Friday, March 30, 2012

Book Review: Declare

I've been on a little bit of an espionage kick lately, particularly in the comics world, with stuff like The Activity and Whiteout: Melt working their way into my reading rotation.  It was only a matter of time before that trend seeped into my book readin' as well and sure enough, there was Blue Fall not too long ago either.  Keeping up with the trend, comes another spy-thriller, this time from Tim Powers.  Declare has sat on my shelf for about a year, collecting much dust, but the book clawed it's way to the top of my to read pile thanks to this little spy-thriller spate I'm on.

This one takes place in the middle of the Cold War and follows an Englishman, Andrew Hale, a cold warrior through and through.  Throughout his entire life, Hale has experienced bizarre dreams, a fact that seemingly played a large role in him being recruited for Her Majesty's secret service.   During WWII Hale was a young double agent tasked with infiltrating the Soviet spy network but found himself caught up in more secret, epic and possibly magical things.

Twenty or so years later, the middle aged Hale, thinking  his espionage days are behind him, finds himself dragged back into the fold and playing the role of rogue spy.  Hale travels to the Arabian desert with the ultimate goal of finishing off Operation Delcare which has haunted him since the 40's. It's a quest that will place him in contact with Communist agents, British spies, and powerfull djinn.  Once again Hale finds himself squaring off against a supernatural power that may or may not be the Soviet Union's guardian angel.

Delcare is a story that is told in two parts.  Powers alternates between the "current day" (1960's) events and Hale's early contact with Operation Declare during WWII.  This makes for a pretty interesting way of telling the story as things from Hale's past that are hinted at or eluded to during the current day thread eventually get fleshed out in the flashback sequences.  I really liked this aspect of the book because it gave me a strong sense of how Hale's past influenced his current day actions and relationships.  It also helped Hale and many of the other principle characters feel more fleshed out.

Though the characters and their motivations were pretty convincing, the love story that takes place in Declare was not.  One minute Hale was working with a pretty young Russian spy, the next minute they are in love.  Why they loved each other, I don't know, and any scene shared by the two characters that followed did nothing to convince me that the love was anything more than a poorly done bit of story telling.

That's not to say that Declare was poorly done as a whole, because it wasn't.  I enjoyed the blending of spy and fantasy elements.  Powers has written one of the more authentic feeling spy thrillers I've ever read, and infused it with some pretty interesting fantasy elements as well.  Like many plots in spy fiction, Declare is riddled with many twists, turns and double crosses...things I'm always a fan of.

The fantasy elements are well done for the most part, but there were a few times the fantastical parts seemed like they were too much.  I think Declare would have been better served had Powers gone the Guy Gavriel Kay route and had fantastical grace-notes wrapped up in myth rather than straight up fantasy elements.  I guess I shouldn't complain about there being too much fantasy in a fantasy novel, so make of that what you will.

Overall, this was a pretty solid book, and it provided some incredibly entertaining moments.  You will have to suffer through a few lengthy info-dumps but you'll be rewarded with an interesting blend of espionage and fantasy from a gifted writer.  Recommended for when you want fantasy, guns, spies, and Cold War espionage all at the same time.

Grade: B

Monday, March 26, 2012

Graphic Novel Review: The Arctic Marauder

After enjoying It was the War of the Trenches so much, I knew it would only be a short amount of time before I got my hands on another work by French comic-master Jacques Tardi.  This time around, I decided to venture over to the lighter side of Tardi's comics works, and check out his steampunk ode to 19th century adventure, The Arctic Marauder.

Taking place in 1889, The Arctic Marauder stars Jerome Plumier, a passenger aboard L'Anjou, journeying through the coldest reaches of the north Atlantic, when a member of the ship's crew spots a ghostly ship shrouded in ice and perched atop an iceberg.  Along with a few crew members, Plumier joins the expedition that goes off to the ice-ship in search of survivors or clues.  The search turns up little more than dead bodies, seemingly frozen in time.  Before they can round everyone up and head back to L'Anjou, a huge explosion rocks their ship, sinking L'Anjou and spoiling any hopes of a safe return for Plumier and company.  Stranded for days, drifting on the ship atop the iceberg, they are finally rescued and returned home.

Upon his return Plumier hears of more ships "disappering" near the same spot that L'Anjou was sunk.  Hearing of a science expedition that is setting sail to search for the lost ships, Plumier joins the voyage hoping to find some answers.  What he discovers is a mystery that involves his recently departed uncle, a mad-man and a creepy, pistol wielding old lady who seems to be stalking Plumier.

The Arctic Marauder definitely had a much more light-hearted, tongue in cheek approach than I expected. Tardi seems intent on recapturing the melodrama and over the top characters that populate 19th century adventure novels like the stuff by Jules Verne.  That's not to say I didn't enjoy this, because I did.  Tardi's take on the adventure theme is quite a lot of fun.  There's a nice degree of mystery here, and it was fun to discover the wonders of Tardi's imagination with Plumier in the pilot's seat.

