Category: Comics & Books


With most of the nation moving to more at-home time because of the coronavirus/COVID-19, there’s never been a better time to join an online campaign or begin with your family at home your own Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition roleplaying game campaign.  Wizards of the Coast is here to jumpstart your campaign fun with two new products this month.    First is a set of D&D trademark “dice and miscellany,” this time tied to the Forgotten Realms’ own Laeral Silverhand, Open Lord of Waterdeep, centuries-old archmage, and daughter of the goddess of magic.  She’s here to guide you on your path to adventure with Laeral Silverhand’s Explorer’s Kit, a shiny new eleven dice set (two d20s, one d12, two d10s, one d8, four d6s, one d4), twenty illustrated, double-sided cards detailing Laeral’s expert insights on key characters, locations, and lore from across the Forgotten Realms, and an attractive foldout double-sided map of the Sword Coast and the city of Waterdeep–all housed in a sturdy felt-lined box that functions as two dice trays.  If you’ve played for years and haven’t picked up one of these add-on kits in a while, this set of gorgeous dice and materials would be a great place to start.  It’s now available here at Amazon.

Also available for the first time this month is a sourcebook springing out of the second campaign of the popular D&D liveplay show, Critical Role.  It’s the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, a hefty, 300+ page guidebook to the world created by Matthew Mercer, DM to Critical Role.  Although it promises new surprises for fans of the show, it is also made for gamers at any level, regardless of their familiarity with the show, and provides new characters that can be incorporated into any campaign.  Wildemount is a continent in the world of Exandria, with varied cultures, locales, peoples, and monsters.  The guide introduces four adventures: Tide of Retribution, Dangerous Designs, Frozen Sick, and Unwelcome Spirits.

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DMs can set the adventure in one of four regions–the Menagerie Coast, Marrow Valley and the Zemni Fields, the Greying Wildlands and Eiselcross, the Wastes of Xhorhas and Blightshore–or incorporate any or all of them.  Adventures range from level one to 20.  Players are invited to jump the rails–change any aspect of an adventure to suit the type of game players enjoy the most.  In the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, improvisation is your friend.  If a DM isn’t sure how to proceed he/she is encouraged to do whatever is the most fun for the players, characters, and journey.

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last Odyssey

Fans of James Rollins novels will be happy to hear the 15th novel in his Sigma Force series has arrived.  Billed as a thriller, The Last Odyssey finds Rollins piecing together obscure and fantastical elements from the writings of Homer with his fictional version of an Illuminati.  Think Knights Templar, the Holy Grail and other lost artifacts of lore, Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code or the secrets of Nicolas Cage’s character in the National Treasure movies.  Rollins pulls in Leonardo da Vinci as a character, but his ideas are something more out of Erich von Däniken’s pseudohistory and pseudoscience or Leonard Nimoy’s In Search Of–taking some of the most unlikely and untenable of possibilities from real history and connecting them together into an action/adventure story.

Coincidence after coincidence, characters there at the right time every time with knowledge of the most obscure data point necessary to move the characters to the next locale–for fans of Rollins’ brand of storytelling, it just doesn’t matter.  The zanier the ideas the more they come back for more.  And they’ll likely be pleased with this next installment.

The novel starts off well, with a promising opening act.  Rollins presents a group of people who uncover a medieval ship inside a far-away Greenland iceberg.  It contains Renaissance era and even ancient artifacts, items you might find in a roleplaying game or video game story like Assassin’s Creed or Tomb Raider, and you get the feeling this will be a romping fantasy quest.  The reader is teased with the concept of the Earth opening up with Ray Harryhausen or Clash of the Titans adventure via a glimpse of a mythical creature and extrapolations of ancient technology in the form of automaton robots.  But is that really what is going on?

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Review by C.J. Bunce

How many sci-fi and outer space tropes can you pack into one hour of TV?  You’ll find out in the first episode of Syfy’s new space fantasy series Vagrant Queen It’s like Firefly and The Fifth Element as if they were directed by Sam Raimi.  Star Wars elements meet Doctor Who aliens with effects that feel a lot like The Last Starfighter.  And humor that’s a cross of Guardians of the Galaxy and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Or maybe it’s just sci-fi created by Canadians.  Whatever it is you’ll be all-in with the crew of the spaceship Winnipeg as it takes off into adventures in some galaxy out there that is… not ours.

Adriyan Rae (Atlanta) plays the scavenger Elida, a mix of Marvel’s Valkyrie and Rey from Star Wars, who stealthily has masked her former persona as Queen Eldaya, being pursued by the dreaded Republic, led by Commander Lazaro, played by Paul du Toit (remember Gary Oldman’s Zorg in The Fifth Element? He’s like that guy).  Tom Rozon (Lost Girl, Wynonna Earp) is Isaac, a frenemy from Elida’s past (part Han Solo or Jack Harkness or Lone Starr from Spaceballs or Bruce Campbell in… anything).  They come together with a Kaylee-inspired ship mechanic named Amae, played by Alex McGregor, to save a space station’s bartender, get a ship back, and rescue the queen.  And that’s just the first episode.

