Thursday, June 30, 2016

New releases: The Dinosaur Knights & Hell’s Gate

Summer is here and I'm trying hard to catch up on reading, but the great outdoors keep beckoning. Now there are two new books to throw on the “to-read” pile. The first you may have heard of, the second you probably haven’t.

The Dinosaurs Knights by Victor Milán is the second in a fantasy series that Game of Thrones’ author George R.R. Martin has described as “a cross between Jurassic Park and Game of Thrones.” (A quote the publisher is touting as much as possible, as a press release it sent me attests.) I wasn’t blown away by the first book in the series, The Dinosaur Lords. That said, it did enough right that I’m willing to give the sequel a shot. The cover blurb:
Paradise is a sprawling, diverse, often cruel world.  There are humans on Paradise but dinosaurs predominate: wildlife, monsters, beasts of burden, and of war. Armored knights ride dinosaurs to battle legions of war-trained Triceratops and their upstart peasant crews.

Karyl Bogomirsky is one such knight who has chosen to rally those who seek to escape the path of war and madness. The fact that the Empire has announced a religious crusade against this peaceful kingdom, and they all are to be converted or destroyed, doesn't help him one bit.

Things really turn to mud when the dreaded Grey Angels, fabled ancient weapons of the Gods who created Paradise in the first place, come on the scene after almost a millennia.  Everyone thought that they were fables used to scare children – but they are very much real. And they have come to rid the world of sin ... including all the humans who manifest those vices.
The Dinosaur Knights comes out July 5.

The second book is something of a surprise. There is little in the cover blurb to indicate that Hell’s Gate by Bill Schutt and J.R. Finch has anything to do with prehistoric animals, but they’re central to the plot. I’m only about halfway through the novel, so I hope to have a review up in the near future. That said, I’m really enjoying myself so far. Since modern publishers are fond of describing new books as hybrids between more popular media properties, I’ll follow that trend by calling Hell’s Gate a cross between Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park. Except there are no dinosaurs. (Well, at least not yet.) Anyway, the cover blurb:
When a Japanese submarine is discovered abandoned deep in the Brazilian wilderness, a smart, adventurous, and tough zoologist must derail a catastrophic plot in Hell’s Gate.

1944. As war rages in Europe and the Pacific, Army Intel makes a shocking discovery: a 300-foot Japanese sub marooned and empty, deep in the Brazilian interior. A team of Army Rangers sent to investigate has already gone missing. Now, the military sends Captain R. J. MacCready, a quick-witted, brilliant scientific jack-of-all-trades to learn why the Japanese are there— and what they’re planning.

Parachuting deep into the heart of Central Brazil, one of the most remote regions on the planet, Mac is unexpectedly reunited with his hometown friend and fellow scientist Bob Thorne. A botanist presumed dead for years, Thorne lives peacefully with Yanni, an indigenous woman who possesses mysterious and invaluable skills. Their wisdom and expertise are nothing short of lifesaving for Mac as he sets out on a trail into the unknown.

Mac makes the arduous trek into an ancient, fog-shrouded valley hidden beneath a 2000-foot plateau, where he learns of a diabolical Axis plot to destroy the United States and its allies. But the enemy isn’t the only danger in this treacherous jungle paradise. Silently creeping from the forest, an even darker force is on the prowl, attacking at night and targeting both man and beast. Mac has to uncover the source of this emerging biological crisis and foil the enemy’s plans... but will he be in time to save humanity from itself?
Hell’s Gate is currently available in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook formats.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Remembering Cadillacs & Dinosaurs

Dinosaurs were everywhere in 1993. That was the year Jurassic Park hit theaters and smashed box office records. It also was the year two other major dinosaur films were released – Super Mario Bros. and We’re Back – although both would quickly be forgotten. Meanwhile, on television, U.S. broadcaster ABC aired the rebooted Land of the Lost. Fox Kids debuted Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, a live-action show about teenagers who fought giant monsters with robot dinosaurs. And in the same time slot on CBS, a new cartoon called Cadillacs & Dinosaurs hit airwaves. It never had a chance.

Thirteen episodes of Cadillacs & Dinosaurs aired between fall 1993 and early 1994. Based on the cult comic book series Xenozoic Tales by Mark Schultz, the cartoon was the creation of Steven E. de Souza, a screenwriter who gave us the classic action film Die Hard (and would later write and direct the not-so-classic movie adaption of Street Fighter). All kids needed to know about the show’s setting was explained in the opening credits:

“In the 26th century, mankind faces an epic struggle for survival. The forces of nature have spun wildly out of control. Mighty cities have crumbled and the dinosaurs have returned to reclaim the Earth. In this savage land, one man stands alone: Jack Tenrec. Defending humanity in world gone mad… a world where only the strong survive… a world of Cadillacs & Dinosaurs.”

Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? I certainly thought so. I was a teenager at the time, so I was outside the age range of the target audience. Still, I was a dinosaur-obsessed teen, and here was a cartoon stuffed with dinosaurs. Plus the setting fascinated me: A future post-apocalyptic Earth where dinosaurs had returned? How did the planet get that way? Why are the last humans holed up in crumbling cities? And why are they crossing the landscape in souped-up Cadillacs?