As I've come to expect from Tardi, the art here was absolutely fantastic.  From I've read elsewhere, Tardi wanted to emulate wood-cut style art in this, and used brushes and knife-like tools to score the background to achieve the wood-cut look.  Whatever he did, it looks pretty amazing. The art has nice texture, and it looks wonderful.  Tardi also draws some really cool steampunk creations that are sure to please the eye.  There where many times when I would stop reading for a while just so I could just stare at the great art on the page.  Tardi uses a lot of rounded and long vertical panels here which you don't see very often and give The Arctic Marauder a unique look.

As great as the art and the adventure was, this one was not without some flaws.  I felt like some of the pages were over burdened with too much text, which did two negative things: covered up the art, and slowed down the flow of the story.  Another thing that bothered me a bit was that the ending felt really abrupt.  This could have easily been twice as long as the 64 pages it chimes in at.  When I had turned the last page I felt a little bit cheated.  My first thought was that there's got to be a sequel, but from what I can uncover from research, it looks like this is all I'll be getting. It is kinda fun to imagine for myself what happens to the characters after the last page is turned, but I would have been happier with more material.

Despite my two gripes, this is still a pretty magnificent comic. It's a lot of fun to read, and the art is sure to please.  Tardi is a real master of the medium and I'm glad his stuff is getting translated and published here in the states.  I can definitely see myself gobbling up everything of his they decide to publish.  I strongly recommend The Arctic Marauder or anything else by Jacques Tardi, even the stuff I haven't read, because I think he's a comic creator that everyone who enjoys the medium should experience at least once.  If you wanna double up and get your comic fix and steampunk fix at the same time, then this is the one for you.

Grade: A-

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Comic Quickies: New Sagas and Projects

Saga #1: Well, I've been eagerly waiting for this comic since it was announced way back in July at San Diego Comic Con.  Seems like ages ago.  Well, I'm happy to say that Saga appears to have been very much worth the wait.  As far as first issues go, this one is about as good as they come.  Vaughan does a fantastic job of introducing the characters, setting up the story, all while building and developing the universe in which the story takes place...oh, and it's an exciting action packed first issue too.

In the opening pages of Saga we get a rather intimate view of young woman, Alana who is giving birth to her first child in a mechanic's shop, while her husband, Marko lends a hand.  Both Marko and Alana are human-like aliens, and as it turns out, of different races; Races which happen to be at war with one another...a war that is spanning the galaxy.

Alana is from a planet called Landfall, the largest in the galaxy, while Marko is from Wreath, the one and only satellite moon of Landfall.  Apparently, familiarity breeds contempt.  Since destruction of one would send the other spinning out of orbit, each side has outsourced the war to other planets, and now the entire galaxy finds itself embroiled in the conflict.

Aside from Marko and Alana, it looks like there's a few other players that will be big parts of the overall story.  The art here is pretty great too.  It's all handled nicely by Fiona Staples who seems to be just the right fit for this epic galaxy spanning story.  She's called upon to draw a wide variety of people, creatures and settings here, and it all looks wonderful.  I'm excited to see more from Staples.

Saga scores points on many fronts, not the least of which is the cost/value front.  You get 44 pages of comic here for $2.99!  Probably the most bang for your buck.  Also, Vaughan and  Staples earn lots of cool points from me for depicting a brown woman breast feeding on the cover of their first issue.  That might sound like a silly thing, but by and large the comics world is a sexist and racist place, and I was happy to see a comic that makes a clear statement that it will not continue to perpetuate a shitty trend.  I'm very excited to see where this one leads.

Manhattan Projects #1: This one ain't gonna win any awards for cool cover art, but it's what's inside that counts right?  Manhattan Projects is another comic from Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra, the creative team that brought us The Red Wing.  I wasn't super impressed with The Red Wing, especially on the art front as I felt that Pitarra was pretty inconsistent through the course of the 4 issue series. But the writing wasn't so hot either.  So really, I didn't have a ton of momentum coming into this title, aside from the fact that Hickman's ideas always sound so damn cool and I usually want to read and see if he delivers.

The concept here is sort of a what if situation where Hickman asks, what if the Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic bomb, was instead the Manhattan Projects a place for all kinds of weird and wild science experiments and creations to flourish?  *Sigh* I'm such a sucker for mad science.

This first issue focuses on Robert Oppenheimer's first day on the job as he is hired by some dude from the war department that appears to be a cross between Sargent Slaughter and The Great Santini.  A tour of the facilities follows and Hickman mixes in Oppenheimer's and his twin brother's back-story, while the Japanese send a troop of robots through a portal and attack the science facilities.

