Category: Fantasy Realms


Sam and Gene

My name is Sam Tyler.  I had an accident, and I woke up in 1973.  Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time?  Whatever’s happened, it’s like I’ve landed on a different planet.

First off, it’s really going to rile some people when you pronounce something the greatest ever.  But we’re talking here about the British television series Life on Mars.  And not just Life on Mars, but The Empire Strikes Back of television series, Ashes to Ashes.  You can quibble with M*A*S*H or Law and Order or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Twilight Zone, or engage you people over there shouting Firefly and Supernatural and the others over there fighting over the best Star Trek series–but we’re talking about Life on Mars here.  And if you’ve watched its two seasons in 2006 and 2007, or the three seasons of Ashes to Ashes from 2008 to 2010, then the news that another chapter of the series is in the works is the kind of happy news that can actually distract you from the real world right now.

Yet it’s true.  Life on Mars co-creator Matthew Graham confirmed it all yesterday as part of a Twitter “watch-along” of the first episode of the genre-bending series for the UK audience.  Graham first hinted at the possibility in a Tweet he posted Tuesday promoting the event, and he provided more details after the show.  Just like over the past 15 years, Brits posted how much they loved the series, how they believe it to be the best series ever made.  The series follows John Simm (Doctor Who, State of Play) as Sam Tyler, a British cop in 2006 who is working on a case when he is hit by a car.  He awakens in the same police station 33 years earlier, in the year 1973.  He knows he’s unstuck in time, but unsure how he got there.  Is he in a coma?  Did something supernatural take over?  Is this what death is like?  This is where the genre-bending begins.  Until you’ve watched all five years of episodes, you won’t really know what is the true genre behind the genres hinted at in the series.  Tyler befriends and shares his situation only with co-worker Annie Cartwright, played by Liz White (Doctor Who, The Woman in Black).  He finds he is now working under the cantankerous Detective Police Inspector Gene Hunt, played by Philip Glenister (Cranford, Horatio Hornblower), one of my picks of the greatest characters of all time (seriously, I wrote about it here eight years ago).  DCI Hunt becomes the centerpiece of this strange world, continuing past the second season of Life on Mars to co-star in the same role in Ashes to Ashes along with Keeley Hawes (Doctor Who, The Bank Job), a police officer named Alex Drake who is shot in 2008 and wakes up in 1981.  Life on Mars continued with Ashes to Ashes much like The Closer continued with the series Major Crimes for U.S. audiences, swapping out the lead roles, but continuing with the rest of the cast.  Here that included two other cops, played by Dean Andrews (Father Brown, Marchlands) and Marshall Lancaster (Doctor Who, Casualty) who appeared in all five seasons.

Ashes

During yesterday’s watch-along, Graham peppered Twitter with glimpses at what lies ahead in what he called, The Final Chapter.  Although he didn’t say if any actors had confirmed returning, it seems impossible anyone would make this announcement without buy-in from Glenister, Simm, Hawes, White, Andrews, and Lancaster.  To that point he said, “we intend to get as many back (across both decades) as we can.  So when you wonder who will be coming back for The Final Chapter – think Avengers Assemble!”  He specifically referenced wanting Annie (Liz White) back, and Hunt’s boss DCI Litton.  Graham mentioned the series will be set in Manchester and London, partially in the 1970s, partially in the 1980s, but mostly in an alternate now, all running for four or five episodes.  “I’d like to tell you that in The Final Chapter there will be a TV show WITHIN our TV show.  TYLER: MURDER DIVISION,” adding, “We would never make another Mars unless we really had something to say and could push the envelope all over again.  Finally we have something.”  While watching a classic scene in the first episode, co-creator Ashley Pharoah Tweeted, “I wonder if Phil and John could jump over that desk now?  I guess we’ll find out”.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

As the ninth and final film in the Skywalker Saga arrives in a home video release, the fifth volume from Abrams Books chronicling the entirety of the Disney-era Star Wars concept artwork is here.  The Art of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker does not disappoint in showing readers the expansive designs for a film that stepped ahead of its predecessor with more ships, more action, more aliens, more weaponry, and more costume designs.  Our only hope is that Abrams obtains the rights to create a similar volume continuing this series of books, documenting the first season of The Mandalorian.  One thing every fan will notice who has watched all eleven movies in the franchise–more than ever readers can now clearly see elements from each prequel, each original trilogy episode, and each Star Wars Story film incorporated into the sets, ships, and characters in this final installment.