Cadillacs & Dinosaurs follows the adventures of Jack Tenrec and Hannah Dundee. Jack is part mechanic, part Greenpeace activist. His mission is to protect the environment from the same human follies that led to a global cataclysm centuries earlier. The irony is Jack goes about his work traversing the landscape in rebuilt 1950s Cadillacs, although the cars have been modified to run on clean-burning dinosaur poop. Hannah is his partner and potential love interest. She is a scientist and diplomat from a neighboring tribe of survivors. The two don’t get along at first, mostly because Jack is an annoying jerk who insults Hannah every chance he gets. By season’s end the two have developed something approaching romantic feelings for each other, although in the world of early ‘90s cartoons, knowing glances between characters were about as sexual as children’s entertainment got.

Cadillacs & Dinosaurs was much more child friendly than the comic on which it was based. (I didn’t discover the latter until years later.) Xenozoic Tales is punctuated by scenes of gory violence and has nudity and a little sex. The cartoon, on the other hand, was so committed to G-rated violence that even killing dinosaurs was off-limits. Jack was a bit of an ass in the comics, but in the cartoon he is nearly insufferable.  Hannah, unfortunately, is written for the show as something of a bubblehead. Other secondary characters underwent greater changes, perhaps the most notable being a clan of Mad Max rejects who went from being annoyances in the comics to the main antagonists of the series. (Another interesting change is that the human “moles” of Xenozoic Tales have been turned into literal mole men in the cartoon.)

Fans of Xenozoic Tales will appreciate that the cartoon loosely adapts some of the comic’s stories. The best was “Departure,” which takes Schultz’s tale about Hannah's creative solution to a mosasaur problem and expands it by throwing in a crazed warlord and a big-ass tank. The episode is easily the highlight of the series. That said, most stories were original to the cartoon, with the writers pitting Jack and Hannah against Triceratops stampedes, wildfires, and leftover weapons of mass destruction dating from before the cataclysm.

The animation was a bit stiff, being done on a TV budget, but at the same time it was rich in color with well-drawn environments and huge advancements in how dinosaurs were depicted in cartoons. The show’s greatest problem was its writing. Cadillacs & Dinosaurs suffered from bad dialogue, silly characters, and politically correct messaging that left even cranky liberals like myself wishing the writers would tone it down a little. These issues were hardly unique to Cadillacs & Dinosaurs in the world of children’s programming, but transformations were happening in television that made the cartoon something of a dinosaur. Batman: The Animated Series had debuted a year earlier, and it demonstrated that children’s shows could include complex themes and characters and still retain a younger audience (while also attracting older viewers). At the same time, a lot of kids’ entertainment was gravitating toward younger protagonists.  Gone were the days of G.I. Joe and He-Man with their mostly adult lead characters. Instead TV producers gave viewers Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers with its “teenagers with attitude.” Jack and Hannah were practically geezers by comparison.

Still, Cadillacs & Dinosaurs had dinosaurs. It’s right there in the title, and dinosaurs were HUGE in 1993. So why did the show fail?

CBS stuck Cadillacs & Dinosaurs near the end of its Saturday morning programming block, meaning it didn’t air until 11:30 a.m. This in itself wasn’t necessarily a death sentence – Mighty Morphin Power Rangers debuted in the same time slot. But it did mean new episodes of cartoon would often be delayed so the network could instead air sports coverage at that time, particularly on the West Coast of the U.S. It especially didn't help that CBS carried the Winter Olympics that year. As a result, the thirteen episodes that were supposed to make up the show’s first season never ran continuously. Kids might tune in one week and catch an episode, but when they tuned at the same time next week all they found was sports coverage. Children have short memories, so a consistent schedule is needed to build a young audience. A CBS spokeswoman acknowledged this problem in a Los Angeles Times review of the show: “It’s preempted a lot,” she said.

CBS also didn’t go out of the way to advertise Cadillacs & Dinosaurs. But in fairness to the network, the tie-in toy line apparently wasn’t released until after the show was canceled, so there was little to generate demand among kids for more adventures. Only a single commercial was produced for the toys. (Warning: Poor sound quality.)

Cadillacs & Dinosaurs did get a pretty fun beat ‘em up arcade game, but as far as I know it was never ported to consoles. Instead kids had to content themselves with Cadillacs & Dinosaurs: The Second Cataclysm on the Sega CD. The game had great full-motion video animation but its gameplay was boring and repetitive.

So, a bad time slot, a lack of commitment on part of the network, and series of missteps in releasing tie-in toys and games. Also factor in Cadillacs & Dinosaurs was a show behind its time, airing in an era when you needed to either feature children as your main stars or bring a level of maturity to the writing that most kids’ programming had previously lacked. As I said at the beginning of this essay, the show never had a chance.

Criticisms aside, I still enjoy the hell out of Cadillacs & Dinosaurs. You can watch the entire series on YouTube or purchase all episodes for $15 on Amazon. (At least in the U.S. I’m not sure about the show’s availability in other countries.)  I suggest trying a couple episodes before making a commitment to watching all 13. The show definitely isn’t for everyone. As for myself, I admit nostalgia fuels part of my love for the series. Another factor is that I’m fascinated by the world Schultz created in the comics, and seeing it brought to life through animation—even in kid-friendly form—fills me with joy. Yes, I would love to someday get an adaptation that is closer in tone to the comics, but for now Cadillacs & Dinosaurs is a perfectly acceptable substitute.

Anyway, if you want to know more about the cartoon, YouTube blogger AdvertisingNuts has a video explaining the differences between the show and the comics:

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Thursday, June 9, 2016

Voracious by Action Lab Entertainment (2015 onward)

Cover blurb

Haunted by the death of his sister, NYC Chef Nate Willner has lost his desire to cook. Forced to move back to his tiny hometown in Utah, Nate’s life is quickly becoming a dead end. But when he unexpectedly inherits a time travel suit that takes him to the age of dinosaurs, Nate’s passion for cooking is reignited! With a little help from his knife-wielding Grandmother Maribel, and friends Starlee and Captain Jim, Nate opens a restaurant that secretly serves dinosaur meat. Can he survive long enough to make it a success and turn his life around?

