The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal
K.J. Charles, 2015

Premise: Journalist Robert Caldwell has told the world about the exploits of famous ghost hunter Simon Feximal for years, but he has never before revealed how they met, or their true relationship.

In the spectrum of works inspired by other works, there is more than enough room for delightful books like this one. You can see from the very premise that something is owed to Holmes and his ilk, but it is not as simple as a Holmes story with a paranormal/LGBT overlay. It turns out to be a love letter to Victorian adventure and occult stories.

The book itself is structured as a series of linked short tales. Characters from works of the time come in and out like Easter eggs for the reader, but not being familiar with them doesn't detract anything from the experience. There is a list of references in the back of the book for the curious.

As always, this author crafts her characters to feel incredibly accurate to their time period, and the supernatural elements are often viscerally creepy.

I have enjoyed many books by this author and I especially appreciate how different she makes each relationship. In the fabulous Charm of Magpies series, the main couple is largely effusive and talkative about their frustrations and feelings, and the reader follows both characters closely. Here, the stoic, quietly powerful Feximal and articulate but tentative Caldwell provide a subtler romance than is to everyone's taste. (Don't worry, there's still lots of sex.) Caldwell is also the sole narrator, which is a better match for the stories this is a homage to.

In short, I found this to be an engaging and exceedingly well-written story.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Mockingbird: I Can Explain and Mockingbird: My Feminist Agenda

Monday, June 19, 2017

Mockingbird: I Can Explain and Mockingbird: My Feminist Agenda
Chelsea Cain, Kate Niemczyk, 2016, 2017

Premise: Bobbi Morse is a lot of things. She's a spy, a superhero, a scientist. She's an ex-wife and a SHIELD agent and an Avenger. And she is done taking anybody's shit. Collects Mockingbird #1-5, Mockingbird SHIELD 50th anniversary #1, Mockingbird #6-8, and see below.

Like too many people, I only heard about this series when it met its untimely cancellation. I picked up the first trade almost immediately but didn't get a chance to read it until recently.

It is a metric ton of fun.

A few different aspects contribute to the brilliance of this book. One is the balance of superheroic and mundane. Bobbi's life is punctuated by crazy escapades, but she also deals with annoying medical check-ups and clothing stains and relationship drama.

Another is the fun meta-stuff that I love. Tons of little jokes in the background art or the intro pages for each issue or comic pages that include diagrams or flowcharts. (FYI, I have the first volume in both hard copy and digital, and the digital is better because it includes more of the intros, letter pages, etc.) I felt that the inclusion of minor geek celebrities as minor characters in the final arc was a bit silly, but I didn't hate it, and I'm sure plenty of people were tickled.

Also, there's the unapologetic feminism. There are a few moments when you could argue that it's a bit too on-the-nose, but I loved it. Bobbi is loud and proud of her opinions.

It also stays entirely with her. No matter whether or not she's being stubborn, judgemental, or unreservedly kickass, this is her story, and she is at the center.

Related to this, the art is awesome. There's a touch of amusing fan service in two separate male characters running around secret bases wearing very little, but there is no male gaze to be found here. It reminded me of something I read in some reviews of the new Wonder Woman movie - that as a viewer, I didn't realize how much I was used to that male-centric style until it was gone.

Connected to that - the second half of the second book was a big old DNF for me. It reprints a couple issues of New Avengers from before this series started to fill out the page count. As I paged through the beginning, skimming, I was struck by - Bobbi in a coma, men contorting their faces with pain and making important medical decisions for her, and lots of lovingly shadowed boobs. Screw that. I refuse to sully how awesome the Mockingbird issues were by reading that useless page filler. The contrast made me realize how much I have come to hate certain "traditional" comic styles that are used so often in superhero comics.

Anyway, Mockingbird is awesome, and Marvel was dumb for canceling it.

Mockingbird #1-8 - 5 Stars - An Awesome Book
New Avengers - :p

Stranger at the Wedding

Monday, June 12, 2017

Stranger at the Wedding
Barbara Hambly, 1994

Premise: Wizard-in-training Kyra is surprised to receive a letter from her estranged family, even one informing her that her sister is to marry. Her teachers advise her not to go, but the letter crystallizes the premonitions that have been plaguing her - if she doesn't stop the wedding, her sister could die!

This is set in the same world as the Windrose books (The Silent Tower and its sequels) but doesn't involve any of the same characters, except peripherally. It does hinge on the hostile and complicated relationship in that world between "normal" people and those with magical abilities.

Kyra left home because her merchant father wanted to rise in society, and having a wizard as a daughter would be a scandal. But being born to magic is an irresistible call, and no matter what else she wanted, Kyra couldn't not learn to use her abilities. She found a local teacher and her parents looked the other way for a while, but it ended very badly.

How badly is part of the story of the book. Kyra reveals her backstory in occasional stories and flashbacks, and the full complexity of her past lends a different depth to the book than I expected going in. I should have known better and looked past the somewhat silly cover art earlier, though. I've read enough of Hambly's work to know that her stories always twist in unexpected directions.

At first, Kyra seems to be a common character type - the girl set up to be different from the flighty, feminine girls around her. But just because she's practical and clever doesn't mean she isn't also interested in art and sympathetic to love, even before she understands it herself. I really appreciated that she repeatedly defends her more traditionally attractive sister's intelligence and skill with both design and math.

The main romance tends a bit toward sudden and dramatic, but it mostly works given the society/family drama set-up.

Overall this was an enjoyable fantasy about trust, passion, the expectations parents put on their children, the struggle to choose a future that society (or family) condemns, dark pasts and predatory men, and of course, one woman's exhausting struggle to rescue her sister from a curse. I quite liked it, but I'm not sure I loved it.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The Kingdom of Gods (Inheritance, Book Three)

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Kingdom of Gods (Inheritance, Book Three)
N. K. Jemisin, 2011

Premise: Sequel to The Broken Kingdoms. Time is passing, and the balance of power in the mortal world is affected by the changes in the gods. The power in the gods is changing too, as Sieh finds to his peril.

Sieh is one of the more memorable characters from the first two books - the child-trickster, first-born of the Three's many children. Naturally, he starts the first pages of his book telling the reader in no uncertain terms how his book will be different from those that went before.

This was a worthy sequel to the first two books, although I wasn't sure that was possible. I liked how much of this book was about consequences. The characters in books one and two made what seemed to be good choices at the time, but when the primary (corrupt) structure falls, is that actually a net positive?

For a parallel: if you take away Rome's power, you end the Pax Romana - for good and for ill.

Meanwhile, Sieh has bigger, personal issues. He, the ever-young god of childhood, is aging, and no one can figure out why. Nemisin's tremendous skill in balancing between a world that feels textured and real and a story that feels mythic and fated is on full display here.

I had some moments of existential horror in this book, as it draws the reader most fully into the scope of the gods' powers, and how easily life or light can be extinguished, even accidentally.

There's plenty of humor as well, of course. Don't miss the character list in the back of this book - Sieh has made some edits to the first part.

One final note: the omnibus edition I read also included the related novella, "The Awakened Kingdom." This was a fantastic cap to the series, although it did make the ending of the third book feel less momentous.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book