Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Graphic Novel Review: Vol. 3 Storybook Love and Vol. 4 March of the Wooden Soldiers

Storybook Love:  It didn't take me long to dive right back into the Fables series.  After I got my first taste back in early August, I was so hard up for more that I decided the only way to go about things would be to read 'em two at a time.  Well, I figured that since I was reading them two at a time, I might as well review them in a two for one package as well.

Up first is the third volume in this comic series, Storybook Love.  This volume picks up on events in Fabletown during the winter when a nosy "mundy" reporter, (Fables-speak for us regular folks), has noticed something fishy about the people living in Fabletown. Through research, and conjecture the reporter concludes that he has uncovered a secret vampire society.  Foolishly, he decides to confront the Fables before publishing his work, thus forcing Sheriff Bigby Wolf, and some other Fables to partake in a covert operation.  By utilizing sleeping Beauty's curse, the Fables put the mundy Reporter's entire building to sleep, then sneak in his apartment to conclude their covert act of sabotage.

The next story line of this volume sees Bluebeard, the richest guy in Fabletown, in cahoots with Goldilocks, a revolutionary responsible for some dirty deeds back in the previous Fables trade paperback. Together, these two try to make a move to have both Bigby Wolf and Snow White eliminated for good.  This story line is pretty awesome as we get to see a bit of a love story develop, and see a non-dickish, non-womanizing side to Prince Charming.

Best of all, these two stories that deal with the main Fables story line, are sandwiched by two great standalone one-shot stories.  The first deals with Jack of Fables and one of his adventures during the American Civil War.  This story is drawn by Brian Talbot, whose artwork is beautiful and textured...really nice to look at.

The second one-shot which closes out this third volume tells the story of how the Lilliputian Expeditionary Force, a group of thumb-sized soldiers, came to the mundane world and how they managed to keep their race alive despite being only men.  Linda Medley of Castle Waiting fame does the art for this one.  Medley has much more of a cartoonist style in comparison to Talbot and Buckingham, and at first I had a hard time adjusting to her style, but I quickly came to see how her style was a great match for the story.  Both of these one-shot stories were fun additions to Storybook Love and helped develop characters in addition to developing the world everything takes place in.

March of the Wooden Soldiers:  For centuries, the Fables have stood guard over the magical gateways that connect our mundane world to their lost magical homelands.  Despite a near crippling fear of invasion, the gateways have been quiet for decades.

Until now.

A long lost love of Boy Blue has escaped the adversary and made it to sanctuary, which is cause for huge celebration in the Fable community.  Though this new addition to the community is a great boost to morale, not everyone is thrilled about this new community member, and her story smells of trouble to a certain Fabletown Sheriff.  As it turns out, things might be even worse then the most cynical fable suspects, as this new arrival brings with her a healthy dose of trouble.

March of the Wooden Soldiers is one of the best Fables volumes yet, as it ratchets the drama and conflict up a few notches, raises the stakes of the series quite a bit, and continues to develop and flesh out both the characters and the massive world they populate.  Oh, and it also delivers some fantastic action.

Central to this fourth volume is the character development that writer Bill Willingham delivers for Boy Blue.  This volume starts out with a standalone story called The Last Castle which chronicles the Fables' final stand against The Adversary before the last refugees fled from their magical homelands and into our world.  Not only do you get an awesome siege battle filled with crazy beasts, knights, Robin Hood, and much more, but you also get the perfect set up to the March of the Wooden Soldiers story.  If not for this standalone, the main story line would have lacked some punch and wouldn't have been as emotionally powerful .  This is a testament to Willingham's ability to tell an engaging story that hits the reader at a number of levels.

Not only has Fables been incredibly entertaining to read, but it has great characters, whose depths are continuously being plumbed.  On top of that, Willingham has created a huge world to set his stories in, and he is certainly exploring all corners of the world, which leads to some great side-tales and one shots.  The scope and depth of this series is fantastic.  This is the first comic series I've read that I feel reaches the heights and depths of some of the great Epic Fantasy series I love so much.

As usual, March of the Wooden Soldiers features the art of Mark Buckingham, who delivers his usual consistent, and solid art.  He's not my favorite artist, as I feel like his faces and facial expressions leave a lot to be desired, but on the other hand, he can draw all the cool, magical, fantastical stuff that is required for this series.  So, in the end, I am generally pleased with his art, but not totally blown away.  One of my favorite things about Fables is that Willingham will bring in guest artists for the one-shot, standalone stories, and it is always fun to see who these artists are.  In The Last Castle, Craig Hamilton and P. Craig Russell share the art, and both do a great job.  Especially Hamilton during the battle scenes.

