Thursday, June 28, 2012

Comic Quickies: Wrapping Things Up

The Massive #1: When this series was announced, I got pretty excited.  The concept seemed cool, and on top of that The Massive provided me with a chance to give Brian Wood another shot.

Basically, what's going on here is that all of a sudden, the weather on Planet Earth has gotten really crazy and unpredictable.  As a result, Economies have toppled, coastal cities and towns have been laid to waste thanks to tsunamis, and the human population has been decimated.  During such shitty times, I guess the best place to be is on board a sturdy sea-faring vessel like the folks of the Direct-Action Conservationist ship,  Kapital.

We meet these folks, all of whom are members of an environmentalist group who are trying to figure why Mother Earth is so pissed at her inhabitants, as they are puttering about near Kamchatka. They're attempting to make contact with their sister ship, the Massive, but not having any luck.  Before too long, they are attacked by Pirates, which provides a little bit of action, while Wood peppers in back-story.  The problem is that neither piece is all that interesting and I couldn't bring myself to care a lick about what was going on in this opening issue.

The art, handled Kristian Donaldson, is solid, but she drove me nuts with her character designs.  Many of the key crew members on board the Kapital, are older than me, (their year of birth is given right in the panel), however, they all look like they are about 19-24 years old.  Even the captain, a guy who is 46 years old, looks super young.  On top of that, they all look and dress like hipsters, which is pretty fucking stupid given the fact that they live on a ship currently hanging around the Arctic.

The issue was pretty boring to begin with, but then it went and aggravated me with stupid looking characters who look nothing like their age.  I don't need a comic to look "cool" and "hip" to make me read it,  suffice it to say that I was not impressed.  I removed this title from my pull box immediately after finishing the issue.

Transmetropolitan Volume 10: So I finished up the Transmetropolitan series.  Yeah, it was great.  The last few trades really flew by and delivered some incredibly entertaining reading material.  Not only that, but the series ended quite well.  I was impressed.  It's not too often that folks are able to wrap up long series and wrap 'em up well, but Warren Ellis was able to do just that.

Robertson's art was phenomenal throughout. I am still a little stunned that he did the art for every single issue in the series.  That is impressive.  Usually artists need a break so they can stay caught up and keep the issues coming out at a monthly rate, but Robertson was there from issue one on through.  Given how much detail he adds to every panel makes this all the more impressive.  To top it all off, there is never a noticeable moment where the art seems rushed or half-assed.  This is simply a very talented artist delivering some top-shelf art issue after issue.

If you haven't had the chance to read Transmetropolitan yet, I strongly urge you to get your hands on the first trade and enjoy.  This is a landmark series in the world of comics and features both a writer and an artist working at the top of their games.  This is the perfect series for Ellis because the story provides a great catch-all for all his wonderful, mad-cap, zany, and genius ideas...and if anyone is gonna be able to draw that shit, it is Robertson.  Really great stuff.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Book Review: Bitter Seeds

Bitter Seeds was one of those books that came out a couple of years ago and got a whole bunch of really great reviews.  It went on my list of books to read in the near future, and eventually I got my grimy mitts on it.  Sure, I'm a couple years late to the party, but I'll be damned if Bitter Seeds isn't one hell of a party.

Set during the World War II era, Bitter Seeds follows Raybould Marsh, a British Spy who, while on a mission in Spain, spots a German woman who appears to have wires going into her head.  Before too long, the German Blitzkreig is in full swing, and many of the German victories have been aided by special soldiers who have strange and powerful abilities.  These special soldiers are WWI orphans and the products of a decades-spanning mad science experiment by a deranged Nazi scientist. This scientist has given the orphans such abilities as fire starting, super strength, intangibility, invisibility, and precognition.

With the help of some stolen intelligence, Marsh and the Britons discover the existence of these super soldiers who are tilting the scales of war in Germany's favor. In order to combat these mad-science soldiers, Marsh calls upon an old college friend, a magic-wielding aristocrat, who in turn enlists other sorcerers to the cause.  With total Nazi domination threatening the entire European/Asian land mass, the British marshal their magical forces to stave off the invasion.  However, both sides might just be mere pawns in a large scale game being manipulated by Gretel, the German precognitive.