As with the first two books in the trilogy, this look at the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker shows paths taken and, more interestingly, paths not taken by production designer Rick Carter, franchise veteran Kevin Jenkins, and the rest of the art design team.  This includes alternate costumes for Rey, Finn, Poe, Lando, Zorii, and Jannah, new pilots, stormtroopers, droids, and new worlds of creature concepts.  Probably more than the past volumes in the series, this book has close-up detailed views at props, including lightsaber and other weaponry, all in search of that design element that says “Star Wars” to the movie audience.

Phil Szostak lets the artwork take center stage in this fourth book in the series (he also wrote The Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Art of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and The Art of Solo: A Star Wars Story, all reviewed here at borg)–prior books had more textual commentary.  Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (reviewed here and available in all digital formats today), the ninth and final episode in the Skywalker family story in the universe George Lucas created, saw the return of director J.J. Abrams and his strategy of evoking the trilogy to maximum benefit, with many images inspired by original Ralph McQuarrie concepts.  So it may come as no surprise that The Art of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker feels like a book of original trilogy designs.  The artwork from dozens of contributors mirrors the iconography, the color patterns, the lighting, the costuming, and set pieces from The Return of the Jedi especially.

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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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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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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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Review by C.J. Bunce

Timing of the debut of a horror genre series on Friday the 13th isn’t that much of a clever stretch, unless your series is about a plague and it’s launched on this particular Friday the 13th.  It’s a shame that with most people staying home there won’t be a water cooler to circle around to discuss Netflix’s latest and greatest release.  That’s the second season of Kingdom, the fantastic, epic tale of villagers in medieval 16th century South Korea dealing with a deadly plague.  Check out my review of the first season here at borg.  I am a bit envious of those who get to watch the first and second season together, because there are subtle hints in the first season that will have a greater impact if you remember them as the many twists and surprises are unveiled.  “Ripped from the headlines,” about a zombie series?  Who would have thought that was possible?

And yet it is.  The first strange irony is that the production was South Korea’s first international release via Netflix, with its topic mirroring people from differering statuses coping with a sweeping virus, government incompetence and mismanagement, and the disparate treatment of economic classes.  Unprepared for what lies ahead, a king is infected with a plague that renders him uncapable of leading.  A group of thug-like mobsters takes the opportunity to position their candidate to take the throne–only he is not ready to lead.  In fact, he doesn’t even exist–yet.  The actual person best able to lead–the rightful heir to the throne, a prince played in classic Shakespearean stateliness by Ju Ji-hoon–has been pushed aside and exiled.  He soon learns his people are threatened by a novel virus–a virus that restores the dead, but not as their former selves.  That was in the first season.  In the new season we learn that the truth behind the virus is even stranger than we could have expected.  As a physician (played by the excellent Doona Bae) struggles to find a cure, the heir to the kingdom attempts to save his people and return to seize the throne from the young, ruthless queen (played by Kim Hye-jun), who is at least partly to blame for his plight.

