Saturday, April 28, 2012

Book Review: The Lathe of Heaven

The Lathe of Heaven takes place in what was, at the time of publication in 1971, the near future, but when read now is just about current day, give or take a few years.  Anyway, the story follows George Orr, a pretty regular guy with a totally unique ability; His dreams can alter the shape of reality.  In order to avoid these reality altering dreams George borrows prescription cards from friends and neighbors in order to stock up on sleep depriving drugs.  He's eventually busted and sent to a psychiatrist, Dr. William Haber, who specializes in dream psychology.

Once the two meet up and Dr. Haber learns about George's strange gift, he quickly learns to harness George's ability through hypnosis and a dream augmentation machine.  Before too long, Dr. Haber is manipulating George's dreams for his own purposes.  George must find a way to stop Dr. Haber before the world as they know it is completely altered beyond redemption.

After reading and loving Jo Walton's Among Others I knew I wanted to explore some of the old school science fiction and fantasy works that get mentioned in that novel.  It didn't take me long to realize that The Lathe of Heaven would be something I would enjoy, so I quickly set out to track down a copy and give it a read.

The Lathe of Heaven is one of those unique stories that is a wonderful blend of a little bit of science fiction and a little bit of fantasy. It seems like nowadays we have such clear distinctions between the two genres, but that couldn't be less true here. Le Guin managed to meld the two genres together like an expert metallurgist and create a truly wonderful novel that felt completely unique to me.

Aside from being a story with a plot that completely sucked me in and had me devouring page after page, I was most impressed with the fact that Le Guin was able to pack so much story into a mere 184 pages.  Way more goes on here than in many of the door-stopper sized novels we see on the shelves today, and the characters are a hell of a lot more well developed and interesting as well.  Le Guin's prose was equally impressive, as I got a distinct feel for her voice from the opening lines on page one.

As I mentioned above, the characters in The Lathe of Heaven are impressively written.  George Orr was a fun character to read, as I felt like I could understand him, and I found myself really hoping for things to turn out well for the guy.  Dr. Haber on the other hand is very much the antagonist of the story, but he too was someone I felt a connection with as well.  I felt like I could understand and relate to his motivations even though they weren't always the most ethical.  With primary characters like these two, and secondary characters that stand out as well, this is one of the better character driven stories I've read in recent memory.

The Lathe of Heaven was pretty much the perfect novel to being my excursions into the history of the science fiction/fantasy genres, as this was a great example of a classic that has an incredibly fresh and new feel to it, all while managing to still have the distinct feel of being from another era.  This is an absolutely fantastic book that I loved from beginning to end.  I highly recommend this, as I think it holds appeal to any fan of genre literature, and could be enjoyed by non-genre fanatics as well.  I can only hope all my other "old school" reads are as good as this.

Grade: A

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Music Review: De Vermis Mysteriis

It's been a couple years since my last High on Fire fix, and I've been looking forward to a new release from metal's most powerful power trio since they rocked my socks off with their 2010 release Snakes For The Divine.  So when their latest, De Vermis Mysteriis, hit record stores (yes, I still go to record stores) I went and got myself a copy of their latest album.

The first thing I want to mention here is that the band went and got another different producer for this album, and once again, it shows. This album has a stylistically much different sound from their last two efforts.  I think this is now five different producers for their last five albums.  That seems kinda crazy to me.  I'd like to see the band settle in with a producer and develop their sound.  Instead, I feel like each producer has a different vision of what this band is all about and how they should sound. The result is that each album, (while still being distinctly High On Fire), on a technical level, sounds a lot different from the previous one.

The High on Fire I came to love is one that masterfully blends the heavy and melodic and delivers some crushing riffs and face melting solos.  That musical signature can be found in abundance on their two previous albums, Snake for the Divine and Death is This Communion.  However, it is scarcely seen here on De Vermis Mysteriis.  In place of that is a sound that reminds me of the worst parts of the Thrash sub-genre; loud, fast, frantic, crunchy and lacking cohesion.

That's not to say that this is a bad album, it's not, it's just not nearly as good as their last two efforts.  In the past, High on Fire has been a band that I usually cant listen to loud enough.  No speaker I own has been able to fully do justice to their music.  Call it the decibel test if you want, but whatever it is, De Vermis Mysteriis is not an album I want to crank up and rock out to.  Taken as a whole, the album does not offer up much that really hits my music loving nerves.

There are a couple good tracks here though, Fertile Green being the very best of the bunch, followed by King of Days but other than that, the rest of the album has failed to really impress me.  If you are like me and were hoping to get shredded and beheaded by this one, you will likely be disappointed.  I'm hoping that a few more listens will endear this album to me a bit more, but with a half-dozen listens already under my belt, I'm not so sure that will be the case.

