Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Book Review: Saga - Volume 1

book cover for volume 1 of SagaGoodreads has been recommending this one to me for some time, and good many of the people I follow there gushed with praise. My local library had a copy so I figured that I'd finally pick it up. I burned through it in two days. I only put it down because I had to sleep. Then I read it again.

As per the book blurb, two soldiers on the opposite side of a war fall in love and conceive a child. All they want now is to be left alone to raise her in peace. But the opposing factions have been at it for so long, that talk like that is treasonous, blasphemy. Now they're being hunted down in order to stifle their narrative busting idea that peace between their worlds is possible.

There's a American-Soviet Cold War parallel here. Both worlds recognized early on that they'd grown too powerful. If the war continued on their respective worlds (one is a moon of the other planet), the damage would be catastrophic and likely lead to mutually assured destruction. So instead, they've exported their war to other worlds in the galaxy. Forced to choose sides, the locals soon realize the hard way that it's a lose-lose situation. Worlds are mined; people are executed for collaborating with the enemy. They've become collateral damage in a war without end.

I get a slight Heavy Metal vibe (film or comic). It most notably comes through in the scenes on the pleasure planet, Sextillion. There's also Saga's juxtaposition of magic and technology in a space fantasy setting that lends a commonality to Heavy Metal, though Saga seems more grounded with its adult themes—some of them dark—than some of the latter's absurdist stories.

But enough of the comparisons. Brian Vaughn has written a compelling story, told with straightforward dialogue and populated with a whole smorgasbord of mashup aliens, wonderfully rendered by Fiona Staples. Staples' artwork captures the fantastic elements of the story and perfectly conveys the emotions of its characters. I love the color palette. The backgrounds look like they're watercolors while the characters are rendered in solid colors.

I have to give this five stars. I can't think of a reason why I shouldn't.


Monday, September 10, 2018

Book Review - The Alcoholic

book cover for The AlcoholicWhen I picked up this graphic novel from the library, I had no idea who Jonathan Ames was. Upon further investigation, I'd never even heard of any of his works, be they book, film, or TV show, save one (Blunt Talk). But even that one show I've never seen and only knew of it because Patrick Stewart played the titular role.

I gathered from the liner notes that this was the fictionalized memoir of a writer (Jonathan A.) who struggled with alcohol. Having had my own wanderings down that path over a number of years—luckily changing course before it was too late—I was curious to hear his story, even if there was a bit of fiction in it.

For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to refer to the fictional Jonathan A. as the author, Ames.

Ames explores how alcohol played a role throughout his life. Like many, his relationship started in high school. Alcohol is that wonderful social lubricant that helps combat the terrifying awkwardness of being a teenager, a human being. But alcohol didn't like Ames, and it kicked his ass. Ames ignored it though; the euphoria that came with drinking was worth it to him. And when various relationships with family, friends, and girlfriends turned sour, alcohol was there to get him through it. While he had periods of sobriety, there was always something to trigger a relapse, sometimes into harder drugs.

Ames takes us from high school parties in New Jersey to starry beaches in Bequia. He relives sexual escapades, detoxing, and the emotional fallout of 9/11. Dean Haspiel's black and white artwork perfectly encapsulates each scene, clearly conveying the emotions that Ames' character is feeling.

Although fictionalized, it still feels like Ames is telling an honest story, but only to an extent. He tries to balance the melancholy with humor, but when the latter wanders into the scatological, it took away from the sympathy I'd felt for the character. The ending seems rushed. The epiphany Ames experienced might be true, but I was left unconvinced that it would stick. An earlier epiphany after 9/11 was forgotten after a chance encounter with Bill Clinton went straight to the character's head. But the very last page has me thinking that no epiphany will ever suffice until the void in his life is filled.

3 1/2 stars.


