StarTroopers: The Final Episode by Ged Maybury

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A children’s adventure tale with surprisingly complex characters and plot. Gripping to the end.

Spencer Sockitt is a huge fan of the science fiction franchise, StarTroopers, and is ecstatic to get to interview the author – Arthur Thorsen – for his school magazine. However, the author is not what he was expecting: he is a strange man who claims that, rather than writing fiction, he has visions of battles in far off space, and he is merely a vessel that writes these down. But Spencer uncovers a conspiracy: the evil Blitzoids are here on Earth and are manipulating Thorsen. They believe that he doesn’t have visions, but is in fact a legendary Imaginor – his words and thoughts and beliefs shape reality around him. The stories he writes become real, and the Blitzoids are dictating his latest novel in their favour. Spencer and his friend Rebecca find themselves embroiled in a galactic battle as the powerful Star Troopers try to overcome the evil Warlord Kruel and his Blitzoid army. But things are never black and white; the lines between good and bad become blurred. In war, good is always merely a point of view…

Those who are familiar with Maybury will know that he is a quirky and outlandish character, and this book fully encapsulates those ecclectic qualities of his. What starts off as typical children’s book fare, with over-the-top names and language to pander to the younger readers and quirky mannerisms to define characters, quickly descends into quite a thoughtful and action packed tale. It is a deeper tale than you realise, as the plot is developed and the story explored from both sides. Maybury presents children with a complex story; the main antagonist has a deep and complicated background and the protagonists are flawed, biased and must overcome their cultural and social conditioning to draw their own conclusions. Ultimately, the book reveals that there is no bad guy, or rather, when it comes to violence and war that there is no real good guy. The growing sense of ominousness comes to a full, complex and satisfying conclusion through investigation and politics. Maybury teaches children that violence and conflict only propagate more violence, and that the only true solution is through understanding and diplomacy. A message that most adults still have yet to learn.

Maybury is a New Zealand writer. New Zealand, being a British colony like so many other nations, has a past that is speckled with racial and cultural injustices. And even though New Zealand has been a nation to quickly embrace equality with women and the indigenous Maori having full voting rights by 1893 (irrespective of status). Despite this, there is still colourful debate and controversy surrounding the initial land purchases made of the Maori people by the British Government in the 1800’s. This can be a divisive issue for modern New Zealanders.

This history would seem to serve as inspiration for the villains backstory, and Maybury approaches the topic from a neutral point of view. He doesn’t favour any one side and presents both sides as being wrong (a bold and contrary stance to make on an important issue that affects the cultural heritage of both Maori and Europeans.)

The language is colourful and infused with plenty of sci-fi technobabble that will surely entertain and impress the younger reader. For the older reader it can be over-cooked and often unnecessary, but it is also used very deliberately as a colouring method for the universe he has created and gives it a depth and an age found in franchises like Star Wars, and this helps to ground and normalize the more fantastic elements that are introduced.

I was apprehensive about reading a children’s book featuring an alien race called ‘Blitzoids’, and also based on the artwork of the cover. Childrens fiction tends to pander too much to children, or it ignores them completely and forgets they are the target demographic. Maybury has successfully written a tale that treats the young readers with a bit more respect; he isn’t afraid to throw in large confusing words or complicated concepts: StarTroopers is both colourful entertainment and also an intellectual challenge for children. This is exactly how it should be. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and for lovers of children’s science fiction, or New Zealand fiction, I highly recommend StarTroopers.

The Sovereign Hand by Paul Gilbert

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An epic adventure of High Fantasy and High Stakes; deserves a place next to Pratchett or Goodkind.

Set amidst a backdrop of steam and coal smoke, high magic and complicated politics; the bustling metropolis of Thorn faces an impending evil and only a group of five heroes, summoned by fate, can stop the cataclysm. The sovereign hand is a masterful work of depth and breadth. Paul Gilbert has created a deep backstory and a rich world, often seen lacking in most fiction, that is on par with Game of Thrones or Sword of Truth. Various races and species co-exist in a noisy city rife with politics and crime and culture, and it is from these crowded streets that our five heroes are chosen by fate to become The Sovereign Hand; a select group of individuals trained to fight against evil.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable book filled with many classic D&D or Pratchettesque tropes; goblins, kobolds, lizard-men, minotaurs, wizards, priests and thieves. Some of these elements are severely under-used, and other’s feel out of place and forced; the book starts with the integration of the Taurean peoples and the end of conflict, and this idea is followed for many chapters before being completely abandoned. It has little-to-no bearing on the plot and is more of a distraction than a neccessary part of the book; in fact the first half of the book (particularly the first quarter) is so heavy on uneccessary world-building and exposition that it was difficult to become emotionally connected to the world or the characters; I had no clue what was going on or who the story was talking about. The language was overdone in the first half as well – obscure allusions and similes that don’t work and just leave the reader confused and distracted. The raw talent of Gilbert is buried and drowned beneath the verbose excess; this is one of the most over-written books I have ever read.

