2011 Retrospective

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Books in 2011

Best Book I read for the first time this year: Dawn, by Octavia E.Butler

Very different books, but similar in their sense of depth and ability to shake me with their awesomeness.

Favorite Graphic Novel I read for the first time this year: Batgirl Rising (Bryan Q. Miller, et.al.)

Best Book I read this year that was published in 2011: Reamde, by Neal Stephenson (review in queue)

Runner-up: Either Snuff, by Terry Pratchett or Stray, by Andrea K. Host. All three very different books, enjoyable in very different ways.

Most fun bookish moments:
  • Browsed some awesome used bookstores in Seattle this summer.
  • I can put library ebooks on my Kindle now. This is super-exciting!

Comic Books in 2011:

Favorite Issue of a Series: Batgirl #18

Absolutely gorgeous Valentine's Day themed one-issue story about Stephanie's encounter with Klarion the Witch-Boy. I loved this issue to bits.

Runners-up: Batman: The Brave and the Bold #13 (ALL THE ROBINS!), PowerGirl #26 (Power Girl inspires girl-power in her cosplay fans), American Vampire #12 (One-shot story about Skinner Sweet)

Best One-Shot: Jimmy Olsen

I know, this is patently unfair, because the content was written as a back-up in Action Comics, but then they cut the page-count on the series and shuffled this off into its own thick one-shot. Which was fantastic.

Runner up:
Superman Beyond 

(because awwwwww...)

Best Miniseries: American Vampire: Survival of the Fittest

The core American Vampire book had ups and downs this year, but this miniseries set in the same world was pretty solid. I mean, Nazi vampires plus flamethrower equals fun, right?

Best Ongoing that got canceled this year: BATGIRL, by Bryan Q. Miller

Man, this is why I can't stay excited about current DC. Because there is nothing now that I like as much as I liked this.

Runner-up: Darkwing Duck

This started to falter in the last arc or two... (did the writers run out of time and try to crunch stuff in?) but it was incredible early in the year. And then it got canceled.

Favorite New On-going Series that I started collecting this year:

A lot of books that I followed were canceled this year. Almost all my favorite titles were stopped, and the ones that weren't had some rough patches. I had high hopes and kind words at the start of the DC New 52, but no book has had three straight issues that I really enjoyed, and for me, those books are all dragging each other down with their sameness.

So, the best new on-going series I'm collecting is: Wolverine and the X-Men.
Because it's got great style and humor, and is not boring. So far.

Runner-up: Maybe Demon Knights? It's more up and down than the other DC books, but the high parts are higher than most of the others.

Comics Briefly: American Vampire #22, Princeless #3

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Favorite Issue this Week: American Vampire #22

Issues were new in stores on 12/28/11

American Vampire #22 (Death Race Part One)
Writer: Scott Snyder, Artist: Rafael Albuquerque, Colors: Dave McCaig

YES! This is what I was waiting for. This issue was a fantastic return to form for this book. It starts a new story about new characters in a new time, but the dialogue sparks, the art is outstanding, and the story just races along. I loved this.

Princeless #3
Story: Jeremy Whitley, Art/Colors: M. Goodwin

Princeless continues to be pretty adorable, although this issue wasn't as good as the first two. I like the new character of the smith, but there are way too many tired references and obvious old jokes in this issue for my taste. The art is still fantastic, though, and some of the dialogue still inspired.

Paranormality: Why we see what isn't there

Monday, December 26, 2011

Paranormality: Why we see what isn't there
Richard Wiseman, 2011

Premise: In this delightful volume, professor and skeptic Wiseman walks us through the science behind many seemingly paranormal experiences, and even explains how you can fake the paranormal yourself!

I don't buy many books for my Kindle for more than three dollars, but I happily made an exception for this one. The big US publishers passed on Wiseman's enjoyable work, reportedly “some suggesting that I re-write it to suggest that ghosts were real and psychic powers actually existed!” So Wiseman, in conjunction with his UK publisher, released it himself.

This is a fantastic book, which I devoured in pretty much one sitting. It's fun to read, it's funny, and it's educational. What more could you ask?

