Thursday, March 31, 2016

Review: Patchwerk

Patchwerk Patchwerk by David Tallerman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Patchwerk" is the third selection I've read of's novella publishing series. It's nice that I can read these in a brief afternoon. I finished this one while at the library on the day it was due.

It's hard to talk about Patchwerk without spoiling the conceit of the novel. I had a similar difficulty with The Last Witness, the last novella I read, but these stories couldn't be more different. Patchwerk doesn't try too hard to hide its premise, so I don't feel bad about spoiling it. Dran Florian, an inventor in a near-future world, has invented a machine that can pull matter from parallel universes. Dran realizes the extent of that power when he's confronted by his estranged wife and a sociopathic bureaucrat-inventor. As Dran repeatedly nears death, his machine pulls he and his wife (and unfortunately his enemies) into parallel universes.

The constant pushing forward and stepping sideways is the centerpiece of the story, and rightly so. If it hadn't worked, if it had been clunky, if it weren't compelling, this whole story would have failed. (And it easily could have been any of those things.) But it worked, and it was a delight to jump through many different genres and tropes along with the characters. There's a typical spy story, a steampunk airship, a bug-Earth, and a fantastical Egyptian barge. It's fun, it's a little campy, and it's full of vivid imagery that has stuck with me for weeks.

The character relationships and the plot itself are simplified somewhat, since the characters don't necessarily retain their identity as they switch worlds, but this simplicity allows Tallerman to tie up the end of the novel neatly while giving the idea driving the story some space to get complicated.

Overall, I didn't love it, but I certainly enjoyed it. I'd like to see it expanded and made into a movie because it would be a beautiful spectacle.

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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Plutona #1, by Jeff Lemire and Emi Lenox

Plutona #1, by Jeff Lemire and Emi Lenox
Publisher: Image Comics
Art: Emi Lenox
Story: Jefff Lemire and Emi Lenox
Colors: Jordie Bellaire
Rating: 2/5

I think that Plutona is directed to a much younger age group than the one that I belong to, and most of my criticisms can be reduced to that. It's a simple story, with young characters who are broadly and sparsely sketched in this first issue. It's also a sweet story, though, with a cute premise and a diverse cast that will probably appeal much more to kids.

In Plutona, five kids - snarky and self-centered Mie and her younger brother Mike, quiet superhero-watching Teddy, unhappy, cigarette smoking Ray, and Mie's downtrodden friend Diane - find the body of a superhero named Plutona in the woods. That's essentially all that happens in the first issue, after the introduction of our cast.

The dialogue can get pretty cloying and too on the nose, in the way that writing for kids gets sometimes. Hopefully the characters will be more than just the fairly wooden stereotypes from the first issue.

The art is beautiful, with pastel watercolors on the cover and a kind of saturated-pastel color palette inside. I particularly liked the switch to Plutona's POV, which featured an emphasis on traditional comic elements and stylization.

This isn't for me, but I'd definitely recommend it to a younger child (partly just to see whether they actually like or not - I'm worried that it might be a little too twee, too written-down).

Review: The Traitor Baru Cormorant

The Traitor Baru Cormorant The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read "The Traitor Baru Cormorant" over a month ago, but it feels right to be reviewing it now, just after finishing "The Winged Histories" by Sofia Samatar. Both are lush, tightly constructed fantasy empires that happen to be light on the fantasy elements for most of the story. Both feature women who love women (and, in various places, are or aren't treated badly for it). Both have similar things to say about colonization, imperialism, and rebellion.

Where the two books differ, though, is in style. "The Winged Histories" was poetic, elegant, wandering, organic. "Baru Cormorant" is sharp, a perfect machine where each action triggers a precise reaction and gains momentum until every piece has fallen into place in a completely logical but surprisingly powerful ending. It's a masterwork of plot and story creation.

The titular Baru is a woman from an island nation where families are comprised of a mother, two fathers, and children (or Baru's is, at least; there may be variation we don't see). When the colonizing Empire of Masks, or Masquerade, comes, they conquer not by force but by trade. The Masquerade is ostensibly a meritocracy, totally unconcerned with inherited power; all of the public servants wear masks (at least in their official capacity) to emphasize that it's not about the person, it's about their skills. They are also obsessed with chemistry and genetics, but (predictably) focused on the more destructive aspects of these sciences, like bombs and selective breeding.

That's not to say there isn't fighting the empire, though; one of Baru's fathers leaves to fight them and never returns. Baru is smart - a savant, as the Masquerade calls her - but it's not until she's older that she realizes that he might not have died. Instead, he might've suffered the painful punishments the Masquerade deals to those who commit "unhygenic" sexual behavior. By the time Baru figures it out, she's also learned something about herself: she loves women.

She is also fiercely committed to bringing down the Masquerade and she knows it cannot be torn down from outside. She uses her savant skills to get a posting in the imperial goverment: she is the chief accountant for another colony of the empire, and in this particular economically-fragile colony, that makes her in charge.

The rest of the novel grows from this firmly established foundation. Her appointment as accountant is the first domino in a series of events that lead to Baru winning the love of the people (and saving the imperial government in the region) by destroying the value of imperial currency. She leverages that power with the nobility to foment and lead a rebellion. Baru is reticient, determined, and sharp. Her focus is the center around which this entire novel (and probably this entire world, eventually) is wound. It's hard to put so much work on the shoulders of one character and have them carry it without turning into an overpowered robot, but Dickinson has built Baru strong and fanatical, and she'll do it - and she'll stay interesting, flawed, and human the whole time.

She also forms a deep but unconsummated relationship with a noblewoman, a relationship that can't ever be real because Baru must not let the Masquerade have any ammunition to use against her. The relationship is understated but Dickinson conveys the trust and loyalty and strength between them beautifully through small, intimate moments and oblique gestures. Baru is a stoic character by nature, and hiding even the small outward signs of love buries the romance deep for even the reader privy to some of her thoughts. I think Dickinson excellently makes it so that the small hints of romance that Baru does reveal are indicative of a powerful love. Their storyline has some of the most tender and fierce moments I've seen in a fictional lesbian romance, and while I have some qualms about how it worked out, I was wholeheartedly invested in the journey.

