Month: February 2013

Rynn’s World

Rynn’s World – Steve Parker; Black Library; 2010

I am a Warhammer 40k addict. I don’t expect you to be.  But I love me some space marine vs. ork battles, ships lost in the warp, xenos screams of hate, and prayers to the Emperor.  Of the Warhammer 40k novels, the Space Marine Battles seem to be a little lower on the “literature” scale than, say, the Horus Heresy stuff.  But none of it, really, is high-class stuff. And I am perfectly okay with that.

Rynn’s World is pure fluff.  It’s full of action scenes, space marines lumbering around in their armor, the rather one-track-mindedness of characters, the repetitive storytelling style that reminds you orks are bad and space marines are good, etc.  And I love it. It’s like brain candy.  All you have to do is turn the page and you do not need to analyze, discuss the levels of meta-fiction, or worry about the symbolic meaning of anything. You just read while the space marines just shoot. It’s glorious science fiction pulp.

This is the first Space Marines Battles novel released by Black Library. Rynn’s World was written by Steve Parker and released in 2010.  Parker is actually a pretty cool dude – he lives in Japan and is a beefy bodybuilder.  He is into environmental concerns and he isn’t just an iron head.  He has not yet written dozens of books, but this one was a decent read for the genre.  I hope he writes more.

Rynn’s world is about the homeworld of the Space Marines chapter, the Crimson Fists.  If you have no idea what I am talking about, let me oversimplify:  there are dozens of “chapters” of space marines.  Each chapter has their “thing.”  This particular chapter wears power armor where their gauntlets are mechanized and “powered” – and crimson red in color.  There you have the basics.  It was fun to read about this chapter because they are one of the more famous ones.  However, they certainly take a real hit in this novel – their homeworld is attacked by a gigantic warforce of Orks. Orks are green and brown skinned monsters who like to slay and who also have a fondness for motor bikes.

Pedro Kantor is the chapter master of the Crimson Fists.  This means, basically, he’s the general in charge.  We follow, more or less, him through the battle.  Therefore, we are privy to his hopes, worries, fears, and decision-making.  Not only does he have to deal with ork invaders, but the welfare of the human citizens of the planet also weighs heavily on his shoulders.  This sets up a sort of moral dilemma – his official protocols dictate that he serves the Emperor first, particularly in battle by destroying xenos bad guys.  So, how does Kantor deal with also having to play something of the rescue/protector role regarding humans?

And then, there is the whole drama with his friend, the lower-ranked captain Alessio Cortez. Cortez is a fiery, aggressive character who is an excellent space marine, but who gets impatient a lot.  Cortez rarely sees the bigger picture, so to speak. Kantor has to balance being Cortez’ friend and being his chapter master.  Some of this storyline is also developed early on when a scout endangers space marines by failing to strictly obey protocol.  Discipline and obedience are the buzzwords here.  Anyway, the good part of all of this is that the novel does actually have some subplots and does touch, however briefly, onto some interesting moral questions.

Nevertheless, this novel is about space marines going to battle against orks.  It may seem juvenile or pedestrian to some readers – but I wasn’t expecting anything more than some good old bolt gun explosions, ork war cries, and descriptions of azure power armor.  The joy of reading anything WH40k is that orks get smashed. Ork smashing is good and good for you.  I’m giving this novel three stars – because it is exactly what it purports to be and met all expectations.  Granted, we won’t be reading this in English Lit – but on the other hand – we don’t want to be. We’d actually rather be donning our power armor and firing up the lasguns!

3 stars

The Magicians

TheMagiciansThe Magicians by Lev Grossman was released in 2009.  I finally got it in 2013 at a used book library sale.  For a dollar. I had seen it a couple of times for $3 for a new tradeback copy at Books-a-Million, but I passed it over and it was all sold out eventually.  Color me pleased when I found it in January for $1 for the hardback.  By that time, I had read a number of reviews on Amazon.com and Goodreads.com.   Reviewers keep reiterating that it is like an “adult Harry Potter” novel.  Well, no, I do not think it is.  Not that I have read the Harry Potter books, but I feel if you go into the novel thinking that you are setting incorrect expectations. Bottom line here:  Not an adult Harry Potter. Don’t believe the hype, folks.