If you are a casual metal fan, or new to High On Fire, De Vermis Mysteriis may not be the one for you.  However, die hard fans of the band, and listeners less picky than myself will find some value in the album, but likely not as much as their past efforts have offered up.

Grade: C-

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Comic Quickies: A Hot Batch of Tasty Comics

Reset #1 of 4: This new title has two good things going for it; one it is written by Peter Bagge, of Buddy Does Seattle fame, and it has a premise similar to that of my #2 book of the year last year, Replay.  With two gold stars sitting proudly on its star chart, it should come as no surprise that I've been looking forward to Reset for quite some time.

So what exactly is the premise? Well, the comic stars a guy named Guy Krause, who's a has-been actor and stand-up comedian.  Krause is at a court-ordered safe driving course, thanks to a road-rage conviction, when he meets Angie Minor, a consultant for a tech firm that has developed a machine that lets you relive your own life.  Angie wants to hire Guy to be the guinea pig and test out this new technology.  Since life seems to have Guy backed up against the ropes, he agrees to this strange proposal.

The first issue lays down a lot of ground work, and explains the machine but still manages to pack in some great story as well.  Guy's first foray into his past begins at his high school graduation where a pretty girl who'd never spoken to him all through high school finally talks to him, and when she does she calls him a "Spaz".  It's pretty funny to see how such a stupid little incident has had a lasting impact on Guy and watching him relive that moment is pretty hilarious.

As far as first issues go, this was a pretty good one and I'm definitely looking forward to more.

Prophet #24: Holy shit, it is hard to believe, but this comic just keeps getting better.    First I was treated to three issues of incredible Simon Roy art, and though I am sad to see him go, I was also happy to see that the art for this issue and the next will be handled by the amazing Farel Dalrymple.  This entire issue is like one great big treat for the eyes.  I think I read the whole issue with my jaw dropped.

So yeah, Dalrymple delivers some very beautiful art here, and as per usual, Brandon Graham delivers another slice of awesome story.  This issue kicks off a new story arc, and I gotta say, it looks to be another gem.  I'd put this comic in my top three favorite comics right now.

Even though this comic is already great enough, I think it gets a few extra cool points for not only featuring some kick-ass art talent, but also some absolutely wonderful back-up stories.  This month's Shock Post  by Matt Sheean and Malachi Ward is my favorite one yet.

The Sixth Gun #21: This was a pretty cool issue of The Sixth Gun as it was a completely silent issue.  The reason behind the silent issue is that (Slight Spoiler...) Becky has temporarily lost her hearing due to a large explosion, so we get a text-less issue.

When I was reading this I tried to decide if it would be easier or harder to pull off a silent issue, and I decided it would be much harder.  The scripting has be a lot tighter, and there's a lot of pressure on the artist to carry the story and make it understandable.

Well, easier, harder, whatever, Bunn and Hurtt pulled it off, and delivered a sweet action-packed issue.  Lots of shit gets blowed up, lots of bullets fly and lots of folks get filled with lead.  There's also an appearance by a (seemingly) massive tentacled beast towards the end, so I'm excited to see what that's all about next month.  This is one of the best comics on the shelf month in and month out.

Saga #2: Saga, one of the hottest debuts of the year is back for it's second issue.  The first issue was sublime, so my expectations were pretty high going into this second issue.

Vaughan and Staples did not disappoint.

There's a lot of character development, and world building going on in this issue, and Vaughan does a great job of blending all that in with the story.  I'm already beginning to like, dislike and be weirded out by a bunch of the characters in a way that reminds me of my first ever A Game of Thrones read.  The various story lines are all quite fascinating so far, and I am very eager for more.

This issue also had a very creepy and haunting scene with a bounty hunter named The Stalk that will surely be giving me nightmares until the next issue comes around.  Great stuff!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Graphic Novel Review: Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery

It is hard enough for me to resist anything that has to do with the team-up of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, so when Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery was re-released (in deluxe hardcover none the less) it should come as no surprise that I immediately bowed under the pressure and bought this lovely item the day of release.

On the surface, Flex Mentallo is about a muscly man named, uh, Flex Mentallo, who is living in the real world, and trying to solve a mystery that seems to involve a completely fictional character operating in real life.  This may sound far-fetched, but Flex himself was once nothing more than a work of fiction until he was somehow written to life.  While Flex is doing his detecting thing, we meet Wallace Sage, a suicidal writer/musician/artist who has recently taken a deadly overdose of drugs and is retelling his life story to a suicide helpline worker on the other end of the phone.

Though it is hard to tell exactly how in the early stages, it is clear that these two stories intertwine, and sure enough, as things go on, they begin to interact with each other.  The how, and why of it all are tough to explain, and equally hard to understand.  Frankly, I'm not totally sure I completely "get" everything about Flex Mentallo.  The story is so clearly about more than just a strange mystery and some guy committing suicide, but after one read through, I can't confidently say exactly what "it" is.

