My love for everything that Gail writes is no longer a surprise. Or it shouldn’t be at any rate. She is one of the best writers working in the industry right now and a good part of it is because she is able to portray her characters so well. And her scripts are always exciting, no matter what. I’ve been following her from series to series, whether that be her original run on Birds of Prey, or the second, or Batgirl, or The Movemehernt, or even Red Sonja. And I can’t wait to read her Tomb Raider comic when it comes out.
With Red Sonja, for two issues now, Gail has presented a very nuanced and personal take on the titular character and this is something that she continues in the new issue. But this time, she takes things a step further and presents a much more modern and ass-kicking back-story for the character, something that has been in Sonja’s lore since her very inception. And it rocks.
Red Sonja 03One of the thing’s that been grinding on in my mind after reading Gail’s first two issues of this rebooted series is whether we’ll get to see Sonja’s back-history. In the first issue, we started in media res and only saw a very small bit of her past, and that too after she was already a fighter, a warrior of repute. In #3, Gail goes significantly back and gives us her version of Sonja’s origins. Once again, Gail manages to surprise.
Last issue, we saw Red Sonja suffering a very important defeat, which marked one of the biggest lows of her life. The way that she suffered that defeat, and the emotional implications of it for both Sonja and the reader, were immense, and now we see some of the consequences of that defeat. Sonja is near-death and as she dies, she flashes back to her childhood, to a much simpler life. At first it seemed like the flashback would serve as a motivator for Sonja to rise up from her self-inflicted emotional misery and that she would gain the strength to keep fighting. But the flashback turns into far more. The switch is both gradual and immediate, with a really well-balanced pacing between the two.
And once the flashback, her near-induced hallucination, gets narratively extended we see a young Sonja, someone who is still a young daughter of a Hyrkanian tribe. For anyone who knows Conan’s lore, especially as popularised by the Arnold Schwarzenegger classic and the Jason Momoa reboot, this story will now start to seem similar. Sonja’s tribe is attacked, then slaughtered by mercenary invaders, and she is the sole survivor. Thus begins Sonja’s journey to becoming a fearsome warrior, a devil to her foes.
The balance between the ongoing narrative and the flashback meshes together almost seamlessly. There’s a slight disconnect, very minor, but Gail still makes it all work. Her characterisation of Sonja, at both points of her life, is presented as really compelling and it resonated with me. Of course, this was all rather whimsical too. By the time the issue moves towards the final act, this reflective nature of the story was starting to give me shivers. Shivers.
Also, can I just make one important point? That would be that with Gail’s retelling of Sonja’s origins, one of the biggest… complications of her history has been revised. To sum up: Sonja no longer became who she is because she was brutally raped and because the goddess Scáthach intervened and gave her power to avenger herself and her family. Now, Sonja is a confident young warrior from the get go. Gail has replaced one of the core aspects of Sonja’s history that have been with her from the very beginning with something much more fitting (some would say much more palatable). And I like that big twist.
As far as the art is concerned, Walter Geovani has once again turned out a great looking comic. Compared to the previous two issues, there is a lot more “personal” time here and he uses those panels to great effect. Whether she is at rest or not, Geovani draws a really good Sonja, and that’s not as easy as people might think it is. The artist needs to be able to convey her power as a warrior whether she is moving in for a kill or whether she is drinking from a freezing stream, whether she is preparing for battle or whether she is having an epiphany. And Geovani does that. Combined with the soft and muted colours from Adriano Lucas, the visual beauty of the issue does transcend beyond what’s just on the page, because there is such a clear distinction when the script switches to Sonja’s hallucinations, her dreams. All through the judicial use of colours. And its a gradual shift, nothing immediate or off-putting.
And finally, the two covers. The main cover, by Jenny Frison is absolutely fantastic. She uses a very limited colour palette and yet she captures the icy vista so perfectly, with Sonja captured in a perfect moment where she is about to leap into action. The second one, by Pia Guerra, is not as good as some of the other variant covers that have been released so far, but it still is a great cover that captures the full-on action nature of Sonja and her capabilities.
In short, this was a fan-frikkin-tastic issue and I’m really happy with how Gail has been presenting the series in its entirety. She has continued to challenge my perceptions of Sonja and I’ve been continually impressed with what she’s been doing, and all the artists that she has brought together. I’m really looking forward to her Legends of Red Sonja anthology mini-series, which will be celebrating 40-years of Red Sonja. Fun times!
Quite unintentionally, sort of, last week was a full-on comics week for the blog. And it seems that it was also a week where Gail Simone was 2/2 for her releases, Batgirl #23 and this one, the second installment of her Red Sonja reboot for Dynamite Entertainment. Her first issue was an absolutely amazing issue and everything that I expected from the second one, I got, and then some.
Currently, the only other writers who are hitting the same kind of heights for me right now are Scott Snyder with Batman, Geoff Johns with Aquaman/Justice League/Justice League of America and Jason Aaron with Thor: God of Thunder.
Its also great to see that two incredibly awesome female characters in comics are being written by one of the best in the industry. Its heartening. I love it. And I want more.
Red Sonja 02When last we were with Sonja in issue #1, we saw that she had just gotten the shock of her life by the sudden appearance of a character from her past, a glimpse of which we see very early on in that issue. The entire second issue is one long drawn-out battle in which Sonja and this character fight it out while surrounded by a raging battle between the ragtag forces of a broken kingdom and the army of horrors that this other character has brought to bear.
As expected, Gail’s knack for turning readers’ expectations on their head is in full-force in this comic. And all her usual stylistic tricks are also in full effect. Much of this issue is taken up with the ongoing battle, but even in such a chaotic atmosphere, we get brief flashes of the small, personal moments. As I’ve mentioned several times before, moments like these are Gail’s forte and she is an excellent storyteller in that regard. Combined with Walter Geovani’s amazing pencils, and Adriano Lucas’ eye-catching colours, these small moments take on a life of their own.
With Sonja herself, her personal duel is one which decides her ultimate fate and is a microcosmic moment where who she is, what she is, and why she is what she is, it is all challenged most thoroughly. I remarked in my review of the first issue that I wanted a lot of character development in this series, and this is exactly what Gail Simone delivers on here, once again. There is so much character development, whether that be for Sonja or the antagonist character, and we even see glimpses of their trials together from their past, some three years ago before King Dimath ever interfered in their lives, as we saw in the previous issue.
And then, just the way that Gail takes all of it forward, to show how far someone can truly fall while surrounded by darkness and the loneliness of one’s self, that is the moment where Red Sonja #2 truly becomes an issue which is heads and shoulders above the rest that I read last week, and which I’d even count as my “issue of the year”. Again, it all comes down to challenging readers’ expectations. The antagonism between Sonja and the other character is not one that is borne out of pettiness or jealousy or any such mundane concept. It is more than that.
Finally, that ending, the last four pages of this issue. Absolutely mind-blowing. A grand ending to what was already such a fantastic issue. Completely unexpected, I assure you, and handled with such deftness, that I read this issue twice, and then once more just now, while writing this review. The same thing happened with Batgirl #23 with me, and in that case, I read the issue several times back to back.
Gail definitely has outdone herself this week, and I am super excited to see where the story goes next, and her next installments, whether they be for Red Sonja or for Batgirl or for The Movement.
And as for the art in the book, I got only one word to describe it: superlative. A second: outstanding. Walter Geovani and Adriano Lucas are a perfect team for this book, and this book is unquestioningly theirs. Every single visual in the comic, every panel, every splash page, is reflective of the talent that these two have. While I would love to see a rotation of artists of some sort on the book, so that other artists that I’d love to see on this book, do get the chance, I’m happy with what Geovani and Lucas are turning out. Lucas’ colours specifically, reflect the entire tone and mood of the comic really well. Great stuff.
If you are not reading this series, then you are most assuredly missing out.
