Comics Briefly: American Vampire #27, Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Promise Part Two, Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who #1, Superman Family Adventures #1, Wolverine and the X-Men #11

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Big Week for me! Bought five books at the store, from five different imprints.

Favorite Book This Week: Not counting Avatar (because that wouldn't be fair, it's better than anything) hmmm... both Superman Family Adventures and Wolverine and the X-Men were pretty good, in very different ways.

All books new in stores on 5/30/12

American Vampire #27 (The Nocturnes, Part Two)
Writer: Scott Snyder, Art: Riccardo Burchielli, Colors: Dave McCaig

A solid issue overall, but nothing amazing. Poole (the youngest American Vamp that we know of) fights werewolves in an Alabama suburb and reflects on his life and the times. I did get a little confused at first on certain points when the action sped up, but I did like it overall. This issue also includes a preview of another upcoming AV mini, called Lord of Nightmares.

Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Promise Part Two
Script: Gene Luen Yang, Art: Gurihiru

It isn't fair to review this fully here, since it's really a little graphic novel, and so good that it blows everything else out of the water. I didn't love this quite as much as I loved part one, but it was still really really great.

Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who #1
Writers: Scott & David Tipton and Tony Lee, Art: J. K. Woodward

This issue should really have started with the last few pages and gone on from there. There is way too much set-up here, not enough story. The painterly art is not a style I like, but I guess it could be worse. Overall, not bad, but not nearly as much fun as I was hoping.

Superman Family Adventures #1
Writing and Art by Art Baltazar & Franco

Oh, that was super adorable. Not to mention hilarious. I loved this, a short sweet story with cute artwork and actual funny jokes. There were a couple of moments that I didn't quite think were pitch perfect, but this definitely tickled me, and I'll be looking forward to more!

Wolverine and the X-Men #11
Writer: Jason Aaron, Penciler: Nick Bradshaw, Inkers: Walden Wong, Nick Bradshaw and Norman Lee, Colorist: Justin Ponsor

Even while I liked the opening of this issue, I had doubts that it was going to be good. Avengers Vs. X-Men has been getting into the heights of its histrionics, and the cover to this issue looks really uninteresting. And yes, the page and a half dedicated to the Red Hulk/Iceman battle is boring. But a bunch of the other little X-Men character moments were good, and the main plot follows Wolverine and Hope battling Shi'ar Death Commandos, and trying to deal with each other. I don't know whether Hope's powers are supposed to work they way they do here, but I don't care, because it was a great scene. I think this book really gets what's cool and poignant and awesome about current Wolverine, and so it remains true that the best part of the crossover is this book.

Stranger in a Strange Land

Monday, May 28, 2012

Stranger in a Strange Land
Robert A. Heinlein, 1961

Hugo Winner – 1962

Premise: Valentine Michael Smith is the last survivor of the first manned mission to Mars. An Earthling raised by Martians, when he comes to Earth he struggles to understand humans. But Martian discipline has given him vast control over his body and if he decides to, he might change everything.

There are plenty of spoilers in this review, but the book is well known and from 1961, so I think it's fair to discuss it fully.

Stranger in a Strange Land has a lot in common with some of the Hugo-winning novels I've already discussed here. Similar to They'd Rather Be Right, part of the plot concerns a way to spread utopian telepathy, only if people can become enlightened enough to handle it. Also as in They'd Rather Be Right, one of the main characters is an ridiculously independent-minded wealthy citizen without whom the scheme would have crashed and burned early. Similar to the second half of A Case of Conscience, the plot centers on a character coming from another planet, trying to learn about humanity, and eventually becoming a public figure who causes tumult in society.

And similar to A Canticle for Leibowitz, it ends in a depressing, dystopian future.

What, that isn't what you got out of Stranger in a Strange Land?

I enjoyed the first two-thirds or so of the book on this read-through. I thought Mike's efforts to understand humanity, and the other characters' efforts to either help or control him, were compelling. And then Mike discovers that there's a sucker born every minute, and decides to sell humanity on his spooky Martian Phoenix-level power regimen. It's like a cult to teach people to tap into cosmic power through nudity and free love.

