Usagi Yojimbo: Book 1: The Ronin, Book 2: Samurai

Monday, May 14, 2018

Usagi Yojimbo: Book 1: The Ronin, Book 2: Samurai
Stan Sakai, 1987, 1989

Read Harder Challenge - A comic written and illustrated by the same person

I'm sure I first saw the samurai rabbit as an action figure that went with my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles back in the 80s. I knew it was a long-running series, I knew it was acclaimed, and heck, I bought these two books off a sale rack without hesitation, but somehow I never sat down to read any before.

After I caught a handful of excerpts online, though, it drifted up to the top of the to-read list.

First, the mixed. The first book is a collection of the character's earliest appearances, and it shows; the writing is a bit abrupt here and there. The art is great overall, but occasionally it seems caught between styles - the writing and events follow a more serious dramatic tone, while the expressions of minor (often dying) characters evoke a "funny animal comic" look. (This is separate from the minor sight gags with the little lizards that feature in the corners of many panels. Those guys are great.)

Once the series starts in earnest at the beginning of Book 2, the story takes off and everything clicks into place. The art is dynamic and complex, and the writing begins to expand the characters and the world.

In these particular issues, I found the little side notes that explain Japanese terms more obtrusive than helpful, but I'm certain there were fewer readers who were already familiar with them when these issues originally came out. I also understand that there is a great deal more about Japanese history and culture in later volumes.

By the end of the second book, I'd been through an array of brief adventures, a long dip into backstory, more than a few exciting battles in defense of the helpless, and one long-form pun. Usagi's world is one that I'll be happy to spend more time in. Considering it's still being published today, there's a lot more story to enjoy.

4 Stars - Very Good Books

Parable of the Talents

Monday, April 23, 2018

Parable of the Talents
Octavia Butler, 1998

Read Harder 2018 Challenge: A sci-fi novel with a female protagonist by a female author

Premise: Sequel to Parable of the Sower. Lauren Olamina tries to protect her growing family, her community, and the movement she hopes to foster, but the rest of the world isn't ready to leave them in peace.

Oof. This was a hard read. I had to take a break several times. All of the content warnings on this one: rape, murder, and torture, including violence targeting women, LGBTQ people, and racial and religious minorities. Government-sanctioned religious extremism. A politician rising to power on xenophobia, sexism, racism, and a false nostalgia for the past. If it had been written today, people would say the parody was too on-the-nose and over the top.

However, what troubled me the most wasn't any of that. The text of the novel is mostly drawn from the main character's diaries, but there's a framing device where each chapter is introduced by her daughter, a fair amount of time after the events. Her daughter's animosity toward the Earthseed movement was hard to read. Once I got through enough of the book, however, I began to think it was a brilliant addition.

Her perspective is not just giving a voice to those who doubt the destiny that the main character sees so clearly. It's also a second story about how truly devoting yourself to something, no matter how worthy, affects every relationship in your life. Now, Olamina's poor relationship with her daughter is mostly not her fault - horrifying things are done to them by outside forces. But the observation holds.

I felt the ending of this one was a bit rushed, there's a sudden time jump that startled me. So I didn't leave this with quite the same impact as the first.

Still, it's a powerful, amazing read in many ways, and I am sad that Ms. Butler passed away before finding the plot for the third book. The hints we have continue to fascinate. 

5 Stars - An Amazing Book

Last Dragon Standing (Heartstrikers, Book 5)

Monday, April 16, 2018

Last Dragon Standing (Heartstrikers, Book 5)
Rachel Aaron, 2018

Premise: Sequel to A Dragon of a Different Color. The endgame has begun. Bob, seer of the Heartstrikers, faces the culmination of his final plan. In order to save the world from a Nameless End, Julius Heartstriker and Marci Novalli must rally all the dragon clans and the forces of human magic, but that might not be enough.

This final book brings the series to a fairly satisfying conclusion. It’s maybe a tad too happy of an ending to have much weight, but it is still a lot of fun.

The characters are as charming as they have been all along. All the factions we’ve met (along with some random red herrings) are here for the big finale, and everyone has a part to play.

The only other criticism I have is that giving all of these characters their respective emotional arcs takes a lot of pages. A pretty significant chunk of the book is tense conversation in which everyone hashes out their various issues, rivalries, plots, histories, etc., while there is literally a world-ending timebomb progressing in the background. A character even lampshades this at one point. It’s all interesting and satisfying conversation, but there is an awful lot of it. I find that this structure (an extreme focus on character moments at the expense of plot/action) is more common in independently published fiction and fan fiction. This author is enough of a pro that I kept reading. I always wanted to know what would happen, but it did drag now and then.

I loved the beginning, establishing Bob’s plans, and his role in this volume was very satisfying, as was Marci fulfilling her partnership with Ghost. Julius’s part had less impact; everything he did continued to grow naturally out of him accepting and embracing his unique strengths.

Despite the weak points, I enjoyed this series a lot. It has a great world and fantastic characters.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book