Fantasia 2019: Final Thoughts

Thursday, September 26th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

BalloonYesterday I posted my last full review of a film from the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival. Today, then, a post looking back at this year’s Fantasia. First, as always, my profound thanks to everyone who puts the festival together. And thanks as well to the audiences, who give the festival a reason for being. Special thanks to everyone I watched movies with, everyone I waited in line with, and everyone who I talked with and hung out with during Fantasia 2019.

This year was a bit odd for me, in that for the first week or even two I felt that while I was watching a lot of very solid feature films I was nevertheless missing a certain sense of surprise; a feeling I normally have at Fantasia of being blindsided by a movie, or a set of movies one after another. This may have simply been a function of what films I happened to see, or a subjective impression caused by some minor health issue (chronic fatigue takes many forms). Certainly that sense of mild shock did set in before too long. But it came from an unexpected place. What struck me as most impressive about the festival this year were not features but the short films.

It has been observed that the relation of short film to long film is more-or-less that of the short prose story to the novel. The short format is capable of powerful work, condensing narrative into terse, elliptical, allusive flashes. Artists often work at that length before embarking on longer stories, sometimes to hone their craft, sometimes to build a name, sometimes because they love the form. But audiences tend to prefer immersion in a longer story. In any case, while there are a number of outlets for prose short stories, short film rarely gets the same kind of exposure.

There are exceptions. It’s perfectly fair to talk about TV episodes as short film, for example. But one of the strengths of a good short is the way it can build a world very quickly, establishing as much as we need to know about character and telling a story with them in just a few minutes. So I want to write for a moment about a film I saw this year that I haven’t yet covered: “Balloon,” by Shin Hyun-woo.

Every year Fantasia has several blocks of animated shorts for children that play at the McCord Museum of Canadian History, not far from the main Fantasia theatres. I have two young nieces, and saw two blocks of those films this year. Plans for coverage here from age-appropriate reviewers fell through, but I have to say as an adult viewer that I was generally impressed by the craft I saw in these shorts.

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New Treasures: A Choir of Lies by Alexandra Rowland

Thursday, September 26th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

A Conspiracy of Truths-small A Choir of Lies-small

Alexandra Rowland’s first novel with Saga Press, A Conspiracy of Truths, was published just last year (and we covered it here). Publishers Weekly called it “An impressive and thoroughly entertaining fantasy,” and editor Navah Wolfe offered up this intriguing synopsis: “In a bleak, far-northern land, a wandering storyteller is arrested on charges of witchcraft… His only chance to save himself rests with the skills he has honed for decades — tell a good story, catch and hold their attention, or die.” The sequel A Choir of Lies was published earlier this month, and Paul Weimer at gave it an enthusiastic review, saying:

In A Conspiracy of Truths, we are introduced to Chants, a self-selected group of people who travel the world, collecting and telling stories. Our main characters, Chant… and Ylfing, wind up in the country of Nuryevet, where Chant runs afoul of the law, winds up in prison, and — with the power of stories, and the help of a few people outside the prison — manages to overthrow a society…

In A Choir of Lies, the focus is on the former Ylfing, several years later… In Heyrland (a setting reminiscent of the heights of Early Modern Holland) he takes a job as a translator, helping to create a booming market for an odious but beautiful plant. And as the prices and money spent on these blooms increases and increases to the benefit of his employer, the dangers of a tulip-mania start to become painfully clear… But there is more going on than just that. The book, such as we have, is annotated, by someone who knows about Chants and who and what they are… Throughout the book, “Mistress Chant” extensively comments on what is written down, giving her own perspective, and criticism, and it is sometimes sharp indeed. And it challenges everything we think we know about Chants… My decision on whether I enjoy the metafictional, metatextual, cosmopolitan, erudite and engaging fantasy that Alex Rowland creates is clear – I most certainly do.

A Choir of Lies is a far cry from a typical fantasy, and that’s a huge part of its appeal (and a fantasy retelling of Holland’s infamous Tulip Mania of 1637 sounds fascinating). It was published by Saga Press on September 10, 2019. It is 464 pages, priced at $26.99 in hardcover, and $7.99 for the digital version. The cover is by Nick Sciacca (I think).

See all our recent New Treasures here.

The Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog on the Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of September 2019

Wednesday, September 25th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

The Harp of Kings-small The Bone Ships-small The Monster of Elendhaven-small

After leaving The Verve, Andrew Liptak has landed at Polygon. Or at least his monthly New Science Fiction and Fantasy column did, anyway. He’s in top form in September as he looks at 13 New science fiction and fantasy books to check out this September, including new books by Becky Chambers, Margaret Atwood, Tamsyn Muir, and Stan Lee and Kat Rosenfield.