Wiseman examines seven main subjects: Fortune-telling, Out-of-body experiences, Mind over Matter (Telekinesis), Communication with the dead, Ghosts, Mind Control (hypnosis/brainwashing), and Prophesy (Dreams/Premonitions). For each, he gives an easy to follow history of the study of the phenomenon, followed by any current scientific findings.

A lot of the book delves into the specific ways that our brain tricks us into thinking or feeling certain things. It touches on everything from studies showing how likely people are to misremember details or only remember correct information (useful for card-readers to exploit, or for people to claim they dreamed about an event beforehand) to recent developments in easily provoking a disassociation between mind and body in the lab, and how that explains out-of-body experiences. I'd heard of many of these experiments before, but still loved reading this.

The book is also full of simple experiments you can try on yourself or your friends, whether it's how to give a cold reading like a professional “psychic”, how to appear to bend spoons, or how to protect yourself from brainwashing. Also: how to hypnotize a chicken. No, really.

This is a great book for a beginning skeptic: it's accessible and fun, and it showcases some fabulous history about people trying to get to the truth, whatever it might be. Bravo!

5 Stars – An Awesome Book

Buy Paranormality on Amazon.com

More information at http://www.paranormalitybook.com/

Holiday Comics! JLA #60, DCU Infinite Holiday Special, Larfleeze Christmas Special

Friday, December 23, 2011

Cross-posted from Mainlining Christmas

In my quest to experience as much Christmas as possible, I picked up a couple of holiday-looking issues during a sale at my local comic shop. The Larfleeze Special I got when it came out last year. These are all really fun issues. Happy Holidays and Merry Reading!

JLA #60 (Released 2001)
Writer: Mark Waid, Pencils: Cliff Rathburn, Inks: Paul Neary, Colors: David Baron

“Twas the Fight Before Christmas!”
This is an incredibly silly little one-shot story, in which Plastic Man tries to convince a kid that Santa is on the Justice League. His explanation of how this came to be involves Neron, demon elves, evil gingerbread men, and Santa's surprise super-powers. The kid often knows more about the League than Plastic Man, and corrects the hero, like any good comic nerd. It's extremely zany, and I definitely enjoyed it.

DCU Infinite Holiday Special (Released 2006)
Various Writers/Artists

Wow! I definitely got my money's worth with this issue. This is a thick compilation of seven different short holiday pieces, with different characters (and different writer/artist teams) on each one. The only one that didn't really work for me at all was 'Trials of Shazam in “Gift of the Magi”' by Bedard and Marz. I just didn't know the characters or the situation enough to follow. The rest of the issue is fantastic, and that one might be good, I just didn't get it.

The Shadowpact piece by Bill Willingham (of Fables fame) was pretty spectacular, and very funny. Joe Kelly wrote a Supergirl piece that was surprisingly moving in spots. Greg Rucka's Hannukah-themed Batwoman piece was quite well done. I didn't understand all the context necessary for the Flash piece, but I really liked what I did understand.

The last short piece was completely hilarious. Kelly Puckett brings a off-the-walls-surreal Superman/Batman ElseWorlds tale straight out of the Silver Age. It packs an excellent punchline.

Green Lantern: Larfleeze Christmas Special (Released 2010)
Writer: Geoff Johns, Artist: Brett Booth, Colorist: Andrew Dalhouse

I like this issue. It's extremely silly and extremely sweet, all at the same time. Plus it includes activities! A maze! A recipe for Christmas Cookies! Ha! The main premise is simple: Larfleeze (Orange Lantern of Avarice) heard that there's a fat man who gives away presents! Larfleeze is not the brightest star in the sky, but he's determined to get in on what sounds like a good deal. It's an extremely adorable and funny piece.

Comics Briefly: Batman Incorporated: Leviathan Strikes!, Batman #4, Wonder Woman #4, Wolverine and the X-Men #3

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

All DC's New 52 books have to work against the tide with me recently. I'm just burnt out on the whole damn way-too-dark-and-depressing universe.

Favorite Issue this Week: Batman Incorporated: Leviathan Strikes!

