American Gods

American GodsAmerican Gods by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Gaiman has fashioned a novel full of great characters, incredible world building, well researched religious and mythological history, and smooth, marvelous prose…all, alas, in search of forward momentum. For a novel this packed with wonderful ideas, very little actually happens. I did enjoy it — these characters will definitely stay with me — but I found its lackadaisical, meandering structure and the protagonist’s mostly passive role in the story frustrating. More than one hundred pages pass before we’re clued into any of the characters’ goals or given any idea of what’s at stake, which made it hard for me to feel invested. As a result, I found the novel very easy to put down and wasn’t always in a rush to pick it up again. I’m glad I did, because the novel definitely picks up in its final third, but for me it was a slog getting there.

The middle of the novel, when Shadow is tucked away in the town of Lakeside, is particularly frustrating. Way too many pages are spent with Shadow simply trying to pass the time, from visiting library sales to chatting with his new neighbors, while Mr. Wednesday is off, unseen, doing things that are presumably more interesting and important to the story. Gaiman himself seems to recognize this issue and adds a last-minute mystery to the Lakeside community for Shadow to solve, and though Gaiman’s instincts are right in this regard, his fix is wrong. The Lakeside mystery is kept too distant from the main storyline, its resolution coming only after everything else is already finished, and as a result it all comes off feeling like an unnecessary addendum. It would have made a fine, separate novel, though.

A war between the gods should be exciting, but since we don’t get to see much of it at all the novel doesn’t reach the level of excitement I was hoping for. You couldn’t call AMERICAN GODS a fast-paced or tightly-plotted novel, but despite my issues it is a worthy one. I can see why it’s so beloved by so many — there really is a richness to the world and the characters Gaiman creates — but it just didn’t resonate with me that strongly.

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Rave Review of IN THE SHADOW OF THE AXE in Locus Magazine

The May issue of Locus Magazine contains a rave review by Bram Stoker Award-winning author John Langan of my novel In the Shadow of the Axe! It’s a remarkably in-depth analysis in just four paragraphs of the novel’s storyline as well as themes that run through my body of work as a whole, but I can’t reprint it all, so here are the highlights:

As Laird Barron writes in his introduction, Nicholas Kaufmann’s In the Shadow of the Axe could have appeared as a Hammer film during the heyday of the studio’s horror productions….Kaufmann’s affection for the material is obvious, and it lends a richness to his conception….[He] skillfully builds his narrative’s momentum…It is Nicholas Kaufmann’s finest work.

Wow, my finest work! If you’d like to read it and decide for yourself if that’s true, here’s a handy ordering link. The link goes to Amazon, but the novel is available wherever e-books are sold. Right now, In the Shadow of the Axe is only available as an e-book, but hopefully the print edition will happen soon. Keep watching this space.

Doctor Who: “Thin Ice”

“Thin Ice,” the third episode of Doctor Who‘s tenth season, continues the pattern of strong, standalone stories we’ve seen so far. “Thin Ice” is actually a better, more cohesive story than last week’s “Smile,” while still allowing plenty of room for the Doctor and Bill to get to know more about each other. Things take a more dramatic turn in their relationship when Bill witnesses her first death and has an important conversation with the Doctor about how he can see so much death and keep going. It’s a good scene, and though I’ve grown tired of the trope of companions getting angry at the Doctor when he can’t save someone (despite all the people he has saved), I very much liked Bill confronting him about whether he has ever killed anyone himself. She doesn’t let him make excuses, either. She makes him own it, which actually brings them closer together.

Another thing I liked about “Thin Ice” is that the speculative element turns out not to be an alien enemy so much as an animal just doing what animals do, namely eating, without any malice or plans of domination. There is a real villain, of course, someone who is exploiting the animal in question, and that’s how it should be in a story like this. (In fact, there are echoes in “Thin Ice” of “Smile” and “The Pilot,” with both previous stories featuring a speculative, non-human element that is potentially deadly without truly meaning harm.)

The script by Sarah Dollard is a strong one, taking the time to address both racism and representation in Regency England, which is not something Doctor Who often takes the time to do. When the Doctor clocks Sutcliffe for calling Bill a “creature” who should show respect for her “betters,” it’s a pretty great scene, both humorous and cathartic. There’s a funny joke about an imaginary companion named Pete who erased himself from history by stepping on a butterfly. We get a scene involving the psychic paper again, which is something we haven’t seen in quite a while. We also learn a little more about the vault, namely that, thanks to some knocking from the other side of the door, it’s most likely a person inside, which I predicted back in episode one. At this point, I’m wondering if it will be Missy. The only thing I didn’t like about this episode was that Nardole is grumpy and moralizing again. Grumpy, moralizing Nardole doesn’t work for me. Matt Lucas is hilarious; they need to let him be hilarious. I’d love to see Nardole be as funny and disaffected again as he was in last Christmas’s otherwise forgettable special, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio.” More funny Nardole, less grumpy schoolmarm Nardole!

