This is the cute story of Kamala Khan, a New Jersey Muslim who discovers she can shapeshift. In terms of an origin story, it's also not much more than...moreThis is the cute story of Kamala Khan, a New Jersey Muslim who discovers she can shapeshift. In terms of an origin story, it's also not much more than that discovery and a villain fight, lacking the big personal events that have made Batman and Spider-Man so rebootable. Instead the novelties are around her. Our new Ms. Marvel idolizes the old one (now "Captain Marvel"), and shapeshifts to look like her to scare off criminals. The first robbery she intervenes in is actually perpetrated by a loser who's about to back down when Kamala kicks in the door. It’s not Uncle Ben getting shot – instead, it’s a funny moment. This kind of writing makes it more of a Comedy than a typical Capes book, which is a refreshing change from dire many superhero books have gotten.
Much press has been made about the new Ms. Marvel’s religion. While she attends Mosque for one scene, it’s not a gimmick in the book, and is little more defining for her personality than that she’s grown up in Jersey City. Her brother and father are more defined by Islam, introduced as polar opposites on adherence and secularism. Kamala is just a girl caught between, trying to define herself while being obsessed with another life entirely – that of masked superheroes.
I went back and forth on the art in this volume. It can get sketchy to the point of haphazard, but its highpoints are delightful, like an early scene in which Kamala is away from home and finds herself looking like Ms. Marvel. As she tries to get out of public view, her limbs randomly change shape and attire, mostly unconscious. It’s some of my favorite art of shapeshifting I’ve ever seen, and the subtle touches pop up again in Kamala’s first fight with robots, where she looks nervous, disgusted, and almost accidentally capable.
That’s the balance I’m hoping Wilson will figure in future volumes. It’s not a book of strong drama: Chapter 2 ends with a character being shot point-blank ranges and bleeding out, and then Chapter 3 resolves this so quickly it feels grossly manipulative. It’s the cheeky stuff, like the ending reveal of a ridiculous mastermind, or the tongue-in cheek GM-O’s cereal and Kamala’s secret fan fiction that you’re reading for. I hope to God that she finds someone writing fan fiction about her soon.(less)
Detective Hodges was a good cop with a great record, catching every big target except for one serial killer. He gave his entire life to it, and so upo...moreDetective Hodges was a good cop with a great record, catching every big target except for one serial killer. He gave his entire life to it, and so upon retirement, Hodges sits in his easy chair with no life worth living and prepares to drink himself to death when he receives a letter with a smiley face stamp. It's the killer who got away, congratulating him on a mostly successful career. It’s a dare to stop him before his next spree.
Mr. Mercedes is such a focused book. Hodges immediately profiles the letter for references, patterns and word choice, with such intensity that I couldn’t imagine the novel exiting his apartment. It was so deeply rooted in its moment. At best it might become a cat-and-mouse game, something both Hodges and the killer seem to desire, but it’s not. It starts upturning expectations when it switches its point of view to the killer himself.
His name is Brady, living in a basement on Elm Street, a cute reference to Freddy Kruger. But Brady isn't the powerful pedophile of A Nightmare on Elm Street; he's an ice cream man who only fantasizes about poisoning his wares, an part-time tech support worker whose only profound human contact is with his mother, whom he is both unbearably nervous of and attracted to. The incestuous vibe doesn't make him a monster; it incapacitates him, makes him regress so deeply that he feels like its victim. This ain’t Dexter; he’s not a mastermind or a supervillain, but rather a pathetic being who lashes out. I never liked Brady, his vulgar racism and crimes making him despicable, but King's trick is to show us how little there is to his world and leave him pitiable even as he plots a suicide bombing. Is it any surprise that such a wretched life that, once it went violent, would end there?
The suicide vest Brady is building becomes a ticking clock in the background of the novel, because he’s clearly on the decline and will eventually go off. And so we expect a race against time, but Brady isn’t clever enough to tease Hodges about its existence, and so Hodges begins the romantic idea of the private eye. If anything, being on the case improves Hodges’s life, forcing him to get outside. He meets the daughter of the semi-senile woman Brady has been framing and falls into a decidedly crusty post-middle-aged romance. These murders ironically put his own life on the right track, and put Hodges and Brady into parallel. They don’t even know the gains and losses they’re going to put each other through. If any Hodges is going to snap, it’s going to be a different man than the one who got the taunting letter on a hopeless day.