But no homosexuality. Right.

Part of my problem reading the book was that despite the Moon colonies and the mission to Mars and some lip service to world government, the book was clearly set in the 60's. Yes, it was set a bit ahead of when it was written. I am certain that it was very forward-thinking in 1961. Now, though, I think it just feels silly. The attitudes of the characters are too dated, between the friendly and not-so-friendly chauvinism and the swept-under-the-rug homophobia.

It's not overall a terrible book. It's not badly written... well, except for the chapters that break the flow entirely, either by inserting endless monologues in which straw characters argue with each other to then reach a foregone conclusion, or by being set off of Earth. Those parts are pretty awful, but the first half is largely free of this, and is quite strong.

The main weakness just comes down to the fact that it doesn't feel that socially forward anymore, and it doesn't have much else going for it.

To be fair, I don't remember reading it as a dystopian ending the first time I read it. But, in the final section of the book, the future seems to be projected along one of two paths: either the Martians will destroy the Earth (probably wise on their part, otherwise they're likely to be outbred in the solar system), or humanity will protect itself because those who remain joined a callous solipsistic mind-melding cult.

The more I think about it, the more I dislike Mike's vision for the future of humanity. It's not 'everyone will join us once they understand', it's 'I will summarily delete people who I decide are “wrong” and everyone who remains will join us because we are right.' That's some frighteningly simplistic thinking right there.

In fairness, though, I have to say that I've read so many works of science fiction (and fiction in general) spent glorifying free will that I'm just not sure I can take the opposite position seriously.

Stranger in a Strange Land is very important historically, but as a reader, I only enjoyed the first half. If I mentally average that enjoyment with my horror at the ending, adding in the fact that the text seems to support Mike unilaterally making himself the ultimate judge of mankind for no other reason than that he's a special snowflake, I'll end up with:

2 Stars – An Okay Book

List of Hugo Award Winners

The Gate of Gods (The Fall of Ile-Rien, Book 3)

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Gate of Gods (The Fall of Ile-Rien, Book 3)
Martha Wells, 2005

Premise: Sequel to The Wizard Hunters and The Ships of Air. Definitely start with book one. Some small spoilers for those books follow. The war moves into a new phase as the refugees on the Queen Ravenna finally come to Capidara, a country ostensibly allied with Ile-Rien. There are new dangers in a new city, though, and time is running out for Loudon, the only city on Ile-Rien not yet overrun. Will a new variation on the gate spell allow them to rescue the people of Loudon, lead Tremaine and the others to an ancient city that might reveal the final secrets of the Gardier, or just lead them into a trap?

I found this to be a fitting conclusion to a thoroughly enjoyable series. The first section of the book brings the cast to a new city, where they have to struggle with new political angles and new spies. Now that they are reconnecting with a government in the world of Ile-Rien, as well as some of the Rienish ministers in exile, Tremaine has to find her balance. Is she still important as the main link to the Syprian alliance? She finds herself tired of fighting with men for political influence she doesn't really want, just to stay involved in missions where she can make a difference, and to stay informed enough to help her Syprian friends.

I like Tremaine so much. She might not be a hero to everyone's taste, but I love her cold anger, her practicality, the way those close to her can read her even as she hides everything but efficiency behind a wall. I even like the way she's occasionally ambushed by her feelings, but doesn't allow them to affect her purpose. She skirts the edge of self-pity, but is just too realistic and grounded to really indulge in it. She's one of my favorite characters I've discovered in some time.

The characters spent quite a bit of time figuring out tactics and being on the run before the final plan is put into place, so then there was a bit of a rush to get to the final confrontation. The last sequence seemed a bit more like luck than like anything planned, but it didn't really bother me. The final reveals worked with everything that had come before and still managed to be surprising and exciting.

We don't end up learning everything that happened to bring the three worlds to this point, but that keeps it from feeling too pat.