Shadowhawk reviews two of Strange Chemistry’s latest young adult fantasy titles.
On Emilie & The Hollow World: “This is an action-adventure novel that is very reminiscent of Jules Verne’s classic, A Journey To The Center of The Earth. Hence, my conclusion is that the novel is a work of genius.“
On The Holders: “An Irish fantasy that reads like an X-men novelisation. Which means of course that this was pretty damn good, no mistake.”
Like Evie Manieri’s debut Blood’s Pride, both these novels also happen to be on my “51 Most Anticipated Releases of 2013“, because their blurbs sound intriguing, and because, in the case of Emilie & The Hollow World, I’ve wanted to read something from Martha Wells for quite a while now. I got the chance, and I’m more than impressed, as I hope my blurb above makes clear.
Emilie & The Hollow World is one of the most exciting novels I’ve read in a good while. It is extremely fast paced, and the characters are a sheer delight to read about. It is not often that a novel has me giving it high praise, and Martha Wells’ upcoming novel is one of those rare few novels. At its heart, the novel is an adventure to an unexplored world, with lots of magic and a dash of Victorian steampunk thrown in for good measure.
Martha Wells begins the novel right in the middle of the action as we meet Emilie along the docks, hoping to stowaway on a ship headed to the Silk Harbour, where a cousin resides and with whom she expects to live a better life than she has had under the tyrannical grip of her Uncle Yeric. It is kind of how things might have happened had Harry Potter left the Dursleys behind and gone on to his adventures without any ties to them. From there on, we are treated to one rapid-action scene after another as she finally manages to stow away on a ship, but not one headed to the Silk Harbour. This one is headed to the Hollow World, a world hidden from the normal world (the repetition there is unfortunate on my part), and this is when the narrative kicks into Journey To The Center of The Earth mode. New sights, new sounds, new people, new environment; quite simply put, it is a pleasure to read as things unfold, mysteries are revealed, and we are treated to some non-stop action-adventure in a world beyond Emilie’s own, but yet a part of it.
EmiliestheHollowWorld-144dpiEmilie & The Hollow World is a novel that has no cons to it, everything is in its favour, beyond the fact that sometimes Emilie comes off as someone much older than she is meant to be, but that is a very small point that I do not hold against the novel.
To start off, the characters are all excellent. We have Emilie herself, the protagonist. Accompanying her are Ms. Marlende, Lord Engal, Kenar, Dr. Barshion and several others. They are all part of an expedition headed into the Hollow World to save the lives of Dr. Marlende, the father of Ms. Marlende, and his crew members who encounted unexpected troubles within the other world.(less)
Shadowhawk reviews the first book of the Demon Cycle series.
“This book is an exercise in how simplicity can be a rewarding experience in a genre that is increasingly populated by highly complex and twisted characters and settings.” ~The Founding Fields
The Painted Man is one of the books I’m reading this year as part of my “25-in-13” reading challenge, wherein I attempt to catch up with a number of popular authors who are all the rage these days, and some whose work can only be termed as classics of the SFF genres. While I’ve attempted to stay abreast of current trends in the industry with my reading since January last year, I’m still woefully behind compared to several of my fellow reviewers and other friends who have been reading many of the authors on that list above since their books first came out, and recommend these books quite highly. I finished Bradley P. Beaulieu’s The Winds of Khalakovo last night and am on T. C. McCarthy’s Germline right now, after which I’ll roughly be on track to complete the challenge by the end of the year. Fun times.
Anyways, on to the review of this book.
Throughout my reading of The Painted Man, one thought stuck with me: the prose is rather simple, the setting itself is simple to quite a degree, and so are the characters. There is nuance in everything, of that I can assure you, but this is still a very by-the-numbers novel. And I did not mind that all, because as I said in the logline above, the current trend in SFF is to write and publish all these incredibly complex novels with a huge cast of characters and convoluted plots. Such novels don’t make for all that much of an enjoyable reading experience because as the reader, you are always trying to follow along and not miss anything. Brett’s first novel avoids all of that.
The charm of the novel is that it avoids complexities. It has specific foci and it largely sticks to these foci without getting side-tracked into unnecessary side-plots and characters.
There are three major characters in the novel. The first is Arlen, a farm boy who eventually becomes a Messenger, traveling between the various cities of the known world, delivering letters and collecting tithes. The second is Leesha, a young girl who goes from being destined to be little more than a housewife into a healer and lore-keeper. The third is the much younger Rojer, who becomes a jongleur – combination bard and jester. Of the three, Arlen and Leesha are the ones who end up being the primary leads, with Rojer largely relegated to side plots or comic relief when the story arcs for the other two get incredibly serious. His inclusion in the novel is odd because his arc ultimately goes nowhere, even though the character has an incredible amount of potential early on, as one of two survivors of a coreling (demon) attack on his village as a young boy and taken in by a celebrated jongleur.
Arlen is a familiar character in that he is that typical nobody character at the start who grows and develops into someone with power and takes center stage in a fight between good and evil. His journey is the most interesting since he carries a lot of the narrative weight on his shoulders and is the driving force for events that conclude towards the end of the novel, and that will follow on from there for the sequel. While I enjoyed the character a fair bit, especially when he learns how to fight the corelings and starts to become a stronger character, I would have liked to see more of him over the course of the book. The time-jumps in the book take away from the emotional connect with him, and given the vast span of time that these jumps cover, it’s not that easy to sympathise with him. Another thing is that while his character development leaves a lasting impression, his narrative itself doesn’t. The reason for that is that he comes into contact with a huge number of side characters and none of them are able to develop a lasting impression on him, or on the reader. The time-jumps mean that these characters are introduce and they advance his narrative to a greater or lesser degree, and then they are just discarded. Would have been nice to have had some sort of flashbacks to these characters, or even get some tiny mentions of them in the later stages of the narrative.(less)
Shadowhawk reviews the sequel to Nathan Long’s Jane Carver of Waar, which he called “a perfect novel”.
“I had thought that it would be next to impossible to top the awesomeness that was Jane Carver of Waar. Nathan Long fortunately proves me quite wrong on that account for Swords of Waar is even better than its predecessor!” ~The Founding Fields
When I read Jane Carver of Waar back in March, the novel proved to be an experience that I hadn’t quite had until that point, at least this year. It was funny, it was serious, it had great characters, some over-the-top sequences that were written extremely well, a protagonist who was as “good” as you can get, a large political conspiracy, lots of adult humour, and so on. Packing all that into a little package like Jane Carver of Waar was what defined the novel for me and showed me that if I thought Nathan Long was a great tie-in fiction writer, he was an even better one when it came to original fiction. As a reader, I had so much fun with the novel, that when I reviewed it, I gave it that perfect 10/10 score, which I hadn’t to any book until that point. In almost ten and a half months of reading some truly amazing novels, Jane Carver still stands out as one of the best, right at the top of the food chain, which is saying something, if you’ve been following my reviews all through this year. Inevitably, I had some really high expectations of the sequel, Swords of Waar, and I kept hoping that Nathan would duplicate the success of the first novel.
In that respect, Swords of Waar definitely threw me for a curveball, and I came away from it amazed. I’ll admit, I had an extremely fanboy mindset going into the novel, and I came away from it an even bigger fan of Nathan’s work. I often remark that I’m a fairly easy sell and that I am generally disposed to thinking quite favourably of what I read, but when I started reading Swords of Waar, I went in with a very critical eye. Those expectations had to be met after all.
When the novel begins, it finds Jane back on Earth, after she was sent back against her will, presumably by the priests of Waar. For the first act, we see a very different Jane than we did in Jane Carver of Waar. She is morose, depressed, regretful, and generally miserable. Even though I was prepared for something like this, it still struck me on an emotional level that Nathan managed to capture those emotions and her feelings so well. It got to the point that if I could reach out and give her a hug, I would. He takes her to the very depths of her depression, to the point where she will do anything, absolutely anything to go back to Waar and live the rest of her life with Lhan, the nobleman of Waar with whom she fell in love with by the end of the first book and who she was with when the priests came.