The storyline itself is actually well-written.  Scenes move reasonably into other scenes, characters develop at a good pace, clues and hints throughout the story come back and play roles, and the balance between description and action is decent.  The conversation dialogue is actually fairly accurate for the characters.  It does include “adult language.” (It’s not adult – it’s called “cussin,’ folks.)  There is not an overabundance of hefty vocabulary (Cp. China Mieville) to bludgeon the reader with the author’s intelligence.  Some of the more causal speak actually seems forced – as if the author is more comfortable writing formally than colloquially.  For example, the phrase: “But still.”  What the heck does that mean? Nothing. It’s just a spoken phrase that has worked its way into everyday parlance. Things that like that pepper the novel; perhaps to give the reader the sense of reading about teenagers and college students.

And this is why I insist that the book is more like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History than the Harry Potter novels. The book is about smart, rich, entitled kids who are magicians.  They go to a secret University in order to formally train in magic.  Magic is not a thing of wonder and surprise. In this novel, magic is much more like a martial art, a skilled trade, or a scientific field.  The University is not a fun and mystical place.  So, if you expect the Escher-like corridors of Hogwart’s or the silliness of Wonderland – forget it.  That’s not what this novel is doing and complaining about this novel because it actually isn’t those novels is faulty.

The characters are easily dislikeable.  Really. I mean, who does not dislike young adults who are hedonistic and whine about how they are misunderstood and their lives are boring?  And this is not entirely unheard of.  I am sure Grossman has run across plenty of college students who have this air about them.  In fact, having spent some time in universities, I can vouch for the fact that some students even put on this sort of act because they feel this is how students are “supposed” to be.   If the average reader finds this all very abhorrent and toxic, well, they are probably overreacting.  It’s easy to hate characters for not being how we think they should be or because we are jealous of them, or because they are so very different from us.  But a good reader can move past that feeling and realize they are not the author and it’s not their story.

The main character is Quentin Coldwater.  He’s not a bad character, all things considered.  He is a bit tentative and cowardly, but very few young adults are actually authentically confident and secure.  He makes mistakes – not really bad ones, but things have a tendency to snowball on him.  And while it is good that he finds people at the University that he can belong among, they are also not the greatest influences he could find, either.  But that is exactly how real life is.  Perfection is somewhat rare in the real world.  I like Quentin well enough and I do feel bad for him at times. Some times I wish he would pull his head out of his butt and think.  Sometimes I understand him completely:

It was a glorious relief.  The numbness of it was just magnificent.  At the moment when it had been at its most intolerably painful, the world, normally so unreliable and insensitive in these matters, had done him the favor of vanishing completely.  — pg. 252

The character Alice Quinn is pretty cool as well. I really enjoyed the foray into her parents’ home – that was creative and interesting writing.  In fact, just because Grossman’s concept of magic is not that of Tolkien’s or Rowling’s does not mean his is weak or stupid. In fact, of them – his is actually the most fleshed out and developed.  He shows us magic in a variety of settings and uses.  And he presents a somewhat darker image of it – not the starry-eyed kiddos’ of Hogwarts.  Anyway, Alice is probably the best magician and student of the bunch.  She’s interesting and she is a good character to match with Quentin.  Their story develops and as it continues, I think readers have a lot of respect for her for a number of reasons.  Her insightfulness, her bravery, and her dedication.

I found Eliot to be the most tedious of characters.  In a lot of ways, he’s the most stereotypical character – one wants to say “yeah, he’s in the story because every story has one of him.”  I disliked him and I suppose he has a role to play, but honestly, he is arrogant and crass and a lot less likeable than the others.  He does take that archetypal character in a University, though. The aloof loner who is uppity and yet slums with the losers on occasion.

