Sunday, March 31, 2013

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance: based on a character created by Gary Friedrich and Mike Ploog; written by Scott Gimple, Seth Hoffman, and David S. Goyer; directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor; starring Nicolas Cage (Ghost Rider/Johnny Blaze), Violante Placido (Nadya), Ciaran Hinds (Roarke), Idris Elba (Moreau), Johnny Whitworth (Ray Carrigan) and Fergus Rirodan (Danny) (2012): Wow. This is a truly terrible superhero movie. And it doesn't really synchronize with the first Ghost Rider. What is it with sequels that don't appear to have been written by people who've seen the previous film?

For some reason, I love the fact that the character played by Peter Fonda in the first movie is now played by Ciaran Hinds. Because if you're going to recast, don't go with people who look alike. But then, for no good reason, the filmmakers have Hinds do a weirdly amorphous, mush-mouthed American accent. I guess his normal voice would have confused people who thought he was Peter Fonda.

I gained a lot of respect for Idris Elba, though, who does his best with a stupid character. And Nicolas Cage isn't awful, though he looks depressed at times to be in such an awful movie. You'd think a film about a motorcycle-riding figure of vengeance with a flaming skull for a head would at least be fun, but this one really isn't. And Johnny Whitworth, as the secondary villain, delivers one of the worst Joker-riffs in the history of action movies. He's almost impossible to watch.

Given the scarcity of decent visual effects sequences, it's hard to believe that this movie really cost $57 million. Much of it has the production values of a SciFi Channel movie. Though at least the filmmakers were honest about shooting in Eastern Europe to save money, as the movie is set there and in Turkey. So, good on them. Not recommended.

Saturday, March 30, 2013


Rotworld: written by Jeff Lemire, Scott Snyder, and others; illustrated by Yanick Paquette, Marco Rudy, Steve Pugh, Travel Foreman, and others (2011-2013): I'd imagine that DC will eventually package the entire Rotworld run of Swamp Thing, Animal Man, and several issues of Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. into one 1000-page omnibus volume. While only a handful of issues from each title bore the Rotworld banner, the entire story actually started with the rebooted Swamp Thing and Animal Man comic books back with their first issues in September 2011, and was really only resolved with issues 18 of those books this March.

The set-up was relatively simple: there are three great living kingdoms on Earth: the Green (Vegetation Kingdom), the Red (Animal Kingdom), and the Rot (well, guess). Swamp Thing is the living avatar of the Green, Animal Man is essentially the acting regent of the Red until his daughter comes of age, and long-time Swamp Thing villain Anton Arcane is the avatar of the Rot.

Normally the three powers live in an occasionally contested balance, but over the last 200 years, Arcane's stewardship of the Rot has led him to attempt to extinguish the other two forces in order to remake the Earth into a polluted, distorted kingdom for himself. And then he'll reach out for other planets.

So, over about 800 story pages, Swamp Thing and Animal Man and a number of allies battle the Rot in the past, present, and future of the Earth. Yes, time travel is involved. And as this is part of the 'soft' reboot of the DC Universe, Swamp Thing himself has been born again: it turns out he was never really Alec Holland, but he will be Alec Holland again. Animal Man also learns an assortment of things that fall squarely into the category of Everything You Knew Was Wrong. Long-time Swamp Thing paramour Abigail Arcane gets the biggest conceptual makeover, however: she, and not her evil Uncle, is supposed to be the avatar of the Rot.

Did this story need to cover so many issues? Well, no. The reversals of fortune become frustrating at points, and there are times throughout where one wishes they'd just get on with it. But Snyder and Lemire also do some nice word-smithing and character-building.

Animal Man and Swamp Thing really shine in the art department, especially in those issues drawn by Yanick Paquette or Steve Pugh. Paquette really goes all-out depicting the verdant yet often horrifying world of Swamp Thing: it's the best art Paquette has ever done. Pugh, who's been around the Animal Man book before, has a rare flair for the grotesque and the cloachal. Frankly, they could have gone off-schedule a bit more (or made both books 8-times-a-year, like in the oldey-timey days of comic books) so that Pugh and Paquette could have handled all the art chores. Oh, well.