To say that I was impressed by this debut is putting it very lightly.  Sure, I had heard lots of high praise about this book, but even with raised expectations, I was still quite impressed.  Even though it is easy to paint every Nazi character in every work of fiction as a pure baddie through and through, I felt that Tregillis did a great job of developing his German characters so that they were quite compelling and believable, and not just caricatures of the typical "evil Nazi" prototype bad-guy.

In fact, I would easily say that I found the German characters, particularly the altered-by-mad-science ones to be the most interesting and fun to read characters in the book.  That being said, all the characters that populate this book are quite well done.  The character arcs in this novel are quite good, and it was interesting to see how much the events of the story changed the characters.  

The most notable character is the German pre-cog, Gretel.  Simply put, she is one of the most fascinating and mysterious characters I've ever come across.  There is certainly more than meets the eye with this woman, and I, (along with many of the characters in the book), don't really know what game she is playing, but I'm pretty well convinced that the results wont be pretty.  

I think there is a tendency among fantasy readers to always be looking for the "next best thing".  As a result, lots of fantasy debuts, and some debut authors, get far more attention than their work warrants, and often far more attention than established authors get.  This is one of those strange phenomenons I don't really care for, or totally understand.  However... this is a really flippin' great debut!  Treggillis is full of cool, new ideas, his plot is sharp, with very few slow points or spots where my interest waned, and as I said before, his characters are great.  

It's not so often that I read the first book in a series and come out the other end super excited for the next installment, but this is certainly one of those times.  Tregillis has a great start to what looks like a great fantasy series.  If you haven't yet had the chance to read this one, I highly recommend you to remedy that situation immediately.  

Grade: A

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Short Story Review: Betrayal

In case you missed it, I got a Kindle.  The first thing I did upon opening said Kindle and firing it up was head to the Kindle store and download Tim Marquitz' Betrayal, which is a short story set in his awesome Demon Squad world.  The price point (FREE) was perfect and to sweeten the pot even further, there is not one, but two short stories in this package.

The first story, the titular Betrayal, is the perfect bridge between Resurrection and At the Gates. This little story not only fills in the gap between the two novels, but is the first Demon Squad story to feature a point of view not that of Frank Trigg.  In this one, we see events through his angelic cousin, Scarlet, who is fighting for her life as a deadly coup takes place in Heaven.

If you haven't read the first two Demon Squad books, Armageddon, and Resurrection, hold off on this, as it will spoil few key story developments. However, I highly recommend reading this before going on to read At the Gates.  I sure wish I had.  Sure, you can get by without having read it, but it does add a bit of background to the novel and enriches the story.

The second story, the existence of which came as a complete surprise, is titled Prohibition Blues and featured our old pal Frank Trigg.  This story was pretty cool as it is a story from Frank's past when Lucifer and God were still at their respective posts.  The story is set during the prohibition era and is a slick tale that features some of Lucifer and Frank's dealings with the mob, and other various unsavory characters.  It was nice to get an up close and personal look at Frank's past, which for the most part, has only been hinted at, or briefly mentioned thus far in the series.  I enjoyed how Marquitz tied the story in with real life events, which made Hell's influence on Earth, which is a pivotal part of the series,  seem more real and tangible.

Both of the short stories are entertaining and solid reads.  These are a must if you are a fan of the Demon Squad series.  They help flesh out the world and give some important character development, and background.  Great Stuff.

Grade: A-

Friday, June 22, 2012

Graphic Novel Review: Beast

Beast was one of my must have pick-ups from this year's Emerald City Comicon. I'd been wanting to check out some of Marian  Churchland's work for a while, and ECCC seemed like the perfect opportunity to get my hands on some of her work since she was slated to be in attendance.  However, Churchland was a last minute cancellation, but her husband, and awesome comic creator, Brandon Graham, was kind enough to bring some copies of his wife's work with him to ECCC.

In Beast, a struggling young sculptor by the name of Colette gets hired to create a portrait of her client from a massive block of marble. The marble has been brought all the way from Carrera, Italy and all the other necessary materials are provided for Colette as well.  In addition, room and board at the client's home are provided free of charge.  It seems like the perfect job for Colette, until she sees the house, a decaying old thing in a neighborhood whose glory days are far behind.  On top of that, her client is a mysterious and shadowy figure known only as Beast.

