10/13/2011 week in reviews

Zatanna's post-Flashpoint costume. Art by Mich...
*Sigh* – I never really promised timely, did I?

Abe Sapien: The Devil Does Not Jest (3/5)
#1 of 2
title – “The Devil Does Not Jest”
writer – Mike Mignola and John Arcudi
artist – James Harren
colorist – Dave Stewart
assistant editor – Daniel Chabon
editor – Scott Allie

Mignola writes a reliable horror/mystery story, and I never get tired of it. Arcudi seems to be of the same cloth, but this is the first of his work (in any shape) that I’ve read. From the first page we know Abe’s going to get into some trouble, so from there it’s only a matter of waiting for the mystery to go pear-shaped, and finding out how Abe gets himself (or doesn’t) out of it. We get the first part here – Abe looks into the disappearance of a favored researcher, a cold case 50 years old, when the researcher’s grandson contacts the bureau.

The set up and Abe’s narrative position are more traditionally Lovecraft, with this being unofficial business and Abe being a fan of the missing researcher’s work. Granted, Abe has a lot more agency and is better armed than a lot of Lovecraft’s protagonists, but we know from Hellboy that this isn’t always a good thing.

Teen Titans #1 (3/5)
title – “Teen Spirit”
writer – Scott Lobdell
penciller – Brett Booth
inker – Norm Rapmund
colorist – Andrew Dalhouse
assistant editor – Katie Kubert
editor – Bobbie Chase

Nice character intro to Kid Flash – enthusiastic and thoughtless, but his heart’s in the right place (kinda). The same detail given to the introduction of Red Robin – broad strokes of his basic character type (Bat-ish, slightly creepy, and technologically advanced). I like the implication of larger geo-political consequences to a lot of teenagers ending up with super-powers, and clandestine operations are always a huge draw. I hope N.O.W.H.E.R.E. ends up being a more interesting antagonist than their name.

While I was never an X-Man fan, per say, the possibilities of that tension between human authority and superhuman action that soaked that book are attractive on a deep level. I’m happy to get some of that here in the DCU. It’s nice to see a teenage superhero team come together in response to a threat to themselves, not as a bored extension of their mentors’ alliances.

Birds of Prey#1 (2/5)
title – “Let Us Prey”
writer – Duane Swierczynski
artist – Jesus Saiz
colorist – Nei Ruffino
editor – Janelle Asselin

I was a Birds of Prey fan before – so trying to figure out what was different this time around was really distracting. I think a new reader might actually have an easier time getting into the story – which is a first for the New 52 books I’ve read so far. There’s a lot of situational-exposition and explanatory flashbacks that serve to introduce the Birds, but not a lot of what you might call “plot” yet. Still, the intros are a lot of fun.

From what I gather, the Birds are a group of women on the wrong side of the law, even further than the basic fact that they’re vigilantes. The book opens with them confronting a bunch of bad buys in silver suits (I didn’t realize that the bad guys were supposed to be invisible until the second reading. That makes a lot of the action much more sensical than it was on the first reading). The bad guys have gotten a journalist to follow the Birds as a sort of reconnaissance agent doubling as bait.

The last pages indicate that the Birds are being used as delivery device and scape-goat organization for something much bigger, so the story set-up works really well for making us care that the Birds in turn are being set up.

Superman #1 (2/5)
title – “What Price Tomorrow?”
writer – George Perez
artist – Jesus Merino
colorist – Bruce Buccellato
associate editor – Wil Moss
editor – Matt Idelson

This is more like the animated Superman, in terms of the type of story being told. We’re back into news, and trying to figure out what came before, as the Daily Planet becomes part of a Murdoch-style news conglomerate. Lois Lane is awesome, proving that her skills translate from getting the story to producing a news broadcast. I miss being able to ignore the weirdness caused by her not knowing Clark’s secret identity, and them constantly butting heads because they both have strong opinions, and he can’t tell her the full truth of the situation. They were a good team when they were married, and I’m not looking forward to the situational hijinks that are surely coming up.