All books new in stores 12/21/11

Batman Incorporated: Leviathan Strikes!
Writer: Grant Morrison, Artist: Cameron Stewart (Chapter 1), Chris Burnham (Chapter 2) Color: Nathan Fairbairn

STEPHANIE! I MISS YOU! Seriously, this issue is the last two issues of Batman Inc - well, the last two issues of the first half of Batman Inc. Happily for everyone, it takes place pre-New52-reboot. The first part (Batgirl Steph Brown infiltrates a finishing school for girl-ninja assassins) was supremely fun. I loved it. The second half made no flipping sense, and I don't care. It made a little more sense after I read the sum-up in the back to remind me of all the previous Batman Inc. shenanigans. Even though it was extremely surreal and I didn't always understand what was happening, the feeling of tension and catharsis was undeniable. What a crazy fun book.

Batman #4
Writer: Scott Snyder, Pencils: Greg Capullo, Inks: Jonathan Glapion, Colors: FCO

Decent issue, but nothing too special. Some good stuff in the middle, nice dialogue, good tone, but I'm getting really tired of every issue ending with a cliffhanger.

Wonder Woman #4
Writer: Brian Azzarello, Artist: Cliff Chiang

This... was not as bad as I feared from the solicits/preview. I still don't like this series. It's just not to my taste. I don't need more horror comics in my life, thanks. No feeling of satisfaction for me from reading this, just a sense of 'huh, okay.'

Wolverine and the X-Men #3
Writer: Jason Aaron, Pencils: Chris Bachalo, Duncan Rouleau & Matteo Scalera, Inkers: Tim Townsend, Jaime Mendoza, Al Vey, Mark Irwin, Victor Olazaba, Duncan Rouleau and Matteo Scalera

Now that's more like it! I laughed, I smiled, I gasped, I said "Oh, that character, now I get it" This was chock full of excellent cameos, and little character moments and fun dialogue for everyone. The art was a bit choppy (look at the size of the team!)  and at points it veered toward melodrama, but overall I loved this issue.

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus
L. Frank Baum, 1902

Cross-posted at Mainlining Christmas

This is a rather unique little... novella, I guess I would call it by the length. Probably one of the earliest attempts to really codify a “logical” life story for Santa Claus. I found it interesting, though, that even given a few animated specials that adapt this story directly, very little of this story has directly migrated into the popular conception of Santa. This could be one of the things that pulled the idea of Santa into the framework of “fairy tale” rather than “religious/mythic figure”, but I couldn't find out much about its original reception or effect.

Eschewing any references to Saint Nicholas, the historical figure, this Santa is a foundling raised by wood nymphs and fairies, called Claus because it means something like “small one”.

Most of the story is pretty cute: the fairies raise Claus, and since all manner of immortal spirits are his friends and protectors he befriends all plants and animals. Eventually he leaves home and discovers humans, loves children, invents toys (really) and discovers he likes making and giving them.

There's a really awkward, forced moral in here somewhere about how children with nice toys never wish to be naughty. Okay, if you say so.

Then there's a conflict. Some evil troll-like creatures appear to stop Claus, but his friends always help and protect him.

Then the story turns oddly bloodthirsty and violent for exactly one chapter. After which, the good immortals have killed all the evil beings. All of them. After mocking them for not being immortal, OR having an afterlife. Yeah, that made me a little uneasy.

Then Claus (who did not take part in the battle, and apparently slept right through it) goes back to discovering and inventing things. Sleighs! Deer! Chimneys! Stockings! Christmas Trees! It's more than a little ridiculous how much of this plays out. For example, eventually he can only go out once a year because the head animal spirit-herder-guy says he can only borrow deer on Christmas Eve, and only from sun-down to sun-up.

There are things that are really sweet about this story, but most of them are early on. Eventually it just started to feel really forced to me, as though Baum felt the need to explain in depth every single aspect of Christmas that he could think of, whether or not it makes sense to discuss it. The sequence in which the council of Immortals votes to make Claus immortal (not a spoiler, you knew this was coming) was pretty good, though.