Friday, September 7, 2018

Book Review: Hellboy, Volume 1 - Seed of Destruction

book cover for Hellboy volume 1I saw the Hellboy movie years ago and loved it. Rasputin and the Nazis, Lovecraftian monsters, Gothic ruins, arcane machines, and a wise-cracking, cigar chomping, good demon who kicks ass. I didn't know anything about how Hellboy was supposed to be, but I thought Perlman knocked it out of the park.

I always meant to get around to reading the comic, but I didn't get a chance until now. Starting at the beginning, I see that the movie and the book start off on the same page, but then wildly veer off in different directions with only loose connections as the stories unfold. This is going to be blasphemous of me to say, but I liked the movie more.

In the movie, more time was spent developing the characters and the backstory. In the comic, Hellboy and the reader are subjected to a bad case of monologuing (I've had characters do it, too. It happens to writers all the time.) by Rasputin. As the comic is told almost exclusively from Hellboy's POV—after his origin sequence—there's no other place to put it. Perhaps if this opening story had been told over eight issues instead of four, there might have been a better way to develop it organically.

John Hurt and Ron Perlman in a scene from HellboyHellboy's relationships with other characters is largely undeveloped in this issue of the comic. Other than a little background on Abe and Liz, we really don't get any reason why Hellboy cares about them. And Professor Bruttenholm? Forget it. In the movie, Perlman and Hurt really develop the relationship. Here, it's over before it starts with nary a thought or feeling. I have to imagine that these relationships and characters were expounded upon in subsequent issues.

But despite these shortcomings, I liked the story. The Lovecraftian vibe, Rasputin, and occult-Nazis are there with their arcane machines. The Hellboy that Perlman brought to life is a bit more subdued though. The raw power is there, but still in a more embryonic state. There's clearly more to come.

Mignola's art really captures the brooding darkness. Even bright yellow energetic struggles to keep it at bay and won't last long against the suffocating gloom. Sepia tones lend age and authenticity to portraits on a wall. Hellboy pops off the page with his signature fire engine red, particularly when contrasted against the moodier background hues of blue, purple, and gray or contrasting with green-colored foes. And black. Always black.

At the end of this volume, there were a couple notes from Mignola about the origin of Hellboy's appearance, two short four-page comics, and a gallery of Hellboy portraits as interpreted by other artists. It was a nice addition.

3.5 stars.


Monday, September 3, 2018

Book Review: Altered Carbon

book cover for Altered CarbonFour hundred years from now mankind is strung out across a region of interstellar space inherited from an ancient civilization discovered on Mars. The colonies are linked together by the occasional sublight colony ship voyages and hyperspatial data-casting. Human consciousness is digitally freighted between the stars and downloaded into bodies as a matter of course.

But some things never change. So when ex-envoy, now-convict Takeshi Kovacs has his consciousness and skills downloaded into the body of a nicotine-addicted ex-thug and presented with a catch-22 offer, he really shouldn't be surprised. Contracted by a billionaire to discover who murdered his last body, Kovacs is drawn into a terrifying conspiracy that stretches across known space and to the very top of society.

Biotechnology has advanced far enough that immortality is available for those who can afford it. Consciousness is digitized in "stacks" and stored until a new "sleeve"—an all encompassing term for natural, cloned, or synthetic bodies—is ready. Add to this a diverse menu of drugs that enhance or dull aspects of human physiology. A whole slew of possibilities, noble and illicit, opens up. Death, prison, identity, and sex are all re-defined. The whole system is exploitable, and therein lies the story.

Takeshi Kovacs is an ex-Envoy, a type of Special Forces, who is taken from stack prison on another planet and dumped into a sleeve on Earth. He's been recommended to a billionaire (Laurens Bancroft) to solve his murder. The police say it was suicide, but Bancroft believes he was murdered. If Kovacs can solve the case to Bancroft's liking, the billionaire will purchase his freedom. If not, Kovacs goes back on stack for the rest of his two-hundred-year sentence.