Nathan doesn’t dwell overlong on her misery however, and she is soon back on Waar, after a string of circumstances that will leave the reader grinning because of Nathan’s tongue-in-cheek solution to the problem. If you loved Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels, then I think you will definitely appreciate the irony of those scenes.
But things aren’t as smooth back on Waar as Jane had thought. She comes back in the most unlikeliest of places, the grand church of the priests of the Seven in the Oran capital itself. And the priests are most definitely not happy to see that the “she-demon” is back, and with a vengeance to boot. From there, the narrative is all about Jane and Lhan discovering the deepest and darkest secrets of the church, foiling assasinations, organising religious rebellions. As Richard Dean Anderson’s Colonel Jack O’Neill would say, “its all about sticking to the man and doing the right thing”. Incidentally, I can totally see Jane saying something like that since Nathan fills the narrative by several one-liners where Jane references pop culture and the like.
For the entirety of Swords of Waar, Jane is a very different woman. Her experiences on Waar have changed her, and although Oran society is backwards in many ways, such as slavery and misogyny, she couldn’t be happier anywhere else as long as she has Lhan with her. The romance between the two of them is quite stormy, with ample disagreements since Jane is capable of physical feats the likes of which Lhan can, at best, only dream about. He may be a better swordsman and be well-versed in Oran culture, but she has raw power on her side, and an ingenuity the likes of which no Oran can match. In that respect, they make for a great complementary couple, so different from each other, and yet so similar.(less)
Shadowhawk reviews the latest graphic novel installment of the Buffyverse, collecting together issues 6-10 of Angel & Faith, as well as a one-shot featuring Giles’ magical great-aunts.
“Angel and Faith are back for more kickass action as Christos Gage gets downright personal with their respective pasts.” ~The Founding Fields
When I read Angel & Faith Volume 1 and reviewed it, it was very much like a nostalgia trip that got me interested in the Buffyverse once again. It also helped that Christos Gage wrote such a good script for the series till that point and the art too was on the high quality end of the spectrum. For comics set in a setting as culturally iconic as Buffyverse, a good script and good art is essential in maintaining people’s interest and feeding their hunger for more content. More so when that quality is maintained in subsequent issues, keeping the flow of things going from point to point. Angel & Faith Volume 2: Daddy Issues is a book that is better than its predecessor in every single way.
The story kicks off this time as both Angel and Faith come across killer maniacs in two separate investigations, maniacs who seem to be all about killing somebody, anybody, and don’t seem to have any qualms about committing the most violent murders. The guy Angel tangles with is one certified nutjob in that department. Given that there has been a spree of such killing all over the city, they attempt to figure out if there is some supernatural reason for this, and their research leads them to a lorophage demon, one who can suck out all the negative emotions and feelings out of somebody. Giles’ records indicate that he has tangled with one such demon before, when he was still in training to be a Watcher. From there on, its a hunt, and this hunt takes Angel and Faith to meet with Angel’s “greatest success”, Drusilla, who is now apparently cured of her mania and is back in her old haunts, just another Vampire, trying to survive in a changed world.
Christos Gage did a great job here of reminding any old hats and new readers who Drusilla is and what her relationship with Angel is. From a virginal nun at a convent to a manic Vampire, he tells it all through Angel, who is now very remorseful about what he did and wants to make amends with Drusilla. But when the lorophage demon is involved, there can’t be any resolution and so its back to what makes the entire Buffyverse so cool, vampire kill-kill action that only Angel can deliver.
The characterisation of Angel and Faith that we saw in Volume 1 continues here, in that Angel still feels guilty about having killed Giles and is looking for a way to resurrect him, while Faith is there to keep an eye on things and perhaps do what Angel can’t do. The dynamics of their relationship are explored even more this time as they help each other come to terms (to a degree) with their past: for Angel its where Drusilla is concerned, and for Faith its where her abusive and alcoholic good-for-nothing father is concerned. Faith never really struck me as the emotional side during the Buffy or Angel series and seeing that side of her is quite the revelation. Angel is the same old Angel of course, but that’s ok. That’s his character shtick and taking that away reduces the character to something generic and cliched. Which is not what we should be getting. What Christos Gage handles really well is that Angel does not flip-flop in his convictions this time around, he sticks with them to the bitter end.
Drusilla. Well. Not sure what to say about Drusilla really. I read a couple quick wiki entries on her once I was done with Volume 2 so I can remember who she really was, and I have to say that Christos Gage brought her out really well with his script. She has changed considerably since those days of course, but she is still Drusilla at the core. Regal and commanding as if she’s a Vampire matriarch or some such. It was a nice change from the old times. Not too much, not too little, finely balanced.
Where Angel and Faith have a relationship based on friendship and their work, Angel and Drusilla have a relationship that is defined by dominance of one over the other, one that involves a lot of pain, blood, death, and violence that they have/do inflict on each other. Its as dysfunctional and messed up a relationship as can be between two vampires. Christos Gage doesn’t resolve their differences with each other, but he does showcase them. The resolution isn’t important, the differences themselves are, especially in how they compare with Angel and Faith’s relationship.(less)
Shadowhawk reviews the first novel in the new War of Vengeance trilogy for the Time of Legends meta-series.
“This is quite possibly Nick’s best work to date, better than even Nocturne perhaps. The only way to decide might be a novel deathmatch.” ~The Founding Fields
I make no secret of the fact that I really enjoy Nick’s work, and that I hold his Tome of Fire trilogy to be some of the best Warhammer 40k fiction put out by Black Library in recent years. My first introduction to his work, the Warhammer Fantasy novel Oathbreaker, was a highly negative experience but most of the other stuff he’s written since then (that I’ve read) has impressed me. With The Great Betrayal, Nick has continued his streak of successes, and I am now a huge fan of the Warhammer variety of Dwarfs. In this novel, he has done a great job in exploring their culture, their society, their history, and their attitudes. Barring some odd stuff here and there, I could not have asked for a better novel to kickstart the long-awaited War of Vengeance trilogy, which is going to be complemented by Chris Wraight’s War of the Beard trilogy, which will tell of the great war between the Dwarfs and the High Elves from the latter’s perspective.
The central drive for this war between two of the elder races of the Warhammer world is that Malekith, formerly a great High Elf prince and now the bitter ruler of the Dark Elves, wants to destroy his former people completely. And to do this, he begins by staging false attacks by the Elves on Dwarf merchantmen, patrols, holds and villages. He uses his extensive knowledge of the Dwarfs and their empire, gained when he first came to their lands ages ago and befriended their High King, and the result is utter mayhem and confusion. The entire event is one of the greatest tragedies in Warhammer history, a tragedy compounded by ignorance, ego, recklessness, and pride.
Participating in the entire debacle are Dwarfs from all levels of their society. One of the most central characters is Prince Snorri, son of High King Gotrek Starbreaker. The Prince is a man who is always in his father’s shadow, the Dwarf hero who crippled the Orcs and has led his people into a golden age of peace and prosperity. Snorri wants to prove himself as great a warrior as his father, but such a thing is impossible in times of peace, at a time when the Dwarfs are very much at the peak of their power. Initially Snorri seemed to be a mostly average character, but as Malekith’s treachery unfolds through his various agents, he grows into a very complex character. He straddles a very fine line between war and peace, a fulcrum balancing those who want vengeance on the Elves and those who want to prevent an all-out and destructive war that could cripple the Dwarf race for ages. For me, he was at his best when he was compassionate and friendly, whether with his cousin Morgrim or the High Priestess of Valaya, Elmendrin. When Snorri made snap decisions to incite war with the Elves, he was irritating, because I wanted to reach out through the pages and give him a good shake and tell him that he was being manipulated like a fool. Alas, watching the train wreck was a bit of fun too, so I’m not really complaining.