Beast has a bit of that modern fairy tale feel to it as the characters and the story feel somewhat familiar, but at the same time, it all seems very new and fresh to the reader.  I was immediately taken in by this tale which delivers a great sense of mystery and also some powerfully emotional moments as well.  I was very impressed at how easily I fell into this story, and came to feel like I understood and knew the characters that bring this story to life. Churchland was able to use both the story and her art in tandem to connect me to the setting and characters both emotionally and mentally.  This was an impressive feat and one that Churchland seemingly pulled off effortlessly.

As I mentioned earlier, I had a very strong emotional connection to the story with Beast.  Colette is a character I found myself fretting and worrying over despite the fact that all she was doing for most of the comic was sculpting.  Sure, that's not exactly the most dangerous thing for a main character to be doing, but the situation, staying in a worn down house with perfect strangers, is a little sketchy. Additionally, Colette seems trapped by the job, with little contact with the outside world, which added to my worries.

However, I fretted and worried most for Colette every time Beast himself entered the picture.  There was this underlying sense of mystery and danger, possibly even sexual danger, that just emanated from the page whenever Beast was around that I found pretty terrifying.  This sense of danger permeated the whole story and kept me wondering, and worrying how things would turn out in the end.

The entirety of Beast is created, written, drawn, lettered, and all that jazz, by Marian Churchland and for the sake of this story, I wouldn't have it any other way. Churchland clearly had a strong grasp of how she wanted the story to look and feel, and that's achieved thanks to the fact that Churchland is the one doing all the work.

Churchland does an expert job of making both the story and the art work hard for their money.  This is essentially a colorless work, but Churchland does use different monochromes that seem to match with the mood or setting of the scene. I liked this little technique a lot, as it often signaled a mood change, or a change in tension which got my anticipation and expectations working without my really noticing as I was reading.

The art in Beast is completely unlike what usually tickles my fancy, but I liked it all the same.  Churchland is very willing to let her art do a lot of the heavy lifting and story telling and I appreciated that.  In some cases, Churchland not only lets her art tell the story, but also leaves things open to interpretation which allows the reader to have their own unique experience with the story.

Beast is a very impressive graphic novel both in terms of story and art.  This is Churchland's debut and it is a powerful one.  This is one of those comics that is probably well below most folk's radar, but is deserving of much more credit and acclaim.  There's a really strong story here, and some absolutely beautiful art as well.  What is most impressive is how it all comes together to make a sum that is greater than its parts, all while being a story that will appeal to and entertain a wide audience.  Great Stuff.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Kicking it Old School: Nine Princes in Amber

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.  

Up for review this time I've got the first in Roger Zelazny's epic Amber series, Nine Princes in Amber.

Maybe it's because he's well respected, or maybe it's because he's like, always the last name you see on the fantasy shelf at the bookstores, but Zelazny has always been on my radar, and I've always been intrigued by his Amber series.  A big turnoff for me though, is the sheer SIZE of the collected omnibus edition, which is practically the size of a phone book.

It wasn't until I moved to Seattle, the land of great used bookstores, that I discovered all the small pocket sized individual volumes that make up that great, epic sized Amber omnibus. There's ten dime sized books that make up the one ginormous omnibus, and they all have sweet old school cover art.  I saw them and knew I had to have them all.  The trouble was tracking down all ten, as each book store never had a complete set.  However, being the book bounty hunter that I am, I eventually completed the set.

Anyway, Nine Princes in Amber is where the whole dealie starts.  Right off the bat we meet Corwin, a guy who wakes up in a hospital with no memory of how he got there, or who he is.  However, from his narration of events, it is plain to see that there's something special about him.  Corwin seems to possess some supernatural healing abilities, and before too long he's making a daring escape from the hospital, and tracking down a woman who may know who he is.  Before too long, alongside Corwin, we discover some tid-bits about his past, who he is, and where he's from...which turns out to be a place called Amber, a parallel universe to our own, which is the one true universe.