What difference does it make to a billionaire why one of his sleeves died? He claims not to be the suicidal type. He has daily backups, keeps new sleeves on standby, and has already lived 350 years (making him a "meth," short for Methuselah). What's the point of suicide, if he won't remember it when he's downloaded into a new body the next day? Murder makes more sense, which likely means that there's a conspiracy afoot.

As Kovacs sets out to solve the case, he shares his experiences as he gets accustomed to a body that isn't his. Some readers have found this to be oversharing as Morgan is graphic in detail. I saw Kovacs' adjustment as having to go through puberty again. The changes our bodies go through seem alien and strange, and it takes some time before our minds grow accustomed to them and reasserts control. What Kovacs (and others) goes through when entering a new sleeve is no different. It's awkward and discomfiting.

Kovacs' past, both military and criminal, bubbles up in flashbacks, offering glimpses into what shaped his psyche. Underneath the cool, indifferent, tough guy exterior lies a soul that seeks justice for the little guy. The plutocrats can buy their way past the wheels of justice; the poor are ground up like hamburger. And it's that sense of injustice that fuels Kovacs. He internalizes it, makes it personal, and sets off on rampages.

Overall, I have to say I loved it. It's a sci-fi story soaked in noir: Cigarettes and whisky, posh AI-run hotels, a femme fatale, morally corrupt billionaires, and a complicated relationship with the cops. You could also think of it as a much more violent cousin of Blade Runner. Like that film, it also asks questions about the human condition, but doesn't lead to easy answers.


Monday, August 6, 2018

Book Review: Wool (Omnibus edition)

Book cover for Wool Omnibus editionThis is the story of mankind clawing for survival, of mankind on the edge. The world outside has grown unkind, the view of it limited, talk of it forbidden. But there are always those who hope, who dream. These are the dangerous people, the residents who infect others with their optimism. Their punishment is simple. They are given the very thing they profess to want: They are allowed outside.

The omnibus edition collects what were five separately published parts into one complete volume. I'm glad that I waited as if I had to read each of these parts individually I would've been frustrated. While part one would've been fine as a standalone, parts two through four ended with cliffhangers and so much of the overall story unresolved that I would've felt I'd been played. That's not to say that I didn't like Wool, quite the opposite. From a publishing perspective (and Howey was still indie back then), it's a risky move. You either leave readers clamoring for more (and you'd better deliver!) or you alienate them for selling a story piecemeal.

The first three parts are told from the perspective of a single character (barring the final chapter of part three). And it works. It serves as an introduction to the Silo and what life is like for those living there. Too many POVs might've proved overwhelming for the reader. By focusing on individual storylines, the reader is slowly acclimated to this world that Howey has created. But events transpire in part three that necessitated multiple POVs for parts four and five.

Part one is Holston's tale. A widower, he pines for his recently departed wife and can no longer bear to live without her. He introduces us to the Silo, a massive underground structure where humanity lives after some apocalyptic catastrophe. His actions serve as a preamble for what's to come.

Part two is Mayor Jahns' tale. She's escorted by Deputy Marnes as they journey through the Silo to interview the next sheriff. Besides learning her story, we learn more details about the Silo: It comprises 140 levels, each level serves some function to maintaining life here, and it has its own unique set of politics.

Part three deals with Juliette Nichols, the newly appointed sheriff. Having worked down in Mechanical for a couple of decades, she's not used to dealing with the politics that comes with her new job. She doesn't realize it at first, but she's been stepping on toes since long before becoming sheriff. The head of a rival department is stepping in to fill a power vacuum, and he doesn't like her. The feeling is mutual. As she strives to solve the mystery behind a couple of deaths, she uncovers a secret that threatens to throw the entire Silo into chaos.

Howey does a great job getting the reader to like these characters. You learn so much about them that you can't help but bond with them. They seem familiar, despite their circumstances. Even the antagonist was well drawn for a bad guy. He wasn't wholly evil, just convinced that he knew what was best for the Silo and control must be maintained by any means necessary (a common belief that has led to the downfall of many leaders).