I've read a few other places that each of the four issues is meant to represent an era of comics: the golden age, silver age, modern age, and future. When viewing the story through this "era" lens, I can definitely see the distinction, but there are other layers to be had here as well; layers I hope to discover as I read though this thing a few more times in the future.  I don't often come across a comic that lends itself to such close scrutiny, but that sure is the case here.  This story pretty much flat out demands to be read a few times over.

As far as the writing goes, this is some primo Grant Morrison material.  It definitely lies on the weird side of things, but things aren't so weird as to be unpalatable or off putting.  Morrison managed to instill a strong sense of "what the hell is going on here?" in me as I read Flex Mentallo which made me want to read more in hopes of uncovering some secrets.  As I said, this is a story that will benefit from further readings, so even though I enjoyed my first read-through, I get the feeling I'll like this even more upon future reads.

On the artistic front, the art in Flex Mentallo is simply wonderful.  Frank Quitely is easily one of the best comics artists in the business, and one could make a strong case for him being the best period.  Like Flex Mentallo, Quitely flexes his artistic muscles here and delivers some absolutely beautiful art.  I am always impressed with Quitely's art, but there were a few panels in this one that stand out as some of my all time favorite Quitely art.  I always feel like I'm holding something truly special when I have a comic drawn by Frank Quitely in my hands, probably because it is special.  The guy can really make a story come to life.

It is typically a special occasion when I read a Morrison/Quitely comic, and Flex Mentallo is pretty damn special too.  I would have bought this and enjoyed it no matter what, but to be treated to something that is not only exciting to read, and lovely to look at but also demanding of the reader's scrutiny is a nice rare treat.  This is a truly special comic.  Highly recommended.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Book Review: The Winds of Khalakovo

The Winds of Khalakovo is set in the duchy of Khalakovo, a grouping of islands that are part of a greater archipelago set off from the mainland in a turbulent sea.  Since seafaring is a dangerous exploit at best, the folk of the duchies utilize windships to travel and trade.  Khalakovo lies in the crossroads of the windship trade routes and has been a prosperous duchy in the past but has faded from the limelight a bit due to the blight, which has reduced crop harvests and infected both nobles and commoners alike with a terrible wasting disease.  In order to bolster the duchy's standing, Duke Iaros Khalakovo has arranged a marriage between his son, Nikandr, and Atiana, the daughter of the Duke of Vostroma.

With the wedding drawing nigh, Khalakovo is to host all the nine dukes of Anuskaya but a conflict has arisen between the nobles and the Maharraht, a fanatical group of indigenous Aramahn folk.  When the Maharraht unleash a deadly elemental spirit on the Grand Duke and his retinue Nikandr must track down the militants and the child prodigy they are using to unleash the spirits.  For Nikandr, it's a race against time because the nobles are calling for blood and looking for enemies among both the peaceful Aramahn and the Khalakovo family.  Nikandr must find some answers before an all out war erupts.

The Winds of Khalakovo is one of the fantasy debuts from last year that was well received and scored a lot of positive reviews.  Add to that what appears to be a fairly unique setting for an epic fantasy, and I am lured in.  The positive reviews are mostly well deserved as this was a solid debut, though not without a few flaws.  The story took a fairly good chunk of the book to get rolling, and lacked any sort of tension for about the first 100 pages or thereabouts.  Rather than develop plot right out the gates, author Bradley P. Beaulieu instead chose to do some world building and introduce his characters.  This approach did help me get a feel for the setting, and the people that populate the world, but it wasn't the most exciting start to the novel, and as a result, I had a hard time getting engaged by the narrative.  I think the story would have been stronger had the plot development, character development and world building been woven together more tightly.

The setting here is a unique one.  The place names and character names give The Winds of Khalakovo a distinct Russian feel, and the windswept archipelago geography is pretty cool too.  I gotta give Beaulieu credit, he definitely found his story a unique setting without pushing epic fantasy readers too far outside of their usual European-like setting comfort zone.  That said, there were a lot of the same elements that we see played out repeatedly in the genre at play here as well.  Beaulieu does play with and challenge a few of these norms though, especially in terms of his female characters, and I for one was greatly pleased. Personally, I'd love to see more authors do the same thing as Beaulieu has done, but push the normative boundaries even further.

With the natural elements such as harsh winds, harsh weather, and harsh topography playing such a big role in the world building, it was nice to see the natural elements play a big role in the magic system that Beaulieu has created too.  Among the indigenous Aramahn people there are those with the ability to bind elemental spirits and use these spirits to harness the power of earth, air, water, fire and the "raw stuff of life", (or, dare I say, "heart" Go Planet!) Captain Planet references aside, I was fan of the magic system.  It didn't require any lengthy explanations or seem too complex, yet at the same time, worked well for the world it occurred in.