My thoughts

Most works of fiction bringing together dinosaurs and people usually have the former eating the latter. Voracious is one of the few examples of a story about people who eat dinosaurs – which, come to think of it, would probably be the more likely result if the two were to meet.

Voracious is a comic book series written by Markisan Nazo with art by Jason Muhr. It is published by Action Lab Entertainment, a small publisher that apparently specializes in offbeat comic titles. As of this post, the series just ended its first four-issue story arc, with the creators promising to launch their second story arc either later this year or early next year. Despite the presence of time travel and dinosaurs, Voracious really isn’t as much sci-fi adventure story as it is television melodrama, focusing on the lives of its attractive young protagonists.

Nate Willner is a former big-city chef of Native American descent who moved back to his hometown in Utah after his sister was killed in a restaurant fire. His life has hit the skids, but luckily he has his elderly grandmother Maribel and his life-long friend Starlee to look after him. He has also inherited $500,000 and a secret lab from his reclusive and recently deceased uncle. During a visit to his new property,  Nate finds a modified diving suit that transports him back to late Cretaceous North America. He is stomping around in the prehistoric past when he is attacked by a Quetzalcoatlus that he promptly kills with a flamethrower, leading to a surprising discovery: Dinosaurs (and pterosaurs) are delicious! Soon afterward, Nate opens a restaurant stocked with meat from dinosaurs he hunts in the Cretaceous. The restaurant is an immediate success, but how long will Nate be able to keep his secret? Can he ever get over his guilt about his sister’s death? Will he reciprocate Starlee’s obvious love for him? And won’t changing the past have consequences for the present?

The neat thing about Voracious is it doesn’t go the obvious route for stories of this type. Most comic book series would have been content with a simpler tale about a time traveler who fights dinosaurs. Nazo and Muhr want to tell a more complex narrative. That is not to say Voracious is high literature. It is soap opera, but it is entertaining soap opera, with likable protagonists and a good sense of humor. My biggest complaint so far is the first four issues are really just the opening chapter of a much larger story rather than a self-contained arc. I’m worried the series will get canceled before the creators have had a chance to finish what they started, given Voracious isn’t the type of tale that normally attracts comic book fans. (No female superheroes in tight spandex outfits or over-the-top violence.)

The art is competent if nothing to write home about. Human characters look a bit stiff, lacking the dynamism of living beings. The same is true of the dinosaur depictions. I get the sense the artist is still perfecting his craft, so it will be interesting to see how the illustrations evolve as the series continues.

Nitpicking aside, Voracious is a comic I plan to continue following. It's quirky and I appreciate that it's trying to do something different. I just hope sales are strong enough to allow the creators to finish the tale they want to tell.

  • The first four issues of Voracious will be published as a single volume on August 10. In the meantime, you can purchase them individually online through Comixology.
  • The author’s website is while the artist’s website is Both contain examples of artwork from the series.
  • Voracious isn’t the first comic book about time travelers who harvest dinosaurs for meat. As far as I can tell, that distinction goes to Flesh, which first appeared in the British anthology comic 2000AD in 1977. If the title sounds familiar, that’s because 2000AD also gave us Judge Dredd.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Finally, an explanation for all the dinosaur erotica on Amazon

A while back I weighed in on the proliferation of erotic stories featuring dinosaurs - a genre that exploded after Amazon’s self-publishing program took off.  At the time Christie Sims was the undisputed master of dinosaur porn, but over the past year that title has shifted to Montana author Chuck Tingle. I didn’t have a good explanation about why dinosaurs were featured in so many erotic stories. Turns out the online publication Vice found an answer, and it is, well, odd.

In “How to Make Money Writing Kindle Erotica,” journalist Livia Gershon spoke with several writers who pen self-published erotica through Amazon. Basically to be successful in the business, authors need to be able to produce a lot of copy and write about a wide range of sexual fetishes, even if they don’t find many of them appealing. Most writers quickly burn out, but a few have found writing erotica to be more financially rewarding than writing “serious” fiction.

Amazon provides a great vehicle for self-published authors, but the site has rules about what stories it will and won’t accept. Randy Johnson, the (obvious) pen name for a moderator of a popular erotic author subreddit, says Amazon bans stories featuring bestiality, but only for living species. Stories about sex with extinct and make-believe animals are okay as far as the company is concerned. That’s why you will never see “Pounded by the Panda” on Amazon. On the other hand, “Gaygent Brontosaurs: The Butt is Not Enough” is perfectly acceptable.

Just don’t expect to make a fortune with your brilliant mash-up of Jurassic Park and Fifty Shades of Grey. Despite the media attention such works get, Johnson told Gershon that dinosaur erotica doesn’t sell well:
"The vast majority of sales (which are very few) [for dinosaur erotica] are people interested in the novelty of it," he said. "If you don't get some media scandalmongering about it, you'll probably get close to zero sales."
My advice to any would-be dinosaur erotica authors? Don’t get discouraged. Maybe you won’t make much money, but you may still win a Hugo award.

