straightforward…you knnow…discounting the language barrier so steep that Trump wants to put it on our southern border. The “Clockwork Orange” of the title is Nadsat for “mechanically responsive man,” or Alex, and it asks some deep questions about the nature of choice and free will as an integral part of humanity, as well as showing how in spite of being the “good guys,” the government seems more interested in manipulating people for political gain rather than actually helping them.

The book is short, and the language is quite honestly presented in a way that you figure it out soon enough, so I can give this my seal of approval. And now I want to sink my zoobies into some groodies, and have a go at the old in-and-out, so I have to go find my zheena.

Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

63210Having read one of the most amazing novels of my life, I naturally couldn’t wait to jump on to write about it and spread the glory of Ernest Cline’s paean to 1980s pop culture, Ready Player One. However, over the past two weeks of delays and distractions, I’ve come to the realization that God is most likely a triumvirate of Vlad the Impaler, H.H. Holmes, and the Mark Hamil Joker, because there’s no other way I can explain the series of sadistic practical jokes that the universe seems to take such joy in throwing at my daily goals and aspirations. To be specific, I’d like to tell you about a fascinating future where people escape from a socio-political dystopia by burying themselves in the most awesome virtual reality world anyone could possibly dream up, but I couldn’t because the SD card I use as a portable hard drive somehow was switched to read-only, and although there are plenty of commands in place for changing drive permissions, I can’t use any of them because the disk is read-only. Honestly, I consider myself a pacifist, but whoever set up read-write permissions this way is really making a good argument in favor of burning people at the stake.

I want to think of Ready Player One’s Oasis—essentially the Internet turned into a fully traversable VR world—as an ideal utopia, making a reality of every nerdgasm I’ve had since watching Back to the Future, figuring out my age in 2015 and deciding there’s nothing wrong with riding a hoverboard at 31 years old. Unfortunately if the process of filling a few pages in a word processor can send me into a berserk frenzy and send my computer through a few layers of drywall, I can’t help but worry that a virtual reality red ring of death might drain my cache of GP as I go in to the VR Hospital and have to answer a slew of questions like, “What is your history with redtube,” “Do you get at least an hour of EXP per day,” or “Are you currently plugged in and turned on?” (which may go back to the redtube question…)

Anyway, the plot begins about twenty years into the future. The Internet has been converted into a virtual reality universe by James Halliday, sort of an asthmatic Genghis Kahn who reigned supreme (with his buddy Ogden Morrow) as God of the digital world. It turns out he’s not completely all-powerful, though, which becomes very clear as chapter one gives us Halliday’s video will. Stepping down from his role as chief programmer and creator of the Oasis, Halliday takes on more of a zombie Willy Wonka role, revealing the existence of a hidden Easter Egg somewhere in the Oasis (and since the Minecraft world alone is currently about 7 times the size of the Earth, I’m sure it couldn’t be too much more difficult than locating Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa, El Dorado or Bigfoot). Oh, and the first person to find it gets complete control over the Oasis. He does offer a few cryptic clues, but as they require obscure knowledge of the 1980s, Halliday effectively does to modern pop culture what the U.S. did to the Narragansets.

After years and years of hunting, interest in Halliday’s golden tickets dies down until our hero, Parzival, stumbles upon the first clue in the path to the Easter Egg, relying on the oldest and most virtuous of hero skills, pure fucking chance. The book is wonderful, even if sometimes it does sing like a paean to obscure 1980s culture and technology, but it does raise just a few eyebrows that Parzival both lives on the game planet with the first key and has all the skills to decipher the first code in time to meet the sexy blogger who has deciphered it at the same time, then has just happened to have mastered all the skills required to solve the puzzles. Not to mention he lives 25 years in the future and managed to pick a screenname that doesn’t require l33t followed by a random string of numbers and symbols in various different alphabets. I swear if this kid opened a box of Lucky Charms, the leprechaun would leap out of the box straight into a bear trap that no one knew was there.

