Saturday, December 12, 2009
Book Report - Tom Strong: Deluxe Edition
(If your first guess is "I think you hated it, Chris," you've got two more guesses coming...)
Monday, September 28, 2009
Book Report - The Gentlemen's Speculative Society stories of Kage Baker
Along the way, though, I got talking with John DeNardo over at SF Signal about the possibility of guest reviewing for them, and when one thing led to another my planned review of Baker's new books is an SF Signal review and not an Interminable Rambling book report. If you're curious to hear my thoughts about Not Less Than Gods and The Women of Nell Gwynne's,though, head on over.
Thursday, September 18, 2008
I just finished rereading all of Mike Mignola's Hellboy family of titles, but I'm still digesting it and probably won't be writing it up until next week at the earliest. In the meantime, here's a couple of other things I've read lately.
Shannon & Dean Hale and Nathan Hale's Rapunzel's Revenge
I read this one on the flight to Denver for WorldCon, and am just getting around to writing it up. Written by Newbury Honor-winning author Shannon Hale and her husband Dean Hale, and illustrated by Nathan Hale (no relation), this is a graphic novel in the truest sense of the word, a done-in-one novel length comic book. It's intended for, and marketed to, the middle reader set (ages 9 to 12), but it's just as suitable for young adults and adults alike.
Rapunzel’s Revenge takes place in a fairy-tale-version of the American west, in which standard fairy tale tropes are recast in western idioms. The main character is Rapunzel, a young girl raised in a well-guarded villa by a woman she thinks is her mother. When Rapunzel learns that the woman is in fact an evil sorceress who rules the land with an iron fist, she tries to escape, only to end up imprisoned in a high tower, her hair cursed to grow endlessly. But rather than waiting for any handsome prince to come along and rescue her, Rapunzel simply braids her hair into two long rope-like braids, frees herself, and then using her braids as lariats and whips sets out to end the sorceress’s rule once and for all. She meets up with a young ne’er-do-well named Jack, who is down on his luck until his pet goose finally lays an egg, and together they travel across the deserts and forests, having adventures. Highly recommended.
Check out the authors' site for some nifty extras, including some spoilerific world notes and a nice view of the map of the setting.
Paul McAuley's Cowboy Angels
I've had this on my To Read pile for ages, but finally had a chance last week to dive into it. It was well worth the wait.
In Cowboy Angels, McAuley breathes new life into a fairly well worn idea. This is a story of alternate histories and parallel worlds, of people travelling through magic doors to worlds that are almost-but-not-quite their own. This was an idea that wasn't new when Andre Norton did it in The Crossroads of Time, much less when Keith Laumer tackled it in Worlds of the Imperium or when Harry Turtledove more recently dusted it off for Gunpowder Empire. But as Cowboy Angels shows, it's an idea still worth exploring, if an author can come up with a novel approach to the subject. McAuley's twist here is to view the interactions of different histories through the lens of American foreign policy, and in particular the CIA's "dirty tricks" in the mid-20C Cold War. The superpower in this particular multiverse is the "Real," a version of America that didn't experience our WWII, but in which physicists at a high-energy physics lab in Brookhaven in 1963 discovered the secret of creating "Turing gates," doorways to parallel worlds. The US government takes control of the technology, and uses it to "spread democracy" to the various alternate Americas it finds out in the multiverse. The various worldlines, or "sheaves," are known by the name of whomever was in charge of America when contact is first made, hence the designation "Nixon sheaf" for our own history. The structure of Cowboy Angels is part thriller, part murder mystery, with a fair number of pulse-pounding action scenes along the way. But it's really in the examination of the history of the 20th Century seen from a variety of angles, and the history of America and her foreign policy in particular, that Cowboy Angels shines. Highly recommended.
McAuley has made available online a short story, "A Brief Guide To Other Histories", set in the same multiverse as the novel, as well as a Q&A and sample chapters of Cowboy Angels.
Wednesday, September 03, 2008
Well, ever since turning in Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War II, I've found myself in the unique position of not having to do a lot of research. I've been working on the scripts for Cinderella: From Fabletown With Love, but most of the reading I've been doing for that has been short-ish, bits and pieces here and there. And so the time that I've got set aside to read for part of every day (while I walk for 30 minutes in the morning, primarily) has been completely free and open. I could read anything I wanted...
And so I did.
The Affinity Bridge
I've been looking forward to this book for ages. In addition to being the head of Solaris Books and Black Library (and one of my favorite drinking buddies), George Mann is a terrific writer, a fact that not many people know... yet. A lot more people are going to be discovering that fact very quickly, I imagine. His first full length novel, The Affinity Bridge, comes out from the UK press Snow Books about any minute now, it's not out already, and will be coming out from one of the larger US houses sometime thereafter (I'm not sure if it's been announced yet who the US publisher is, so you won't be hearing it from me). I read parts of the manuscript early on, but this was the first chance I'd had to sit down and read the whole novel from start to finish.
The Affinity Bridge is the first "Newbury & Hobbes Investigation", and hopefully the first of many. Sir Maurice Newbury, scholar with the British Museum, expert on the unexplained and the occult, and occasional agent of Queen Victoria, is aided by his new assistant Veronica Hobbes, who may be more than she appears. Veronica is not a stranger to the unexplained and the occult herself, as the older sister of a girl who is haunted by visions of the future. The London that Newbury and Hobbes inhabit is almost the one that history records, with a few tweaks here and there. Airships sail across the smoky skies, piloted by brass automata, undead "revenants" prowl the fog-wrapped streets hungry for the taste of human flesh, and the ghosts of dead policemen bring a bloody justice to criminal who have escaped the law's grasp. Queen Victoria continues to rule, her life artificially extended by steam-driven cybernetics.
The Affinity Bridge is a nicely constructed "fair play" mystery, a Steampunk adventure, and an alternate history with intriguing worldbuilding, all rolled into one. To share even a few of my favorite moments from the plot would threaten to spoil some of the surprises, but suffice it to say that this is a book that features a dude in fist fights not only with zombies and brass robots, and that those aren't even the best bits.
Mann's first novel is absolutely an enormous pile of awesome, and is highly recommended to anyone who thinks that fist fights with zombies and steampunk robots might be their cup of tea.
The City at the End of Time
I read a capsule review of Greg Bear's latest novel, The City at the End of Time, and had to check it out. People shifting their consciousnesses across alternate dimensions? Teenage runaways in modern America dreaming of a doomed city at the end of time? Vast libraries, containing every possible book? It sounded like it was right up my alley.
And it is. I think this may be the first of Bear's novels that I've read, but I've already added a few more to my To Read pile. This is a hugely ambitious book, and one that plugs into many of my personal obsessions. The first moment that one of the characters started talking about the "fictional encyclopedia" commissioned in the 1920s by an Argentinian named Borges, I knew that this was a story for me. (Though, interestingly, the story seems to take place in an alternate history in which Borges never wrote fiction.) The mentions later on about the "Last Redoubt" only sealed the deal.
The action in City at the End of Time alternates between modern day Seattle and the Kalpa, the titular city at the end of time. In Seattle we follow a teenage runaway and a busker, both of whom visit the end of time in their dreams, and both of whom are able to affect causality in the near term, and a vagrant who is possessed by a consciousness capable of shifting from one parallel worldline to another. In the Kalpa, we follow two young "ancient breeds" (genetically engineered humanoids who are approximations for what primordial humanity--i.e. us--might have been like), who play host to the two dreamers in modern day Seattle, and a "Keeper" involved in a last-ditch effort to stem the tide of unreal Chaos that threatens to engulf the last remnants of the universe.
The far future sections of the novel are really far future, and it's here that the novel really starts to sing. The following are two paragraphs from just one of the many potted histories that are threaded through the book, hinting at the vast gulfs of time connecting now to then.
"As for the late Trillennium, in the shadow of the Chaos: broad legends describe the age of the Mass Wars. Bosonic Ashurs had returned from their mastery of the dark light-years, seeking ascendance over all... and were subdued by the mesonic Kanjurs, who in turn were defeated by the Devas--patterned from integral quarks. Devas were then forces to give way to the nootics. Nootic mater was hardly matter at all--more like a binding compact between space, fate, and two out of seven aspects of time.This is a terrifically smart book, but in many places a very funny one as well. While not overlong, it is considerable dense in places, and having finished the book I tend to think that the journey might have been more enjoyable than the destination. But it's a wide-ranging, mind-expanding trip of a book, and something that science fiction needs more of. Recommended.
The nootics--calling themselves Eidolons--gathered survivors from the last artificial galaxies and forced nearly all to convert. The last remnants of old matter were preserved and transported to a number of reliquaries with the longest continuous histories--including Earth."