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Thursday, June 2, 2016

Dry Bones by Craig Johnson (2015)

Cover blurb

When Jen, the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever found surfaces in Sheriff Walt Longmire’s jurisdiction, it appears to be a windfall for the High Plains Dinosaur Museum — until Danny Lone Elk, the Cheyenne rancher on whose property the remains were discovered, turns up dead, floating face down in a turtle pond. With millions of dollars at stake, a number of groups step forward to claim her, including Danny’s family, the tribe, and the federal government.

As Wyoming’s Acting Deputy Attorney and a cadre of FBI officers descend on the town, Walt is determined to find out who would benefit from Danny’s death, enlisting old friends Lucian Connolly and Omar Rhoades, along with Dog and best friend Henry Standing Bear, to trawl the vast Lone Elk ranch looking for answers to a sixty-five-million-year-old cold case that’s heating up fast.

My thoughts

Today the fossilized remains of Sue the T. rex are the centerpiece of the Field Museum in Chicago, but in the early 1990s those “dry bones” were at the center of the largest legal battle in paleontology. I won’t go into the details about the case other than to warn you against watching Dinosaur 13, the terrible, one-sided “documentary” made about the whole sordid affair. (Two good takedowns of the film can be found here and here.) The most you need to know for this review is the fossil ultimately sold at auction for more than $8 million, and the legal wrangling around Sue was the inspiration for Dry Bones, a murder mystery starring the popular Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire.

I have never read a Longmire novel before Dry Bones and while I was dimly aware of the TV show based on the book series, I haven't watched any episodes. That said, each book is largely a standalone novel. Prior knowledge of what has come before isn’t required, but it certainly helps when it comes to understanding the relationships between characters. Longmire himself is part Wyatt Earp and part Sherlock Holmes: A college-educated cowboy who is as comfortable speaking Latin as he is riding in the saddle. He is the sheriff of Absaroka County,  a fictional Wyoming county bigger than Rhode Island in terms of land area but with only 30,000 residents. Dry Bones begins with Longmire and his Deputy Sheriff/lover Vic Moretti investigating the death of Danny Lone Elk, a Native American rancher who seemingly drowned while fishing. The problem is Lone Elk was the only person able to verify the ownership of Jen, a huge T. rex skeleton claimed by both the local museum and the rancher’s family. Longmire comes to suspect that Lone Elk’s death wasn’t the accident it seemed, and he is pretty sure the killer’s motive has something to do with the multi-million dollar fossil everyone is fighting over.

Dry Bones is a well-written crime novel but not a very satisfying one for readers new to the series. The first half of the book focuses on a subplot that I’m sure will have a major emotional wallop for longtime fans, but for the rest of us it seems an unnecessary diversion from the central mystery. That said, the subplot is dropped midway – as is a major character – and the story kicks into high gear when minor characters start disappearing and Longmire begins to unravel why Lone Elk was murdered. The identity of the killer isn’t hard to puzzle out, but the author throws in enough twists to keep you guessing how events will unfold.

As far as criticisms, I was annoyed that the case against selling scientifically valuable fossils was made through the mouth of a character who embodied every bad stereotype about government employees. The author obviously wasn’t interested in a nuanced portrayal of the issue. Also, magic is real in Longmire’s world. The main character experiences visions portending to future events and his best friend is a clichéd Native American shaman who dispenses sagely advice. Not sure why the inclusion of magic bothered me so much – it just seemed at odds with the otherwise down-to-earth tone of the novel.

Overall I enjoyed Dry Bones but suggest you read some of the earlier books in the series before picking this one up. There is a major development in the novel that I’m sure will have huge implications for the characters moving forward, but without some grounding in their backstories, it doesn’t have the narrative heft that it should. Dry Bones is the 16th novel in the Longmire series, so you have some catching up to do.

  • The title is taken from the religious tune of the same name, which itself was inspired by the Bible verse about a “valley of dry bones.”


Thursday, May 26, 2016

Edge of Extinction: The Ark Plan by Laura Martin (2016)

Cover blurb

I always thought that I wouldn’t put you in danger for the world, but it turns out that for the world, I will.

ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY YEARS AGO: The first dinosaurs were cloned. With their return came a prehistoric pandemic that nearly wiped out the human race. The only way to survive was to move underground, allowing the dinosaurs to take over…

FIVE YEARS AGO: Sky Mundy’s father mysteriously fled their home in North Compound, one of four facilities where the last remnants of humanity have been trying to rebuild, leaving her all alone.

YESTERDAY: Sky discovered a cryptic message from him telling her the fate of the world depends on Sky delivering a memory card to someone above ground. No one survives above ground.

NOW: Sky is going anyway. Breaking out of North Compound with her best friend, Shawn, in tow, Sky has to try to fulfill her father’s impossible request. As Sky ventures topside into this lost world reclaimed by nature and ruled by dinosaurs, she will discover it is just as dangerous as she had always feared… but it’s also nothing like she had ever expected.

My thoughts

Don’t clone dinosaurs, kids. Nothing good will come of it.

That seems to be the life lesson imparted by Edge of Extinction: The Ark Plan, a young adult novel by first-time author Laura Martin. Set 150 years after cloned dinosaurs unleashed a plague that killed off most of humanity, the story follows 12-year-old Sky Mundy on her quest to possibly find her missing father. The publisher touts the book as “Jurassic World meets Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” but really its spiritual predecessor is the comic Xenozoic Tales (a.k.a. Cadillacs and Dinosaurs), also set on a future Earth where dinosaurs have returned and taken over the planet. There is no evidence Martin knew about the comic when she wrote Edge of Extinction, which is a fun if somewhat by-the-numbers thriller.