So, with four volumes under my belt, I gotta say, Fables is really good.  Not only do I find myself wanting to devour more of the series, but I find myself craving it over any of the multitudes of unread comics on my shelves.  Basically I've been feeding my cravings like an addict.  I highly recommend this series, to both comics readers and the non-comics reading fans of this blog, as it is basically an awesome epic fantasy series in comic format.  So what are you waiting for? Go read some Fables!

Story Book Love Grade: B+
March of the Wooden Soldiers Grade: A

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Kicking it Old School: The Guns of Avalon

Welcome to Kicking it Old School, your go-to spot for reviews of old-ass Sci-Fi and Fantasy books from the days of yore.  For my purposes, anything written before I could read, the year 1986, is considered "Old School". This is the latest in my Kicking it Old School series of reviews.  

I know I've been slipping lately, the blog hasn't been receiving as many updates as it should, and while all areas of the blog have suffered a bit, the Kicking it Old School feature has been sidelined for over a month, which is a god damned travesty. 

Though my posting regularity has slipped up, my reading hasn't. So when I found myself craving and oldie-but-a-goodie to read for this feature, I found myself drawn back to the world of Amber, and the adventures of Corwin of House Amber.  

For a quick recap: The throne of Amber, long sat upon by Oberon, the father of Corwin, and a bunch of other siblings, has been mysteriously vacated for centuries. While the old man is AWOL, the kids have been fighting over the rule of Amber.  Amber is the one true world, and all other worlds, there appears to be an infinite amount of them, (ours included) are mere shadows of Amber.  As things currently stand, Corwin's bro, Eric, an epic prick from what I've seen of him so far, is the big dog, and has taken the throne of Amber through sheer force of will and martial strength.  When we last saw Corwin, our "Hero", and narrator of these tales, he had failed in an attempt to seize Amber from Eric, and been blinded and chucked in a deep dark dungeon by Eric for the effort.  

Well, it is tough to keep a true son of Amber down. While imprisoned, and healing from his wounds, Corwin meets the long imprisoned, and widely regarded as hella-crazy court wizard Dworkin.  Dworkin works some magics and frees Corwin who instantly begins his plans to make another attempt at claiming the throne of Amber for his own.  The plan is to gather a substance called Jeweler's Rouge, which can be used as gunpowder in Amber, to create an army of gun-toting troops to take over Amber.  

Corwin's journey leads him to Lorraine where he meets up with an his former right-hand man, Ganelon, who appears to have no memory of Corwin.  The two dudes rekindle their long-lost bro ties and join forces to repel a horde of demonic creatures who have been threatening Ganelon's realm.  It turns out these dark forces come from the Courts of Chaos, a place that is, from what I can ascertain, the antithesis of Amber.  

Corwin and Ganelon defeat this dark force, and journey to Avalon where they discover more forces from Chaos. This time around, the forces have already been defeated by one of Corwin's brothers, Benedict.  Benedict lost his arm in the conflict, and while he leads his troops in a mopping up of the enemy, he sends Corwin off to his home to await his return.  

While there, Corwin meets, and sexes up Dara, a young woman claiming to be Benedict's great grand-daughter...kinda gross.  Thanks to her bloodline, Dara is anxious to learn about the pattern of Amber, which will allow her to travel through shadow.  Corwin tells her all about it in return for information. He then gathers his much needed Jeweler's Rouge and heads off to fuck shit up in Amber.  However, when he arrives on the scene, things aren't as he anticipated, and Dara has a surprising role to play in how things shake out.  

Whew, epic plot break-down...

As you can see, The Guns of Avalon is one busy little book, as a lot of things happen in the course of 213 pages.  It felt to me like this is a big set-up book as Zelazny introduces a major threat to Amber, and delivers some interesting twists that appear to have pretty severe ramifications down the road.  I was always a little bored with Corwin's quest to become the ruler of Amber, as I'm not totally convinced he's the right guy for the job.  Even though he is the "hero" of these books, and the narrator of the events, I can't really say I'm a huge fan of the guy.  He's basically an entitled prick...which makes him hard guy to root for.  His squabbles and sibling rivalries seem kinda trivial, however he's very willing to essentially commit genocide in order get what he wants.  The qualities of a Grade-A dick.  

Regardless of how I feel about Corwin, I'm glad the focus appears to be shifting away from Corwin's quest towards something more interesting. 

I get the sense all of this business with Corwin and his personality was deliberate on the part of Zelazny, sort of a "be careful what you wish for" type warning, as Corwin's actions certainly appear to have firmly backfired right in his face. It will be very interesting to see how things play out from here on out.  

Overall, I was quite impressed with The Guns of Avalon.  Zelazny has essentially created a fantasy multiverse where anything can go.  Want demonic goat-headed beasts? Machine gun wielding armies? Tarot card teleportation?  Yup, this series has it all.  It is a crazy, mixed up world that Zelazny has chosen to play around in and he has set things up to be incredibly unpredictable.  So far I really enjoy this unpredictability, and the fact that it leaves the door open to basically all types of craziness.