As both books present new origins for their avatars, the whole storyline isn't a bad jumping-on point for new readers. Long-time readers will of course wonder where the Hell the Fungus Kingdom -- the Grey -- is for the duration. Matango! Recommended.

Friday, March 29, 2013

NEONOMICON: written by Alan Moore with Antony Johnston; illustrated by Jacen Burroughs

Neonomicon: written by Alan Moore with Antony Johnston; illustrated by Jacen Burroughs (2003, 2010-2011): Winner of the first-ever Bram Stoker Award for a Graphic Novel (from the Horror Writers' Association), Neonomicon is Alan Moore's dark valentine to the life and work of H.P. Lovecraft. 'Neonomicon' is a play on the title of Lovecraft's famous, imaginary volume of terrible knowledge, the Necronomicon.

All the sexual horrors that were vaguely implied in many of Lovecraft's stories are here made manifest, often in graphically disturbing fashion, all of them delineated in a razor-sharp quasi-realistic mode by Jacen Burroughs. It's a spectacular, and spectacularly disturbing, graphic novel that rewards multiple re-readings.

Burroughs's art complements the story beautifully, giving us a Cthulhu Mythos story with both the suggestiveness and the painful exactness necessary to certain sections. The relatively realistic nature of Burroughs's art may be seen as the equivalent of the faux-documentary stretches of many of Lovecraft's finest works, in which an accumulation of 'real' detail from interviews and newspaper articles served the construction of that awful Cthulhuian world.

This collected volume actually contains both the miniseries named Neonomicon and the earlier, shorter set-up, The Courtyard. On a slightly different alternate Earth where the major cities are domed so as to cut down on pollution and the telephones contain fax machines (!), three FBI agents at two different times try to seek out the origins of a strange rise in mass killings by people who seem totally unrelated.

While there are cloachal horrors and sexual horrors awaiting, there are also gratifyingly disturbing moments of weirdness that evoke the sort of cosmic horror Lovecraft strove for throughout his work, a breaking-down of existential categories, a collapse in causality. Moore's humour also plays out, sometimes in perfect harmony with the horror (as one cop says about a disturbing bit of graffitti/art, "I hope that's a tree." It isn't.).

The personal problems of the characters tie directly into the ideas Moore explores in the course of this dark odyssey: The Courtyard's protagonist is a hard-core racist, and his story plays out in the Red Hook district of New York, setting for Lovecraft's early, racist fear-of-miscegenation story, "The Horror at Red Hook." Neonomicon's protagonist is a female FBI agent whose career and personal problems with institutional sexism and exploitation will ultimately play a terrible role in the story's resolution. Lovecraft's stories didn't have female protagonists, and generally didn't have female characters with speaking roles.

This isn't a volume for everyone: it's vicious and boundary-pushing. But it's also an astonishing addition to Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Just a Pilgrim

Just a Pilgrim: written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by Carlos Ezquerra (2001): Among Garth Ennis's brutal comic-book characters, the protagonist of this one -- known only as 'the Pilgrim' -- is one of the five or six most brutal. Which is saying a lot, given Ennis characters like Saint of Killers, Hitman, and Bill Butcher. Ezquerra, a standout on Judge Dredd for years and occasional collaborator with Ennis on other projects (including the Saint of Killers miniseries, if memory serves), is in fine form here in this bloody post-apocalyptic tale.

In a near-future world in which the Sun suddenly went into its Red Giant phase hundreds of millions of years early, a small group of survivors seek refuge on a trek across the floor of the former Atlantic Ocean. Set upon by pirates led by Castenado, a blind psychic buccaneer with two peg legs and two hook hands, they're rescued and eventually led by the mysterious Pilgrim, who quotes Bible verses and shoots dogs who "have the Devil in them."