Also, while investigating his own past, Corwin discovers a special tarot-like deck of cards, called the Trumps, which feature fully rendered paintings of his siblings, about whom details rush back into Corwin's head as he inspects the deck. As it turns out he and his eight other brothers are all princes of Amber, and they've all been struggling for the throne of that realm for quite some time.  Corwin's major injury and exile to our Earth were the result of an ill fated encounter with one of the other Princes.  Corwin hopes to return to Amber and make a push for the throne, but in order to do so, he needs the help of at least one of his many untrustworthy brothers.

I gotta say, I was pretty damn impressed with this one.  Zelazny is a pretty slick writer, as he describes both the mundane and fantastic well.  There's a lot of really cool fantasy elements at play here, mystical beasts, and underwater world, magical jewels, and more but for me the coolest of them all was the Trumps.  With the Trumps, the princes and their sisters can communicate with one another, attempt to force their will on, or control the mind of another, and also travel to where someone else is.  All these elements make the trumps an interesting and potentially dangerous element, and Zelazny uses that element of danger well.

As far as characters go, Zelazny does a pretty solid job.  Not every family member is introduced, but he gives the reader a sense of what each person is like, and how they factor into the strange family struggle for the throne.  While reading this, my gripe with the character development was that, outside of the nine princes and four princesses, the world/worlds, seemed pretty devoid of people.  Anyone else who gets mentioned is just sorta an empty husk that serves is basically an extra. There's random doctors, nurses, guards, soldiers, and what have you, but they don't seem all that real in comparison.  This serves to make Amber kinda feel like it's an empty place that is really beautiful that the family squabbles over.

However, looking back, I've realized that maybe I've just read too much epic fantasy, where practically every person, no matter how big or how small, gets a name and some character development.  That's probably not what Zelazny is trying to do here. It appears that the focus will stay on the various family members and their internal struggle.  Which, I guess is fine by me, since there seems to be some interesting folk in this family.  At the very least, the series will challenge my modern fantasy reading tendencies.

With the first of ten books under my belt, I can say that as far as opening salvos go, Nine Princes in Amber is a promising first volume.  It does the job of introducing the reader to the world, introducing characters, and giving some hints at future events so that the reader gets hooked for more, all while delivering some great fantasy elements, and some sweet sword fightin'.  Definitely worth a read.

Grade: 8.5 Reebok Pumps

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Graphic Novel Review: De:Tales

I go back and forth on whether or not I'm a fan of comic shorts.  For the record, I'm not talking about this kind of comic shorts, I mean comic short stories.

I've been impressed with what some writers and authors can do with the limited space, and completely underwhelmed by what others have offered.  Overall, my experience with the form has been pretty middle of the road.  You won't see me actively seeking out comic shorts, but if something piques my interest, and it is a short comic, I'll give it a go.  Which is how I came to possess De:Tales by the Brazilian wonder-twins Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba.

Other than my local comic dealer, the one person who knows my comics tastes well, is my lovely lady.  She sits though a lot of comic jibber jabber, and apparently takes in a lot more of what I'm going on about than her body language suggests. I say that because she always manages to snag me some nifty comic giftys when the time for gift giving comes around.  De:Tales is the product of my lady's great mental note taking.

Packaged as a slim, digest-sized hardcover, De:Tales features twelve short comics as the brothers work together, solo, and in tandem, trading off the writing and illustrating duties.  Each of the stories are tales that take place in urban Brazil, and some of them seem to be at least a little bit autobiographical.  For those who believe variety is the spice of life, there's a nice mix of slice-of-life tales, and magical realism.

I've been a fan of the brothers' work since reading Umbrella Academy and some of their other short comics work in various publications. There's a great degree of sincerity and soul in each brother's art, but at the same time each guy can instill a great degree of playfulness and energy into the art as well.  This makes them both very potent as artists, as they both have the skill to excite and entertain with visual feats, but can also pack an emotional wallop with their illustrations as well.  Both Moon and Ba display that unique talent here in De:Tales as well.

As much as I'd like to think I'm a fan of both Moon and Ba's work, I feel like a bit of a chump because it turns out I have a really hard time telling each one's art apart from the other.  I thought I had each guy's style pinned down, but De:Tales proved me wrong.  Both Moon and Ba have the ability to make their illustrations stand out as individual, but they can also mimic and mirror each other's style at will, which makes it hard for me to get a firm grip on who's art belongs to who.  Either way, Moon and Ba are equally talented artists, and their brand of art is definitely one of my favorites in the comics world.