Parts four and five deal with the fallout of Juliette's discovery. All does not go according to the antagonist's plan, and thus contingency plans are put in place to deal with these events. Sinister secrets are revealed, and the nefarious origins of the Silo are dredged up. Two factions struggle for control of the Silo, but one side has a strategic advantage that is unknown to the population at large: It has always been in control.

The ending gave me a bit of a surprise, but I liked it. All in all, it made for a highly entertaining read. Engaging characters, post-apocalyptic setting, secrets to be discovered, decent plot resolution. I can see why it was such a hit. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if it was made into a TV series. 4 out of 5 stars.


Monday, July 2, 2018

Book Review: Swords and Deviltry

book cover for Swords and DeviltryThis book contains the origin stories for Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, the popular pair of adventurers from the mind of Fritz Leiber.

"The Snow Women" is Fafhrd's story. He's all of 18 and it shows. Leiber captures all the raging hormones and misguided idealism of guys that age. Think of this as the barbarian equivalent of Alice Cooper's song "I'm Eighteen" (both were published in 1970 by the way). He has a hot girlfriend, Mara, who loves him dearly, but he's smitten by Vlana, a sultry actress who rides into town with a caravan of entertainers. He's confused. Tired of life in the snow-covered forest, he longs to see the civilized world. So far, his view of the world is as pillager as his tribe of "ice men" ransack towns along the coast as a way of life. Vlana represents his idea of civilization, and his attraction is dual. He wants to bang her, but his mind wants to learn more about the "civilized world" and what it has to offer.

Vlana struck me as being a few years older, if not in age then surely in mind. She knows how the world works and uses her beauty to her advantage. Fafhrd is an open book to her. His naivete about civilization is cute. While she isn't cruel to him, she does play him to her advantage.

Mara knows that Fafhrd lusts for Vlana. She doesn't buy the whole civilization line he tries to sell her. It pisses her off (rightly so!), and she's torn between kicking Fafhrd's ass and forgiving him.

The arrival of the caravan is an annual event organized by the men of the tribe. There are acting performances with musical accompaniment, but it's primarily striptease. The men are dogs and are dumb about barring the women from watching. The women of the tribe resent it. They've resorted to witchcraft and ice-laden snowballs to interfere with the show and wrest their husbands and sons away. It's gone on for so long that the grudge has festered. Fafhrd's mother, bitter from her husband's death while mountain climbing, is their leader. She's strong with the dark arts and continues to escalate the conflict. Fafhrd feels smothered by her. In turn, he feels like Mara is turning into his mother.

"The Unholy Grail" is the Grey Mouser's origin story. While serving as an apprentice to a wizard, he came to meet the local duke's daughter Ivrian. Love blossomed for a time, but Mouser knew of the duke's disdain for him and the wizard. He returned one day from an errand to find the wizard dead and his home burned. From here, the Mouser's tale becomes all about vengeance.

As for Ivrian, she's torn between helping Mouser and obeying her cruel father. He verbally abused her often, comparing Ivrian to her deceased mother and how drastically she fell short. It isn't pretty; and the emotional abuse has left Ivrian scarred and fearful of her father's wrath. There are few things worse for a child than to grow up with abusive parents, so criticism of Ivrian's alleged weakness should be tempered accordingly.

"Ill Met in Lankhmar" is where our two heroes' stories come together. Each is eyeing a group of thieves on their way back to the guild with a successful haul, but they're unaware of each other. As fate would have it, they simultaneously attack the thieves. But rather than fight over the spoils, they see something in the other that draws them together. They decide to celebrate their success and new found friendship by getting drunk and introducing the other to their girlfriends. But the Thieves' Guild isn't about to take this affront lying down.

I enjoyed Leiber's writing style. I think the bookgator said it best: "Reading these stories feels a little like sitting at the feet of an old, old storyteller while he reminisces about childhood heroes." And I couldn't agree more.