I was going to feature some of Andrew’s suggestions, but then I checked out Jeff Somer’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Books of September 2019 list at the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, which features a whopping 32 titles, and it won me over. Sorry Andrew, we’ll get you next time. Here’s a few of the highlights from Jeff’s list.

The Harp of Kings, by Juliet Marillier (Ace, 464 pages, $16 trade paperback/$7.99 digital, September 3)

Liobhan and her brother Brocc are talented musicians and singers training as warriors on Swan Island in the kingdom of Breifne. When the sacred Harp of Kings — vital to the successful coronation of a new king — goes missing just weeks before the Midsummer Day ceremony, they are drafted to pose as traveling musicians on a quest to retrieve the harp before disaster strikes. Soaked in gorgeous Celtic imagery and mythology, this standalone fantasy from the author of the Sevenwaters novels offers a perfect entry point for readers of Naomi Novik and Anne Bishop eager for a book that offers similar pleasures.

The Harp of Kings is Book 1 of Warrior Bards. Our previous coverage of Juliet Marillier includes The Blackthorn & Grim Trilogy.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 22, Part 3: The Divine Fury

Wednesday, September 25th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

The Divine FuryAll good things must come to an end, they say, and for me Fantasia 2019 ended at the Hall Theatre with the Korean action-horror movie The Divine Fury (사자, romanised as Saja, literally Emissary). Directed by Kim Joo-hwan, it follows Yong-hu (Park Seo-jun), a champion MMA fighter who lost his father under mysterious circumstances at a young age. In the present, when mysterious wounds appear on his hands and he is attacked by a demonic force, a blind shaman guides him to exorcist Father Ahn (Ahn Sung-ki), who tells him the wounds are stigmata and give him great power in fighting demons. The two team up, reluctantly on the part of Yong-hu, who holds a grudge against Christianity after the death of his father. But there are dark forces at work in Seoul, and Yong-hu must use all his skills to defeat the forces of hell on earth.

There are a lot of good ideas in this movie. And a lot of the time it looks very nice, with lovely shots of Seoul by night, and glossy, richly-coloured cinematography. Unfortunately the action and horror elements are not blended well, and character beats don’t come off as powerfully as they should.

Let’s start with the action bits. After a long introductory sequence showing Yong-hu as a boy and the death of his father at the hands of demons, we get our first fight. Note that the intro’s failed to build any real narrative momentum, and even the appearance of the demon is only brief. The actual fight we see with the adult Yong-hu looks like it’ll be more exciting; but then it too ends quickly. There is a plot reason for this, but the scene sets a pattern for the rest of the film. Yong-hu finds himself battling demons, and his power ends each exorcism before any real sense of dread can emerge. The set-pieces are thus brief and don’t develop into anything significant, even when plot’s being advanced.

The climax is easily the most kinetic and visually interesting sequence of the movie, a well-shot brawl that does have its own internal structure: Yong-hu defeats some flunkies to make his way to the boss, and then both hero and villain level up as the fight goes on. The problem is that the combatants don’t have anything to say to each other, literally and figuratively. The spectacular visuals feel empty, as Yong-hu doesn’t seem to be dealing with any particular character issue in the fight. The staging’s fine, but there’s no particular sense that there’s an internal logic that dictates when Yong-hu’s done enough to end the conflict. Basically, there comes a point when he hits the bad guy enough that the bad guy goes down and stays down.

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That Buck Rogers Stuff

Wednesday, September 25th, 2019 | Posted by Steve Carper

1930-11-02 Buck Rogers header
1930-11-23 Buck Rogers header

Those of us on the inside, the fans steeped in the history of science fiction and fantasy, mark the beginning of modern science fiction with Hugo Gernsback’s launching of Amazing Stories in August 1926. A thousand historians, critics, and commentators use that date as a dividing line between the proto-fictions of Verne and Wells and the lesser-known William Wallace Cook and George England and the Frank Reade Jr. series of boy’s adventures and Gernsback’s own favorite, Clement Fezandié.

The outside world didn’t see it that way. They didn’t see Amazing Stories at all or its first competitor, Astounding Stories of Super-Science, or the various Wonder magazines Gernsback started in 1929 when he lost control of Amazing. They were invisible, no matter how we today look back at Doc Smith or Murray Leinster or Edmond Hamilton. Or a first story by Philip Francis Nowlan, “Armageddon—2419 A.D.,” a fairly silly and racist Yellow Peril yarn starring one Anthony Rogers, or a sequel, “The Airlords of Han,” in which Nowlan tries to excuse the racism by postulating that the evil Han were not Chinese but alien interlopers who “mated forcibly with the Tibetans.” Disintegrator rays and anti-gravity flying belts and an “electrono plant operating from atomic energy” impinged not a bit on the public consciousness.