Once the plot does get rolling, Beaulieu delivers a pretty solid and entertaining ending.  I wouldn't say that this is a fast paced, action packed novel, but probably more of a slow-burn style novel.  That's not to say this one is devoid of action though as Beaulieu gives the reader a number of aerial battles between the windships.  However, these action scenes came across as a bit choppy and hard to follow.  This is due a bit to the fact that the windships are a unique concept, thus the battles a bit tough to envision, but also a result of Beaulieu's still developing skills.  In a book that was a bit slow paced for my tastes, the fact that the action scenes left something to be desired took away from my overall enjoyment.

Like I said, this is a solid fantasy debut, but brought down a bit by some flaws, particularly the pacing, which made it difficult for me to really get into this novel. This was pretty much a middle of the road read for me, nothing too terrible to really take away my enjoyment, but nothing extra special to set it apart from the crowd either. I'm definitely in a wait and see holding pattern on the sequel for now.

Grade: B-

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Graphic Novel Review: King City

Every now and then, as a reader, I come across something that is so good it makes me reevaluate every last book/graphic novel/comic on my shelf.  Sometimes I read something extra special and ask myself why have I been wasting my time on inferior creations?  Call these books/comics bar-raisers,  call them game changers, or some other platitude, you know what I'm talking about.  It's those mind-blasting books/comics/whatever that keep me reading and keep me exploring.  I know these types of experiences are supposed to be few and far between, but damn, if I haven't been having them semi frequently lately.  Well, lo' and behold, here comes another one.

King City is quite probably the most wonderful and amazing comic I've ever had the pleasure of reading. I first discovered King City over a year ago when there were still a few copies of the single issues still kicking around at my preferred comic shop.  One look at the art told me I needed to read if just for that aspect alone, but then the shop owner told me that King City is about a regular dude named Joe who is a "catmaster" and can inject his cat with drugs to make it do special things like say, become a gun, or a parachute, or a periscope, or numerous other awesome things.  So, boom, awesome concept to go with awesome art.

Though I gave it a shot, tracking down the individual issues was a tall and expensive order, so I forced myself to be patient and await the eventual release of the graphic novel.  Well, a long year of waiting later and here I am, and I can proudly say that this has been more than worth the wait.

As I already mentioned, King City more than delivers the goods on the art front.  Writer/Artist Brandon Graham is hands down one of the most talented dudes in the industry and has landed with ease and grace onto my "Buy Whatever This Dude Is Making" list.  His pages and panels can be loaded with exquisite detail  hidden gems, great art, and other times they can be sparse with lots of white space that somehow makes everything seem more vast and epic.  No matter what is on the page, it is a visual treat.  Graham isn't afraid to move away from the norms of what you might find on a comic page either.  There's plenty of visual jokes, and mini-games that are a lot of fun and are cool extras that makes this comic extra special.  How often do artists turn a page into a crossword puzzle, or a game of connect the dots or a game board?  Pretty much never, but Graham does all three, and each time they make the reading experience more fun, or provide a cool way of telling the story.  

Though King City is about Joe and his cat, Earthling J.J. Catingsworth the Third, it is kinda sorta a comic about well...nothing.  Sure there's a tentacle-blob thing that threatens the entire world, a dangerous femme-fatale whom Joe lusts after, and his ex-lady who he still has some feelings for, but Joe, by way of Graham's writing, is content to take his time getting around to that big scary plot-monster. Instead Graham gives the readers a sort of anti-plot comic that is anything but the "main plot" and instead an exploration of the characters, their lives, the world, and how all those elements interact and have a past present and future.  That might sound weird, but it is actually quite brilliant and incredibly entertaining.  If you've read the blog, you know I'm a stickler for plot, but I actually loved Graham's plot-be-damned approach.  

On top of being a guy that can deliver amazing art, and a captivating story, Graham proves in King City that he is also a world class pun-master. Graham unloads the puns at a rate that probably averages out at over one pun per page. A bunch of puns might seem like a little thing, maybe even a silly thing to some, but they add a great layer to the story, and gave me something to search for in every world bubble, and piece of text on every page.   It's not very often that any creative piece is interactive, engaging, thought provoking, and entertaining but King City is all of the above.

Even though King City is incredibly awesome as is, there's another great quality that bears mentioning. Just in case you need more encouragement to buy/read King City, this graphic novel tips the scales at an astounding 424 pages all for the insanely cheap price of $20.  This is quite possibly the best deal ever on a comic. 

I think King City is special for a lot of good reasons, but it gets raised to that extra special level because Graham is so willing to stretch and redefine what comics are capable of doing.  The comics medium can be a bit of a stale place sometimes, but in King City, Graham showed me that comics can and should be so much more than what I've been accepting as the norm. What's great is that Graham isn't trying to shove any ideals or views down my throat, there's no agenda; making comics that expand the medium into new territory, well, that's just how he rolls, and I for one, am so happy that he does.  