It makes for an interesting and exciting first issue, but I'm still a bit skeptical.  Pitarra's art still suffers from inconsistency, there's some stuff that looks good, some not so good, and some that looks down-right poor.  (Like the time the guy from the War Deparment's head looks like an unshelled peanut with eyes, ears, nose and mouth.) Consider me firmly on the fence.

Peter Panzerfaust #2: I've been eagerly awaiting this issue too, because I was so pleasantly surprised by the opening issue.  The second issue didn't let me down either.

Peter, and his plucky band of orphan boys manage to waylay some Nazis, steal their guns, knock 'em senseless, steal some intelligence, and plan a rescue mission for some captured Brits.  Not bad for a bunch of teens with no military training.

Wiebe delivers a thrilling and action packed issue once again and continues his red-hot streak of great comic writing.  Jenkins' art is a great accompaniment too.  He evokes the war-torn, occupied France look and feel very well.

My only gripe is that aside from Peter, I have a hard time keeping the other boys straight.  I think I know for sure who Felix is (cold hearted bastard in a short sleeved shirt and sweater-vest) but the other dudes are a blur of names and similar looking faces and outfits. There is one with a white dude 'fro, but I can't parcel out his name yet...I suppose I could just refresh my memory by going back to the first issue, but I'm lazy.  I'm fucked if these kids change clothes.

My laziness aside, this is a fun and entertaining comic that appears to be building towards cool things.  Bring on some more!

Blue Estate #10: One of my favorite comics reaches double digits this month and to commemorate, Viktor Kalvachev and co. deliver what is quite possibly the most hilarious issue of Blue Estate yet.  I was happily entertained by the real estate deal turned creepy/weird sex scene starring the Beckhams Peckhams which had a cameo appearance from none other than the Hoff.

They also mix in some funny stoners, get a racehorse high, and deliver some funny sexual repartee between starlet Rachel Maddox and my favorite character, Tony Luciano.  On top of all that, they also build the plot up to a nice boiling point that will likely erupt next issue.

With this tenth issue, it really seems like the creative minds behind Blue Estate have hit stride and are feeling very comfortable with the story.  This comic has a pretty complex plot with lots of ins and outs, but it has been masterfully delivered and the ride is a lot of fun.  I know I've said this before, but I highly recommend Blue Estate.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Kick It Old School

As I mentioned in my review of Jo Walton's Among Others, the book is in one part, a love letter to the sci-fi and fantasy from the 50's to early 80's.  Since I wasn't born until the early 80's and didn't start reading sf/f until the early to mid 90's, I missed out on a bunch of these authors and books.  My reading in the genre has been primarily contemporary authors and their works, so I've only just barely scratched the surface of what could be considered "classic" authors.

Over at SFF World, in the Fantasy Book of the Month discussion thread, we've talked about whether or not having read those books makes Among Others more enjoyable.  The verdict on that matter is mixed, but regardless, the book has led a few folks, myself included, to hit up the used bookstores in search of some old-school sf/f.  Here's what I've dug up:

In the same SFF World thread, I wished for a complete list of all the old school sf/f books mentioned in Among Others and boy, was my wish ever granted.  Jo Walton herself stopped by and provided a couple of really cool links that list all the books read or mentioned by Mori in Among Others.  A veritable treasure trove of authors and their works.  Here's an alphabetical list by author from Walton's Live Journal page.  For those of you who are more visual and/or into Pinterest, there's also a link to someone's Pinterest wall that has all the covers.  Gotta love the old school cover art!

I've been spending my spare time researching the titles on the list and updating my list of books I want to read.  I can't wait to get reading on some of these.  Expect to see some reviews here in the coming months!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Book Review: Among Others

Among Others is a unique and catchy tale told in first person, diary entry style which I hear is called Epistolary style.  (Word of the day!) Whatever you want to call it, this is an incredibly easy book to fall into, and one of the most unique novels I've ever read.

We meet Morwenna Phelps, the voice of this epistolary narrative, after recent half-eluded to events, (some sort of showdown with her magic-using mother), which left her hobbled, and her twin sister dead. Morwenna has run away from her hometown in Wales to her father's estate in England and the father, whom she barely knows, has shuffled her off to an elite boarding school where Mori feels like a complete outsider.

Gone are her days of exploring industrial ruins and conversing with the fairies who dwell there, gone is her sister, her constant companion in life, and gone is her sense of belonging.  What's left, her only refuge from her bratty classmates and her mother's spiteful letters, is her love for books. Science fiction books to be more precise.

After swearing off magic, expect for protective purposes, Mori is tempted to once again use her arts to find a circle of like-minded friends, but she fears her magic will draw the attention and wrath of her mother.

Among Others is a lot of things, all them great. For one, it's a coming of age story, which tend to be hit or miss with me.  I initially balked at the idea that this was a coming of age tale, because Mori seemed so mature, and intelligent for her age. At the very least she seems equal to many of the adults around her, but there is a large degree of growth that she experiences in this novel and it was nice to witness her growth through her diary entries.