As the two level-headed Dwarfs who wish to prevent the war and keep peace with the Elves, Gotrek Starbreaker and Morgrim, were characters I really enjoyed. As the entire narrative unfolds, they turn into really strong characters, and their diplomatic approach to the whole affair was almost heartbreaking to see. See, the thing is that we know the war is going to happen. It’s already in the Warhammer lore built up over the last 30+ years, so there are no surprises there in that regard. The beauty of the novel is in seeing how it all came about, how it began, and how it was almost prevented. Both Gotrek and Morgrim are foils for Snorri and his supporters in that regard, and their efforts are only to be appreciated. When it comes to it, they will fight for the honour of their people, but they would rather that such an event never come to pass. As the wise old ruler with a headstrong son, Gotrek is initially stubborn and highly critical himself, but in the later chapters he does mellow out and eventually realises his mistakes. When that particular dam breaks, the narrative reaches one of it’s high-points, one of the best scenes in the entire novel. With Morgrim, I would make the comparison that he is very much like Faramir from The Lord of The Rings, with a dash of Aragorn and Gimli both thrown in for good measure. His was a standout character, one of the best written in the entire book. If there’s any criticism of the book with regards to him, it is that he gets far too few scenes. All for the best though, since he is going to be a major player in the sequel.(less)
I remember reading Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a kid, and being somewhat intrigued with it. The story however never really resonated with me beyond some key plot points that I still remember. I’ve seen some cartoons over the years and tried to see that Johnny Depp starrer with its own unique take on the story, but none of that has stuck with me either. Raven Gregory’s dramatically different take however, with its very adult focus, is something that I think I’ll remember for quite a while.
The story begins and ends as you would expect it to, but there are a hell of a lot of differences (from what I recall of the original version) that make this a much more engaging read. For instance, the characters such as the Hatter, the White Rabbit, the Queen of Hearts and the Chesire Cat, are portrayed very differently. The difference mostly deals with how dark a setting Gregory’s Wonderland really is. Its not the “simplistic” fantasy world of Carroll’s creation, but one that is full of monsters, wild magic, and the great and powerful monster known as the Jabberwocky who holds a young Alice in captivity for a number of years until she grows up and escapes with some help from the White Rabbit.
On a purely entertainment level, Alice in Wonderland is just fantastic. The story is engaging, the characters are wonderful, and the art is just great. Yeah, there is some risque stuff here and there, particularly with how the female characters are shown, but that didn’t strike me as anything different from what happens with the big studios. Could it be better? Of course, but one of the selling points of most Zenescope titles is their risque nature, and when that’s a consistent theme across the board for the studio, I find I can go along with it and not complain as I usually do with the big studios. These are specifically adult comics after all, much like Dynamite Entertainment’s various Vampirella and Dejah Thoris titles.
The only thing that I didn’t like about these comics was the fact that there were a lot of allusions to other titles that tie-in to these, like Tales From Wonderland andBeyond Wonderland. It prevented the comics from being a complete experience in full (if that makes sense). I still enjoyed the scripts, especially when everything goes really time-wonky, with Alice falling down the rabbit-hole for example. I absolutely want to read more of these comics!
The artwork, provided by the trio of Robert Gill, Jason Embury and Jim Cambell is fantastic, and the covers for the series were one of my attractions to to the title. Together, these three really capture the weird, other-worldly feel of Wonderland that Gregory has been going for. The colours in particular are really rich and vibrant, making for a really exciting visual experience. These are the kinds of art panels I would love to see more of in the titles put out by the big studios. From the other Zenescope titles I’ve read (or am reading) such as Neverland and Jungle Book, the studio definitely has the market niche on truly stunning internal comics art.
Shadowhawk reviews the first novel in the new Jessica McClain urban fantasy series from Orbit, written by Amanda Carlson.
“I had no idea that reading about Werewolves could be so much fun. Big Thumbs-up.” ~The Founding Fields
I’ll be honest: urban fantasy, despite all my experiments with the genre this year, is really not my thing. I like watching this stuff, far more than I do reading it. Buffy, Angel, Underworld, True Blood, I’m all for that kind of stuff. But reading just doesn’t work for me all that much. Matt Forbeck’s Carpathia, a Titanic and Vampires mash-up, is the first such novel I read since Bram Stoker’s Dracula, back in middle school. Sarah Marques’ Vampire Musketeers: Sword & Blood, a Three Musketeers and Vampire mash-up was also fun, and I kinda did love the book of course, but I didn’t exactly feel a drive to read more about Vampires. They were both fun little experiments. Reading Amanda Carlson’s Full Blooded has changed my feelings on that matter however and now I’m really keen to read more in this sub-genre of urban fantasy: supernaturals of all types, whether Vampires or Werewolves or other kind of shifters.
The protagonist ofFull Blooded is Jessica McClain, a female werewolf, and the only one of her kind in known memory since there have never been any female werewolves. This marks her as somewhat of an outcast but given that she is also the daughter of Callum McClain, the Pack Alpha of the Northern US Territories, she gets some leeway and a tacit acceptance. It’s all still an uphill battle for her though, and has been from the start since her birth was an oddity: Werewolves always fathered sons, never daughters. The only thing that stopped her from getting killed until the present day was that she never shifted. But that’s all changed now, and there are forces out there who have been ready to take her down for years, since she is supposed to be the subject of the “Cain Myth” which effectively says that a female werewolf will be instrumental in the destruction of the Werewolf race. Now Jessica has to keep her new abilities a secret from anyone not of the McClain pack, even though there’s a detective from NYPD (an old nemesis from when she was an officer) breathing down her neck about a case.
Let me start by saying that I loved the novel. Carlson’s voice has a lot of welcome levity to it and it rarely gets over-serious to the point that, as a reader, you feel stressed out over what’s going to happen next. Jessica is smart, she is capable, and she is… normal. Not over-sexualised, not under-sexualised. There’s a balance to her character. And she has some good support from Tyler (her twin brother), Callum, James (the second-in-command of the pack), Rourke (a mercenary shifter of some kind), and Eudoxia, a Vampire Queen who has taken an interest in Jessica for reasons unknown.
The characterisation is definitely the key selling point here. Jessica McClain just leaps off the pages here because of how well she is written. There are some dialogue and monologue bits that fall a little flat and are a bit cheesy, but they don’t devalue the experience at all. Full Blooded is written as a full-on action movie, and Jessica’s character fits into that role very nicely. I’ve heard some horror stories of how female protagonists in the subgenre are often treated by the authors, as nothing more than a representation of author fantasy and the male gaze, which demands that the character be over-sexualised (both in terms of personality and attitude and clothes), and that if she isn’t some sort of an archetypical kick-ass heroine, then she be a damsel-in-distress, even though she may be the star of the novel! Jessica is none of those things. Her characterisation is mature and intriguing because there is a real depth to her as a character, as borne out by her struggles with her new abilities and her unfamiliarity with the “other side” of the fence.
The supporting cast of Tyler, Callum, James, Rourke, Eudoxia and the others is a really rich and colourful cast. Some of them fill archetypical roles such as the over-protective father (Callum), the badass merc that everyone is scared to death of (Rourke), and the sophisticated and sensuous Vampire (Eudoxia), but they are all so much more when put up against Jessica. Given that the novel is in the first person, we don’t get to read their side of the story but through Jessica we do get to explore the characters all the same. Callum’s role as Pack Alpha is emphasised again and again, as well as his over-protectiveness when it comes to Jessica, but none of it is ham-fisted in any way. When Carlson writes him as someone who has a dominating presence within a group of his fellow shifters, he does have that presence. Rourke is more than just what he is made out to be in the pages. He is actually a genuine compelling character that you can root for. Carlson writes him as an expressive extroverted character rather than this brooding bad-ass everyone is scared of. Eudoxia is a sweet-talker and charmer, but she has her “off” days too, when she gets all fired up and badass. There is a certain confrontation towards the end of the novel which is particularly delightful in that respect.(less)
“The end of the world nears and the heroes and villains are going all-out against each other as Ron Marz maintains top form from the first volume.”
