I was in the mood for a movie last night, and I offered three options to my wife: Sanjuro, an Akira Kurosawa samurai movie starring noted badass Toshiro Mifune, Mad Max: Fury Road, a movie we’ve both seen but which I felt could stand a rewatch, and Atomic Blonde.

You may see a theme there, and it’s a sign of just how much of an action star Charlize Theron has become that I’m putting her up with Toshiro Mifune without even thinking about it. She’s an amazing actress and also seems to be an impressively genuine individual; I’ve seen several really good interviews with her and she’s always entertaining as hell. (She did a great interview with Howard Stern a few years ago, but I can’t find that online.)

I had thought from the previews that Atomic Blonde was basically going to be a Black Widow movie without actually having Black Widow in it; that is not entirely accurate. This is a spy movie set in Berlin during the last days of the Berlin Wall– the Wall actually falls toward the end of the movie, so the very last days of the Wall– and Theron plays a British agent sent in to recover a list of active agents being shopped around by a former Russian Stasi agent who is trying to defect. It’s a great example of the genre; other than the bit where it’s starring a woman this movie could have been made in any of the last three decades without any change, and other than needing to see into the future to predict the fall of the Berlin Wall I could totally see it having come out in the 50s or 60s as well. It’s got this timeless classic feel to it that I really liked, and the direction, set lighting, that sort of thing all has this great old-school thing going.

There is no trace of the superhero movie in this, though, is the thing, despite having been based on a comic book.(*) There are some great fight scenes, and one of the things that makes them great is that Theron’s character doesn’t have a single fight anywhere in the film that doesn’t take a toll on her. If she gets punched in the face, she acts like she’s been punched in the face, and the film uses a framing sequence where she’s being debriefed by MI6 where she is covered in bruises and looks absolutely beat to hell. There’s an absolutely amazing sequence toward the end of the film involving several waves of two or three bad guys at a time and several staircases. It’s probably close to ten minutes long and it’s all one shot, and by the end of it Theron has won (spoiler alert, I guess) but can hardly walk and frankly is only barely still alive. It’s one of the best fight sequences I’ve ever seen, and it takes what was already a pretty damn good flick and elevates it to something very close to a must-see for anyone who enjoys action films.

I feel like this movie went under the radar when it came out in 2017, so if you haven’t seen this yet, definitely take a couple of hours and check it out. It’s a $3.99 rental in a couple of different streaming services right now; you won’t regret it.

(*) I know nothing at all about the comic book other than the name, so I can’t really address how well this movie works as an adaptation.

#Review: MJ-12: ENDGAME, by Michael J. Martinez

510yHfinWeL._SX314_BO1,204,203,200_The usual set of disclaimers before I review any Michael J. Martinez book:  I’ve reviewed nearly everything he’s written on this blog somewhere, and not only did he thank me by name in the afterword of one of his earlier books, my review of MJ-12: Shadows is actually excerpted inside MJ-12: Endgame.  On top of that, he was nice enough to provide a book blurb for Tales: The Benevolence Archives, Vol. 3which I have featured right on the front cover.  I’ve never met the guy but if I ever do he’s gonna get a hug and there’s nothing he can do about it.

(Well, okay, there probably is.  But I’m hoping the police don’t get involved.)

Now, that said: I bought this book all by myself with my own money on purpose and there is no universe where I’m gonna write a fake positive review just to curry favor.  If I hadn’t liked it, I’d just never mention reading it on the site.

We good?  Okay.

One way or another it probably won’t surprise you to learn that I really liked this book.  MJ-12: ENDGAME is the third and final book in the MJ-12 trilogy, an alternative history book about CIA spies with superhuman powers (called Variants in this series) during the Cold War.  As usual, the premise all by itself earns the book a read for me, and this particular novel begins with the death of Stalin in 1952 and basically covers the CIA’s machinations to make sure that the head of Stalin’s secret police, Lavrentiy Beria (go ahead, click the link, I’d only barely heard of him too,) doesn’t end up in charge of the USSR.

Only, minor twist: Beria is a Variant, and can sorta shoot flames out of his hands, and he’s also in control of the Soviet Union’s still-very-much-a-secret Variant program.  MJ-12: Shadows sent me to Wikipedia to check up on stuff after I read it.  Endgame had me doing research damn near immediately, because I wanted to make sure the minimal stuff I remember from the couple of books about Stalin I’ve read was mostly accurate.

So you can read Endgame on a bunch of levels.  If you’re a history buff, you’ll enjoy it because the Cold War is interesting enough on its own and the Soviet Union immediately post-Stalin was, uh, a bit more volatile than most of the time.  If you like spy novels, you’ll get a great old-school spycraft novel, only with people with superhuman abilities instead of James Bond-style fancy gadgets.  And if you like superheroes, well, you won’t exactly get superheroes per se– these folks are spies, with all the moral gray areas that implies, and some of them make some, uh, rather cold decisions over the course of the book– but the range of powers Martinez’ characters have and the various drawbacks and limitations of those powers are fascinating.  There’s a great balancing act going on in this book– there are a lot of characters, and while the book does a decent act of standing on its own I’d strongly recommend reading the first two first, because there are so many moving pieces, such as an entire subplot going on involving the Korean War.  The end result is an elegantly-written, complex novel that still manages to clock in at just barely over 300 pages.  There’s not a wasted page anywhere in this book, guys; it’s that well-done.

My only complaint?  I want more, and while Martinez doesn’t exactly tie the universe up with a bow on it the ending makes it clear that while there is definitely space for future books in this universe they will take place in an entirely different status quo.  That said, this series is radically different in tone and genre from the Daedalus series, Mike’s previous trilogy, and I genuinely can’t wait to see what he’s got coming next.

All available stars; would read again; you should go read now.