After reading The Guns of Avalon I'm further convinced that this is a series that should be on everyone fantasy reader's radar.  Zelazny is one creative and inventive writer, and I've been very impressed with the variety of cool and unique fantasy ideas he comes up with.  Needless to say, I am on board for more, and will be sure to get my old-school fix from this series before too long.  

Grade: 9 Cassette Singles

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Comic Quickies:

Mystery Society TPB: I read this one a few weeks back, and have just barely enough thoughts about it to give it a review.  Granted, not enough thoughts for a full review, but enough to warrant an appearance here on Comic Quickies.

Mystery Society is another item from my comics club haul, and another title that I likely would have passed over otherwise.  This one follows a rich husband and wife team who pull off clandestine operations in the name of good for all mankind. When we meet said couple, the dude, Nick Hammond, is on a mission in Area 51 attempting to recruit some new agents for their organization. What you get is a bunch of ninja/James Bond style action, and some semi-exciting thrills.  This one reminded me of Umbrella Academy and a little bit of Planetary, but in the cheap knock-off sort of way.  Not really a good thing.

The interesting tid-bit here is that it features art by one of my new favorite comic artists, Fiona Staples, who has been killing it on Saga lately.  Her art here is from about two years ago, and while her work in Mystery Society is quite good, I will definitely say that she has experienced improvement.

Overall, this was entertaining, but not overly impressive.

Godzilla Half-Century War #1 of 5: Buying this comic was a no-brainer.  It was written and drawn by James Stokoe, a guy that blew me away with his work on Orc Stain.  Apparently, Stokoe is a huge Godzilla fan, and getting to make a Godzilla comic is basically a dream come true for the guy.

Well, all that shows because this is one incredibly entertaining and engaging first issue.  It starts with Godzilla majorly fucking shit up in Tokyo as one tank commander, Ota Murakami, attempts to deal a bit of damage to the beast while saving the lives of innocent civilians.  Along with his tank operator, Kentaro, the two become the only effective means of limiting the damage and death that Godzilla lays down.

Sure, it's kinda a standard way of starting out a Godzilla comic, but Stokoe does a great job of introducing the primary characters and delivering some absolutely awesome Godzilla action.  Most importantly, the action is great, and as I've come to expect from Stokoe, the art is absolutely fantastic.  Moving forward, this looks to be a really great mini-series, and I'll be eagerly anticipating each of these issues.

Blue Estate #12: Sure it's been a while between issues, but I'm always willing to wait for an issue of Blue Estate simply because it is always awesome, and easily one of my favorite reads of the week.

This 12th issue wraps up "Season One", or what is basically the first major story line of the series. All the story threads that have been building and building over the past eleven issues pay off here, and the conclusion is pretty damn entertaining.  There's a great combination of shocking and hilarious moments that play out in this issue, and I'm glad that Kalvachev was able to pull it all together for an awesome finale.

Blue Estate is definitely one of my favorite comic series, and it's one that I highly recommend.  Each issue has been a great blend of hilarity, action, and wild plot development.  This comic is definitely one that will keep the reader on his or her toes and leave you wanting more.  I'm not totally positive that there are more issues of Blue Estate planned after this, but my fingers are crossed that there will be more of this amazing comic to come in the very near future.  As far as crime comics go, or any kind of comic for that matter, this is one of the best.

Batman #12: Well, we've reached the one-year mark with all these new DC titles, and after starting out reading seven of the new fifty-two comics, I've whittled that list down to a paltry two titles.  One of those that's still left kicking after all this time is Batman.

Truth be told, Batman has been just barely hanging in there as I've been a bit bored with the whole "Court of the Owls" story line.  Give me some classic bat-villains damn it!  The Owl business was a bit too trumped up for my tastes. That being said, this 12th issue was quite good...probably because there was no sign of any Owl garbage, and the art was done by Becky Cloonan, who totally rocked it.

What this issue did have was a sort of back to the roots approach that was told through the point of view of Harper Row, a Gotham City electrician who is intent on helping the Batman do his crime fighting thing in her own little way.  Harper essentially figures out how Batman controls the CCTV cameras throughout the city while he is doing his thing, and tries to do the Caped Crusader a solid by bolstering his system.  Her plan, though filled with good intentions, backfires with nearly deadly consequences.

Sure, this issue didn't have great over-arching plots and all that, but it was cool to see Batman through the eyes of a regular Gothamite.  Not to mention, the writing and art were much better than usual here too.  My hope is that the whole "Court of the Owls" business is behind us, and moving on Snyder can deliver more compelling Batman stories.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Book Review: Of Blood and Honey

Of Blood and Honey is one of those books that made the rounds on various blogs and got plenty of high praise.  When so many trusted sources say so many nice things, I'd be a fool not to put it on my radar as a must read.