When I reviewed Artifacts Volume 1 in my last roundup, I was all praise for him. The Top Cow universe has a very different feel and aesthetic than the major universes of DC and Marvel, both of which Ron captured extremely well in his standout Civil War-style series. Or Infinite Crisis, to a degree. In this second collection of the series (issues #5-8), Ron delves more into why things are happening as they are and we get a lot more backstory this time around as well. The mysterious player who is pulling Aphrodite’s strings and has had Sara Pezzini’s daughter kidnapped is revealed for the first time as he ups the ante by having his “champion” bring in another team of heroes into the mix, the Cyber Force. This changes the playing field a great deal as Aphrodite tells the members of Cyber Force that Sara and her allies are intent on bringing about the end of the world. The volume is therefore largely concerned with the Cyber Force going head-to-head against the Witchblade, The Darkness, Magdalena and other good guys. More than the previous issue, this volume is just no-holds-barred action, up close and personal. The only thing I didn’t like about the collection was that Aphrodite wasn’t that convincing for me in the final tally of things. What I saw as the promise from Volume 1 didn’t carry forward all that much in Volume 2.
The artwork is top-notch once again and Artifacts Volume 2 is just as beautiful a collection as Volume 1. The artwork lends Ron’s script the feel of an epic saga rather than being just a comic book(s). I’ve read several more comics series in various IPs since I read Volume 2 and compared against them, the art here still stands out easily. As with the script, its the action scenes that are lavished the most attention which is fitting, since they are the focus of the entire book! Plus the covers. Dynamic, thoughtful, secretive.
“The freshest title I’ve read to date that easily stands out in a market flooded with superheroes and mutants.”
I have next to no experience with Top Cow titles aside from the odd few Witchblade titles I’ve read in recent months. Given that, its fair to say that I’m a novice when it comes to the incredibly rich universe of the various Top Cow series. While DC and Marvel have their superheroes and mutants and are all sci-fi and stuff, Top Cow went with a different direction. Their titles, while being sci-fi to a degree, also incorporate a healthy amount of fantasy. The Top Cow protagonists aren’t differentiated so much by advanced technology but rather with the theme of there being various powerful artifacts, many of them being more ancient than ancient itself. Thirteen artifacts to be exact, with each having a bearer. Which brings me to the premise behind Artifacts. In simple terms, this is the big crossover event for the Top Cow-verse in the same style as Marvel’s Civil War and DC’s various Crisis titles. Or even a mix of the two, but only dealing with a very select few characters.
When this collection (Issues #0-4) starts we are introduced to a female cyber-android known as Aphrodite IV. An off-screen character converses with her, all one-sided as she is unable to talk, and we find out that this mysterious character plans to bring about a war between all the various artifact bearers and that Aphrodite is his chosen champion. We quickly get an intro to all the major players that we’ll be seeing in the main issues and by the end, things are looking quite promising. This carries on in the next four issues as the mysterious character begins his plans to gather all the artifacts by having Sara Pezzini’s sister murdered and her (Sara’s) daughter kidnapped by Aphrodite. As the current bearer of the ancient artifact known as the Witchblade, Sara sets out to get her daughter back and gathers allies to her, all of them artifact bearers.
Ron Marz’s script is really layered and complex. To me, it presents a refreshing look at a world of superheroes of a different variety than what I’m used to. Each of the artifact bearers that we meet in Volume 1 are interesting and nuanced in their own ways with some incredibly rich backstories that I’d love to explore in individual titles. The pacing is relentless, the action bloody, and at any given time you are just too engrossed to care about anything else. Marz hooks in the reader real good. My favourite characters would definitely be Sara, Aphrodite and Jackie Estacado, who is the current bearer of The Darkness.
Artifacts Volume 1 is the most gorgeous book I’ve read this year, hands down. No other comic book compares to it, other than possibly Kill Shakespeare. Stjepan Sejic, Michael Broussard and Chris Johnson’s pencils are just incredibly. I’ve rarely seen such expressive faces in comics, and that’s saying something, given how amazing Greg Capullo’s work is, for example. All the inkers and colourists and letterers who’ve worked on this collection also deserve some serious recognition for their efforts in the book. The… inky style (best as I can describe it!) to all the story panels is an approach that I loved, very different from the mainstream comics, or rather the stuff being put out by the Big Two.
All in all, Artifacts Volume 1 is a fantatic book, and given that I’ve read the next three TPBs as well, I can highly recommend the series.
Shadowhawk reviews the latest anthology from Fox Spirit Books, which combines Nuns and Dragons in some really delightful stories by authors new and old alike.
“This anthology is all about some of the most creative interpretations of the subject matter, so be prepared to be entertained.”~The Founding Fields
Something that’s hammered home at me this year is how invaluable anthologies are, whether published by small press, medium press, or large press. I’ve read reviews of several such anthologies by my friends in the reviewing blog-space, have written a few of my own as well, and this fact has just stuck with me. The different styles, the different approach to the subject, just the whole varying forms of creativity involved is mind-boggling at the best of times. And this is something that has continued with Fox Spirit’s latest anthology, Tales of the Nun & Dragon, which is an anthology of stories that feature Nuns and Dragons aplenty, but not always as you might expect or even both in the same story. It all makes for a really nice change of pace. When I heard about this through Sarah Cawkwell, a friend who has been previously published by Black Library and marks her first non tie-in published fiction with this anthology, I was quite excited. The idea behind it appealed to me and at the first chance I got, I contacted Fox Spirit, requesting a review copy. The review has been massively delayed unfortunately, since I read the anthology in the middle of September but couldn’t get around to it till now, even though the review was supposed to go up by the end of September. So here it is.
Sarah Cawkwell’s The Ballad of Gilrain is the lead-in story for the anthology. This tale focuses on a young adventurer named Gilrain who is setting out on his first ever monster hunt, accompanied by his faithful companion Therin. What Sarah succeeds in getting right here is Gilrain’s sense of foreboding and his reluctance to go through the hunt, given he has no prior experience. His back-and-forth with Therin livens up the story and the atmosphere of anticipation and reluctant heroism that the author builds up both make this one of the best stories in the anthology by far. A definite great way to kick things off. There is also an accompanying ballad-form of Gilrain’s adventure, which is even more awesome than the short story itself. Reading it, you really get into the mood for an epic-fantasy type grand old dragon hunt where the hero succeeds in his mission and becomes a legend. Oh, and the twist towards the end? You are so going to be bowled over by it! Sarah Cawkwell should definitely write more original fiction. She has a devious author imagination that I really like.
Then we have Mhairi Simpson’s Fire Exit, which is perhaps the cutest story in this anthology, certainly nothing I hold against it! This one features baby dragons and a young girl working in her parents’ inn. The baby dragons, god, the baby dragons. Just the images that Mhairi conjures up with her writing are so breath-taking. Imagine an inn’s main hall full of baby dragons breathing their baby dragon fire and flying around, being cheeky little troublemakers. Sounds like a great idea for a cartoon show to me, one that I’d definitely watch myself. This is Mhairi’s first published fiction and all I could think of after finishing this story was that I want to read more from her.
Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Saint George and Saint Giles is next, and is another firm favourite of mine. Seeking to bring a successful end to a family quest, Sir Adolphus arrives at the convent of the Sisters of Saint Giles pursuing a dragon and looking for information on the beast’s lair. All is not as it seems however for the Sisters have been keeping a secret for a long, long time and Adolphus’ arrival just might upset a fine balance. This is a really short story, only 4 pages long, so its more like flash fiction but in terms of its effect it is no different. Adolphus rigid insistence, Mother Josephina’s stern disapproval, it all made for a really enjoyable story. Reading this story, I’m now quite tempted to try out Adrian’s other work, although that is all of a very different style and scope than this story. Shall see.(less)
Shadowhawk reviews the first year of the brand-new Aquaman reboot, penned by Geoff Johns of Green Lantern fame.
“Geoff Johns’ Aquaman series is exactly what I want in a comic book: tons of action, super-cool characters, and oodles of ancient mysteries.” ~The Founding Fields
DC’s New 52 reboot of its entire line-up has been a really mixed bag so far. Some titles like George Perez & Dan Jurgens’ Superman and Tony S. Daniel’s The Savage Hawkman have been pretty bad, while Scott Snyder’s Batman and James Robinson’s Earth 2 have been just great with Brian Azzarello’s Wonder Woman has just fizzled out and I’m really dicey about picking up more issues. Joining Snyder and Robinson as the best performers of the relaunch is Geoff Johns with his Aquaman run, which is far better overall than his Justice League run (reviewed here and here by me). The problem with Justice League was mainly in the second arc as Johns attempted to tie together a lot of different stuff and the execution fell flat for me. Not so with Aquaman which has been a grand experience for me, especially as someone new to the character outside of a few animated cartoons.
The first arc of the new series follows Aquaman as he struggles to make a life for himself in Amnesty Bay alongside his wife/fiancee/lover Mera, who is also of Atlantean noble birth. Things are pretty difficult however because the locals have a really deprecating view of him as a superhero and stereotyping of his nature and history is very common. He is nothing more than an oddity to the people he has sworn to protect, compared to most of his peers of the Justice League who are held in high regard and are given more respect than he ever is. And in the midst of all this are strange piranha-humanoids who’ve been causing havoc along the Amnesty Bay shoreline, killing and kidnapping people at will. Local authorities reluctantly accept the Atlantean duo’s help in finding out the truth of things, and from there its all adventure and action in the depths of the ocean.
With the first six issues, Johns does a great job of inviting the reader into the world of Aquaman. There is little backstory involved, which serves to ground the reader and the character both in the here and now, focusing on the script itself rather than any tangents. Sure, there are ample references to events that have come before this, more so since Aquaman is living in Amnesty Bay as a “distant” King of Atlantis and seems to shun his birthright. I would have preferred more dramatic antagonists than the carnivorous piranha-humanoids but in retrospect I think that was the perfect approach to take. New 52 is all about relaunching the characters and Johns takes that objective to heart with this series. Speaking as someone new to the Aquaman-verse, I didn’t need to know a whole lot about him other than he is Aquaman, the rightful ruler of Atlantis and that he doesn’t live there. Bam. Character introduction done, first phase of basic training over. Unlike his Green Lantern series, where he jumped straight into what appears to be a carry-over from a previous story (and hence, a LOT of backstory is implied), or with Justice League, which is the team’s origin story, Aquaman takes the middle-ground and goes easy on the reader. The first issue is really memorable for that, as it quickly debunks some of the myths the locals have about him and also shows us what his motivations are.
Its not apparent from the get go, but there is a lot of nuance and depth to the characters of both Aquaman/Arthur Curry and Mera. They are both trying to make a new life for themselves and while the going isn’t easy by any means, they are quiet content with each other’s company. Aquaman is very much like Superman in that he is always there to do the right thing, even if no one wants his help. Its just what he does. Mera forms a great team alongside him and while the focus is almost always on her lover, she does get to shine, as happens in #6 when a grocery store manager misbehaves with her, leading to a lot of confusion with the police, and ends with her saving a girl’s life. Both of them are trying to bury a lot of grief from their past and Johns exposes it all bit by bit, never giving the reader too much to handle.(less)
Shadowhawk reviews the sequel to Chris F. Holm’s stellar debut about angels and demons and the soul-gatherers known only as the Collectors.
“The Wrong Goodbye is an unrestrained joyride that will leave you breathless by the time you are done.“ ~The Founding Fields
Having a lot of books to read is a part and parcel of life for any reviewer, irrespective of what genre they cover. There’s always another book, another audio drama, another comic, etc that you just have to read but can’t because them’s the breaks and you can only really read so much. I’ve been buried under an avalanche of books myself for the last few months, print and digital, no thanks in small measure to NetGalley (its good for you, and its bad for you!). Which is why I was so late in getting around to The Wrong Goodbye, reading it earlier this month. I had planned on reading it earlier but was unable because of the aforementioned reason. I’m glad I waited though, because reading the book set a good standard for all the books that I have and will be reading this month. Beginning the month on a high with a book like this is always a good thing.
When I reviewed Dead Harvest earlier this year, I was all praise for Chris. Dead Harvest was a debut novel that felt like it came from the hand of an experienced and long-established author. The characters were just right, the dialogue was just right, the pacing was just right, and so on, apart from a small few little things here and there. Going into The Wrong Goodbye I had all that in mind as I kept wondering whether or not Chris’ second book would impress me as much as his first, whether it would suffer from the middle-book syndrome that so many books do.
I’ll tell you right now: The Wrong Goodbye is nothing like that. I’d thought before that it would be pretty tough to top a novel like Dead Harvest but Chris has proved me wrong, and done it with fantastic style to boot.
This time around, the story isn’t noir-crime-pulp with a healthy dose of christian mythology thrown in. It is more carefree, and it deals heavily with urban fantasy elements. To be honest, I was very much expecting the former but over the course of the novel, I found that the shift in focus did work for me, just as much as the former had. It is still pulpy to a degree but we aren’t solving murders anytime soon, rather, we are on the hunt for those who have stolen a soul that Sam Thornton, our protagonist, was sent to collect. So there aren’t any big police car chases or detective-type stuff going on. Its all a big cross-country chase to put off the end of the world and make sure that Hell’s dues are duly accounted for.
Sam Thornton is just as great as ever. He still makes wise-cracks, can go from relaxed to angry in two seconds flat, can still be scared out of his wits in one, and is still the guy you want to root for. A typical good guy in atypical circumstances, circumstances involving black magic, soul-stealing, carjacking, extra-dimensional entities, and drugs. I remarked in my Dead Harvest review that Chris puts Sam through a pretty brutal meat-grinder of a plot, squeezing out every bit of awesomeness from his character. In The Wrong Goodbye he gives Sam a bit of a breather, although the tensions are no less for him. If he wasn’t already dead, Sam Thornton would keep bursting blood vessels due to multiple aneurisms. So I’m glad he’s already dead, in a weird morbidly-fascinating kind of way. If you are expecting the same Sam Thornton from the first book, then you get him. If you are expecting a more worldly and experienced Sam Thornton, you get him too. Be assured that there is plenty of growth for the character in this novel and that you won’t be disappointed in him.
If you are…. well… you can just blame the goddamn demons then.
Speaking of demons, they took more of a centerstage in this novel than the previous one. Dumas, the demon who brought Sam into Hell’s service, appears for the first time and his entry and the rest of his scenes are really memorable. I don’t want to give away too much about him, but his character and personality are par with Sam’s own. Leastwise in the wise-cracking attitude department, they could both be brothers and once you see Dumas do his own thing, its no surprise that it is he who brought Sam into the fold. Sam may hate his guts but they are both a natural fit for each other.