The novel uses the tools that C. S. Lewis and J. K. Rowling created.  I do not think this is a bad thing. I think it’s fairly gutsy and interesting.  I think readers who focus on the similarities and spend time calling Grossman’s work derivative are missing the good of The Magicians.  Using the tools the other authors provide, Grossman is telling us a different story.  The thing that I do not really like about Grossman’s story is the existentialist feeling it has.  Existentialism (to me) always seems dreary and navel-gazing. So, it was this element that weighed the novel down – and yes, at places, this is a heavy dismal thing.  Nevertheless, the ending leads us right into the sequel.  Maybe by then readers will stop comparing the novel to what it isn’t and read it for what it is?  And what it is, is a question of how much hope and redemption Quentin Coldwater can find in any world – Earth or Fillory.

2 stars

** Update:  The author of this book commented at me on Twitter. His comment suggested that since I gave Kafka’s “The Trial” only 2 stars, he feels his book is in good company (and I’m a “bad reader”).  My review was honest; apparently the author cannot take criticism. Also, in 2013 The Atlantic published a story: “Is Kafka Overrated?” – I agree with much of that article. Needless to say, I will not be reading anything further by Grossman.

Locke & Key – Welcome to Lovecraft

Locke & Key 1; IDW

Locke & Key Volume 1 – J. Hill, G. Rodriguez; IDW, 2008

I finished reading the first collected volume of graphic novel Locke & Key by writer Joe Hill and artist Gabriel Rodriguez.  The hardback edition I read is entitled Welcome to Lovecraft and was released in 2008. It collects the first six issues of the comic by the same name published by IDW comic publishers.  One of the decisions that I made going into 2013 was to read more graphic novels and from different publishers than I usually do.  Locke & Key has continued for several volumes and has gotten a lot of praise.  So I figured that I would try it out and see how it goes.  Also, because the author names the location for the story “Lovecraft,” I admit I was intrigued.  If an author invokes that name in his writing, one almost expects creepy, weird, scary stuff – so I was all set to read something well-done.

The story, generally, is about the Locke family and the family’s ancestral home, Keyhouse, a Massachusetts mansion with a fantastic collection of magical keys and doors.  And this story is not for kids.  Some bad language, some gore, some horror, etc.  I do not think it is a foul book (I wouldn’t read that…) but it does have a smattering of bad. After all, this is technically in the “horror” genre.  Anyway, Keyhouse.   This is the main focal point of the story.  This is interesting because usually authors use a character as a focal point and not a setting.  The first issue in the volume starts in media res and fills in some backstory via flashback, however, even at the end of the issue – the reader will have a number of questions about the whole thing.  And this is okay because by the end of the volume many of these are fleshed-out and resolved. Of course, new questions are then presented!

The father, Rendell Locke is murdered by a high schooler named Sam Lesser.  And though it seems a random murder by a particularly deranged teenager, the connection is Keyhouse.  We are told in flashback that if anything is to happen to Rendell, the family is to go live at Keyhouse with Rendell’s brother, Duncan.  Why? In a cryptic statement Rendell tells his wife that “the house chose Duncan.”  Clearly, Rendell is not oblivious to the mysteries of Keyhouse.  After the murder, the family (mom, older brother, middle sister, young brother) travel from California to MA to live at Keyhouse and everyone is dealing with the loss of Rendell and the change in their lives.

My biggest problem with the artwork is that Duncan and the mother, Nina, look the same age as the kids in the novel.  Assuming the oldest kid, Tyler, is 17 – the mother and the uncle still only look 25 at most.  This kind of didn’t work for me – not that I expected them to be old and haggard or something.  The best part of the artwork is how much the artist seems to mesh with the story and draw scenes which amplify and parallel the writing.  Sometimes a writer’s good idea might fall a bit flat without a diligent, capable artist. No fear of that here.

At the start I was a little confused. Back-and-forth in time was disconcerting – what happened when and where? But I got it all sorted out and reading got a lot better.  Joe Hill did an excellent job developing each character, especially the kids.  Tyler is a compelling character and is written and drawn really well.  Bode is a lot of readers’ favorite character because he’s a curious, intelligent kid who loves his family.  He’s a cute kid.  Kinsey, the girl, is also a strong personality and independent.  Hill’s characterizations are so good that one really is “pulling for” this family.  It is really important to have likeable characters that a reader can sympathize with and follow along with interest.  Without this – this storyline would not be worth reading.   The villain in this volume (Sam Lesser) is exceedingly hateable.  He’s repulsive and deranged and I dislike him a lot. This is also “good” because who wants a villain that is not really a villain?