Of Blood and Honey is an urban fantasy set in Ireland during The Troubles, (I had to google it), and follows Liam Kelly, a young man who has grown up during tough times not knowing who his father was.  Since his mother wont speak of the man, Liam has always assumed himself to be the bastard son of a long-dead Protestant.  However as tensions in this ethno-political conflict heat up, Liam is unwillingly and unwittingly pulled into greater, supernatural struggles that seem to mirror the ethnic-political divisions.

This supernatural struggle is one that is centuries old, and pits a secret order of the Catholic Church against the Fallen, powerful beings cast out from heaven. Liam finds himself stuck in the middle of both struggles, all while trying to figure out his past, protect his family, and live his life.

Of Blood and Honey is an impressive debut novel.  Leicht was able to draw me in with interesting characters and hints at mysteries and plot elements that I wanted to read on to discover more about.  Though  there are plenty of supernatural and horror elements to be found in this book, everything from faeries, to shapeshifters, and some Celtic Mythology,  I found that those seem to take on a secondary role in the narrative. The characters, particularly Liam, and the political events of the story take the lead.

There's no doubt that this is a character driven tale, and thankfully, the characters are well written and interesting to read about.  Liam is an engaging lead character from the get-go.  I found that I could relate to him, and could sympathize with his personal beliefs, his anger that simmered just below the surface, and his desire to make a good life for his loved ones.  The odds in life have been stacked pretty high against him, but Liam is one of those people who has chosen to work hard as hell as a means of evening out the odds.  Any time an author can get me to fret over a character's decisions, and actions like I did in Of Blood and Honey, I know they have successfully created a solid character. That is certainly what Leicht has done here.

Like I mentioned earlier, there are some seemingly cool supernatural elements included in this book, but I wasn't totally in love with how they all played into the story.  I think the fantastical elements added an interesting layer to the story, but the execution in how they played a part wasn't the best.  There was little to no explanation as to how these powers work, what each side is striving for, or what Liam's role in the whole ordeal is.

Now, considering that this is a fantasy novel, that might seem like a pretty big short coming, but truthfully, in the end, it didn't bother me too much.  Leicht has woven plenty of drama into this story, and such interesting character developments that the lack of execution on the fantasy front wasn't a total deal breaker. Not even close.  Of Blood and Honey is one of the more compelling novels I read in some time and though the execution of fantasy elements wasn't great, the makings for a tale that weaves real life political drama and intriguing fantasy elements is there.  Leicht already has another novel, And Blue Skies From Pain, set in this world, so my hopes are that these kinks get ironed out as the tale progresses.

Overall, I was quite pleased with Of Blood and Honey.  I loved that it was set during such a dynamic time period and that real life events played into the fantastical events of the novel.  Leicht has many strengths as a writer, but her ability to create compelling characters engage me, and that messed with my emotions is a skill that should provide her with a long and hopefully lucrative career in writing.  I'm often wary of beginning new series by debut authors, but I'm eager to move onward with Leicht's The Fey and the Fallen series.

In a genre that too often feels like it is filled with stale ideas, Leicht has provided a novel that is fresh and full of cool ideas, which I am thankful for.  This one isn't completely without flaws, but what debut novel is? However, I was still quite impressed.  If you can't tell by now, I recommend this one.

Grade: B

Friday, August 17, 2012

Graphic Novel Review: The Rocketeer-The Complete Adventures

It's been a long time coming, but I have finally gotten around to reading The Rocketeer.  An especially long time given the fact that I've been reading the Rocketeer Adventures tribute comics that IDW has been putting out.  Needless to say, I was past due on reading the original Rocketeer material.

The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures is just what it advertises, all the Rocketeer material that Dave Stevens created before he passed on.  Sadly, it's only eight issues worth comics, but I'll take what I can get because this stuff is pure comics gold.

I guess I didn't really know what to expect going into this read.  I didn't know how much time it would spend on the origin story, and how much it would get into high-flying rocket-pack action...there's a good amount of both...but I had high expectations nonetheless. I'd seen how good the tribute material was, so I expected the original stuff to be even better.  I can't say that Stevens' stuff is better, but I can definitely say that the tribute material does justice to the quality of the original material.  And make no mistake, the original stuff is quite good.

Stevens does a great job of introducing the reader to the world of Cliff Secord, his gal Betty (based on the old-timey pin-up model Betty Page), and his friends.  The character interactions are pretty fun, and I especially loved how jealous of a boyfriend Cliff's pretty hilarious.  That said, as a guy who has been known to get jealous a time or two, I could relate.

Before I gush too much more though, I should relay a bit of the plot...