It’s light-hearted, campy fun a la Xena: Warrior Princess featuring a group of actors who seem to be competing to see who has the most fun.  It’s a little bit… everything… that you enjoy about space travel, with a cool lead like Killjoys and alien makeups reminiscent of Farscape.  Goofy banter and situations, you’ll find yourself calling out the inspiration from nearly every scene, beginning with an opening rif on The Mandalorian.  This is the escapism you’re looking for right now.

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Omnibus 2

If you have a houseful of kids and both spouses at home, all for the first time for longer than a school break, it may start getting… close… soon, especially if you’ve exhausted your collection of games, and finished cleaning out your garage and basement for the second time.  If that’s the case, or you’re just looking for some good reads, Titan Books has just the thing, three new, big books that are sure to keep at least a few of you entertained for the coming weeks.  The theme is Marvel Comics superheroes, but they aren’t comics.  They are part of Titan Books’ ongoing series of paperback novels delving deep into your favorite superhero characters.  Each volume, called an omnibus edition, is a hefty volume featuring three novels by a frequent Marvel writer.

Choose from Diane Duane’s Spider-Man: The Venom Factor Omnibus, including the novels The Venom Factor, The Lizard Sanction, and The Octopus Agenda, Christopher Golden’s X-Men: Mutant Empire Omnibus, featuring novels Siege, Sanctuary, and Salvation, and Greg Cox’s The X-Men and The Avengers: Gamma Quest Omnibus, with novels Lost and Found, Search and Rescue, and Friend or Foe? 

Diane Duane’s 656-page Spider-Man: The Venom Factor Omnibus is the ultimate look at the life of Spider-Man.  For Peter Parker, it’s one counter after another with three major Spidey characters.  Each novel confronts a key adversary, Venom, then the Lizard, then Doctor Octopus.  But these aren’t the only familiar faces readers will encounter.  And it’s not called The Venom Factor for nothing–look for Venom in a key role throughout these three novels.

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PatrickPicard

Patrick Stewart is back again to save the day, and he’s doing it in two ways.  As Sir Patrick Stewart, he has begun reading sonnets and sharing his readings online.  And as one of our favorite Captains, Jean-Luc Picard, he’s sharing news of the ability for anyone to stream the first season of his new series Star Trek: Picard on the CBS All Access streaming service–free.

As most know, the master thespian was an actor in the Royal Shakespeare Company before appearing in Star Trek: The Next Generation and as Charles Xavier in the Marvel X-Men franchise films, including one of his landmark performances in James Mangold’s 2017 Oscar-nominated film, Logan.  On his social media (see his Instagram page here) Sir Pat has begun reciting a sonnet a day, in the hopes that “a sonnet a day keeps the doctor away.”  He has so far read Shakespeare sonnets 116, 1, and 2.

Patrick Stewart

And Tuesday he announced more good news for his Star Trek fans: “Our #StarTrekPicard season finale is Thursday, and starting today until 4/23, you can watch for free on @CBSAllAccess in the US with the code: GIFT.”  All you need to do is sign up for the streaming service and use the code GIFT.  Check out the CBS All Access website for full details.

Star Trek: Picard takes place twenty years after the events in the movie Star Trek: Nemesis, which resulted in the death of Brent Spiner’s character Data, and also after the events of Star Trek (2009), which resulted in the destruction of the planet Romulus.

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The Five cover

Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce

I don’t know how old I was when I first heard of Jack the Ripper.  I do remember being quite young when the sensationalizing and romanticizing of the serial killer started to bother me.  “What’s wrong with you?”  I would growl at the TV, comics, Halloween costumes, and centuries-spanning obsession about the murderer.  Where was the attention on his victims, on the real women who lost their lives?  No one seemed to care—in 1888, or now.  They existed only to fuel the fascination surrounding the murderer.  I stumbled across Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper while doing unrelated research for my Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries series.  I knew immediately I had to get my hands on this book.  Here, at last, was someone else who felt exactly as I did and set about to rectify the situation.  The premise alone makes the book worthwhile, and Rubenhold’s research and writing makes it a must-read.