As carefully and measuredly as each event unfolds, I do feel that if you think too hard about some of the causal connections, something is lacking. Baru's achievements and her brilliant theories seem overexalted both by the characters in the book and metatextually (the book is getting a lot of praise, and the tone of the text leads the reader to fully believe in Baru's superpowers). In retrospect, I'm highly suspicious of any secret group of elite throne-manipulating powers that decides to let someone join them just for knowing intermediate economics.

The other curious lack here is the fantasy elements. There aren't any. Some are referenced toward the end of the story and will undoubtedly turn up in the next book, if the ending is any indication. The few fantastical elements in the book lean more toward science fiction than magic, which is something that felt fresh and interesting - an old-fantasy world with almost-industrial science and some strange powers of psychological conditioning.

As ambivalent as I am about some aspects of the story, the world-building and the character of Baru Cormorant were so thoroughly and enchantingly established that I can't wait for the sequel.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

At the End of Babel, by Michael Livingston

"At the End of Babel," by Michael Livingston. Art by Greg Ruth. From, edited by Claire Eddy.

Published: July 1, 2015
Word count: ~7600
Rating: 4/5 stars

As a linguist and avid reader, I live for words. Stories about words are the best kind of stories, in my opinion, and anything referencing the Tower of Babel immediately jumps to the top of my 'to-read' list.

In Livingston's "At the End of Babel," words are powerful - but most of them are forbidden. All languages have been outlawed except one (which I assume, but I don't think is specified, is English). Tabitha Hoarse Raven is the last remaining member of her clan, and the last speaker of Keresan. She watched her father and the rest of her community get gunned down for speaking Keresan and dancing the moondance when she was a child. Now, she is going back to her ruined village to dance the moondance and call the gods in Keresan.

The story is anchored on Tabitha, and although we know a lot about her life, I feel she's lacking in personality. Still, she has a persistent, focused determination to complete her mission, and the story feels much the same. It is focused, constantly moving forward, and while it leaves little time for niceties (like elaborate character touches), it grabs your interest and marches you through this tightly-written story. Her determination is Livingston's determination is the reader's determination. We are all in this together, and we want her to succeed.

Until it happens, it's left a mystery what this 'success' entails - and when it does, it provides the most fantastical element of the story. In the beginning, I almost didn't recognize the story as SF/F, because the premise of a country (especially a dry region of the southern US, where I imagined this taking place) outlawing any minority languages under the pretense of 'unity' is hardly far-fetched. Livingston starts the story off, even, with a quotation from a proposed amendment to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 that states:
No person has a right, entitlement, or claim to have the Government of the United States or any of its officials or representatives act, communicate, perform or provide services, or provide materials in any language other than English.
This isn't a dystopia; it's modern-day America.

Livingston, though, shows us the visceral strength of language, the surprising and powerful things minority languages can do, in his closing act. Tabitha sings to the gods and they rain lightning down on her enemies in a storm that doesn't dissipate but travels on. And like that storm, Tabitha and the other native people she accumulates along the way show that people and cultures don't simply disappear, either, but persist.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Limbo #1, by Dan Watters, Caspar Wijngaard, and Jim Campbell

Limbo #1
Publisher: Image Comics
Art and colors: Caspar Wijngaard
Story: Dan Watters
Letters: Jim Campbell
Rating: 4/5

Another first-issue review! I have a lot of great things to say about Limbo. The comic takes place in what I imagine is a southern US town - lots of Spanish names and signs, but I also got a New Orleans feel from the city. Clay, our main character, is a detective straight of a noir film. He's got his own mystery to solve, though, because nine months ago, he woke up with no memories. A lounge singer named Brigitte asks for his help dealing with a crime lord (The Thumb) who she witnessed some freaky shit involving a sacrificial goat and a staticky TV set.

I'll say right off the bat that the one reason this isn't a 5-star comic for me is that it's just not my thing. Everything about it is quality and I liked it quite a lot, but it didn't hit that right combination of buttons for me to love it. The art is awesome, it's just not my favorite style, etc. I suspect that will change as the story grows in scope (and grows on me), but I've never been a huge fan of noir - it's just not my cup of tea.

That said, the art in this is awesome. The city is full of neon lights and Wijngaard conveys that by using cool neon blues, pinks, purples, and greens against sharp black backgrounds. It's a neat effect and gives the story great visual and stylistic coherence.

I'm also impressed with how well-paced this is. In just one issue, Clay takes on and (perhaps) completes a case, so we have a sense of continuity and closure, but that case also introduces us to the major players in the city. Best of all, it's clearly tied into some crazy otherworldly magic that's affecting the city as a whole, so we get a glimpse of the overall plot.

I'll definitely be picking up future issues of this, so stay tuned for more reviews!

From Under Mountains #1, by Sloane Leong, Claire Gibson, Marian Churchland, and Ariana Maher

From Under Mountains #1
Publisher: Image Comics
Art and colors: Sloane Leong
Story: Claire Gibson and Marian Churchland
Letters: Ariana Maher
Rating: 3/5 stars, with potential

So this is a new thing I'm trying: quick reviews of single-issue comics. I've picked up a bunch of first issues lately and I'm slogging through them, and I think doing a 100-200 word review for each one will 1) keep me motivated and 2) help me keep track of how I felt about all of these once I'm done, and see which ones I want to keep an eye on or add to my pull list.

I picked up From Under Mountains #1 because I like Image comics, the art looked vibrant, and I liked the setting. Once I opened it, I noticed the all-female creative team, which I like, a lot. It's hard to find a comic with even one woman involved so this is a grand slam.