Edge of Extinction is told from the first-person point of view of Sky, a social outcast in one of the few underground shelters where humans sought refuge from a plague that nearly wiped them out. Thanks to a brief history lesson near the beginning of the book, readers learn that in the past scientists learned how to clone dinosaurs, but in the process inadvertently brought back the diseases the prehistoric reptiles carried. The sudden disappearance of most people allowed dinosaurs to overrun Earth’s ecosystems. Humans are no longer at the top of the food chain, so Sky’s people rarely leave their underground shelters as travel on the surface is usually a death sentence. Sky decides to risk it after she receives a message from her missing father telling her to deliver a memory card carrying secret information to a drop-off point located in the middle of Lake Michigan. Soon afterward, our hero escapes the shelter with her best friend Shawn, pursued by both hungry dinosaurs and an evil government willing to kill to get its hands on the memory card.

If there was a checklist for clichés in modern young adult fiction, then you could mark off most of the boxes for Edge of Extinction. A headstrong central protagonist? Check. Parents either dead or missing? Check. A larger, shadowy conspiracy driving events? Check. Two male friends who could turn into rival love interests for the female hero? Check. Edge of Extinction certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to children’s literature, but stories have never needed to be groundbreaking to be entertaining. Martin’s first novel strikes a nice balance between worldbuilding, character moments, and chase scenes. There is quite a lot of action crammed into the book’s 250 pages, but it is interspersed with long stretches of Sky exploring her future Earth and developing her relationships with the two other main characters. Whenever the pace threatens to sag, Martin adds another wrinkle to the book’s central mystery or throws in a dinosaur to menace our heroes.

That said, few first novels are without flaws. Besides the numerous cliches already mentioned, I found the dialogue somewhat stilted. The 12-year-old protagonists at times talk more like child characters out of a 1950s movie than any preteens I’ve met. Edge of Extinction also is the first book in a planned series, so don’t go into it expecting many answers to the mysteries it raises or tidy resolutions to any of its conflicts. (The novel concludes with a sample chapter from the sequel, titled Edge of Extinction: Code Name Flood, which will be published in 2017.)

If any of the above criticisms are starting to dissuade you from picking up Edge of Extinction, then let me reassure you that the book’s positives outweigh its negatives. You will enjoy it, and hopefully so will any kids you can pry away from their video game consoles long enough to do a little reading. (Seriously, get them away from video games, because I'm getting tired of 10-year-olds kicking my butt in Star Wars: Battlefront.)

  • The recommended age range for Edge of Extinction is 8 to 12. However, most adults should be able enjoy it as well, just as they did the Harry Potter novels.
  • One of my favorite parts of the novel: Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park is required reading in school… for history class.
  • Martin acknowledges in an afterword that she knew little about dinosaurs when she began researching Edge of Extinction. Her biggest shock was learning that scientists now believe many dinosaurs had feathers. Dinosaur lovers will happy to know she includes this knowledge in her descriptions of the animals. That said, Sky at one point remarks that the dinosaurs of the setting are much bigger than the ones found in the fossil record, although this size difference is never mentioned again.


Sunday, May 22, 2016

Turok: Son of Stone by Dark Horse Comics (2010-2011)

Cover blurb

The American Southwest, 1428. Turok, a wandering warrior, rescues young Andar from death at the hands of the ruthless Maxtla and his Aztec horde. Turok and Andar seek refuge in a vast cavern, where an otherworldly force sweeps them and their pursuers to a savage, timeless land of rampaging dinosaurs and unimagined wonders. Hunted in a world of danger and death, Turok and Andar fight to survive - and to find a way home.

My thoughts

Turok, as I’ve said before, is a hard man to kill. Since the first Turok comic debuted in 1954, the character has been resurrected several times in various media. Sometimes those reincarnations differ greatly from the original concept of Turok as a pre-Columbian Native American trapped in a lost world of dinosaurs. The most recent take on the character by Dynamite Comics turned Turok into troubled youth in an alternate timeline where dinosaurs survived in Europe and had been tamed by medieval knights. That series ended with Turok becoming Robin Hood. (Yeah, that comic was pretty awful.) A few years before Dynamite gave us its version of the “dinosaur hunter,” Dark Horse Comics attempted to revive Turok with a four-issue limited series that was closer in tone to the original comic. While not a great effort, it wasn’t a train wreck either.

The story starts with a group of displaced Aztecs about to sacrifice a Native American boy. Within a couple pages Turok has rescued the child – who it turns out is the dinosaur hunter’s longtime sidekick Andar – and the two are pursued across the landscape by the angry Aztecs. The dino-manic duo are sheltering in a cave when a strange storm sweeps them and their pursuers to another dimension where dinosaurs and other beings from various time periods are dumped by the same weather phenomena. Turok and Andar are quickly captured by the Panther People and their Scandinavian, 21st century queen. Meanwhile, the Aztecs discover a lost city of their people, who quickly (and not very believably) accept the group’s leader as their long-lost god-king. The new king doesn’t waste any time ordering his subjects to capture the child sacrifice who got away.

Turok: Son of Stone suffers the same problem I see in many comics: It attempts to cram too much story into the limited space available in the average issue. The result is the characters are never fully developed. The troubles begin only a few pages in when Andar’s father is quickly killed in front of his son. Readers never get to know the character or see his relationship with Andar, so there is little emotional investment. Andar also appears to get over his father’s murder very quickly, so I’m not sure what purpose his death served in the boy’s character arc. The same lack of logic extends to other characters, who will often undergo major personality shifts simply because the plot needed to advance forward – the most egregious being when the Scandinavian queen develops romantic feelings for Turok seemingly out of nowhere.