Justice League Dark #1 (3/5)
title – “in the dark part one: Imaginary Women”
writer – Peter Milligan
artist – Mikel Janin
colorist – Ulises Arreola
editors – Rex Ogle & Eddie Berganza

Based entirely on premise, I was looking forward to this title.  Some of that was curiosity as to whether the things I really like about horror comics (HellboyMadam XanaduHellblazer, etc) could be fused with the main DCU.

I think I’m getting what I wanted? A book full of broken people, doing broken things, because the world can’t afford to lose the real heroes?  Madam Xanadu does drugs to bring herself peace from precognition, Shade (someone I’ve never read before) disintegrates the girlfriend he made with magic when she wants to leave him (or she disintegrates because the magic can’t hold her together if she leaves?), John Constantine is a con man, and Zatanna gets advice from Batman, then decides to sacrifice herself in the battle rather than take him with her, because he’s too important.  The danger? A mad-woman with incredible magical powers.  The majority of the book is introducing us to those characters, and the weirdness of the world.

Enchantress is turning the world weird (“The local power station threatens to explode when it is imbued with consciousness…. and gets bored”), a trio of heroes (Superman, Wonder Woman, and Cyborg) move to restrain her, and have their assess handed to them. Batman is working on Plan B with Zatanna when she decides to do things her way.

It’s even odds whether this is going to be interesting or a slap in the face.


Buffy, Season 9 and Madame Xanadu

Buffy appears in literature such as the Buffy ...

Image via Wikipedia

I haven’t written about comics in ages, but am considering this the first tentative steps back into that world.  Comics are a high-maintenance medium to be involved with.


Buffy: Season 9 – #1 (3/5)

I am reminded of the beginning of Season 8, before it went off the rails (see: Twilight arc climax, pun intended), which makes me glad that the book has returned to those sorts of stories, while I am simultaneously eyeing the rest of the “season” with trepidation.
There’s a lot of the humor, silliness, and angst that I liked so much in the tv series, and the sense of life passing Buffy by, because she has one purpose in a lot of ways, and trying to be something other than she is doesn’t tend to end well, but I always root for her when she does try.
Madam Xanadu #29 – Final Issue (4/5)
A good closing bookend to the series, bringing explanation and closure to the threads, while leaving room for the stories of Madam Xanadu that have already been written (in the Silver Age, I believe).  I like the team of Wagner and Reeder best – it was a signing with Reeder that caused me to pick up the series in the first place.  The art here is gorgeous, and her sense of age and wistfulness comes through clearly.
– I re-read it in anticipation of Justice League: Dark #1, which is among the most interesting premises coming out of the reboot (to me)

Blackveil – Kristen Britain

Oh, Kristen Britain. I’m trying very hard not to be one of those readers, but you’re making it very difficult.

Blackveil is the fourth installment in Britain’s Green Rider series, and I find that I still miss the tight storytelling of the first two books. The pacing is just off in these last two.

The first half of Blackveil is loaded down with supporting, side-plot, and set-up scenes told in great (and lengthy) detail, many of them long scenes that have no bearing on the larger story arc except to get a Plot Device into Karigan’s hands or wallow in the relationship angst that is slowly taking over many character interactions. Then, the second half rushes through the continuation of series-arc storylines in broad strokes, with the Plot Devices fulfilling their roles on cue. Reading through it, one would think that the center of the series storyarc was the Monarchy and Succession of Sacoridia, and that the fight with a power-hungry Mornhaven wanting to conquer all that is good and just in the world was the side-plot.

Karigan G’ladheon has become something of a destined heroine while we weren’t looking. Instead of being centrally involved because of chance and her own characteristics (gumption, impatience, a strong sense of duty, a clear understanding of right and wrong), she has become a Chosen One.  That sound you just heard? That was my heart breaking a little.

What little resolution there was to the series arc was unsatisfying and handled in a great hurry with little detail at the end of the book. There are a lot of threads that are still stretching off into the future, and more just keep getting added.  In High King’s Tomb we were introduced to Amberhill, a Zorro look-alike who becomes entangled in Kerigan’s story through plot machinations (robbing a museum that she’s attending on a date, getting co-involved in a dashing rescue, his interest is piqued). Now, we get mentions of beings called the Sea Kings, which are tied to Amberhill’s future and somehow we must care about this while there’s an expedition to the Blackveil Forest being planned. And his “tune in next time” chapter is one of three that actually takes the place of the climactic battle of the book. The battle-winning explosion ending Kerigan’s face-off with The Enemy (un-named to avoid spoilers) actually happens off screen. “Frustrated” does not even begin to cover my feelings on the decrease in narrative through-line between Green Rider and Blackveil.