Rubenhold’s The Five is long overdue, and definitely a welcome addition to the field of Victorian social history.  It’s a tough but fascinating read, handled with an equal mix of sympathy and outrage.  What this book is not:  It’s not true crime.  It’s not a whodunit.  It makes no fruitless speculation about the identity of the murderer, and it does not linger over the salacious details of the crimes.  It is a gripping story of characters who are every bit as fascinating, vivid, and richly drawn as their notorious killer is imagined to be.  And it is a stunning social history that spans the mid-late Victorian era and the life and times of working class women.  Rubenhold unearths known, previously unknown, and totally ignored details from each woman’s life, and skillfully fills in the gaps with information drawn from other historical records—what life was like for workhouse inmates, laws that targeted and disproportionately disadvantaged working-class women, contemporary commentary from social reformers, and more.

In five sections, arranged chronologically by the dates of their deaths, Rubenhold examines the family backgrounds, childhoods, young adulthoods, and last years of Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and the woman who called herself Mary Jane Kelly.  She takes readers on a journey across England, overseas to Scandinavia, from the tinworks of Birmingham to the barracks of Queen Victoria’s guard, to ambitious charity schools and factories and homes, the open road of ballad-sellers, the terrifying spectre of white slavery, and the sad backstreets of London’s poorest neighborhoods.  In telling the stories of these five individual women, Rubenhold also tells the story of all Victorian women, exploring the ruthless social rules that crippled poor women and condemned them to a downward spiral of poverty and violence.  Rubenhold corrects nearly a century and a half of misconceptions and assumptions about these five women (spoiler alert: they weren’t all prostitutes), and restores the truth of their real lives.

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A new sci-fi television series is coming your way next week with a similar vibe as Killjoys and Farscape.  It’s an adaptation of a comic book series, but don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of it.  Like many TV series adapting comic book stories of late, the production was practically overlapping with its release.  The series is called Vagrant Queen and it hails from one of the smaller publishers, Vault Comics.  The comic was written by Magdelene Visaggio and illustrated by Jason Smith, and the TV series is written by showrunner Jem Garrard (Killer High), Mariko Tamaki (X-23, Tomb Raider, Lumberjanes) and Mika Collins (Travelers).

Adriyan Rae (Atlanta) plays the series lead Elida, with Alex McGregor (Blood Drive) as Amae, and Paul du Toit (Maze Runner, Tremors) as Commander Lazaro.  Fans of Wynonna Earp, Lost Girl, and Being Human fans will be happy to hear Tim Rozon is the series co-star, playing Elida’s old frenemy, Isaac.

The series promises cannibalistic aliens, dangerous planets, shootouts, karaoke, and parking tickets.  Order Vagrant Queen–the graphic novel–now from Elite Comics (it’s also available at Amazon here).  And check out this preview of Syfy’s Vagrant Queen:

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SA

Strange Adventures is a 12-issue limited series, resurrecting the title of a famous 1950s series, with that familiar DC superhero vibe you’ve seen in series like Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s successful All-Star Superman.  Tom King (Batman) is writing the story, and the first issue of the series is available this month at your favorite comic book store.  Much like the CW series Arrow, the series featuring DC Comics space fantasy hero Adam Strange tells its story in staggered flashbacks.  And it has the distinct vibe of the limited series Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer–good comic book fantasy fun with a serious edge.  Many comic book stores and other bookstores remain open, many with call-ahead and drive-up options, and Strange Adventures is one you may want to add to your own comic shop pull list.

Inspired by Flash Gordon and a progenitor of Rocketeer, Adam Strange is a classic, iconic character from the end of the Golden Age of comics, created by Julie Schwartz and Murphy Anderson, with the great Gardner Fox–master adapter of both Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard characters, writing early stories, among others.  It’s space fantasy, more than science fiction–think Guardians of the Galaxy–and in the premiere issue of the new series Strange is a national hero, living with his wife on Earth, recounting images from his war-torn past.

Strange Adventures 1 cover a  Strange Adventures 1 cover b

Strange Adventures even has a similar artistic style as All-Star Superman, courtesy of alternating artists Mitch Gerads and Evan Shaner–you may not notice the difference since they use the same color palette–but one style is a bit more painterly than the other.  That’s Gerads, whose present day world is visually stunning like Mike Grell’s run on Green Arrow in the 1990s.  In images of the past, Shaner seems to aiming at more of a Tomorrowland or Darwyn Cooke look at the character.  Both shuffled together actually work.  Each artist will provide a cover option for every issue of the series.

Here is a look inside the first issue:

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The truth.  Truth is the only way forward.  Lies and misinformation can destroy any plan, even a good one.  Created by writer Daniel H. Wilson in collaboration with the Michael Crichton estate, The Andromeda Evolution arrived last year 50 years after The Andromeda Strain was first published, the book that launched Crichton’s fame as master of the technothriller.  The Andromeda Evolution has all the components of Crichton’s best works–the trademark structure of a team of unique experts colliding to prevent catastrophe, the integration of cutting edge science to both inform the reader and carry the plot forward, and the surprising juxtaposition of the improbable and the unimaginable.  The ripped-from-the-headlines timeliness was eerily creepy last year, and here in March 2020 with a real pandemic threatening the planet, it’s even more so.  It all begins with a disaster in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, complete with lies–government clashes and misinformation campaigns–and ends with a surprise also ripped from last year’s headlines.  The Andromeda Evolution is now available in paperback here at Amazon from HarperCollins.