A few weeks ago, I'd never heard of Daryl Gregory. Then I bumped into Gary K. Wolfe in Denver as he was reading Gregory's first novel, Pandemonium, and the brief description of it that Gary shared was more than a little intriguing. Then I met Daryl himself the next day at the bar, and we struck up a conversation. He seemed like a sharp guy, so when I got back to Austin I dug up a recent "year's best" collection and read Gregory's "Unpossible." Then I read "Damascus." Then I read "Second Person, Present Tense," and "Dead Horse Point," and "The Continuing Adventures of Rocket Boy." And so on, and so on. In the course of a couple of days I read a half-dozen or so of Gregory's stories, and quickly came to a conclusion: Daryl Gregory can write like a son-of-a-bitch.
Pandemonium is Daryl Gregory's first book-length work to be published, and to my thinking it's the single best debut novel I've read in years. The back cover blurb doesn't even begin to do this book justice. This is the story of Del Pierce, a guy who dreamed of being an artist and whose dreams haven't worked out quite as he planned. Del lives in America, but it isn't quite our America. This is a world in which, for at least sixty years and possibly quite a bit longer, various individuals have, for varying lengths of time, been "possessed." By demons? Possibly. By telepathic mutant "slan" who control them at a distance? Unlikely, but not impossible. By free-roaming personalities dredged from Carl Jung's "collective unconsciousness"? Just maybe. But what does it mean that these demons/personalities/etc. so often appear in the forms of heroes from comic books and pulp novels? The Captain, shield-wielding super-soldier; the Truth, a grim avenger in fedora and trench coat, with twin .45s and a menacing laugh; the Boy Marvel, a hero in red tights and a white cape with a boyish smile. Or that another of the "demons" is called Valis and possesses an elderly science fiction writer named Philip K. Dick?
Gregory's short fiction displays certain central obsessions--a keen understanding of cognitive sciences; an interest in families and questions of relationships and maturity; and an obsession with popular culture, in the form of science fiction, superhero comics, pulp novels, etc. All of these factor into Pandemonium, to great effect. To give much more than a broad summary of the plot threatens to spoil too many of the surprises, so I won't bother. (Should I admit that the ending was so affecting that I actually teared up in Starbucks while reading it? No, perhaps not...) I can say, though, that the writing is accomplished and polished, employing a first-person voice that is deceptively conversational and familiar, but which is capable of spinning out devastatingly clever turns of phrase when needed, laugh-out-loud funny in places and knuckle-whitening-terrify in others.
Pandemonium is simply a stunning debut, and I for one can't wait to see what Gregory does next. Highly, highly recommended.
Thursday, June 26, 2008
Book Report (and Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now")
Last week I finished reading Mike Dawson's Freddie & Me. I've been a fan of Dawson's since I first read his "Origin of Ace-Face" in Project Superior, and have followed his stuff ever since. I'd been looking forward to his mediation on memory and music (the Queen variety, at least) for a while, and dove in as soon as I got my hands on a copy. Subtitled "A Coming of Age (Bohemian) Rhapsody", the book is autobiographical, and focuses on questions of memory, of childhood and the transition to adulthood, and the ways we engage with idols and heroes, particularly the pop music variety. The framework for Dawson's remembrances are his memories of the band Queen, and in particular of Freddie Mercury--the first time he heard a Queen song, the various Queen songs that were particularly meaningful to him and those around him as he was growing up, even his childhood fantasies of an impossible backstage meeting with the band. One of the interesting things about the book is that, even though Freddie Mercury and Queen are on virtually every page of it, the book isn't about Queen or Mercury at all. "Dawson" (at least the character represented in the story) at one point muses that he knows virtually nothing about Freddie Mercury the man at all. It's the music that is important, and more than that it's Dawson's reaction to the music, what it means to him, that matters. (It's similar, in that respect, to Nicholson Baker's U&I, which is much the same kind of meditation, but instead on the subject of John Updike's work.)
It's been a few days since I finished the book, and there are elements of it that are still running through my head. Highly recommended.
As an added bonus, here's a little awesome for you. After reading Dawson's book, I was inspired to revisit the music of Queen. I listened to it a lot when I was younger, around the same age that Dawson was in the key middle sections of his story), but haven't really gone back to it since I switched from cassette tapes to CDs. Listening to it again after this long (and having the chance to introduce it to Georgia, who loves the theme song to Flash Gordon...), I'm struck by how good it really is. And since most of what I listened to back then was the middle-period stuff, listening to some of the older Queen songs now has been a real revelation. Like this number.
I'd heard "Don't Stop Me Now," of course, off their 1978 release Jazz, but it wasn't until I was listening to it in the car the other day, with the speakers turned up loud, that I really got what the song was. What is it? Just pure joy, that's all. Pure, unalloyed joy.
Don't believe me? Listen for yourself and see what you think.
See? Pure joy...
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
It's been a while since I started a new project, and a couple of weeks ago I decided it was high time to kick one off. I chose the Discworld novels of Terry Pratchett. I started reading the Discworld books in college, shortly after Good Omens introduced me to Pratchett's work. I came for the Gaiman, as it were, and stayed for the Pratchett. That would have been in 1990, and between the UT library system and second-hand bookshops, I was able to read Discworld from the beginning, so that by the time Small Gods was published I had caught up with the new books. (Those were dark times for Pratchett fans, when the gap between the UK publication of a Discworld book and the US edition could be as long as years; thankfully there were a handful of genre booksellers in Texas who sold import editions, if the wait became untenable).
I kept up with Discworld religiously for a decade or so, reading each new book as it came out--which, at that point, was at a rate of one or two novels per year--along with buying all the maps, the guides and companion volumes. If you've ever read one of Pratchett's novels, I don't have to explain the appeal, and if you haven't read one of them, you should stop reading this now and go find one. In addition to being the finest satirist in the English language in decades--arguably since Twain--Pratchett is an accomplished stylist, capable of writing the most effective--and effecting--endings of any writer I've ever encountered. The level of imagination and invention in Discworld is unparalleled, I think, and that's without considering the kind of social and cultural commentary he works in about our world.
In any event, I was for years obsessed with Pratchett's work and with Discworld in particular. But about nine years ago, things went off the rails, and the pace at which I was able to read Discowrld books was overtaken by the pace at which Pratchett was writing them. I kept buying the books in hardcover, putting them on the To Read shelf, and waiting to find time to read them, but year followed year and the time just never seemed to arrive.
A few weeks ago, I had the chance to browse through an out-of-town used bookstore I hadn't visited in years, and found a couple of Discworld books I hadn't picked up yet--including Paul Kidby's Art of Discworld and the one Discworld map I hadn't bought yet, the Lancre one. I brought them home and flipped through them, and had a sudden yen to read a Discworld book again. But having been away for so long, I had forgotten a lot of the minor characters, as well as a major character or two. And thinking back, I realized it had been nearly two decades since I read the first half-dozen of the books, which I could recall now only dimly.
Luckily, I had the books there on the shelf, and it only remained to find time to read them. Fortunately for me, I had just turned in a big project, and had a bit of breathing room before starting on the next one, and so I started in on The Colour of Magic right away. In the weeks since, I've made my way through the first six books in the series, reading in publication order--The Light Fantastic, Equal Rites, Mort, Sourcery, and Wyrd Sisters. I'm having to take a break for a couple of weeks, to read a big stack of Warhammer 40K novels and change the shape of my head a bit, but as soon as I'm able I'll be starting up again (though I may start reading them out of order a bit, when I do).
What's refreshing about revisiting these early Discworld books after so long a time is how well they hold up. Clearly you can see Pratchett working out the possibilities of the world and the kinds of stories he can tell in it, and the first couple of books are more limited than the later installments as a natural consequence, but even in them the level of invention is alarmingly high, with huge, clever ideas whizzing past every few pages. And by the time you get to Equal Rites, Pratchett is doing things with language that just dazzle.
As I've said, if you've never read a Pratchett book, what are you waiting for? And if you have, how long has it been? Well, as the chili commercial used to say, "Partner, that's too long."
Now, a few links of Pratchett-related interest, some recent and some of a somewhat older vintage:
- First, Neil Gaiman interviews Terry Pratchett for Waterstones.
- Second, here's a list of things Terry Pratchett believes, written for the Independent a couple of years ago.
- And finally, there is Match It for Pratchett, through which one can help match Pratchett's $1 million ( £500,000 ) donation to Alzheimer's Research.
Monday, April 21, 2008
Shock and horror.