Secondly, Among Others is very much a love letter to the science fiction and fantasy novels of the 50's, 60's and 70's.  Mori is a huge sf fan, and through these works she learns about life, connects with other people, and grows.  Make no mistake, this girl is incredibly well read.  I think those who are well versed in the works of LeGuin, Heinlein, Zelazny, Delany, and many others will likely find a deeper connection to this novel, but I had only read a mere fraction of the novels that get attention in Among Others and at times I felt like I wasn't quite getting the fullest understanding of Mori's thoughts.  Still, despite that, I had little problem enjoying the novel, and even if one hasn't read pretty much every sf novel published between 1950-1980 that factor will in no way kill anyone's enjoyment of this novel.

Thirdly, Among Others is one of those rare books where I was able to feel like each time I opened it up to read I was falling into another more magical and wonderful world.  It's an experience that as a kid, got me to fall in love with books, but as an adult had been an elusive feeling.  This was one of those books though. Just in case you were wondering, the feeling is still just as wonderful now as it was then.

The author, Jo Walton, has done a fine job crafting her characters here, particularly Morwenna. She's a very interesting person, and getting inside her head made for an exciting journey.  She's also incredibly easy to root for.  There's an prologue entry from four or five years prior to the events of the novel, and through that we get a chance to see Mori before the events that led her to runaway from home and she is much softer edged and lighthearted than the Mori we see in the main narrative.  That glimpse into her past gave insight into the person she was in current times.  It was a pretty simple device, but one that paid big dividends throughout the novel.

Since the story is told through diary/journal entries, at first I felt like I was wrongfully spying on a perfect stranger, but after a while morphed into feeling like Mori was letting me in on her life.  I definitely enjoyed this style of telling the story, and I think Walton's handling of this unique style was flawless.  An impressive feat for sure.

Though I enjoyed Among Others immensely, I did have a couple gripes.  There were some plot elements, and I wont name names for fear of spoiling things, that I wished had remained a mystery throughout.  Let's just say there's some reveals I could have done without, and I think had they remained a mystery, would have added more power to the narrative.  Also, there's one scene between Mori and her father that should have had great repercussions for their relationship that I think wrongfully got glossed over and put in the rear view mirror.  Lastly, the opposing forces of Mori and her Mother don't play out to a very satisfying ending.  This element was most responsible for taking away a bit of my enjoyment.

Those few gripes sit heavily, because this book came so close to being something really special.  I enjoyed this book, but it just missed hitting the bullseye by a small fraction.  Still, this is an impressive work of fantasy and worthy of high praise.  Walton has chiseled out a piece of writing that is honed and focused and near perfect.  Definitely worth a read.

Grade: B+

***Among Others is also the SFF World fantasy book of the month for March, 2012.  Stop by and join the conversaton!***

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Graphic Novel Review: Orc Stain vol. 1 with added bonus! Issues 6 and 7!

I'm here today to tell you about the wonders of Orc Stain, an amazing comic created, written, penciled, inked, colored, and lettered by James Stokoe. (What? He can't make the paper it's printed on too? C'mon!) Not only does the man do it all, but he does it all extremely well.  This comic is a triumph of creativity and craftsmanship.

For ages upon ages, the world has been dominated by the orcs.  Savage, cruel, duplicitous, and murderous by nature, no one orc has yet been able to bring the hordes that cover the globe under his thumb.  That's not to say no one has tried.  The most recent of mighty orcs is one calling himself the Orc Tzar. Backed by a mighty host of orc warriors, he leads his mob north in search of an ancient artifact of the gods, the ganga-gronch.

While the Orc Tzar and his minions surge northward, One-Eye, a skilled thief, makes his way in the world by raiding tombs and keeping his gronch out of harms way.  When things go sour with his thieving partner, Pointy-Face, One-Eye finds himself on the wrong end of a poxa-gronka vendetta, and on the run from the Orc Tzar's elite soldiers who are tracking down all one eyed orcs because those who possess only one eye may hold the the key to finding the ganga-gronch.

At this point, you are probably wondering, "what the fuck is a 'gronch'?"  Well, the gronch is a precious commodity in the world of Orc Stain.  A "gronch" is an orc's junk, and is part currency, part trophy.  To lose one's gronch is a very bad thing, but to have collected gronches is a big bonus in this world.  Pretty fucked up I know, but also incredibly hilarious.  Oh, and a "poxa-gronka" is like a vendetta on someone's dick.  No rest until you've taken their gronch.  I'm so glad I'm not an orc.