However, the Pilgrim's violent efficiency causes most of the people, including the ten-year-old boy whose diary forms the narrative structure, to put their faith in the Pilgrim and God. Castenado won't give up his pursuit. So on a devastated, emptied seafloor filled with dangerous, mutated creatures, the small band will make their way toward a reckoning with Castenado. Along the way, the Pilgrim's origins in the pre-apocalyptic world will be revealed.

Like pretty much all of Ennis's comic-book output, this is NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH. It does have some troubling, fascinating points to make about faith and a reliance on heroes that play out in other, longer Ennis works. The relationship between the Pilgrim and the boy plays with expectations caused by similar relationships in famous Westerns that include Shane, Pale Rider, and True Grit. Are we being set up? Ezquerra really is one of Ennis's perfect collaborators, with an ease and skill at portraying action and the grotesque and the occasionally comic. Followed by at least one sequel. Recommended.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Kind Folk (2012) by Ramsey Campbell

The Kind Folk by Ramsey Campbell (2012): Campbell's newest novel comes with what initially appears to be a fairly innocuous cover -- until you realize that it's impossible to duplicate what the person on the cover is doing with his hands. Unless, maybe, you're double-jointed. I didn't check on that.

At the taping of a British talk show much like The Jerry Springer Show, soon-to-be-30 Luke discovers that his father isn't really his father, and his mother isn't really his mother, thanks to DNA tests. His uncle seems to know something about this, but he dies of a heart attack before he can tell Luke much of anything. As Luke starts to delve into what his uncle knew, using that uncle's strange journal as a guide, more deaths and disappearances follow.

Luke's expecting his first child with his partner Sophie, a classical guitarist. Luke himself is a rising comedian who specializes in an act that's an odd combination of mimicry and commentary on the foibles and failings of people. Luke's always been a terrific mimic, and was incredibly precocious in a way that seems like a sly homage to the precocious, early-reading H.P. Lovecraft, whom Campbell emulated early in his own precocious writing career.

And Luke was plagued by nightmares as a child about vaguely human-shaped things creeping into his bedroom to watch him at night. Now the nightmares have returned. Soon, they're no longer nightmares: they're what Luke sees in the daytime.

In what is Campbell's shortest novel in decades, a fabulous blending occurs of some of his own mythologies (references to other Campbell works span almost his entire writing career, from "The Franklyn Paragraphs" of the 1960's through The Doll Who Ate His Mother of the 1970's to The Grin of the Dark from 2004) and an assortment of myths and legends about fairies in the British Isles. "The Kind Folk" is just one of the terms used by fearful people to curry favour with fairy, who were not traditionally known for their kindness.

Luke's quest is extremely personal, though there are potentially apocalyptic ramifications to his quest to understand his origins. His uncle mapped out hot spots throughout the British Isles where another world seemed to be leaking through into this one -- and when Luke visits these places, very odd things start to happen. And people other than himself start to see the figures from his childhood, and not simply in dreams.

It's a solid, understated effort from Campbell, one whose chills are often existential, and whether or not the myths and legends of Fairyland herein are 'real' or invented by Campbell, they possess the haunting quality of real legend. Highly recommended.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Zodiac (2007)

Zodiac (The Director's Cut): adapted by James Vanderbilt from the non-fiction book by Robert Graysmith; directed by David Fincher; starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Robert Graysmith), Mark Ruffalo (Inspector David Toschi), Anthony Edwards (Inspector William Armstrong), Robert Downey Jr. (Paul Avery), Chloe Sevigny (Melanie), Brian Cox (Melvin Belli), Elias Koteas (Sgt. Jack Mulanax), Dermot Mulroney (Captain Marty Lee), John Carroll Lynch ( Arthur Leigh Allen) and Donal Logue (Captain Ken Narlow) (2007): What I consider to be director David Fincher's finest film, and one of the ten best American movies of the last ten years, is a crime procedural about the hunt for the Zodiac, a San Francisco-area serial killer of the late 1960's and early 1970's. In its calculated retro-look, Zodiac is both an homage and an addition to the ranks of great 1970's docudramas that include The French Connection, Serpico, and All the President's Men.