Grade: A+

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Comic Quickies: Young Guns

Rocketeer Adventures 2 #1: Yes! (Fist Pump!) I didn't know this even existed until I strolled into the comic shop one Wednesday and it was in my pull's good to have a shop owner who looks out for you!

So, in case you didn't know, Rocketeer Adventures is back for round two.  And look at that fucking sweet Darwyn Cooke cover!  I would buy that poster.

Anyway, like the first go-'round this new version follows the same template: short 8-10 page comics from an all-star cast of comics creators, and pin-ups from some of the finest artists in the land.  This issue is no exception, as comics legend, Stan Sakai delivers what was my favorite story of the issue.  This was one of my favorite titles from last year, so I'm very excited to be getting more.  If you haven't already done so, check this one out.

Rebel Blood #1: When I heard Riley Rossmo was working on his very own project to follow up his fantastic work on Green Wake, I got really excited. Then, when I saw some art previews, I nearly wet my pants.  Even if the story was about a zombie outbreak, I knew I wouldn't be able to resist.

I guess you could say that Rebel Blood is a zombie story with a twist.  The twist being that even animals can get infected, thus the infection rate is insanely fast.  The story follows Chuck who's a firefighter stationed at one of those remote forest watchtowers when he gets the news of the outbreak.  With his family at home in a distant town Chuck hustles to see if he can save them.  Along the way there's some sweet zombie killin' action.

What I think I liked most about this first issue is that we get a good sense of who Chuck is.  Spoiler Alert: He's kinda a dick.  Which makes him an interesting "hero".  What was extra special is that as Chuck is racing to the rescue, we get into his head a bit as there's a series of green colored panels which depict Chuck's imagination of how his rescue mission might turn out. Through these I got a good sense of the character, and I thought it was a unique and interesting way to handle character development.  I'm definitely excited for more.

Prophet #23: The first arc in the new generation of this amazing title comes to an amazing, and plot-twisty end in this issue.  I gotta say, this had a really awesome ending and it set up infinite possibilities for a future of awesomeness for the title.  In just three issues, Prophet has skyrocketed to the top tier of comics on my pull list.  Each issue has been a wonderland of creative, nutty, fantastic ideas all working together to create a unique science-fantasy action comic.  The writing by Brandon Graham has been sweet, and the art by Simon Roy has been perfect.

I think this is Roy's last issue at the art helm for now, but I'll definitely be looking out for his future projects as I think he's a rare talent in the business.  (In just a paragraph or so I'll be checking out some of his past work too!) My fingers are crossed that he blows up (in the good way) and always has a project that he's working on.  I can't say this enough: you gotta check out Prophet.  Issues 21, 22, and 23 specifically, as they are a shining example of how great comics can be.

Jan's Atomic Heart: One of the goodies I picked up while I was at Emerald City Comicon was Simon Roy's first published work, Jan's Atomic Heart.  I consider this a very fine piece of treasure, as it was one of those things that I just sort of stumbled across, but knew I had to have it as soon as I laid eyes on it.

In this 52 page one-shot (which is printed like a digest-size graphic novel) set in near-future Frankfurt, Jan is the recent victim of a car-accident.  While his body is healing in the hospital, his consciousness has been transferred to and old lunar-made robot body.  Jan soon discovers that similar robot bodies are being used as bombs in terrorist attacks.  Fearing he may be the next to explode, Jan turns to his only friend, Anders for help, but what they discover is more shocking that Jan could have ever expected.

Considering that Jan's Atomic Heart is Roy's first published work, I was surprised at how ridiculously good this comic is.  It is written with all the skill and confidence of a veteran all-star writer and illustrated beautifully.  Simply said, this is a nearly flawless comic.  There's a subtle emotion to the comic that gives the story another layer on top of the great art, and engaging characters.  This is seriously awesome and I strongly urge anyone who reads this to check it out.

Jan's Atomic Heart might be tough to get a hold of through traditional channels, but Roy provides a nice link from his blog to a spot which sells can also see a 22 page preview, so all the more better.  Enjoy!

Monday, April 9, 2012

More on The Dragon's Path

I've had a pretty interesting discussion about The Dragon's Path with Neth and few others over at SFF World today.