King is often derided for disappointing endings. I find more of his endings robust and unusual than unsatisfying, but Mr. Mercedes has his most conventionally entertaining last act in years. The opening chapters of the novel are conventional earthy King with myriad personal details about the lives of his players, reading authentic where most authors would paint in trope. Yet for his debut detective novel, he masterfully ramps up intensity, such that a few times I found myself turning the pages early to glimpse what was coming next. (less)
The Troop’s first impression is Horror prodding William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. It follows a Boy Scout troop with a single adult Scoutmaster alon...moreThe Troop’s first impression is Horror prodding William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. It follows a Boy Scout troop with a single adult Scoutmaster alone on an island, who are stranded on island when a mysterious man appears. The man has a psychotic need to eat anything, particularly meat, and as soon as he appears, no one offshore will respond to the Scoutmaster’s calls. The navy begins circling the island, not helping, merely watching for unknown purposes as the ravenous man turns out to be contagious. The boys immediately distrust their Scoutmaster, suspecting him of infection and seizing control in a profoundly uncomfortable scene. Order corrodes from there.
I’m one of those annoying audience members who’s scared by almost no fiction, and yet for its first hundred and fifty pages, The Troop frequently unnerved me. Cutter is happy to dissect an infected body and show us the nightmarish things inside that cause this condition, and suggest to us that anyone we’ve met might also fall prey to them. The boys are cruel to each other from the start, a fair rebuttal to Lord of the Flies that had its class devolve, when anyone who’s been to public school knows such groups arrive with problems rather than developing them later. Early teasing and lying between the kids feels ominous for how bad it could (and will) soon get.
The novel’s greatest strength is how tight it is. The Boy Scout troop arrives, the Scoutmaster opines, the ravenous man appears, and it is on. Every scene pushes some foreboding button like no Horror novel I’ve read in years, and Cutter is keenly aware that the morbid attraction is in seeing the slip of moral people, not in the stalking evil outside. And we get both. The ravenous man, his spreading condition, the looming navy, the horrible potential of the boys and the scout-master’s weakening grasp on the situation are all independently interesting, and the novel keeps juggling until it wants an item to drop and splatter.
Raising the specter of Lord of the Flies wound up The Troop’s greatest problem for me, because this novel fails at evaluating the human psyche. Juicy as their condition is, the boys are too stereotypical, including the fat nerd, the jock, and one who is the unimaginative model of every TV serial killer. Horror fiction is very difficult to pull off if the horrors affect people we don’t root for, and in this case, since everyone seems screwed from the ominous opening onward, the onus is on personalities to elicit sympathy. Because the boys are fundamentally artificial, I never grew more attached and by the mid-point of the novel I felt no more tension because I didn’t care if an annoying, selfish and fictional boy got infected.
Rather than develop dynamically, how they handle the situation is entirely predictable based on tropes, which was a profound disappointment for a book that decided to play so dark and, allegedly, so introspective. Even in the final chapters the boys are considering the human condition in ways the book doesn’t earn. One concludes that adults are no smarter than kids, which is ridiculous considering the military quarantined something the kids couldn’t, adult science invented something the kids barely understood, their parents are deliberately kept out of the story, and the voices of any semi-sympathetic adults are restricted to excerpts from later hearings and faux-journalism pieces.
This book is not a psychological exercise. It’s a punching bag, possibly a Rocky-esque hanging slab of meat that bleeds as the author beats it. That makes it often disturbing entertainment, but as I read into the final act, I hungered for something more.(less)
God is dead. Or, a god is dead, Kos Everburning, the great fire deity whose grace fueled all the machinery of Alt Coulumb. The peskiest thing is that...moreGod is dead. Or, a god is dead, Kos Everburning, the great fire deity whose grace fueled all the machinery of Alt Coulumb. The peskiest thing is that Kos seems to refuse to be resurrected, almost like he was murdered and can’t revive. But what murders a god?
That’s the premise of this funky hybrid of Fantasy and Legal Thrillers. Tara is a former student of the Hidden Schools of Craft, essentially a mage tasked with resurrecting Kos and saving the city. When Kos cannot be risen, Tara has to find out what happened to seemingly eradicate his entire existence. Her greatest help is from the book’s greatest character, Abelard, a priest of Kos so shaken by the death of his lord that he’s been smoking since the night his first prayer went ignored.