Unfortunately, there wasn't a lot here to keep me interested. The art was bright and bold and I love the use of colors and layout in the first third of the book, but after the first spirit-summoning sequence, all of the backgrounds were flat and monochrome, which left me visually bored. The body and face proportions seemed off in some of the panels, too - little details not quite in the right place.

There is some potential in the story and characters, but there's an awful lot of info-dump-y dialogue paired with those flat-background panels. Looking at it now, the art and story are at their best when they rely mostly on visual action and less on dialogue. It's hard to tell what the main plot is going to be, but there's a pair of noble siblings (the brother gets to have adventures while his sister stays at home),  some women summoning lethal spirits, a drunk would-be assassin, and a scruffy hero. Some of the scene changes (and plot-line introductions) feel a little disjointed, and I had a hard time keeping track of what was happening and who was who. It feels like there's a rich mythology behind this, but that it didn't quite get conveyed in the telling.

Still, I'm intrigued enough that I might pick up the second issue to see if it improves. When the art is good, it's lovely and uses some great bright jewel tones (which are my favorite), and I suspect in the future the dialogue will flow a little better.

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Killing Jar, by Laurie Penny

"The Killing Jar," by Laurie Penny. Art by Koren Shadmi. From Motherboard, edited by Claire Evans and Brian Merchant.

Published: January 14, 2016
Word count: ~5300
Rating: 3/5 stars

So Motherboard does science fiction. That's news to me, but apparently they've been publishing short fiction for over a year. I've been poking around their website for a while now and I absolutely adore the artwork they use. It looks like a lot of it is done by Koren Shadmi, who did the above art for "The Killing Jar," and who is absolutely killing it. Go check out the link above for some great SF art!

"The Killing Jar" didn't knock my socks off, but it was a good read. The premise is cute: the main character is an intern for a professional serial killer. Oh yeah, and professional serial killers exist, and are encouraged by the government, because serial killing has been designated a Fine Art. It's a tough gig to get, though, so you have to intern and work your way up through the ranks.

Our main character has a knack for killing, and a is pretty darned good at the paperwork that goes along with it. She is repeatedly frustrated by her employer, Tony, who just doesn't get what makes a good serial killer good. He's never in the news, and he can't figure out why - but our main character does. She understands that you need to be creative, you need to go after the right kind of people, and you need to fill out all the paperwork so you can keep killing people.

She also has a roommate, Mona, who dissects frogs, and as a gift covers the main character's walls in dead butterflies.

Like I said, it didn't blow me away, but there are some great moments here. In the culmination of every millennial intern's dreams and the climax of the story, the main character kills her boss and takes his place. She's encouraged by her roommate (and now partner, both romantically and in business), who shows her that she is truly suited for this. You get the feeling that she's a psychopath, or sociopath, but maybe just a frustrated intern.

The prose is clean and functional, and while some short stories fall flat on their neat little premises, this carries it out to a conclusion that is both interesting and logical, and keeps it fun along the way. The professionalism of both the website and the writing is encouraging; I may not have a compelling desire to read more by Laurie Penny (though I would if I came across it), I will definitely be reading more of these Motherboard stories.

Review: The Winged Histories

The Winged Histories The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclosure: I received an e-galley copy of this book from Edelweiss and Small Beer Press.

I went into "The Winged Histories" without reading its companion novel, "A Stranger in Olondria." Sofia Samatar's first book came out three-ish years ago, and I'd heard of it in passing but never picked it up. I love Small Beer Press, though, so between that and the positive buzz I jumped at the chance to review this.

Now, "The Winged Histories" is explicitly not a sequel, but for a large chunk of this book I felt like I was missing something. Much of this review is going to detail what my expectations were based on the back-of-book blurb and my experience at points in the book, and how they didn't quite match up to what the book actually was. As the blurb states, it is the stories of four women - a soldier, a poet, a priestess, and a socialite - and their involvement in a war.

The soldier, Tav, gets the first story, and we're thrown into her life as a warrior right away. This was my first stumbling block: it's difficult to tell what the timeline is in this first story, at least in the beginning. Tav is disoriented and remembering events, and she alternates between short, sequential anecdotes and summary recollections with few cues for the reader. Part of my confusion might have been due to my disjointed reading, and I strongly feel a re-read would solve all of my problems (but not starting the book with this particular sequence might have prevented them, too). Once things settled down and became linear, I had an easier time with it.

The second revelation that helped me cope with the story came from another reviewer as I was skimming reviews, about halfway through. They suggested reading this as if it were four short stories, not one narrative, and that immediately made the story 100% better for me. I thought the book was going to be a slow burn that would encompass Tav's emotional trauma and recovery, paralleling the nation of Kestenya's trauma and recovery during and after the war, mostly focusing on Tav but with the other three women woven into her narrative. And even halfway through, toward the end of the priestess's chapter, I was still expecting the rest of Tav's story. That's not exactly what I got, but from this point on, I was able to adjust my expectations and thoroughly enjoy the book with no qualifications.

So, aside from the confusion, I loved this book. All the characters were beautifully written, compelling, tragic, human. The story is, generally, about a war for Kestenya's independence, led by Tav and her cousin, Dasya. The drama of the story is based largely in the elaborate culture that Samatar has created. Inheritance goes to nephews before sons and nieces before daughters. Dasya is the son of the Telkan, and heir to the throne because he has no male cousins - only Tav and her sister, Siski. Legends of Drevedi - winged vampires who supposedly share a lineage with humans - are the fantastical element lurking in the background, waiting to step forward. The Drevedi are maligned, supposedly extinct, but intertwined with the traditional religion - which has now been outlawed in favor of the Cult of the Stone. The Stone in question is covered in fragments of writings in many different languages, and supposedly fell from the sky to the middle of a desert. All in all, the worldbuilding here is fantastic, rich, and decadently layered - and remarkably fresh and original.