And Blackveil does end in an explicit cliff-hanger, though I feel as if High King’s Tomb ended on an in-explicit cliff-hanger, so this doesn’t actually strike me as a change in behavior for the series.

The High King’s Tomb – Kristen Britain

Cover of "The High King's Tomb (Green Rid...

Cover via Amazon

In July, I read The High King’s Tomb, the third installment in Kristen Britain’s Green Rider series. Way back when the second book came out (First Rider’s Call), I somehow got the impression that Green Rider was going to be a trilogy. It may have been the obviousness of the Tolkien homage, it may have been wishful thinking, given the time between books appearing. Whatever it was, it caused severe frustration when I was 2/3 of the way through High King’s Tomb and it became clear that absolutely nothing in the series arc was going to be resolved. Only the specific-to-this-installment plot threads were resolved (sort of).

Of the things left un-resolved in First Rider’s Call, there was the D’Yer wall, Kerigan’s feelings for the King, Second Empire’s plans, and when Mornhaven would return. I’m going to be evil, and issue a set of spoilers here: By the last page of High King’s Tomb the D’Yer wall is still breached, with only hope of knowing how to fix it, Kerigan still loves the King and he’s still marrying someone else while plotting how he can get Kerigan too, Second Empire’s plans are to break the wall… which is what their plan was in book 2, and we still don’t know when Mornhaven is coming back.

What does get resolved are Lady Estoria’s feelings about her impending marriage, the increase in Green Rider ranks, the next step in Kerigan’s unique destiny (treated as a thready side-plot), and the character development of a poor-man’s Zorro wanna-be, whom I hope we never hear from again.

There is something of narrative discipline missing from this third installment. While using a similarly-sized cast of POV characters to First Rider’s Call, there is no real narrative momentum holding them together. Multiple scenes all do the same narrative work, rather than each scene advancing that narrative (either plot-wise, world-wise, or character-wise). The plot seems to hang from the character of Grandmother, rather than Kerigan, which I believe to be a great loss of story-telling potential. Especially given the climax of this book.

This review is a republishing (new blog domain).  It was originally published in July 2010.

First Rider’s Call – Kristen Britain

First Rider's Call

Image via Wikipedia

First Rider’s Call
Kristen Britain
Sequel to Green Rider

It was worth the (years long) wait between the first and this. And so good that Beloved got me the two in hardback so that I’ll have a fall-back position when I destroy the paperbacks with re-reading.

There are more characters who get sections in their POV than in the first one. King Zachary being one of the few recurring that hadn’t gotten his moment in the first book. The delicate balance of realism and magic is maintained, allowing the instances of “standard fairytale magic” to feel as wrong and the sign of a world out of whack as the plot demands they do.

Kerigan still acts her age, which is rare for strong female characters when it isn’t being played for laughs. And everyone reacts as people would, rather than living up to their character-type cliche. It was refreshing, and a relief to know that the trend continued from one book to the next.

The only complaint is that this is obviously a middle book, so things are resolved in a necessarily temporary way. It makes waiting for the next installment difficult.

This review is a republishing (new blog domain). It was originally published in April 2005

Green Rider – Kristen Britain

Cover of "Green Rider (Green Rider Trilog...

Cover via Amazon

Green Rider
by Kristen Britain

Karigan G’ladheon finds herself caught up in Kingdom-wide events when she crosses paths with a dying man on the run. He is a Green Rider – of the King’s Messenger Service, and his mission is to get a message warning of danger to the King. Karigan takes up his mission as he instructs her with his last breath, and thus launches herself along a path only legends are made to travel.

Aided by folk who don’t get involved with just any errand, and pursued by enemies who don’t act on whims, Karigan becomes a wild card in a game between highly skilled players. The game board was set before her arrival, the pieces moved as their controllers wished, until she enters and forces everyone’s hands, becoming the deciding factor simply by being where she is, and acting as herself, at any given time.

