Your Friday Face-Melt for July 30
"Skate," Silk Sonic
Earlier this year we were delighted by the release of "Leave the Door Open," the groovalicious debut single from Silk Sonic, a collaboration between Bruno Mars and Anderson.Paak. The track was soulful, melodic, playfully ironic, and recorded with real instruments--which made it the antithesis of modern pop music.
Months later, their mythical album has yet to drop, but the duo have released their second single, "Skate." It's a delicious slice of disco goodness and you should love it immediately or else you may need to examine your life choices.
Along with Dave Grohl's "Dee Gees" project dropping disco covers like coke spoons at Studio 54, "Skate" announces that the disco revival is in full swing--and we couldn't be happier. Enjoy!
Retro review: Lord Foul's Bane
Returning to Lord Foul’s Bane, Donaldson’s introduction to the Land and its deeply conflicted protagonist, Thomas Covenant, is a surreal experience. We should probably start with Thomas Covenant himself, who remains the most unlikeable protagonist in the history of fantasy fiction. At the novel’s beginning, Covenant has recently been diagnosed with leprosy. He’s lost his wife, his career as a novelist, and two fingers on his left hand. He must come to grips with being an “outcast unclean” in polite society. After an encounter with a homeless man who delivers a strange prophecy to him, Covenant is nearly run over by a police car in the street. He hits his head on the pavement and finds himself transported to another world.
The central conflict in Lord Foul’s Bane is Covenant’s determination to disbelieve the reality of the Land, the fantasy world in which he finds himself. Covenant is seemingly the reincarnation of legendary hero Berek Halfhand, with whom he shares two key characteristics: He’s missing two fingers, and he wears a ring of white gold (his wedding ring), which allows him to harness “wild magic,” whatever that is. Covenant’s presence in the Land also seems to heal his leprosy, a cure which he cannot abide. If he accepts the Land’s reality, then he may forget how to live as a leper—which, when he finally awakes from this prolonged dream, could be a potentially fatal change.
It’s a great setup and a terrific psychological conflict for a fantasy protagonist. The problem? Thomas Covenant is a tremendous asshole, and he remains an asshole throughout the novel. The people of the Land treat him with deference as a powerful Lord and the reincarnation of one of their most legendary heroes. In return, Covenant treats them all like shit and acts like an unrepentant douchebag.
Covenant’s most heinous act is his brutal rape of Lena, an innocent teenager from a village near Kevin’s Watch, where he makes his first appearance in the Land. The rape is so brutal and gratuitous that it’s unforgivable, and we can never again root for Covenant even as an anti-hero. The scene, deemed acceptable to the book’s publisher in 1977, would never survive in a novel traditionally published today—nor should it. This scene alone makes the book hopelessly dated to modern readers.
The rape aside, Covenant spends the novel muttering “Hellfire!” at everyone and refusing to use his magic white gold ring. He’s constantly twitching and clenching his fists and moaning and groaning. Why the high lords of the Land who encounter him don’t beat his ass into the ground at every opportunity is beyond me. With Covenant, Donaldson pushed the notion of the anti-hero into proto-Tony Soprano territory—but Tony Soprano at least loved his kids and the baby ducks in his swimming pool. Covenant, in contrast, possesses not a single redeemable trait. He’s a leper who deserves his leprosy.
As for the plot, I had forgotten how little actually happens in this first book. The novel follows the basic tropes of the fantasy quest as established by The Lord of the Rings. Covenant is given a mission to deliver a message from Lord Foul, the series’ Sauron, to the high lords of Revelstone, the book’s Rivendell. From Revelstone, he joins another quest to retrieve the Staff of Law, the book’s MacGuffin, in the hope that doing so will allow him to wake from his dream. There are a few encounters with Ur-viles, the book’s orcs, and a showdown with Drool Rockworm, the book’s big boss. That’s pretty much it.