The characters Samatar chose to follow - Tav, Siski, Tav's lover, and the isolated daughter of the high priest of the Cult of the Stone - are all of varying importance in the war for Kestenya's independence and its fallout, ranging from Tav, who leads the charge, to her lover, who comforts her and who doesn't shy away from reminding her of the cost of such a war to the women like her who are left behind. Tav's story, appropriately, is more narrative, but troubled by the trauma of war. Her lover's story is absolute poetry. Siski, the socialite, tells a story of romance and loss of innocence. And the priestess reveals the secrets of the Priest of the Stone, who claims to know secrets of the gods but knows nothing about people. Together they form a portrait of a country that strives for unity and independence but is itself a messy, heterogeneous collection of peoples and beliefs. This is a story about history, and how what 'history' is depends on the perspectives that construct it.

This book also shines in its prose. This is the most elegantly, painfully written fantasy book I've read in years. Samatar's language is subtle but impactful and haunting. She writes poetry, outside of her novels, and it's clear and apparent on every page. She knows the power of a word in the right place and when to hold back, to wait or omit entirely. The result is a treasure where every page is steeped in beauty and emotion.

Overall, this was definitely a challenge, but one that was absolutely worth the effort and perhaps worth more because of it. The characters, the prose, the world-buidling are rich and beautiful and I am itching to pick up "A Stranger in Olondria" as soon as I possibly can. Read this book, even if you're not a fantasy fan, because this is a beautiful book first and a fantasy book second.

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Thursday, March 10, 2016

Review: ODY-C, Vol. 1: Off to Far Ithicaa

ODY-C, Vol. 1: Off to Far Ithicaa ODY-C, Vol. 1: Off to Far Ithicaa by Matt Fraction
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've talked a lot recently in other reviews about the kinds of things I particularly enjoy in comics - weird narrative structure, experimental page layouts, abstract and non-representational art with bright colors - and "ODY-C" hits all those marks and more! I was hooked the moment I read the description: it's a re-telling of the Odyssey, in space, and all the characters are women. And it's such a blast!

I'm going to start with the artwork, because I've already mentioned it and because it's the most immediately striking thing about this story. The colors are incredibly vibrant and alive, and they melt into each other or clash forcefully against each other as the story demands it. Christian Ward has done an amazing job creating art that stands beautifully and powerfully on its own but also serves and uplifts the story. There is often little dialogue on a page, and the art alone tells large parts of the story. Character design (and world design) is fabulous. Most of the characters are women, but their physicality and gender presentation vary wildly (and gloriously). Hera has a beard. Zeus is large, insisting on taking up as much space as the head of the gods deserves. The characters (usually) are clear and distinct (with some exceptions, see below). Some of the character designs remind me of Moebius, which is high praise coming from me. There are almost no traditional comic panels in the story. Ward does some amazing things with concentric circle layouts that are simply stunning. The flexible and non-linear layouts add to how weird and trippy this whole story feels.

I'm enjoying the story quite a bit, too. I'll admit that it's sometimes difficult to get through, because while the overall story mirrors the Odyssey, that provides more of a general structure and many of the specifics are original (or very loose interpretations of the original story). So often, my rusty knowledge of the Odyssey is more of a hindrance than a help, because those expectations are subverted or diverted to a different direction. Other reviewers have mentioned difficulty with the language, as well, and there are times when it is hard to understand what's happening. Generally, I followed the story pretty well. There were some scenes I puzzled over, moved on, and understood in retrospect. There are others where I think I know what happened, but am genuinely not sure (though a re-read or going back to the scene would have helped). Most of the confusion stems from the combination of abstract, poetic Homeric language with sci-fi plotlines, but some also comes from the difficulty keeping track of some of the characters. Their names are often substantially changed from their original Greek, and in at least one instance I confused two of the non-Zeus gods and am still unsure who is who. The confusion and difficulty are what knocked this down from a home-run five-star story to four stars, but I suspect as the story continues (as I get used to the prose, as characters get more established, and I get myself the cliff notes for the Odyssey) this will get easier.

The characters themselves are, as in the Odyssey, not necessarily the kind of characters you warm up to, find compelling, and eagerly await their whole life story. The gods get some personality, and Fraction has given Odyssia more grounding, more personal and emotional depth than Homer ever bothered with Odysseus. Otherwise, it's a grand narrative with larger-than-life events, and with more narration than dialogue, so it's not particularly character-driven. But that's okay; that works here, because it's like the Odyssey in that regard and the story choices complement that decision.

And often, it's the small choices here that make the story great. Hera's beard - I love it. Odyssia captains her ship through literal willpower and mental synchrony with her subordinates; if anyone is not in general coordination with the rest of the crew, the ships can be thrown dangerously off course, and only Odyssia has the force of will to command the ship. Fraction mirrors the Odyssey by frequently using wolf metaphors to refer to Odyssia. Circe is a space pirate. The jealousy and pettiness of the gods (though certainly not unique to this telling) was delightful. There's a lot to love in the small moments, and it shows that Fraction and Ward know how to tell a good story.

The concept itself is pretty great, and Fraction has woven a neat little SF premise into the story beyond the whole 'set in space' conceit. Zeus has cursed humans and made it so no male creature can exist. Humans are trying to get around this in various ways - gender-neutral people, and one old man creepily tries to father sons on young woman after young woman - and it appears that Odyssia's child, as in the Odyssey, is a young man. I'm excited to see where that plotline will go, because it's such a clear departure from the original text. I'm excited to read more of this in general, and I definitely recommend it if you want an SF comic that's both a challenge and a delight.

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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Review: Invisible Republic, Vol. 1

Invisible Republic, Vol. 1 Invisible Republic, Vol. 1 by Gabriel Hardman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Invisible Republic" isn't my typical choice for SF graphic novels or comics. I like flashy, bright, colorful art and tend toward stories that play around with narrative structure. "Invisible Republic" is darker, grittier, and has a straightforward story - but both the art and the story have such a tight focus that it's a gripping read. The 'what if...' at the core of this SF story isn't particularly wild: what if the disenfranchised people of a colonized moon took power, and then potentially damning information about their leader threatens to leak after he is deposed? The story follows two threads, one in the 'present' and one, told through the journal of his young cousin, about the rise of a populist dictator.

