Sunday, February 21, 2016

Review: Rat Queens - Deluxe - Volume One

Rat Queens - Deluxe - Volume One Rat Queens - Deluxe - Volume One by Kurtis J. Wiebe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclosure: I received a free e-galley copy of this book from Image Comics.

Why did I wait so long to read Rat Queens?? This ARC has been on my computer for at least a month, probably more. I'd heard about the series last fall, and the local comic store clerk recommended it to me after finding out I liked Image and played D&D. Seriously, though: it's a hilarious, well-drawn, action-packed AND character-driven story about an all-female adventuring party (with some queer action thrown in)! It's everything I've ever dreamed of!

The story opens with the town of Palisade deciding what to do about the rowdy parties of adventurers that, while ostensibly protecting the town, tend to cause a lot of commotion (and property damage). Enter the Rat Queens (through the wall of the building): a beardless dwarf named Violet, a drug-and-women-loving smidgen named Betty, a necromancing elf named Hannah, and a human(?) paladin named Dee who no longer follows her god. The Rat Queens and the rest of the adventurers are sentenced to some boring, run-of-the-mill quests to get them out of jail (and keep out of future trouble), but the missions are quickly revealed to be traps intended to kill them all.

From this fairly standard RPG beginning, it's easy to assume that the story would be cookie-cutter the rest of the way, too - lots of fighting, straightforward quests, lots of dungeons and/or dragons, and not much in terms of character development or world building. Thankfully, this story upends that expectation right away. There's a large, self-contained story in this volume and while the action is certainly thrilling and frequent, it serves mainly as part of a larger story about the relationships between these characters and this town. We get mid-battle flashbacks (due to magical effects) for some origin stories, we get complicated sexual and romantic relationships, we get a sense that this team loves each other deeply and *that* drives the action and the story.

The art is pretty fantastic - a perfect choice for this kind of story. Bold, strong lines, bright colors, and the right kind of detail that reflects and adds to the personality of each character. The artists changed a bit of the way through the series, but I wasn't looking for it, and couldn't tell.

The one drawback to the series is that several times, either due to scene changes or maybe just being slightly dense, I couldn't figure out what the dialogue was referring to. Sometimes flipping back helped, sometimes I was left puzzling and moved on. (For others who have read it, here's one of the points I could still use some clarification on: When Betty tells Hannah she's scared of her black eyes, what is she referring to? I flipped back to the previous scene but I didn't see any obvious eye changes.)

This edition was also lovely, with some extras in the back that riff on the characters and show us some cute extra artwork.

Would highly recommend to anyone who likes D&D, epic fantasy, great stories, and a fun, compelling read!

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Sunday, February 14, 2016

Review: Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard

Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have been waiting for this book for almost six months. I hopped right on that hype train as the publisher rolled it out of the station back in August or September. It's an SF book written by a cognitive linguist! That's like the majority of my interests all rolled into one book! I even participated in an AMA with the author the day I checked the book out of the library, which was cool

And then I started reading it. I'd been expecting the sentient elephants, since they're the main premise of the story. I didn't expect the rest of the sentient animals, or their ridiculous names, or the many indulgent nods to real-life academia, or the boys-club feel to the story, or... well, a number of things were unexpected. I probably should have expected that this wouldn't be my favorite, given that anthropomorphic animals have never been my thing, even as a kid.

The story begins with Jorl, a Fant who can use koph. Koph is essential to the lives of the Fants. Certain Fants (and, more rarely, creatures from other species) can use koph to communicate with the dead, so long as they know enough about the person they want to talk to that they can summon a good amount of the tiny particles of consciousness/personality that emanate from all living beings. Jorl believes he might be the Fant to fulfill an obscure prophecy made long ago, but he's not even sure what the prophecy means. He spends many of his days using koph to talk to his best friend, who committed suicide several years earlier, leaving behind a son who is a pariah due to his albinism. He is also an academic, and the source of most of the winking complaints about academic life. These come across as inside jokes and for me, broke the fourth wall because the screamed self-insertion of the author; a perfect example of where the author should have 'killed his darlings.'

Jorl's quest begins with a search for the missing dead - Fants who have sailed away from their home to die peacefully, as the Fant do, on an island they will only find once they reach their time to die, but who Jorl can't reach through koph. (Spoiler: Only now do I realize that this seems like a contradiction, as later in the novel it's revealed that you can certainly use koph to speak to people who are alive, and the process is essentially the same as summoning the dead.) His dead friend's son, Pizlo, also begins a journey - the moons of the Fant world have spoken to him, and he knows he must meet Jorl toward the end of his quest. Pizlo's journey throughout the book is the most engaging plot for me; his status an an outcast makes him a great character to explore the Fant society and his strange ability to communicate with non-sentient objects is intriguing (and potentially related to the the secret linguistic premise of the story - perhaps we'll see that in a sequel).

Much of this book is about the politics of this universe populated by sentient animals, but this is the biggest weakness of the novel for me. Nothing about this felt refreshing or imaginative. It feels tired, because nearly every character relies on stereotypical (Western) anthrophomophization; dogs are loyal, cats are feral and individualistic, otters are playful and carefree, elephants have long memories (in the form of koph). Every character has the 'personality' of the species they're from, which grows reductive and repetitive when you see multiple characters from the same species.