Readers looking for dinosaurs will be disappointed as they get the short shrift. The prehistoric reptiles appear in a few panels, but for the most part they are only scenery. They also are not well drawn, although I have seen worse takes. The rest of the art was actually quite nice, with the action scenes drawn with a sort of frenetic energy sometimes lacking in other comics trying for the same thing. As for action, there is quite a lot of it throughout the series, and it is done well enough to keep your attention.

Turok: Son of Stone isn’t a complete loss but there isn’t enough there to make the series memorable. A streamlined plot that allowed more character development would have helped. It also wouldn’t have hurt to provide more dinosaurs for the “dinosaur hunter” to hunt. Dark Horse’s take on the character is better than that of the more recent Dynamite comic, but it still fails to capture the full potential of the premise.

  • Dark Horse was going to publish all four issues in a single volume, but that never happened. Still, individual issues are available for purchase as digital downloads from the company’s website.
  • The first issue of the series includes Turok’s origin story from his very first comic, published roughly 60 years ago.
  • I’m guessing the subplot about the leader of the renegade Aztecs being instantly accepted by the lost city as a god-king was inspired by the real-life story of Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador who the Aztecs mistook for a god. (Although some historians question whether that story was a later invention.)
  • Dark Horse has collected and republished the original Turok comics in 10 hardcover volumes selling for $50-$60 each. So if you have more than $500 to spare, you can own the entire series.
  • Turok currently is starring in a Dynamite series bringing several older, largely forgotten superheroes together as a team – the equivalent of Marvel’s Avengers.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Dinosaur Hunter by Steve White (2015)

Cover blurb


Your application for a Mesozoic hunting license has been successful!

Before you travel back in time and charge headlong into a pack of prehistoric big game, we strongly advise that you read the following guidebook. It will provide you with information crucial to success — and survival! Learn the basic facts of the geography, climate and environmental conditions of the five Mesozoic hunting reservations on the offer. Discover the huge variety of dinosaurs that stalk these times, with tips on identification, tracking, and the best weapons to bring them down! Finally, this guide contains first-hand accounts of some of the hunters who have braved these conditions and lived to tell the tale.


My thoughts

Dinosaur Hunter: The Ultimate Guide to the Biggest Game is itself something of a dinosaur. Stories about people hunting dinosaurs were never common in science fiction, but for many years readers could expect a steady trickle of them. The subgenre petered out after the release of the first Jurassic Park film in 1993, with the last major work being Rivers of Time by L. Sprague de Camp, published that same year. (Although, more recently, David Drake’s Time Safari stories were collected in Dinosaurs and a Dirigible in 2014.) Dinosaur Hunter is exactly what the title promises: A guidebook for time travelers who want to bag T. rexes and other large prehistoric game. And it is a very good book, although it will probably appeal more to dinosaur lovers than science fiction fans.

Dinosaur Hunter is published by Osprey, a U.K. company best known for publishing detailed military histories. However, the company also produces a line of fantastic “nonfiction” history under the title Osprey Adventures. There is military history of the Martian invasion in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds; a secret history of Nazi occult practices; a treasure-hunting guide for any would-be Indiana Jones; a how-to manual for fighting zombies; and so on. Dinosaur Hunter is part of that line. The premise is that the reader has purchased a ticket to go on a dinosaur safari in the Mesozoic. You have been given the book to learn about the equipment you will need as well as the wildlife and environmental conditions you will encounter. Detailed summaries are provided for five time periods in which hunting reserves have been set up, with readers asked at the book’s end to choose which period they want to hunt.

The text can be divided into two parts. Each section of the book begins with a lengthy description of the environment you will encounter as well as the ecology and behavior of dinosaurs that inhabit it. Much of this is speculation, but it is speculation informed by science, and White does an impressive job creating realistic ecologies for each species. If anything, predators get more love than herbivores, but that makes sense given most hunters would likely target meat-eaters for the bragging rights.

Each section then concludes with excerpts from memoirs written by previous hunters. Every story ends in death or dismemberment and is supposed to serve as a warning to the reader about how dangerous Mesozoic hunting can be. These stories easily were my favorite parts of the book as White does a bang-up job bringing the prehistoric world to life through well-written descriptions and imaginative animal behavior. There isn’t much in the way of character development or plot but that wasn’t the author’s intent. The stories are meant to paint a picture of the Mesozoic world in the mind’s eye and at that they succeed wonderfully.

In addition to being an author, White also is an illustrator, so he provides several excellent black-and-white reconstructions of some of the animals in question. Readers who love their dinosaurs up-to-date will be happy that many dinosaurs sport feathers and quills.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Dinosaur Hunter. I thought it would be a cheap attempt to cash in on the popularity of dinosaurs given Jurassic World came out the same year, but White put a lot of thought and effort into the book. That said, I’m biased. I like dinosaurs and I like fiction about dinosaurs. Readers who have only a passing interest in the animals probably will be bored with the info-dumps about behavior and ecology. They may enjoy the memoirs more, but there isn’t enough plot in the book to grab the attention of anyone just looking for a good story. Dinosaur Hunter is only a book for the most hardcore of dinosaur fans, but if you’re one of them, you’re in for a treat.

  • Dinosaur Hunter has an Easter egg for readers of paleofiction: One of the characters has the call sign Raptor Red.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

New magazine, new book, new game, new toys

Wow! Has it been nearly a year already?!