And then there’s Donaldson’s prose style, which, don’t get me started. To call Donaldson’s prose “purple” is to overload the color purple. The prose is heliotrope, amaranthine, violaceous—all words, by the way, that you might find in the book. So overburdened with similes is the prose that nearly every sentence contains the word like or the phrase as if—and, most often, those similes collapse from the weight they’re forced to carry. Donaldson chooses his verbs most often for their sheer inappropriateness. For some unknown reason, his editor allowed him to use the word clench so often that it appears on nearly every page of the novel. If you took a shot of tequila every time you encountered clench, you’d black out by the end of the second chapter.
And yet—despite the rape, Covenant’s assholery, the lame plot, and the bad writing, the book somehow remains compulsively readable. Since I finished it, I’ve pondered at length why this is so. How can a lazily plotted book with bad writing and a hateful protagonist still, beyond all reason, work? So doggedly committed is Donaldson to telling this story that this commitment carries the reader through. Donaldson believes in Thomas Covenant. He believes in the Land, in the power of wild magic and white gold and Kevin’s Lore and Bannor the Bloodguard and the giant Saltheart Foamfollower. He believes in it all with as much force as his protagonist denies it all. He believes in his turgid prose so forcefully that you sometimes gasp with delight at the sheer awfulness of his writing. It would be a gas to read the book on mushrooms.
So, do I recommend Lord Foul’s Bane? At the end of the day, I’d say yes! I recommend it the same way I recommend the Patrick Swayze movie Roadhouse: as a work of art so audaciously bad that it becomes delightfully irresistible. The book exists beyond criticism. You either get on board and enjoy the wild ride, or you run for your life. Both choices are correct.
Your Friday Face Melt for July 23
"You Should be Dancing," Foo Fighters
Being dads, we're unapologetic fans of "Dad Rock." Wilco? Yes please!
But we'll cop to being perpetually bored with the Foo Fighters, who make rock music for airport lounges and doctors' waiting rooms everywhere. Dave Grohl seems like a genuinely nice guy and an affable dude, but exactly when or why did Pop Culture anoint him as the Ambassador of Rock? Grohl's job is to remind millennials and zoomers that Rock has now joined Jazz as music that only the olds listen to.
But then the Foos release this truly badass cover of another dusty chestnut-- the Bee Gees' "You Should be Dancing," from their upcoming album of disco covers-- and suddenly we're fans. Enjoy!
Free Ebooks galore!
Phabulousity has partnered with BookFunnel to offer our readers and site visitors access to a veritable cornucopia of fantasy, sci-fi, and horror ebooks. This month's promotion, "Face the Pages," runs now through August 18.
Rick Ferguson's own short story collection "Dungeon of Doom" is one of the featured free ebooks. Just click here or on the image above and you'll be taken to a landing page where you can peruse all the free ebooks your eyeballs can stand. See you there!
Film review: Black Widow (2021)
Bottom line: A fun if middling entry in the MCU filmography.
Full disclosure: I’m a full-on Marvel fanboy. One may argue—and I do—that the run of films from 2008’s Iron Man to 2019’s Avengers: Endgame constitutes the greatest display of studio-driven filmmaking in the history of the movies. Twenty-two interlocking films telling one overarching epic story, culminating in the final defeat of arch-villain Thanos. Thirty main characters, literally hundreds of supporting characters, dozens of directors and screenwriters, all tasked with realizing the overarching vision of producer Kevin Feige. Nitpicks aside, Feige’s ability to maintain series continuity while juggling dozens of overlapping storylines—Marvel’s version of Loki’s Sacred Timeline—is worthy of He Who Remains himself.
The first three “phases” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) were unprecedented. No studio has ever pulled off such a feat, and no studio is likely ever to do so again—including Marvel. Before we can judge the kickoff of the MCU Phase 4 with the September release of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Feige and company have delivered a long overdue and bittersweet coda to the story of the first female Avenger: Scarlett Johannson’s Natasha Romanov, AKA the Black Widow. In terms of its overall MCU ranking, Black Widow falls squarely in the middle of the pack. For fans of Johannson’s Romanov, however, it’s a fitting if muted sendoff for the character.