Three Parts Dead is full of neat ideas. Gods are largely artificial these days, created almost as contractual slaves to the whims of humanists who still worship them, a greater power source than any old coal engine. The world exists after the Gods War, which saw the fall of many divinities, leaving the city of Alt Coulumb as a marvel. The city is itself a hybrid of High Fantasy and Urban Fantasy, with modern contrivances and conveniences, built upon the remains of a previous god’s power, and with an underworld of gargoyles and less canny creatures. There is a hardened legal system in the religious orders that dominate the place, and it’s in these that Tara must toil, and in which we expect to find the killers, or at least, the leads to whatever other god had Kos whacked. Or was it even a god? There’s a shortage of them, and I guarantee you Kos’s death was not the simple “old god rising for revenge” tropes would lead you to expect.
Some people will be put off by how much explicit world-building the novel throws at you. For me, this was the most entertaining part, for as good as the ideas are, much of the execution isn’t as fun. Tara uses her magic to steal a suspect’s face, and keeps it around for interrogations – which is a sweet idea that’s mostly reduced to an exposition tool. Tara and Abelard have some standard culture clash exchanges, and there’s a habit of expositing things rather than pushing action. Tara is also a Strong Female Character in the vein of being able to win in most conflicts, and you get so used to it until even when she exerts herself, there’s not much tension.
Like any Legal Thriller, this also means that she’s probably got to figure out the mystery by the end, probably near a church or court room. On the way to this is my favorite scene in the whole novel, not Tara’s outsider prying, but Abelard’s soul searching leading him to realizations about how he’s treated his god, and been treated in response, which is neither too pious nor too secular-critical. It feels like hard crackling individuality of relationship, which could make Gladstone’s future novels soar.
But for this one, the big reveal is too multifarious, with too many characters I didn’t care that much about having big revelations, right into the epilogue. You know something’s misfired when a character does something earth-shattering and you shuffle back a hundred pages to re-educate yourself on who they were. Here, the flaw is an excess of cleverness that, by the third surprise, I wished had been spread throughout the book to highlight each novelty, and to give the journey more robustness.
Gladstone plainly has the mind of novelty and unusual mash-ups. I can’t remember Fantasy novel like this, and for a debut, it promises a great career. Before I’d finished the book, I’d ordered his second book, Two Serpents Rise. Fantasy needs more imaginations like this. (less)
Li Lan has been sold as a bride to a dead nobleman, a ritual that will give his spirit honor and allegedly put him to rest. It’s an indecency to her,...moreLi Lan has been sold as a bride to a dead nobleman, a ritual that will give his spirit honor and allegedly put him to rest. It’s an indecency to her, but will help her family with its great financial struggles after the death of her mother and breakdown of her father. It seems like a possible ticket into higher society until the dead nobleman begins appearing in her dreams, courting her obnoxiously, and looking forward to when they’ll be together.
This is how we enter the strange world of The Ghost Bride, set in a Chinese-inhabited area of colonial Malaysia, where the spirits are as devious as the scheming human political structures. Yangsze Choo draws on a rich Chinese history of folklore, such that while we don’t meet all of the political structures, we get wonderful flavors like a judge on the Court of Hell being suspected of corruption, and a ghost getting to meander more in our realm because he knows “border officials.” Just as Malaysia is being re-colonized by the British, so the afterlife is full of powerful bodies trying to overcome and manipulate each other, sometimes stealing what someone else had already stolen. Eventually, Li Lan’s body and soul may be two such commodities.
I thought the book would be entirely about Li Lan’s struggle with her ghostly betrothed and his eccentric stepmother, but we do much more than peep inside the afterlife. Could an infernal judge annul the marriage? Is her deceased mother lingering somewhere out there? What cost would descending into her husband’s territory be?
Because it was such a pleasure to get lost in the journeys along with Li Lan, I dare not spoil all this for you. Instead, I beg you to give the book a chance if you at all care for Fantasies with unusual adventures and romances in them. It’s imaginative and culturally rich to the last page, because even if Li Lan escapes with herself intact, she’ll have mighty decisions to make about the rest of her life. It’s not easy once you’ve gone through Hell.