I continued to enjoy all the characters, but I liked that for the final sections the group had dropped back down to just Tremaine, Florian, Gerard, Ilias and Giliead; the same group that initially came together in Book One. The denouement centers on wrapping up the emotional plotlines, and I found it to be a very fulfilling and sweet ending.

I highly recommend this series. It is a wonderfully done fantasy adventure with complex characters and a plot that is nicely complicated without being confusing.

4 Stars – A Very Good Book

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Comics Briefly: Batman Inc. #1, Saga #3, Wolverine and the X-Men #10

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

I still haven't quite balanced my lessened comic-buying habits with when to write about comics here on the blog, so here are the only three issues I bought over the last three weeks. I have been trying to mix in more graphic novel reviews, and there might be more back-issue reviews coming soon.

Issues arrived in stores as follows: Wolverine and the X-Men: 5/9 Saga: 5/16, Batman Inc: 5/23

Batman Inc. #1
Writer: Grant Morrison, Artist: Chris Burnham, Color: Nathan Fairbairn

That was half great, half sort of confusing, and all intensely strange. I think I liked it. I almost wrote off the ending as more pointless fake drama, but then I thought about it, and it could be kind of awesome. We'll see next month. I do still miss Steph and Cass (and Kate was part of round one, too!) but it's nice seeing, if briefly, some of the random third-stringers who were highlighted in the first set of Batman Inc. issues.

Saga #3
Writer: Brian K. Vaughn, Artist: Fiona Staples

Another great issue in a really interesting series. More new characters to fall for! More intriguing wrinkles about the characters we've met already! I especially liked the interaction between The Will and The Stalk, plus Isabella is funny. Action, drama, and humor. I like this book. If you like crazy, anything-goes space opera and awesome characters, you owe it to yourself to give Saga a try.

Wolverine and the X-Men #10
Writer: Jason Aaron, Penciler/Colorist: Chris Bacalo, Inkers: Tim Townsend, Jaime Mendoza, Al Vey and Victor Olazaba

Not as good as the last issue; too much Cyclops related angst for me. Everyone's angry, nobody makes that much sense. The friendship between Angel and Genesis is still something I quite like, but there's just too much crossover bleed in this issue, it drags down the pace and the tone.

The Night Eternal

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Night Eternal
Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan, 2011

Premise: Sequel to The Strain and The Fall. Two years have passed since the events of The Fall, and the global Vampire-pocalypse is in full swing. Eph, Nora, Fet and Gus continue to try to fight the Master, but unless they find his origin site, no victory is possible. Eph has an additional problem: the Master still holds his son Zack captive.

Well, nuts.

There is a trope, in which a previously fine character goes off the deep end, suicidal depression, betraying the heroes, etc., only to have pull him or herself together at the eleventh hour to save the day. It can be done in a way that makes sense, that inspires sympathy and understanding from the audience. Okay, I can't actually think of an example like that just now, but I'll believe it can happen. However, most of the time it just makes me want to shake the character violently until they stop being idiotic.

In case you haven't guessed yet, I did not really enjoy The Night Eternal.

It was still decently written, and there were aspects that worked, scenes that were strong, and some backstory that was interesting. But given that I really didn't care at all about Eph at this point, a lot of the angsting was really boring to me.

It's really too bad, because I liked all the characters in the first book. And maybe it's “realistic” to have people go to that level of character decay (it's harder to make that case for the inevitable recovery, though). But it's not interesting.

Maybe it's not interesting because I feel like the fall happened between books, (although I don't remember the end of The Fall very clearly) so it's as though the character's just been replaced with a less interesting doppleganger.

The saving grace of this book, such as it has, is that many of the other characters are still awesome. Fet is still quietly smart, laconic and driven. Gus is colorful, brave and passionate. Quinlan is badass, and we finally get his backstory, which is pretty cool, if not terribly original.

The origin of the vampires in revealed as well, which, for me, was original to the point of WTF. At this point, the balance between science and magic that I liked so much in the earlier books is abandoned completely, which I found really disappointing.