I'm not sure what the stakes are in the present-day part of this story line, as the dictator - Arthur McBride - has already either died or been deposed, marking the end of the Malory Regime, and the economic/political scene is already in chaos. A journalist has discovered a journal written by McBride's cousin, Maia Reveron, that begins with McBride's murder of two soldiers, kicking off the story of his rise to power. I'm a little muddy on the exact politics in either of the story arcs. I think that at the beginning of the earlier story, they live on a moon that was settled prior to FTL travel and so was fairly rural and poor, but now that FTL exists and there are new, higher-tech powers settling the moon, there is conflict between the original and new settlers. I think. Either way, there's a dearth of clear sci-fi elements in the story which was kind of disappointing for me as an SF fan. I suspect we'll see more of those, though, as the story continues. Still, the story is the most compelling aspect of this volume, and I'm eager for more.

Although the characters are the vehicle for the story here, and in fact the story is essentially the story of two people and the journalist covering them, the characters really take a backseat to the politics, and aren't particularly memorable. Maia is a promising lead, and I enjoyed her sojourn into beekeeping, but I have no idea what makes her Maia - I don't know her desires, what she enjoys, any character ticks or traits. Same goes for pretty much all the rest of the characters (with the partial exception of McBride, because we know he wants power and we're also supposed to be unsure of his motivations).

I mentioned before that the art is not my typical style. I like abstract art, things that aren't super representational. In that respect, "Invisible Republic" strikes an okay balance for me, because the art style is pretty loose and sketchy. The rough edges and unfinished quality fit the feel of the story, which is nice. I liked the visual distinctions between the storylines - mostly in terms of color, with brighter colors for the past - but I'm not sure they were entirely intentional, since much of the earlier storyline takes place in rural places while the later one is entirely in the urban centers.

Overall, I enjoyed this and I will probably pick up another volume if I stumble across it, but I'm not sure how good a grip I'll have on the plot, politics, and characters at that point, because even now it's hazy and muddy for me.

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Sunday, March 6, 2016

Review: Star Wars: Darth Vader, Vol. 1: Vader

Star Wars: Darth Vader, Vol. 1: Vader Star Wars: Darth Vader, Vol. 1: Vader by Kieron Gillen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I loved the Star Wars EU, so I was pretty sad when they de-canonized them (for months, I teared up every time I saw a bunch of them on a shelf at the library or bookstore). But I was also cautiously hopeful - maybe we'd get new stories that were more inclusive, or maybe as fun as the old ones with a more professional shine to them! Then we'd have two great universes to read in! But honestly, the tone of the EU that I loved, the craziness and campiness and never-ending space opera, was the result of individuals who loved Star Wars. There were some real out-there stories, some terribly bad stories, but they were usually bad because people took risks and they failed. It was fans who made the old EU happen, because they loved it, and the EU grew from the bottom up. And the new novels are entirely the result of top-down story direction, with Disney deciding what plots and character types to include so they can market the books to as wide an audience as possible, and "obsessive, life-long, passionate Star Wars fans who loved the EU" is a very niche audience. You can see it in the recurring bland character types they use for every truly new character. They won't have any Starcaves or MindHarps or Sun Crushers (oh wait...), but I think it will take a while for the books to get back to the beloved, well-worn feel of the old EU, if they ever do. I think it would require Star Wars falling out of the public consciousness for a long time, and there's no way Disney's going to let that happen if it can still make them money.

(Above taken from a comment I made on to provide some context for my feelings).

So, obviously, I've been disappointed by so much of the new EU. But this first volume of the Star Wars: Darth Vader comic has finally given me a new hope for the future of the new canon! For the first time, we get some crazy, strange ideas that aren't slick, consumer-tested plots and characters guaranteed to offend no one, or re-packaged ideas from the original trilogy. And, like in the old EU, I'm not sure these ideas do work - but I'm so excited to see how they work out! There's a woman who's draws heavily on Indiana Jones, an archaeologist-turned-thief who gets recruited to work for Vader himself. And on top of all of that, they're mucking about in the plotlines directly relevant to the original trilogy! Palpatine has a secret group of apprentices(? maybe?), beings trained and scientifically augmented to be weapons that don't necessarily draw on the force. There are psychopathic twins, a person who controls a swarm of flying robots - this is weird shit, folks, and it's all happening during the original trilogy. It's glorious. I want all Star Wars to be like this again.

The story also continues the new EU theme of Vader's ambivalence toward his role as Palpatine's apprentice, and his constant memories of the life he lived before. I don't know yet how I feel about this. In some ways, it makes his conversion in Return of the Jedi make a little more sense, and it provides some character continuity; Anakin doesn't immediately become the monster Vader and change personalities. In others, though, it kind of cheapens the work Luke does throughout the original trilogy. If Vader is doubtful, if Vader has always questioned his choice to embrace the dark side, then Luke's job wasn't actually difficult at all (or at least not as hard as it was made out to be). It definitely works better than in Lords of the Sith, because at this point, Vader's old life has been forcibly re-awakened by Luke's entrance into his life.

I'm not a huge fan of the artwork, though. It stays in incredibly safe, well-trodden territory. I like my art weird and symbolic and colorful and abstract, and Star Wars comic art has generally always been fairly iconic and strictly representative (though I like the strange color palettes for some of the pre-Republic tales in the old EU).

I will gladly keep reading this series, because it's kickass. I want to see more of Indiana Jones-lady. I want to see more of Palpatine's insane kill squad. I want more risky, strange, fun stories in the Star Wars universe.