Then there’s Lilith as well, Sam’s handler. The woman who got exiled from Eden and become a demon, high on the sensuality scale. We see a bit more of her in The Wrong Goodbye than we did in Dead Harvest, and its nice to see a slightly different portrayal of her this time around. The fallout from Sam’s actions in the previous novel have had serious repercussions among both the angels and demons, and she looks out for him, in essence. Mostly out of self-preservation but there are hints of something more. Maybe Lilith has grown fond of Sam, to a degree. Thumbs up to one of the most fun characters in the book.(less)
“The biggest surprise reading from last month, this second arc was plain disappointing.”
The second arc for Geoff Johns’s Justice League series highlights one of the major issues with DC’s New 52 reboot: some of these titles are just plain boring and uninspiring and really, really bland. I had that with the first three issues of The Flash, the first four issues of The Savage Hawkman, and all of the Superman main-title run. Or even Wonder Woman for that matter, which is a more apt comparison with Justice League. As with Azzarello, Geoff Johns started out really, really well with his first arc, but in the second arc, he seems to have lost his vision for this series and the script does nothing more than just fumble along.
The problem with the second arc is that Johns is trying to do too much at the same time and he can’t give any of them proper attention to deliver a concise, unified script. We have Green Arrow who is infuriatingly desperate about becoming part of the Justice League, some shadowy government stuff going on which continues a trend in superhero universes where the government doesn’t trust them and goes behind their back, plus a new villain who is more suited to a saturday/sunday morning cartoon than a major comic title like Justice League. The whole execution here was flawed, surprising since on the whole I hold Johns to be a really talented writer who can usually deliver a cracking reading experience, the New 52 Aquaman series being a perfect example. The second volume of this series is a big letdown in terms of the script, plain and simple. Had the script focused on one or two key elements rather than what we get, most of it being really childish, it would have been much better. The only thing that Johns got right in my opinion is the scene sequence in #12 where Superman and Wonder Woman hook up for the first time. There is a nuance to those panels that is missing in the rest of the 6-issue arc.
While the internal artwork (pencils, colours etc) is still as good as it is for the first arc, the covers are another letdown. The word “mediocre” comes to mind and that’s all the praise I can give the covers really. As with the script, the only cover I like is #12 featuring Superman and Wonder Woman making out in the air. The cover for #7 has something to it too but is not the best that Jim Lee has done for the series so far, no where near the best.
The good thing about the second arc is that it ends on a very promising note. There is a backup story to all six issues, dealing with Billy Batson as he is adopted by a new family and has to work at fitting in with them. I liked the backups more than the main stories as it turns out. I know next to nothing about Billy/Shazam other than seeing him in Superman/Batman: Public Enemies and a minor role in an old comic which had Darkseid’s agents stirring up trouble on Earth and using Billy Batson and an engineered death of one of his opponents to turn public sentiment against all superheroes. So its nice to see his origins. Definitely want to see more of him in future issues.
Samurai are a topic that I find quite fascinating. James Clavell’s Shogun, the tale of an Englishman in Japan at the time of the Portugese/Spanish influence on the island nation, is the novel that sparked my interest. Their sense of honour, their utter and calm lethality, their mysteries, their culture: everything. This fascination extends to the rest of Japanese culture and I’m always up for a variety of anime that showcase it, in all their myriad ways.
Ian Edginton’s script for the comic adaptation of Fumi Nakamura’s Ura-Enma has continued that love for me. It is a story that meshes samurai with oni, Japanese demons, and is a tale set in roughly the Gunpowder era. There is honour, betrayal, treachery, love, and romance, along with a certain bit of horror to the proceedings.
As a whole, the 4-issue series is slightly lacking in places, as it compresses a much larger work into the limited real estate of a comic. That being said, I found The Immortal to be a great read that held my interest from start to finish. Never once was I bored with it, and I was rather sad that it had ended.
The graphic novel begins on a shaky note as we are quickly introduced to the protagonist, Amane Ichinose, as he lies dying after being found guilty of betraying the Shinsegumi Samurai. It’s shaky in that, while the beginning itself is not abrupt, we rush through the panels to get to the really good bits as Amane is given a new lease on life, thanks to an oni-tattoo on his dominant hand – a tattoo that indicates he shares his body with a demon, whose power he can call on as he wishes. The hero comes to grips with his new situation fairly quickly and what follow are his adventures as an oni-tattooist seeking the man who killed his sister.
This is a really great story, one that holds your attention throughout. Edginton’s script hits all the notes that I expected out of the story, and also offers some great twists. Amane, despite the shaky start, is a character that I grew to like and understand, although the comic doesn’t spend enough time on his personal thoughts about the murderer he has been hunting for close to two decades. The character evolves over the four issues, in a way that, while not deep, is... different. Not something that is easy to put into words. He is the hero of the story throughout, but he is also much more. Imagine that the hero is fused with the wise, Old Teacher character, and you wouldn’t be too far off. Amane Ichinose had that vibe.
There are other characters, of course, but only one of them is prominent in the sense that she is in multiple issues: Amane’s adopted sister Natsu, the daughter of one of the Shinsegumi samurai that he betrayed almost twenty years ago. Her character gives the impression of depth, but it’s not something that I felt was captured well in the script, as she isn’t explored as well or as much as Amane, even though she is just as crucial to story in the second half. If Edginton had the benefit of two more issues, this could no doubt have been addressed.
The villain of the story is someone who doesn’t make an appearance until much later and that robs him of a little bit of the intimidating effect he would have had otherwise. As with Natsu, I thought he wasn’t being done justice, but I still liked how he turns out. Not a typical villain by any measure, which makes the story that much fresher than anything else in the same genre.(less)
Shadowhawk reviews Helen Lowe's debut novel that won her the David Gemmell Morningstar award this year, Heir of Night, the first in the Wall of Night...moreShadowhawk reviews Helen Lowe's debut novel that won her the David Gemmell Morningstar award this year, Heir of Night, the first in the Wall of Night series by Orbit Books.
"A fantasy novel written as a grand mythology epic, Heir of Night hits all the right buttons and is another must-read of the (last) year." ~The Founding Fields
Read lots of different stuff this year, I thought back in January. Step out of my comfort zone, I thought. Honestly, nothing could have prepared me for Helen Lowe's debut novel from last year, Heir of Night. What usually sets fantasy novels apart from one another is usually the setting or the type of characters being talked about or how gritty or soft or adult or simplistic they are. Rarely does an author focuses on how to tell that story itself, by which I don't mean the choice of tense or flashbacks or anything like that. I mean the style of the narrative, the mood it creates, if that makes sense. What Helen does with her novel is something entirely different from any other fantasy novels I've ever read, except for those by a particular author: Tolkien.
And if that's not a clue enough, then, simply put, Helen doesn't just tell the story of a young girl on the run from the forces of darkness that want to utterly annihilate her people and her struggles to deny that future, she tells the saga of the same, an epic. She evokes the wonder of Tolkien's style and the mood of his most popular works and yet stamps her ownership and influence all over the novel. To use one of my oft-used phrases, she writes an epic fantasy story in a truly epic way. I could easily have been reading a Norse saga or a Greek myth.
That's what defines Heir of Night for me and what sets it apart from all its contemporaries and its peers.
The first in the Wall of Night series, Helen's debut is about a young noble girl Malian who is forced to confront one harsh truth after another about her race's arrival on the world of Haarth and the terrible enemy the Derai have brought with themselves. It's a coming-of-age story, of innocence slowly forgotten in the face of reality and a toughening-up of character to become the leader the Derai need and yet do not know of it. The protagonist is neither a thief nor an assassin, a long-suffering noble or a disillusioned common man. The protagonist and her supporting cast are neither superfluous nor stupid, they are all logical and realistic beings, if often susceptible to their emotions. First and foremost that is why I liked Heir of Night.
As the novel is not in first person limited to the POV of the protagonist, we see the world of Haarth, the Derai and the various native races in detail. Haarth is not a place where I'd want to live by any means but all the same, it is a world where I'd love to go at least once! The flight of the Derai from their homeworld to Haarth eons ago, their settling on their new world, their interactions with the natives, the Derai culture, their history, it all makes Helen's world complex yet simple in a genre that is increasingly being burdened with too much of the former and not enough of the latter. The author has found the right mix of these and has stayed consistent all the way to the end.