The idea that Moon and Ba are capable of mirroring each other can be seen most clearly in the stories Reflections I and Reflections II.  In these stories, each brother works off the same script, but version I is illustrated by Moon, and version II is done by Ba.  It is really cool to see how each artist approaches each panel, and how they individually decide to show the story.  The similarities and differences are pretty cool to check out.

Though De:Tales was a great treat for my eyes, I wasn't totally in love with the stories it provided.  Sure there were some that I really loved, but there were others that didn't do much for me.  This is almost always my experience with comics shorts, so I can't say that I'm totally surprised.  Still, the reading experience was an entertaining one, and like I said, the art is really great.  Moon and Ba are two of the most talented comics creators in the business, and after reading this, I'll be interested to check out more of their work.

Grade: C+

Thursday, June 14, 2012

So, I Graduated...Plus the Very Best Doodles from My Senior Year

So, I did something pretty cool the other day, I graduated from college.  I am now the proud holder of an Early Childhood Education degree. So what are my future plans? Well, with said degree in hand, I'll likely keep on doing the same type of work I've been doing for the last ten years or so, just in a slightly different and (hopefully) better paid capacity.

I didn't go in for the whole cap and gown, sit around for six hours at the football stadium graduation ceremony, but I did do the departmental graduation thing...My parents were in town so there had to be some sort of ceremony,  right?  After that was all said and done, I did have a sweet party, complete with surprise guests secretly flown in from way out of town, a pinata, lawn games, and lots of BBQ, which was totally awesome.

I'm also heading to Lake Tahoe for about a week to chillax and not think about school or work for a few days. I'm very much looking forward to that.  Don't fret, I have a couple reviews stored up and placed in the automatic queue for when I'm gone.  Hopefully that automatic shit works.  I'll be depleting my stores of reviews however, so I'll need to type like a madman when I get back to keep things flowing smoothly around here.

A very big thanks goes out to everyone who stops by and reads my stuff here at the Battle Hymns.  This blog and it's readers played a big role in keeping me sane while working my way through school. I hope to keep giving folks good reasons to drop by in the future, and hope to be able to dedicate more energy to making Battle Hymns as awesome as it can be.



P.S. The pics are the very best doodles from my Senior year.  The rest of the doodles in my notebook are pretty bad, and totally embarrassing to share.  Clearly, I paid rapt attention during all my classes. What do/did you folks do when you are/were bored in class?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Author Interview: Paul S. Kemp

Well, today is officially a milestone day here at Battle first ever Author Interview!  Paul S. Kemp, author of the soon to be released The Hammer and the Blade, as well as a few Forgotten Realms novels, and some Star Wars books too, was kind enough to take the time and answer a few questions I had for him.  Paul is a pretty cool dude, (as you are about to find out), and now he's earned even more cool points by being such a monumental part of Battle Hymns history.  I'll shut up now so you can read what Paul has to say...

Battle Hymns: Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Paul S. Kemp: Sure!  I’m a father to three young children, have been married twenty years, smoke too many cigars, drink just the right amount of scotch, and have a day job as a lawyer.  Oh, I also write Star Wars, Forgotten Realms, and original world fantasy novels and short stories.

BH: For folks who haven’t had the chance to read it yet, Can you tell us about The Hammer and the Blade?

PSK: You bet.  The Hammer and the Blade is a sword and sorcery novel, my attempt to tell a story in the vein of Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Mouser tales, or Brackett’s Stark novels, or Howard’s Conan tales.  It’s fast paced, with compelling characters (I think) in the form of Egil and Nix, with lots of action, and a gritty, but enormously fun feel.  

BH: What did you learn as a writer from writing The Hammer and the Blade?

PSK: That I love writing a pure strain of sword and sorcery.  The fantasy work I’m most known for at this point is my Erevis Cale stories, set in the Forgotten Realms, and those are very dark, very gritty, and are a kind of blend of sword and sorcery and heroic fantasy.  I love Cale and crew and am going to keep on with those stories, but boy did I have a lot of fun with Egil and Nix in The Hammer and the Blade.