And now a small bit of Doctor Who neepery! In conversation with the pie man at the frost fair, the Doctor asks about a man with a ship tattooed on his hand and attempts to bond with the pie man by sharing his disgust of tattoos. But, a little-known fact: the Doctor himself used to have a tattoo! Back in the very first Third Doctor serial, 1970’s “Spearhead from Space,” the Doctor is shown showering in a hospital bathroom and we see a tattoo on his forearm. (This is the only time we ever see the Doctor without a shirt on, until the 2010 Eleventh Doctor episode “The Lodger,” which revealed the tattoo is no longer there. Edited to add: A reader pointed out my oversight that the Ninth Doctor is shown shirtless in the episode “Dalek” in 2005. Notably, the tattoo is also not there.) The reason the Third Doctor has a tattoo at all is because the actor Jon Pertwee got it during his Navy days. Why it wasn’t covered up with makeup for the scene is anyone’s guess, so now the Doctor’s tattoo is canon! The tattoo itself is of a cobra, although when seen upside-down it looks remarkably like the question mark that would become a regular symbol upon the clothes of the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors.

Doctor Who: “Smile”

“Smile,” the second episode of the new Doctor Who‘s tenth season, is a pretty good episode. It’s not an instant classic or anything, and there isn’t much plot going on until the last ten minutes or so, but the episode exists mostly to give the Doctor and Bill an opportunity to continue bonding and learning about each other, and in that regard it absolutely succeeds. The mentor relationship between the Doctor and Bill works so much better for me than the “space boyfriend” dynamic Doctor Who has been trafficking in since the revived series began, and as a result this season feels like a breath of fresh air. Peter Capaldi continues to shine as the Doctor — his performance is so assured it rises above even the weakest material — and I continue to hate the fact that he’s leaving at the end of this season. I don’t know what’s going to happen afterward, or for how long Doctor Who will stay on the air, but I’m convinced Capaldi will go down as one of the best new Doctors.

As I mentioned, the plot isn’t all that special, and it’s definitely one of those stories you don’t want to examine too closely or the logic will fall apart. For instance, the Vardy don’t really show many signs of self-awareness, and you’d figure the vital mechanical interface of a new colony would have some form of self-defense program anyway just in case the colony was attacked. Rebooting the system and wiping the Vardy’s memory doesn’t remove their knowledge of money, in particular pounds sterling, even though it removed everything else. The Vardy are construction microbots, so how exactly do they “eat” people down to the bone? What would make the Vardy then decide to use those bones as calcium fertilizer for the gardens? The questions could go on, but as I said, this episode was more about the Doctor and Bill than about the story happening around them.

There’s not a whole lot of Doctor Who neepery to share for this episode. The basic plot has some similarities to the 1988 Seventh Doctor serial “The Happiness Patrol,” which also involves the execution of colonists who aren’t happy all the time, although that story was really much more a response to Thatcher’s England. There are also a few superficial similarities to the 2008 Tenth Doctor episodes “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead,” with microscopic-sized creatures eating people down to the bone, and the 2005 Ninth Doctor episodes “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances,” with nanotechnology gone awry. And I suppose the Vardy are in some way a truly Moffat-era antagonist — we’ve had “don’t blink” creatures and “don’t breathe” creatures and “don’t turn around” creatures, and now we’ve got “don’t stop smiling” creatures. But that’s all I’ve got. There are surprisingly few callbacks to the classic series this time around. (Although ending this episode with what is basically the start of the next is a very classic series thing to do!)

We have another mysterious mention of the vault the Doctor has promised to guard without leaving Earth, although no more clues as to what’s in it or why he made that promise. There’s a funny joke about the Doctor not being Scottish, just very cross, and another about how Scottish colonists seek independence on every planet they inhabit. The Doctor claims he is 2000 years old now, which I found quite surprising. When the Doctor says to one of the interface robots, “I’m happy, hope you’re happy too,” my mind immediately went to the 1980 David Bowie song “Ashes to Ashes” — an earworm that grew so insistent I actually had to listen to the song later. (We know Capaldi is a fan of Bowie, so I doubt this was merely a coincidence.) My only real complaint is that Nardole is basically sidelined for this episode, and I suspect he won’t be in the next one, either, since it appears to be set in the past. I want more Nardole, please! (Also, it didn’t feel quite right that he was jealous of Bill’s presence in the TARDIS. Less of that, please.)

We may only be two episodes in but season ten is looking to be a strong one, thanks to solid scripts, good actors, and especially the rapport between Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie.



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