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X-Men: Magik: Storm & Illyana

X-Men: Magik: Storm & IllyanaX-Men: Magik: Storm & Illyana by Chris Claremont
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My favorite member of THE NEW MUTANTS was always Illyana Rasputin, Colossus’s little sister, a.k.a. Magik. Aside from my obvious adolescent crush on her, I was drawn to her mix of mutant and mystical abilities. Sure, she can summon “stepping discs” that allow her to teleport anywhere (and sometimes even through time), but she also has a cool “soulsword” and magical armor and a repertoire of spells at her disposal! Coupled with her constant internal battle against the dark, demonic side of her nature, how could I NOT be obsessed with her?

I read this four-issue miniseries when it first came out in 1983-4 to learn how she got those mystic powers during her years in Limbo with the demon Belasco. Trailers for a movie adaptation of THE NEW MUTANTS reminded me how much I liked the miniseries, so when I found a used trade available for a reasonable price, I snatched it up and dove right in. I was not disappointed! The story still holds up as an enjoyable, gothic adventure through a dark mirror-world of magic and demons. Back in the day, I found the alternate versions of the X-Men Illyana encounters in Limbo, twisted by Belasco’s dark magic, to be deeply disturbing, especially Kitty Pryde’s transformation into an unhinged human-cat hybrid. Today I found them equally disturbing.

Only two things keep me from awarding MAGIK five stars. The first is that the writing is ridiculously overwrought, particularly Belasco’s dialogue. This is not unusual for comic books, especially comics in the 1980s, but as a more discerning reader now it really stuck out for me. Second, it feels rushed. Had the miniseries gone for six or eight issues instead of only four, it wouldn’t have had to rely so much on exposition told through narration boxes across the panels and would have had room to show us more of what Illyana was experiencing in Limbo. It would have allowed time pass a little more organically, too, even with Limbo’s strange temporal properties.

Overall, this was a very fun read, and one I’m glad I revisited after all these years. Illyana Rasputin will always hold a special place in my dark little heart, and so will this miniseries!

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Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.

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The New Mutants: Demon Bear

New Mutants/X-Force: Demon BearNew Mutants/X-Force: Demon Bear by Chris Claremont
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

THE NEW MUTANTS was one of the few comics I read regularly back in the early to mid-1980s (along with X-MEN and ALPHA FLIGHT), so with a film adaptation on the horizon I thought I’d revisit one of the comic’s best-known story arcs. I’m sure I read it in issues back in the day, but I was surprised how little of it I remembered. For example, I remembered all the members of the New Mutants except Magma, whom I had completely forgotten existed! I was also surprised to see just how small a role Dani Moonstar plays in the overall story, despite the Demon Bear being her personal nemesis. After the first issue, Dani spends the rest of the time in the hospital while her teammates battle the Demon Bear on her behalf. These aren’t necessarily bad things, by the way, just things I didn’t remember. The story is actually quite exciting!

It’s also a reminder of what an efficient writer Chris Claremont is. Not only does he pack an epic, mystical battle into just three issues, he also takes the time within those issues to set up significant future plot lines. We briefly see Rachel Summers, the daughter of an alternate-future Cyclops and Phoenix, looking for Professor X at the mansion before her story takes off in the pages of X-MEN. We also get a few interludes setting up Warlock’s imminent arrival on Earth, including a small cameo by the Starjammers and Binary, a.k.a. Carol Danvers, the Captain Marvel we know from the MCU. As for Bill Sienkiewicz’s art, I remember thinking at the time that it was “weird,” but now I think it’s pretty great. I also appreciate that he draws our young heroes as realistic teenagers rather than giant-boobed pin-ups like other artists.

This volume also features two re-appearances of the Demon Bear in later issues of X-FORCE, but neither adds much to the story, in my opinion, although it’s nice to catch up with an adult Dani Moonstar in the first of them. Overall, I found THE NEW MUTANTS: DEMON BEAR to be a highly enjoyable blast from the past (with no bigger blast, perhaps, than seeing Storm’s 1980s mohawk again!). I don’t think I was fully conscious of it at the time, but THE NEW MUTANTS spoke to me in a way no other comics did because the characters were all around my age at the time and shared many of my insecurities, which helped me see that those insecurities were universal. I’m older now — much older — but the New Mutants still have a special place in my heart, and I enjoyed spending some time with them again.

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Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.