I've raved often and loudly about Kage Baker's Company sequence. I'm responsible for converting at least four other people to the Cult of Kage, so far as I know, and those four might well have gone on to infect others. Simply put, I think that the Company novels are the best SF series of the current generation, and that Baker is one of the best writers working in the English language today. Her prose is so skillfully put together that it comes across as deceptively simple, but is compulsively readable. I picked up a copy of Black Projects, White Knights in the summer of 2004, having heard good things about it. I immediately sought out the first in the series, In the Garden of Iden, which was still on bookstore shelves in its original mmpb edition. I consumed it in a day and rushed out to find Sky Coyote, which as I've said before includes the funniest line I've ever read in a novel. Then I was able to find Mendoza in Hollywood without too much difficulty, and read it in a trice. But when it came time to read The Graveyard Game, things got a little complicated. It was the last book published by Baker's previous publisher, Harcourt, and apparently had a relatively low print run. In those dark days before the series was reissued by Baker's new publisher, Tor, thanks to the efforts of David Hartwell, it was all but impossible to find a copy of The Graveyard Game for anything like a reasonable price. But to give you an idea how badly I needed to read that next installment, even knowing that within another year or so Tor would be issuing an affordable tpb edition, I paid something like one hundred dollars for a second-hand copy of the Harcourt edition online.
And then, when the copy didn't show up in a week or so, and I found another copy available online as well, I paid another hundred bucks to buy a second copy and have it express shipped to me.
Crazy? Well, probably. But that should give you an idea of the desperate hunger to find out What Happens Next that the Company novels engenders. (As for that extra copy of The Graveyard Game I then had lying around, I ended up trading it for a review copy of The Life of the World to Come, which wasn't due out in hardback for another few months, to Jude Feldman, who hadn't found a copy of it for herself. So it was still a win, all around.)
So you can imagine what it's been like for me, for almost two years now, to have an ever growing pile of unread Kage Baker Company novels in my office, that I just couldn't find the time away from work to read.
The week before last, with a few days open in my schedule, I finally was able to scratch that itch.
The Machine's Child
The basic idea behind the Company novels is simple. In the future, the Dr. Zeus corporation makes two groundbreaking technological discoveries--the ability to time travel, and the process for making humans immortal. The problems are that it is only possible to travel into the past and back, not into the future, and the immortality process is long, painful, and only works on certain individuals when they are very young. Recorded history cannot be changed, but there are gray areas, "event shadows" in which there's a bit of wiggle room.
The Company's solution to these limitations, naturally, is to travel back into the past, locate children who fit the profile for the immortality process and who won't be missed (orphans, children who would have otherwise died in fires, floods, and wars, etc.), and make them immortal with cybernetic implants. Then these immortal cyborgs will work as agents for the Company throughout history, saving things that would otherwise have been lost, and squirreling them away in hidden places for the Company to "discover" up in the future. Lost Shakespeare folios, forgotten masterpieces, extinct species, and historical rarities.
Gods and Pawns
We are introduced to the world of the Company through the eyes of Mendoza, in the novel In the Garden of Iden. Caught up by the Spanish Inquisition in the sixteen century and destined for the stake, she is whisked away by a Facilitator, a cyborg named Joseph, and transformed into an immortal. Like several of the novels and stories in the sequence, In the Garden of Iden is told in first person, in "Cinema Standard", the lingua franca of the immortals. Cinema Standard is, quite simply, the way that people in 20th Century American movies talk, as movies are a regular source of entertainment for the agents of the Company.
(You may note that I'm not actually offering much in the way of capsule reviews of the books themselves. That's because these are the last entries in the series, and even a cursory plot summary would give away way too many spoilers for the earlier books.)
In addition to the main sequence of eight novels and two short story collections (or nine novels and one short story collection, or seven novels and three collections, depending on how you slice them), there have been a few associated shorts that have appeared here and there, well worth reading in their own right but not essential to an appreciation of the whole. The story which appeared in my anthology Adventure Vol. 1, "The Unfortunate Gytt," is one such, and this recent stand-alone novella from Subterranean Press, Rude Mechanicals, is another. Completists will also want to track down a copy of Mother Aegypt and Other Stories, the title story of which contains some tantalizing bits of backstory, and The Empress of Mars, which provides some context for some of the later events of the Company sequence. Other than these, though, all of the other short stories related to the Company have been collected in one of the two story collections, Children of the Company and Gods and Pawns, including what may be one of the best short stories I've read in the last twenty years, "Son Observe the Time," set before and during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
The Sons of Heaven
As the sequence begins, with In the Garden of Iden and Sky Coyote, it appears that the business with the time travel and the immortal cyborgs is really just an excuse to tell historical stories from a contemporary perspective, interweaving modern and archaic language. (And it is here that Baker truly excels; an expert in Elizabethan English, the language in In the Garden of Iden, to cite just one example, is absolutely convincing as period English, while at the same time being compulsively readable.) Beginning with Mendoza in Hollywood, though, things begin to take a strange turn, as a character thought long dead in the first novel appears to return under a different guise. And an offhand reference to something called Crome's radiation in the first novel turns out to have far greater importance. Then, as The Graveyard Game unfolds, things become increasingly complicated. In the short stories, particularly the aforementioned "Son Observe the Time," we begin to get inklings that not everything we have been told about the Company and its aims is entirely accurate, and with The Life of the World to Come we are presented with the solution to one mystery, that serves only to raise even more questions.
Eight novels, two short story collections, and a constellation of satellite stories culminate in the final novel, Sons of Heaven, which handily answers all the questions posed by the series. I had my own guesses, along the way, nearly all of which proved to be wrong. And there was something of a bittersweet sensation to knowing that I'd reached the end of the road, and that so far I know there won't be any more to follow.
I've read and enjoyed some of Baker's non-Company work, in particular the fantasy novel The Anvil of the World. And while I'm looking forward eagerly to her forthcoming The House of the Stag, I'll admit that there's a large part of me who'd prefer for the Company sequence to keep spinning off novels and stories, into infinity. It's such a terrific idea, deceptively simple and yet capable of such subtlety and invention, that I burn with jealously that I didn't think of it first.
I can't recommend the Company sequence highly enough. And don't just take my word for it. Everyone that I've convinced to read just one of the novels in the sequence immediately goes on to read the rest, without fail. They represent a high-watermark in contemporary English-language science fiction, and I predict that they'll be read and appreciated for long decades to come. Jump on the bandwagon now, and you'll be able to tell your grandchildren you were reading them when they were still just hot off the presses (or close enough to count).
Monday, January 07, 2008
Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim Vol. 4: Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together
When I reviewed the first three volumes of O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim series a couple of years ago, I stole Pete Mortensen description of it as "Nintendo Realism." I still think that tag is particularly apt. Here's how O'Malley's site describes the series:
It's in that "wait, what?" territory that the series really grabs me. On one level, it's a story about a slacker dude and his friends, playing occasional gigs with his bands, having to go out and look for a job, navigating the intricacies of dating and such. But on another level, it's about a guy having to fight kung fu battles with a succession of evil exes, in love with a rollerskating courier who can take shortcuts through dreams and other dimensions. It's set in a meticulously detailed version of Toronto, but a Toronto that follows the rules of a Ninento 8-bit game, with save points and power ups and such-like. And occasionally, there are even big musical numbers (really!).
Scott Pilgrim is a 23-year-old guy living in the big city with his gay roommate, just trying to make his way in this crazy world.
Scott Pilgrim likes the new girl in town, Ramona Flowers, but to win her heart, he has to defeat her seven evil ex-boyfriends. Wait, what?
There are few unalloyed joys in life, but one of the few is a new volume of Scott Pilgrim. If you haven't started in on the series yet, I envy you. Ridiculously highly recommended.
Brandon Graham's King City
I started hearing about King City last spring, when everyone in the comics blogosphere was raving about it. But I managed not to pick it up until a little while ago, and then not to read it until just this last Friday. Now I'm sorry for all the time I've wasted...
There are immediately obvious similarities between King City and Scott Pilgrim, but they're very different books. If anything, while Scott Pilgrim sometimes seems like a Canadian romantic comedy version of Kung Fu Hustle, King City is in a lot of ways a much heavier, much more serious work. Of course, it's about a "cat master", so maybe it isn't all serious. What's a cat master, you ask? Here's how Graham described it in an interview last year:
The cat master is a serious dude that is trained in the dark arts of cat, trained to use a cat as the ultimate tool or weapon for any situation. With the right injection the cat can become anything: cat periscope, cat-apult anything. And on top of that, the cat's a genius that can solve any problem or perform any kind of brain surgery or rocket science that Joe might need. It really puts a utility belt to shame.So yes, Joe the cat-master and his cat ("Earthling J.J. Catingsworth the Third") do all sorts of cool spy/ninja/thief stuff as he carries out "missions" in the eponymous King City. But along the way, Joe ruminates over returning to his hometown after a long time away, about the prospects of running into the ex-girlfriend he left behind. And then there's the guy who his ex-girlfriend is seeing now, Max, who is a veteran of the Korean xombie war addicted to "chalk", a drug that gradually turns users into the drug itself. Pete, at whose apartment Joe is crashing, wears a luchadore mask and is a runner for a shady organization, but starts to question his involvement when he's asked to deliver a beautiful alien water-breather for dubious purposes. The streets are filled with various gangs and crews, most notably the Owls, a ninja gang with nefarious plans of their own. And then there are the strange, inhuman dudes in business suits with the strange cannibalistic practices.