BH: What challenges did you face, if any, in writing The Hammer and the Blade?

PSK: Honestly, this was the easiest novel I’ve ever written, partially because it was so much fun, partially because it just fits my mental space right now.  The words just poured out.

That said, some of the scenes with the villain were challenging to write, given their subject matter.

BH: Who is the biggest influence on your work?

PSK: Tough to say who’s the biggest.  The most direct influences are probably Leiber, Moorcock, and Howard, but it was Tolkien who won me over to fantasy in the first place. 

BH: What inspired you to become a writer?

PSK: I think the desire has always been there, but there came a point in law school when I realized that I hated law school.  Right then I decided to try to pursue writing professionally (I’d only dabbled up to that point).

BH: What’s the best part of your job? What’s the worst part of your job?

PSK: Oh, the best part is the readers.  There’s really nothing quite as rewarding as receiving emails from active duty soldiers telling you that your stories helped get them through a tough day or just alleviated boredom, or hearing from a young reader who is, after reading your story, actually enthused about reading.  It’s great stuff.

The worst part is that certain subset of broken people who populate the internet and embody the worst kind of nastiness.  Facing that kind of thing comes with the authorial territory, but it still saddens me.  I just don’t understand those folks. 

BH: For you as a writer and/or reader, what qualities make for a good read?

PSK: I like a pacy novel, with incisive dialog, and interesting characters.  Characters are foremost for me, as a reader and writer.  I don’t want to invest in a world.  I want to invest in the characters who live in it.  

BH: Name three things you couldn’t live without.

PSK: My family, some kind of writing project in process, and good whiskey.  

BH: Own up to a guilty pleasure.

PSK: Budweiser Select 55.  It’s terrible beer, and I usually figure life is too short for terrible beer.  But once in a while, when I want something that approximates the taste of beer, but want it low calorie, the Bud 55 gets it done. 

BH: What music are you listening to these days?

I listen to Pandora, so I get all kinds.  I’ve had a thing for bands with female British lead singers lately, so:  Florence and the Machine, Kate Nash, Lily Allen, etc.

BH: What’s your all-time favorite album/record/CD?

PSK: Led Zeppelin II.  Rocks and has all kinds of fantastic imagery in the lyrics (including some Tolkien references).

BH: What book or books have you read lately that you thought were especially good?

PSK: Mieville’s Kraken was especially good – great prose, solid characters, wonderful setting.

BH: What would you like to see change or see more of in the Fantasy genre?

PSK: Oh, I don’t know a whole lot needs to change.  I guess I’d like to see the whole “justify fantasy/spec fic” discussion go away (it’s really a silly discussion and born of insecurity) and a willingness to embrace the idea that a fun story is valuable in and of itself (it’s great if it does more than that, but a story well told justifies itself).

BH: What does the future hold for you?  Any new projects you can spill some beans on?

PSK: Lots going on.  My next Forgotten Realms novel, Godborn, will be released before long.  My next adventure of Egil and Nix, A Discourse in Steel, will release in July next year.  And somewhere in there, my next Star Wars duology (subject matter still secret) will be announced.  Great stuff.  I’ve been very lucky.

BH: Is there anything you’d like to say to your readers and fans?

PSK: There is.  I’ll say “Thank you.”  I’ve got great readers/fans, and I sincerely appreciate all the support they’ve given me over the years. 


I want to say a big THANK YOU to Paul S. Kemp for taking the time to partake in this interview.  Thanks for classing things up around here, and for producing some damn entertaining fantasy.  Keep up the good work!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Book Review: The Hammer and the Blade

The Hammer and the Blade, an upcoming release from Angry Robot books, is a classic "Sword and Sorcery" style fantasy tale.  The tiny bit of experience I have in reading Sword and Sorcery-style fantasy is quite a few years behind me, so reading this ARC was as much a re-freshening in the sub-genre as it was an opportunity to read, enjoy and review a book.

I'll admit, I wasn't totally convinced I was a fan of Sword and Sorcery fantasy prior to cracking this book open, but The Hammer and the Blade goes a long ways towards making me a fan as it surges out of the gate with the action and adventure cranked up to eleven, and takes no prisoners from start to finish.