A huge part of the novel’s charm is that it’s unafraid to layer culture. Consider Li Lan’s family, Chinese living in a Malaysia that’s slipping out of their grasp, broke and with no way to leave the gradually decaying city. In almost any other novelist’s hands, Li Lan would be a slave to a set of cultural behaviors, navigating the expectations of elites with total attention. But for Yangsze Choo, Li Lan knows enough to camouflage herself, but also ignores many customs, and at one point wishes she’d paid attention to more etiquette growing up so she could handle her mother-in-law better. That’s multiple levels of cultural literacy going on at multiple levels of personality.
Similarly there is Tian Bai, a pianist that Li Lan begins to crush on, who she just presumes carries Buddhist superstitions because of his appearance. It turns out that the British affected his life deeply – and yet he’s not even Anglican, but a hyper-minority Catholic. Not only does it give Tian Bai and Li Lan a wealth of superstitions to trade, but evidences the breadth of ways to be in a place that has been culturally overwhelmed multiple times. Neither Heaven nor Britain bring a mono-culture with them (even if some intend it).(less)
It feels like I've been watching adaptations of The Tick all my life. Not only was the a Fox cartoon and blissful live action show, but its influences...moreIt feels like I've been watching adaptations of The Tick all my life. Not only was the a Fox cartoon and blissful live action show, but its influences are obvious on other series, like Venture Bros. and Middleman. It's set in that wacky world of self-acknowledged tropes, where cynicism is corrupted by cheesiness. It's a world where almost everyone takes themselves deathly seriously despite the most rational man living in a moth costume and bemoaning his boring life (thus, he must sidekick for an interesting person). It's darned endearing superhero antics.
Our hero is the eponymous Tick, a nigh-invulnerable man-child who begins by annoying a Superman-lookalike half to death. The Tick/Superman story is painfully Homer Simpson/Ned Flanders, recast in the setting of the Daily Planet, and given when Ben Edlund wrote this book, that makes sense.
Like Venture Bros. and Middleman, you're never sure what tropes The Tick will encounter next. Following the Superman story, he essentially meets Elektra and The Hand. Then there's a nemesis rental agency for heroes who need bad guys quick, followed by a hard-boiled Noir detective who takes Tick into espionage. The pell-mell plotting is so unpredictable that it's fun. The comedy is always in how strangely these characters behave on their way through old-school comic book conflicts. At its best, The Tick has some of the funniest characterization in all of comics.
For instance, there's the meteorite populated by miscroscopic aliens (it's actually from Utah) that threatens The Tick unless he gives them an assortment of condiments. Arthur, The Tick's sidekick, finds Tick laying ketchup and mustard packets on the meteorite. Arthur asks why. The Tick grins wide and announces, "Popular demand."
If this sounds unappealing, you probably won't enjoy it. If it sounds appealing, it's far better at what I've described than any description I've given of it. (less)
It feels odd reviewing a story so short - it's easily possible some reviews will be longer than the story itself. The story can be read for free right...moreIt feels odd reviewing a story so short - it's easily possible some reviews will be longer than the story itself. The story can be read for free right here. It's well worth your time.
I was quickly charmed by the quirky narrative of a person imagining what a T-Rex lover would be like. This is no normal T-Rex, either, but an opera singer and bar fighter, smaller than the average dinosaur, and one with specific collagen. The more detailed the portrait becomes, the more charming. Some of its first half is very funny.
Go read it before clicking my spoiler tags. You see, (view spoiler)[in the second half we realize the narrator is fantasizing because his/her real lover was beaten horribly by bigots. All of the whimsy and imagination recedes rapidly, losing everything that pulled me in. It's not invalid to write from places of pain like this, but it is a much more conventional place to take a story that had been boldly zany. It's likely to touch many more readers than wackos like myself, but there was no impact, particularly because the language and imagination that had drawn me in was principally gone and not replaced by anything but a sad sentiment. In itself, the trade is a good example of why we need Fantasy, but it didn't get me. (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
It details how our future may go as memory is increasingly digitized and people can bring up videos of their own lives rather than remembering them. Or, is that a new form of remembering, more accurate than the old? Even those who haven’t recorded themselves can use GPS data to access public videos of all the places they’ve ever been filmed, as well as the “Remem” of other people they were with. But the story ripples when the second scene switches from exposition on the new technology to a tribe in Africa who first encounter The Bible and need the technology of paper explained to them. Once Chiang unfolds how a thing said becomes a thing written, and then a thing re-written, we know we're going down a rabbit hole of the way we've shared information. All from simple exchanges on paper as alien technology.