Basically, a group of thieves steal a fancy experimental rocket pack from the U.S. government and try to make an escape, but they're foiled in the escape.  Said rocket pack is left in the cockpit of Cliff Secord's stunt plane, which Cliff soon discovers. Being the stunt pilot that he is, Cliff can't resist trying it out and his first flight results in an amateur-ass rocket pack rescue. The rescue could loosely be defined as a success, however, it leaves Cliff the target of both G-Men and the Nazis.

The Rocketeer has a great golden age feel to the story, and really delivers a strong sense of adventure.  Put plainly, this is flat out a lot of fun to read.  It's a story that will capture your imagination and make you wish that you had a rocket pack of your own.  Granted, if I did, I would definitely use it to impress my lady, and to rake in the bucks at airshows just like Cliff.

Though the writing in The Rocketeer is great, it's Stevens' art that is the real star here.  The guy is an  incredible artist, and that shows on each and every panel.  He isn't a guy that loads the panels up with a ton of detail, or elaborate settings, but he has the ability to let the art tell a lot of the story through character expressions and body language.  His action scenes are quite good too, as they have that cinematic feel that makes you feel like you are part of the action. There are times when it feels like Stevens crammed too many panels onto the page, but other times when he lets everything breathe, and gives huge panels to important scenes...and when he hits you with a splash page...look out!

The Complete Adventures contains an origin story, and one other Rocketeer adventure in NYC, but though it contains all of Dave Stevens' Rocketeer material, it doesn't feel all that complete.  The reason being that there's so much more space for more material and more adventures.  Sadly, we wont get anymore material from Stevens, but thanks to IDW and numerous other creators who love this character and Stevens' vision, there's two trades worth of Rocketeer short comics from a laundry list of all-star creators, not to mention, the forthcoming Rockteer: Cargo of Doom. That'll have to be enough to tide me over because this reading experience left me wanting more Rocketeer material.

Obviously, for fans of the character, this is a must read.  For those who don't realize they are fans yet, this is an iconic character that deserves to be enjoyed by a wider audience.  Overall, a great read that is a lot of fun to devour.  Highly recommended.

Grade: A

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Graphic Novel Review: Lost Dogs

It’s a well-known fact around here that I’m a big fan of Jeff Lemire’s work.  I’m proud to say that, excluding his work for DC proper, I am the proud owner of all his works in comics.  (Keep an eye out for a review of Underwater Welder around these parts soon enough!) So when I caught wind of the fact that Top Shelf had plans to re-release his very first published work, Lost Dogs I was excited to own another piece of the Jeff Lemire comics pie. 

Lost Dogs, in its early stages, is the comic that won Lemire the Xeric grant, a reward that allowed him to complete Lost Dogs and thus begin what has become a successful career in comics.  However, there was a very limited amount of copies published in the initial go-around, so Lost Dogs been tough to come by for folks who are fans of Lemire.  Luckily, Top Shelf decided to republish this one, so no longer will I have to search the used book shelves for this gem. 

Lost Dogs is a story about a man, a massively huge man, who is a simple farmer, and loves his family.  While on a trip to the city for supplies and some sight-seeing, tragedy strikes and the man is forced to fight to prevent the loss of everything he has ever known and loved.  Lost Dogs is a tale that is raw emotions brought up from the depths of the human soul, laid out and exposed in a gritty, brutal display of untamed artistic talent. 

As you might imagine for any artist at the start of his or her career, Lemire’s artwork in Lost Dogs is much rougher and more disheveled looking than his most recent stuff. That’s not to say it isn’t good though because even though it might not look the prettiest, Lemire does a wonderful job of tapping into that fountain of basic human emotion and letting it run all over the pages in black ink.  Lemire’s brush strokes, which are chunkier than an NFL lineman, appear sloppy or rushed at times, but the brush strokes seem to convey the amount of emotion Lemire was trying to pour onto the page. 

Like many of Lemire’s work in comics, Lost Dogs is a story that cuts deep and leaves its mark both mentally and emotionally.  Story-wise, this is a tale that lacks the polish of his later works, but still delivers a story that pulls no punches.  This is a straight forward tale with little in the way of tricks, twists or feints. Instead Lemire chooses to batter the reader over the head with his heart-breaking tale of loss and loneliness.  Sure, this one is uncivilized, a bit wild and only just barely presentable, but all that seems to give the story the emotional kick it needs. 

Lost Dogs might be lacking the refinement of Lemire’s later work both in terms of art and story, but it is cool to see where it all came from and catch a glimpse into an artist’s past to see how that work sparked the work of today.  For fans of Jeff Lemire, this one is a must have.  If you are looking for a no holds barred work of raw emotion, then this is a good place to start looking.  Not the prettiest, or the cleanest, but still, a winner in the end. 