And then there's the ending, when Baum tries to explain how even if parents put the toys in the stocking and bought them at the store, it's Santa who made them, really. Uh-huh. I don't think there was any time in my life I would have bought that one.

So in the end I guess I'm actually not surprised that more of this story hasn't filtered into the common story. It has ups and downs, but it's interesting, and I'm glad I read it.

3 Stars – A Good Book

PS: If you'd like to read a darker look at Santa's origin, with more moral qualms and more fantastic adventures, check out For Love of Children. This fantasy novel also delves into the secret origins of the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. E-editions on sale all December 2011 for just 99 cents!

A Clockwork Christmas

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Clockwork Christmas
Carina Press, 2011
Contributors: Stacy Gail, P.G. Forte, Jenny Schwartz, J.K. Coi

New Release! Copy for review provided by NetGalley.

Premise: A collection of 4 novellas each set at the holidays, each set in a steampunk world. I didn't actually realize when I requested this that they were all also romance, but maybe I should have assumed.

Okay, I know steampunk is big right now, but maybe it should stay in visual mediums.

I hated the first story: Crime Wave in a Corset, by Stacy Gail. I mean, I hated it a lot. I hated the characters, I hated the plot, I hated the fact that the steampunk bits were completely irrelevant. Something about the uber-melodramatic romance completely rubbed me the wrong way. With a different set-up, a different couple, maybe I could get into this, but I didn't buy this pair. The narration says the woman is brilliant, but we never get to see her be brilliant. The guy is presented as an absolute nightmare at first, and the story comes around to sympathizing with him much faster than I was prepared to. The girl accepts her lust for him so quickly, after he breaks into her home, makes her look like an idiot and threatens her life, that I lost any respect for her.

To me it seemed as though the author wrote all this mutual lust between two people who should loathe each other and then wedged in some redeeming qualities for each so it could pretend to have a happy ending. Not buying it.

Not to mention it's full of really terribly purple prose. The language used makes me queasy rather than titillated. If I have to read about anything that's turgid, throbbing, or firmly rounded ever again, it'll be too soon.

Happily, the second novella was a bit better, and the third and fourth novellas were even less annoying.

The second (This Winter Heart by PG Forte) and the fourth (Far From Broken by JK Coi) had a lot in common: both were about women who were partially or entirely cybernetic, and them dealing with their relationships with their husbands. Both stories had strengths and weaknesses, and Far From Broken was a bit more enjoyable to read, if a bit more obvious in the direction the plot was going. The characters in This Winter Heart were kind of morons.

My favorite one, by a leap and and a bound, was Wanted: One Scoundrel by Jenny Schwartz. This also had the distinction of being the one in which the steampunk and/or holiday setting was least important to the plot, and the one with the most realistic and pleasant to read romance. As in, two people meet, flirt, learn about each other, but do not go straight to X-rated sex. The characters in that one (a suffragette and an adventurer/inventor) were more sympathetic and more plausible, as well.

Part of my problem with some of the steampunk stuff that I've read is that I like the Victorian/Edwardian period so much as it is that I get frustrated when all modern authors seem to add is a few setting flourishes and modern character motivations. When I want characters with modern mores, I'll read novels set in the modern era. It just seems absurdly forced to me when characters at the turn of the century think like people now, with no explanation beyond "she/he's extraordinary/a rebel/raised in *insert exotic locale*"

Okay, that was kind of a lot of ranting more than a review, but I think you got my feelings on the work.

Crime Wave in a Corset - 1 Star
This Winter Heart - 2 Stars
Wanted: One Scoundrel - 3 Stars
Far From Broken - 2 Stars

Averaged Rating for A Clockwork Christmas: 2 Stars - An Okay Book

Comics Briefly: American Vampire #21, Batgirl #4, Batwoman #4, Demon Knights #4, Star Trek/Legion of Superheroes #3

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

State of the Collector: I might start buying fewer comics soon. I won't stop reading graphic novels and such, but I'm just not loving much that's coming out right now. I didn't have anything to say about last week's books except "Yup, these are okay but not great, in short: meh." If my husband didn't want to finish out the story arcs, I'd already be cutting some DC titles from my pull list.