Every scene has a stick of dynamite in it. An interview with a couple who use their Remem to argue who was wrong at what time not only shows how this digital memory works, but how human nature hasn’t changed, people allegedly in love still bickering and moving goal posts. In another scene, a public leader questions whether his people’s word of mouth history is true, and there’s a terror about questioning it. He’s not a foolish sheep; he’s someone living on tectonic plates of information. Later we come to realize that a series of scenes were one man’s attempt at a greater context than Remem’s objectivity, possibly trying to assuage his own discomfort. Even the story structure itself about the way we persuade ourselves.
Chiang roots this story in many facets of the real world’s struggles with information, even calling back notable figures who might deserve more acclaim. One paragraph questions how natural this memory could be, then compares it to a real historical figure:
"What might it be like to have a perfect memory? Arguably the individual with the best memory ever documented was Solomon Shereshevskii, who lived in Russia during the first half of the twentieth century. The psychologists who tested him found that he could hear a series of words or numbers once and remember it months or even years later. With no knowledge of Italian, Shereshevskii was able to quote stanzas of The Divine Comedy that had been read to him fifteen years earlier.”
This lets even its most expository bits read like the coolest Malcolm Gladwell article ever written, but there’s more art to it. It’s fascinated with the minutia of how we’ve arranged our thoughts for millennia, from a question of whether you write to be remembered or to assist your own thought process, all the way to a child who refuses to imagine a life not automatically remembered. There is so much of us contained in this story that it’s what I’ll call up the next time someone asks what “smart SciFi” is. That’s how I’ll be arranging my memories, I write in advance. (less)
This is probably the end of my first love affair with Ranma ½. I’ll be back, because the characters are delightful and Takahashi is brilliant are crea...moreThis is probably the end of my first love affair with Ranma ½. I’ll be back, because the characters are delightful and Takahashi is brilliant are creating nonsensical problems for them, including the manic cat phobia that she invents for Ranma in this volume. It’s largely a cute volume, first with a loser voodoo practitioner trying to manipulate his fear of cats, and later an ancient Amazon trapping him in his female form. Both of these set up zany antics, and subtly showing Ranma and Akane relying more on each other. It’s a cute love story that needs some nudging.
Yet this was the volume where the cheesecake got too much for me. I can handle it being part of a series, and Ranma ½ has been decent in riffing on it with both genders, but there comes a time when Ranma’s female form is stripped to a single scrap of clothing that is too prurient for me. And then Shampoo gets naked. And then there’s a damned beach story focusing pretty much exclusively on the girls in swimsuits. It’s a streak that probably helped the book sell to a bigger audience, but not to me.
With some time, I’ll revisit the series and probably gobble several more volumes, because there aren’t many writers who can juggle antics, love and comedy like this. It’s damned sure not a RomCom or a martial arts action book. Instead, it’s one of the weirdest sitcoms ever produced, simply executed through print. I know I won’t stay away.(less)
A weird middle-book and yet one that hits a nice stride. This volume straddles the end of the previous story, of Ranma and Akane feuding with ice skat...moreA weird middle-book and yet one that hits a nice stride. This volume straddles the end of the previous story, of Ranma and Akane feuding with ice skating wrestlers (what a wonderful nemesis to have), and the coming of Shampoo, the mad Amazon who wants to marry Ranma’s male half and kill his female half. Both parts of the volume are demented and zany, but would probably fit better in a bigger collection that nested more context. Regardless, the book was a joy to read.
My favorite part is Ryoga’s character development, and his uniquely dorky romance. He’s now opting to be stuck as a pig so he can spend time as Akane’s pet, because that’s the only way he can safely get her to be affectionate towards him. If the book was one ounce more serious, this would be creepy and terrible. As a sitcom, though, it’s adorable, especially for how deathly anxious Ryoga is about it. His attempts to invade the ice skate wrestling (I’m still glad that’s a thing) makes it one of the best fight scenes in the series so far, as he accidentally destroys the ice rink and both he and Ranma run the risk of falling into the water below and transforming. If nothing else, Takahashi put a disturbing amount of thought into the ridiculous perils her characters get into.