Also certain sections crossed my personal lines of “stuff I really just don't want to read about and will never forgive a character, and/or sometimes an author, for.” Spoiler: the animal cruelty in Zack's plot makes him irredeemable in my eyes, and that pushed me even farther away from caring about Eph's desire for his son. I didn't think the plot was handled well enough to justify stuff that felt "shocking" for the sake of being shocking.

I'm glad I read it, I think, but it left me really unsatisfied.

2 Stars – An Okay Book

Code Name Verity

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Code Name Verity
Elizabeth E. Wein, 2012

New Release! Free copy of this book provided for review by Netgalley.

Premise: Two young women became friends in England during the early days of World War Two. How they met, who they are, and why one of them is writing the story of her life from a Gestapo prison in France, are all things you'll have to read the book to find out.

Wow. Just wow. All the reviews of this book are going to talk about how difficult it is to review, but there's really no way around it. This is definitely a book which you want to read knowing very little about it, so I will do my best to focus on my response to the novel, and not mention any details revealed beyond the first chapter or two.

From the first page, this is a compelling story, pouring from the pen of a young woman imprisoned in France. “I AM A COWARD” are the first words on the first page. Is she? She writes her memories down to bargain with her jailers for a blanket, for a little more life, and perhaps just to establish her own story. You'll have to be the judge of her character.

The story she tells includes details about the British War Effort to placate her readers, but it's really the story of Maddie and Queenie. One a middle-class Brit with a penchant for mechanical things and a love of the sky, one an upper-class Scot who speaks several languages and has an electric imagination.

This is the saga of their friendship. It is not always a happy story.

I devoured this book in one sitting. I barely looked up until the last page. It felt as though I hardly breathed during the last third. I kept thinking I had reached the end, and then the narrative threw another curve ball at me. I swore at this book, out loud, in both anger and awe. I re-read phrases, burning them into my brain. When I reached the end, I took half a day to process it and then began reading from the beginning again.

Is it perfect? No – there are a few points where I have a slight suspension of disbelief problem, but they are very few and I forgive them all for letting this story unfold.

Bonus for me and others like me: this book is full of literary and historical allusions, facts and trivia. Most of the literary ones I knew, and they deepened my enjoyment of the story, and even the historical tidbits I didn't know I had no trouble following. (One particular reference I looked up later, and damn if I didn't tear up all over again.)

Reading this was full of the joy of discovery. I was completely enraptured by the characters, by the style, and by the story.

5 Stars – An Awesome Book

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The Ships of Air (The Fall of Ile-Rien, Book 2)

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Ships of Air (The Fall of Ile-Rien, Book 2)
Martha Wells, 2005

Premise: Sequel to The Wizard Hunters, Some spoilers for Book One follow. Tremaine, Ilias and their friends from both worlds try to cement the temporary alliance between their peoples. The great passenger liner Queen Ravenna is brought between the worlds to assist in an attack on the Gardier base, only to become a floating home for the combined group of Syprian delegates and refugees from Ile-Rien. New loyalties are created and tested, and hidden dangers on the ship threaten the fragile alliance.

This is a strong follow-up to the first volume. More of everything I liked, but new dimensions to some of the characters: Tremaine growing into her new roles, Giliead struggling to make his kin believe that their new allies' magic is beneficial, not evil, when he doesn't completely trust it himself. Another strong, surprising plot twist that makes perfect sense in hindsight.

I enjoyed the slightly wider focus which allowed more characters to shine, including sorceress-in-training Florian, who was fantastic in Book One, but gets a bit wider use here. I was briefly confused by a sudden focus on a new character, in another land, and I thought it was a rather odd choice of scene to show. It did bother me quite a bit at first because it threw off the flow of the story, even though it all came together in the end.

I also really liked that all the romance, and potential romance, is dealt with in an adult way. It is important, but it doesn't overshadow the plot either for the reader or for the characters. The war is more important than dealing with either flirtation or emotional reactions. There's even a politically motivated marriage which neatly short-circuits the sexual tension and makes the story not 'will they get together', but 'will they really love each other'. I liked that a lot.

The characters in this series are constantly running up against the boundaries of what they can do with their magic, and trying to reconcile the logic of three very different systems doesn't make it easy on them.