One of the things I really struggled with internally, (but didn't mention in my review because I don't want an author's personal views or my perception of their views to cloud my review of their work) were the liberal vs. conservative and class politics elements that Abraham weaves into his narrative.  These elements are seen most often in the Kalliam POV chapters. As I mentioned in my review, Kalliam was a character I disliked.  I stated that I felt like Abraham used him to drive along plot elements in the political arena, even though sometimes the decisions he made didn't seem to fit with his character.  However, in my review, I didn't mention that Kalliam was a character that REALLY got under my skin because he represented a lot of things I personally detest, (classism, racism, sexism, and more...) and I couldn't decide whether Kalliam was a subtle work of genius on behalf of Abraham, or an outlet for Abraham's political views.  Neth, who has met Abraham and discussed the book with the author, stated that this not a case of the latter, but almost certainly a deliberate challenging of the reader's perceptions and expectations.

After talking about it with folks at SFF World and reflecting on my review, I feel that I did my readers a disservice by not mentioning this opposition of my-personal-views-versus-plot-elements aspect of my experience in reading The Dragon's Path.  The fact that a character whose views so diametrically oppose my own could cause such an intense internal struggle in me is something that deserves mention and should at the very least speak to Abraham's skill in creating character that can get a powerful reaction out of the reader.

I try really hard to give you readers my honest opinion and give authors a fair review with reasoning to back up my thoughts both positive and negative.  I think I did that here with The Dragon's Path too, as I still stand by everything I stated in my review.  That being said, in an effort to be the most honest and thorough reviewer I can be, I want to add that my review of The Dragon's Path should have mentioned that my personal political/social views were strongly opposed to some of the plot elements in The Dragon's Path. There were parts of the story that were definitely challenging for me on a personal level.   As I mentioned above in this post, thanks to further reflection and discussion of the novel, I'm of the opinion that Abraham is a slick magician when it comes to creating characters that not only challenge the norms of the fantasy genre, but he also challenged me on a personal level.  This is a credit to both the writer and the novel.

Now this doesn't do anything to change my "grade" of the novel, as the lack of world building, lack of cultural diversity, hit and miss character development that though it had an additional layer than what I initially mentioned in my review, still left me wanting more. Combine all that with what I saw as a weak political aspect and my "grade", for what its worth, the arbitrary fucker, still stands. Though I dare say that between the review and this post, you have a pretty clear view of my thoughts on The Dragon's Path.

Book Review: The Dragon's Path

The Dragon's Path was a highly anticipated read for me.  Despite hearing lots of good things about Abraham from all corners of the interwebs,  I had yet to get around to reading anything by the guy.  On top of hearing great things about Abraham from bloggers and reviewers whose opinions I trust, from what I hear, the guy is like, George R.R. Martin's padawan or something. Well, that's gotta be worth somethin' right?  Also, I feel like I've been searching and failing to find the next great epic fantasy series and then, boom, along comes a new fantasy series by this Abraham guy I keep hearing about.  So, it is fair to say that I had some hopes, high hopes, pinned on this opening volume of The Dagger and The Coin series.

This new epic fantasy starts out on familiar turf, with an orphan.  But Cithrin isn't your typical fantasy orphan.  From the get-go Cithrin is intelligent, capable, and thankfully, not part of some ancient prophecy. Instead, she's the ward of a rich banking house which lies in a city about to fall under siege.  Cithrin is tasked with the extremely difficult and stress-inducing task of smuggling the bank's wealth across a war zone as part of a trading caravan guarded by one of our other principle characters, Marcus Wester.  Wester is in charge of a band of mercenaries theater troupe which he has hired to play-act at being hardened soldiers since his own crew got arrested for drunken and disorderly conduct.

As Marcus, Cithrin and the theater troupe flee the free cites, Geder, a young noble from the neighboring Antean Empire heads towards the same city as part of an invading army.  More of a scholar than a soldier, Geder is a pawn in the great games that the nobles back in Antea play...a game that is spiraling out of control in the worst possible way.

The Dragon's Path is a problematic book for me. I wanted this one to be good. It could have been good. But it wasn't that good.  This book is basically a great poker hand where the author didn't go all in and he should have.  Abraham has all the makings here of a solid, potentially great new edition to the epic fantasy pantheon but he doesn't quite deliver the goods.  For every potentially positive aspect of this novel, there is an equally negative quality that drags that aspect down towards mediocrity.

Allow me to elucidate:

Abraham does something I always love to see in epic fantasy, and populates his world with a bevy of humanity who are of different races.  (And I don't mean elves, dwarves, gnomes, goblins, etc.) This is a quality of the book that I was very excited about, and I was always hoping to hear more about as I turned the pages.  Sadly, the differing races are only given a bit of mention and even less description.  From what I did read, there didn't seem to be much cultural or language diversity among the peoples that populate the world.  Maybe there'll be more exploration of  the various races in the coming volumes, but for my money there should have been more development of this concept in the 550 pages this volume contains.