Then Shampoo shows up, literally at the moment when the ice skating nonsense is over, punching through the wall and into the plot. At first I sighed at the thought of yet another enemy showing up to fight the Tendo kids. Yet that’s not what she’s here for – instead, she’s on this mad courting ritual that has remarkably little violence, and instead is about characters trying to avoid each other, and Ranma and Akane constantly being separated and set against each other even as they fall more attached. This is the basic formula for the romance that never resolves, a curse the Ranma ½ series has thick around it, but for right now it works. I get why they’re not confessing to each other, and even am amused at how many interlopers are trying to screw up their relationship. What a tangled web they weave when everyone falls in love with the wrong person.(less)
You know that Ranma turns into a girl whenever he gets wet? And the same turns his father into a panda?
You remember that Ranma’s nemesis, Ryoga, carri...moreYou know that Ranma turns into a girl whenever he gets wet? And the same turns his father into a panda?
You remember that Ranma’s nemesis, Ryoga, carries an excessively heavy umbrella everywhere?
You’ve probably figured it out from those questions alone, but I didn’t see it coming. When Ryoga lost his umbrella, was rained upon, and turned into a piglet, this book got five stars. It was twenty pages in. I don’t care.
The book kicks off with the revelation that Ryoga tracked Ranma to the same haunted pools, and fell in another one, establishing the wonderful running gag that there are so many haunted body-modding pools lying around China. That also sets the tone for another delightful romp of a volume as Akane adopts the mysterious piglet and Ryoga, experiencing kindness for the first time in his life, decides to hide out in that form, while still feuding with Ranma on the side.
Don’t call it a love triangle, because every hundred pages someone else shows up and falls in love with the wrong person. A “Rhythmic Gymnast Wrestler” (whatever the hell that is) falls for Ranma and tries to fight Akane to the death for him; another girl fancies Ryoga and challenges Akane to an ice skating duel over him. That’s where the formula starts overtaking this volume, and making me wonder if my enthusiasm can last. For right now the comedy-based battles are funny, but the second time in the book when someone liked someone and so fought someone else in a contrived fashion wore on the charm.
Ranma ½ can only parody self-serious Martial Arts dramas so much before becoming as redundant as they are, and detracting from its greatest strength: emphasis on character. Ranma and Akane’s will-they/won’t-they relationship is adorable, and seeing Ryoga grow attached to the Tendo Dojo is similarly interesting. Even when someone shows up and proposes an outlandish challenge, it’s still very funny and endearing, because in anything but combat, the characters are rounded and bound to make the hilarious kind of bad decisions. Even in combat, sometimes you get a winner like a girl deciding to throw her brother at you as a form of a weapon. That’s great, but that’s hard to sustain. I can only hope Takahashi has more diversified ends of the characters in coming volumes, because I’m sure as heck going to check the library for them.(less)
In 2004, on the day after Christmas, Sonali Deraniyagala lost her parents, husband and sons to a tsunami. She was the only survivor as they fled the o...moreIn 2004, on the day after Christmas, Sonali Deraniyagala lost her parents, husband and sons to a tsunami. She was the only survivor as they fled the ocean-front hotel, literally washed away from her family, and here, she has given us a gift of what wretched experience was like.
The first gift is her ugliness in the immediate aftermath, picking through bodies in the streets and disappointed they’re the wrong ones. She was bitter at the handicapped for asking for help, and at surviving children for not being hers. Was it her whole experience? No, but showing this side of what the immense loss did to her is something even most survivors won’t do. Our nature is to hide how jagged we get. And the openness about destructive grieving continues, even on the day when the government identified the bodies of her family, when she smashed things in her room because she wasn’t ready for them to be found.
At scarcely over two hundred pages, it may be hard to believe that this gets old. And yet, her experience is monotonous, for wherever she goes and whoever she spends time with, she cannot escape desiring her family to be alive and resenting the world for that fact. This provides the second gift of the book: our ugliness towards the bereft. I tired of her after three chapters, in too similar a pattern to the way well-wishers do of mourners who can’t let go. We all watch people trickle away from the persistently bereaved, running out of patience or rationalizing that they only have so much energy, or most often, simply paying attention to other things in their lives and ignoring the bereaved. Wave is very good at stimulating the same ugly behavior, but in the isolation of a narrative rather than doing it to someone who needs you.(less)
Full disclosure: I won a copy of this audiobook from Jeff’s blog.