The story begins as the two main protagonists, Nix, a skilled thief, and Egil, a hulking priest with a talent for wielding twin war-hammers, are in the midst of raiding a tomb.  Upon reaching the final chamber, they do battle with a serpentine demon, kill it, relieve the burial chamber of some treasure, then return home to buy their favorite tavern and retire to a life of luxury and excessive drinking...Well, that's the plan at least.

Too bad that demon Egil and Nix killed happened to belong to the Thyss; a powerful family of hell spawn made more powerful thanks to a pact with the Norisstru family, a family of sorcerers. The pact between the two houses involves the demon Thyss mating with Norisstru females, thus populating each house with magically powerful heirs.

That pact is about to expire, and Rakon, the head of the Norisstru family, discovers that his connection in the Thyss family has recently been killed by two lowly grave robbers...Not the best news to hear when trying to uphold a centuries-old pact.  With time running out to renew the pact, Rakon uses his magics to find a living Thyss and discovers that one lives, but is trapped by powerful sorcery.  With the help of his guard squad and some compelling magic, Rakon enlists the aid of Egil and Nix to free the demon in time to secure the pact for another generation.

As if being recruited against their will wasn't shitty enough, their journey to free the demon just so happens to cut directly through a forsaken piece of land called The Demon Wastes.  On top of that, the spell Rakon used on Egil and Nix will kill them if they don't complete the task, and to top it all off, Rakon's sisters, magically drugged and along for the journey are meddling inside Nix's head. It's a bleak set of circumstances for sure, but it makes for a pretty damn entertaining read.

Egil and Nix, the primary characters of the novel got off to a rocky start for me.  At first glance, there's not much about either one of them that feels all that fresh or unique.  However, I did enjoy their epic-bro relationship, and their charming, witty banter.  The fact that the author, Paul S. Kemp, was able to so deftly add a nice humor element to a story that is quite intense and tragic was an impressive feat.   In the end, I was won over by Egil and Nix's charm.  Despite having a familiar feel, Kemp manages to instill his heroes with enough qualities to make them compelling and not just a recycling of familiar fantasy character designs.

Kemp's writing skills are at their sharpest when the sharp pointy objects come out.  The action sequences here are quite impressive.  The Hammer and the Blade is a fast-paced read, and the armed conflicts come fast and furious.  Kemp has a remarkable knack for making these clashes feel deadly and dangerous.  His choreography of battles is always quite clear and easy to follow, but most importantly, fun.  I haven't read very many other authors who write action sequences with such skill.

Egil and Nix can handle themselves in a fight, but Kemp throws them into some incredibly tight spots.  What I really liked about the action sequences is that for every time Egil and Nix had to rely on their skill at arms, there were equally as many times where they had to rely on their brains too.  This was a nice way to add variety to the action, and keep it interesting and engaging.

Those action sequences wouldn't have been nearly as interesting without some great foes, and boy oh boy, does Kemp deliver. I'm a big fan of monsters, and there's plenty of foul beasts and demons to be had here. Kemp created some really cool fantastical beasts, which made the battling and slaying of said beasts all the more exciting.

I was most impressed with how Kemp handled his villain Rakon. Despite his dastardly deeds, it is still possible to understand his motives and see that at his core, he is driven by doing what he believes to be best.  Sure, he's a slimy bastard, but Kemp makes him a believable slimy bastard.  In many ways, Rakon and his relationship with his sisters is the most interesting aspect of the novel.  There's a lot of sadness and tragedy here, and the book wouldn't have been half as good if Kemp hadn't handled this aspect so well.

In the end, I find myself feeling slightly torn over this book.  There are times when many of the elements at play in The Hammer and the Blade will feel familiar and well-worn.  However, Kemp seems aware of this and seemingly channels his efforts into giving the reader a fresh take on Sword and Sorcery, all while maintaining that familiar feel you'd get from reading Leiber or Howard .  I can't say that I totally loved this book, but there's a lot of great stuff here. In the final tally, the positives outweigh the negatives.