Mirroring the investigation, the film's pace is slow and deliberate. As the movie only shows Zodiac crimes for which there were witnesses, the first known Zodiac killing is discussed but never shown. And what we are shown of the killings is horrifying but not gratuitous. There's far more gore in an average episode of CSI. Or Dirty Harry, for that matter, itself based partially on the Zodiac killings.

This is a film to be savoured and mulled over. Fincher gets fine performances from his entire cast, though I think Mark Ruffalo -- as (real) Inspector Dave Toschi, gives both the best and the most period-accurate performance. Ruffalo looks like a 70's actor in this film, a slightly more conventionally handsome Gene Hackman. Everyone else is good as well, with Jake Gyllenhaal, as the editorial cartoonist-turned-amateur-sleuth Robert Graysmith, playing the straight-arrow heart of the movie (it's his book that the film is based on).

The opening scene, set to Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man", is one of the most striking set-pieces I've seen in any film. And Donovan's daughter, Ione Skye, has an uncredited cameo later in the film. Weird stuff. The Zodiac too is weird: a mixture of the malign and the banal and the lucky, the killer is accurately portrayed as a windbag who craves media attention. His interactions with celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli (played with smarmy, self-satisfied gusto by Brian Cox, the first movie Hannibal Lecter) look like rehearsals for every ridiculous Nancy Grace and Geraldo Rivera moment of the past 20 years. Belli even appeared in an episode of the original Star Trek, "And the Children Shall Lead", as evil alien angel Gorgon!

Whatever and whoever he was, there's nothing Luciferian about Zodiac, nothing of Hannibal Lecter. John Carroll Lynch (Marge's husband in Fargo) nails his few scenes as the prime suspect in the case, an angry white guy with a really awful trailer full of awful stuff.

The Director's Cut DVD also gives the viewer about three hours of new documentary material on the Zodiac investigation, much of it shot and edited in the style of Errol Morris. This, too, is riveting stuff, and the filmmakers play fair: the documentary material raises doubts about the film's conclusion as to who the Zodiac really was. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004): One of the staples of historical fantasy and science fiction is the "changed premise" alternate history, in which one difference gives us a new Earth to ponder. Clarke's award-winning first novel gives us that changed premise in an England where magic works, fairies are real, and Northern England was ruled for hundreds of years by John Uskglass, the Raven King.

But as we advance through the years covered by the novel -- 1806-1817 -- we discover a curious thing. History has pretty much progressed, and continues to progress, exactly as it did in our world. To note the biggest example of this, the Napoleonic Wars play out exactly as they did in our world, despite Great Britain and its allies having the services of two powerful magicians. Is this an imaginative failing on the part of the novel? Well, yes. It's hard to believe in magic when it seems to be zero-sum.

I can see why a lot of people -- and perhaps more non-fantasy readers than fantasy readers -- praised the novel. It's a triumph of pastiche and multiple stylistic homages to writers that include Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. But it's also thin as spring ice. After a 1000 pages, most characters still possess only a few defining characteristics. The two main characters -- Strange and Norrell, England's first two practicing magicians in a couple of centuries -- are defined by arrogance and fear, respectively, and little else.

Many of the supporting characters fall into one of two camps: the thinly drawn sympathetic and the pseudo-Dickensian grotesque. But our sympathies for the most ill-served-by-events character in the novel must develop entirely from the situation she's placed in: she has no actual personality traits that aren't reactions to her situation. Another character is pretty much entirely defined by being nice and slightly worried. With 1000 pages to work with, Clarke perhaps could have given us more, though the book did need room for all the pseudo-scholarly footnotes on the history of English magic. Actually, many of the footnotes are more magical and interesting than the primary text.