Furthermore, Cline builds Parzival as a dedicated Halliday fan who was spent more time in the 1980s than people who have lived in it. Like Parzival, I too live in a dystopian America where employment is considered a privilege of the super-rich and the only thing I have to call my own is copious amounts of free time and a handful of things downloaded from the Internet. I’ve played a great deal of video games, seen plenty of movies, and may have heard the most infectious songs of the day once or twice. But my knowledge of the 80s pales in comparison to Parzival’s, an impressive feat on his part since I, you know…lived through them. But if you even breathe wistfully while thinking about Bea Arthur, Parzival would immediately know which Golden Girls episode is on your mind, the date it first aired, and which frame to pause it in order to catch a glimpse of Betty White’s tattoo of a naked Sean Connery riding a dolphin. If a TV series ran in the 80s, he’s seen every episode three or four times at least. If a game came out, he’s developed a strategy to get a perfect score. If a movie was released at any time during the decade, he knows the script so well that someone wants to sue him for copyright infringement. Rest assured, the only way to become such an expert on a decade is to have lived through it three or four times. And the kid still has time to learn Latin. And just considering how often I subconsciously flip over to Facebook while writing this thing, the fact that he does all this with a fully immersive VR world at his fingertips means this kid is the guru of time management and should be narrating a self-help book instead, or he’s adapted the flux capacitor to run on water from the Fountain of Youth.

And yet, for all that Ready Player One relies on luck and chance more than a blind poker player, and while I still cringe at the Japanese character who’s entire personality consists of 1) Who has honor, 2) Who doesn’t have honor and 3) How cool was Zuko in season one of Avatar, the book is absolutely amazing, a combination of Star Wars, the Matrix, that guy in my high school math class who couldn’t stop quoting Monty Python and The Simpsons, and Willy Wonka (albeit without the assumption that everyone, right up to the queen of England who controls the entire British commonwealth wants nothing more to do with their lives than to see where some high-functioning autistic makes sticky sugar water). The story follows a textbook example of the archetypal hero’s journey, complete with themes of reality versus illusion, and which world sucks more (my money’s on reality, despite the warning given to Parzival that there are downsides to living in a world where you have free reign over imagination and godlike powers). For those of you less interested in the apotheosis of modern technology as represented in literature, the book reads like Ernest Cline dropped every Wikipedia article on pop culture into a blender and then pasted it over his manuscript. But even if you’re not into reading through someone’s autistic loops, he does branch out into pop culture from other decades, going so far as to name Parzival’s Firefly class spaceship after Kurt Vonnegut.

And for those of you who insist you could watch linoleum peel as long as it had a well-developed character, you’re both A) clear for takeoff on Ready Player One and B) extremely irritating to the people around you. Parzival transitions from a level one wimp with no social skills to a level 99 hero who infiltrates the villains’ stronghold for data and eventually wins over the girl. Of course there’s a transitory phase where he’s just a level 50 shut-in living in a studio apartment with a sex doll, but that’s what makes his character progress organic. (After I wrote this, word came to me that Spielberg has rights for the movie adaptation…just a warning, Steve, if you sterilize this story to make it family-friendly, you’re going to have a swarm of mythology scholars, quadragenarian nerds, and sex dolls knocking at your door with pitchforks and torches.)

Personally, while I feel I’ve done the book at least a modicum of justice, I have to sacrifice some of my normal humor to do so. Also I really need to clean the house, as there’s not yet a VR program that can just insert me into a clean one. To that end, I’m going to recommend one of the best literary analysts on youtube to take it from here:

Mistborn: The Final Empire – Brandon Sanderson

51E+7V-PDyLUtah. America’s El Dorado. Not, of course, in the sense that there’s anything valuable there. It’s more of a matter of no one really knows if it exists or not, and no one ever goes there. Tis a barren, inhospitable landscape with few resources save for dirt, salt, wives, fake moon landing studios, and jokes about Utah. Oh, and Brandon Sanderson novels. For those of you unfamiliar with the name, Sanderson made his fame by taking over the Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan made everyone worry about George R.R. Martin’s health. Since then, his name has appeared on top-100 fantasy lists with such a high frequency that he violates FCC regulations. So I thought I’d read Mistborn: The Final Empire to see what all the fuss is about. In short, the book was good enough that I had to resort to jokes about Utah to fill out this review.