Annihilation boldly answers the question of what Lost would have been like if it focu...moreFull disclosure: I won a copy of this audiobook from Jeff’s blog.
Annihilation boldly answers the question of what Lost would have been like if it focused on setting instead of character. Here we explore Area X, a beautiful and mysterious wilderness, overflodded and seeming to bridge several kinds of environments. It may even be spreading, and the government has routinely dispatched teams of scientists to determine its nature, though the teams keep going missing, and sometimes members reappear in the civilized world, psychologically shattered, with no explanation for how they returned. As soon as our narrator says the government forbid her a compass and watch, we wonder if it’s even the wilderness that the government is testing.
There’s a decidedly Lost-like intrigue about Area X, especially once we discover a tower that runs underground rather than into the air, its walls scrawled with seemingly Biblical text that is written in an organically growing fungus. This is the kind of Weird that attracts me to the VanderMeers. Our questions aren’t answered by aliens or a secret tribe of humans building things here; Area X has a longer history than the explorers expected, and its ecosystems may be more complex than the human mind has evolved to deal with. Therein, it begins to feel like a more textured Solaris, boldly inhuman in the Lem tradition, wherein characters exist to be peeled apart by the environment.
Our narrator, a disappassionate biologist, doesn’t have too much going on. She’s always fascinated by the way life spreads, and she lost her husband to a previous excursion to Area X. She’s not dynamic, and can’t even hold up interesting conversations with the rest of her crew. But what she is, and wonders about, what she remembers of an odd starfish or a swimming pool overtaken by biology, comes seeping out of her as she is exposed to Area X’s fungal spores. The great trick of Annihilation isn’t for her overcome the odds and save everyone, to triumph over a tragic past and learn herself. It’s for us to see what happens to a mind in this place, and at the same time, for her to experience what befell her husband. In doing so we tumble into the surreal and see her become a part of the landscape she can’t look away from. It’s not typical SpecFic, and it’s absolutely worth the journey.
My first exposure was through the audiobook, read by Carolyn McCormick. Her voice work is smooth and largely as dispassionate as you’d imagine the biologist’s voice would be, without being grating or uninterested. Rather, McCormick makes some great narrative choices, including not raising her voice in dialogue when you’d expect the speaker to be scared – because that’s not who the biologist is. That’s who other people are, and she is steadily becoming something else.(less)
Ranma Saotome is a martial arts prodigy who accidentally fell in a haunted pool and now turns into a girl whenever he’s splashed with cold water. His...moreRanma Saotome is a martial arts prodigy who accidentally fell in a haunted pool and now turns into a girl whenever he’s splashed with cold water. His father, growing desperate over his son’s condition, arranges a marriage for him with the daughter of another martial arts school, the Tendo School. This teacher has three daughters who live in a cozy relationship with each other, and I knew I was in love with the book when the two sisters utterly bailed on Akane, the middle child, since she’s never liked boys and this suitor is a girl half the time. That’s my favorite aspect of this book: the ability to take the fantastic in stride and be inane about it on a personal level.
Ranma ½ is packed with character, and it seems like every plot development spurs someone to reveal a new side of themselves. Ranma is hurt and meets the local doctor, who Akane Tendo is actually smitten with and trying to turn herself into someone he’ll admire. The doctor is smitten with Akane’s older sister, and whenever he’s in her presence, he turns into a jibbering idiot. While Akane pines for the doctor, the entire school’s male population is after her hand in marriage, and subject themselves to combat against her in the hopes of proving themselves, every morning before the first class bell. Rumiko Takahashi has always had the knack for twisting romance into funny characterization, but it’s almost intimidating how the book bursts with personalities, and usually really strange ones. Given the sensibility, we should have expected that Ranma and Akane, who both detest having a marriage arranged, actually start to like each other in an adorably awkward romance. Any time it gets too serious, someone can always dump water on Ranma and turn the book back into a comedy.