Favorite Issue This Week: Demon Knights #4

American Vampire #21
Writer: Scott Snyder, Artist: Jordi Bernet, Colors: Dave McCaig

Decent ending to a mediocre side trip in this world. I'm beginning to get discouraged by even this, one of my favorite titles. I hope the next storyline is better.

Batgirl #4
Writer: Gail Simone, Penciller: Adrian Syaf, Inker: Vicente Cifuentes, Colors: Ulises Arreola

Better in some ways than this title has been, but it was a long time coming. Babs gets to shine a bit more, there's some decent dialogue. I think the art wavers between quite pretty and sorta weird, and the cliffhanger leaves me completely cold, though.

Batwoman #4
Writers: J.H. Williams III & W. Haden Blackman, Artist: J.H. Williams III, Colors: Dave Stewart

I guess this is well done and skillfully put together, I just don't like reading it. I don't like most of the characters, as people. If they actually kill Flamebird I am dropping this book like a bad habit.

Demon Knights #4
Writer: Paul Cornell, Pencillers: Michael Choi & Diogenes Neves, Inkers: Michael Choi & Oclair Albert, Colorist: Marcelo Maiolo

Fairly intriguing issue, giving the back story for Shining Knight. I liked it quite a bit, although it didn't move the plot forward. Some really gorgeous panels in this one.

Star Trek/Legion of Superheroes #3
Writer: Chris Roberson, Pencils: Jeffery Moy, Inker: Phillip Moy,  Colors: Romulo Fajardo

Pretty decent amount of fun here. The two teams finally team up to take down some jerks, and it's amusing, if a bit by the numbers. The parallelism is well done, if, again, fairly rote. It made me smile and giggle anyhow.


Monday, December 12, 2011

Terry Pratchett, 1996

Crossposted at Mainlining Christmas.

Premise: It's winter on the Discworld, so it's time for the Hogfather to bring presents to all the children. Except the Hogfather is missing. It's up to Susan, Death's granddaughter to save the day. She would really like to know why Death is climbing down chimneys, why new gods and fairies seem to be appearing, and what all this has to do with an Assassin with an unique view of reality.

I love many of the Discworld books, but this is one of my very favorites. It scratches all my holiday itches: the power of belief, ancient pagan roots, mocking "picturesque" holiday stories, and saving the world.

I love it from the very start. Here's page one:
Everything starts somewhere, although many physicists disagree. 
But people have always been dimly aware of the problem with the start of things. They wonder aloud how the snowplow driver gets to work, or how the makers of dictionaries look up the spelling of the words. Yet there is the constant desire to find some point in the twisting, knotting, raveling nets of space-time on which a metaphorical finger can be put to indicate that here, here, is the point where it all began... 
Something began when the Guild of Assassins enrolled Mister Teatime, who saw things differently from other people, and one of the ways that he saw things differently from other people was in seeing other people as things (later, Lord Downey of the Guild said, "We took pity on him because he'd lost both parents at an early age. I think that, on reflection, we should have wondered a bit more about that"). 
But it was much earlier even than that when most people forgot that the very oldest stories are, sooner or later, about blood. 
I would just sit here and read you the whole book if I could.

I love Susan, stubbornly trying to make her own way without using too many of her innate powers (lest she use them too much and forget what doorknobs are for), and how she makes quick work of any nonsense standing between her and her goal.

I love Death struggling with the more illogical parts of Hogswatch, while grasping the deeper aspects better than any mortal. The villains are creepy and the side plots entertaining. This book has some of my favorite scenes with progressive young wizard Ponder Stibbons and his thinking machine, Hex.

Of course through all the action and excitement runs the satire that Discworld is known for, in this case largely turned against holiday stories and traditions that don't really make much sense. I was particularly satisfied by Death logically demolishing that blot on humanity, the execrable Little Match Girl story.

There's a great sequence about childhood terrors coming true, and I found the reveal of the villains' plan very well done. The book is full of quotable lines and ends with a series of climaxes that leave me feeling quite pleased and full of a darker, truer sort of holiday cheer.

Highly Recommended.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Also see my review of the TV Miniseries adaptation.