First, before we get to the news, sorry for my prolonged absence. Over the past year I started taking college courses again, so between that and working a full-time job, I haven’t had much free time. The good news is I’m on summer break and can get back to reading. The bad news is college resumes in the late summer/early fall, so I will probably disappear again around that time.

When I say in the summary that this blog updates infrequently, I mean it. But I will keep posting whenever I get the chance.

That said, there hasn’t been much news to report on. Most paleofiction that has come out during the past year has been self-published. I’m planning a roundup of new self-published titles in the near future, but for now a few items have popped up in recent weeks that I think might catch your interest.

The first is a new digital magazine with articles about dinosaurs, prehistoric life and their role in popular culture. New issues of Prehistoric Magazine will be released three times a year, according to Editor-in-Chief Michael Esola, author of the self-published thriller Prehistoric. I’ve had a chance to review the first issue and while it is definitely the work of a team on a very limited budget, there is a lot of love put into it. You can learn more at (Note: Prehistoric Magazine shouldn’t be confused with the similarly themed Prehistoric Times Magazine, which has been around much longer.)

This week saw the release of the first mainstream work of paleofiction in quite a long time. Edge of Extinction: The Ark Plan by Laura Martin is set 150 years after cloned dinosaurs have taken over the Earth’s surface and forced the remaining humans underground. The book is targeted at middle-school children, but like the Harry Potter novels, I’m betting it can be enjoyed by adults as well. Expect a review in the near future.

Also released this week is the tabletop miniatures ruleset Dinoproof. Like Edge of Extinction, the game is set in a future where dinosaurs have reclaimed the planet. Players take on the role of “slayers” who hunt dinosaurs for their DNA while trying to become celebrities by capturing dramatic TV footage. So far the ruleset is only available as softcover book. No word if a digital edition is planned.

The final news item isn’t related to publishing or gaming but I’m betting anyone who reads this blog will be interested. Beasts of the Mesozoic is Kickstarter campaign for a new line of scientifically accurate dinosaur action figures. The creator, David Silva, is a sculptor who has both a lengthy background in toy design and a love for all things dinosaur. The first series in the new line will focus on “raptor” dinosaurs. The toys are pricey—$35 per action figure plus shipping—and they won’t come out for another year, but they look well worth your money if you can afford it. There are two weeks left in the campaign as of this posting (May 12, 2016).

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Our prehistoric future

Two years ago a state lawmaker in Utah put forward a strange proposal: We need to pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Why? Dinosaurs, of course.

According to Utah state Rep. Jerry Anderson, humans weren’t doing enough to warm the planet. So he introduced a bill that would have exempted the state from federal greenhouse gas regulations. The legislation was quickly shot down, but not before Anderson explained his reasoning, as reported by the Salt Lake Tribune:
“We are short of carbon dioxide for the needs of the plants. Concentrations reached 600 parts per million at the time of the dinosaurs and they did quite well. I think we could double the carbon dioxide and not have any adverse effects.”
This isn't the first time I’ve heard this “global warming is good because dinosaurs” meme. I won’t delve into the politics of the issue other than to say climate scientists generally agree that warming the planet to such a degree would be a bad idea. But the reasoning behind this line of thinking - that the future should look like the planet's prehistoric past - is one that has been explored in literature a handful of times. The difference is that in science fiction, the outcome rarely has been beneficial for humanity.

J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World is probably the best-known work set in a future that has reverted to a primitive state. Global warming is the culprit, although in this case it caused by a mysterious flare up of the sun, which bathes Earth in radiation. The ice caps melt, the oceans expand, and life begins to “devolve” into ancient Triassic period forms to cope with the environmental changes. The novel is a haunting work, filled with vivid descriptions of an empty London overrun by prehistoric swamp:
In the early morning light a strange mournful beauty hung over the lagoon; the sombre green-black fronds of the gymnosperms, intruders form the Triassic past, and the half-submerged white-face buildings of the 20th century still reflected together in the dark mirror of the water, the two interlocking worlds apparently suspended at some junction in time, the illusions momentarily broken when a giant water spider cleft the oily surface a hundred yards away.
The Drowned World, published in 1962, wasn’t the earliest work to depict a future where ancient lifeforms have returned to reclaim the Earth. That distinction appears to go to the 1955 story "Report on the Status Quo" by Terence Roberts, in which World War III has changed the climate and facilitated the return of the dinosaurs. Set in the then-future year of 1961, the narrative is presented as a government report about how this brave old world came to be, along with humanity's first disastrous encounters with the resurrected saurians. (EDIT: It turns out I'm wrong about this story being the earliest example of the plot device. See the comments below.)

Dinosaurs also would return to rule the future in the comic Xenozoic Tales, better known as Cadillacs & Dinosaurs. This series, first published in 1986, is set 600 years into the future during the “Xenozoic Era,” which is the geologic age following the downfall of civilization after a planetwide catastrophe. Extinct species from every era of Earth’s history have been reborn, with mankind no longer the dominant player in the ecosystem. Just how this strange world came to be is one of the central mysteries of the series

The most recent example of this theme can be found in the soon-to-be-released young adult novel Edge of Extinction: The Ark Plan by Laura Martin. The first in a series, the book is set 150 years after cloned dinosaurs have taken over Earth's surface and forced the remaining humans into underground shelters. The cover blurb describes Edge of Extinction as "Jurassic World meets Dawn of the Planet of the Apes."