Author Britain engages in authentic world building here. Each detail is part of a wider picture, and there is the feeling of many details left un-explored, due to the necessities of the plot. This wider world makes the story a joy to follow, even as we learn more with each event.

That said, the world itself will be familiar to Tolkien readers. It’s a riff on the standard mystical version of British/ European feudal Middle Age society found in a lot of Fantasy books, yet a bit more grounded and “earthy” than, say, The Wheel of Time‘s setting. The various populations are not caricatures of societies in our own history, yet familiar as if they had evolved on a tangent branch of the cultural tree of our own historical European cultures. The Green Riders have the flavor of Irish/Celtic culture, as well as Rohan from LOTR, while still being different enough to be something like the younger cousin of those cultures. And the same goes for the other groups represented (though with less delving into their past, due to not occupying center stage).

Britain’s characters are also utterly real. Emotions ring true, and as irrational as emotions should be, as characters perform actions that are true to themselves as well as service the plot. She used the roving third-person limited POV to great advantage, as each character gets a distinct voice, and the reader gets more information essential to the story at the same time as learning the people. Also good with the dramatic tension, as neither reader nor characters have all the information.

The elements of the story are tight, in that there are no stray ruminations or information, no tangents simply to show off some aspect of the world Britain has built. All things presented arise organically from the story rather than the setting. Characters act in character as they’re presented with plot events, which resolve in one way vs another due to the actions of the characters.

Reading the acknowledgments page of a book is usually something I skip. I’m glad I at least gave it a sentence or two this time around. Knowing that Tolkien inspired the author allowed me to see the things this book has in common with Lord of the Rings as a homage instead of derivative. If I had been reading any more shallowly than I was, I may have passed that judgment, but Britain instead weaves familiar elements into something new, and it would have been a shame to miss it.

This story is well crafted, and a balm to clunky storytelling everywhere.

This is a republishing (new blog domain). This review was originally published in February 2005.

He, She, and It – Marge Piercy

Cross-posted from my other blog:

Set in our world many decades after the world was devastated by plague and famine, He, She and It directly concerns the status of a person, as an individual, and as part of a community, and whether people can be the tools and pawns of corporations, of each other, and the moral implications of each status. It touched on the damage the people can do to people, the conflict person against person rather than against government, against god, against nature, or against oneself. The two narrating characters are women, of the same Jewish family, and both are brilliant program designers who work directly with the Net, which functions something like our own, with the added capacity for projection into the virtual world.

I’ve had trouble writing this review. The characters, particularly of Shira and Malkah, are what is important to this narrative; they are the point, the substance, and reason for this story. Yet, anything I say about them seems wrong, because they are full-fleshed characters and any impression that I give could detract from the experience of meeting them for the first time. That would be a dis-service to anyone who decides to pick up the book, for it was a joy to meet every character unawares.

This book is categorized as science fiction, which the trappings of a virtual reality Net and post-apocalyptic setting support, and brings out the spiritual and philosophical deep questions that dealing with a whole new world, and a new way of interaction, should bring out in science fiction. Those questions are the meat of the book, treated textually and as of immediate importance, rather than the more common treatment as subtext or theme. Action and violence are used only in service of the plot. The setting is shown off much more often, and caused me to realize that one of the things that makes sci-fi movies and graphic novels so prominent in their mediums is the ability to take three pages of text description of a place and make two pictures or setting-shots out of it and immediately transport the audience into the strange new world. The book is set apart from “standard” science fiction conventions by the Jewish culture, history, legend, and mysticism that Piercy draws on as the lens through which the narrator, and thus the reader, sees the events of the story. There are parallel stories of a cyborg created illegally in mid-twenty-first century New England, and a bed-time story about a golum created in secret in 1600’s Prague, and the parallel of these two stories showing both the expanding definition of a person, and the ways in which nothing has changed.

I enjoyed the philosophical questions as much as the technology and setting, probably more-so because the answers were very immediately necessary, to how the characters would react, and to the characters themselves. It was a satisfying read, a good literary meal rather than brain-candy.