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Breeding Ground

Breeding GroundBreeding Ground by Sarah Pinborough
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read Sarah Pinborough’s magnificent thriller BEHIND HER EYES a few years ago and absolutely loved it, so when I found a copy of BREEDING GROUND, one of her early horror novels for now-defunct mass market publisher Leisure, I snatched it up. BREEDING GROUND is definitely “paperback horror,” with all the good and bad that entails, but Pinborough is a talented writer who lifts this novel above others like it with her skillful use of voice and characterization. I don’t think it’s as good as her later novels — some of it is clumsy, many of the interpersonal conflicts feel forced — but you could say that about any writer’s early work, and BREEDING GROUND does show a lot of future promise. It may not stay with you or get under your skin like BEHIND HER EYES, but it’s an enjoyable monster romp if you’re in the mood for one.

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Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.

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Doctor Who: “The Timeless Children”

***MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD! SERIOUSLY!***

Holy smokes, there’s a lot to unpack in this episode! Let’s get right to it, because this is going to be a long one!

One of the things I grew to dislike about the Steven Moffat era was his seemingly constant need to make pointless additions to the Doctor Who canon, perhaps the most egregious of which was having one of Clara’s splinter selves tell the First Doctor which TARDIS to steal when he and Susan fled Gallifrey. In “The Timeless Children,” Chris Chibnall makes an addition to the canon as well, one that is maybe not pointless, but isn’t entirely necessary, either. Do I hate it the way I hate Clara telling the First Doctor which TARDIS to steal? No, and the reason why is that ultimately this addition doesn’t actually change anything. Everything we know about the Doctor from Hartnell onward remains unaffected, and so there’s a lot less for me to push back against. Plus, I’m far more intrigued by this idea than by all that nonsense with Clara’s splinter selves.

It is, however, a fucking huge addition to the canon! It also answers a lot of lingering, if minor, questions about Doctor Who. The Timeless Child, as we discover from both the Master and the Matrix on Gallifrey, is a being from another universe with the ability, previously unknown in our own universe, to regenerate instead of die. The Timeless Child was discovered long, long ago by Tecteun, an astronaut and scientist of the Shobogans, Gallifrey’s indigenous species, near a gateway to the Boundary, and Tecteun decided to experiment on the child until the mysteries of regeneration were unlocked and could be added to Shobogan DNA. Mixed with the civilization’s discovery of time travel, thus were the Time Lords born. So what became of the Timeless Child? They were recruited by the Division to run special, secret missions that the Time Lords wouldn’t openly authorize because of their policy of non-intervention.

The Master’s biggest reveal, though, is that the Timeless Child is actually the Doctor, and that she has had numerous pre-Hartnell lives (such Doctor Ruth from “Fugitive of the Judoon”) that were erased from her memory. Unfortunately, at this point the fact that the Doctor is the Timeless Child likely comes as a surprise to no one, because it’s always the Doctor. The most dangerous creature in the universe is locked inside the Pandorica? Surprise, it’s the Doctor! The Hybrid is supposed to be a deadly crossbreed of two warrior races? Surprise, it’s the Doctor…and Clara! (We’re going to come back to the Hybrid a little later, by the way. Stick around!) Personally, I thought it would be a better revelation, and possibly make more sense, if the Timeless Child turned out to be the Master. It would better explain why he destroyed Gallifrey if he discovered he had been ruthlessly experimented on as a child, had his memory erased, and been lied to all his lives by the Time Lords about how important his role in their society really was. Instead, he’s angry because…there’s a piece of the Doctor’s DNA inside him? Because the Time Lord’s pomposity was unearned? The Master has always thought their pomposity was unearned! (On the other hand, if the Master is the Timeless Child, we lose Doctor Ruth, and a cosmos without Doctor Ruth scarcely bears thinking about.)

Still, this new information does answer some questions that have been around for a very long time. We finally learn, for instance, that a Time Lord’s twelve-regeneration limit is imposed by Tecteun at the start, rather than a natural limitation. (The Timeless Child could apparently continually regenerate, well past thirteen incarnations.) This also explains how the Time Lords are able to grant one of their own a whole new life cycle, as they offer to do for the Master in 1983’s “The Five Doctors,” and actually do for the Doctor in the 2013 Eleventh Doctor episode “The Time of the Doctor.” Perhaps most remarkably, this revelation also finally explains all the pre-Hartnell faces that appear on the screen during the psychic mindbending battle between Morbius and the Fourth Doctor in the 1976 serial “The Brain of Morbius”! Those faces were always intended to be Doctors before Hartnell, but later that same season the twelve-regeneration limit was mentioned for the first time in 1976’s “The Deadly Assassin,” so the faces were retconned to actually be Morbius’s previous incarnations. Now, at last, we can retcon them back to being the Doctor’s. It only took 44 years, but we got there!