A future with resurrected dinosaurs is a stretch, to say the least, but there has been serious talk among scientists about bringing back extinct animals closer to us in time, from Tasmanian tigers to mammoths. The concept is known as “rewilding.” At its least controversial, rewilding simply means returning living species to their historic habitats, such as wolves to much of the American West. But some people have called for resurrecting extinct species through cloning and then releasing the animals into the wild. Imagine Yellowstone National Park, but with mastodons and American lions — that’s rewilding at its most extreme.

A few science fiction authors have flirted with the idea, but rarely have they explored rewilding in any great detail. One exception is Mary Rosenblum, whose 2009 novelette "Lion Walk" is set in a North America slowly being returned to its Pleistocene state. Rosenblum uses the setting to explore issues surrounding current-day conservation efforts.

Sadly, despite claims by a small minority of scientists, I doubt we’ll see any resurrected mammoths, let alone T. rexes. The technical and social hurdles are just too great. But it is still fun to imagine futures where that just might happen.

More essays

Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milán (2015)

Cover blurb

A world made by the Eight Creators on which to play out their games of passion and power, Paradise is a sprawling, diverse, often brutal place. Men and women live on Paradise as do dogs, cats, ferrets, goats, and horses. But dinosaurs predominate: wildlife, monsters, beasts of burden–and of war. Colossal plant-eaters like Brachiosaurus; terrifying meat-eaters like Allosaurus, and the most feared of all, Tyrannosaurus rex. Giant lizards swim warm seas. Birds (some with teeth) share the sky with flying reptiles that range in size from bat-sized insectivores to majestic and deadly Dragons.

Thus we are plunged into Victor Milán's splendidly weird world of The Dinosaur Lords, a place that for all purposes mirrors 14th century Europe with its dynastic rivalries, religious wars, and byzantine politics…except the weapons of choice are dinosaurs. Where vast armies of dinosaur-mounted knights engage in battle. During the course of one of these epic battles, the enigmatic mercenary Dinosaur Lord Karyl Bogomirsky is defeated through betrayal and left for dead. He wakes, naked, wounded, partially amnesiac–and hunted. And embarks upon a journey that will shake his world.

My thoughts

“It's like a cross between Jurassic Park and Game of Thrones.”  That's not me talking. That's Game of Thrones* author George R.R. Martin himself, providing the cover quote for The Dinosaur Lords. And he is not wrong, as this book shares a lot in common with the famous fantasy series. It is a medieval epic focusing largely on the Byzantine politics of its fantasy world. There is court intrigue, a large cast of not-always-likable characters, and plenty of sex and violence. Unfortunately it also shares Game of Thrones' greatest flaw: A lot of build-up with very little payoff. But it's got dinosaurs, so there's that.

The Dinosaur Lords is set on a world called Paradise, in which we are told at the beginning “isn't Earth” and “is no alternate Earth.” This is one of several hints scattered throughout the book that The Dinosaur Lords is science fiction despite its sword-and-sorcery trappings. As for the plot: Dinosaur Lord Karyl Bogomirsky is leading a revolt against the emperor of Paradise's largest kingdom when he is defeated in battle and apparently killed. Karyl's death doesn't last long as he is resurrected by one of the setting's mysterious gods and tasked with defending a new pacifist movement against a crusade that will soon be launched against it. At the same time, a few hundred miles away, the emperor’s daughter Melodía watches as her father slips further into paranoia after a failed assassination plot is uncovered. Then there is her lover, Jaume, who is put in charge of leading the crusade despite his doubts about its morality.

The above description leaves out a lot because The Dinosaur Lords is stuffed with characters and subplots. The problem is not much actually happens in the book's 400-plus pages. The Dinosaur Lords is supposed to be the opening chapter of a trilogy, and as such it is mostly about setting up the chess pieces for later novels. It is a slog to wade through as a result. The book opens with a large battle, but the remainder is dedicated to combat training scenes and a predictable storyline about court politics. It also ends with not one, not two, but three cliffhangers. Like Game of Thrones, there is plenty of violence in The Dinosaur Lords — including a rape scene — but it lacks the character development that keeps readers going back to its more famous inspiration despite the fact that winter, it seems, is forever coming.

As for the dinosaurs, they're fine. They are the most fantastical element found in the fantasy world Milán has created, and he stuffs the novel with a cornucopia of species. The existence of dinosaurs is supposed to be one of the series' central mysteries, but the author provides enough clues that most readers of science fiction will guess the answer by the end of book one. That said, dinosaurs are not really central to the story despite the title. They could have been replaced with dragons or other mythological creatures more common to fantasy settings and you would still have the same book.

I admit I'm not a fan of multivolume science fiction and fantasy epics. I think most authors overestimate their ability to tell grand, sweeping stories and create worlds interesting enough to keep readers coming back. The Dinosaur Lords has done little to change my mind in that regard. Still, I'm not ready to give up on the series yet. The next title - The Dinosaur Knights – is scheduled to hit bookshelves in July 2016. I just hope that now all the pieces are in place, Milán picks up the pace.

* Before you leave any comments, yes, I know the proper title for the book series is A Song of Ice and Fire. But most people are familiar with Game of Thrones so that is the title I used.

  • The Dinosaur Lords is the opening novel of a fantasy series titled The Ballad of Karyl's Last Ride. The name doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. Anyway, the author has said the series is supposed to be a trilogy, but Wikipedia claims there will be six books, although there is no citation.
  • I know dinosaurs and knights have been paired in a few pen-and-paper roleplaying games, but this is the first time they have been brought together in a novel, as far as I can tell. I'm surprised it took this long, although dinosaurs have tangled with samurais.