Maybe a comic about orcs and their wangers sounds immature to you, or maybe it sounds as if it's the funniest thing ever, but before you judge a book by it's gronch, let me just say there is so much more to be had here.  Stokoe has created an incredibly exciting world where pretty much anything goes, and all the rules of civility have been thrown out the window.  Simply by putting orcs at the top of the food chain makes for some fun times, but Stokoe has made himself a pretty amazing fantasy world populated by some wonderfully weird and strange creatures and characters.  There's swamp rambas (witch-like hermits who excel in the arts of poison), sentient hoods (weird furry creatures who attach themselves to another being and form some sort of symbiotic bond), a bevvy of orc varieties, as well as numerous other creatures both big and small.

In addition to an incredible world that is a lot of fun to immerse yourself in, you get page after glorious page of insanely hyper-detailed art that is positively mind-blasting.  Stokoe's art is absolutely fucking nuts.  Don't believe me? Just click on them shits and embiggerate them. Or check out the dude's blog.  Every panel on every page is wonderful.  I can't imagine how labor intensive each page must be, or how long it takes the guy to finish a page, the long gaps between issues seems to indicate things take a loooong time. I'm willing to wait. Stokoe is a freak.

So, great story, great art...are there any negatives?  Well, there is one slight negative related to the first volume...while it does collect the first 5 glorious issues of Orc Stain, it doesn't collect the entirety of the first story arc. It ends with a pretty brutal cliff-hanger too. What the fuck?  I don't know what happened here, but I guess Image decided to not wait for issue 6 before releasing a graphic novel collection.  This is a bit of a let down, and may have defeated lesser men, but not I.  For I also own issues 6 and 7 giving me all the Orc Stains known to man.


I'm happy to report that all the awesomeness I came to love and expect from the first volume can be found in epic abundance in issues six and seven as well.  The sixth issue ties up the first arc, and ends with a pretty big and important reveal.  From there, the seventh issue finds our pal One-Eye with the dangerous swamp ramba Bowie as they journey through a deadly mountain pass populated by what appears to be extremely deadly, (and blind) ninja-bunnies.  Yes, you read that right.

Like I said earlier, I'm not really sure what Stokoe's publication rate is, but I will be doing my best to wait patiently for the eighth issue.  Seeing as I read the entirety of the series so far more or less back to back, that wait could be quite grueling.

Orc Stain is a feat of comic genius, and should be enjoyed by as many people as possible.  I give this bad boy the fullest of Battle Hymns recommendations.  Go forth! Read! Enjoy! Viva la Gronch!

Grade: A+

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Music Is My Friend

Grant Snider, the creative and artistic mind behind one of my favorite comic blogs Incidental Comics recently updated his webcomic with an inspirational post called Some of my Best Friends are Records.  You can check it out below:

Pretty cool comic right?  Well, as soon as I read it I got thinking about which records of my own I would place in each category.  So, I've compiled a list of said records, and will share them with you now....

Records I've Loved Since I was a Kid:

Still great after all these years...even if Mustaine supports d-bags like Rick Santorum.

Countdown to Extinction

Records I Haven't Heard from Since High School:

Okay, maybe I have listened to this a bit since high school, but only like twice.  -The Rza, the Gza, the Ol' Dirty Bastard, Inspecta Deck, U-god, Ghostface Killa and the Method Man!

Enter the Wu-Tang 36 Chambers

Records That Always Want to Party Karaoke:

When I party, I karaoke party.  When I karaoke, I sing Aerosmith.  This album has all my hits: Cryin', Crazy, and What it Takes.

The Very Best of Aerosmith

Records That are Way Too Smart for Me:

This is one of those records you can find new meanings from even after hundreds of listens.  Shit is DEEP bro! 


Records Whose Coolness I've Tried to Imitate:

Is there anyone cooler then Johnny Cash?  Fuck no.  I'm not nearly as cool as Johnny, but I try.  I'm definitely lacking in the "badass" department.

When the Man Comes Around

Records My Other Friends can't Stand:

I mostly listen to music in private, but on occasion, I'll listen to some metal while my lady is doesn't go over very well. Her mock "death metal growl" is quite aggravating in a cute and hilarious way.  She basically will just snarl "Death, death, die, die!" and headbang or play air guitar until I turn the music off so she'll stop. 

The first time this situation happened I was listening to Deliverance.


Records That Help Me Relax:

This is where I go when I need to find my quiet place.  See you on the dark side of the moon. 

Dark Side of the Moon

Records I'm Working Up the Courage to Talk To:

Not totally sure why, but this is an Opeth album I've neglected for too long. 

Every time I see them live Akerfeldt will say something like: "This next track is from the My Arms Your Hearse record", and I'll be sad 'cause it means they're about to play a song I don't know.  

My Arms Your Hearse

So there they are.  What about you intrepid Battle Hymns readers? What albums would you put into these categories?

