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Tag Archive: Louis L’Amour


Review by C.J. Bunce

In his new novel Firefly: The Magnificent Nine, author James Lovegrove embarks on his next journey with the crew of Serenity following his highly successful launch point for the first ever novel series for the franchise, last year’s Firefly: Big Damn Hero (reviewed here at borg).  It’s been thirteen years since we last saw a Firefly story like these two novels, which each contain the contents of about an entire movie.  Along the way creator Joss Whedon has authorized some shorter tales via the comic books (discussed here).  Firefly: Big Damn Hero was the Firefly event of last year, and this year we’ll have two novels competing for that honor, with Tim Lebbon′s contribution to the series of novels coming this fall in Firefly: Generations So how did Lovegrove’s Firefly: The Magnificent Nine compare to his Firefly: Big Damn Hero?

As with Firefly: Big Damn Hero, Lovegrove writes the voices of the entire crew perfectly.  This is another space Western, the core of the original series, and both books feel like natural progressions following the original 14 episodes (Firefly: The Magnificent Nine fits between the last episode and the 2005 film Serenity, allowing the inclusion of two fan-favorite characters–and they’re all fan-favorite characters–Hoban “Wash” Washburne and Shepherd Book).  In a significant way the challenge of writing new Firefly stories is that writers only have 15 “canon” stories to build from, along with any notes from Whedon’s story development.  The potential pitfall is mining the original episodes too much for throwback references.  At 336 pages that’s not anything to worry about for Lovegrove.  Yes, fans will appreciate the Easter Eggs throughout the tale: Jayne Cobb’s famous hat (“a giant piece of candy corn gone wrong”) does not get ignored here, and neither does his weapon of choice, Vera.  But the framework of the story allows for plenty of opportunities for Lovegrove to do more with the characters.  It’s hard to beat his ability to get inside the head of River in Firefly: Big Damn Hero–a difficult character who didn’t get enough time to get fleshed out in the series.  But this time River takes a backseat and Jayne gets the spotlight.  As a completely original story Firefly: Big Damn Hero wins, but not by a lot.

As the title should indicate, Firefly: The Magnificent Nine is an homage to the classic, epic Western The Magnificent Seven, its source Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, and countless adaptations since.  It’s notable and important that this isn’t another actual adaptation or full retelling of the story, as Lovegrove takes his own tangent from the story after setting up the novel’s first act.  But he peppers the story with familiar references, like using actors’ names and Kurosawa himself for new characters in his story.  He also has plenty of Louis L’Amour tropes and references.  One thing this novel makes clear is there are at least as many opportunities for new novels in the series as there are Kurosawa movies and L’Amour novels to pull good ideas from.  So this isn’t merely another take on The Magnificent Seven so much as establishing that the nine heroes of the Serenity are worthy of that title.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

It’s a fantasy novella that reads like a classic Louis L’Amour Western, full of legend and lore, a book for readers that enjoy every word by an author who really knows how to pen sweeping, artful prose.  And don’t let the fact that it comes at the end of a series stop you from giving it a try.  It’s Peter V. Brett’s Barren, part of his Demon Cycle series, just released by Harper Voyager.  It’s a rather epic story of the past catching up to the present for Selia, a woman warrior in her late sixties.  She’s the leader of a community with its own religion and a dialect that could double for the speech of colonists from the Firefly ‘verse.  It’s also a community that has a variety of demon attacks it must fend off each nightfall.  And while this warrior wrestles with managing the village problems and her own personal relationships, the attacks are only getting worse.

Brett, known for writing his first fantasy novel on his telephone during commutes on the subway, writes his world of the village of Tibbet’s Brook quite eloquently.  Unlike most fiction these days, every sentence is not simply about rushing the reader to the gotcha at story’s end.  Brett fully immerses the reader in this unfamiliar place, with struggles that parallel those of our own world in any decade.  At times Barren feels as classic and on-point as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, with a bit of the unexpected a la Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.  The fear in the story isn’t some uncertain future or neighboring army, but both themes are part of the story–the fear comes from the trust and prejudices of those that surround Selia.  The Western feel comes from the relationships of Brett’s characters with an interconnected past, a close-knit group of recently united but competitive chieftains akin to the culture in the World of Warcraft realm.  In this regard you could drop the fantastical elements and swap spears for rifles and these characters, and this story would hold up as a L’Amour novel (Selia is a grown-up Echo Sackett from Ride the River).

Told from two stages of Selia’s life, we meet the young woman learning from her mother and father, the tribal leader, and then as the older woman who has taken on her father’s role.   She gains and loses her most significant personal relationships along the way with only the support of those who are closest to her.  She’s an inspiring, strong heroine lead, respected by many in Tibbet’s Brook, the kind of leader who is first into the battle–she gets some nicely choregraphed action scenes to prove her physical prowess.  For the short page count there are a surprising number of good supporting characters.  If Brett’s other stories include such fascinating female leads, then this would be a series for fans of the fantasy genre to reach out for.

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The Western lives!  Recent films Bone Tomahawk, the remake of The Magnificent Seven, and The Hateful Eight will attest to that, and this summer a young generation of actors takes the lead roles in the genre’s next entry, the movie Damsel.  Brothers David Zellner and Nathan Zellner direct (and co-star with) Alice in Wonderland and Crimson Peak’s Mia Wasikowska and Twilight and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’s Robert Pattinson, portraying pioneers on the American frontier, a disparate band of characters encountering struggles that adversely affect their journey.

Unlike modern neo-Westerns like Wind River or Hell or High Water, the setting here is vintage Old West.  Despite its modern vision, the Magnolia Pictures release seems to have some of that Louis L’Amour charm.  The big draw for fans of Robert Forster (Jackie Brown, Heroes, Twin Peaks) and his vast catalog of work will be watching him in his brief role as a preacher, the kind of part typically reserved for character actor and Western movie staple, Sam Elliott.

As with Quentin Tarentino’s The Hateful Eight, the trailer conveys a very modern, off-kilter brand of Western, typical of the kinds of films the directors are known for.  It’s a quirky comedy, but the film has been praised from its Sundance premiere as respecting the films that came before it, like the classics of John Ford.  Cinematographer Adam Stone (Midnight Special) shot the film in Ford’s trademark location, the celebrated Monument Valley.

Here is the trailer for the new Western movie, Damsel:

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Review by C.J. Bunce

After reading Michael Crichton’s groundbreaking science fiction novel Jurassic Park, I was hooked, and set out to read everything else he had written before and awaited each subsequent work with excitement.  I quickly learned that you can identify his work through his character choices and his storytelling, and not only were his ideas fresh and new (Crichton passed away in 2008), he knew how to spin a good yarn.  Yet, except for the Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World, each of his books is completely different from one another.  In common the books follow intelligent people who set about accomplishing something unprecedented.  Crichton’s latest (and perhaps final?) posthumous novel is Dragon Teeth, and in true form it is both a brilliant Crichton work, and also unlike anything he’d written before.  It arrives at bookstores later this week.

Shelf Dragon Teeth alongside Jurassic Park as the very best of Crichton.

Here at borg.com I’ve so far reviewed three of Crichton’s eight “lost” novels penned under pseudonyms.  In the early days of borg.com I reviewed Crichton’s Micro, a posthumously published novel Crichton hadn’t quite finished when he died, which included the technology that could shrink humans to half-an-inch tall beings.  With Dragon Teeth, there is no suspension of disbelief required as with many of his works.  This story is historical fiction, and a Western–easily one of the best Westerns I’ve read.  We meet a college student in 1876 named William Johnson.  He is an arrogant, self-absorbed son of a shipping magnate who takes on a dare and ends up accompanying a professor on a journey across the Old West in an early search for dinosaur bones–then newly-discovered proof that the planet is much older than previously thought.  The professor, one of the early paleontologists, is in a lifelong battle with another, competing paleontologist and their squabble becomes deadly as Johnson finds himself a pawn in repeated attempts at oneupsmanship.  Based on the feud of real-life 19th century professors, Dragon Teeth sucks the reader into every black and white Western movie where the heroes weren’t all that heroic, the dust was thick, the path was treacherous, and each new day could very well be your last.

Crichton stitched together all the Western spots you didn’t want to find yourself in as an outsider in 1876–Cheyenne, across the Badlands, into Montana and Wyoming territory, and the end of the line in murky Deadwood.  Dragon Teeth has all the atmosphere of Silverado, and reads with both the folklore of a Louis L’Amour novel and the peril and adventure of a Jon Krakauer true-life account.  You’ll find deceit and friendship as they existed beyond the frontier, Native American friends and enemies, and a look inside political and religious clashes that exist to this day.

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Dead Mans Hand cover

Review by C.J. Bunce

Who would have thought we’d be discussing a book in the second decade of the 21st century featuring new stories of the Old West?  Titan Books has released such a work with Dead Man’s Hand: An Anthology of the Weird West, bringing together short stories from 23 authors that mash-up the Old West with science fiction, fantasy, steampunk, and horror.

The Dead Man’s Hand is of course the legendary card hand last held by Wild Bill Hickok when he was shot down by Jack McCall in Deadwood, South Dakota back in 1876.  The superstitions carried forward by those cards–believed to be black aces and eights–fuels the magic and “weird” behind the stories in this compilation.

Fans of Louis L’Amour who may have open minds for the extremes of what might qualify as an Old West story should find at least a few good tales in Dead Man’s Hand.  Like Mike Resnick’s story “The Hell-bound Stagecoach,” set in Arizona Territory circa 1885, it chronicles riders in a stagecoach who don’t quite remember how they ended up on the road bound for somewhere, as they encounter a proper lady who happens to be a good cook along the way.  Resnick’s story is steeped in classic lore of the Old West era.

Jeff Bridges as Wild Bill Hickok

Editor John Joseph Adams attempts to summarize the genre in his introduction as having its roots in the works of Robert E. Howard, Gene Autry’s serial The Phantom Empire, and the 1970s series The Wild, Wild, West, but Adams could look back farther to cowboy lore–stories created and shared by those stranded in desert storms, creations of the lost, hungry and thirsty, like those seeing mirages.  Like the story that would become Ghost Riders in the Sky, written by Stan Jones in 1948.  Jones recalled the story was first told to him back around 1926, and certainly that story was among many Old West tomes of the oral tradition circulating back to even before the Civil War.  Regardless of the earliest sources for such stories, they still entertain audiences in a world of cell phones, space travel, and the Internet.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Micro: A Novel is a solid footnote to the successful writing career of Michael Crichton.  It doesn’t approach Jurassic Park in terms of character and intrigue, but it would fairly line up alongside the likes of Terminal Man, The Andromeda Strain, Sphere, and Congo.  Crichton had completed only about one-third of the book when he died in 2008.  Richard Preston, author of fiction and the non-fiction work The Hot Zone, picked up the reins to complete the book, finally published in November 2011.

I am always incredibly curious to read a book featuring co-authors or a work finished or packaged posthumously.  Louis L’Amour died in 1988 and for years it seemed like his estate kept churning out books as if he were still writing.  In the first issues of Kevin Smith’s The Bionic Man, I was very interested in how much content came from Smith and how much from co-author Phil Hester.  With this final Crichton work, I initially spent more time thinking about structure and technique more than getting engrossed in the book, asking myself “Is this Crichton, or the imposter?”  This was true for me for the first third of the book.  At some point, however, I jumped in fully and went along for a fairly thrilling ride.  And if Crichton didn’t write it all, then Richard Preston was able to fake it very well.

The biggest hurdle in embracing Micro was the struggle for the reader’s suspension of disbelief.  In Jurassic Park, Crichton made readers believe that you could take dried mosquito blood from ancient amber, mix it with frog DNA and grow your own dinosaurs.  It was explained so simply so as to be believable without question, despite how impossible it would be to replicate in the real world.  It was harder for me to grasp the concept of taking humans and shrinking them to a half an inch tall.  Micro explains the science perhaps too briefly, taking from some apparently real-life experiment showing that magnetic fields acting on an object could shrink the object’s size.  Extrapolating that to organic beings of any size or complexity on any scale or scope that matters seems plainly absurd to me.  This despite the fact that “I want to believe” and am an open-minded science fiction reader, and despite any number of past suggestions in science fiction going back to The Incredible Shrinking Man, which might prime the open mind for such a possibility.  Didn’t The Fly teach us there were too many variables to consider to be able to make an experiment like this work?  It is that type of question, and the philosophy behind Crichton’s techno-thrillers, that are often as intriguing as the works themselves.