King City is a hypnotically strange story. I was reminded in some ways of Brian Francis Slattery's Spaceman Blues, with which it shares a similar at-street-level-in-a-science-fiction-world vibe. Highly recommended.
Wednesday, January 02, 2008
Book Report: Baby's Book of Opposites
Baby's Book of Opposites, anon. (illustrated by Mary Hildebrandt)
This unimposing board book, published in 1992 by the Unicorn Publishing House, was rescued from the sidewalk bargain bin in front of the Half Price Books on Anderson Mill some months ago. Given the whole of the store and its stock from which to select a book, Georgia set her heart and sights on this one, principally because there is a dragon on the front cover and an elephant on the back. With eight interior pages and a total of eight words, it's not much for bedtime reading, with a pretty scant narrative.
What makes this book significant is that Georgia, without any prompting from me or Allison, picked this book up yesterday and read all eight words aloud, sounding out phonetically those that she didn't know, or else working them out from context. "Big. Little. Front. Back. Up. Down. Top. Bottom. In. Out." So far as we know, this is the first time she's read an entire book on her own, at the age of three years and ten months, instead of just sounding out a word here or there when prompted.
A short while later, she read it out again, and got a cupcake for her troubles.
Monday, November 26, 2007
I've actually finished a few books since I last found time to post a report, including the second volume of GRRM's Song of Ice and Fire, and the first volume of Mark Smylie's Artesia, and may write about them in the coming weeks. Just last night, though, I finished a graphic novel that's taken up a considerable amount of mental real estate.
I've earlier raved about Edginton's and D'Israeli's Scarlet Traces sequence (War of the Worlds, Scarlet Traces, and Scarlet Traces: The Great Game) and the terrific references and allusions hidden throughout. I've had another of their collaborations, Leviathan, on my To Read stack for the better part of a year. It appears that this book is not currently available in the States, though it was distributed at least for a while through Diamond (I picked mine up at Austin Books, my local comic shop), so you might be able to find a copy through a comic retailer.
Leviathan is a truly haunting story. It concerns a Titanic-like grand ocean liner, but where the Titanic was simply large, the Leviathan is positively gigantic. A mile long and half a mile high, it is a floating city, but organized along the same First Class, Second Class, Steerage hierarchy familiar from ocean liners of the period. In 1928, the Leviathan, pride of the White Hart line, sets out on her maiden voyage to New York. En route, the passengers will entertain themselves with the ship's many amenities, which include greenhouses, parks, cinemas, a railway, and a zoo.
Twenty years later, she still hasn't arrived.
At some point after leaving British waters, the Leviathan moved into some sort of sunless, starless limbo. For two decades, she has floated on dead waters that stretch out to the unbroken horizon in all direction. The ship is now ruled by a governing body of notable First Class passengers, including the ship's architect, Sir William Ashbless, who uses the ship's stewards as his own private police force. Passengers are only allowed to move from one class to another with travel dockets, and god help anyone who goes below to Steerage and loses their docket. The passengers dine on tapir and flamingo from the zoo, and drink rotgun bathtub gin. Suicides are seasonal, but murders are perennial, at least on the lower decks. It is not until murder runs rampant amongst the First Class passengers, though, that the governing body finds cause for alarm. And when the murders are blamed on the Stokers, the mythical bogeymen said to reside in the Engine Room, that strange place from which no travelers have returned in years, it falls to Second Class passenger and former Scotland Yard detective Aurelius Lament to go below and investigate.
The story of Leviathan is gripping, and sadly over all-too-quickly. There is a sequence of standalone stories that follow the main narrative, "Tales of the Leviathan," but frankly I'd been happier to see the main story continue for multiple volumes before it was through. There are so many narrative possibilities to the world of the doomed floating city, so many intriguing aspects of the makeshift society presented in the story, that the sixty-odd pages of the collection scarcely begin to scratch the surface. If they ever return to the world, I'll be the first in line to pick up a copy.
Leviathan is a perfect example of two creators, writer and artist, working at the peak of their abilities. D'Israeli's draftsmanship is deceptively simple, and is perfectly adept at everything from the claustrophobic confines of Lament's second class cabin to the cavernous and squalid spaces of Steerage, from the tiny details of the doom-haunted ship's captain to the monumental horror of what lays hidden in the Engine Room. And Edginton's script is clever and understated, packing two decades of hopelessness and horror into terse, effective bits of dialogue and narration.
The book is highly recommended. A haunting story that lingers in the mind much longer than the all-too-brief time it takes to read.
Monday, November 12, 2007
That's actually not the full title. With subtitle, it's Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog. And honestly, it was the subtitle that sold me on the book. Having read nothing of Wilce's before, seeing that subtitle in a capsule review spurred me to purchase it sight-unseen, and it went onto the top of my To Read list. When I finally started in on the book a few months later, around the time I went to Houston for ApolloCon, I was sorry I hadn't started it before.
I'd heard Wilce's name a few times before, the last few years, in connection with short stories in Asimov's, F&SF, and elsewhere, and we shared a ToC in Jonathan Strahan's Best Short Novels: 2007. Before reading Flora Segunda, though, I hadn't read any of those stories (though I've now hunted down and devoured them all). To any readers who have read and enjoyed things like "The Lineaments of Gratified Desire", "The Biography of a Bouncing Boy Terror", or "Metal More Attractive", I can't recommend Flora Segunda highly enough. And if you read and didn't enjoy those stories, I'd still recommend giving it a try.
Like many (and perhaps all) of Wilce's short stories, Flora Segunda takes places in a counter-factual/alternate-history version of California, the republic of Califa. In Califa there are four great Houses, each of which is governed by an artificially intelligent "magickal Butler," which is both a kind of agent of the house and an expression of the house's will. In the recent past Califa's Warlord led the nation in a war against their neighbors to the south, the Huitzil Empire, a variant of the Aztecs that absorbed and acculturated the Spanish instead of being conquered by them. At the war's end, an uneasy truce was struck between the two powers, but the echoing effects of the conflict are still being felt.
Flora Segunda is the story of Flora Fyrdraaca, the second of her family to bear that name. She's about to celebrate her fourteen birthday, her Cartorcena (an analogue to the quinceanera observed in Mexican cultural on a girl's fifteen birthday), on the occasion of which she's to deliver a speech celebrating her family, her House (one of the magickal variety), and her future. A scion of a military family and daughter of the Army of Califa's Commanding General, Flora is destined for a life of military service. But all she wants to do is to leave home and become a Ranger, one of a shadowy group of magic-users and scouts, celebrated in yellow-backed novels, who were officially banned at the close of the last war. Her mother is always aways on the army's business, her father is forever locked away in his room lost in drink and memories of the past, and it falls to Flora to keep her house in one piece. She has to sew her Cartorcena dress, write her speech, and keep the dogs fed, when all she really wants to do is hole up and read the adventures of Nini Mo, the greatest Ranger who ever lived. When Flora encounters the artificially-intelligent "butler" who is the expression of her house's will, she thinks she has found the solution to all her problems. But when she begins to fade, literally to turn transparent, it's clear that her problems are far from over.
From time to time I read something and immediately wish desperately that I'd written it. Flora Segunda is one of those books. This is a fantasy firmly rooted in traditions of the West, a counterfactual history blended from elements of English, Spanish, and Mesoamerican cultures. The republic of Califa is a fictional world with its own popular culture, an element often lacking from such things, and I love the fact that the saloon where all the toughs gather in Califa is an ice cream parlor. Upon finishing the book this summer I immediately sought out and devoured everything else of Wilce's I could find, which turned out to be tangentially related to Flora's story in interesting ways (at least one of which is freely available at her site). And it was with relief that I read on Wilce's blog that she was at work on a sequel. It honestly can't come soon enough.
Highly recommended to the kind of reader who thinks that the idea of tough guys bellying up to the bar in an ice cream parlor is their cup of tea.