Grade: B

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Book Review: Zoo City

I’ve been wanting to read Zoo City for a while now. Ever since I read Lauren Beukes’ other novel, Moxyland.  It’s been a while since I read Moxyland, but I seem to recall it making at least one highly prolific best-of list and my hopes were that Zoo City would be able to do the same. 

There’s a number of things about Beukes’ writing that I’m a fan of. For one, she sets her tales in South Africa, which is a nice change of setting considering that most of the fantasy genre is set in some sort of European-type place, and most of the urban fantasies I’ve read take place either in London, or some place in the States.  Secondly, Beukes imbues her writing with a freshness and hipness that simultaneously makes me feel old, but also makes me feel like I’m hanging out with the cool kids.  Thirdly, she has proven in her two published works that she can deliver a plot with lots of ins and outs that moves along with rapid pacing.  All of these qualities are present in Zoo City, but shockingly, I wasn’t nearly as impressed with this effort as I was with Moxyland.

Zoo City is set in Johannesburg in the near future, in a world where those racked by guilt acquire some sort of symbiotic familiar as a life companion.  If you are like me, then there’s been times when you’ve wished for a sweet animal companion a la Chewbacca or Pantalaimon, but that’s not the case here, as those who have familiars are outcasts of society.  Just like real life, where people tend to fear that which is different from what has been defined as the norm, those folks in Zoo City who have familiars are feared not only for their animal companions, but because that connection also grants them some sort of special ability.  Zinzi December, the protagonist, and first person voice of the narrative, has a sloth familiar, an overwhelming amount of debt to a shady criminal, and the ability to find lost things.

Usually Zinzi just finds missing wedding rings or small personal items, but when her most recent client turns up dead and the police confiscate her earnings from the job, she is forced to take on a missing person case that turns out to be a whole lot more than she bargained for.
I’m usually a big fan of mysteries, especially those with a fantastical flair, but I wasn’t too impressed with this one.  Sure, the plot in Zoo City was fast paced and full of twists and turns, but for my tastes, this one came across as just too standard.  The twists came at all the predictable places, and the mystery unraveled in ways that didn’t do much to surprise, or thrill me. 

The biggest reason this novel fell flat for me is that I was never able to connect to the characters in a way that made me care about what happened to them over the course of the novel.  Even though Zinzi was the voice of the narrative, I never really felt like I got a good feel for her, or that the story got below the surface into what makes her tick.  This was far different from my reading experience in Moxyland where I felt like the characters were all very accessible and easy to relate to.  

In addition to Zinzi, the secondary characters were just that, very secondary.  There are a number of other characters that play a vital role in the story, but none of them ever showed any flashes of brilliance and managed to stand out as memorable characters. 

I’ve found that when the author fails to populate a novel with interesting characters, I tend to be much less engaged in the actual reading of the novel.  It's great characters that suck me into a story and that just didn’t happen here.  A sad development for sure because this was a book that I really wanted to like and I was pulling for it the whole time. In the end though, I was underwhelmed. 

As I mentioned earlier, this book has its positives which I touched on briefly. Even though I wasn’t a big fan of this one, I’m grateful for authors like Beukes who strive to take fantasy to new places.  Beukes takes fantasy to new places both literally, (like Africa for example) and figuratively.  I’d love to see more authors follow in Beukes’ footsteps and break the mold by moving away from fantasy norms and see where their imagination will take them.  Beukes certainly has the skills to become a standout author in the genre and even though this one didn’t quite do it for me, I'll be eager to check out whatever she writes next.  Also, it bears mentioning that even though I wasn’t such a huge fan, Zoo City won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, so differing opinions exist. 

Grade: C

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Fables Deluxe Edition Vol. 1

Over the course of the past few weeks I’ve been a semi-regular member of a comics club.  At our weekly meetings we discuss what stuff we’ve been reading, then pass it off to other folks so they can read it, then give their opinion the following week.  Make no mistake, it’s a fun group to be part of, but my inclusion is a bit of a blessing and curse all at the same time.  

The reason I say that is because I have so many unread comics on my shelves to begin with, adding more comics from other sources makes it difficult for me to feel like I am making any kind of progress on the stuff I own.  Also, I often receive a stack of comics that is so big (basically any stack larger than one graphic novel) there’s no way I could possibly work my way through it in a week; often I am the dude who didn’t get around to reading his stack, and thus delays the discussion of certain titles.  Lastly, I sometimes get stuff handed off to me that I really don’t have any interest in, and you all know what it is like to feel like you have to read something, rather than wanting to read something. 

The flip side of that coin is that I often get to read stuff I’ve wanted to check out without having to pay for the comic.  This is a great boost to my deflated wallet.  Overall, the best part is that I also get to read stuff that I might not have ever read in the first place and discover that it is amazing.  That’s where Fables Deluxe Edition Vol. 1 comes in. 