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Review: The Last Witness

The Last Witness The Last Witness by K.J. Parker
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I've been reading as many of these Tor novellas as I can get my hands on. I love this entire publishing endeavor, and I think it's a great effort to get short fiction a wider audience. I'm actually surprised that my local library has so many of them. The only one I'd read previously, "Binti" by Nnedi Okorafor, was an exciting, imaginative, emotional galactic story. I also just finished "Patchwerk" by David Tallerman (review forthcoming), and that was a whirlwind adventure as well.

In comparison, "The Last Witness" doesn't hold its own. It has an interesting premise: there is a man who can steal memories from others' minds and keep them in his own. Over the years, he has accumulated many memories, so many that he has trouble remembering which were his to begin with. But as his memory is muddled, so is much of the story. Tallerman tries to work some creative work with the memory ambiguity, and there were times where it seemed to be working - I was intrigued, I could tell there was something to fish out and I tried to nose it out myself - but the twist introduced at the end of the story was both underwhelming and a little bewildering. For that kind of twist to work well, you need to have that feeling of 'oh! It all makes sense now!' but Tallerman made the clues too subtle (though they're definitely there, just not pointing in any direction) for that satisfying 'eureka' moment. (Though this might just be a poor reading on my part; I may have to do a re-read and re-evaluate.)

This secret plot was so well hidden that it was completely lost under the surface plot, and I have to say that this cover plot was not particularly compelling. The main character gambles, loses his money, earns more money, gambles again. He gets himself embroiled in politics. He tries to leave the politics, but gets sucked back in. Meh. I didn't care about him or his problems at all.

I will say that the final arc of the story and the last couple of scenes were full of some delicious vengeance, a vengeance I enjoyed reading and (had the rest of the novella built up to it) should have been immensely satisfying. There is a confrontation between two characters who have a history that one knows nothing about, and the sheer pain, hatred, and piteousness in that confrontation had me cackling in delight.

Overall, I'm not a huge fan, but there was definitely some substance to this novella that may require a re-read for me to appreciate fully.

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Thursday, March 3, 2016

Review: Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm fairly disappointed in "Understanding Comics." In the best lit course I ever took, we read the second chapter, "The Vocabulary of Comics," and it was a mind-blowing read that has shaped the way I read comics since. Unfortunately, it's easily the best chapter in the book and only two or three other chapters are anywhere near as fascinating. The meat of the book is in a few central chapters, and the rest is insubstantial fluff about how amazing comics are - or could be, if the medium were taken seriously. It's also clearly dated. While comics are still looked down upon and not generally treated as equal to written literature, the genre has gained a significant amount of prestige in the past twenty years, so McCloud's frequent protestations against how maligned comics are and his insistence that comics are worth respect are now unnecessary.

Several chapters are certainly worth reading. The aforementioned "Vocabulary of Comics" introduces the basic elements of comics writing and the idea of symbols, signs, and icons. McCloud goes into serious depth about how variation in style can be used to deliberately evoke either distance or empathy with characters, to 'other' or include the reader. The section on panels and the spaces between them is another highlight. Essentially, any time he digs into the structure of comics, how that structure can be used, and how that structure is different from literature and useful in ways that written literature can't match, I'm sold on comics as a medium all over again. When he's waxing eloquent about how amazing comics are, he loses me, because I don't need to be told: I want to be shown. The book starts out strong in this regard while the last several chapters are a bear to get through.

I like his frequent references to important comic artists, stories and styles (and his reproductions), because as someone with little knowledge of the history of comics, those moments do a great job of illustrating his point while simultaneously broadening my knowledge. He disclaims at the beginning that this isn't a history of comics, but I could have used a bit more history nonetheless. Still, he cites some great sources that I immediately read and were great resources in themselves for understanding comics, art, and history.

I also love his efforts to tie comics back to visual sequential art throughout history; it's one of those things you don't think about until it's pointed out to you, and then it makes a world of sense. The book is full of such things and I don't ever tire of them.

Overall, I recommend at least the first half of the book. If you have a bit more patience or indulgence for dated ideology than I do, then the whole thing might be a home run for you.

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Review: Find Me

Find Me Find Me by Laura van den Berg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Find Me" is an ethereal, eerie character piece about displacement. Its post-apocalyptic backdrop that feels almost inconsequential to the story, which focuses on a young woman named Joy and her hazy wandering existence, both in this new world and in the past. It's very much a 'literary' novel doing what a lot of 'literary' novels are doing lately - snatching bits and pieces of the sci-fi genre and weaving them into more mainstream (or prestigious) genres. I like this trend - the more SF the better! - but I'm also a little wary, as authors sometimes try to deny the SF-ness of their writing to keep themselves out of the genre ghetto. Either way, the SF premise drew me in, and while it didn't turn out to be hugely necessary to the story I wasn't disappointed at all (well, at least in terms of genre).

Joy is in a hospital. At first, it's unclear what kind of hospital she's in, or why. Outsiders gather outside, trying to get into the hospital, and no one in the hospital seems ill. Slowly, we discover that all the patients in this hospital are thought to be immune to a plague sweeping America, one that causes amnesia and then death. Joy suspects she's immune because she's already lost the memories that are important to her. She has recently received her first photo of her mother, and there is a curious year of her life in foster care she doesn't remember at all.

Joy eventually leaves this strange hospital and the people she has met there. She runs into the only foster-brother she's ever cared about while wandering the east coast on a series of sketchy long-distance buses. She's searching for her mother, who she believes she identified from TV as a lost-ship-chaser who lives off the shore of Florida.

Nothing in this book is in the foreground. Joy's memory problems and the inconsistency of memory throughout the story constantly displace both event and emotion. Though the story is roughly chronological, life-changing moments happen off-screen and are not referenced until Joy has digested them enough to temper their emotional impact. Thus the tone perpetuates a constant, unchanging level of emotional valence. Often, this deliberate disaffection creates a clashing contrast with the actual events Joy remembers, and the slow, steady grind of emotion becomes a relentless crashing wave of white noise drowning out all the things Joy should be concerned about but ignores with her single-minded goal.