Everything about the Timeless Child is a bold idea, but there are problems with it, some of which are pretty big. The Time Lords’ ability to regenerate being the result of genetic manipulation with the DNA of the Timeless Child directly contradicts the bit about River Song being able to regenerate simply because she was conceived in the TARDIS as it traveled through the time vortex. Granted, I always thought that was stupid anyway, but it’s hard to reconcile the two. If Doctor Ruth is one of those previous, forgotten incarnation, why does she call herself the Doctor? What reason does she have to operate under that name even while she’s working for the Division? It was always assumed to be the name the Doctor chose for themself when they left Gallifrey, “the [person] who makes people better.” If that’s no longer the case, could “the Doctor” actually be a codename assigned by the Division, one that the Doctor kept without fully knowing why? Another issue: Why was Doctor Ruth’s TARDIS already in the shape of a police box? The lore was always that the First Doctor stole a faulty TARDIS from Gallifrey, one with a broken chameleon circuit that left it stuck in the shape it had assumed when he and Susan landed on Earth in the early 1960s: a British police box. There could be a couple of possible explanations for this one, at least. One is that Ruth’s TARDIS’s telepathic circuits read the Thirteenth Doctor’s mind and transformed itself into a police box specifically for her. Another possibility is that Doctor Ruth’s TARDIS got stuck in the shape of a police box and, after her memory was wiped and she became the Hartnell Doctor, he wound up stealing that same TARDIS before it was repaired. (I think we can safely assume Doctor Ruth was the final secret incarnation before Hartnell, since she’d already left the Division by the time of “Fugitive of the Judoon.” It’s likely she was recaptured, memory-wiped, and turned into a child that grew up to be the First Doctor as we know him.)

“The Timeless Children” also explains that the young Irish police officer Brendan, whom we saw flashes of in “Ascension of the Cybermen,” was a Matrix construct designed to disguise the story of the Timeless Child under a visual filter. When the older, retired Brendan gets his memory erased, that’s the Timeless Child getting their memory wiped by the Division, either before a new mission or before becoming the First Doctor. Which makes me wonder: If the life of Brendan is a Matrix construct designed to hide the truth, then who’s to say the 1965 and 1966 Peter Cushing Doctor Who movies can’t be also? Perhaps now they, too, can be canon! (Okay, that might be pushing it.)

Whew! I told you there was a lot to unpack, and I’ve only covered half the episode! The other half, involving Ashad and the Cybermen fighting the human survivors, including Graham, Ryan, and Yaz, and invading the ruins of Gallifrey, is pretty good, but obviously less interesting. There’s some mumbo-jumbo about a “death particle” embedded inside Ashad that turns out to be pretty important and probably should have been brought up a lot sooner than just this episode, and a nice moment between Graham and Yaz when they think they might be about to die, and a neat plan to sneak past the Cybermen inside Cyber armor. The death particle is employed at the end of the episode, presumably killing the Master, killing his dumb-looking Cybermen/Time Lord hybrids called CyberMasters, and preventing any life from ever existing on Gallifrey again. Not to be too cynical about it, but you can expect two of those three things not to be true in the long run.

(The CyberMasters aren’t just dumb looking, they also don’t make sense. First, you don’t need organic material to make Cybermen. In fact, Ashad’s plan was to remove the organic material from the remaining Cybermen and make them entirely robotic, so there isn’t any need for the Master to use Time Lord corpses to make himself a Cyber army, even one that self-replicates. Second, how the hell did he create and redesign them so quickly? Third, and perhaps most confusing, if Time Lord corpses can regenerate, then they’re not corpses, they’re alive. The Master specifically said they were dead, so how can they still regenerate? My heads hurts.)

Ultimately, “The Timeless Children” is an exciting episode that turns Doctor Who lore on its head in an intriguing way, but I have so many questions. Also, I wish Captain Jack had come back for the finale, but at least we got another nice scene with Doctor Ruth. Also, I wish we had been given some further information on when exactly this Master comes from in their timeline. If he’s post-Missy, I want to know how that’s possible. If he’s between the John Simm Master and Missy, then I want to know that, too, just so I can understand.

And now for some Doctor Who neepery! On Gallifrey, the Master reminds the Doctor about how they used to have fun running from Borusa after skipping his classes at the Academy. Borusa was first introduced in the aforementioned 1976 Fourth Doctor serial “The Deadly Assassin” as an old teacher of the Doctor’s who has become a cardinal of the High Council. (He would reappear twice more on the show, the final time as Lord President of the High Council in 1983’s “The Five Doctors.”) The Master also mentions what fun they had in the panopticon, where the High Council gathers, including assassinating presidents. This is also a reference to the plot of “The Deadly Assassin,” in which the Master frames the Doctor for the Lord President’s assassination. The term Shobogans also comes from “The Deadly Assassin,” although in that serial it is meant as an insult meaning hooligans. It makes sense that the Time Lords might turn the name of the race they evolved from into an insult, much like an Earthling calling someone a cave man is an insult. When the Doctor sees her companions and the remaining human survivors have come to rescue her on Gallifrey, she says, “No humans on Gallifrey,” a rule that also first came up just before “The Deadly Assassin” as the reason why Sarah Jane Smith couldn’t come to Gallifrey with him. That rule was either scuttled later or ignored when Leela, a human, was allowed to stay on Gallifrey at the end of the  1978 Fourth Doctor serial “The Invasion of Time.” (Clara was also allowed on Gallifrey, sort of, in the 2015 Twelfth Doctor episode “Hell Bent.” So were the Sisterhood of Karn who, while not humans, are also not Gallifreyan.) The Doctor mentions she fought the Matrix before and denied its reality, something they did in “The Deadly Assassin” and also in the 1986 Sixth Doctor serial “The Ultimate Foe.”  The Division sounds a lot like the Celestial Intervention Agency, a secret Time Lord organization that often used the Doctor for special missions, such as sending him to Skaro to prevent the creation of the Daleks in the 1975 Fourth Doctor serial “Genesis of the Daleks.” However, the organization wasn’t given a name until, you guessed it, “The Deadly Assassin.” Really, I’m shocked at how much of “The Timeless Children” calls back to “The Deadly Assassin”!

And finally, as promised, a little more about the Hybrid. There’s a theory going around that “The Timeless Child” actually fulfills the Hybrid prophecy from season 9. The prophecy says that a hybrid creature would stand over the ruins of Gallifrey and unravel the Web of Time, breaking a billion billion hearts to heal its own. At the end of season 9, it was hypothesized that the Hybrid was actually the Doctor and Clara traveling together, but this new theory states that the Master merged with the Cyberium is the true Hybrid. After all, he stood over the ruins of Gallifrey; hacked into the Matrix to discover its biggest secret, thus unraveling the Web of Time; and broke a billion billion hearts to heal his own by murdering the Time Lords. I don’t know if this was intentional, but it’s an interesting take!

Next up is this year’s Christmas Special (or next year’s New Year’s Day Special) “Revolution of the Daleks,” which we’ve just learned will also be Graham and Ryan’s final episode. Nooooooo, Graham, come back!

Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.

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Rat Queens, Vol. 7: The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King (Rat Queens #7)The Once and Future King by Ryan Ferrier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another fun romp through the Rat Queens’ D&D-on-crack world, this time under the guidance of new writer Ryan Ferrier. The transition from Kurtis J. Wiebe’s writing to Ferrier’s is seamless. The characters, settings, and absurd adventures remain instantly recognizable. This volume starts with a standalone adventure called “Swamp Romp” that’s fun, charming, and had me laughing out loud. I promise you’ll never look at unicorns the same way again. The adventure that fills the rest of the volume, which involves the invasion and takeover of Palisade, is fun, too, but “Swamp Romp” might just be my favorite RAT QUEENS issue in some time. Violet is notably absent in the main adventure, having stepped away from the Rat Queens to start a family with Orc Dave and been replaced by young, nerdish Rat Queens fan Maddie. Maddie is a fun and interesting character with a lot of potential, but I still missed Violet. The art by Priscilla Petraites is excellent, although there were a few panels where I lost track of who was doing what or who was speaking. Not a major issue, but somewhat frustrating in the moment. I continue to enjoy the adventures of the Rat Queens and eagerly await the next volume!

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Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.

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Doctor Who: “Ascension of the Cybermen”

***MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD***

This episode is a very exciting first part of the two-part season finale, but it’s also something of a mixed bag. I liked it, but there are a few things that didn’t work for me. Let’s start with the things I liked.

The Cybermen are back! It’s always fun to see one of Doctor Who‘s greatest and longest-running foes (the first Cyberman episode aired back in 1966!) show up again, but what makes “Ascension of the Cybermen” so much fun is that it’s not your run-of-the-mill Cybermen story. The action takes us to the end of the Cyber Wars, when there are very few Cybermen left (and very few humans, too). What we get are Ashad, the half-converted Cyber zealot who was introduced in the last episode with a total allegiance to the idea of rebuilding the Cyber empire, and two beat up old Cyberguards, and they’re still enough to pose an enormous threat to the human survivors!

In fact, everything having to do with the Cyber Wars is what lifts this episode above others of its kind. There’s a great scene of what is essentially a space graveyard, with hundreds of dead Cybermen (and loose parts) floating in space near the wreckage of one of their biggest battles. It’s a striking image, and one that will stay with me for a long time. I was also very pleased to see classic series-style Cybermen among the revival-style Cybermen on the troop carrier. The scene toward the end with all the Cybermen awakened from their “tombs” and marching through the corridors of the ship strongly reminded me of a similar scene in  the 1982 Fifth Doctor serial “Earthshock” in which awakened Cybermen march out of the hold of a space freighter toward the bridge.

One interesting bit of information we learn is that human survivors have been escaping through the Boundary, a wormhole to the farthest reaches of the galaxy, or perhaps beyond, where the Cybermen can’t follow them. I have to admit, for most of the episode I assumed it was going to be a Logan’s Run situation where the Boundary is actually a trap and everyone who goes there winds up dead! The Boundary is guarded by a lone, older, wizard-looking human named Ko Sharmus, who keeps telling the Doctor to walk closer to the water’s edge to activate the Boundary. I thought for sure Ko Sharmus was going to spring a trap and possibly reveal that he has survived all this time through cannibalism. It didn’t happen that way, and I’m glad because the actual reveal — and the episode’s excellent cliffhanger that made me want to watch the next episode immediately — is that the Boundary appears to lead to Gallifrey!

And of course, out pops the Master, who has obviously escaped from the Kasaavin in the way the Master always escapes his fate. So what does all this have to do with the Timeless Child and the Master’s destruction of Gallifrey (and maybe even Doctor Ruth)? We’re about to find out. Next episode now, please!

I mentioned “Ascension of the Cybermen” is a mixed bag, and indeed there are a few things I didn’t like. The Cyber Drones, which are basically just flying Cyberman heads that can shoot lasers, are the stupidest-looking things I’ve seen on Doctor Who since the Dalek agents that suddenly sprouted Dalek eyestalks out of their foreheads. The idea of Cyber Drones is a good one, and could have been a chance to show how Cybermats — small, rodent-like machines the Cybermen use to infiltrate their targets, which first appeared in the 1967 Second Doctor serial “Tomb of the Cybermen,” and later as the updated Cybermites in the 2013 Eleventh Doctor episode “Nightmare in Silver” — have evolved into something new and more destructive. Instead we just get flying heads, which made me groan rather than worry.

When the survivors’ dying gravraft (great name!) makes one last thruster push in order to make it to another ship in the space graveyard, they don’t appear to have much control over where they’re going, but instead of crashing haphazardly into the side of the ship the gravraft flies right into its perfectly-sized docking bay with the ease of a puck sliding into the goal in air hockey. It was lazy writing and could easily have been fixed with a two-second scene showing one of them desperately trying to pilot the gravraft into the dock instead of crashing it. (And it came as zero surprise to me that the ship was actually a fully-stocked Cyber troop carrier, but that’s probably because I’m a jaded lifelong Doctor Who viewer.)

I wondered what Ashad was doing when he and his two Cyberguards go after the sleeping Cybermen in the troop carrier with what appear to be buzz saws. Afterward I figured this is how he reprogrammed them to follow his orders, but it struck me as a strange way to go about it. Wasn’t there some computer he could tinker with instead? How does cutting into them like that help reprogram them, unless he just needed to switch some wires around? (One theory is that he isn’t reprogramming them, he’s cutting out their emotional inhibitors, but there’s no evidence of this, at least not in this episode.)

What was up with Brendan, the abandoned baby who grows up in 1950s Ireland to become a policeman? Why doesn’t that robber’s bullet kill him? I had several theories as I watched the episode: Brendan is the Master reborn after Missy’s death. Brendan is Ashad. Brendan is the Timeless Child. None of them seem to be accurate, especially in light of that final scene with an older Brendan retiring from the force and being greeted by his somehow unaged father and boss who proceed to forcibly mind-wipe him with a device that looked sort of like a Chameleon Arch, but maybe isn’t? (Alexa’s theory is that Brendan is actually a Cyberman, that 1950s Ireland is his dream while he’s in stasis, and that the mind-wipe is Ashad reprogramming him before waking him. It’s as good a theory as any!)

And now for some Doctor Who neepery! At the refugee outpost, Yaz sets up a particle projector to spray gold dust at the Cybermen, claiming that they’re allergic to it. This is a reference to something that was first mentioned in the 1975 Fourth Doctor serial “Revenge of the Cybermen,” in which we learn Voga, the Planet of Gold, was instrumental in winning the Cyber Wars by discovering gold dust choked Cybermen’s respiratory systems. Gold is used as the Cybermen’s weakness in every classic-series appearance after that. The Doctor offers Ryan a humbug out of a paper bag for his motion sickness. While certainly reminiscent of the Doctor offering people jelly babies out of a similar paper bag throughout the classic series, mostly during the Fourth Doctor’s tenure, it should be noted that the Fourth Doctor did once offer a humbug to someone instead of a jelly baby in the 1977 serial “The Sun Makers.” (I had to look that one up. I’m nerdy, but not that nerdy!)

Really looking forward to the next episode, promisingly titled “The Timeless Children”!

Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.

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The Dead Girls Club

The Dead Girls ClubThe Dead Girls Club by Damien Angelica Walters
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Damien Angelica Walters’s THE DEAD GIRLS CLUB is a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable thriller. Given how breathlessly I zoomed through the last third of the novel, I wouldn’t hesitate to call it a page-turner, either. Walters’s narrative strength really shines in the flashbacks to narrator Heather Cole’s childhood, writing about girlhood and its close, intense friendships with heartfelt authenticity. The mystery that occupies Heather’s present, with its links to her past and its spooky overtones, hooked me and kept me guessing throughout. THE DEAD GIRLS CLUB is a well written and well executed thriller that stands shoulder to shoulder with Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL, Paula Hawkins’s THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, and Sarah Pinborough’s BEHIND HER EYES. Don’t miss it!

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Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.

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New Edition of CHASING THE DRAGON Now Available!

Rising from the ashes of the ChiZine Publications scandal, the Shirley Jackson Award-nominated and International Thriller Writers Award-nominated Chasing the Dragon is now available once again courtesy of Crossroad Press!

“A tight, focused narrative…Chasing the Dragon is unlike any other novel I’ve read, and easily one of my favorite reads [of the year]. It is definitely worth checking out if you like fantasy, horror, stories about the darker side of things (cuz heroin addiction is pretty dark) and deep, unique character work.” Black Gate

Chasing the Dragon moves like a bullet. As blood-soaked and thunderous as a Sergio Leone western, and grimly referential to classic pulp horror, Kaufmann turns the screws and steadily escalates the tension. A gory, thoroughly rollicking thriller–not to be missed.” — Laird Barron, author of Blood Standard and Black Mountain

Chasing the Dragon is currently available as an e-book. A new paperback edition is coming soon, but you can buy the e-book right now from:

Kindle

Nook

Google Play

Smashwords

Crossroad Press is also the publisher of my novel In the Shadow of the Axe and my collection Still Life: Nine Stories, and I’m thrilled to be working with them again to bring Chasing the Dragon back to life!

Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.

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Doctor Who: “The Haunting of Villa Diodati”

***MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD***

Boy did I love this episode! Not just for the obvious reasons — a haunted house, Mary Shelley, and the birth of Frankenstein is so tailor-made for me I’m surprised I don’t already subscribe to its newsletter — but also because its production values, especially the design, make it one of the most convincingly atmospheric episodes in years. There’s tons of great character work on display, from Lord Byron attempting to seduce the Doctor, to Claire Claremont’s reaction to those attempts, to Fletcher, the butler who steals every scene with his endless sighing and eye-rolling at Byron and his friends’ antics. Lili Miller as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, worried she’ll never be as good a writer as her parents, carries a lot of the episode on her shoulders and does a fine job of it. (Kudos to screenwriter Maxine Alderton for really nailing how insecure writers are about the one thing they know how to do.)  And of course I love, love, love a good haunted house setup, even if I know that stories like this in Doctor Who always end with the haunting being alien rather than supernatural. (Although maybe there was a real haunting, too? Never answer that question, Doctor Who!)