This was a comics club hand-off item that the previous reader said he wasn’t overly impressed with, only read the first story arc (the deluxe editions contain two collected trades worth of comics) and probably would never get back into the story.  All that didn’t really do much to make me eager to read the comic, but the art looked cool when I flipped through it, and I was intrigued enough to give Fables a go.  A decision, as it turns out, I am happy I made.

In Fables, the characters from the beloved tales of our youth have all been exiled from their respective fabled lands and find themselves laying low among the regular folk in New York City. Those who are able to uphold a human-like appearance live, for the most part, in New York City, while the others, elves, animals, beasts and what-not, live on a huge farm in upstate New York. 

Old King Cole is the de jure leader of the exiled fables but in truth it is his steward, Snow White who truly runs Fabletown.  Thus, in the opening story arc, Legends in Exile, it is Snow White, and Fabletown Sheriff, Bigby Wolf who it falls upon to solve the murder of Snow White’s sister, Rose Red, when her apartment is discovered trashed and covered in blood.  What follows is a murder mystery tale that features familiar characters in a familiar setting, yet with the reality dial turned ever-so-slightly so that the characters seem a quite a bit more real than their usual selves, and the setting seems a little bit more magical then it usually is.
This twisting of both the characters and setting is what makes Fables really great.  The story and characters both have an accessible familiarity, but there are enough changes, both large and small, that make the characters engaging and fun to explore and discover.  Bill Willingham, who writes Fables, has done a great job of taking fabled characters and their one dimensional qualities that they are known for and making them compelling characters that you’d want to read about and discover more about as an adult.  I can’t say that I was ever a fan of Snow White as a kid, but the Snow White of Fables, who has divorced Prince Charming, and taken on the tough job of running Fabletown is someone I enjoyed immensely.  Willingham's ability to make these fabled characters into characters for grown-ups is a great achievement.

In addition to the great characters, Willingham just flat out writes a great story.  Like I said, Legends in Exile is a murder mystery and it’s a damn good murder mystery too.  It has a bit of a Sherlock Holmes feel to it that lends a nice touch to the plot.  On top of writing a great murder mystery, Willingham also manages to gracefully add little tid-bits of backstory so that the reader comes to discover how and why the characters from fable are living in New York City rather than in their fabled lands. 

Basically, a dark and evil being referred to as The Adversary waged war on the fabled lands and exiled all the creatures and folk of fable. Willingham gives the reader a sense of how this happened in Legends in Exile, then gives the reader an idea of what some of the fable folk are doing to regain their lands in the second arc, Animal Farm, which takes place on the farm in upstate New York.  Both story arcs work well together as they introduce the reader to the world of Fables, lets the reader see what city life is like, who the players are, how they interact, and all that.  Then shows life on the farm, what those folk are up to, how their lives differ from the city folk, and the politics at play between the two groups.  It is all very intriguing to read, and definitely left me wanting to read more.

On top of Willingham’s great effort on writing, is some really top flight artwork.  In Legends in Exile, Lan Medina handles the art, and his work is truly fantastic.  He’s a guy that can draw whatever it is the story calls for, be it castle interiors, cityscapes, murder scenes, and more.  His characters look fantastic, and he draws facial expressions quite well too.  He’s an artist that I was totally unfamiliar with, and was very impressed with. Sadly, it looks like this is the only Fables story arc where Medina handles the art. From here on out its Mark Buckingham who handles the lion’s share of the art. 

Buckingham takes over on Animal Farm and while I thought he too does a great job with the art, I preferred Medina’s art.  I liked the way Medina drew the characters more.  They looked more realistic, while Buckingham’s characters looked a bit more cartoony to me.  That said, Buckingham is certainly no slouch, and I can see myself settling in and enjoying Buckingham’s art as the art that defines the series.
All told, Fables Deluxe Edition Vol. 1 was a great read.  Great writing, great art, and a story that is about fables, all while giving the reader that familiar feeling that they are actually reading a fable.  Getting started on the Fables series can be quite intimidating as there are something like eighteen collected trades out, with more issues coming on a monthly basis, as well as a number of spin off series.  That’s a lot to wade through and probably enough to scare more casual readers away…However, I have been told that one really only (ONLY) needs to read the stuff contained in the first 75 issues.
Yeah, I know, even that sounds like a lot! The first 75 issues contain what was initially meant to be THE Fables story Willingham wanted to tell.  However, the series was and is still so popular that it has become a bloated Jabba the Hutt-esque entity with tacked on stories and spin offs.  So really, if you want to get the story, read the first 75 issues, which are collected in trades 1-11.  At this point, that’s what I plan to read.  Maybe I’ll love the whole series as much as I loved the first two story arcs and want to read EVERYTHING Fables.  We’ll see.  For now though, Fables is the comics I want to be reading. 