***"Some of My Best Friends Are Records" is courtesy of Grant Snider and Incidental Comics.***

Monday, March 12, 2012

Book Reivew: Blue Fall

When Frank Youngsmith begins his investigation on William Beauchamp's life insurance policy, he thinks it'll wind up being another dull claim in the never ending drudgery that is his life.  However, after meeting with a colleague of Beauchamp's and given a couple clues, Youngsmith finds himself uncovering the secrets of a hidden world where the rich and powerful place potentially world-shifting bets on the outcomes of a World Cup-style urban warfare game that calls itself The Tournament.

With a new cycle of the Tournament due to occur at any time, Blue Fall author B.B. Griffith takes time to introduce the reader to a handful of the national teams which are made up of three players per side: a Captain, striker, and sweeper.  Griffith gives the reader a lot of background information on each player, developing the character, and giving the reader a taste of their individual personalities, and hinting at how their team cohesion might play out once the Tournament cranks up. Though it was nice to get a firm grip on who the players where, all the time spent on character development early on in the story made for a pretty slow start.

We meet these players through rapidly shifting points of view which gives the reader the opportunity to get inside a lot of heads and see what that person is really like.  With eight teams in the Tournament, and three players per side, you end up inside a lot of heads.  This led me to believe that many of the teams and players would wind up being more or less unimportant to the story, and sure enough, many of the characters introduced soon wind up as cannon fodder for one of the four teams whose characters got the lion's share of character development.

The Tournament itself is a bit of an enigma.  There's not really any explanation given as to what it is all about or why it occurs, but despite the ambiguity, it is a pretty cool idea.  Like I said before the Tournament is sorta the World Cup of small scale warfare, but with only 8 teams competing, which makes me think maybe the whole thing is still in it's infancy.  Either way, the rules are pretty simple: teams use special guns with non-lethal electric diode bullets to try and gun each other down.  The team with the last man standing wins.  Collateral Damage and injury to innocent bystanders is frowned upon, but not against the rules.  Once the Tournament begins rich and powerful folk (and even world leaders) who are in the know, place extravagant and probably highly illegal bets on the outcomes.

With such high stakes, you'd think the Tournament players would all be special forces dudes, or ninjas, or battlemages but that's not the case. There's actually no explanation given as to why the players are selected for the Tournament.  The players are all carefully selected, but under what criteria, I don't know, but martial prowess, marksmanship, and tactics didn't seem to factor in.  The teams never seemed to employ much of a strategy other than selecting a location for the showdown, then going in and shooting anything that moves. On top of that, everyone's aim is atrocious. There's plenty of gunfire, but very few of the shots ever seem to hit a target. It sorta felt like each match was a game of dodgeball, but with incredibly exciting game of dodgeball.

Sure, the fights didn't employ a lot of tactics, and in the few cases where tactics were employed, they were soon thrown out the window in favor of clusterfuck style action, but damn it if they weren't a ton of fun.  Griffith can write a pretty damn pulse pounding action sequence that will literally have you on the edge of your seat.  The Tournament battles where definitely an area where Griffith's devoted character development paid off.  Because he had spent plenty of time getting the reader inside each character's head, it was pretty hard to figure out what the outcomes to the battles would be.  It seemed as though no character would benefit from "plot-armor" and sure enough, there were a shit-ton of plot twists and surprises.

Though things got off to a slow start, once the tournament got rolling, the story picked up too.  There were quite a few elements here, the special bullets, top secret governmental plots, shadowy string pullers, and a touch of mad science, that gave Blue Fall a bit of a Warren Ellis feel to the story.  This one is not without it's flaws, some which took away from my overall enjoyment, but there's plenty of good stuff to build on.

Grade: C+

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Graphic Novel Review: Whiteout: Melt

After the success I had with Whiteout, I thought it would be nice to jump right back into Greg Rucka's frozen, crime riddled antarctic world.  Whiteout: Melt begins with a little history lesson on how Antarctica came to be divvied up by various countries, then dives right into the action as a unit of soldiers storms a Russian research station, kills everyone around, then blows the whole thing sky high, but not before making off with something valuable.

Enter our hero, Carrie Stetko, who is enjoying some sunshine and green grass on her vacation in New Zealand.  Her brief period of R&R is shattered when her boss calls her in for a briefing.  It turns out the Russian research base that got blow'd up was likely also an arms depot, and the US government wants Carrie to go in and assess the situation. Carrie is initially unwilling, the job is out of her jurisdiction, and none of her business, but the G-Men ply her with promises of reassignment to a warm, sunny climate, and Carrie accepts the task.  Before 48 hours have gone by Carrie finds herself back on the ice and once again in over her head.

Whiteout: Melt is more of a cat and mouse espionage thriller than a mystery this time around.  The reason I say that is this one had that familiar "Cold Warrior" espionage feel that you often see in spy novels.  Which wasn't a bad thing, but this definitely felt like a very different story from Whiteout except that it featured the same lead character.  The antarctic setting was almost a character  itself this time around as it played a big role in the story.