The Mistborn series tells the story about magical assassins with pica. By swallowing bits of metal like a desperate pill popper, the mistborn—also known as allomancers—gain special psychic abilities. However, like most things in life, these powers are inherited from the rich people who see no moral conflict in murdering countless poor people rather than let them possess anything nicer than secondhand clothes, tuberculosis, and a house where all the walls have charred around the electrical outlets. Fortunately, a few of the riffraff have rich uncles who didn’t want to be woken from their naps for the daily peasant hunt, so a few lower-class allomancers slipped through the cracks. Bring those elements to a boil, simmer, and season with some light fantasy tropes: kingdoms good, empires bad, government bureaucrats really bad (and are depicted as such by dressing as teenage metal fans who want to stick it to their parents by gaging their ears—and eyes and spine—with comically large railroad spikes). Naturally, the plot aims to scour the empire of oppressors, a story element that authors will continue to force-feed us as long as humans can feel persecuted for either being systemically disadvantaged and even murdered by authority figures based on race, or for having to see a menorah while shopping for Christmas ornaments. Ultimately, Mistborn: The Final Empire follows a group of rabble-rousers as they depose a tyrannical god-emperor the only way they know how—by using the tactics of Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, and Jane Austin.

That’s right. Mistborn follows Vin, a young mistborn thief recruited from the streets of Luthadel, as she impersonates a noblewoman to gather information by attending lots and lots of fancy parties. Say what you will about this unusual twist on the classic epic fantasy format, I really enjoyed how Sanderson conflicted his protagonist by putting her in a position that highlighted the social inequity of the Empire while necessarily coming to see the nobility as human beings similar to herself. Plus, I’ve always thought Charlotte Bronte really let down her readers by not addressing the obvious question, “What if the mad woman in the attic were also a ninja sorceress?” Vin meets a boy, of course, who moved to Luthadel after leaving his previous home in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Yet while Hugo’s college students wanted to revolt and change the world by overthrowing the French government, Sanderson’s aristocratic youths more closely resemble actual college students in the fact that they talk about changing the world before deciding to raise awareness and then abandoning their quest in favor of a drunken 2 am visit to the Waffle House.

The world Sanderson creates is as concise as it is expansive. And I know that sounds like saying “women are as enamored of me as they are repulsed by me,” or “those nine boxes of Oreos were as delicious as they were healthy,” but for all the detail he gives us in Final Empire, none of it is wasted. Everything falls together perfectly in a way that makes me want to chuck my computer into Lake Superior and go live on a Tibetian mountaintop because I’ll never be as talented at devising fiction as Sanderson. He uses every piece of information he gives us, working toward an ending that feels important, and not just in a way that you’ll have to remember for the final exam. The characters are brilliant, and not in the way that Ender is brilliant because Orson Scott Card tells us that sadistic tendencies in a toddler are signs of the next Stephen Hawking. No, Vin and company learn, incorporate information around them, and act in ways that could genuinely outsmart your average two-year old, reality TV viewer, or president of the United States.

Long have I awaited a fantasy novel of this caliber. Prophetically, I knew one must arise. I foretold this as I have foretold that my last several job applications would fall silent into the void, or that a 500 pound woman with creaky knees would sign up for my CPR class, but after a string of failures, Mistborn: The Final Empire came as a breath of fresh air after being trapped on an elevator with a bunch of fat guys eating Taco Bell. Sanderson’s work deserves attention, and I only hope that the next thing I review can live up to such quality; pay attention in weeks to come for my review of Google Cardboard’s Raccoon Simulator!

Casino Royale – Ian Fleming

CasinoBetween my recent attempt to finish FFXII fast enough to merit a felony-level speeding ticket and late night news coverage and my exploits as a CPR instructor, breathing into plastic dummies and explaining to people that, “No, these people won’t have the decency to crawl up on a table before the pass out just to accommodate the fact that you weigh six hundred pounds and your knees hurt on the ground,” I’ve gotten a bit behind on my entries. To add to that, living in 1938 Nazi Germany with a leader who is constantly both on the brink of war and looking at his own people like he’s trying to decide how much zyklon b he’ll need to get has somewhat dulled my capacity for humor. So I might as well try to distract myself from the next two and a half minutes by talking about an iconic Cold War hero responsible for fighting communism, killing foreigners, and causing enough collateral damage to be blacklisted by every insurance agency on the planet.