In Micro when a scientist criticizes another for being a vegetarian—he is written off with the pointed question, “how do you not know plants have feelings, too?”  Basically, end of story, vegetarians are illogical.  In the preface, quoting statements made by Crichton tied to this novel, Crichton seems critical of global warming theory.  We know from Jurassic Park that he embraced chaos theory and the science of complex systems.  We know from his work Prey that Crichton jabbed at believers of global warming, or at least those purporting to understand the puts and takes of global warming.  Here in Micro he implies that, because there are too many variables we can never understand nature.  Yet at the same time he tries to get readers to understand nature, and through his characters he suggests that if you do study nature you can use it to your advantage, to even save your life in the most crazy, unlikely, and perilous circumstances possible.  I am sure if you could only interview Crichton today he may be able to iron out this apparent ambiguity.  In the end, I think you can enjoy Micro as a thrill ride, but as an attempt at anything more serious, the piece doesn’t stand up.  If he believed that we can never fully understand nature, why spend any time researching nature, or why care about the characters in this book who do?

Like Crichton’s sequel to Jurassic Park, The Lost World, where Crichton seemed to switch from hard science in a way similar to Tom Clancy’s delving into every nuance behind the military-industrial complex (similarly, both sometimes ad nauseum), to a more instantly cinematic form of storytelling.  Micro, too, seems to be written directly for ready-made actors to jump into their roles for the impending Hollywood release.  Its ending is better than several of Crichton’s early works, where Crichton never seemed to know when to stop the story, or like Sphere, the story dazzled at first then drifted to boredom at the end.  Here the ending is full of catastrophe and skin-of-your-teeth, nick-of-time wrap-ups.  It all works as the stuff of a thin-science, romping summer blockbuster.  And it may work for readers who don’t ask too many questions.  Such as:

  • Can you safely carry people around in a plastic baggy?
  • Can you envision a vehicle that you can fit into your pocket?
  • Could you fly a plane that was an inch long across the entire island of Oahu and arrive at any intended destination, no matter how many times you tried?
  • Would the sheer terror of encountering bugs that were bigger than you not induce a heart attack or even slightly put you off kilter so as to not allow you to tap your immense knowledge of the science of beetles to think about ways to assemble poisons to be able to successfully eliminate the creature?
  • If your co-worker was held underground by a wasp as a prisoner, to be the wasp’s offspring’s lunch, would any human in any context feel sympathy for the offspring who was to be deprived of his lunch if your rescue succeeds? (As noble and naturalistic a thought this may be, I think terror would win out in any event).
  • At what percent of normal function could you function if your arm, as an example, was injected by a giant insect with its larvae, using you as a host?  Could you then fly a plane that you’d never seen before, or would you just freak out and cower in the corner, or beg your friend to cut off your arm?

The best part of all Crichton novels is the creation of a small think tank of a half dozen experts of distinct disciplines pulled together seemingly to research some project, only to realize their real purpose is to solve a difficult problem under unthinkable conditions.  Crichton creates these mini-universities where ideas can be shared, theories argued and defended.  The human condition—personalities, foibles, belief systems, behavior–always gets in the way, but never to the detriment of the entire operation.  Here we have seven graduate students, anxious to get their own deals post-grad with private industry.  Then Vin Drake, president of tech corporation Nanigen, comes along to recruit.  One of the students, Peter Jansen, has a brother Eric who already works there.  They all fly to the headquarters on the island of Oahu.  First Eric turns up dead, and in attempting a quickly and poorly thought plan to get an admission from the killer, the seven are sucked into the microverse and left to die in the woods.

Meanwhile enter a local detective, Police Lieutenant Dan Watanabe (my favorite character in the book), who is part Officer Gunderson from Fargo and part Marshal Gerard from The Fugitive, but would have been nicely played on the big screen by Jack Soo (Barney Miller), Kam Fong (Hawaii 5-0), or Kwan Hi Lim (Magnum, PI).  He’s getting misinformation about a group of bizarre deaths, and they all have one company in common.  The story works back and forth among Watanabe (just not enough for my taste), the seven students, and the villain of the story and his minions.  The ride has its moments.