And oh, that mannered style. Arch and distancing, it renders much of the text droll and occasionally cutting, but it also makes sympathy for the characters difficult. The archness of style and the thinness of the characters don't mix well with the epic scope of the novel. And for the main plot to proceed, several supposedly smart characters have to be unsatisfyingly stupid and dense for a very, very, very long time (ten years and several hundred pages).

But anyway, there's magic. It comes back from somewhere. Two Englishmen, the exceedingly bookish Mr. Norrell and the more public Mr. Strange, learn how to use it. Strange helps with the Napoleonic Wars in Europe; Norrell helps with the defense of England. The true plot grows from Norrell's second work of public magic, the one that established him as a magician to be reckoned with in polite society in London. The lesson to be learned: Don't trust fairies.

I'm glad I read the novel, though I can't say I ever want to read another one by Clarke. The racial and gender critiques in the novel are about as thuddingly obvious as they come. The fantastic universe itself makes very little sense: how did magic change absolutely nothing about the history of England? Because the novel needs everything to be the same for its pastiche elements to work properly, I suppose is the only answer. And a real 'What if?' novel might scare away a lot of the paying customers, the ones who like Jane Austen but can't tell a hobbit from a hat-pin.

There are weird historical miscues (Clarke seems to be unaware that a height of 5'9" wouldn't make a man seem tiny in 1816, given that it would actually be above average height). And there really isn't an ending so much as a stoppage in play. The pay-offs to two of the main plot-threads are so muted as to almost be non-existent, while a third becomes a culmination of a deus ex machina that removes much of the agency from Strange and Norrell themselves. There's certainly room for a sequel. I'm sure it will be long. Lightly recommended.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Hungry Ghost

The Changeling: written by Russell Hunter, William Gray, and Diana Maddox; directed by Peter Medak; starring George C. Scott (John Russell), Trish VanDevere (Claire Norman), Melvyn Douglas (Senator Joe Carmichael), John Colicos (Captain DeWitt) and Barry Morse (Dr. Pemberton) (1980): One of the good results of Canada's tax-shelter days for movies, The Changeling is a traditional ghost story that plays fair with its audience. It also won pretty much every major Canadian movie award for 1980, demonstrating that a horror movie can do such a thing, but only in Canada. Screw you, Oscar!

George C. Scott plays composer John Russell, who's removed himself to Seattle to teach at a university and try to recuperate from a personal tragedy. But the house he rents turns out to be haunted. But while the ghost there is initially prone mainly to minor fits of glass-breaking and noise-making, its persistence leads Russell to try to figure out who it was and why it's still hanging around. Director Peter Medak and his writers build the suspense gradually, with attention to detail that makes the scares, when they come, quite effective.

Scott stays under control for most of the picture, and has some fine character moments -- one in which he weeps in bed is especially effective. Scott's wife, Trish VanDevere, plays a local woman who helps with the investigation of the ghost's origins and motives. The investigation itself is a time capsule of technology: there's a reel-to-reel recorder and microfilm involved!

One of the sharpest things about The Changeling is its refusal to become sentimental, a decision that's laudable given the subject material. This may be the ghost of a child, but it's had decades for its rage to build. Its apparent allies may be in as much danger from its wrath as those it's seeking revenge upon.

A lot of Canadian stalwarts -- most notably John Colicos and Barry Morse -- make what are basically extended cameos. This is really a two-person show, with some able assistance from the soon-to-be-dead Melvyn Douglas as a U.S. Senator with a connection to the mystery. Recommended.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Fox Hunt

Sandman: The Dream Hunters: written by Neil Gaiman; illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano (1999): For the tenth anniversary of the first issue of his critically and commercially gigantic Sandman comic-book series (which ended its run in 1995), writer Neil Gaiman wrote a novella set in the Sandman universe and illustrated by acclaimed Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano. It's not a comic book, but rather an illustrated story, as Amano wasn't comfortable trying to draw a comic book.