Once again, Rucka delivered a story that was face paced, tense, and even had a couple of nice twists, with some cliffhangers thrown in for good measure.  All in all, pretty thrilling stuff, but in my opinion, Whiteout: Melt lacked a bit of the magic of it's predecessor.  The reason being that in Whiteout the characters drove the story along whereas in Whiteout: Melt the story is what drives the characters.  A small difference, but one that delivers a very different feel to the story.

Lieber's art is very consistent with the first volume, but I will say that this time around his action sequences look better, and flow across the panels a lot better.  I said it before, but it is worth mentioning again, the black and white art here only makes the world of the antarctic feel all the more frigid and realistic.  There are some scenes that are sure to give even the most warm blooded reader the chills.

Once again, Rucka delivers a strong story, but for my money Whiteout: Melt was my weakest Rucka reading experience so far.  That said, it was still pretty damn good.  Whiteout: Melt might not be essential Greg Rucka reading, but it's still worth checking out, and proves to be another solid chapter in the adventures of Carrie Stetko.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Comic Quickies: Farewell Green Wake

Green Wake #10: It is sad to say, but issue 10 of Green Wake is the final issue of this wonderful comic.  The title has had a bit of a rollercoaster life span, it was first meant to be a 5 issue mini, then became an ongoing, then when sales were poor, got the ax.  I guess that's the business side of things.

For its brief lifespan, Green Wake has delivered on quality month in and month out.  Kurtis Wiebe's writing has been strong from issue one on out.  Though Green Wake isn't his most accessible work, (my vote is for The Intrepids) this is probably his best.  I always had the feeling Green Wake was a very personal book for Wiebe and that close to the heart element imbued Green Wake with an added layer quality.

Riley Rossmo's art is pretty much the perfect match for the subject matter.  He has an amazing knack for drawing you into the world with his atmospheric art, and he can draw some really gross/creepy/grotesque/wonderful creature-beasts.  All positives in my book!  Truly a great combination of art and writing.

Farewell Green Wake, I'll miss you.  Thanks for all the memorable times, particularly the soul-bearing moments in issue 5.  Wiebe has a great and detailed description of the Green Wake mythos up at his blog, Spinning Yarn.  Definitely worth checking out, but not before reading issue 10!

I should add that even though issue 10 spells the end for Green Wake, there's plenty of great comics from Wiebe and Rossmo already here or on the horizon.  The duo have a cool looking post-apocalyptic comic coming in July called Debris. Also, check out my post about Wiebe's Peter Panzerfaust. He also has another mini coming up called Grim Leaper Rossmo also has a four issue mini coming up about a zombie apocolypse called Rebel Blood.  I'm not a zombie lover by any stretch of the imagination, but this one looks worth a read.  Zombie Squirrels! RUN!

Prophet #22: This is easily my favorite comic of the moment.  Prophet is exactly what I look for from a comic: incredibly fun to read, yet stimulating and thought provoking, great writing, incredible art, and wonderfully creative.  Oh, and throw in sweet beasts.  Hard to beat that!

I could very easily gush on about this title, but you'd be better served by just going out and buying the issues for yourself.  This is one of those titles that makes me slash a bunch of lesser comics off my pull list because it makes me realize how great comics can be and that I shouldn't suffer anything less than the best.  (Good-bye Action Comics, Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. and Daredevil.)  I think I'm gushing again.  Yup, I am....

For real though, this is some of the best stuff on the shelf.  It will enhance your life.  Read and Enjoy!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Book Review: The Black Lung Captain

It's no secret around these parts that I enjoyed Retribution Falls.  Shit, it even won an award (or something) as one of the top books that I read in 2011.  With serious cred like that to kick off the series, it was only a matter of time before I got my hands on the next installment in The Tales of the Ketty Jay series and took another dip into the waters of bucklepunk mayhem.

The Black Lung Captain picks up about a year after the events of Retribution Falls and finds the crew of the Ketty Jay stuck in the same old ruts.  Crake is still wallowing in guilt and shame from actions in his past; Jez is still feeling lonely because she can't share her big secret with the crew; Harkins is still afraid of everything under the sun, including Slag the psycho cat; Pinn is still  pining over his sweetie; Malvery is still a slobby drunk; Silo is still fixing shit in the engine room; and Frey is still trying to figure out how to carve out a happy life for himself.

Oh, and the crew is broke.

Well, lucky (or unlucky?) for the crew of the Ketty Jay, they are soon approached with a tempting offer that involves a bit of risk, and high reward.  This job offer comes in the from of one explorer by the name of Rodley Hobb and one gruff looking, cigar chomping captain by the name of Harvin Grist.  The two require the help of Frey's crew, namely the deamonist, Crake, to help unlock a magically protected door.  Of course, the door is part of a downed ship in the middle of a far off mysterious and dangerous rain forest.