Monday, October 29, 2007
As I think I mentioned a little while back, I picked up the first Dinotopia book shortly after it was published, and it knocked my socks off. There was something about the way it treated something clearly fantastically in such a frank, straightforward manner that reminded me of Wil Huygen and Rien Poortvliet's Gnomes books, which I'd obsessed over years before. At the time it didn't occur to me that Dinotopia was being marketed as a children's book, just that it was a book with a broad all-ages appeal that would have ripped the top of my head open if I'd encountered it as a kid.
Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time
Rereading Dinotopia now, a decade and a half later, I think it holds up brilliantly. And I look forward to introducing Georgia to it, when she gets a bit older. It's in the loving little details that the work really shines, the little textual glosses to the illustrations that don't even get mentioned in the accompanying narrative. But the narrative itself, ostensibly reproduced from Arthur Denison's travel journal, stands nicely on its own, as well, a Lost Worlds adventure in the grandest sense. And while the style may lack some of the color or poetry of the imagery, which carries most of the water here, it suits perfectly the somewhat uptight Victorian scientist.
Dinotopia: The World Beneath
A few years later I picked up the second entry in the series Dinotopia: The World Beneath. While I pored over the images, though, looking through it carefully, at the time I don't think I actually read the text, for reasons that escape me now. My reading this week was the first time to properly go through the book, then. This second installment continues the adventures of Arthur Denison and his son Will, this time picking up threads introduced in the first volume, and returning Denison to the titular world beneath the island of Dinotopia, where they find the remains of a lost superscientific culture. Storywise, this is great stuff, and the images and textual glosses are every bit as engrossing as in the first book. The narrative, though, perhaps suffers a bit from being written in a straight third-person narrative, instead of the limited first-person of the first book. Rather that the text being an object of this world, just like the images supposedly painted by Denison's own hand, the text here is a more traditional third-person narrative, told from the perspective of an omniscient narrator. Things that worked well in the voice of Denison's journal have a tendency not to work as well here, or perhaps to be fairer it works, but to a different effect. This is much more clearly a work intended for children, it seems, rather than the more all-ages appeal of the first installment. There's a lot to love here, but I felt at times as if I were eavesdropping, as though I wasn't part of the intended audience.
Dinotopia: First Flight
A few years ago I picked up a second-hand copy of Dinotopia: First Flight online, having somehow missed it when it was first released, but I read it for the first time this last week, having not even had much opportunity to look through the images before now. This is the most clearly juvenile of the series, but works excellently on those terms. With a brief framing sequence that sets the narrative up as a legend read by young Will Denison, the story itself is set at the height of the superscience culture Arthur Denison discovered in the previous book. There's some clear nature vs. technology dichotomy at work, as the hero, a student at a flight school where pilots control mechanical drones by remote control, leaves his superscience home and strikes out into the more naturalistic world beyond, befriending a host of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, finally becoming the first pterosaur-rider. The book also includes a board game, worked into the cover itself, which I'm looking forward to testing out with Georgia when she's a few years older.
Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara
Finally, the latest installment, Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara. This is something of a return to form, with the narrative again being a journal in Arthur Denison's own voice. But more than that, this is certainly the best book in the series since the first, and arguably the best overall. The narrative seems surer, the images somehow richer and more details. And the level of invention is nothing short of brilliant. The Fibonacci Gardens, where the structure of seedpods and flowers contains hidden mathematical laws. The Saurian Tree, carefully cultivated over generations to represent the phylogenetic structure of the entire dinosaur order. The Celestial Navigator of the township of Bilgewater, a community made of repurposed Pilgrim sailing ships, now ready to sail off into the heavens when the last trumpet sounds.
Accompanying Denison's journal are all of his sketches and paintings, complete with textual glosses, as in the earlier books. But in addition, Gurney has incorporated something little used in the earlier installments, but used here to phenomenal effect: the architectural cut-away. I was reminded of David Macaulay's series of architectural books (Castle, Cathedral, Pyramid, etc) that I obsessed over as a kid. Gurney may have done this sort of thing once or twice in the earlier installments, but if he did they didn't make much impression, even just a week later. But in Journey to Chandara he does it again and again, each time with a lovingly obsessive amount of detail. We get the interior layout of one of the Bilgewater ships-cum-buildings, the layout of the mountaintop city of Thermala, the interior of one of the Seated Colossi (complete with the brown-stains running down the outside where the privy hole runs out), and an amazingly detailed look at a windmill.
Journey to Chandara is a true all-ages book, perfectly suitable for younger readers but with a great deal with which to reward old fogeys, as well. And the production quality on the present edition is unassailable, with the boards bound in a faux-dinosaur-hide pattern, with a ribbon book-mark bound in, and a detailed map of Chandara printed on the reverse of the dust jacket. If the previous (and now out of print) installments in the series are reissued in editions like this, I'd be seriously tempted to pick them up in new editions, just to have the complete set.
In reading the series all in one go, I was somewhat surprised to see all of the locales visited in the later installments included in the maps of Dinotopia in that very first book. And looking at the map again now, I can see that there are still a fair number of places still unvisited. I can only begin to imagine the amount of work that must go into one of these projects, hundreds of pages of fully painted images, to say nothing of the kind of research and design that must be involved. But I hope that it doesn't take too long, and hope that Gurney is already at work on the next installment, because I'd love to take another dip into his world.
Monday, October 22, 2007
Frank Espinosa's Rocketo: Journey to the Hidden Sea: Volume 1
I first noticed Rocketo when it was originally being serialized in individual issues by Speakeasy Comics. I stopped picking up the individual issues before Speakeasy went belly up, but fortunately for all of us, Image Comics picked up the series when the original publisher went under. Twelve issues have been published to date between the two publishers, which together represent the first "book" of the series, "Journey to the Hidden Sea," the first half of which is collected in this first volume. And this first "book", of which the present volume is the first half, is only the first of four in a projected series, forty-eight chapters in all.
Confusing? Not really. Just understand that what you're getting here is a beginning without an end (or rather, with an ending that's of the cliff-hanger variety) and everything else follows.
As pointed out in a interview I linked to back in 2005, Frank Espinosa " is a world-class animator with many credits under his name," including everything "from re-designing the complete Looney Tunes characters in 1992, to creating series of Looney Tunes US Postage stamps. If that weren't enough, he also designed the Baby Looney Tunes characters." And as I remarked at the time, I was glad that I'd already finished work on my own Paragaea: A Planetary Romance before starting to read his new comic. After reading this first collection, I'm even more glad. Rocketo is inspired by many of the same things that fed into Paragaea, and is a world-class planetary romance in its own right. I don't think it's any accident that the outfit that the titular hero Rocket Garrison wears is more-than-a-little reminiscent of that often worn by Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon.
Rocketo takes place in the post-historical world of Lucerne, at some unspecified point in the future. In between now and then, all sorts of things occur, mankind has achieved a true golden age, in which "mankind had not only pried loose the secrets of science but the mysteries of the heart. Art, literature, music... all reached a point that has never since been equaled." The moon had become a "portal to the stars and beyond, through time, through space and through dimensions." Naturally, nothing golden stays, and it all goes wrong when an alien invader called the Ull destroys the moon, sending its fragments falling to earth (shades of Thundarr the Barbarian, perhaps?) and ravaging the world. In the ages that follows, mankind adapts to its new, altered terrain, genetically altered to suit each of the new environments created by the catastrophe: bird men, fish men, dog men, and more. And a new kind of human is designed to navigate in a world that has last its magnetic field, making travel from one region to another all but impossible. Called Mappers, they are "the compass of humanity, the explorer, the way-lighter."
The story of Rocketo begins generations later, with the son of one of the twelve mapper bloodlines, Rocketo Garrison. His father had been expelled from the guild for marrying the wrong woman, but Rocketo still inherits all the genetic potential of the Mappers. When his parents are killed while he's still an adolescent, he's sent to live with a family friend, himself a Mapper, and when he's of age he's sent off to the Mappers Guild to be trained. A young tearaway, though, Rocketo never makes it to school, instead opting to become a kind of Pony Express rider, carrying mail on a flying horse, climbs a few mountains, goes deep sea diving, gets into barroom brawls, hunts for treasure, and when war breaks out joins up with a cavalry of flying fire horses. He's captured by the enemy, who use his Mapper potential to help control a giant robot by telepresence, and when the bad guys have won he's turfed out, only to end up manning a lighthouse atop a huge sentient island. He gets mixed up with Spiro, a dog man he knew from his treasure hunting days, who has hatched a plan to penetrate to the heart of the Hidden Sea, a mysterious region from which no Mapper has ever returned alive. And that's really where the story begins.
This is that kind of story. The level of invention is high, and every few pages brings some terrific new idea. The art is a cross between the fluidity of classic animation and the richness of newspaper artists like Alex Raymond and Hal Foster. The only downside I've found is that the characters are kept somewhat at arm's reach from the narrative, and so it's difficult to get too invested in them emotionally, but the world is so rich and the action is so nicely paced that I was still engaged enough to continue.