However, once into the second half of the book things began to pick up. Suddenly there was a clear plot; I knew who characters were, they had clear goals and even, eventually, an antagonist. By this point, however, I had had little investment into the characters, so motivations were vague and confusing and important elements of the book seemed to spontaneously erupt onto the pages, leaving me lost and confused. The climax was excellent – though there were unanswered questions and unfinished plot-points which left the ending of the book feeling flat and unsatisfying, with an unfinished feel.

This is Paul Gilbert’s first book and shows incredible potential to be a top-shelf competitor in major bookstores in the future. Hopefully the next book will be more tightly written and won’t meander as aimlessly as The Sovereign Hand often did, leaving the reader feeling lost and wondering if the author knew where his book was going. 7 / 10 stars.

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The Wind City by Summer Wigmore

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An instant New Zealand classic, melding Urban Fantasy with Maori mythology.

When Saint befriends the spirit of a Maori demigod and is gifted with the ability to manipulate fire, he is tasked with ridding the city of the spirits and entities that dwell there. Little does he know, however, that the evil spirits he is destroying are in fact conscious beings with their own lives; friends, homes and families.

Typical of much Urban Fantasy, there is a hidden world that only some characters are a part of – one of magic and magical creatures. But, despite being hugely imaginative, the story itself was disappointing with the lack of depth given to these characters or creatures. When Saint first learns his flatmate is a monster, what could have been a well developed plot point becomes a brief action sequence before moving on. The same can be said of many elements which had huge potential but were glossed over which diminished their potential importance. The irony here is that the invented fictional spirits of the urban setting were actually really fun, interesting characters and they made a lot of sense. As far as Urban Fantasy goes, these elements were exactly spot-on and I would have loved to have seen more of this in the book.

The first half of The Wind City wandered without any real direction, unsure just what the book wants to be. At around the halfway point when the plots began to converge and irritating character devices took a step back, the book began to really shine. But by this point, I wasn’t completely invested in the characters and the story didn’t have as much of a hold on me as it should have. The biggest let down was the main character, Saint. His tropes were irritating, annoying and unrealistic; he was an imported character slapped onto a template. His actions were sometimes pointless and motivations were confused or lacking. The other side of this, however, is the second main character Tony. Discovering she is part taniwha she steps into the hidden world, at first reluctantly, taking on the time-honored responsibility of guardianship. Her story was far more interesting and well written than Saints. In fact, it was Tony’s story that captured me and kept me going, in contrast to Saint’s who pushed me away.

Not a perfect book, by far, but for a first novel it is a really strong, enjoyable effort. Wigmore shows plenty of promise and is a name to keep an eye out for on the shelves. The Wind City is a great entry into the New Zealand Urban Fantasy genre and should be read by anyone tired of the recycled Nordic/Tolkienesque fantasy tropes. 7/10 stars.

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The Factory World by Joseph Edward Ryan

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An imaginative work that is equal parts intriguing and disturbing.

The Factory World is very similar to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, Tad Williams’ Otherland series, or the screen adaptation of Mutant Chronicles. With dark and gritty tones, vivid and unsettling imagery, a mixture of science fiction, fantasy and horror elements and a milieu-based story structure, The Factory World draws inspiration from thirty years of slipstream cross-genre novels.

Ten year old Simon wakes up in an outflow pipe in an abandoned factory in a dark and strange world, where purple meteors rain down and scour deep black holes through the earth. He is dressed in a Lion costume from a play of The Wizard of Oz and meets a nameless stranger whom he calls The Tin Man. Together, they roam an eerie and ominous world and encounter strange and terrifying creatures and wondrous technologies, all in the search for a way to return home.

