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.