It's an impressive build, but the question for me is: what does it build to, and how does it land? And, unfortunately, the answers are a disappointing 'not much,' and 'no.' I shouldn't have been surprised (and I wasn't, as the novel neared its end and with only pages left Joy was supposedly only moments away from her mother) that a novel that is primarily about lack and uses lack as a literary device displaces the ending beyond the final page of the book. Perhaps this means for the reader that we must understand Joy's journey is not about the destination, but about the getting there, but for Joy herself this isn't even the case. She has undergone a lot and her life has drastically changed, but her primary concern is still finding her mother and she refuses to foreground any of her more immediate problems.

Still, up until the last page, it was engrossing read. I could have used some closure and I feel the story would've benefited from it, but the author clearly disagrees, and I respect that.

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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Review: The Liminal People

The Liminal People The Liminal People by Ayize Jama-Everett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"The Liminal People" was a slim, quick read in the vein of Octavia Butler's Patternmaster series with a slight gritty-superhero vibe.

Taggert's power is healing, but as he says, the best healers are the ones who know how to hurt. In his youth, he dated a woman with powers like his (though she controlled fire), but in the years since he's traveled across Africa healing all those he found, then joined up with a crime lord who also has superpowers. As in Butler's books, the story is largely concerned with power; all of the liminal people have powers that put them above normal humans, but there are superpowers behind the scenes who outrank even Taggert's boss. We see characters form similar relationships - the strong taking others under their wing to 'protect' them but also to use them, people fleeing from that control to form familial bonds with equals, other people squirming at the idea that maybe they must serve one power or another.

At this point, it's been a little over a month since I read the book, and while I felt pretty good about it immediately after reading, it hasn't aged well. Taggert wasn't very compelling. One of the surprise reveals wasn't at all surprising (though I don't know if it was supposed to be surprising for the reader - perhaps just for Taggert). I'm fascinated with bits and pieces of the story, like the drastic change of events after Taggert has dinner with his ex-lover, and the true identity of the power running London. But the story doesn't have much pull beyond those odds and ends. I still may pick up the sequels because the resonance with Butler's work lends this a certain fondness, but I don't love it, and I'm amending my review from 4 to 3 stars.

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Review: Planetes Omnibus, Volume 1

Planetes Omnibus, Volume 1 Planetes Omnibus, Volume 1 by Makoto Yukimura
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

I'd heard about "Planetes" when I received my e-galley copy, but I hadn't heard much. I had no idea what this book was about, no expectations, and I was honestly pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed everything about it. From the opening scenes the characters, the world, and the style pulled me in. All of the SF anime and manga I've consumed has either been near-future, Earth-based, and often dystopian or cyberpunk (Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ghost in the Shell, Akira), or set in the far future when humanity is already living comfortably in space (Knights of Sidonia) - but above all, thematically concerned with human and other, instantiated as humans and the super-human (either superpowered humans or something more alien and more powerful). "Planetes" is unique (to me) in that it's a near-ish future concerned with expansion into space and humans living their lives. There are no giant aliens, no cyborgs, no superhumans, just humanity.

This focus on human life is clear from the opening scenes: a man and his wife are flying in a low-orbit ship across the planet. The wife is nervous, as she always is. The husband moves to the back of the ship to get some coffee, and the entire front end of the ship is destroyed. A few years later, he is part of the three-person crew that are the core characters of the story. Their ship is a garbage collector; they spend their days literally cleaning up after humanity, collecting space debris. This is an important job, though, because the thoughtless, random detritus of human expansion can be deadly, from the largest chunk of space station to the smallest screw. There's Yuri, who is looking for his late wife's compass, Hachimaki, who wants nothing more than to be chosen for the longest space trip ever, a trip to Jupiter, and Fee, who wants nothing more than a good place for a smoke.

Most of the story arcs can stand alone, and many are slice-of-life pieces, but together they build a story that spans several years and chronicles the lives of a crew that grow together and come to depend on each other. I love the character dynamics, especially as the series continues and minor characters blossom. I also very much enjoy the world Yukimura has built (as a side note, I'm impressed that he's both the writer and illustrator for the whole thing). It's a world with moving parts and importance, and a message that comes through pervasively but not overwhelmingly. The art was a slow burn. I didn't love it at first, because I do have a strong preference for color over black and white, but there are some absolutely gorgeous scenes where the blackness of space feels as vast and drowning as it is in reality.

Overall, strongly recommend this collection, and I'll be on the lookout for the second one soon!

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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Review: A Guide to Being Born: Stories

A Guide to Being Born: Stories A Guide to Being Born: Stories by Ramona Ausubel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am getting way too far behind on my reviews, so I'm going a bit out of order on these. On the blog, you'll notice I've started tagging reviews with months - those are the month the book/story was read, to better keep track. I read "A Guide to Being Born: Stories" immediately after reading "Find Me," by Laura Van Den Berg (review forthcoming), and the two share a lot of immediately striking similarities. (I'm hoping this review will make the other one easier; I have a lot of feelings and no proper words to explain them for "Find Me.")

This was an impulse read, something I found on the library shelf when I was ostensibly there just to pick up some long-planned reads that came in from on hold. This happens a lot to me. It's like going shopping on an empty stomach, only I'm always hungry for more books. It was a quick read, too; I finished it in one sitting.

As the title indicates, it's a book of short stories, many following the theme of birth, life, and death. It shares with "Find Me" a kind of deliberately disaffected, dark curiosity about birth and motherhood that suggests someone trying desperately not to reveal their obsession. In one story, a pregnant woman's husband wakes to find he has empty drawers in his chest. He fills them with significant odds and ends to feel like he contains something important, too. In another, a young woman who finds herself accidentally pregnant can't believe she's actually having a human baby, and instead imagines her child will be any of a variety of animals. The stories oscillate between pointedly oblique - directing your thoughts exactly to one specific place without ever saying it outright - and commandingly, heartwrenchingly plain, laying out exactly the meaning as they grasp your heart by the collar and shove it up against a wall. That is to say, the collection attempts that dichotomy, but often falls short of the emotional strength needed.

The thematic concern with life is emphasized by stories about death and not living life well. One of the stories most vivid in my memory takes place on a boat. Everyone on the boat is a grandmother, and none of them know how they got there. There are many kinds of grandmothers, but all of them are on this boat, and some, in desperation, choose to jump off. Another is about a young girl who plays catch with the ghost of a Civil War soldier. The young girl lives alone in the woods with her mother and grandmother. She thinks she knows a lot about how she was born, but much of it is a lie.

These stories are sweet pastries, easy to consume quickly but perhaps better to chew on slowly, doled out one by one. There's no plot to be found in any of these stories. As with much stereotypical high-literature short fiction, they are mundane slices of life (in this case, mundane turned fantastical). If that's not your thing, this isn't for you, but the collection certainly made for a pleasant evening.

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Review: All the Birds in the Sky

All the Birds in the Sky All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This week I discovered a curious, and maybe wonderful, thing my local library does. Newly-acquired books with a large number of advance holds go on a "lucky day" special - on their first day in the library, they are put on a special shelf and anyone can check them out, regardless of their hold status. They can keep the book for the typical three weeks, no renewals. I'm not sure how I feel about this, because I'm fanatical about putting holds on upcoming books I want to read many weeks in advance, so I can read them right when they're released, and this feels a bit unfair. On the other hand, it let me skip the line for "All the Birds in the Sky" and gobble it up in a single day, so maybe things even out. (Plus, it lets people who aren't as plugged-in to book publishing get a chance at the new stuff, and gives people a chance for that wondrous thrill that comes when you find a cool new book at the library.)

I've been burned recently by buzzy new SF releases (I'm lookin at you, Barsk). Charlie Jane Anders is the editor in chief at io9, and writes lovely writing-advice articles, this was published by Tor (one of my favorite publishers) - but then, I'd thought some similar things about Barsk. "All the Birds in the Sky" sounded like it would be either amazing or horrible; a cross between fantasy and sci-fi where the main characters are a witch and a super scientist? It's all of my childhood dreams come true - and if childhood me had written down those dreams I'd probably cringe at the result.

But this was fantastic. Anders wove together magic and sci-fi beautifully, constructed world where somehow a woman with vine-y, whimsical, powerful nature magic can co-exist with a nerd wearing a two-second time machine and trying to build a sentient supercomputer in his closet. The relationship between the magic and the science is like two sets of complex, elaborate scaffolding originally intended to build two different skyscrapers but re-purposed to build each other, instead. It works, unbelievably well.

The story begins with our main characters, Patricia and Laurence, as young nerds who don't fit in at their respective schools (and eventually, at the same school). Patricia has spoken to birds and left her body to fly, but her classmates think she's a Satanic emo cutter. Laurence is the youngest person ever to build a two-second time machine, but he uses it mainly to avoid food (and punches) thrown at his face. The two form an adorable bond when Laurence asks Patricia to lie to his parents and pretend she and Laurence do outdoorsy things together all the time. But middle school isn't easy, and Anders doesn't shy away from how imperfect and selfish people can be; when the whole school is mocking Patricia, Laurence pulls back from her, too. They both make an effort to repair their friendship, but end up going their separate ways. Anders writes the children well, capturing the magic of childhood without writing a dull children's story with a moral at the end.

Many years later, when Patricia has finished magic school and Laurence is a respected scientist, they reconnect. The world is slowly going sideways, with increasingly alarming natural disasters coming out of the background and into the foreground of the novel. Their respective high-powered groups of friends are both working on plans in case of the end of the world, but they are somehow at cross-purposes. Laurence's scientists want to help humanity leave the Earth and settle elsewhere while Patricia wants to save the Earth and all the life on it. And Laurence and Patricia, even after their bittersweet, tender, precarious childhood friendship, are clearly headed to a more intimate and potentially more painful relationship.

There is no single element driving Anders' success here. The story is well-crafted, briskly paced and with dramatic (but believable) stakes. The world is mercurial but consistent, fanciful but serious. The cast is full of vibrant, strange, intriguing supporting characters, and I've rarely enjoyed watching two characters fall in love as much as I enjoyed Patricia and Laurence. Anders knows how to write flawed, vulnerable people who are motivated as much by their faults as by their virtues (and vice versa - these people aren't driven by their flaws alone, either), and it's a joy to read.

There are a few missteps. A few scene changes throw you farther into the future than you expect. Patricia has a tragic backstory from her magic school years that doesn't feel as tragic as it should, because the characters involved and the event itself are not given enough weight or time, and because it's referenced far too often before being explained. There are a few (I counted three) instances of dialogue being introduced by 'like,' as in: 'Laurence was like, "Yeah...".' I don't mind this in theory, in appropriate situations, but 'like' is quotative. Using 'like' like that is a marker of introducing an approximation of something someone else said, and doesn't really work unless your narrator is supposed to be a character directly telling the story (and that's not the case). I'm curious as to how these slipped through; they seem to be a deliberate choice, but I would've thought that Anders (who is very keen in her language choice and knows quite a bit about formal versus informal writing) would understand that distinction.

Overall, though, this is a magnificent story. I have to stop myself from gushing about my favorite parts, because I'll spoil far too much, but I'll give some tidbits: there's a magical character who has to live in a sterile environment because he supercharges all natural life and, left unchecked, will instantly grow fungus all over and around him; there are super-tablets in the future that are creepily all-knowing but unlike in The Circle they aren't a harbinger of evil corporate global takeover, but benignly helpful; and the middle school guidance counselor, as every middle schooler knows in their bones, is actually evil. There's room in this world sequels, prequels, spinoffs, and more, but luckily story itself wraps up nicely - not neatly or perfectly, just satisfyingly right for everyone involved, reader and characters alike.

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