On the Sacred Timeline, Black Widow takes place shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War, which saw the Avengers splintered, with the Tony Stark-led faction operating under the Sokovia Accords and the Steve Rogers-led faction either in jail or on the run. Hiding out in a safe house in Norway, Romanov plunges into new danger and intrigue when her long-lost “sister” Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) delivers the film’s MacGuffin: A mysterious briefcase filled with vials of glowing red serum. Why serums in Hollywood action movies always glow is a question I’ll leave for you to ponder.
The arrival of said briefcase sends Romanov on a globe-trotting mission to confront her past as a Russian assassin programmed to kill by General Dreykov (Ray Winstone delivering a truly terrible Russian accent), the mysterious director of the “Red Room.” Romanov’s pursuit of Yelena leads to a reunion with the two Russian sleeper agents who posed as her parents while raising her in Ohio: Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour), AKA the Red Guardian, the Soviet Union’s answer to Captain America; and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), a scientist who helped Dreykov create the Red Room training protocol. The mission of this reunited team of super-spies: Find Dreykov before he unleashes a plague of mind-controlled Black Widow spies to wreak havoc upon the global order.
What follows is two hours of what we now recognize as Marvel assembly-line product, with a Jason Bourne-inspired midsection followed by a climactic and explosive battle in the villain’s lair straight out of Roger Moor-era James Bond. It’s all fine: the action is fine, the one-liners are fine, the direction is fine, the climax is fine, even if the villain’s plan is ripped off from the 1969 Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The performances are what elevate the proceedings: Johannson’s wry and world-weary take on Romanov, Harbour’s comic relief, and particularly Pugh’s star turn as the hotheaded heir to Johannson’s slot in the MCU. Success breeds success, and Marvel’s ability to have their pick of veteran A-listers and exciting newcomers provides built-in protection against a run-of-the-mill script, which Black Widow’s script certainly is. Are the film’s performances better than it deserves? Most certainly—but that’s the Marvel advantage.
So, Black Widow is fine, if in no way transcendent. We’re all conditioned to expect a certain baseline of quality from Marvel products, the same way we expect a baseline of customer experience from Target or Starbucks. At this point, it would be shocking if Marvel released a truly terrible film; the last true dud was Thor: The Dark World, released eight years ago.
Still, Black Widow highlights what could become a recurring problem with Phase 4 of the MCU: the franchise’s insatiable need to use its latest film to set up the next one. In effect, that need reduces Scarlett Johannson to a supporting player in her own movie. The film’s purpose is not to explore the character of Natasha Romanov the way the Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor entries explored and deepened those characters; rather, its purpose is to introduce Pugh’s Yelena Belova, the new Black Widow. Pugh is a rising star, and it’s exciting to think of her presence in upcoming MCU releases. But it’s a problem when your film’s titular heroine is the least interesting character in her own movie.
But: Like I said, I’m a Marvel fanboy, so I enjoyed the ride. If you’re on board with the MCU, you’ll have a good time. If you’re Martin Scorsese, then Black Widow is the latest harbinger of the cinematic apocalypse. Neither reaction is wrong.
Ranking: As always, we place each new MCU entry into our overall ranking, which is true and inviolate. Black Widow enters at number 16, leaving the Top Ten unchanged.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
2. Guardians of the Galaxy
3. Avengers: Infinity War
4. Thor: Ragnarök
5. Captain America: Civil War
6. The Avengers
7. Iron Man
8. Captain America: The First Avenger
9. Black Panther
10. Avengers: Endgame
11. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
12. Spider Man: Homecoming
13. Ant Man
14. Doctor Strange
15. Spider Man: Far from Home
16. Black Widow
17. Ant Man and the Wasp
18. Avengers: Age of Ultron
19. Captain Marvel
21. Iron Man 2
22. Iron Man 3
23. The Incredible Hulk
24. Thor: The Dark World
Friday Face Melt: Slaying King Crimson
King Crimson's guitar freakout "Fracture," which debuted on the prog-rock group's 1974 LP Starless and Bible Black, has long been considered unplayable. Don't tell that to Italian guitarist Maria Barbieri, who fucking slays the song in this video. Enjoy!