We see several familiar characters again, chief among them Morpheus, also known as Dream, one of the seven Endless in Gaiman's comic book (the others being, circa 1989, Destiny, Death, Desire, Despair, Destruction, and Delirium, the last once having been Delight before something changed).

Set in medieval Japan, The Dream Hunters ostensibly retells a Japanese folk tale. Gaiman's afterword in which he somewhat puckishly and straight-facedly describes this (imaginary) folk tale led a lot of people to believe there really was a folk tale to begin with. There wasn't. That thinly veiled versions of DC Comics' Cain and Abel make an appearance, along with the Dream King's raven, possibly should have tipped people off.

The story begins with a bet between a fox and a badger about who can force a young Monk to abandon his lonely mountain-side shrine so that either the fox or the badger can live there. As foxes and badgers have considerable abilities in the realms of shape-changing and illusion, this is a bet it seems one or the other must win. But things don't go the way either plans.

It's a very enjoyable story, and Amano's illustrations offer a new look at Gaiman's Lord of Dreams and his kingdom. I do think that Gaiman is a better comic-book writer than a writer of prose, however, and P. Craig Russell's comic-book adaptation of this novella, from 2009, is superior to this work. In either case, one doesn't have to know the backstory of Sandman to enjoy the book. Recommended.


Top Ten Volumes 1 and 2: written by Alan Moore; illustrated by Zander Cannon and Gene Ha (2000-2002): If you've always wanted to see a drunken, Godzilla-like giant talking radioactive lizard wearing a 'No Fat Chicks' t-shirt, then this is the comic book for you. Moore's jolly yet serious mashing up of the superhero-group and police-procedural sub-genres (think of it as Hill Street Blues meets the Super Friends) is a great book, jammed with satirical material that doesn't detract from the drama of its various storylines.

After World War Two, the vast majority of America's super-beings, super-scientists, super-villains, and supernatural beings were forcibly relocated to the city of Neopolis because normal people didn't like having them around. Also robots and talking animals and super-pilots and a variety of other homages to pretty much every comic-book and comic-strip character ever. And they needed police. And then Earth made contact with a vast confederation of alternate Earths of which it was designated Earth-10. And so the tenth precinct of Neopolis was born: Top Ten.

While mysterious, super-strong, and mostly invulnerable (and initially very grumpy) Jeff Smax and his new partner and new officer Toybox are the focus of this "first season" of Top Ten, we also meet a rich assortment of cops, villains, and others. Moore does a nice job of hiding the "real" major case of the year until late in the game.

The weirdness of Neopolis, with everything from Bugtown to a robot ghetto (robots get discriminated against...a lot), is an endless source of stories. There's a bar where the gods of every major religion get drunk. There are weird new drugs and vices unknown to our world and diseases that only affect people with superpowers. There's Sergeant Kemlo, a dog with a penchant for tropical-themed shirts, operating in a human-shaped cybernetic exoskeleton; and Girl One, a nudist android; and Synesthesia, whose powers are pretty much right there in her name; and King Peacock, the Satanist magician. And others.

Jeff Smax will gradually learn to trust his new partner -- he's still getting over the death of his old one, and he has people issues anyway. Toybox will find out that the hero named The Rumour actually exists. And they'll all find out why Jeff's warning in a dream to "Beware Caesar" is true.

Cannon and Ha's art is terrific, jam-packed without seeming crowded, and with pleasing, and occasionally pleasingly intricate, costumes on everybody (Girl One and King Peacock must especially have been a pain to draw). And of course there's Gograh, that giant drunk lizard, and his trouble-causing, man-sized son Ernesto Gograh. Just don't let a giant drunken lizard with radioactive breath barf on you. Highly recommended.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Continent of Vampires

The Twelve by Justin Cronin (2012): Cronin's first book in his epic-apocalyptic-science-fantasy-vampire trilogy, The Passage (2010), was an enjoyable mess that derailed about two-thirds of the way through as it suddenly transformed into a pitch for a Hollywood CGI spectacle. Cronin had won literary awards for his mainstream fiction, but The Passage was his first entry into genre work. I think a better editor could have really elevated that work, in part by cutting about a hundred pages. The Twelve is the second book in that trilogy.