Yet by 1935, that “Buck Rogers stuff” was a national catchphrase, in high culture and low. Malcolm W. Bingay criticized Sir Arthur Eddington’s book, New Pathways in Science, as “Buck Rogers stuff panoplied in jargon that passes for scientific terminology.” And talking about new children’s toys, an article reported that “the Buck Rogers stuff backs ‘em all off the sales map, nearly tying Mickey Mouse, who had a head start.”

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Fantasia 2019, Day 22, Part 2: The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea

Tuesday, September 24th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

The Miracle of the Sargasso SeaThe nice thing about my last day of Fantasia was that rather than sit in one place, I would watch something on my own in the screening room, then something at the small De Sève Cinema, and finally something at the big Hall Theatre. It had the well-rounded feeling of a good summing-up.

The film I had at the De Sève Cinema was The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea (To thávma tis thálassas ton Sargassón, Το Θαύμα της Θάλασσας των Σαργασσών). Directed by Syllas Tzoumerkas from a script he wrote with star Youla Boudali, it follows two characters in the Greek town of Messolonghi. The first is police chief Elisabeth (Angeliki Papoulia), who we see in the opening scenes be exiled from her law-enforcement career in Athens; years later she’s still a square peg in the round hole of Messolonghi. The second is a quiet girl named Rita (Youla Boudali) who works in an eel processing facility; her brother, Manolis (Christos Passalis), is a local pop star. We see Elisabeth and Rita negotiating their lives in Messolonghi, with its various social complexities and patriarchal attitudes. And then a crime unites them, and various secrets of the town come to light.

This is a well-shot film, pleasant to look at with a kind of off-centred low-key energy — there aren’t many mannered symmetrically-composed shots here, but there’s a closeness to the characters that’s engaging. The actors shine, and Papoulia in particular comes off well, a weary dismissive cop with an anger that’s less smouldering than it is in a state of steady magnesium-like incandescence. Multilayered dinner parties are shot with an interesting sense of the social complexities and relationships of the speakers. Contrasting with this are brief scenes of dreams and visions.

And yet much of the film has the feel of a TV cop show — not an American network drama set in the big-city, but something like Inspector Montalbano or Broadchurch. Shows about cops in a small town, solving small-town crimes. Shows that lack the distinctive weirdness of Twin Peaks but that still dwell on the character of the investigators and suspects. Miracle of the Sargasso Sea is different in that the crime doesn’t happen at or before the beginning of the story, but instead relatively late in the film. At which point the paths of the two main characters, until then having nothing to do with each other, begin to converge.

This is an unusual structure which sounds worth trying, but to my mind it comes off as dramatically inert. Early on the different strands are interesting on their own but don’t inform each other, meaning neither really builds up any momentum. Then when the crime does happen, there’s no twist to it. We find out about a death, and the killer and motive are exactly what we imagine they are. The investigation goes about as one might expect. What could have been a subversion of genre ends up merely a dramatic structure that misfires.

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What Is Genre, Anyway? (AKA, I am Totally Lost)

Tuesday, September 24th, 2019 | Posted by S.M. Carrière

Steampunk 1

This is… Steampunk Assassin’s Creed? It’s pretty cool whatever it is.

Good morning, Readers!

I have a wee problem. I’m absolute rubbish at categorizing works of fiction. Sure, some things fit quite nicely into easy designations. The Lord of the Rings? Fantasy, duh! Dragon’s Egg? Science fiction, duh! Battlefield Earth? Nonsensical drivel, duh! Sorry. I genuinely dislike that book. It’s alright if you like it. I just don’t. Anyway, what was I saying? Ah, yes. Genre.

Things, however, very rarely fit ever so neatly into a single genre, though, especially now when so many diverse voices are bringing fresh takes, pushing boundaries and deliberately blurring the lines between genre. This experimentation, this refusal to be bound by boring rules that are no longer relevant, has created some of the most interesting, immersive stories I have read in a long time (which is to say, I don’t get bored rereading all the same tropes over and over to the point where I can accurate predict the trajectory of a story from the first chapter). I love that I don’t get bored reading now. I was starting to, if I’m honest.

It’s all a lovely, fascinating, confusing mess.

In a world obsessed with categorizing everything neatly, however, it’s creating a little bit of friction.

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Vintage Treasures: The Opener of the Way by Robert Bloch

Monday, September 23rd, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Robert Bloch Panther editions-small

Panther edition paperbacks (1976). Covers by Anthony Roberts.

The Opener of the Way was Robert Bloch’s very first collection, published by Arkham House way back in 1945, when he was all of 28 years old. It contained 21 stories, all but two of which originally appeared in Weird Tales, including classics such as “Waxworks,” “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper,” and the Cthulhu Mythos tale “The Shambler from the Stars,” which inspired Lovecraft to write “The Haunter of the Dark,” his last work.