This is exactly the kind of job Frey and his crew excel at, however, not all is as it seems. Before too long, Frey and crew are wishing they had someone as insightful as Pete to deliver this wonderful piece of advice:

Unfortunately for Captain Frey he soon discovers that he's in way over his head and is forced to take desperate actions to make things right.  With powerful bedfellows and old enemies helping him out Frey must lock down his fortune before his whole crew falls apart.

Aside from being ridiculously fun and entertaining, the most amazing quality of The Black Lung Captain is that it is an even better book than Retribution Falls.  Chris Wooding has taken pretty much every element that made the first novel great and kicked it up a notch.  An impressive feat.

The characters that populate this novel have definitely reached that point where they stop feeling like characters and more like old friends.  Wooding wasn't content to just rest on the character development he had in the first novel.  Instead he added more layers to each member of the crew, and further fleshed out their past, and their inner feelings and demons.  Wooding also develops a few side characters as well, which makes the story feel bigger, and gives the reader the sense that the events will have ramifications that spread beyond Frey and his crew.

Another quality of The Black Lung Captain that I love, and the same goes for Retribution Falls, is how much fun these books are.  Wooding has found the perfect balance between action, characters, plot, humor, and drama.  It all magically comes together to make one fantastically great read.  I really think a book this fun and this engaging is a rare find, yet Wooding has written two gems so far.

I do however, have one gripe.  Maybe it's the fantasy lover in me, but I really wish there was a map included here.  Only because I struggle with the scale and distance of places.  I don't know how fast the airships can travel, so it is hard to judge how far away places are or how big the land is they are covering.  This little gripe doesn't really do anything to decrease my enjoyment, I just wonder about the mechanics.

So, if you haven't pulled the trigger on this series yet, I really think you should.  The Tales of the Ketty Jay novels are some of the best on the shelves these days.

Grade: A

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Graphic Novel Review: Black Hole

Black Hole is a story set in the 70's right here in Seattle.  From early on in the story, we find out that there's some sort of sexually transmitted disease going around called "the bug" that manifests itself in a variety of ways.  For some people it comes in the form of hideous mutations, or molting skin, and for others it is something more easily concealable. Either way, once kids get "the bug" they tend to drop out of society and become social outcasts, living in little encampments deep in the woods of various (and if you're from the Seattle area, familiar) parks.

The story follows a few key characters, some who have the bug, some who are about to get the bug, as they traverse the murky waters of high school, and relationships, all while doing their best to either get drunk, get high, get laid, or some combination of the three.  We see these events through the eyes of Chris, a pretty, popular girl; Rob, a popular dude who hooks up with Chris; Keith, a stoner, introspective guy who wishes he could be with Chris; and Eliza, an arty girl who lives with a bunch of stoner college bros.

It becomes pretty obvious early on that the story of the bug is an allegory for the isolation of the teenage experience. While this is an interesting way to explore a topic that has been done over and over again, the author/illustrator Charles Burns decided to add another layer to the story by adding a murder mystery element. Basically what happens is that someone starts killing off the kids who have contracted the bug.  This gives the story a bit of a horror element too I guess, but it never really resonated with me.

The kicker is that neither the epidemic element nor the murder mystery element did much to add life to the story  here.  The reason being is that neither one got enough treatment.  The Bug could have been incredibly interesting, but it wasn't.  Burns seemed content to not explain it at all.  Outside of the teens who got it, no one seemed to really know or care about it.  Are there stages? What causes the mutations?  Is that talking mouth-mutation thing prophetic?  These were questions that burned throughout the entire story that never got answered.  The murder mystery element didn't get the proper amount of development either and sort of just seemed to pop up, then kind of be a thing for a while, then not be a thing anymore.

Instead of focusing on the interesting elements, Burns instead went all in with his characters, which didn't really pan out either.  This area was sort of a wash out for me as I thought the male characters were pretty well done.  Though I wasn't remotely like either Rob or Keith in high school, I still felt like I could relate to both in a number of ways. However, Burns really missed the target with his females, Chis and Eliza.  Both characters were interesting, smart, talented girls, but instead of promoting their strength and individuality Burns fell into the trap of having these women need the help of men to get by in life, which didn't seem to fit with the characters, and is a really annoying character trait to read.

This read wasn't a complete bust for me though, because Burns' art is an incredible, inky, dark work of beauty.  I really enjoyed the experience of turning each page to see what artistic wonders could be found.  Rarely was I disappointed.  The nature of Black Hole's plot requires that Burns draws everything from the mundane to the insane and he does both incredibly well.  I only wish there had been a great story to go with the art.

Sadly, Burns missed out on an opportunity to explore some great plot points and develop some interesting characters.  For that reason, I'm left feeling pretty disappointed by Black Hole.  The wonderful art isn't enough to carry this graphic novel to the heights it had the potential for.

Grade: C-