Another aspect that felt half baked and ties in a bit with racial diversity is the world building. I'm always excited to explore a new fantasy world and see what awesomeness it holds in store for me. It's a fun aspect of the genre for me.  The Dragon's Path features a map that displays what appears to be a massive continent with a variety of different kingdoms and realms.  I was pleased that through the course of the story, I got to visit a fairly good number of these places too.  The kicker is that one location never felt all that different from the next and I never got a sense of atmosphere nor was I able to form a clear picture of the various locations in my head.  There is very little "lay of the land" type development or description in The Dragon's Path. This was a frustrating quality that definitely took away from my enjoyment of the story.

The main characters, who head up chapters as point of view characters much like in GRRM's A Song of Ice and Fire series, were hit or miss for me too.  I definitely enjoyed both Cithrin and Marcus and felt that both characters were well developed and always interesting to read.  On the other hand, Geder, and Kalliam, both of the noble class from the Antean empire, felt more like plot elements than characters.  It seemed to me like Abraham used these two character's actions to move the story along but those actions and the character themselves didn't always seem to match up.  Often, and this happened with both Geder and Kalliam, the character would do something incredibly stupid that would lead to an exciting plot development, but the logic behind the action didn't necessarily make sense for the sake of the character himself.  This aspect led to lots of frustration for me and was totally infuriating at other times.   This also made the "political intrigues" portion of the story come across as pretty amateurish, both in terms of the writing and in terms of the character's actions.

Combine these hit and miss story elements with my (probably too high) high expectations that I had going in and you get a very disappointed reader.  I always feel a bit guilty when I pin expectations on a book or an author, and then get disappointed when the book doesn't meet my hopes and dreams.  That being said, even without the expectations, I would have been disappointed with The Dragon's Path.  I need to have well developed characters, a world I want to explore and a story that fully captures my imagination in order for me to fully hook onto an epic fantasy series, and this one fell well short of those requirements.

Grade: C-

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Graphic Novel Review: Transmetropolitan Vol. 2 Lust for Life and Vol. 3 Year of the Bastard

My exploration into Warren Ellis' Transmetropolitan series got off to a decent, but not stellar, start last September.  However, there was enough quality to the first volume to interest me in reading and exploring more, and my most recent finals week at university provided the perfect window for some comics reading that would provide an entertaining distraction.

In the second volume, Lust for Life rebel journalist Spider Jerusalem is up to his usual antics, causing trouble and cranking out scathing columns for his newspaper overlords.  In this one he manages to piss off a powerful politician, nearly overdoses on television, and raids a religion convention...and that's all in the first third of the book!  From there the surreal future that Warren Ellis has created rolls on to weirder and more wild places.

For example: There's people who get their consciousness downloaded into tiny machines and become sentient pink fog, Spider's cryogenically frozen ex-wife also makes a an appearance in this one, with a team of assassins  bent on taking out our favorite journalist, and a talking police dog with a crazy personal vendetta against, well you can probably guess who...

Things definitely got pretty weird in this second volume, and I gotta say, I'm pretty glad I'm reading this in collected format because I'm not so sure I'd be able to hang with this comic if I was reading it in single issues.  I definitely think this is a comic that benefits from binge style reading sessions, rather than small doses.  Everything about this comic is intense and a bit overwhelming, and I think it is better to just go all in for a while, then come up for air after a good stretch.

Ellis' writing, which has a very freewheeling/loose cannon feel to it seems to mirror his protagonist's personality.  It almost seems like story lines or maybe more accurately, "focal points" in this comic are picked up and abandoned at a whim as Ellis just plows through one aspect of popular culture after another.  That's not a bad thing, it certainly makes for a comic with a frantic pace and unique personality, but if you are expecting a comic that follows the normal rules and trends you commonly see in comic series, this may give you some surprises.  Instead of 5-6 issue story arcs with clear beginnings, middles and ends, Transmetropolitan is more of a stream of conscious rant or exploration of whatever suits Ellis' fancy.  Ellis will see his ideas through to the end, but they often aren't your typical endings, and they can be a bit cynical too.

Still, this is some incredibly entertaining, insightful, and intelligent stuff.  Pretty tough to get all that in one package, but here it is.

Grade: B+

Since I needed lots of distractions during finals week, I decided to stay aboard the Transmetropolitan train and immediately followed up Lust for Life with volume 3, Year of the Bastard.  This one proved to be the most coherent volume yet, as the whole thing focuses on the presidential election, and what Spider is doing, or more accurately not doing to cover the biggest story of the year.

Instead of getting out there and asking hard questions, getting interviews, and endorsing a candidate, Spider has sunken into bitter rut of pills and apathy.  When he finally gets his shit together enough to get out there and cover the debates, he finds the political situation to be quite an ugly one with two very shitty candidates.

Year of the Bastard is an interesting look at how the political machine works, and I found it especially interesting given the fact that it's an election year.  Ellis puts his usual stamp on the bullshit, the backstabs, the drama that always seem to follow a high profile election.