The post-apocalyptic fantasy setting immediately felt like I was reading Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, and as the Wizard of Oz elements started showing up I felt like I was reading King’s Wizard And Glass. Normally, it would be a compliment to be compared to something as epic and masterful as Stephen King’s magnum opus, but in this instance Ryan falls flat. The author’s voice and ideas are lost in the comparison to King; The Factory World is too similar and disappears beneath the shadow of a greater work. Ryan’s world has many brilliant ideas and concepts which are unfortunately often glossed over when they should have been expanded; despite the vivid and fantastic imagination the world lacks a critical depth that makes it feel real and cohesive.

There wasn’t enough characterization to make me care for the protagonists; any initial emotional connection I felt was soon lost as the book progressed. However, luckily for Ryan, the protagonists weren’t the main characters. The true hero of this book is the world itself; it is a reflection of our own subconscious, a dark and confusing and scarred entity struggling to survive.

#Warning: the following part of this review contains spoilers and will majorly disrupt your enjoyment of the novel if you have not read it. Please do not read any further if you have not yet read this book and intend to.

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The ending of The Factory World was a severe disappointment. After what builds itself up for a powerful and climactic ending, the author ends with an epilogue showing us that it was, in fact, all a dream. Seriously. It’s the same ending that we all used on our creative writing assignments at school when we were eight years old. This ending killed any enjoyment of the book for me – what could have been a fantastic and intriguing journey was suddenly halted by a lazy ending that is offensive to the reader. However… this ending could have worked, if Ryan had foreshadowed it in the book correctly. It is true, the characters question if anything is real – just as we all do at some confusing and distressing point in our lives – but this merely humanizes the characters, it doesn’t justify the cop-out ending. For a “dream sequence” to be valid, it must be integral to the plot. Even without embedding meaning and metaphor into the book, Ryan still could have linked the ending to the beginning of the book by changing the very first line from:

“Simon woke in the drainpipe and was cold all over.” to:

Wake up. Simon woke in the drainpipe and was cold all over.”

That simple addition would have made the audience read the ending and go, “Ohh, I see,” instead of saying, “Really? That was it?” None the less, still a mostly entertaining read. The most important parts of a book are the first and last chapters, and unfortunately such a weak ending heavily impacts the overall feel of the book. 4/10 stars.

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Mansfield With Monsters by K. Mansfield with Matt & Debbie Cowens

 

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A dark and unsettling collection of stories in the tradition of Pride and Predjudice and Zombies or Android Karenina, set in Edwardian New Zealand.

Mansfield with Monsters is a post-modernist interpretation of classic Victorian literature, introducing gothic and supernatural elements to pre-existing stories. This transformative subgenre has become increasingly popular since the early 2000’s withnumerous best selling books and film adaptations proving hits in theaters. Mansfield with Monsters draws from Katherine Mansfield’s vast collection of literary works, rewriting select stories and introducing horror and gothic elements from similar works of the time, such as Poe, Crowley or Lovecraft.

I approached this book with no previous exposure to Katherine Mansfield’s work or any understanding of who she was. She was a hugely progressive individual who’s influence was both cultural and literary. Mansfield with Monsters captures the late Victorian/Edwardian tone of post-colonial New Zealand and successfully expands of the predominant themes of class and social division. The horror elements are masterfully woven into the narrative and are drawn from pre-existing elements in the original texts; it is a comfortable fit that feels natural to read. This, coupled with the general unsettling tone and uncomfortable word usages in the stories, creates a book with a very dark and very real atmosphere.

Some stories are not for the faint-hearted, with some scenes of graphic and implied violence, and others have awkward and unsettling sexual connotations which adds to the air of discomfort when reading them. Elements included range from the cosmic nihilism of Lovecraft, to Victorian classics such as vampires or Frankenstein-esque creatures, flesh-eating zombies and ghouls and there’s even a story featuring giant insects and steampunk mech suits.

A fantastic post-humorous collaborative effort, and a brilliant example of New Zealand literary talent. 8/10 stars.

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The Chain by Antony Millen

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A dystopian scavenger hunt that takes you across the world and brings you back cynical and rebellious.