The excellent character work extends to the Doctor as well, particularly in the climactic scene where she’s faced with the impossible choice of either letting Percy Shelley die prematurely, thereby altering history, or saving Shelley’s life and unleashing an army of Cybermen in the future. Ryan posits that it might be worth letting Shelley die if it saves thousands of lives in the future, and the Doctor lets loose on him in a way we haven’t seen before. Shades of David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor and Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor break through as she rages at him — at everyone, really — about the choices that only she can make, that she’s forced to make, and that no one else can make for her. “Sometimes even I can’t win,” she says, and in that moment everything shows in her face, from her trauma about Gallifrey being destroyed again to the same frustration Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor felt in the 1989 serial “Ghost Light” when he realizes even he can’t handle all the small, secret manipulations he’s put in motion. This is the scene that solidifies the current TARDIS crew as never before, finally seeing the Doctor for who she really is, the angry and angst-ridden Time Lord under the friendly mask, and I suspect it is also the scene that gets the ball rolling on at least one companion leaving at season’s end.

Graham remains a joy. His search of the villa for a lavatory, only to realize they’re a few years too early for indoor toilets, is hilarious, but even more hilarious is his line at the beginning, when he’s standing in the rain at the door, “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” (To which the Doctor whispers, “Wrong writer.”) Of the companions, it better not be Graham who leaves first!

Because any story taking place at the Villa Diodati during that fateful summer is going to offer an explanation for why Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein (my favorite iteration of this idea is Ken Russell’s completely insane 1987 film Gothic), I was fully expecting the Lone Cyberman to inspire Mary’s story, and indeed it does, as she refers to him at one point as a man made from many parts. However, her line about the Cyberman’s connection to future tech making him a “modern Prometheus” is just eye-rollingly bad. It tries way too hard to shoehorn Frankenstein‘s subtitle into the dialogue, and as a result it’s cringeworthy. (I also cringed when the Doctor says something like “we’re all in the same boat” to Mary Shelley. Knowing what’s coming in her and Percy’s life, it seems a little cruel to talk to her about boats!)

Speaking of the Lone Cyberman, I like his inclusion as a way to link the forthcoming finale with Captain Jack Harkness’s warning from a few episodes back, but I also felt that the episode became a little sloppy once he arrives. In trying to juggle the needs of the Mary Shelley plot with the needs of the Lone Cyberman plot, the episode trips over its own feet a little. Not terribly, mind you, but part of the problem is that after such a compelling setup, a Cyberman is so immediately recognizable that to make it a part of the “haunting” feels almost anti-climactic. For a moment, though, I thought the Cyberman was going to be revealed as the missing Percy Shelley, somehow dragged to the future, transformed, and sent back. That would have been an interesting twist!

One thing didn’t make sense to me. I get how the Cyberium could make Shelley briefly invisible and use a perception filter to turn the house into a maze all in order to protect itself, but what was the point of reanimating the skeleton hand? What was it trying to do? Certainly it wasn’t trying to scare everybody out of the house, considering it wouldn’t let them leave. It just seemed to exist for added creepiness.

And now for some Doctor Who neepery! The Doctor mentions to Byron that she knows his daughter, Ada. This is a reference to the earlier episode this season, “Spyfall, Part Two,” in which she meets computer pioneer Ada Lovelace (nee Byron) in 1834. Later, the Doctor explains to her companions that the reason they can’t follow her into danger is because she refuses to lose anyone else to Cyber-conversion. This struck me as a direct reference to what happened to Bill in the 2017 Twelfth Doctor two-parter “World Enough and Time”/”The Doctor Falls.” However, the Doctor has seen other people get turned into Cybermen as well over the years, including Danny Pink in the 2014 Twelfth Doctor episode “Death in Heaven.” (Ostensibly, the Brigadier was also turned into a Cyberman in that same episode!) Lastly, the future Cyber-War the Doctor mentions might be the same one referenced in the 1974-5 Fourth Doctor serial “Revenge of the Cybermen,” in which we learn the planet Voga helped defeat the Cybermen by identifying gold dust as their weakness and developing gold dust particle-shooting weapons with the unfortunate name of….glitterguns.

Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.