Top Ten Tuesday - Childhood Favorites

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted at The Broke and The Bookish

I haven't been on many blog hops and memes recently, because A) I've been very busy with work and B) I've been expending all of my blogging energy on Mainlining Christmas! Click over for rants and raves about holiday movies, books, music, and articles about the horror of the season.

But I thought I'd come back for today's, at least.

This week's prompt: Top Ten Childhood Favorites

I am going to order these roughly by age.

1: I'm told that I was obsessed with The Cat in the Hat as a very young child, but the first Dr. Seuss book I remember being obsessed with was Bartholomew and the Oobleck. Because I had to be different, even then.

2: Another favorite from early childhood: The Monster at the End of This Book. Because Sesame Street and Grover are the best.

3: Does anyone else remember the book Serendipity, and the series of related books? These were thin, brightly colored little volumes, generally with a moral at the end. Serendipity herself was a pink dragorn of, if I recall correctly, delicate sensibilities. I had a lot of these that I carried around in a little tote bag, and I adored them.

4: Enjoyment of The Black Cauldron, and the rest of the Prydain Chronicles, grew quickly to a general obsession with everything Lloyd Alexander had written at that point.

5: I have to give a shout out to the silly in hindsight but amazing at the time Riders of the Unicorn Queen Series. I read these books every six months or so for a while.
I actually re-read the first two this year, because I was curious how much I remembered.

6: I also read and loved all of the Miss Bianca/Rescuers books.

7: I had a full set of Little House on the Prairie books, although the early ones were my favorites. I re-read them often during my obsessed-with-pioneers phase.

8: The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles was a solid favorite for years. I'm still always a little bit on the lookout for a clear umbrella with yellow butterflies like the one the Professor had.

9: I read A Wrinkle in Time a hair later than I could have, but I devoured it in one sitting, and soon sped through the rest of the series.

10: Right around the time I was transitioning firmly into the adult section of the bookstore with the discovery of Dragonlance, Valdemar and Xanth, I loved a book called A Rumor of Otters. It was about a teenager in New Zealand who hiked into the wilderness alone in search of the titular wildlife, and lived on her own for a while. It made a huge impression on me, and I'm always a little sad that it isn't better known.

The Nutcracker and the Mouse King

Monday, December 5, 2011

Crossposted for Mainlining Christmas

The Nutcracker and the Mouse King
E. T. A. Hoffman, 1816
Translation by Joachim Neugroschel

So, after watching several different versions of the Nutcracker Ballet for Mainlining Christmas, I wanted to go back and read the original story. That proved to be harder than it sounds, but I finally got access to a Penguin classics edition at the library.

(This volume also included the slightly sanitized retelling of the tale by Dumas that the ballet is technically based on, but I'm only looking at the original.)

As a work this story seems to consciously evade categorization. The story is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek fairy tale, a surrealist fantasy, with a story within a story that sees to want to mock the conventions of fairy tales but is still a fairly classic example. I found it intriguing throughout, but a bit exhausting to read.

The basics of the story are the basics of the ballet: Marie becomes obsessed with the Nutcracker that Godfather Drosselmeyer brings for Christmas, her brother damages it, mice attack her late at night and she is defended by the Nutcracker leading an army of dolls and toy soldiers. Then it gets a little more complicated. Drosselmeyer tells her a story of how a princess was turned into a hideous beast because of her foolish parents' feud with the Mouse Queen.  She is eventually rescued, but the curse rebounds on the young man doing the rescuing, and he is turned into the first nutcracker. Or something. Of course, Marie loves the Nutcracker despite how ugly he looks, and her love and fidelity helps him defeat the Mouse King (son of the Queen from before) and be restored. Maybe.

The story isn't actually that complicated, but there is a narrator with a sense of humor, and reality and fantasy are so interwoven that I had a hard time being sure whether certain words or names were errors in translation, typos in the book, or intentionally confusing or vague. Part of the confusion comes from that fact that often the children's playtime is described in terms that they might have used. For example, at one point Fritz (the brother) puts his new toy soldiers away,but what the text says is that the Hussars set up camp and went to bed.