To my surprise, what also becomes most “real” in the novel is what made Jurassic Park real for me—the shock and horror.  To this day the most vivid scene for me from any Crichton novel is when a character is hiding in Jurassic Park in some inner hallway in the dark after all the dinosaurs have escaped their pens.  Something moves past him and he doesn’t feel much or know what happened, until he reaches down to feel his intestines are in his hands, quickly and seemlessly slashed by some plotting raptor. Several of these gut-churning scenes abound in Micro, all involving the fleshy, oogy, gory, grizzly, and grotesque that would likely occur when encountering bugs head-on when they out-size you.  If anything, the encounters as concepts are predictable—get out a sheet of paper and write out every worst-case encounter you would have as an insect—as prey—and you will see each of those scenarios revealed as happening to one of the characters somewhere before the final page.  Horrific to be sure, but it’s that kind of thrill that makes you soar to the end to find out what happens to everyone.

The result is a book worthy of Crichton’s catalog, and an interesting last entry for those that have gobbled up everything else he had to offer.  Available everywhere books are sold.

Review by C.J. Bunce

I like western movies.  I like the sounds of the Old West, the cattle, the clinking of spurs as the two guys slowly meet up in the center of the old western town.  I like epic western soundtracks and I like slow guitar soundtracks, and theme songs that sometimes tell a familiar story.   I also have read a little Louis L’Amour and love his writing and descriptions.  I’ve never thought of picking up a comic book about the Old West, mainly because they don’t make ’em anymore.

I almost didn’t pick up All-Star Western #1, one of DC Comics’s New 52 line.  Mostly because it had the crazy looking Jonah Hex on the cover.  All I knew of Hex was watching a bit of the Jonah Hex movie, which for whatever reason I didn’t finish on video.  But somehow (fate?) it ended up in my pull list.  I have read a super western-ish book recently called El Diablo: The Haunted Horseman, by Jai Nitz, Ande Parks, and Phil Hester, that was just awesome (to be reviewed here later on).  Intrigued by the idea of a current western comic in the midst of the Justice League superheroes, I read it first from the stack.

From a literary standpoint there is almost an unending supply of reasons to check this one out.

Unusual Setting

One would think a western comic took place in the Old West.  This takes place in Gotham city in the 1880s, which in my mind is more Old East.  The drawings have a nice old-time feel to them.  The colors offer more than just sepia tones.  There’s a little Mike Mignola and P. Craig Russell’s Gotham by Gaslight feel here for sure.  A good thing, as I wished that book had turned into its own series.

Narration

The narrator is none other than the founder of Gotham’s own Arkham Asylum, Doctor Arkham himself.  Arkham is our narrator, and he’s a bit odd.  His character, his mannerisms, and his creepiness might remind you of Clifton Webb as Waldo Lydecker in Otto Preminger’s Laura.  A further creepy scene may also make you think he’s a bit of Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Familiar But Reliable Plot

To get us into this world quickly, the plot seems to be a mix of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and a Jack the Ripper tale.  Pacing is reminscent of Alan Moore’s From Hell.  There’s also a bit of the outcast element of Danny Glover’s Mal in Silverado.  There’s a medical aspect of the 19th century as well, the sleuthing of an early Detective Comics of sorts, but again, familiar because of the similar treatment in From Hell.  The art here, however, is a lot more stylish and evocative.  The only downside will be if this continues to be just another Jack the Ripper story.  Too many stories end up there.

The Archetype Western Anti-Hero

Not only does the half-mangled faced Jonah Hex play the anti-hero, he talks a bit like Clint Eastwood mixed with Sam Elliott.  Hex’s confederate uniform really brings you back to Sam Elliot’s performance as Dal Traven in Louis L’Amour’s The Shadow Riders, but there is also a little of Elliott’s Ghost Rider’s Caretaker mixed with The Golden Compass’s Lee Scoresby.  To get me to conjure any incarnation of Sam Elliott in your character is a win in my book.  But then again there’s a spin on Eastwood’s Stranger from High Plains Drifter, as you can see the whole town of Gotham closing in on Dr. Arkham and Hex after only the 24th page.  Who would have thought Jonah Hex could be so cool?

If you want something truly different, pick up this book.