Retro review: A Princess of Mars
Today, most modern literary critics choose the latter course. For my part, I prefer the first option. Art must first and foremost be free from censorship, and even the most irredeemably offensive works of fiction may yet offer moments of insight. Is it possible to condemn the whitewashed history and “happy slave” tropes of Gone With the Wind while still admiring Scarlett O’Hara as one of the strongest female protagonists of 20th Century fiction? Is it possible to get carried away by Avatar’s exciting plot while recognizing it as yet another variation of the “white savior” trope? Each reader or viewer must make her own choice where to draw the line. What we must not do is censor another reader’s ability to make that choice.
Which brings us to Edgar Rice Burroughs and his seminal “sword and planet” novel A Princess of Mars, published in 1912. I first read the book in high school, back when I was supposed to be reading Ethan Frome, at a time when no one much thought about whatever problematic tropes might hide in the books and movies we consumed. Reading it again today, it’s hard not to be troubled by the book’s opening, when Burroughs’s hero John Carter flees from the Apache “red savages.” Or by the paper-thin character of Martian princess Dejah Thoris, who exists solely to be rescued, married against her will, and fall in love with the hero at first sight.
If you dig deeper, you will also learn that Burroughs himself was a believer in the natural superiority of the white race and a casual proponent of the odious theories of eugenics popular in his day. He wasn’t a virulent racist like H.P. Lovecraft—but he wasn’t exactly not a racist, either. Compared to Burroughs’s Tarzan novels—insanely popular in their day—his Barsoom novels seem enlightened.
But. The book was published in fucking 1912. Pretty much every white person in 1912 assumed that white supremacy was a natural law, like gravity. The question for the modern reader is thus: Can you compartmentalize the less savory dynamics of A Princess of Mars and evaluate it as a work of fiction, if not enjoy it?
If you’re a fan of fantasy and science fiction and you’re interested in exploring the foundational works that shaped modern genre writers, then A Princess of Mars is essential reading. Once you get past the flowery purple prose and the stilted proclamations, declarations, and speeches that pass for dialog, the book is often terrifically entertaining.
A Princess of Mars was originally serialized in All Story magazine, and the serialization shows. Such modern writerly notions as the fifteen-beat plot, clear character arcs, and the hero’s journey are all absent here. The plot is essentially an episodic travelogue, with John Carter leaping from one end of Mars—called Barsoom by its warring tribes of green and red Martians—to the other, mostly in pursuit of Dejah Thoris, the novel’s titular princess. Along the way, he befriends a “calot”—the Martian equivalent of a dog—named Woola, a towering six-armed green warrior from the Thark clan named Tars Tarkas, and Kantos Kan, a red-skinned warrior from the Martian city of Helium. The novel is stuffed full of gladiator combat, great armies clashing, the siege and investiture of Martian cities, palace intrigue, and even aerial combat featuring the great sailing war-barges of Barsoom.
Set aside the troublesome tropes, and what’s not to like? In Burroughs’s time, the idea of a “flawed protagonist” had yet to pierce the conventions of pulp fiction. Jay Gatsby could be flawed, but John Carter and the pulp heroes of his day were expected to function more as the questing knights of the Round Table: morally upright, flawless of character, undefeatable in combat. John Carter is therefore never in any real danger. He vanquishes every foe, masters easily every Martian weapon, language, and custom, and is soon hailed as a conquering hero everywhere he goes. Carter is definitely a white savior trope; he essentially civilizes the green Tharks, and he transforms Tars Tarkas from cruel warlord into noble ruler and father. And, of course—spoiler alert!—he wins the heart of the princess of Mars.
So: If you can temporarily place the troublesome tropes in a box and settle into the rhythm of the florid prose, you might absolutely enjoy A Princess of Mars. I enjoyed revisiting the book, and I’ll probably read a few more in the series. The Tarzan books, however, I’ll probably skip. Like I said, everybody has to draw the line somewhere.
Rick Ferguson is the author of The Chronicles of Elberon fantasy trilogy. Rick is also a globally recognized marketing expert with appearances in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Advertising Age, Fast Company, the Globe & Mail Canada, the Guardian UK, the Financial Times India, MSNBC, and the Fox Business Channel. He has delivered keynote speeches on marketing principles and best practices on six continents. He is also master of time, space, and dimension.