This leads into the confusion of whether Marie's toys actually came alive and defended her from the mice, or not. The conclusion of the story seems to fall on the side that it doesn't matter, so long as Marie keeps faith with her interpretation of events.

The interlude in candyland is from the story, but it's a brief dream sequence that makes basically no sense.

I enjoyed reading the story, but ironically I'm not sure that one would have any reason to read it nowadays if not for the ballet. I am intrigued by allusions in the introduction to Hoffman as a very early writer of surreal fantasy stories, though. Maybe I will track down some of his other work.

Fairly impossible to rate. For archiving purposes, though, I'll call this a 3 Star Story. Good, not great.

The Last Ringbearer

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Last Ringbearer
Kirill Eskov, 1999, English Translation by Yisroel Markov, 2010

This review will have to be a bit different, since this isn't technically a book. Well, it's a book in Russia, but it can't be legally published here. The Last Ringbearer is an elaborate fan work based on Lord of the Rings.

You might have heard about this last winter, it was in the news for a while. For example, here's Laura Miller's article on Salon. The premise is actually pretty brilliant. First, it takes LOTR as a historical narrative, but not necessarily true. Second, considering how history on Earth is written by the victors, what might the actual events have looked like which inspired the story.

To sum up: there was a war, and like most wars, it was mostly about resources and power, while superficially being about ideology.

There are some flaws in either the writing or the translation. These include some awkward early expository infodumps, some poorly executed breaking of the fourth wall, and some allusions that I think are too heavy-handed.

That said, I really enjoyed reading this. It's exciting, intriguing, and inventive. The main plot follows a Mordorian medic who is given a secret mission after the end of the war, to try to claim a sort of victory despite the decimation of his people.

This is a cross between a scholarly exercise akin to trying to guess who King Arthur might have really been and a straight retelling of Lord of the Rings from an author who does not share Tolkien's romantic view of pastoral life. Parts of it made me think about the scenes in Isengard in the movie, and wonder what else would have been different if instead of a hellscape, it had looked like the workshop of a Da Vinci.

(I tried to find a youtube clip of the very beginning of Hudson Hawk to show you what I mean, but have not been able to.)

I loved the subtle parallels between parts of this story and LOTR, in theme or plotline. On the other hand, occasional winking-at-the-audience asides about how the conquering forces will "spin" this or that event were actually pretty annoying.

I really liked the book once the plot picks up after the lengthy exposition near the start. I started to love the book in the middle, when the story moves to a southern city for a while. If nothing else, this is really good fantasy espionage. There are lots of great original characters, while the versions of the 'normal' characters are a mixed bag, and your opinion will vary based on how much you like them in LOTR.

It doesn't replace LOTR, it isn't trying to. But it is a fascinating piece, and I highly recommend giving it a chance.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The English translation of The Last Ringbearer is available for free online.

Comics Briefly: Legion Secret Origin #2, Mouse Guard: The Black Axe #3, Princeless #2

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Favorite book this week: Mouse Guard: The Black Axe #3
All Issues new in stores on 11/30/11

Legion Secret Origin #2
Writer: Paul Levitz, Penciller: Chris Batista, Inks: Marc Deering, Colorist: Wes Hartman

Not a lot happened in this issue, but the fun scenes between Phantom Girl and Braniac 5 were worth the price of admission for me. Some decent action, not much plot beyond some vague dialogue from the shadowy adults who are semi-narrating this.

Mouse Guard: The Black Axe #3
Writer and Artist: David Petersen

This issue was actually completely worth the wait. (How long ago was this supposed to come out? #2 came out last May.) The confrontation between Celanwe and the king of the ferrets was amazing: gorgeous and stirring, everything this series can be at its best. I just hope the next issue gets here soon!

Princeless #2
Writer: Jeremy Whitley, Art and Colors: M. Goodwin

Speaking of schedule oddities, either this is here early or the last issue was late to my local store. Either way, Issue 2 is well done, if not as wall-to-wall fantastic as Issue 1. There was one sequence of a few panels in which I had a hard time following the dialogue. Other than that, the story of Adrienne the princess-rescuing princess proceeds apace.