I've just discovered that there is a second volume already published, which presumably completes the "Journey to the Hidden Sea" story arc. From posts on his message board, it appears that Epinosa is hard at work on the next arc, "Journey to a New World." I'm hoping that he sticks with it, and that sales on these first volumes justify the series's continuation, because I for one would very much like to see more of Rocketo's world, and to see where his journey ends up.
Highly recommended to anyone who find appealing the description "a planetary romance that combines the aesthetic of classic animation with the richness of Alex Raymond and Hal Foster, complete with flying horses, dog men, and sentient islands."
Monday, October 15, 2007
As I've mentioned a few times in the last few weeks, I've been reading the first installment in George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. Usually a novel takes me anywhere from a day or two, to possibly a week, to finish. It took me exactly three weeks to read A Game of Thrones, and that's reading at least thirty minutes a day, as well as a few extended periods at night when Allison worked late. This is a big book, and it's a dense one, too. And it's the shortest of the series to date, by far.
A Game of Thrones
Now, I'm coming pretty late to the party on this one, which was first published in 1996. For years I've been hearing about how great this book was. I think that Bill Willingham was the first person I knew who'd read it, but over the years I've gotten in from all corners, including most recently Jude Feldman of Borderlands Books.
I've never been one much for epic fantasy. I've only spent time reading widely in the subgenre twice, once for a span of a few years in high school, and then again for a time in my mid-twenties. In high school I didn't have particularly discriminating tastes, and so would read things I found in my school and public libraries, in used books stores, and recommended to me by friends. As a result, aside from a fair amount of Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion stuff that I found in the school library, most of the fantasy I read was tied to movies, or related to or inspired by rpgs. A lot of stuff by Alan Dean Foster, an alarming number of Dragonlance novels, the gamers-in-fantasy-land novels of Joel Rosenberg. Then in my mid-twenties I went through a bit of self-education on the genre, but in that instance I started reading with "taproot" texts--James Branch Cabell, George MacDonald, Arthur Machen--and then working my way forward through the high points of the fantasy genre, stopping along the way at Robert E. Howard, Fritz Lieber, JRR Tolkien, Moorcock again, Ursula K. Leguin, et cetera. The only recently published fantasy I read at the time was urban fantasy, with stacks of Charles de Lint, Midori Snyder, Jane Yolen, and folks like that.
As a result, I've never actually read much epic fantasy written during my lifetime, and particularly not in high school when it seems a lot of other readers did. I was in college by the time Robert Jordan started his fantasy series, and I think Terry Brooks had only published the first two-thirds of his initial fantasy trilogy by the time I started high school. What I did read in high school, though, and even moreso in college, was the science fiction of George RR Martin. I picked up the first of the Wild Cards shared world anthologies within a week or two of it hitting the stands in mass-market paperback, and was immediately hooked. That volume and those that followed affected my brain in ways I probably still don't fully realize. From there I discovered Martin's short-story collections (have previously seen his stuff in the pages of Analog, to which I subscribed at the time). Then in college I found Armageddon Rag (the best book on the 60s and popular music I've yet read) and Fevre Dream (one of, if not the best vampire book I've read) in the shelves of the Undergraduate Library at the University of Texas. It was right around then, as I understand it, that Martin went to work in television, and aside from the ongoing installments in the Wild Cards series, his name didn't often appear in the new releases sections of bookstores.
Having never developed much of an affinity for epic fantasy, then, when Willingham started telling me about this new entry in the field by GRRM, I was conflicted. I was definitely interested in anything Martin did, but the prospect of diving into a fat fantasy novel, which was itself only the first installment in a longer series, was a little offputting. Still, I flagged it mentally as something to consider, and then went on reading other things. As time went on, more and more people praised "A Song of Ice and Fire" to the rafters, and I started getting little bits and pieces of the plot through osmosis. This was a fantasy at a human level, with real grit, and terrifically effective battle scenes. There was magic, but it was at the margins, with the focus of the attention being on real men and women who find themselves at a turning point in history.
I'm not sure what finally made me crack. It was a confluence of events that culminated a month ago in the sudden realization that I had to read this series, or at least the first installment. Because I've got this rule, you see, about only reading the first installments of series that haven't yet been completed, and I've got loads of books on my To Read pile. So three and a half weeks ago, right before leaving town for FenCon, I stopped in at B&N and picked up a copy of A Game of Thrones. That this B&N with its painfully limited selected had each of the four installments in the series in every available format--mmpb, tpb, and hc--was an interesting sign. (And that by last week they'd sold out of all of them when I came back for the second installment sold volumes, but more on that in a moment.) And then, sitting in the hotel bar that weekend, I started in on the story.
I was immediately hooked.
I've been toying with the idea of writing an epic fantasy for the last few years. Only recently have I begun to think about what I might actually write. For a long time, instead, I thought about what an epic fantasy should be, and in my admittedly limited experience so seldom was. I had a list of requirements, things that I thought should be included, things that should be avoided. All of this was the product of my self-education in my mid-twenties, which I approached with the rigor of a graduate level course, complete with syllabus and reading list, which as I've said only ran through the late sixties, perhaps verging a bit into the mid- to late-seventies. So far all I knew the "perfect epic fantasy" had been written in the last twenty or so years and I just hadn't read it yet.
Well, it seems to me that I've found it, and that George RR Martin has written it. A Game of Thrones is a damned-near-perfect book, and ticks off nearly ever item on my list of what an epic fantasy should do, and avoids every item on the should not list. The writing itself is skillful, deceptively simple, and worthy of careful study. And the level of invention is little short of staggering. The characters are well-drawn and nuanced, and the tantalizing glimpses we're given of the history and of the rest of the world make the reader hungry for more.
I finally finished reading the novel on Friday, a few hours after sending off to Solaris the first third of Three Unbroken, about which more later. This morning I begin work on my Star Trek novel in earnest. And sitting in the living room next to my chair is a copy of A Clash of Kings, the second installment in the series. Because even with my rule about unfinished series, even considering that it took me three weeks to read the shortest installment of the four books in print, when I read the last hundred or so pages on Friday afternoon, so much that I read was 100% kick-ass, so completely mind-bogglingly brilliant, that I couldn't wait to start reading the next book. On my way to pick up Georgia from preschool I took a long detour, visited two HPBs and two B&Ns looking for a copy of the book, and then this weekend found time to read the first couple of chapters. At the rate I'm going, I'm going to be reading nothing for pleasure but "A Song of Ice and Fire" until late this year, perhaps even early next year. And then I'll join the legion of readers hungrily waiting the next installment in the series. But honestly, at this point, I can't help myself.
So really, not recommended to anyone, unless you want to read what may be the perfect epic fantasy, and you have loads of time to commit to reading it. In which case this comes highly, highly recommended.
Monday, October 08, 2007
This week I'm going to review a book with pictures as well as words, one that I read in individual issues and reread this last week in the trade collection. This may well be the best thing in the history of ever.
The Immortal Iron Fist
I'm not going to lie to you. Most comics these days suck. I mean, they really suck. In the last few months I've been going through my old comics from time to time, rereading series from just a few years back, and each time I do I'm struck at just how horrible most mainstream superhero comics have gotten the last couple of years. Ten years ago we had the sublime heights of James Robinson's Starman, Mark Waid's Flash, Kurt Busiek's Astro City, and Alan Moore's Supreme. Then for a brief time both DC and Marvel were producing terrific work, really landmark quality, with Grant Morrison on JLA, Mark Waid on Captain America, Kurt Busiek on Avengers, and on, and on.
Then, about three or four years ago, something seems to have started going seriously wrong. The talent on the books has never been better, one might argue, but the end result is often an unreadable mess. The DC superhero comics have completely disappeared up their own ass with editorial driven nonsense (honestly, when Mary Marvel battled a monster made of aborted human fetuses, I knew it was time for me to go), with only odd standouts like Shadowpact and Blue Beetle managing to maintain my interest at all. Because even when the books themselves show real promise, like Allan Heinberg on Wonder Woman or Busiek on Superman or Morrison on Batman, incomprehensible editorial decisions and baffling schedule issues completely spoil things for me (all three of those series mentioned have been plagued by fill-in issues of uniformly bad quality, with the worst example being Wonder Woman, which ran the first four parts of a five part story in its first four issues, then ran the fifth part more than eight issues later in an annual, without a mention of this in an editorial or note in the intervening issues at any point).
None of which has anything to do with The Immortal Iron Fist, really, except to establish that it takes a fair amount for a superhero comic to impress me these days. And this is a book that has impressed me.