The Hammer and the Blade is a fun and entertaining read, with great action and a plot with absolutely zero drag.  In sum: If you like your fantasy to have stakes that are more personal than epic, and if you like heroes who are short on morals, then The Hammer and the Blade is for you. You'll get a heavy dose of action and adventure, and a plot that will make it hard to put this book down.  If you are looking for a fun read where the pages fly by, then this is needs to be on your summer reading list.

Grade: B-

Monday, June 4, 2012

Graphic Novel Review: The Spirit Books 1 & 2

There's two comic related things I've been wanting to do for a while now; read some The Spirit comics, and read something by Darwyn Cooke.  Then, one day, while browsing the used comics shelf at a bookshop, I discovered a couple of The Spirit trades written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke.  Win, win!  So I bought them and took them home, where they sat on my shelf awaiting a time when I needed something light and fun to read.  That time came around mid-terms.

Despite not knowing a damn thing about the character, I dove right in and figured I'd get the hang of things sooner or later.  Lucky for me, The Spirit isn't really the kind of guy that needs a whole big introduction and origin story to be enjoyed.  Sure, Cooke peppers that stuff in, but he focuses primarily on making sure the story itself is a lot of of fun, easy to get into and easy to get out of.  I guess you could say this was sorta a popcorn/fluff read, but it's a very well done fluff read.

The story starts out with a pretty standard abduction story.  Ginger Coffee, (Yup, pretty much everyone has a goofy-ass name like that in this comic), a well known news reporter, is abducted by some mysterious baddies,and taken to an undisclosed location.  The police are baffled, so it's up to The Spirit to crack some skulls and crack the case.  This opening story serves mostly as a way to introduce the reader to the world of The Spirit and from there Cooke introduces a bigger story arc that will span the length of his run with the character.

One aspect that I really appreciated about The Spirit  is that Cooke told the main story arc in a non-sequential fashion. He broke things up by inserting issues here and there that at first didn't seem to fit the main story line at all, but eventually came to play a role in the overall story by filling in back story, setting up things for later down the line, or developing characters that are integral to the plot.  Now, a lot of comics do this, but rarely have I seen this done so well.  My experience with this narrative trick is that it usually comes across as very overt and heavy handed.  Not so here.  Cooke skillfully made me think one thing about what was going on, only to reveal later down that line that certain instances were much more than they appeared.  It's nice to read something that is scripted so well.  Cooke made great use of the medium to deliver a great plot.

An aspect even more impressive than the plotting was Cooke's art.  I've always admired Cooke's art style, which is evocative of the golden age of comics.  I think he is a perfect match for The Spirit, and its cast of characters because they also evoke that golden age feel.  At first glance, his art seems a little more cartoony than I usually prefer, but once embedded in the story I really felt like his art made the story and the characters come to life.

 I gotta admit, this whole thing, characters, story, and art all seemed a little too campy to really be something I would enjoy, but I was pleasantly surprised.  The Spirit delivers a solid story with plenty of action and hi-jinks.  It's also a story with heart, and even a good sense of humor.  Put simply, there's a lot to enjoy, and very little to frown upon.  As long as one isn't searching for a read that will be emotionally engaging and provide deep meaning, The Spirit will likely entertain. It's light, it's fluffy, and it's a lot of fun.

Grade: B

Saturday, June 2, 2012

So I got a Kindle

So, about a week ago I had a birthday. My lady, being the awesome gift giver that she is, gave me a Kindle.  Not only that, but she did me a huge favor, since I am so technologically challenged, by buying me the simplest Kindle they make.  That's not all though, she also gave me a protective case, so that when I drop it, or step on it, or start chewing on it, it won't break.

To top it all off, she also made me cake.  I really love cake.

I haven't gotten around to reading anything on the new Kindle yet, other than the tutorial, but I'm looking forward to the experience.  As much as I love holding the physical copy of a book in my hands, my tiny living space is starting to get overrun with all my books, so this little item will help keep me from drowning in my book collection.

In the past, being the book snob that I am, I would have scoffed at the notion of such a gift, but time, age and I'd like to think, increased wisdom, has shown me that I really can't hang onto every book I read...but now, maybe I can at least hold onto digital copies.

Any other e-reader owners out there?  How do you feel about them?