There are some really cool plot twists – the frame where Bode sends two items down the well is awesome, how Lesser escapes from prison is sharp, and the interconnectivity of characters in Lovecraft adds to the suspense.  In other words, I liked the unfolding of the story and its pacing. After finishing the volume I want to get the next. I have these questions:  what happens next (re: Zack)?  How will the connection Duncan to the house and everything else develop?  How will Tyler and Bode’s relationship change after the events of issue six?

I recommend this book to those who enjoy suspense/horror, good character development, and who are over 18.

4 stars

The Black Beetle #1

The Black Beetle - Francesco Francavilla; Dark Horse Comics; 2013

The Black Beetle – Francesco Francavilla; Dark Horse Comics; 2013

In 2011, in the anthology series Dark Horse Presents, Francesco Francavilla presented his new character/comic.  In Dark Horse Presents issues #11 – 13, the short storyarc “Night Shift” was serialized.  I hate paying $7.99 for Dark Horse Presents – especially when I am really unsure about some of the items included.  But finally, in September 2012, I found Dark Horse Presents #11 on sale and eagerly read the short Black Beetle stuff.  It was really good.  I never got around to locating and purchasing #12 and #13.  This irked me a little bit, because what little we got in #11 left off on a cliffhanger.  In 2013, though, Dark Horse finally started releasing a volume of The Black Beetle – starting with issue #0, which collected the entire “Night Shift” story from Dark Horse Presents.

What made me so very interested in this new creation by Francavilla?  Simply I think he’s an excellent artist.  I cannot really speak for his writing since I have not read enough to make a good assessment. However, I loved his artwork in the Black Panther volume he did as well as the art for the Captain America issues he did (Captain America & Bucky and Captain America & Black Widow ).   I really like his artwork.  The main reason is that I feel that it is actually artwork – as opposed to perfunctory comic book drawing.  If you read enough comic books, you should get a sense of the different styles of the various artists.  Not all things done by each artist are fantastic – many have a sort of “perfunctory” feel to them.  Filler issues, the burden placed on the writer rather than artist, nothing standout, etc.  However, Francavilla’s art is very clearly his when you see it.  And it looks so good that it makes you want to read whatever the writer is writing.

I am not very good at describing artwork. I can only use the words that seem to fit according to my experience. So, forgive me if any of this is indelicate.  Francavilla’s artwork seems (to me) to not be focused on excessive detail or realism.  He relies on basic framing, understanding of shadows and inks, and his own color palette of favorite colors. Generally, oranges, blacks, blues. Nothing overly colorful and kaleidoscope-y.

Black Beetle frame (issue #1) - Francesco Francavilla, 2013; Dark Horse Comics

Black Beetle frame (issue #1) – Francesco Francavilla, 2013; Dark Horse Comics

Anyway, I picked up issue #1, which starts the 4-part story “No Way Out.”   I am a little icky because I wanted to find #0, but alas.  Anyway, Black Beetle is a style of costumed hero living in Colt City – which is a 1930’s-esque time period urban city on the East Coast.   The whole concept of the story and art is in the tradition of “pulp” vintage crime stuff.  I do not want to give anything away, so I am going to be really brief with the synopsis:  Black Beetle is doing surveillance on Colt City clubs that the gangster families frequent.  Roxy Club, Coco, Spencer’s, etc.  And at one of these, an explosion occurs – Beetle then seeks out the culprit. It is not who he expects to find. And we learn a little bit about the geography of Colt City along the way.

I gave this issue 8/10 stars on the comic book site that I frequent.  For here, I am going to ballpark it at four stars.  I love the art – I’ve already said that.  The story is good – because it does have that true vintage crime pulp feel.  The ads in the issue are minimal (I think there was one? Thank you Dark Horse!).  However, I demand a lot from first issues and I was not in total awe after finishing the issue. I re-read it and felt comfortable with my rating.  Also, I am very interested in pulling the next issue.

4 stars