On to Book Three!

3 Stars – A Good Book

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Monday, May 7, 2012

Juan Díaz Canales (writer), Juanjo Guarnido (artist)
English Translation published 2010

Premise: This volume collects the first three Blacksad albums, each one a self-contained story. They follow the adventures of private investigator John Blacksad as he stumbles through surviving in the darker parts of the 1950's, trying to get to the truth behind murder, abduction and corruption along the way. He's also a six-foot cat, and the world is entirely populated with anthropomorphic animals.

I absolutely loved this book. I'm not sure that it's for everyone, though, so let me try to explain what I loved about it. (Please Note: this is a graphic novel for mature readers. The mostly naked corpse on page one should be a tip-off.)

I love noir. When someone really nails the sweet spot balanced between melodrama, cynicism, honor, the chance of sweetness and a sense of fatalism, I am a happy camper. Blacksad takes its inspiration directly from the French interest in American film noir, and the three stories in this collection hit all the right buttons for me. You have the tough detective, cops of varying morality, dames in trouble and dangerous love interests. It flirts with history (and historical happenings) without committing, and that's just fine with me. I really liked that it's like this world, only not. I also liked the rhythm of the writing a lot.

The writing is stylized in all the ways I like, but it's the art that lifts this to the level of masterpiece. It rides that perfect line between detail and the stylization necessary to convey emotion. Those moments that I could clearly read the characters' thoughts by the looks on their faces; those are what I really adored.

I liked the way this book dealt with social issues like race and the Red Scare. It both explores intriguing nuances of the situation as it was, and translates the situation to the animal world, creating all new problems and repercussions.

Most of all I loved the characters. I love Blacksad, a quintessential noir PI, harsh and brave and cynical while still being fragile and idealistic. The supporting characters are drawn with such care and character that I felt that I knew each immediately.

If you love noir, if you love gorgeous artwork, if you've always wanted to see anthropomorphic animals deal with sex and violence, check out Blacksad.

5 Stars – An Awesome Book

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Comics Briefly: American Vampire #26 and DC Second Wave

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Through a somewhat complicated set of events, I bought no comic books this week, and only one last week. However, I did read a few of the DC Second Wave books in the store, and I have thoughts.

American Vampire #26 (The Nocturnes)
Writer: Scott Snyder, Art: Roger Cruz, Colors: Dave McCaig

This was a great issue. I loved the follow-up from the most notable loose thread from The Ghost War (issues 13-18) and it was nice to see a new time and a new set of characters. Calvin's got a different viewpoint than our other main folks, and I like his vibe. Plus, just when you think you know the plot, there's a pretty sweet twist.

Books I Read This Week:

Smallville #1
Although I wasn't much of a fan of the TV series, I came closer to buying this than any of the other DC Second Wave books that launched this week. I skimmed this in the store, and it was cute. The art was a bit subpar overall, but the dialogue was cute and the tone seemed to float nicely without being too serious or too fluffy. However, I have a budget and limited space, so 'fine' might not be enough to get my 4 bucks.

Earth 2 #1
Okay, the only reason I can see to pick up this issue is because the first 2/3 or so works as a prologue to World's Finest (See Below). Sure, maybe there are fans clamoring for a team-getting-together book that stars Jay Garrick and Alan Scott, only it's 2012 and they're assholes... but I am not one of these hypothetical fans. There was one panel that I found moving, but happily, that panel is online, so you have no need to pick up the book.

World's Finest #1
I really wanted to love this book, but it was not fated to be. It's not horrible, but for a Huntress/Power Girl team-up book I found it really blah. Helena and Kara(en?) are chummy and snarky, but I don't get the feeling that they're serious, either about returning home or doing anything productive on this world. I'm much more interested in what they were going through when they first arrived in the wake of the events of the first issue of Earth 2. I mean, by now they've just been mucking around for years. Although I did find it amusing that either I misinterpreted some dialogue, or Helena's plan is to return to Earth 2 before the final battle 5 years ago, which could undo all the happenings of the Earth 2 book. Ha.