The Opener of the Way was to be Bloch’s only fantasy collection until Pleasant Dreams—Nightmares was published by Arkham fifteen long years later. Like most early Arkham House collections, it is a very expensive book these days. It has never been reprinted in the US, which hasn’t hurt its collectability any. Fortunately Panther reprinted it in the UK in 1976, splitting it into two paperback volumes: The Opener of the Way and House of the Hatchet.

Of course, those two paperbacks are now highly sought after as well (the set pictured above sold on eBay this summer for $72.51). Which figures. I only learned about the Panther reprints recently, and after a brief search tracked down a copy of The Opener of the Way paperback for $9.95, which made me happy. Here’s a look at the contents.

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Fantasia 2019, Days 21 and 22, Part 1: The International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase 2019

Monday, September 23rd, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

EternityAfter taking a day to attend to various non-cinema matters, I came early to the last day of the Fantasia Film Festival. I had two movies I wanted to see in theatres, but first I wanted to catch up on something I’d missed when played on the big screen: the 2019 International Science Fiction Short Film Showcase. Luckily, I was able to watch it at the Fantasia screening room. Uncharacteristically, American shorts dominated this year; in an appropriately science-fictional statistic, 7 of 9 movies were from the US, with one from Australia that ended the showcase (at least in the order described in the Fantasia program) and one from Ukraine that began it.

“Eternity,” directed by Anna Sobolevska from a script by Sobolevska and Alina Semeryakova, is an effective 23-minute tale about a future year 2058 in which dying people can upload themselves into digital worlds designed by a massive corporation. These worlds have been tested by living humans, but for some even the best are pallid copies of the real world. One way or another, nobody wants the simple afterlives provided by the state. Ian (Oleg Moskalenko) is a man who doesn’t buy into the illusions provided by the Charon Corporation. But his wife Marie (Daria Plakhtiy) is thrilled by the cyber-estate they’re offering. Then tragedy strikes, and Ian has to make a series of terrible choices, balancing the desires of both of them with his idea of integrity.

This is an extremely strong film. It looks sharp, to start with; both the grim, shadowy real world and the lushly-hued cyber-fantasies come across well. The acting’s strong, especially from Moskalenko. The story structure’s solid, getting across a complicated science-fictional idea, exploring it with both plot twists and background ideas (Charon is everywhere, it seems), and above all telling a character-centred tale.

What may be most impressive is how many themes are on display here. I read it as a story about a man struggling to hold on to his beliefs in the face of corporate pressure, trying to set aside sterile romanticism but forced into being complicit with the powers that run the world. But then there’s also a lot here about the power of capitalism, especially in opposition to what used to be viewed as transcendental values — Charon sells a simulacrum of heaven, almost but not quite the real thing. So the film’s about life, death, and what’s beyond, and how to meet all these things. And, on top everything else, it’s built around a relationship of man and wife sketched both convincingly and briefly. This is Sobolevska’s first film as both writer and director, and it’s impressive; one hopes to see more from her in future.

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A (Black) Gat in the Hand: A Man Called Spade

Monday, September 23rd, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne


You might have noticed that my column – heck, my byline – was absent last week. Having recovered from hernia surgery, I promptly decided to have a kidney stone. It ‘hit’ last Saturday night and for about twenty hours, it was the most pain I’ve had in my life (no wife joke here…). It seems to be comfortable and hasn’t passed yet, though it’s not so bad at the moment. But between missing three days at work, peeing nonstop, and trying to catch up at work while still feeling some pain, this week’s column was pretty far down the list.

So, I decided to re-run one of my hardboiled posts from well before I ever thought of doing an entire column on that topic. I LOVE The Maltese Falcon: book and movie. Not a lot of folks know Hammett wrote a few short stories about Sam Spade: though he seemed to have done so just for some quick cash; and his heart wasn’t really in it. Read on to learn a bit about it all.

“You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.” – Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)

In last week’s column, I mentioned The Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart. (Did you follow instructions and watch it for the first time?) Over eighty years after its publication, Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon stands supreme today as the finest private eye novel ever written. Bogie’s 1941 film proved that the third time is a charm, prior attempts in 1931 and 1936 having failed.

Sam Spade, the quintessential tough guy shamus, appeared in a five-part serial of The Maltese Falcon in Black Mask in 1929. Hammett carefully reworked the pieces into novel form for publication by Alfred E. Knopf in 1930 and detective fiction would have a benchmark that has yet to be surpassed.

Hammett, who wrote over two dozen stories featuring a detective known as The Continental Op (well worth reading), never intended to write more about Samuel Spade, saying he was “done with him” after completing the book-length tale.

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