As the Derai culture and society is the one we see most off, I can say that the Derai were richly portrayed and come across as multi-faceted and realistic in and of themselves, rather than being caricatures of any "real-world" culture or society. They are certainly original, but they are also something much more. Their formalities, their titles, their codes of conduct, their histories, it is almost as if Heir of Night is not just a fantasy novel kicking off a series, but also a deep and insightful study into that very culture.
My appetite has really been whetted for the sequel, Gathering of the Lost.
You can find the full review at The Founding Fields:
Shadowhawk reviews the first volume of the Shadowplague arc for IDW’s Dungeons & Dragons series, collecting the first six chapters of the story of Adric Fell and his band of adventurers.
“One of the most gorgeous graphic novels with a rock-solid storyline that gives you a definitive alternative gaming experience.” ~The Founding Fields
I’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons, it just wasn’t ever popular in India when I was growing up, and the same in Dubai. Even in college, I never bothered to get into it, mostly due to a lack of knowledge about the whole affair. I have tried my hand at some RPGs though, mostly the Deathwatch series by Fantasy Flight Games. And I have watched bits and pieces of the old Dungeons & Dragons animated TV show that used to be aired ages back. Regardless, I’m a complete green rookie when it comes to D&D, so when I sawShadowplague, a quick flip through of the book was enough to get me interested. Besides, who doesn’t love a good graphic novel, especially when it’s D&D inspired, and when the reader is a fan of the D&D-inspired Dragonlance setting.
Shadowplague is one of those few graphic novels that I’ve approached with really high expectations. If you take a look at my reading list for the year so far, you’ll see that I’ve been reading widely when it comes to comics, and have read some really spectacular issues/collections. John Rogers and Andrea Di Vito had a lot to live up to in that regard. I wanted to be utterly mesmerised and hooked until the end.
That’s what Shadowplague does, and does it so well that by the end, I was wishing the story hadn’t ended.
In any story, regardless of medium or style, the characters are the most important element first and foremost. In my experience, as well as personally, readers forgive an imperfect world but not imperfect characters. The characters should be realistic and not caricatures, the reader should be able to connect with them and feel that he or she is right there with them. John Rogers’ characters achieve that in Shadowplague because they are an everyday representation of RPG gaming groups all over the world. They are serious when needs be, and they are humorous in equal measure when the situation calls for it. Or even when it doesn’t to break the tension that is prevalent through the script. With respect to the plot itself, and to the setting, the characters are gold because at no time did I feel that I was just watching a play of dice and stock characters performing actions. The characters live and breather.
Invariably, I found three characters to be the most… alluring: the Dwarf paladin Khal who is always huffing and puffing and grumpy, Adric Fell who is the “warrior” of the group and is usually the most level-headed one of his companions, and the tiefling warlock Tisha who is the most mysterious of the group, in my opinion. Varis, as the Elf ranger, and Bree, the halfling thief, were interesting characters sure, but I was drawn to the other three much more. This is a group that, especially once Tisha joins, really knows how to work well with each other. They talk back at each other and they tease. The group dynamics are portrayed really well, and that’s where John Rogers really excels.
The script itself is intriguing. It involves dragons, a zombie-ish plague, shapeshifters, black sorcerers, and dimensional warfare. Plus the fact that for some of the characters, their past comes back to either haunt them or goad them into annoyance. The way each “chapter” installment progresses on from the previous ones, and the entire collection in general, it really gives you a feel that you are watching a grand adventure unfold. It is a personal experience, the way it is all written, rather than the somewhat detached feeling you’d generally get reading collections such as these.
And as such, the pacing is always spot-on. The highs and lows are all in the right places and the script never loses focus or sight of its goal. Not an easy thing to do across six chapters! Each installment ends at pretty much a perfect cliffhanger that makes you want to keep reading and find out what’s going to happen to these characters in the next few pages. The story just…. flows and you flow along with it because it is that immersive an experience.(less)
Shadowhawk reviews the first novel in the popular Eli Monpress series by author Rachel Aaron, published by Orbit Books.
“Extremely entertaining with large doses of humour, Spirit Thief is one of the most fun reads of the year.“ ~The Founding Fields
While I do like my fantasy novels to often be serious, dark, gritty and somewhat nuanced to an extreme, I do also love the simple approach every now and then. By which I mean that I love to read fantasy that has an easy narrative, moves along at a steady, easy clip, and entertains me in the same way that a good comedy movie does. Rachel Aaron’s Spirit Thief hits all those right notes and then some. I first met her through NaNoWriMo last year and her blogposts on writing since then (and older ones) have been very helpful to me with regards to my own writing and I’d wanted to get around to reading her novels soon as I could. Juggling my reading around to fit them in was a bit of a tricky proposition, although I finally managed it this month.
The first thing that struck me about her writing and her world was how similar it is to Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations novels. Both authors have an approach to their writing that doesn’t dazzle the reader with fancy stuff or throws too much at them to show off a complex, and often twisted, world. They ease the reader into their world, gently introducing them to the characters and the events. Not to mention that their characters are some of the most fun characters to read about ever, because of their quips and mannerisms, and their straightforward approach to their lives.
After reading Spirit Thief, Eli Monpress is definitely one of my favourite male protagonists ever, and the same for Miranda Lyonette, who is Eli’s rival and nemesis rolled into one, of sorts. Their at-odds relationship is very much like that of Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks from the 2002 hit Catch Me If You Can. Eli is a cheeky thief who can charm his way out of almost any situation, while Miranda is the (slightly) frustrated but determined mage who is tasked with bringing him in, on the orders of the Spirit Court itself. There is a great, fun camaraderie between the two, enhanced by the company that these two keep. With Eli, it’s the mystery swordsman Josef and a girl named Nico who has a rather mysterious past that makes her very dangerous to everyone around her. With Miranda, it’s her spirit-companion ghosthound, Gin, and her other spirits that she has convinced to ally with her, such as Durn, a stone spirit.
Which brings me to one of the things that I really enjoyed about the novel: the magic. We don’t have wizards throwing spells around at each other here, or shamans using the power of the elements against others. Not quite. The way the magic in this world works is that each and every thing, whether it is a ghosthound or a door, the wind or the sand, they all have spirits, even humans. Most people can only distantly “hear” and “feel” these spirits, but there are some, such as the wizards of the Spirit Court, who can call on these spirits to do their work. And it’s not a case of seizing the power of these spirits, but convincing them to ally with the wizard in question, to form a somewhat symbiotic relationship based on truth, honesty and friendship. This was a really fun thing to read about. It appears to be a rather idealistic concept but Rachel pulls it off with flair, showing us how the deliberate misuse of such power can lead to the spirit-human relationship being horribly imbalanced, as well as cavalier use of it, no matter if it’s well-intentioned or not. Certainly some important lessons here.
Like I said, the characters are the shining part of the novel for me. Whether it is Eli charming a depressed prison door into letting him escape, or Miranda calling on the power of her spirit-companions to help her against the enemy, it all makes for a profoundly character-drive narrative. Both Eli and Miranda, as well as their companions (whether spirit or not) are portrayed as intelligent and resourceful, able to think on their feet and surprise you with their brilliance. After all, how many thieves do you know of who actually want to increase the bounties on their heads? Eli Monpress is crazy. But that’s why I like him. Miranda’s oftern stern and stubborn attitude against what he does, such as giving all spirit-wizards a bad name with his thieving and such, contrasts well and whenever these two verbally clashed, it was like watching two old friends and enemies talking, comfortable in their views. Or something like that.
You can find the full review over at The Founding Fields: