Month: March 2012

To Your Scattered Bodies Go

TYSBGTo Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer is the first in the author’s Riverworld series of novels.  This novel was first published in 1971 and won the Hugo Award in 1972.   The book’s title is from the seventh of the “Holy Sonnets” by English poet John Donne.

To be completely honest, I am not sure if I want to give this book two or three stars.  I feel that three is more accurate, but I feel that is just one star too many.  Hopefully, I can explain my reasons in this review.  Sir Richard Burton “wakes up” alongside a very large river along with roughly 36,006,009,637 other people.  Everyone that appears with Burton there has already died (on earth) and is resurrected naked with a canister of sorts in their hands.   As to be expected, not everyone who “wakes up” is from the same time (on earth), speaks the same language, or comes from the same location.  For the most part, people wander around dazed, upset, and unsteady.  Right from the start, however, our main character Richard Burton has a keen and survivalist mind.

Luckily the author gives us Burton as a main character.  Historical Burton was a well-traveled, hearty fellow adept at sociology, anthropology, and languages.  The character Burton maintains these skills and the knowledge with them so is able to adapt and function exponentially better than any of the fellow lazari.  For the first quarter of the book, Burton gathers a group around him of people from various societies, but who recognize the need to survive as a group.  One of the most interesting characters in the novel is actually a “subhuman” – a primitive man who is named Kazz.  Kazz is the most happy-go-lucky of the group and is also the muscle of the group.  He immediately gives his loyalty to Burton, whom he recognizes as a type of “chief” or leader.

Another member of the group is Alice Hargreaves. Alice Hargreaves is actually the historical Alice Liddell, the girl whom inspired the story Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.  She’s a unique character, the only female character that the author even pretends to develop or give a personality to.  Not that she is very likeable.  Alice disapproves of the nudity of the lazari and rebuffs every (constant) attempt by Burton to engage in sexual conduct.  This frustrates Burton, but he is also attracted to her staunch moral code, as well.  The friction between the two of these characters continues well into half of the book, but thankfully the storyline separates the two and the reader does not have to deal with this annoying scenario any further.

I got the feeling that the author came up with a neat idea and then was unsure how to make a story around it.  The story seems to get lost and it feels like Farmer is “making it up as he goes along.”  The first quarter of the book made it seem like the nudity and sex among the lazari were going to drive the plot – the moralizing and the relationships developing around the scenario.  But then, halfway into the book, the focus changes to exploration and suddenly Burton does not simply want to survive – but has this self-imposed quest.  There is a whole chunk of story wherein we meet Hermann Göring, who has captured Burton’s little group and has made them slaves in his pseudo-dictatorship society.  The author seems to want to moralize about the problem of Jews vs. Nazis and the repercussions of WWII, but it gets a bit boring, and I am not sure (after all the chapters) what the reader should take away from the event.  And then Burton realizes he must get away from everyone – because he is, presumably, endangering them because he alone wants to find out the truth behind the Riverworld.

The whole Hermann Göring thing is weird.  It’s like the author just includes him for the sake of torturing the crap out of him and showing us he is a madman.  Burton and Göring spend much of the rest of the novel meeting again and again, fighting, debating, and so forth.  It gets comical eventually. Anyway, by the end of the book, Burton knows a little more than he knew to start, but once again (after eleven years after the original resurrection) is reunited with some of his original groupies.  The novel is peppered with random discussions on government, religion, and culture – but these discussions are so scattered and not well formed that it just seems tedious.  The idea behind the novel is a good one, but it’s presentation is not very good.  Even if Farmer wanted to make a ponderous, philosophizing novel – I still think he could have included some of the wonder and marvel that would be present in a resurrection of all these diverse humans/cultures.

Frankly, the book is bleak and dark.  There is little optimism in this story.  I do not even think any of the characters are particularly likeable.  Mainly, it gives the feeling that humans are a real disagreeable lot, prone to conflict and greed.  On page nine I did read a phrase that was short and full of imagery: “a cataract of flesh” – Burton has some experience of prior to being resurrected on the beach.  I have never read the words cataract of flesh, but it certainly was remarkable to do so.  Anyway, as much as I did not like this novel, I actually find myself wanting to read the next book.  Not, of course, because I expect something great, but just because I have been drawn in and want more closure to the story than this novel provided.

3 stars

Thief of Thieves #2

ToT2

Thief of Thieves #2; Image Comics; Skybound

One of the things that I must say about this title is that the two covers we’ve seen so far are really cool.  This is issue #2 of Thief of Thieves.  Of course, the logo is quite nice – the hand reaching out as if to pluck fine art from a wall is fun as heck.  But I like how the covers are not cluttered (Cp. Justice League #7) and yet have a good amount of intrigue built in to them.  It’s just enough to make it seem really interesting even if you are a person who only reads comics about superheroes wearing capes.  I like the jewelry and money floating around this cover. I like the dude in the mask with the other dude holding a gun.  I think it definitely makes a reader see this on the shelf and want to find out what’s beyond the cover.

The story is co-written by Robert Kirkman and Nick Spencer.  The artist is Shawn Martinbrough with colors by Felix Serrano.  I think the artwork is the thing to really praise in this issue, much like the last issue.  Yes, it does look like this comic was made to be turned into a film project.  The artwork is bold and heavy, with plenty of space – no cluttering.  Some of the frames are a little empty – I feel they are a little too close to the border of unfinished.  Most of the time, however, this clear and free artwork causes the focus to really land heavily on the individual main characters.  Martinbrough draws faces up-close, bright, and expressive.  In some places, I feel there are two or three frames to show a scene, when really one or two would do.  But I guess that’s the “cinema-feel” that the creators are aiming for.

For example, the last three pages of the issue could have been trimmed down to a page and a half, really.  I mean, it’s a very obvious and stereotypical plot device and probably doesn’t need that much paging to show it.  Even if the artwork is super pretty.

This issue’s story is built around the history between Conrad and his (ex?) wife Audrey.  The story bounces smoothly between the present time and the past.   In the scenes depicting the past, we get to see some action scenes involving the thieving that we’ve all been hearing about.  Even so, the majority of the issue is dramatic tension.  There is not an overabundance of dialogue, so the reader really has to try to get in the scene, guided by the artist.  Overall, I think the story has potential, but maybe it needs a little more weight.  The artwork is excellent, though, and I’ll be back for issue #3.

In any case, drama is cool, showing us the background of characters is excellent, but there needs to be a little more present-day action or something, or this could get boring quickly.

3 stars

Justice League #7

JL 7

Justice League #7; DC Comics

One of the better titles (but maybe not best) to come out of the “New 52” initiative of DC Comics is Justice League. It’s difficult to believe that the title is already at issue #7.  For this issue, the “regular” artist Jim Lee took a break and we had a guest artist, Gene Ha.  I believe that Jim Lee still was the artist who drew the cover for this issue, however.  Geoff Johns remains the writer.

Overall, I think this series has been average.  It pains me to say this, because I truly want to love this title and give it high marks all around.  However, when I am not being a comic-sentimental-sap, I admit that it’s only average fare.  And this is even more glaring when I compare it to the stellar job that has been done with the Batman and Red Lantern titles.  Frankly, Justice League (with its star characters and mega-cool creators) should be much better than this.  Now, I do not say it is a bad title – it is worth the cover price.

I was not sure what to make of Jim Lee’s art when this title started. After a few issues, I felt that it definitely grew on me and I looked forward to seeing it.  However, compared to Gene Ha’s art, I can see I was settling.  Many readers/reviewers disdained this batch of Ha’s art and griped about not getting more Jim Lee work.  Frankly, Lee is very good, but there was something about the artwork in this issue that really appealed to me and I enjoyed it a lot.  In the middle of the comic, there are three pages that depict a “video” conference between Steve Trevor and the Justice League Watchtower.  All of these frames are excellent – and the layout is phenomenal.  In fact, these three pages are really, really well done and all of the stars that I am giving this issue are because of these pages.

Wonder Woman “answers” the video conference call and we see her via Trevor’s monitor.  In the first frame, Ha captures the beauty, sexiness, and charm of Wonder Woman.  In the next series of frames, Ha draws her with expert mastery.  The body language, facial expressions, and so forth in these frames is really good.  I know it may seem to be a “minor” thing to be able to draw a couple of frames of a superhero – after all, shouldn’t all DC/Marvel/Dark Horse/Image artists be able to do that?  But it’s not the drawing of a superhero that is good here, rather the very natural, human, and alive-ness that Ha brings out in the drawing.  I feel like he must have studied a lot of…. people… and must be rather intuitive and perceptive in order to render the drawings so well.

This same skill is seen earlier in the comic with Batman, although I feel Wonder Woman is a more obvious example.  In the Batman frames, the reader can almost feel the frustration/aggravation Batman is feeling.  Can comic book art really evoke a response in the viewer like traditional fine art? These frames in this issue prove that they can.  The stigma against comic book art fails here.

The writing is okay.  Johns gives us some witty moments and some good dialogue.  He also writes a straight-forward story with each character having their own voice and personality. He manages to give each member of the Justice League seemingly equal “facetime” (although, perhaps a little less with Superman) and they all seem balanced in the storyline.  The little asides characters have with each other is amusing.

However, I feel the storylines are so…. decompressed (it’s the word all the comic reviewers are using these days)… that it verges on boring.  There is nothing wrong with it – and I really understand the goal Johns is working toward and how there is a lot of responsibility to make this title, of all titles, accessible and workable.  However, I feel it needs more life in the writing. Not just quips, but a more powerful story. Again, this is not bad, but it is average.  Of course, I am going to keep pulling this and reading along. And wow, I need to find more Gene Ha in the world.

3 stars

The Fearless #1

Fearless 1

Fear Itself: The Fearless #1; Marvel Comics

The Fear Itself comic event that spewed across Marvel Comics in 2011 was more or less a disaster.  The helmsman, Matt Fraction, made a mess of things for a miserable, confused event that grew even bigger than the sweeping events of World War Hulk and Civil War.  The tragedy of this event caused me to avoid Marvel Comics titles for a long time. Finally, well past the event itself, I decided to just muscle my way through everything.  I whipped through one issue after another. The Tony Stark storyline was interesting. The rest? Ugh.

That Marvel/Fraction began dragging out the Fear Itself abomination even further with this 12-issue expansion called Fear Itself: The Fearless caused many fans to just drop all Marvel titles from their pull lists. Many critics complained that Marvel was milking it, but I suppose that presumes there was anything to milk in the first place. Fear Itself was poor. Of that event, I bought the seven core issues. I bought subseries with Namor, Wolverine, and Deadpool. And I bought #7.1 and #7.3.  Frankly, the .1 and the .3 issues were probably a lot better than anything Fear Itself contained.  I am still harboring a bit of animosity toward Fraction’s writing.

Anyway, The Fearless is a twelve issue limited series that I bought just for semi-completist-sake. (paradox) I liked the concept of the story being contained in twelve issues. Also, since I suffered through Fear Itself, I wanted to see if this epilogue story could salvage anything for the event…and Fraction. This past week I picked up issue #11 of The Fearless. Today, I finally read issue #1. Yes, that is how dreadful Fear Itself was – it actually made me very much avoid Marvel titles, which, I suspect, is the antithesis of what Marvel wants their events to accomplish.

Fear Itself encompassed many, many issues. But on the opening splash page of The Fearless #1, there are three short paragraphs that introduce the background to the reader. Frankly, they actually, in three short paragraphs, sum up the entirety of Fear Itself.  Eight mystical hammers smashed into earth.  They were wielded by eight warriors called The Worthy. The Worthy were avatars of the Norse god of Terror: the Serpent. Odin, father-god of Asgard, planned to destroy the earth in order to stop The Worthy (and therefore, the Serpent). Iron Man and Captain America and some other heroes save earth. The hammers were scattered around the world. There, you now know what happened in Fear Itself – don’t bother reading it, unless you are truly comics obsessed.

Now, I admit the bar was set quite low for this series. Nevertheless, despite Fraction’s name on the cover, I opened the issue. And I kept on turning pages and enjoying the artwork and the story right until I reached the back cover. I was, obviously, pleasantly surprised. If Fraction can write so well for the Invincible Iron Man title and can assist with the writing for The Fearless, what on earth was he doing with Fear Itself? Needless to say, I was so surprised, I read the issue again. Okay, to be honest, it’s not the greatest issue ever published, but altogether a vast improvement over the event itself.

The issue opens with the introduction of Brunnhilde in the year 1945. It’s a nicely drawn and colored introduction for the warrior – and her fight scene against the snow wyrm is clear and concise. Simple warrior action story on those pages. Then, the comic jumps ahead in time to present day Washington, D.C. where the Avengers are cleaning up after the massive destruction [sic!] wrought by Fear Itself.  Brunnhilde is arguing with Captain America over the property rights of the hammers. The dialogue on these pages is well-written and the artwork complements the discussion.  The artwork is framed really well, with snippets of other heroes (superheroes and regular humans) working in the area. In the end Captain America tells Brunnhilde to forget it because he is determined to keep the hammers in mankind’s possession and hidden.

Next few pages detail the villain Crossbones using a criminal network to obtain the location of the hammers. He provides this to Sin (the daughter of the Red Skull and formerly, one of The Worthy).  Sin, is drawn and written very nicely in her appearance here:  she’s caustic, arrogant, and sinister – which is how we like our Sin!  The last few pages detail Brunnhilde standing before one of the hammers in custody.  War Machine, who I have not seen in awhile, finds her there and attempts to dialogue with her. Unfortunately, Brunnhilde does not feel the need to converse and takes matters into her own hands and steals the hammer!

So here is an issue with interesting dialogue, good fight scenes, exciting characters, and good artwork. Everything a comic ought to have and everything Fear Itself did not have. I have higher hopes for issue #2, but I still have not forgiven Fraction.

4 stars

** Also, as a warning do not look at Sin on the cover too much…. or you’ll see the oddest thing.

The Incredible Hulk #6

Incredible Hulk 6

The Incredible Hulk #6; Marvel Comics

I did not subscribe to The Incredible Hulk series when it started. I was skeptical because though Jason Aaron is my favorite writer, I was unsure that he and Hulk were a good match.  I loved the World War Hulk event that Marvel Comics ran in 2007.  In 2008, the Hulk title was released under the writing skill of Jeph Loeb. I collected the first fifteen issues of that series. I also collected the Skaar series (twelve issues). But when She-Hulk ended and turned into She-Hulks and then there was the Fall of the Hulks, I kind of got really lost.  Hulk got really confusing and I just gave up on what was happening. The last I had read was Incredible Hulk #601.

But then it’s Jason Aaron. And I actually went on Twitter and asked him directly if I needed any of that background or if a reader could just pick up issue #1. He answered me saying that readers could easily just pick up the first issue. Now, sure, I suppose Marvel could make him say that (sales and such), but I think Aaron is a pretty straight shooter. So, I grabbed issues #1 and #2 and read the heck out of them. I really loved the artwork.  The storyline seemed unique and to have a lot of potential, but I was not sold on the matter. I needed to see more about where Aaron was taking the character in order to really want to read along on a monthly basis. Hulk and Banner have been separated. Of course, Aaron does not really tell you how or why any of this occurred until issue #5. Which is okay, because I trust in Aaron and I was willing to read four issues without having that question directly dealt with.

Issue #6 was a good issue that explained many of the threads in the previous issues. It also contains lots of battles and action. The dialogue is also very good – as is to be expected from this particular writer. The cover was done by Leinil Yu. Overall, it’s an okay cover, nothing in it makes me want to say it’s gonna make it to this year’s top ten covers.

The interior artwork is by Whilce Portacio.  For the first three issues, the artwork was Marc Silvestri’s and I think that that art was superior to Portacio’s.  In fact, I felt like Silvestri and Aaron had a really good product together – the frames of Hulk were striking and unique. Together, they were able to establish a Hulk that was different than ye olde Hulk, which I think is what Aaron was striving for. In issue #6, Portacio’s art is similar to what Silvestri was doing, but it seems a little less “finished” than the early issues. Nevertheless, I really like the framing on most of the pages. I like the close up shots of faces and I definitely appreciate the last page of the issue! Still, I would rather see Silvestri’s art.

Amanda Von Doom costume

Amanda Von Doom drawn by Whilce Portacio

My biggest complaint about this issue is the costume/uniform that Amanda Von Doom is wearing. Not all of it, but just her. . . . . boob shields. Okay, so we can easily see that Amanda Von Doom is wearing a one-piece outfit that is mostly blue. The sleeves roll up exposing her forearms and the collar covers her neck. But there are a couple frames that make me think that Portacio is not really drawing the costume…um… correctly. If the material of the outfit is absolutely skin-tight, this explains why in this particular frame, we are able to see Von Doom’s navel. But yet, the folds on her back show that it is not really skin-tight at all. And then there are these “boob shields” that sort of just hang out on the outfit. How are they on there? I mean, does this material really take the soldering/sewing of such “shields” onto boobs? And what purpose do these serve – obviously, just to draw attention to Von Doom’s boobs. But her shirt does not even seem natural for showing off her boobs. I don’t know how to explain it; there’s just something really bizarre looking about her costume. Now, I am not usually one to make too much of a fuss about female characters because I know all the reasons artists draw them the way they do.  One learns to accept some eye-rolling silly female outfits in comics. But this one? This one is just crappy.

One of the things that I like about this issue’s writing is how Aaron focuses on the choice-making that Hulk does. This Hulk is not just a brute who takes orders or who gets angry. It seems Aaron wants to show us that Hulk is an autonomous, initiative-taking, choice maker. This makes the story have a lot more depth than just showing us that things happen or that the Hulk battles enemies. It makes the story interesting, which is one of the reasons I buy and read comics.

4 stars

The Flight of the Eisenstein

Flight of the Eisenstein

The Flight of the Eisenstein by James Swallow; Black Library

The Flight of the Eisenstein is the fourth novel in the Warhammer40k Horus Heresy series.  It was released in 2007 by Black Library and was written by James Swallow.  The cover art was done by Neil Roberts.

After the “opening trilogy” of novels in the Horus Heresy series, I was worried about beginning yet another author’s take on the Warhammer40k universe.  The first three novels really set the bar high, so to speak, and I was so impressed that I was worried the disappointment would eventually arrive. Nevertheless, I was irresistibly curious as to the next events; the third novel leaves off with so much left unfinished – all the characters in the lurch.

Instead of starting where the preceding novel left off, The Flight of the Eisenstein actually backtracks a bit in time to before the battle on IsstvanIII.   So, instead of picking up with the events of the last novel, the reader goes back to the pivotal moments before the attack on Isstvan III, which, really, is the whole crux of the Horus Heresy series.  This time, however, the reader sees the events occur from an entirely different point of view.  The Flight of the Eisenstein follows the thoughts and actions of Battle Captain Nathaniel Garro, of the Death Guard (under Primarch Mortarian).

Before I get further into this review, I want to say that of the authors of the Horus Heresy that I have read, I think James Swallow is the least among them.  However, this does not make him horrible, please understand.  Further, I think that somehow Swallow is the author most suited to be writing about/as Nathaniel Garro.  Garro is different than our old friends Garviel Loken and Saul Tarvitz. He’s different from a lot of the other characters because he is a lot more introspective, it seems. He is also a member of the Death Guard and not a Son of Horus/Luna Wolf.  So, it’s fitting that a different author is writing this character and I felt, as I read, that the writing style suited Garro.

Part of me was slightly frustrated by having to return to events that I already read about.  And that frustration is only because I am so invested in the story that I am excited to know what happens next.  However, there is nothing wrong with backtracking and giving the reader a fuller picture of the events at Isstvan III, but from a different perspective. In theory, it would have been possible to write The Flight of the Eisenstein by starting off with the refugees arrival onto the ship and taking the story from there. By backtracking, the reader is forced to see the events of Isstvan III from off-planet and from a more detached character’s viewpoint. The reader is also able to develop an interest and connection with Garro.  The backtracking allows the entire storyline to fill in gaps and explain other forces and events outside of the ones already known.  It makes the entire storyline deeper and broader by not traveling solely in a linear fashion, but expanding into other characters etc.  So, though I was in haste to find out what was going to happen, I appreciated the efforts to learn about what the Death Guard was doing when Isstvan III was obliterated.

This book does continue onward, though from the point where we left off in the third novel.  The refugee-loyalists have arrived on the Eisenstein, which Garro commands.  He and his battle brothers recognize the horror that had just played out before them and are forced to escape the traitorous fleet headed by Warmaster Horus.  Swallow takes us for our first official ride into the Warp – and let me tell you, it is not a pretty place.  Swallow fills several pages with the gore and mayhem that is the Warp.  Somehow he does it with slightly less ability than Abnett or McNeill.  It’s still gripping to read, though (but maybe not while eating lunch).  Throughout the book, Garro wrestles with what it means to have faith, how to react to Horus’ violence, and how to remain a true Astartes warrior.  Swallow also spends a lot more time with developing human characters as well. (Of course, the problematic of the Empire of Man, humanity, and Astartes kind of just hangs out there in a somewhat incomplete manner, but it’s fiction…)  Two human characters in particular that Swallow develops are the captain of the Eisenstein and Garro’s housecarl (read: manservant) Kaleb.  Only one of these two makes it out of the book alive.

One of the things that bugs me about Swallow’s writing is that he uses really “rare” words more than once. If you want to use a rare word, you can only do so once – or else it seems like you are showing off your usage too much. This occurred with Swallow’s use of the word obstreperous with regard to the Death Guard warriors. It is a very rare word, and using it more than once makes Swallow seem like a little kid who learns a new word and who wants to use it all the time.  Nevertheless, it was also fun to read a word like:  mechadendrite. And on page 275, Swallow has a villain say:  “The warp’s touch is the way forward. If you were not so blinkered and mawkish, you would see it!”  ….and that’s a pretty fun line.

All in all, compared to the other Horus Heresy novels, I think this is a three out of five stars. But out of my universal novel rating system – I give it a solid four stars.

4 stars

The Shadow of the Torturer

Shadow of the TorturerThe Shadow of the Torturer is the first book in the four volume Book of the New Sun series. The Shadow of the Torturer was first published in 1980 and was nominated for the Locus Award in that year. This is the first novel that I have read by Gene Wolfe.  The book is told as if it were the reminiscences of Severian, a member of the Torturer’s Guild in the City.

This is a very weird book.  If there is a category called books that are weird (Paul Auster and China Mieville come to mind as weird-book-authors), then this surely fits in that category.  The first scene in the novel, after a bit of meandering by the main character, takes place in a cemetery and involves the desecration of a corpse and a fight with a shovel/ax.  It also introduces us to the character Voldalus, who gives Severian a coin.  This scene seems to be really important, but it’s not easy to grasp what actually occurred there. Suffice to say, this event is a major event for Severian, who often remembers it as a pivotal point in his narrative.

Severian, being a member of a Guild of Torturers, meets one of their “clients.” Client is what the guild calls it’s inmates who are to be held and tortured and/or killed. Clients are sent to the guild by the authorities, presumably for crimes they have committed. The torturer’s guild consists of only two master torturers, many journeymen, and many apprentices. When the novel begins, Severian is only an apprentice. We follow some of the timeline until he is made journeyman.

One of my biggest complaints about the novel is that we are given so little regarding the guild of torturers itself. This is a neat creation, a unique twist on medieval-like fantasy, and yet, we are not provided much information.  The author just does not give us any real glimpses into what the training of torturers is like, what the actual tortures consist of, etc.  It’s not so much that I want to read graphic accounts of torture, but if one sets up such an entity as this guild, I feel it is natural to give us something more to work with.

The Shadow of the Torturer 2Severian is sent away from the guild because he mishandles (let us say) one of the clients. He is assigned to a “village” far outside of the city to be their executioner. He does not make it out of the city, even by the end of the novel. Instead, the storyline gets really weird. There is a duel, there is a botanical garden that is a lot like Alice’s Wonderland, there is a deceitful brother and sister, there is a love interest (who is as batty as all the rest of the characters).  Frankly, the time Severian spends in the bizarre botanical garden takes up most of the book, and there are some really absurd sections in there that are just plain weird.  I actually began to despair – thinking the author had abandoned all of the plotlines he had originally set us upon and had permanently diverted to the world of the gardens. Luckily, we make it back out. For the duel. And then the spontaneous and utterly random theatre act that Severian gets involved in.

Amidst all the weird, there are some interesting ruminations that Severian engages in. One of these is in his position of the writer of his memories. Late in the book there is a really unique passage in which the author, through the pen of his character, compares writing literature to being a torturer/executioner. It’s worth my typing it out here, I think.

Many scores and sometimes many hundreds of persons come to watch an execution, and I have seen balconies torn from their walls by the weight of the watchers, killing more in their single crash that I in my career.  These scores and hundreds may be likened to the readers of a written account.

But there are others besides these spectators who must be satisfied:  the authority in whose name the carnifex acts; those who have given him money so that the condemned may have an easy (or a hard) death; and the carnifex himself.

The spectators will be content if there are no long delays, if the condemned is permitted to speak briefly and does it well, if the upraised blade gleams in the sun for a moment before it descends, thus giving them time to catch breath and nudge one another, and if the head falls with a satisfactory gout of blood.  Similarly you, who will some day delve in Master Ultan’s library, will require of me no long delays; personages who are permitted to speak only briefly yet do it well; certain dramatic pauses which shall signal to you that something of import is about to occur; excitement; and a sating quantity of blood.

The passage continues – and is worth reading. The comparisons are striking, and perhaps, give me pause in rating this novel. I suppose I wanted to give it two stars, but judging it by the very criteria of Severian in this passage, I was able to give it three.

3 stars

The Ringworld Engineers

Ringworld Engineers

The Ringworld Engineers by Larry Niven; Del Rey

The Ringworld Engineers is the second book in the Ringworld series by Larry Niven.  The Ringworld Engineers (1980) was published ten years after Ringworld. The cover art was done by Dale Gustafson.  The novel is divided into three parts.

Overall, this is really not a good novel. Ringworld isn’t actually a great novel, either. But there’s something about science fiction that allows for bad novels to still be fascinating and readable.  The Ringworld Engineers starts off with a pretty neat scene.  Louis Wu, twenty years after the discovery of the Ringworld, is sitting in the lotus position in his home on the planet Canyon. He is attacked by assassin/kidnappers.  Louis Wu has also become an addict to the wire – electrical brain stimulation.

Soon, Wu is kidnapped and finds himself as the captive of The Hindmost, a puppeteer. The Hindmost is much like the puppeteer Nessus in the novel Ringworld, displaying all of the usual puppeteer traits. For example, Hindmost is cowardly and a bit insane.  Once on Hindmost’s ship, Wu discovers that The Hindmost has also captured a kzin:  the former Speaker-to-Animals, who is now named Chmeee.   Hindmost has captured these previous explorers of Ringworld because Hindmost seeks to return to his homeworld bearing technological marvels which will reinstate him at an exalted status on homeworld.

Louis and Chmeee are dispatched from the Hindmost’s ship on a mission to find amazing technology and return it to the ship. The overarching problem throughout this mission, however, is that the Ringworld is “slipping.”  It has departed from it’s standard orbit and is going to crash into it’s solar body.  Naturally, Louis and Chmeee try to keep their efforts to overcome the Hindmost secret, but they are both fighting their own personal battles:  Louis’ addiction to the wire and Chmeee struggles to deal with his now more youthful body. These two travel parts of the Ringworld (The Hindmost is far too cowardly to leave the ship) and have a variety of adventures which are not entirely interesting.  I guess, the author wanted to show us the diversity of the planet’s inhabitants as well as re-familiarize the reader with the magnitude of Ringworld. However, it just seems Louis and Chmeee are getting sidetracked. Once again, we get to experience The God Gambit, which is a neat little trick Chmeee and Louis use to manipulate the natives.

And the reader unfortunately gets acquainted with the concept of  rishathra.  This is sex practice outside of one’s species used to create, bind, and recognize contracts/promises.  It’s really not one of my favorite concepts in all of science fiction, let me just say that. Besides if you consider the beings with which Louis performs rishathra with, it’s actually a bit disturbing. Though the Ringworld Engineers had eradicated disease, the inhabitants of the planet are basically primitives or cross breeds. Louis, you are a nasty man.

There are vampires in this book, city-builders, kzin, etc.  But overall, even though I understood the general outline and plot of the book, a lot of the stuff that happens just seems unnecessary or confusing. I mean, there are times when I really do not know what the point of certain threads in the story is. Basically, I assume it’s just to give Louis (or Chmeee or Hindmost) something to do. I basically do not like any of the characters, but then again, there is this magic about Ringworld that makes me want to read it regardless of all it’s flaws. One of the most amusing aspects of Niven’s characters is their ridiculously extreme deadpan dialogue. I mean, there are times when it’s just a hoot because Hindmost and Louis and Chmeee will be having a near-death-experience and one of them will be very blah and matter-of-fact about everything.

In this second novel, we learn a lot more about the history of the Ringworld, the placement of the Known Worlds and the Fleet of Worlds, and about puppeteers. One of the technology that is used quite often in this novel is actually really neat:  stepping discs.  This is cool stuff and I feel this concept could be explored and developed repeatedly. It’s good techy geek stuff. Even if I have not been able to conjure up a mental image of what the Hindmost’s ship looks like.

2 stars

The Warded Man

The Warded Man

The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett; Del Rey

The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett was released in 2008 in the UK under the title The Painted Man.  At this time, I believe it is the first in what is going to be a five-book series.  It’s Brett’s first published novel. The edition I read is the Del Rey 2009 paperback shown in the picture.  The cover to this edition was illustrated by Larry Rostant.  For whatever it’s worth, I think this is a very cool cover because it not only looks good, but it does precisely what a cover should, viz. make you want to read the book!

My edition was 453 pages and is divided into four sections.  Frankly, the sections are somewhat unnecessary, but it makes the reader feel good when they reach a new one.  The point of view of the narrative changes every so often – if there is a rigid pattern, I confess that I missed it. Unlike many books that utilize this technique, it seemed very natural and seamless in this novel. Sometimes this technique can be jarring or interrupting.

I am giving this novel high marks for a whole lot of reasons. It is well written and does not make any of the mistakes that other fantasy novels make, nor does it fall into any of those annoying patterns so well known in this genre. In general, I think it is probably only a four star novel, but I am so very impressed with the novel and author, I have to boost it to five stars. The cover is great – and the title is great.

When I first started reading the novel I was rather skeptical and critical.  I felt the author was going to tell us a very rudimentary fantasy story.  I judged too soon.  I was skeptical about reaction to the corelings – it just seemed contrary to every aspect of human ingenuity and creativity that after hundreds of years humans would board themselves up at night from the corelings.  And then, the fact that story opens out in little village hamlets in the typical rustic and rural setting so common in fantasy novels made me feel like this was just going to be another one of those fantasy novels.  So, a young kid from the farm becomes unlikely hero and goes on quest. You know, the storyline of most fantasy novels.   But that’s not what happened here, per se.  I read onward and followed the characters to the cities, through their apprenticeships, carefully watching their development.

The characters in this novel are all likeable and, to me, they seem realistic. By this I mean, they are not whiny brats, nor are they just awesome amazing heroes. They develop and learn from their experiences.  The author does this so well, it’s very impressive.  Unlike many other novels in the genre, the reader does not get dragged through every day of the lives of the characters. Nor is every little scene filled with metaphors, descriptives, and unending tedium.  Everything that happens to the characters is not drawn out into fifteen chapters. The reactions of the characters are reasonable and probable.  The characters are all different, but do share the elements that make them important to a fantasy epic. I did not hate any of the characters in the book – even the bad guys. This is an important point because there are many deaths in the book. It’s hard to explain what I mean by my next statement, but I will try:  their deaths seem natural.

Some books/movies just kill a character suddenly in order to create interest or shock the reader. (Think of the many deaths of heroes in comic books.)  Usually, deaths in books are long drawn out attempts to prey on the reader’s sympathies.  Sometimes they are sudden and rather jarring, making the reader wonder if the death was really meaningful or reasonable with regard to the storyline.  In The Warded Man, several characters die – but it never seems forced or random.  And while the reader has built up some sympathy, the deaths seem well-placed in the storyline and not just for the sake of killing characters. Also, it keeps the novel from having a ridiculously overpopulated character list for the reader to juggle.

The three main characters, Arlen, Leesha, and Rojer, are fun and likeable. They make their mistakes, but show independence and they tend to not make the same dumb mistakes over and over.  Leesha is the main female character and she’s really a good character because she seemed the most realistic of all the characters.  It was obvious the author wanted Leesha to be strong-willed and heroic, but unlike many novels, the author was able to develop the character with tact.  Sometimes character development is just too heavy-handed and overbearing.  Leesha is an example of how a female heroine should be written.

But Arlen is my favorite. I want to be Arlen. Well, no not really.  But I think he’s a very cool character.  In his timeline he has willful moments, naive moments, and finally he is struggling with his idealistic feelings while living in the harsh reality that he understands. He has a shaved head! This is cool – because in all the fantasy epics I read, the male characters run around with long, flowing locks. Arlen also makes wise choices. He learns from his mistakes and grows as a character. One of the mistakes in fantasy novels is that the characters continually make the same mistakes, chapter after chapter, book after book.

Finally, what is known as “world-building.” Some readers seem puzzled as to if the world is an alternate version of our world. I did not really wonder this or puzzle over it. It is a world, with some similarities to ours. The author does an excellent job of world-building. Without pages and pages of exposition, the author lays out the map of the world nicely.  Hamlets, cities, deserts, and mountains are all present, but I did not have to read endless prose about what it all looks like. I guess one would say the reader is immersed in the world and is shown, not told.  This is how to build a world.

5 stars

Avengers #19

Avengers 19I have not read an Avengers comic in awhile.  There are several reasons for this, but the biggest is that I have been more excited about DC Comics than Marvel lately.  The second reason, by no means insignificant, is that Fear Itself really slogged a lot of the Marvel titles. It was a not a good event and because so many Marvel titles were tie-ins or caught up in that event, it messed up the energy and momentum of a number of titles.

Anyway, #19 is the second to come from the event without the Fear Itself banner. #18 was okay, but honestly, by the time I read this one, I had long forgotten the contents of #18.  The cover for #19 was done by Daniel Acuna; the writing continues to be done by Brian Michael Bendis.  When I first glanced at the cover, I thought the art had been done by Howard Chaykin (whose art I do not like.)  However, I learned that it was done by Acuna and I have given it some deeper examination. I like the white background. I realized that the white background really stands out among other issues because it looks so clean and bright.  However, the characters are actually outlined in a light blue color. I’m not sure what this is about – maybe to make the transition from white to the other colors better? I am no artist, but somehow these outlines look odd to me. Also, well, I don’t like the layout of the cover, although Captain America is in a rather traditional pose.

The issue starts off in Rikers Island Maximum Security Penitentiary – the Raft – where Norman Osborn has recently escaped. I confess that I do not remember this from previous issues, but it’s not exactly a surprising thing.  Anyway, we are introduced to Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Daisy Johnson who has been specifically assigned (by Captain America) to root out the situation at The Raft.  Again, I know better, but I thought this was Maria Hill. Oops. Do all female S.H.I.E.L.D. agents look the same and have the same attitudes?

Meanwhile, the media has gathered outside of Avengers Mansion for an announcement by the Avengers regarding the roster of the team.  We see Captain America trying to recruit Black Panther, who turns him down but suggests that his wife (Storm) be included. Storm gets a full-page entrance, surrounded by the falling leaves of the back courtyard of the mansion. She should, I think, be given a nice entrance, but I find the odd “confetti” leaves a bit odd.  Tony Stark has a surprise, too.  He reintroduces The Vision – the robot of the old, old Avengers teams.  Everyone is surprised, but happy to see Vision.  But the best moment is when Vision sees Red Hulk; Red Hulk’s reaction to Vision is also funny.  It’s fun to see Red Hulk in these awkward moments. All of these frames, drawn out of doors in sunshine, make the comic have a lighter, brighter appeal to it. After all, Fear Itself (and plenty of other storylines) have been very dark and heavy. It’s nice to not be reading a comic taking place in a basement-bunker at night.

Victoria Hand is there to “liaison” and the team steps out in front of the media on a stage.  The frame with all of the Avengers there before the media is pretty standard – I feel like every so often we see some variant of this frame. It would actually be sort of interesting to collect and look at all the frames that have the Avengers on the stage before the media. Anyway, this one is done fine, nothing too remarkable about it.  However, guess who is in the crowd? None other than Norman Osborn!

Easter Egg:  Last frame – on the microphone the newsman holds out toward Norman Osborn are the letters CBR – presumably standing for Comic Book Resources (www.comicbookresources.com).

Overall, the issue is standard fare – nothing at all amazing to it. The art is clean and matches the story.  Acuna does draw a good Captain America. He also uses bold primary colors, which gives the issue a solid feel to it. The writing? Well, again, we’ll just have to see where Bendis is going to take this storyline.  However, on its own, there’s nothing remarkable that makes me know it’s Bendis as opposed to someone else.

3 stars