In The Chain we are introduced to a cynical story of near-futurism where everyone is watching everyone all the time. Governments cease to function as they once did as the online world both transcends and negates borders. As Lukan and Topia travel the world they see first-hand the impact of the global network upon small communities; on local customs and mythologies and even dialects. Through the digital corporatocracy society is slowly being eroded and dissolved and replaced by a mainstream connectivist culture. There are some brilliant ideas in this book that have much relevance for today’s world and the direction we are headed. The Chain deals with themes of technology vs freedom of speech, preservation of culture, knowledge vs censorship and the impact of technology upon small communities and cultures.

Despite having some brilliant ideas, this book ultimately doesn’t deliver on the fundamentals. The characters motivations are weak, vague or sometimes forced, and in the boys journey they encounter very little, if any, real conflict until towards the climax. The reader is told of the global police state, and of the constant monitoring, censoring and dictation of social media, yet this predominantly remains an unseen world. In a heavily regulated and controlled society the boys manage to, very easily, travel across the world, walk through cities, discover allies almost immediately upon arrival of a new country, and engage with communities of “off-liners”. The boys experiences contrast the given expectation of the world. The government agents are lenient and barely do more than stand around in the shadows, watching but remaining inactive. Right from the start of the book, Millen misses an opportunity to present the totalitarian forces as anything but indifferent. Even Lukan and Topia’s motivations are lackluster. This, coupled with the lack of imminent danger or threat to the boys throughout the book, leaves their journey feeling flat and, overall, dissatisfaying. If the characters lack a solid emotional drive or investment then so do the readers.

But, despite the lack of genuine emotion, implied or inherent, the book is still an enjoyable read. Millen presents a very interesting and poignant look at the future and introduces some fascinating new concepts, while taking existing concepts and giving them a refreshing makeover. Everyone loves to compare dystopian fiction to Orwell’s 1984, but The Chain is more comfortable in the company of the likes of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. A sometimes-thought provoking read with moderate cyberpunk elements: 6/10.

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Deepwater Landing by Ken Catran

Deepwater Landing.jpgThe biggest flaw with this book is that it tastes and smells and feels like a nineties young adults book. The biggest flaw with the nineties was the decadent sense of style – this book reads like that pair of neon-striped shorts that I used to always wear to school with the tie-dye shirt my crazy Aunt made for me; colourful, flambouyant and pointlessly stylistic, but like those neon clothes, this book didn’t keep me warm or comfortable: there was not enough substance to make it endurable, and when the colours faded after the last fatal wash, I was secretly relieved.

The story can be summarized thus: a ship crewed by teenage clones of living teenagers from a long time ago must explore the universe, searching for their ship’s namesake that carries the gene bank to restart life on Earth while alternating between numerous space-conflicts involving various aliens or dealing with various space phenomenon, or just plain dealing with teen angst in close quarters. In space. And sometimes the characters ‘prex’, stepping out of consciousness and re-living the memories of the people they were cloned from… except the memories are interactive and can be altered to affect the outcome of the future… it’s a potentially awesome idea that wasn’t quite fleshed out by the author and, like one of the signature alien monsters in the book, was just ‘trite’.

Don’t get me wrong, there was an engaging sense of story here – there was a suggestion of something epic waiting to happen, but the plot was filled with distractions and confusing story arcs that would have made more sense if the author hadn’t written with the assumption that the reader had already read the previous book. There were some visually neat concepts which were unique, and I can appreciate that, but the science that went with them was seriously understated or assumed and often made no sense, and this distracting confusion kept pulling me out of the story.

The characters were generic; but that is fine for a young adults book. YA want their expectations met when they read a book, and thus they do tend to be archetypal and formulaic, but I think this let the book down. Catran is clearly an accomplished writer and his story telling is highly imaginative; perhaps this story would have been better set for an adult fiction market or perhaps expanded into a quadrilogy; a little more time could easily have been spent on establishing some clearer rules on how this universe functions.

The book itself was lovely – the cover and pages are made of quality paper and card – it looks and feels crisp and the words are very easy to read. The Tui imprint by HarperCollins publishers, New Zealand, did a fantastic job when they produced this version of the book. There are plenty of inaccuracies and plot holes, and the overall feel of the book is immature and unfinished, but that aside, it was still an enjoyable read. This book would definitely have more appeal to a less critical or judgmental audience.

Ken Catran (born 1944) is a New Zealand Author with numerous awards for his children’s books and  is most well known for the Deepwater trilogy and his contributions to local serial drama, Shortland Street. Any article on Catran would be remiss not to quote his most famous line: “You’re not in Guatemala now, Dr Ropata.”

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