And it is a SitCom, even if my copy is listed as an ‘Action’ title. The fights are mostly played for laughs, and the greatest violence is someone’s hair getting chopped off and a bully getting “bufoon” (SIC) bruised into his forehead. Combat is also where the book is least comprehensible, actions leaping across panels without fluid logic, but it’s forgivable because the combat isn’t deathly serious and could at any time devolve into slapstick. When we meet Ryoga, Ranma’s sworn enemy, the boy fights with an array of bandanas and a heavy parasol. The point is being over-the-top, not choreography.
I haven’t laughed reading prose or sequential art like this in months, and am checking my library for more volumes now. Gerard Jones and Matt Thorn’s translation can be a little awkward (there’s no way Ranma is a “karate” expert, and “You’re scaring them spitless” reads hackneyed), but it’s light enough to get the tone across and keep up with Takahashi’s jovial pace. There’s nothing to prevent me from wanting much more of these characters and their bizarre world.(less)
A vast collection of Jo Walton's blog posts for Tor.com as she re-read the Science Fiction and Fantasy canon. It's a testament to Walton's mind that t...moreA vast collection of Jo Walton's blog posts for Tor.com as she re-read the Science Fiction and Fantasy canon. It's a testament to Walton's mind that the book is worth reading, as blog posts don't usually lend themselves to print, and her entries are usually three pages long, and thus usually necessarily never plumb too deeply. Her emphasis is mostly touching the things that excite us, that she missed on the original reading or that have held up with time. The key appeal is that, shallow as the entries often have to be because of their length, Walton's breadth allows frequent insights that, even at this length, you won't get from most critics. There's a series on time travel, its problems and how fiction deals with it being either important or futile.
All of these posts are still available to read for free on Tor.com, and I've wound up sharing a few on Reddit and Twitter because they remain germane. Many of the highlights are editorials on a concept, like what long series are uniquely equipped to do, or how notions of the Singularity hurt Science Fiction storytelling, which introduce pregnant ideas in very few pages. Yet the hundred or so entries on individual works of fiction are good fun as well, bulking up my reading list, talking me into hunting down a copy of Jasmine Nights and revisiting Terry Bisson. It's lovely to have a book that covers so much ground, such that we can get some Hard SciFi, some social issues, and put them alongside chatter about a Fantasy in which cars run on blood and bad dreams.
This is not a book of criticism, and you're not going to get a John Clute analysis in here. Her final entry specifically explains that she's not interested in (or equipped to) dissecting literature and partaking in that conversation. The conversations she wants are more traditionally fan-ish, even when she talks about the profound effect Samuel R. Delany and Lois McMaster Bujold have had on her psyche.
The book really takes off when it hits a theme, and I recall three major ones: a long series of chapters on the writing of Lois McMaster Bujold, another on Steve Brust, and my favorite, meddling in a series of time travel stories. That last culminates in her pondering about useless time travel, where fiction doesn't let you resolve history with it, and makes up some of the most fascinating speculation in the book. If anything, I would have fancied many more series-posts, as at the worst, if you weary of a theme, you can skim or skip ahead and have plenty more post-bites to catch your attention.
I only wearied of the book when I read too much of it in one sitting or day. It's definitely not built for rapid consumption, and that behavior reduces it to a giant bag of candy, wherein the lack of deep analysis can weary. That's short-form blogging for you, right? You engage with one notion, perhaps chat with the author, and then come back in a few days for another. So this wound up an ideal bathroom book for me, with another discussion of one classic or another to enliven breaks in my day.
And don't disparage the bathroom book. That's a necessary part of some psyches, mine own included. (less)
A messy little manga that feels like a graphic artist venting his Dungeons & Dragons empowerment fantasies. Here we follow Guts, the frowny badass...moreA messy little manga that feels like a graphic artist venting his Dungeons & Dragons empowerment fantasies. Here we follow Guts, the frowny badass with a giant sword, who kills a bunch of bad guys, gets caught and tortured for a little while, then breaks free and kills more bad guys. He goes on a trip and is jumped by skeletons, who he beats up, while frowning. He gets a fairy sidekick, who he frowns at. He’s in pursuit of more bad guys, for reasons we don’t know, but for obvious motives: he’s going to beat them up. It’s what this volume suggests he exists to do. From adaptations of the series, one knows there must be more to it, but this volume doesn’t have anything more to offer.(less)