I imagine quite a few of you will disagree with what I intend to say about Casino Royale based on a fundamental quality of popular culture. Since superhero movies* have been popping up like genital warts—hideous, self-replicating spectacles that only exist because most of the population lacks the capacity to make intelligent decisions—I can only assume that most people like them. Superheroes, that is. Not genital warts. However, while these people might possess the vicarious narcissism to view lack of meaningful conflict or character development as a virtue or the cognitive dissonance to treat someone who tempts every psychopathic cosplayer into battle with no regard for collateral damage as a “good guy,” I find that as a use of my time, it ranks somewhere between standing in line at the grocery store and ignore my cat when he smacks me in the head at 4:00 am to tell me he’s hungry.

*And, I can’t believe I have to include this, the Spider-man Broadway musical.

Enter James Bond. Not the James Bond whose liver burns alcohol like a sterno can, who can cause more damage to a BMW than I could afford to pay for in my life and still convince his boss to give him an Aston Martin a year later, and for whom the genital warts analogy is a strikingly apt comparison, but a James Bond who never got over his childhood fear of falling asleep and traded in his teddy bear for a loaded Beretta. This broken, high-strung Bond draws from Ian Fleming’s real-life experience as a naval intelligence officer, where he developed a network of spies in Spain, planted false documents to lure Nazi U-boats into mine fields, and based on the plot of his novel, I assume, used the English treasury to feed a nasty gambling addiction. While I appreciate the realistic, vulnerable Bond, I have to wonder about the veracity of the novel’s content when he served primarily an administrative role during the war and his biographer literally says he had, “no obvious qualifications” for the job.

The novel’s plot begins with a scheme to bankrupt the villain, Le Chiffre, the treasurer for the Russian organization, Smersh an organization so paranoid and xenophobic that it makes American politics look like someone told a racist joke and gave away the punchline halfway through. Le Chiffre fills Smersh’s coffers by gambling, making him only slightly less dangerous than Wall Street. Bond is sent to the Casino as the best card player in the English Secret Service, an organization that apparently feels the best way to protect the country is to pick the employees who they owe money to and send them out on dangerous missions. While I’ll refrain from the finer details of the plot, suffice to say that the Secret Service botches the mission—as we might expect from people who keep tabs on spies with great talent in games of chance—and Bond ends up at the mercy of Le Chiffre.

Normally I wouldn’t give away quite so much about the story, but this is a special case—at the villain’s defeat, the reader is only two-thirds of the way through the book. Now, I’ve remained proverbially hungry after a few meals, but if I followed Fleming’s guidelines on when to stop, I’d finish off a plate of shrimp, the plate itself, a tray of silverware, the hostess and the front door of the restaurant before I went home. Casino Royale is the perfect book for the spy-thriller fan who loves to sit in the movie theatre for an hour after the credits. I can’t even express my confusion over how the creator of the most sexually active character in history can’t figure out that if you keep going for too long after the climax, it’ll just rub us down until we’re irritated and bored. So while the more realistic, vulnerable Bond makes the outcome a little less certain than your average Man vs Turkey Sandwich conflict, I don’t think an audience who appreciates a politically high-stakes game of baccarat will necessarily stay tuned in for the story of a man’s challenging road to physical recovery.

If I had to salvage some cohesive glue keeping the pages of the book from dropping out like narcoleptic readers, I’d say Fleming intended the book to be less about international espionage and more about the pseudo-romance between Vesper Lynd and James Bond. This does come off as almost a parody of a Disney princess, developing a life-long and fulfilling love based on as much personal information as can be obtained by exchanging business cards. Naturally, the relationship ends abruptly—and I say that confidently as the only people who think that’s a spoiler are currently waiting for the coyote to catch the road runner, or they’re positive that the professor’s plan is sure to get Gilligan and company off the island this time. Read for the character development or even the romance, I kind of like it. The sheer and abject depression that Bond sinks into at the realization that his job holds him in the lifetime stranglehold of a gang, poisoning all other aspects of his life with danger and paranoia, really goes a long way to explain why James Bond is the way he is. Because otherwise, I’m afraid I just wouldn’t understand why any man would want to travel to the most interesting places on earth and have anonymous, consequence-free sex with countless beautiful women and experience rejection less often than a customer in a McDonald’s drive-through. Completely baffling.

The Maze Runner – James Dashner

Maze

Let’s play critical mad libs. I’ll give you a list of phrases, and you fill in the blanks to write a review about any movie, book, or game you want! Here are some popular ones:

“It’s like (title) meets (another title)!”
“Fans of (title) won’t want to miss this!”
“Picture (title), but on a (recreational drug) trip!”
“Come see this year’s (last year’s big success that nothing could ever possibly live up to)!”
“It’s (title) for (kids / grown-ups / the elderly / hamsters / guys who sell inflatable dolls at sex shops)!”