The influences and now, unfortunately, familiarity for readers will harken back to many other fictional tales with virus or pandemic components in sci-fi, conjuring callbacks to Tom Clancy’s Debt of Honor, Isaac Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage II, The Philadelphia Experiment, The Cloverfield Paradox, 2017’s Life, or Crichton’s own novels Sphere and Congo.  More recent fictional touchpoints for addressing virus crises include zombies as in Netflix’s Kingdom, and The Living Dead, both reviewed at borg this week, and even aliens: Who now doesn’t feel like Donald Sutherland–suspicious of everyone who walks by–in Invasion of the Body Snatchers simply visiting your local grocery store?  More fantasy accounts can be found all over the origin stories of superheroes, like the Hulk, Spider-Man, Wolverine, the Fantastic Four, Deadpool, and in DC’s Swamp Thing series, where the environment itself fights back.  Add these to attempts at more realistic stories, the modern, mainstream pandemic thriller, like Outbreak and Contagion.

But can we learn anything from science fiction to help us in the real world, right now?

Those watching the news, working in healthcare facilities, and sheltering at home can certainly find shared experiences as a starting point.  But there may be even more.  Like how not to handle crises.  How the human condition delivers all kinds of different personalities, some who help, some who contribute, and some who hinder.  Reading The Andromeda Evolution or revisiting any of the above books, movies, and TV shows may be something you’re not ready for yet.  If you are ready, they also may provide ideas.  Like anything we might be forgetting.  They also may illustrate that no one can say “we never could have planned for this” or “nobody ever figured this could happen.”  Those assertions may be said aloud, but science fiction proves them as falsehoods.  And if you have kids at home, maybe the superhero stories listed above could help explain how viruses work in real life.

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Living Dead cover

Review by C.J. Bunce

“By removing the head, or destroying the brain.”

It’s the message delivered to England residents in Shaun of the Dead by the news service on how to deal with the impending zombie threat.  And the same rule applies to the killing of zombie ghouls in the long-awaited sequel to the original zombie classic, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead.  That’s right, writer Daniel Kraus picked up a story begun by George A. Romero decades ago to create a behemoth of a follow-up to the movie series in a 654-page novel, The Living Dead: A New Novel It’s scheduled to arrive in bookstores and online June 9 (update: moved to August 4), and borg has previewed an advance copy thanks to publisher Tor Books.  Romero, who passed away in 2017, was the modern horror auteur, known as the “Godfather of the Dead” for his works including the films Creepshow, Monkey Shines, and an adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Half, in addition to several zombie/ghoul sequels.  He inspired countless horror directors, including Edgar Wright, director of Shaun of the Dead.  But his 1968 black and white creepshow is what he is known best for.  In conjunction with Romero’s estate, Kraus wrote the bulk of the novel based on more than 100 pages of story and notes from the acclaimed horror writer and director, described in an author’s note to the novel.

The nuance and 1960s style of Night of the Living Dead is long gone in The Living Dead, replaced with a fully modern zombie spectacle–think 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead.  But its framework of characters destined to have intersecting paths is like a Quentin Tarentino movie, and this is the kind of story anyone could see him adapting to the screen.  Kraus takes a Romero story treatment of what starts as “some kind of bird flu thing” and attacks it from numerous vantage points, including the unique viewpoint of the thoughts of the dead as they re-emerge as zombies.  Characters that take center stage in separate encounters include: Puerto Rican squadron pilot Jennifer Pagán, who fights off “turned” military personnel aboard the USS Olympia aircraft carrier, Karl Nashimura, a master helmsman aboard Pagán’s ship, Chuck Corso, an ambitious journalist who has never been taken seriously until he intercepts a White House internal communication reflecting a frightening turn of events, Etta Hoffman, an archivist worker in a Census Bureau records center, whose access to death data documents what could the final years of humanity, and Greer Morgan, a young resident of a mobile home park in rural northwest Missouri who knows how to use a bow and arrow.

But the best of the novel tracks the actions of Luis Acocella, an assistant medical examiner in San Diego who experiences the first encounter with a patient affected by a strange new virus that seems to be reanimating the dead.  The story of he and his assistant Charlene, would have made a superb story, even if the rest of the chapters had been stripped away.  Although many zombie tales are strictly fantasy horror, the author makes some effort to provide a science fiction basis for the virus’s study.

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