#REVIEW: MJ-12: SHADOWS, by Michael J. Martinez


Let us begin with the obligatory disclaimer: I’ve read all of Mike Martinez’ books, and reviewed all but the first one in this space.  Mike apparently noticed my review of THE ENCELADUS CRISISand he actually thanked me by name in the Afterword of THE VENUSIAN GAMBIT.  I’ve gotten both of his last two books early as ARCs, with the request that I review them honestly.  And Mike was also kind enough to do a cover blurb for TALES FROM THE BENEVOLENCE ARCHIVES, which is going to be out super soon.  (Stand by for an announcement in the next couple of days, actually…)

So anyway.  I read MJ-12: SHADOWS on my trip last week.  And it’s interesting; I didn’t actually review the first Michael Martinez book I read, THE DAEDALUS INCIDENT, because I like my narratives straightforward and TDA is anything but and it kind of bounced off of me a bit.  But I loved the sequel, which is still my favorite of his books.  Now that I’ve read his second MJ-12 book, though, I’m starting to wonder if Martinez is just really good at hitting the ball out of the park when he writes a sequel.  The premise to the series is thus: the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II led to certain individuals around the globe randomly acquiring superpowers.  Of course, this being the beginning of the Cold War, both Russia and the United States have a distinct interest in acquiring those individuals and using them to advance their own national security.  The series, effectively, is a historical fiction Cold War spy thriller with superheroes, only there’s no crazy costumes and no saving cats from trees.  SHADOWS, cut loose from having to set up all that background, gets to focus solely on superpowered individuals (“Variants”) being badass spies, and it’s both a more densely plotted and more historically interesting book than INCEPTION was as a result.  This book must have been hell to write; it snakes in and around a bunch of actual historical events and pulls them into its orbit and its narrative (and the characters are spies, right, so the Actual Historical Narrative we know about is just the cover story!) and I think it’s one of those cases where the more you know about the actual history of the early Cold War, the more you’re going to like the book.  I mean, I know a little bit about James Forrestal, right?  And I hit a Certain Moment with him in the book and then spent an hour in a Wikipedia spiral.

Again: this book had to be a bastard to write, but at the end of it we’ve got a great spy novel involving dueling world powers with superpowers against the specific setting of the CIA interfering with early independence movements in Syria and Lebanon, with a little stop in Kazakhstan in October of 1949 along the way, and I’m not going to tell you what happened there because it counts as a spoiler if you don’t know the history.  I find it kind of fascinating, too, that the two most interesting characters are a deeply Christian African-American former day laborer whose powers cause him to age or grow younger when he uses them– hurting people makes him younger and healing them makes him older– and Harry Truman.  Toss in a former Nazi scientist and a couple of coups and, oh, something that may very well be a parallel dimension inhabited by the dead, because this is a Michael J. Martinez book and it just wouldn’t do to not have something completely bananapants insane in it and you have a book that I very much enjoyed reading, a book that neatly avoids feeling like the second book in a trilogy precisely because it’s tied in so closely to actual historical events and history doesn’t work in a three-act structure and you have what probably isn’t my favorite of his books (that’s still ENCELADUS) but may well rank as his best work nonetheless.  Yes, he gave it to me for free.  Yes, I’m buying it anyway, once it comes out on September 5, because I can’t not have this in print.  And you should too.

(“Completely bananapants insane” is your pull quote, Mike.  Just FYI.)

#REVIEW: MJ-12: INCEPTION, by Michael J. Martinez

I have51V8EMC0iNL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg gone on the record twice as being a big fan of the work of Michael J. Martinez.  I have read all three of his previous books from his Daedalus trilogy, and I loved the latter two enough to rave about them on the blog.  In the third one, he was kind enough to mention me in the afterword.  I’ve never met the guy, but we interact occasionally on Twitter.  He is my favorite current, working adventure writer.  I have no idea if he’s noticed my books or not.

Well, one way or the other, I lucked into an advance copy of the first book of his new series.  The book is called MJ-12: INCEPTIONand the series is just called Majestic-12.  

The Daedalus books were about… well, quite a lot of things, actually.  Dimension-hopping hard-sci-fi steampunk space galleons with aliens on Venus and ancient magic affecting the real world.  They were, uh, a bit hard to categorize, but what was clear about the entire series was that Martinez had a huge amount of fun writing them, particularly in the last installment of the series.

MJ-12: INCEPTION is a very, very, very different series from the Daedalus books.  So much so, in fact, that were it not for his love of genrebending (or, perhaps, hatred of the idea of genre) bleeding through, I’d not have been able to guess that the books were by the same person.  That said, I can find out quickly if you are interested in reading the book by asking a very short question:  How do you feel about Cold War superheroes?

Okay.  You just told yourself whether you should read this book or not.  And if I have any influence, you should.  MJ-12: INCEPTION isn’t as madcap or as breathtakingly original as the previous series, but it’s a convincing period piece set at the very beginning of the Cold War, right after the end of World War II.  Harry Truman is a character, as is large chunks of his Cabinet, and if Martinez played fast and loose with any historical events other than a couple of obvious ones they got past me.  It’s not as fun as his previous series but I’m not sure that’s a criticism, as “Cold War thriller” isn’t necessarily a genre I need to be a lot of fun.  It is, instead, a solid espionage story that links the emergence of superpowered people, known as Variants, to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings (well, Hiroshima, specifically) and then imagines what might happen if the United States and the Russians both had access to an expanding pool of metahumans.  Along the way we get a cool look at mid-1940s tradecraft and a bit of Bond-level gadgetry.

It’s not the Martinez I’m used to, but I’ve pre-ordered the hardcover despite getting the book for free.  The rest of you can have it on September 6.  I highly recommend it.