And if all those fail, you can’t go wrong with:

“Die Hard (on / in) a (vehicle / building / world heritage site / piece of furniture / inventory item from sex shop)!”

With this criteria laid out, my job becomes easy. “The Maze Runner is like Ender’s Game meets Total Recall, but for kids! Fans of Divergent won’t want to miss this. Picture Battle Royale, but on a heavy dose of pot. Come read this year’s Hunger Games. It’s like Die Hard in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi reproduction of the Cretan labyrinth!”

The point, of course, being that The Maze Runner might be a fun read, but it’s been done before.

The Maze Runner is your pretty standard, run-of-the-maze, dystopian teen murder porn. Thomas wakes up one day with a case of memory loss that would make Willie Nelson re-think his life choices (if he could remember them). Questioning the boys who find him, he learns that he’s been put in a sausage-fest hunger games in the middle of a labyrinth stocked with some spare Silent Hill monsters the game’s creators had lying around.* The boys have no clear objectives, and operate simply with a desire to map out the maze, whose walls change plans more often than the Trump administration’s, and to show up those Lord of the Flies douchebags by having a fully-functioning and ordered society.

*presumably, who were out of work after Silent Hills was canceled.

The book is okay, if you liked the Hunger Games but really didn’t like the way your head hurt after all that social relevance and critical thinking. Since the boys have the memories of a frat boy on Sunday morning, there’s no context for the maze. For all we know, the world could have become super-right-wing and wants to punish these kids for self-love, or it was destroyed in a nuclear war and the boys were stuffed away like heritage seeds by a confused biologist, or it could take place in modern times after The Bachelor ended and TV audiences ached for the next inane reality show to clear out all that pesky brain power growing in their heads. But without that, it’s kind of like being stuck on a bus in the middle of a traffic jam—the creatures around me are interesting in a grotesque can’t-look-away sort of way, and I definitely saw a lot of disturbing things that raised some weird questions, but I didn’t feel I was heading anywhere important, at least not any time soon.

The author tells us over and over that these kids are of above-average intelligence, which makes the book suffer from Ender’s Game Syndrome. Orson Scott Card kept repeating that Ender was intelligent like a younger sibling trying to get us to punch him in the face, but the only idea he ever gave us to support this idea was that Ender discovered a strategical advantage in beating and/or killing his enemies. Likewise, the Maze Runner constantly shows Thomas solving the mysteries of the maze through his brilliant strategy of having someone tell him the answers. Generally, if an author tells me a character is smart, I expect to see something clever that I wouldn’t have thought of myself. But Thomas never figures out anything on his own, and can’t even figure out what the mysterious acronym stands for when it is literally spelled out for him on a sign.

The book also fails to build up the gravity of the situation by not knowing who to kill or when to kill them. I’ve been more attached to red shirts from Star Trek than I have to the people who get taken by the maze monsters. I could tell you right now that they kill Adam without spoiling the story for you because after Thomas finds out that Adam is dead, the next line in the book literally tells us that Thomas didn’t know Adam and had never talked to him. Granted, you don’t want to swing to the George Martin extreme and build a world where characters drop dead like they dust their crops with anthrax, but a sudden death of an important character now and then might shatter the impression that running through the maze is about as dangerous as getting up to pee in the middle of the night.

I know I usually read through an entire series before reviewing it, but something told me this time around I needed to review the first book by itself. I think that was my brain’s way of telling me I needed to seriously think about whether I even want to read the rest of the series. Or maybe I could do something more productive like create a hedge maze in my backyard and re-create scenes from the movie. By which, I mean The Shining.

The Elfstones of Shannara – Terry Brooks

elfstones-of-shannaraNow that our president has the motivations of a Bond villain and the brain of a kumquat, I think there’s one question on all of our minds: What post-nuclear-apocalyptic world would I most like to live in? McCarthy’s The Road? Bethesda’s Fallout? While selecting your favorite hypothetical misery, let’s not forget that science fiction doesn’t have the monopoly on the nuclear apocalypse (at least not under American business practices, where at least a half dozen corporations are vying for that monopoly themselves), and that there’s one apocalyptic landscape that actually doesn’t sound too damn bad: Shannara.