Kingdom pic 1

The result is a second season that matches the success of the first–the best zombie show you’ve ever seen, while also seizing the opportunity to bring a certain gravity along by steeping the story in a historical context.  And now that many have lived a few days with the threat of a deadly virus at bay, you may find the series takes on its own different, unexpected, heavy level of drama.  You might agree the nature of the threat in the series makes for the least “fantasy” version of a zombie story you’ve yet seen on film or television.  Kingdom is as much science fiction as fantasy, but it’s like that science fiction you’ve seen from Stan Lee superhero creations, and all his character origin stories resulting from misapplied science.  You’ll also find plenty of heroes and villains.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

We’re probably far from seeing a story featuring the bounty hunter Valance as good as in the pages of the original Marvel Comics series in 1978, but the first issue of the latest Star Wars comic book series is promising.  Valance, borg Hall of Famer and the first character in science fiction specifically referred to as a “borg,” shares the spotlight with a few other familiar faces in Star Wars: Bounty Hunters, now available in comic book stores.  When Star Wars writers and artists pull from the original trilogy and do it right, it can be quite fun for fans of the franchise.  And much seems to involve deconstructing every detail of George Lucas’s original visions.  For this series, that means asking the question: Why would you have so many bounty hunters on the bridge of Darth Vader’s star destroyer?  The answer became clear in last year’s Disney+ series The Mandalorian: it’s because sometimes that’s how the jobs work–if you can afford it.  And that’s the starting point of Star Wars: Bounty Hunters.

In the not too distant past we meet Valance working with Boba Fett the Mandalorian and the lizard-like Trandoshan called Bossk, two of the fellows we first met on Vader’s ship, working a job with a few other hunters.  Only the job goes sideways due to the actions of one of the hunters, Nakano Lash.  So the story begins when Lash becomes the bounty, setting the other hunters after her.  Taking place after the events of The Empire Strikes Back, that means Han Solo remains in carbonite in the cargo hold.  And it also means Lady Proxima is still around, the character that held Han’s life in her hands, introduced in Solo: A  Star Wars Story.  And it also makes room for Doctor Aphra, a character from the more recent comics universe.

 

In fact, writer Ethan Sacks and artist Paolo Villanelli appear to have the ability to play with the entire Star Wars universe in a single series.  No longer are they held back, tethered to the lead characters Luke, Leia, Han, and Darth Vader, so readers can finally dig into the other corners of the already established Star Wars galaxy.  The first issue probably has more characters and action sequences than necessary, but it’s a promising beginning.  Check out covers from the first four issues and a preview of the first issue below.

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Assassins Creed cover

Review by C.J. Bunce

Gigantic and worthy of the expansive universe it chronicles, Assassin’s Creed: The Essential Guide is one of the better visual histories in the fantasy and science fiction genres.  Titan Books has released a full-color expanded hardcover edition, updating a 2016 edition with plenty of new content, including new sections and the incorporation of recent storylines.  In a word, it’s a comprehensive look at Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed for past gamers and new gamers, and readers of its many tie-in stories, or anyone wanting to know what the game, and tie-in film, novels, and comic books, are all about.

The fun of the Assassin’s Creed universe is the merger of history and adventure in a way that incorporates both fantasy and science fiction.  The science fiction is from the time travel that isn’t.  That is, from the vantage point of a seemingly unlimited selection of starting points across history, characters can look back to the past to gain knowledge and answers to essential questions along their hero’s journey, much like in Doctor Who.  A catalog of important objects, showcased in the book via artwork in the style of the game and comics, is a treasure trove of fantasy, roleplay devices that propel players and readers through the labyrinthine stories.

Assassins Creed b

Assassin’s Creed: The Essential Guide explains the history behind the two key factions–the Creed and the Templars–and the conflict between them.  It includes timelines of events, and takes a step back to the fantasy world of the distant past that grew into modern civilization, all presented as in-universe, as if the reader lives in this secret realm behind our own.  Readers learn of objects like the Animus device, the Apples and Staves of Eden, and other important ancient artifacts and totems unearthed in the games and tie-ins.  Diehard gamers will meet again the key characters–and subordinate characters–from the video game who have presented the journey so far, and readers of the books and novels will find their familiar heroes and denizens here as well.

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