The gender dynamics in this book made me a little uncomfortable. It's not that women don't exist in this world, but they're not solid characters, and their stories don't really matter. All of the important relationships are between men, all of the important stories belong to men. Which, I suppose, is fine on its own, but the permeating tone of masculine pretension throughout the story, the almost complete dominance of men in minor and side roles, and the treatment of the few female minor characters (like the young female bookstore clerk who is in love with Jorl, and seemingly only exists to show us how desirable he is, or the otter who is a shallow, vapid party girl who gets absolutely zero character development despite undergoing some traumatic events), all add up to that uncomfortable feeling of 'I suspect this author included women because he knows women should be included, and that he feels proud of himself for inclusion, and gave very little thought beyond that.' Which is a surprisingly common feeling for fiction in general and SF in particular.

Overall, the plot is not hugely compelling. The 'rules' of koph seem to change to be whatever is most convenient for the story to proceed, and any story based in prophecy needs to tread lightly on that ground (especially in science fiction), not trample over it with giant elephant feet. There's a twist toward the end of the book that has very little to do with the actual plot, but seems to be the central point of the book, and maybe the reason why the book was written. Maybe if the story served that reveal, or the reveal served the story, it wouldn't feel so shallow, but shallow it does feel. I'm likely biased because of my distaste for anthropomorphic animals, but I wouldn't recommend this to fans of SF, because it feels much more like fantasy. If it had committed to that fantastical aspect, I suspect I would've liked it a bit more.

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Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Review: Dragonquest

Dragonquest Dragonquest by Anne McCaffrey
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Dragonquest, the second book in the Dragonriders of Pern series, feels like more of the same. There are dragons (obviously), there are dragonriders, and there are lots of disgruntled nobles. This installment features several predictable but slow-moving plotlines, and hints of stories or developments I hoped would McCaffrey would capitalize upon, but to no avail.

There are two main related story threads: the first is the discovery of fire lizards - the small creatures from which dragons were eventually bred, long ago; the second is the discovery of secret rooms inside some of the Holds that contain long-forgotten technology. This technology (namely a telescope) allows the dragonriders to take a closer look at the red star that causes all of their problems.

Actually, I'm pretty sure the cause of most of the problems in this book is Kylara. She has turned out to be a raging entitled bitch who sleeps around. Not exactly surprising, given the previous book, but still - I was hoping for better. She doesn't have a single redeeming quality, and is never presented in an empathetic light. She runs the Southern Weyr but doesn't do any of the work, instead leaving it to Brekke. Brekke is a young woman who is entirely capable and pure and doesn't even want to have sex with F'nor because she only wants to have sex with one person, and that person will have to be whoever flies her dragon. We also have our whore-madonna dichotomy set up quite nicely.

As soon as she finds out that the fire lizards can imprint on non-dragonriders, Kylara gives a clutch of eggs to her main lover - a lord - upending the entire hierarchy of Pern, in terms of both the balance of power between lord holders, dragonriders, and the craft holds, and the careful negotiations between the holds. F'lar and Lessa solve that problem fairly easily by giving away fire lizard eggs like candy on Halloween, but several of the lord holders (now emboldened by their dragon-like companions) are insistent on traveling to the red star to defeat the Thread at its source. Meanwhile, F'nor and F'lar are trying to figure out other ways to beat Thread, including grubs that seem to eat burrows of Thread and magically heal plants that have been burned by it, and finding another planet in the system that accounts for the recent irregular Threadfall.

Then Brekke's dragon rises to mate, and Kylara's dragon, due to Kylara's sluttiness and irresponsibility, attacks it, which results in the deaths of both of their dragons. This traumatizes Brekke. I'm not sure what the narrative point of this is, except to give the madonna a horrifying "first time" and castigate Kylara for being a whore and a bitch.

F'nor tries to jump to the red star and comes back, with his dragon, horribly injured.

My main problem here is that there is very little build to this book. There's not a plot, per se; there are a series of linked events that follow each other, but there is no build-up, and there's little relationship between any of the several sub-plots (like the young lord of Ruatha imprinting on a malformed white dragon). This book exists to move the world forward, not to move any story anywhere at all.

I also had some difficulty stomaching all of the mysterious unknown technology from the past - unknown to the characters, immediately obvious to the reader, and discussed in-story in cartoonishly oblivious ways, as if the reader shouldn't guess what the instrument is until the big reveal to the characters. It was painful to listen to.

And, obviously, there's the nauseating portrayal of women. I get that these were written in the late 60s, early 70s, and I should probably be satisfied that there are women at all. There are even brief pretensions toward an equal rights movement in Pern, when Brekke thinks about her young female ward and tells F'nor that the child would make a great dragonrider - even on a bronze, green, or blue dragon - and that maybe women and girls should have the chance to impress all dragons. But that's quickly discarded (at least for this book) and then it's a return to Brekke the pure and sweet and perfectly good, Kylara the vain, slutty, stupid, and bitchy, and Lessa, the firecracker who can only be tamed by her man, for whom she'll keep house and be a good sex object. Those are my words (mostly), but that's exactly how the book portrays them, with no exceptions. It's the three oldest tropes in the book, and at no point are they subverted. Even when Brekke and Kylara both suffer the loss of their dragons (which, to be fair, *is* Kylara's fault), everyone reaches out to Brekke and tries to pull her out of her stupor, while they confine Kylara somewhere distant. The nicest thing anyone does for Kylara is decide not to kill her. I remember reading the Harper Hall books as a kid, and loving the women in those books for their power and rebellion. I'm tempted to re-read that series instead of continue with this one.

Overall, it was an okay book to listen to while working out, but nowhere near as good as the one I'm listening to now! (Stay tuned for my review of the audiobook version of "Lagoon" by Nnedi Okorafor.)

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