Well, technically the landscape is call “The Four Lands,” which I think perfectly encapsulates author Terry Brooks’ descriptive style of writing. Forget the clever names and fantastical languages of Tolkien! Just call everything what it is! Valley in the forest? That’s the shady vale! Ultimate lord of evil and practitioner of magic? He’s the Warlock Lord! Poultry slathered in enough grease to give half of North America heart attacks? Kentucky Fried Chicken! I didn’t even mind so much that the plot of The Sword of Shannara read like the draft had been turned in on tracing paper with The Lord of the Rings still attached; it was that Brooks simplified the adventure to the point where his nuclear landscape about elves, dwarves, and gnomes with magical swords and monsters just didn’t feel real enough. When Gandalf told Frodo he had to venture out with the One Ring, Frodo understood, “This is dangerous. I might end up being skewered by a nazgul, tortured, then dropped into a pit of lava…and that’s a best case scenario!” When Allanon told Shea Ohmsford he had to find the Sword of Shannara to defeat the Warlock Lord, he sat there smiling like a stoner listening to someone waxing on about the health benefits of blacklights. And his father, upon hearing of this quest, decided it was about time his boy leave home, go out into the world, and probably wind up in some situation where the terms “entrails,” “troll” and “chamber pot” would likely be used in conjunction. And while Frodo comes home battered and weary with a deep respect for the horrors of war and a clear case of PTSD, Shea returns from his adventure a little worse for the wear, but with a smile on his face and a sack of magic rocks.

The Elfstones of Shannara marks the point where Tolkien stopped, but Terry Brooks kept going. It’s no coincidence that the MTV series chose to start here (to avoid a lawsuit by Peter Jackson…it’s also no coincidence that they filmed in New Zealand and cast John Rhys Davies), as the reader first gets to hear plot ideas that hadn’t been abducted, beaten into submission and been forced to dance in some dive bar for 20% of all the singles stuffed into their g-strings at the end of the night. The book shifts the action to the elven kingdom of the Four Lands, where thousands of years ago, the elves rounded up a bunch of demons that were running around shredding the curtains and making a mess of the carpet, shoved them all into a magical closet called The Forbidding, and planted a tree in front of the door. At the beginning of the story, the tree is dying, and Allanon sets out to find Amberle, the elven girl charged with watering the tree, to make her do her job and fix up the tree. But rather than go himself, he decides to locate Wil Ohmsford, Shea’s grandson, who is studying with the gnomes to become a male nurse. Apparently, Allanon has fallen off the wagon because he thinks Wil would be an excellent bodyguard for Amberle because he inherited his grandpa’s sack…of rocks.

While Gandalf was a mysterious character whose actions all fell into place at the end of the story, I still wonder about Allanon’s judgment. Not only is Wil about as witty and charming as a box of cat litter, he does little to nothing through the whole story, influencing the plot about as effectively as the power of positive thinking in the cancer ward. Yet while he could often be mistaken for a potato in the middle of a conversation, he somehow has two beautiful women pursue him throughout the book (which, based on some of the guys I knew in high school, might be the most fucking realistic thing about this fantasy novel…either that or it has something to do with Wil being a doctor.). Amberle is the only character with a real inner conflict, and Eretria, from a band of Rovers who are probably still racial stereotypes even if they’re not outright called Gypsies, is the only one with an intriguing back story. There’s a fairly interesting side plot involving the younger elven prince who unexpectedly becomes king while fighting back the demons, but other than that characters come and go like the story takes place in a public restroom, and they all have less development and characterization than the Taco Bell cashier who always tells me my change in pennies.

Unfortunately, the book suffers from the Johnny Quest syndrome (where something nostalgic turns out to be bland, poorly written and just a little bit racist), but even so it wasn’t painful to read. I know that’s like saying, “Eat at Chipotle! It won’t give you a lot of gas!” But the main draw of fantasy stories comes from magic and adventure rather than meaningful character development, and at the very least the adventure is there. There’s no shortage of demons to stalk, shriek and shred their way through minor heroes until the Elfstones light them up like someone dropped a Zippo onto an oil spill. Brooks’ books have always been rather hit or miss, and I still prefer this one to any of the others I’ve read. There’s a blurb for the next edition, “Elfstones of Shannara: Not bad for Brooks!”