Grade: A+ 

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Book Review: The Stand

Even though I’m still learning how to do basic things, like turn on the oven here at my new hobbit hole I figured it was time to take a break from taking things out of boxes and put something down on paper.  Or on screen, or whatever it is we blogger folks do. 

Anyway, I read an incredibly epic book recently.  A book so epic in fact, that I’m still struggling to form a coherent opinion about the whole thing.  Truth be told, I finished the book, (the book is “The Stand” by the way if you couldn’t tell from the title of this post), about a month ago, but I’ve been steadily pushing it back in the review queue in favor of things that are easier to tackle.  Page-wise I’m pretty sure this is the longest book I’ve ever read, and time-wise, it took me longer to read than it usually takes me to read a Steven Erikson Malazan book, so in other words, the better part of a month.  Needless to say, between the reading of The Stand, and now, I’ve had lots of time to mull it over and think about the book and what it means. 

First off, my expectations were pretty high going in because from everything I’ve ever heard about The Stand, it’s said to be Stephen King’s greatest book.  So… a book by Stephen King, one of my favorite authors, and it’s supposed to be his very best. Yup, recipe for high expectations.  Yes, this one was good, but King’s best?  I’m not totally convinced.  Aside from this and his Dark Tower series, I’ve only read a half dozen or so of his other works so the jury is still out on that one.  Regardless, it was a book I struggled with at times. 

For those who haven’t yet read the book, The Stand takes place in the early 90’s when a brutal flu epidemic sweeps its way across the planet decimating ninety-nine percent of the population.  For the book’s sake, the focus is here in the States, and follows a variety of the survivors as they struggle to recreate some semblance of life in the aftermath of the great flu.  Before too long, two factions are formed, one rallying behind an old woman and congregating in Boulder, Colorado, and the other rallying behind Randall Flagg, none other than the Man in Black from King’s Dark Tower books, in Sin City, Las Vegas, Nevada.  The two groups seem to be at opposite ends of the good versus evil spectrum and some sort of final reckoning seems destined.
That’s a pretty basic breakdown of the plot and it does little to cover the variety of characters and relationships at play in The Stand.  King follows a number of the survivors by way of putting the reader right in their heads for an up close and personal look at their view of these life-altering and life decimating events.  There’s some very memorable characters in this book and King does a great job of making these folks come to life and feel like individuals despite the large cast of characters.  It was interesting how everyone’s past shaped how they acted and interacted after the flu outbreak, yet their pasts meant little to the other people they met. 

The basic concept behind the book (post apocalypse) is one that gets done over and over these days, and though it isn’t fair to judge a book published decades ago on the trends of today, I had a hard time not feeling like I was retracing my own steps in the sand.  I know that’s unfair, and I tried to quell those feelings, but there’s no doubt they played a role in my enjoyment of this book.  This struggle resulted in phases where my interest level in the book waxed and waned.  For book of this size, which is usually enough to make me steer clear, a lack of interest is nearly damning.  This is one are where the hype helped out, as I was compelled to keep reading, if only to just see what all the fuss is about.
Additionally, the characters were often more than enough to keep me forging on, and I was rewarded with some pretty great character arcs that led in some really amazing directions.  I found myself becoming pretty attached to a few folks, and looked forward to sections of the book where they played a role in the story.  The more stuff I read by King, the more I come to appreciate how great he is at character development. 

There was one quality about this novel that really bugged me the whole time I was reading though, and it’s that pesky aspect of representation.  I felt that the book would have been much stronger had there been a more diverse representation of the plague survivors.  I know that not every plague survivor was a white person, but there were a lot of times when it sure felt that way. Yes, there was definitely one key character who was a person of color, and one very central female character, and other character who was mentally differently abled, but aside from that, there were a lot of white dudes. Maybe this is a case where I’m wrongfully instantly assuming a character's whiteness because that’s my own perspective, but I never got the impression that the lion’s share of the characters were not white, heterosexual males.  Maybe that won’t take away from the story for others, but it did to some degree for me. 

I think the biggest take away I got from this reading experience is that there’s some important tie-in stuff related to King’s Dark Tower series.  Stuff that helped explain things I didn’t totally grasp when I read through those books over the past two years.  There’s some really obvious connections and some that I’m sure I missed too.  Still, it was cool that the books felt intertwined as part of large tapestry.

Overall, I can't say I was a huge fan of The Stand.  I think it has some great strengths, but as I mentioned above, there’s some weaknesses as well.  Most of all, I guess I just don't see what all the fuss is about over this book.  I wasn't really all that impressed.  I've definitely read stuff by King that is much sharper and more concise.  In the end, a good, strong book that for me missed the mark.

Grade: B-