As I said earlier, this is the most coherent volume yet, and I appreciated the tighter focus on one distinct story line.  Unlike the previous two volumes, this has a more familiar comic story arc feel to it, but with all the weirdness, cynicism and dark humor that are the hallmarks of this series.

I felt like maybe Ellis has hit his stride here in this third volume, and has figured out a direction for the series rather than have it be a loosely focused series of rants and futuristic speculations. From a story standpoint that would be a positive, as I feel like this is a comic that so far has sorta gone the way of Sienfeld  and been  a story about nothing, while covering, well, everything.  Time, and the fourth volume will tell.

The Year of the Bastard also has a pretty great shock ending.  One I was nearly deprived of since my copy was missing the last five pages or so.  Thanks printers.  The ending seemed a little abrupt to me, so on my next trip to the comic shop I glanced through another copy of this same volume, and sure enough: the rest of the story.  I'm very glad I checked because I nearly missed out on a great conclusion to this story arc.  

All told, The Year of the Bastard is the best Transmetropolitan volume yet.  I'll be checking back in with this series before too long.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

2012 Emerald City Comicon

This past weekend I made my annual journey to the Emerald City Comicon.  Well, it wasn't really much of a journey, it was just downtown, but it was still epic.  Like the past two years, I attended the Saturday version of the convention, typically the busiest, craziest day of the con, and this past Saturday was no exception.

Being the nerd that I am, I arrived right at 10 o'clock, exactly when the convention opened it's doors.  However, there was such a monster crowd that it took me about 40 minutes just to get onto the actual convention floor.  I was one very aggravated blogger during those forty long-ass minutes.  Once I actually got into the con I was shocked to see how totally packed it was so early on in the day.  The past two years taught me that the early nerd catches the creator they want to see, but there was no beating the crowds or avoiding of lines on this day, as it was nearly impossible to move through crowds and navigate to the tables of creators I wanted to chat up.

Extended chats with favorite creators were also a difficulty as the lines tended to be pretty lengthy.  I try to not be a dick and keep other people waiting, or monopolize a creator's time but it was a bit disappointing to just mumble a few words of gratitude to Brandon Graham while he signed my stuff.   I did manage to get in a few good chats though.  My best chat came from a favorite comic writer of mine, Kurtis Wiebe who not only remembered me from last year, but also mentioned that he drops by the blog from time to time!  I'd like to think I hid my giddiness well, but when he mentioned that he's read some of Battle Hymns, I grinned like the Cheshire Cat.

My modest haul...
There were many other highlights as well.  I got to chat with Matt Southworth, who had some pages from the new Stumptown issues that'll be out later this year.  From what I've seen, it looks fantastic.  I also spoke to Daryl Gregory who was there for his comic writing endeavors, but was happy to hear that I'm a fan of his prose work as well.  The guy I was most interested in meeting and talking to was Brandon Graham.  I actually made two stops by his table, once for signatures on my issues of Prophet and my copy of King City (review forthcoming), and again when there were less people around to look through his original art.  The art was beautiful, and sadly, just out of my price range, but it was still awesome to check it out.  He also had some of James Stokoe's original art pages from Orc Stain and those are glorious too.    

All told, it was a pretty good day at the con.  I was a little overwhelmed by the crowd which was much larger than past years, but I guess I shouldn't complain too much because it's not everyday I get to meet some of my favorite comic creators, and get to look at beautiful artwork.  Anyway, I know people are probably just reading this to see pictures of people dressed up, so here you go.....

Loki hangin' with some DC peeps. 

This guy was pretty scary as
Scorpion.  He had the physique
and ninja moves to go with the
sweet costume.

The ladies were lining up to
pose with Buzz.

Down in the right hand corner you can just
barely see their donation bucket.
Apparently, the poor economy has effected
even the Avengers.  

Did I crop out the dorky lookin'
Robin? Yes I did.  Just Batwoman

Easily my favorite
costume from the con.
Bowie from Orc Stain.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

I've Gone International!

There have been a few REALLY AWESOME days in the history of Battle Hymns.  The day Michael Sullivan left a comment on my review of The Crown Conspiracy was one, when SFF World asked me to be their comics reviewer was another. The day Niall Alexander became a follower of my blog ranks right up there.  Seriously, it felt really good to see that a blogger who's blog I love likes my blog enough to give it a follow.

I've been a big fan of Niall's blog, The Speculative Scotsman, for a long time so when he asked me to do a guest post for his blog while away on vacation I was honored to be asked.  Niall was kind enough to give me free reign so I wrote up something that is a little bit different from the kind of content I usually put up around here.  My post is a bit of a beginner's guide to comics for the fantasy lover and it's up at The Speculative Scotsman.  It's full of solid comic recommendations no matter what your brand of fantasy is.  Go to there and check it out.

In case you missed it, here's the link again...