3.5 stars


Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Book Review: Armor

book cover for ArmorThe planet is called Banshee. The air is unbreathable, the water is poisonous. It is home to the most implacable enemies that humanity, in all its interstellar expansion, has ever encountered.

Body armor has been devised for the commando forces that are to be dropped on Banshee—the culmination of ten thousand years of the armorers’ craft. A trooper in this armor is a one-man, atomic powered battle fortress. But he will have to fight a nearly endless horde of berserk, hard-shelled monsters—the fighting arm of a species which uses biological technology to design perfect, mindless war minions.

Felix is a scout in A-team Two. Highly competent, he is the sole survivor of mission after mission. Yet he is a man consumed by fear and hatred. And he is protected, not only by his custom-fitted body armor, but by an odd being which seems to live within him, a cold killing machine he calls “The Engine.”

This is Felix’s story—a story of the horror, the courage, and the aftermath of combat, and the story, too, of how strength of spirit can be the greatest armor of all.

The story starts out with what you'd expect after reading the book blurb (Goodreads or paperback): a non-stop brutal assault. Felix is but one soldier of thousands dumped on Banshee, the alien homeworld, to fight the enemy on their turf. While not stated outright, they're treated as disposable heroes. Lessons are never learned. Tactics never change. Mistakes are repeated, sending the casualty count higher and higher. Published in 1984, I wonder if the hangover from Vietnam factored into Steakley's writing.

Felix's battles are epic, but there's no glory here. The "ants"—giant, mass-produced, mindless biological killing machines—relentlessly attack Felix and his fellow soldiers. Swarm after swarm come at them, and eventually, everyone dies. Except Felix. Steakley writes up Felix's battles in gory detail, which wears on the reader, but that's his point. He wants you to connect with Felix, who is physically and psychologically drained from all the killing, watching his comrades die, and being ordered to repeat the process over and over and over. It's madness, and it threatens to take Felix down with it. He's too afraid to live, but too angry to die.

But in the second part of the book, we shift from Felix to Jack Crow, interstellar celebrity rogue. He violently escapes from prison to a starship on a landing pad, only to be caught up with a group of mutineers. He's coerced into working with them in a scam to secure more fuel from a Fleet Scientific Colony. Jack is to use his celebrity status to his advantage to get the mutineers past the planet's defenses. Jack uses his reputation and charisma to gain audience and then presents a Trojan Horse of sorts to the project's chief scientist, Hollis Ware. Not only does it snare Hollis's curiosity, but Jack's too.

This second story takes over for quite a large chunk of the book, but Felix isn't forgotten. Steakley eventually weaves the two storylines together, and we learn more about what happened to Felix as well as his past before enlisting. Along the way, Steakley works on evolving Jack from selfish to selfless in a way that remained true to the character.

There are a few women characters of note in the book, and each is treated differently. Forest is a soldier just like Felix. She's fantastic: smart, brave, and skilled. Colonel Canada seemed like someone fresh out of college: book smart and eager, but not all that experienced. When she appears, it's like an episode of Spring Break: Banshee. Lya is a psychologist and Hollis's handler, not to mention very much in love with him. Karen is the Project Administrator Let's just say that when we learn her backstory, it strikes a chord with the #metoo movement. All four impact either Felix or Jack in some way that shapes their worldview.

There's been a lot of comparison of this novel to Starship Troopers and The Forever War. Yes, there are big mean bugs that attacked Earth (ST), and there's a bleak outlook on the futility of war and those calling the shots (FW), but there are major differences. ST was more about patriotism and duty as Heinlein saw a moral decline in 1950s America. Armor rejects patriotism as an excuse for stupidity. FW was a mirror of Haldeman's experiences fighting in Vietnam and the difficulty returning to civilian life. Armor acknowledges it, but forges a different path, concerning itself with the toll taken on the human psyche.

There are some parts, including the ending, that beg for further story exploration. Sadly, Steakley died in 2010 from liver disease, having never completed a sequel.

Overall, a fantastic book (please ignore the typos) that worked for me on numerous levels. 5 stars.