The Twelve is a better book in pretty much every way, though the horror elements have all but disappeared, replaced by a greater focus on epic fantasy and survival fiction and even a well-imagined dystopia. The battle between North America's surviving humans and the vampire-like armies of The Twelve -- the twelve super-vampires created in a Black Ops science experiment gone awry in 2015 -- continues in the future one-hundred years from now, and (roughly) the present-day, and twenty years before the (sort of) contemporary future of the narrative. And there's a frame narrative that will remind people of The Handmaid's Tale, notes from an academic conference approximately 1000 years after the events of the novel. Man, that's a lot of timelines to keep track of.

One problem from the previous novel remains, while a new one rises in prominence. The returning problem lies with Cronin's decision to divide the narrative among those various timelines spanning 1000 years. This doesn't help narrative momentum. More importantly, it's become obvious by this point that the division exists so that Cronin can keep some vital information about the origins of the vampire plague hidden until the climactic pages of the third book. It's a clumsy way to create suspense, and I think a good editor could have fixed this. And because of the frame narrative, we know that things must have turned out OK. See what I mean about dramatic problems?

The (mostly) new narrative problem lies with God. The Lord of the Rings probably represents the ideal form of how to have an epic fantasy in which God (or a God-like being, in that case Eru or Iluvatar) has rigged the game so as to ensure the triumph of Good without this fact detracting from the dramatic tension or, indeed, being apparent to the reader without at least some critical consideration of the events of the novel. Good ultimately wins in Lord of the Rings because good people -- most importantly Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam -- were in the right place at the right time and made the right choices. In a world run by a benevolent God, this is not a coincidence. But it should probably look like one because if it doesn't, even the illusion of free will vanishes.

Now imagine if, instead of Sam and Frodo having a conversation on the steps of Cirith Ungol about the story of Beren and Luthien and their own inclusion in that story that never really ended, we instead had five pages of Sam and Frodo listing all the coincidences and chance meetings that had occurred up to that point in the novel before realizing that these couldn't all be coincidences and that, instead, some higher power was moving them around the chess board. Now imagine this same sort of conversation happening with every character in The Lord of the Rings, every 50 pages or so, just in case you hadn't had the point hammered home enough that there were no coincidences. Throw in some scenes from the afterlife, too, so that we know characters don't simply die.

All this God stuff really saps the drama from the narrative even as it also verges on the metafictional. This is a work of fiction, after all, and the characters are pretty much going where the author tells them to. See, he's sorta like a god! No wonder they keep having these fortunate chance meetings, and no wonder even things that initially seem bad often serve ultimately to advance the cause of Good! So metaphysics becomes metanarrative.

As Cronin is a talented writer, at least in the stylistic sense, I imagine at least some of these problems will work themselves out. Right now, because of the big book deal he signed for this trilogy, we're watching him work them out on the big stage with a big advance whereas other genre writers have at least been lucky enough, if they were being published, to figure these things out in paperback originals and rejected novels.

The novel does do a number of things well -- the characters are well-drawn, even the terrible ones: Guilder, the CIA agent whose secret project helped start this whole mess, comes across as a convincingly self-deluded tin-pot dictator whose "best intentions" have been polluted by his essential qualities of self-interest and self-pity. Cronin also manages some terse, tense action set-pieces, though things seem to go a bit too easily in the novel's concluding battle with the eleven remaining lieutenant Virals. The uber-Viral has yet to be seen in his/Its entirety.

In summation, I'm glad I've read the first two novels in this trilogy, flawed and occasionally annoying as they are. I'll be interested to see if Cronin remains a genre writer after the third novel, or if he returns to mainstream fiction, hopefully in either case with some lessons learned. Recommended.