Now, I've always had a lot of respect for Ed Brubaker. I read his indie comic Lowlife a million years ago, thought that Sleeper was the best thing to come out of Wildstorm in years, and followed his Captain America until the editorial-driven event nonsense of the House of M and Civil War and all of that silliness finally spoiled me on it. He's never been my favorite comics writer, but he's one that's never disappointed, and always delivered quality work.
Then there's his cowriter Matt Fraction. I'll admit it took me a while to warm to his work. I think it's as much to do with my own misconceptions of what he was all about based on limited exposure to his online persona more than anything else, because in retrospect I'd read only a very little bit of his work. Since developing my deep passion for Iron Fist, I've gone back and reread all of Casanova, as I mentioned last week, and have picked up and enjoyed Five Fists of Science (which shares some inspirations with a notional project of my own, The Sum of Histories).
How to explain The Immortal Iron Fist? Well, first, I'll point out that this is a relaunch of a character first introduced in the 1970s. You don't need to know anything about the character or his background to appreciate the book under review here, but if you do know anything about the character, then you'll definitely want to give Fraction and Brubaker's book a shot.
The Essential Iron Fist, which collects all of the issues of the original run, in his own book and elsewhere. The first issues are okay not great, with some workman like art from Gil Kane and a different scripter every few issues, but when Chris Claremont and John Byrne take over the series, all bets are off. Speaking as a dyed-in-the-wool X-Men fan from childhood, coming at these Iron Fist collaborations of the two was a revelation, as these issues are arguably far superior to their run on Uncanny X-Men, more technically sophisticated and, since the story is brought to some sort of closure at the end, ultimately more satisfying.)
The character of Iron Fist is a product of Marvel's attempt in the seventies to capitalize on the martial arts craze, and the success of things like Enter the Dragon and the Kung Fu tv series. DC and Marvel comics of the period were filled with martial artists on missions of vengeance, who filled the pages of the b&w newstand Deadly Hands of Kung Fu. On the whole, while there was some interesting backstory to some of these (in particular Shang-Chi, the rogue son of Fu Manchu), by and large most of the martial arts characters were pretty forgettable, usually men (and on rare occasion women) who had been done wrong, been trained by some cryptic old dude in the art of the fist, and then sent off on a mission of vengeance, usually with stops along the way to visit Batman or Spider-man, depending on their orientation.
Iron Fist was a bit different. He was an American who had been raised in K'un L'un, a kind of Shangri-La that, like Brigadoon, only appeared in our world for a brief span every ten years. Instructed in the martial arts by Lei Kung, the Thunderer (under the watchful eye of the August Personage in Jade), young Daniel Rand becomes the most bad ass of bad asses, and is allowed the attempt to defeat Shou-Lao the Undying, a dragon. He wins, naturally, getting in return a dragon-shaped burn-mark-tattoo on his chest, the ability to channel energy into his fists (which become things "like unto iron", of course), and the mantle of K'un L'un's champion and defender, Iron Fist. When K'un L'un reorients with Earth, he travels back to America to seek for answers about his late father, fights supervillains, gets pursued by the Steel Serpent, another K'un L'un native who wants the power of the iron fist for himself, makes friends with Luke Cage (the bad ass of bad asses), and falls in love with an African-American policewoman with a bionic arm. He discovers that he is heir to one of the world's largest fortunes, the Rand Corporation, and sets up a side business as a hero for hire.
That's about all you need to know about the original series, and all of it covered in flashback and exposition in the present series. The new book, The Immortal Iron Fist, picks up exactly where the original series left off, and goes in entirely new directions.
The conceit of Fraction and Brubaker's take on the character is that Daniel Rand is just the latest in a long string of men (and one woman) to wear the mantle of the Iron Fist. The previous bearer, Orson Randall, was a soldier in the trenches of WWI before roaming the world as a pulp adventurer with his band of sidekicks the Confederates of the Curious, complete with airship and be-goggled dog. Randall had been raised in K'un L'un as well, after his father, a Victorian-era steampunk adventurer who had crashed his airship into the city during its brief appearance on Earth, along with his pregnant wife. Earlier Iron Fists include Bei Ming-Tai, who faced off against the Mongol hordes, pirate queen Wu Ao-Shi, and Boxer Rebellion leader Bei Bang-Wen.
Orson, it turns out, isn't dead after all, but has been hiding out smoking opium for the last few decades. The Steel Serpent returns (the K'un L'un native who wanted the iron fist for himself), now at the head of the Hydra secret society, and allied with Crane Mother, the ruler of another Brigadoon-like city. Because, we now discover, K'un L'un is only one of seven cities of heaven that phase in and out of Earth's plane of existence, and the purpose of the immortal weapons, of which Iron Fist is only one, is to meet ever few decades in deadly combat to determine which of the seven cities will have preeminence for the next cycle. And then the ass-kicking commences.
And now I'm just recounting the entire plot.
I can't help myself. The book is a compendium of all of my obsessions, from clash of cultures, to multidimensional hoohah, to steampunk and pulp adventurers, to generational and legacy heroes, to martial arts, and all points in between. This is a book aimed directly at me, and it couldn't be more perfect.
I don't know what the working relation between the two cowriters is like. In interviews they suggest that Fraction writes the first draft of each script, then Brubaker rewrites, then Fraction polishes, then Brubaker polishes. If that's the case, then it perhaps explains how The Immortal Iron Fist manages to somehow be greater than the sum of its parts. Fraction's own comics are almost invariably about things I myself obsess over constantly, but in some cases the final execution falls a little short of the conception (as, to be fair, it would almost have to do, given the ambitious reach of his ideas). Brubaker's work, on the other hand, is technically unassailable, but sometimes fails to grab me at a visceral level, most often falling outside my personal wheelhouse, as it were. The two of them working together, however, are this crazy Frankenstein of talent, each compensating for the other, and constantly amping things up.
(Of course, this could all be a misread of the real working relationship, and it could simply be that the subject matter here is closer to my heart, and that Fraction in some cases writes one issue himself from start to finish and Brubaker in other cases does the same, in which case I'm just talking out of my ass again.)
Okay, now I really need to get back to work, as I've bloviated on this far longer than I'd planned. The upshot is this, though. If you follow my blog at all, and find that you share tastes in common with me in terms of books, or movies, or comics, you would be well served to seek out The Immortal Iron Fist and give it a shot. It really is one of the best things in the history of ever, and one of the bright shining lights in the giant ocean of suck that modern superhero comics have become. Highly, highly recommended.
Monday, October 01, 2007
In any event, I'm dipping into some of my earlier summer reading again for today's report, which I'd have mentioned at the time if I hadn't been entirely underwater.
Brian Francis Slattery's Spaceman Blue: A Love Story
The first I heard of this book was when Irene Gallo raved about it on her blog, in connection with discussing the cover. Then when I was at BEA this last spring I briefly met the author in the company of his editor, my pal Liz Gorinsky. She was kind enough to give me a review copy of the book, which I read more or less immediately after coming home.
Slattery has been praised to the rafters for this book, and all of it deserved. There is an immediacy and relentless lyricism to his prose that really got into my head and messed me up for a few days. From time to time I'll read a book with such a strong sense of style that it deforms and distorts my own writing for a brief time, infected with the author's own rhythms. That's what happened with this one, and for the span of about a week the work I was doing was a strange hybrid of my own voice and this strange interloper that had set up shop in my head, engendered by my fevered reading of Spaceman Blues. Fortunately for the work in question, my editors at Solaris talked me out of it, since while the style Slattery uses fits his story perfectly, it was an ill-suited choice for my alternate history future war story.
So, on to the story itself. It's almost impossible to synopsize. There are strange cults, underground cities, martial arts, and aliens. It reminded me of nothing so much as a mature version of one of Danny Pinkwater's young adult novels (I was thinking in particular of Lizard Music, or the underground culture bits of the Snarkout Boys novels), and considering how highly I rate Pinkwater, that's high praise indeed.
It's not a perfect novel. I have one or two quibbles with it. It's a world that appears on its surface to be the "real world," until these stranger layers beneath are revealed... except that the doomsday monks float around a few inches above ground and no one seems alarmed by them. It's a great bit of business, and beautifully written, but it pushes the baseline reality of the world into already absurd territory, undercutting a bit the strangeness of what follows. And if the book's ending somewhat fails to deliver the grand heights up to which the rest of the book was building, it can hardly be blamed; this is the kind of book that promises the secrets of life and the universe, and it would be a rare book indeed that could deliver on all counts.
But these are fairly minor quibbles. Otherwise, the book is near flawless. The things that the narrative does "wrong," like shifting POV at a maddening rate, dropping into infodumps at a moment's notice, and so on, are actually strengths and not weaknesses. In the hands of a lesser writer I think the novel would have ended up an irredeemable mess, but it's a testament to Slattery's prowess that he's able not only to make it all hang together, but to make it sing.
Highly recommended for anyone who thinks the phrase "Pinkwater for grownups" is an appealing one. And for everyone who doesn't, for that matter.
Monday, September 24, 2007
I also read the first part of David Drake's Redliners, which I'm enjoying, and the first hundred or so pages of George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, which is fan-fucking-tastic. But reports on those will have to wait until I finish them, since this is modeled after pass-or-fail school reports intended only to prove I've completed reading.
In that case, I'll dip a bit back into the things I read a bit earlier in the year, and see what I have to recommend.
D.M. Cornish's Monster Blood Tattoo: Book One: Foundling.
I read this a few months back, and liked it quite a bit. This is one of those books marketed as Young Adult, that could be as easily enjoyed by Middle Readers as by adults. I picked it up on the strength of the appendices, which run 121 pages long (more than a quarter of the book) and include a glossary that puts some dictionaries to shame, illustrations of the clothing typical to different professions, a calendrical system, profiles on different types of sea-going vessels, and insanely detailed topographical maps. Seeing that, I didn't much care what the story was actually about, I just wanted to see if the author had actually managed to make use of all of it.
To my surprise, the story is actually about quite a bit. This is an adventure story in the grandest traditional sense, about a young foundling who leaves the orphanage where he was raised (to be particular, Madam Opera's Estimable Marine Society for Foundling Boys and Girls) to take a position as a Lamplighter, one of those who patrol the highways of the Empire, keeping monsters at bay. He gets sidetracked by misadventure, falls in with pirates, escapes, and ends up in the company of a fulgar, a monster-hunter whose body has been surgically altered by the addition of new organs that allow her to store huge amounts of electricity for long periods of time, which she can project as an offensive weapon through her tall metal staff of office. Of course, the surgical procedure that grants the monster-fighter her power means that her body is constantly in rebellion against itself, and has to keep taking regular doses of a medicinal substance to keep her own body from rejecting the new organs and killing her.
This is a fantasy story, but it's an odd kind of fantasy. There are monsters, but beyond that there is little that one might call "magic," with everything else having a pseudo-scientific basis (or at least a pseudo-natural philosophical basis). And it's a narrative not afraid to slow down and take it's time. That said, even though this is book one of an ongoing series, presumably, it never felt plodding or padded.
My only criticism, if I have one, is that the cover doesn't really "sell" the concept. I understand that this was illustrated and designed by the author (who also did all the interior illustrations), and I can understand his intentions, but I'm not sure the book is best served by it. Come to that, the title itself, while it comes to take on significance in the reading, is not necessarily evocative on first blush. My criticisms are short-lived, though, because I see that the new softcover edition has a new cover design that handily addresses both concerns.
See, isn't that nicer?
A nicely written start to a promising series, and recommended for anyone interested in impressive world-building or good-old adventure.
Monday, September 17, 2007
First up is Austin Grosman's Soon I Will Be Invincible.
This book was recommended to be from all corners, but it was Jess Nevins telling me that I should check it out that was the proverbial straw. So I have Jess to thank for his. Grossman's prose is light and breezy, and the book itself is a treat. I don't think that it's a funny as most reviewers (and Grossman himself) appear to think that it is, but that might just be because I'm so indoctrinated in the logic of superhero comics that I fail to see some of the inherent humor. I mean, of course a supergenius is going to end up evil as a matter of course, and try to take over the world. What else are they going to do with their time.
The book is an extremely loving view of a superhero universe, complete with all of the insanity and strange logic familiar from the comic book varieties. It reminded me of nothing so much as Kurt Busiek's Astro City series, and while Soon I Will Be Invicible fails to reach some of the sublime heights of the best of Astro City, it comes pretty close.
My advice to all of the reviewers who think that Grossman is blazing new territory with Invicible is to check out any of the collection volumes of Astro City, in particular Tarnished Angel and Confession.
If you're the kind of reader who has already plowed through all of Astro City and is hungry for more in the same vein, though, I recommend Grossman's novel highly. But if you do pick it up, got for the UK edition, not the American. The American volume (the cover is above) has some hokey satin-and-spandex routine as its design approach (as though embarrassed that it's a book about superheroes, for christ's sake, and trying to keep it at some ironic distance). The UK edition has a cover by Bryan Hitch (he of Ultimates and The Authority). And if the cover weren't enough, there's also a signature of color images at the back of the book, faux comic covers featuring some of the key players. Check out the link for the image gallery in this BBC interview with Grossman, or embiggen the cover above.
What can I add to the chorus of praise already heaped on this book? Not much, but I'll try. Brasyl is not a perfect book, but it comes very, very close.
Lou Anders, editorial director at Pyr (who published the US edition of Brasyl) advised me not to read the book until I'd finished work on my own End of the Century, which will be published by Pyr sometime late next year or early the year after. I took his advice, and I'm glad I did. While my own novel and Ian's are two very different beasts, structurally they are very similar, and they share some preoccupations and concerns. Maybe that's one of the reasons why Brasyl resonated so deeply with me, since it's clear that Ian and I have read a lot of the same books (David Deutsch's The Fabric of Reality least among them). Or maybe it's just that, like Ian, I very much dig the image of people with superscience sword capable of cutting through anything running around the streets of a modern metropolis.
I resisted the temptation to fire up Ennio Morricone's soundtrack to The Mission while reading the sections featuring the Jesuit priest in colonial Brazil, but just barely. But I couldn't prevent those refrains from running through my head. And believe me, the reveal of the big cathedral ship floating down the Amazon, the sculpted angels seeming to dance above the tree tops? The orchestration in that scene was amazing.
My only quibble, if I have one, is with the glossary at the back of the book. It was the same beef I had with Ian's previous outing, River of Gods. I think that both books should lose the glossary all together. They are somewhat useful tools, but neither contains all of the foreign words that I don't recognize in the text, and so rather than constantly flipping back to the end of the book to look up a word that isn't going to be there anyway, better to get them all from context, as I have to do anyway with the unlisted terms. Besides, there's always Google if I just have to find a definition right away.
In any event, highly recommended. If you've been looking for a story featuring bisexual transvestite wheeler-dealers in the future, kick ass Irish Jesuits in the past, and complex TV producers in the modern day, complete with knives that will cut through the bonds of space-time and secret conspiracies across the multiverse, then Brasyl is the book for you. And if you haven't been looking for that story, then you should be now.
I've been reading a lot of franchise fiction lately, research for some upcoming work, and much of that reading has been in the universe of Warhammer 40K. Prior to this summer I knew very little about the franchise, aside from the fact that it was tied into a table-top war gaming system, and involved space war in the distant future. Solaris, the publishers of Set the Seas on Fire and the forthcoming Dragon's Nine Sons and Three Unbroken, is an imprint of Games Workshop, who does Warhammer and Warhammer 40K, and shares editorial staff with Black Library, the in-house imprint that does the tie-in books. As a result, when I was at BEA a few months ago, flogging the Solaris books, I got a chance to leaf through some of the recent Black Library titles set in the 40K universe. Intrigued by what little I'd seen, I nagged George Mann at Solaris until he sent me a care package of the books, and dove in.
I've only read a half dozen of the novels so far, and a handful of short stories, but what I've learned is that Dan Abnett is a Bad Ass.
I knew of Abnett's work in comics, having enjoyed the stuff he's cowritten with Andy Lanning, and in particular Majestic, their run on Legion of Super-Heroes, and the ongoing Nova series. Having admired his comics work, though, I was still completely unprepared for how good his prose would be. The writing itself is often very spare, with the occasional poetic flourish, but the level of invention is just staggering. I've been reading a bunch of the source material and game manuals for Warhammer 40K the last few months, so I know where Abnett is pulling some of the bits of worldbuilding from, but the uses to which he puts that source material is often little short of revelatory.
There was a time when I railed against franchise novels, and if I still harbored those prejudices I'd have been denied the shear pleasure of reading Eisenhorn. An omnibus that collects three novels featuring Gregor Eisenhorn, an Imperial Inquistor, Eisenhorn isn't just one of the best franchise books I've ever read, it's one of the best science fiction novels, franchise or no, that I've read in ages. Really remarkable work. And recommended to any reader of quality SF. Knowledge of the Warhammer 40K universe (or, in fact, even knowledge that there is a Warhammer 40K universe) isn't required to appreciate the book's qualities.
Okay, that's enough bloviating for one week. I'll try to do another book report next week, assuming I've finished a new book by then. But don't expect to get three books in a week again, anytime soon. Having read these three in the last few weeks, though, and admired them all, it seemed a shame not to cover them all.