Thursday, July 28, 2011

Graphic Novel Review - Astonishing X-Men Vol. 2: Dangerous, by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday

More hilarious snark! More fantastic artwork! The second volume of Whedon and Cassaday’s run on Astonishing X-Men is as good as the first in terms of story, characterization, and artwork, though it is perhaps not quite as accessible to new X-Men readers as the first volume. Thankfully, I’ve got enough background knowledge on the X-universe that it didn’t slow me down at all.

This volume breaks away from the story arc established in the first. Ord, the Breakworld, S.W.O.R.D., and the ominous prophecy of interdimensional warfare are all present, but referenced only briefly. Instead, this volume heads back to the mansion. With Colossus back from the dead and back on the team, the X-Men continue to try and find their place as protectors and heroes. However, an unexpected death caused by the events in the first volume force the team to circle the wagons, as an unknown force attacks their weakest point: the students at Xavier’s school. It is no coincidence that the assault takes place in the Danger Room, a holographic combat simulator in the heart of the mansion; as the X-Men learn more about the Danger Room’s true programming, the real target of the attack slowly becomes clear. Meanwhile, an old enemy bides their time in the background, and the motives of Emma Frost become murkier.

All of the best bits of the first volume are still in evidence here, but the new direction that this story arc takes can be a little jarring. Since I am reading this as a graphic novel, I am trying to approach reviewing it from a standalone perspective, and weigh its merits based on how it reads without an encyclopedic knowledge of X-Men lore (because, let’s face it, if you are already a fan of the title like I am, it’s all gravy). From that perspective, there are few oddities in this second arc. Much was made about Professor Xavier’s absence, and Scott Summers’ struggle under the burden of leadership without him. Okay, well, turns out he’s in Genosha (and let’s take a moment to say WOOOO BACK TO GENOSHA), and once everyone finds him, there doesn’t seem to be much of a revelatory moment.

“Oh, hey professor. Good to see you. We're not really curious at all about why you're her, so allow us to pour some of our angst on you.”

So, it wasn’t a big deal he was gone, after all? Nobody wonders what he was doing in Genosha, or why was he gone at all, exactly? What huh?

There are a few other things here that might confound newbie readers. I was excited to see some obvious references to the Shi’ar, but that’s some pretty inside stuff. Same with the big cliffhanger reveal at the end of the volume, though that will definitely become clearer in due time. And as cool as this story arc is, I’m not entirely sure how it connects to the first volume, other than the oblique references I mentioned before.

Thankfully, there’s enough surplus awesome in these pages to encourage forgiveness. An early cameo from another superhero team was a pleasant surprise. Beast and Shadowcat are more hardcore here than I’ve seen in a long while. The twist and cliffhanger at the end raises the bar for the larger story considerably, even if you don’t know who or what it refers to. And I once again have to hand it to Whedon’s writing: Logan’s three-word internal monologue in the introspective first chapter of the volume was hilariously perfect.

This is still a solid comic run, even if I didn’t quite geek out as much for this volume as I did for the first one. It’s a perfect introduction to the X-Men comics, and a smart and satisfying read for established fans. I almost feel ready to immerse myself in the more esoteric X-stuff again.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Book Review - Dark Parties, by Sara Grant

Dystopias are where it’s at in YA, these days. I personally think the upswing started well before Hunger Games, but that series definitely made it clear that the kids are into perfect societies that are built on the suffering of their people, especially the young and attractive ones. Being an avowed fan of the genre for many years myself (I still insist that Orwell, Bradbury, and Huxley are required reading for just about everybody), I find myself surprisingly wary of this trend. The more dystopia tales that crowd the shelves, the less power they have, especially when it comes to doing their job by pointing out the parallels to events in real life. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t quite summon the excitement that this book probably warrants; it’s a solid YA sci-fi drama, but it didn’t really offer me anything I hadn’t seen before, and didn’t seem all that subtle or clever compared to its forebearers.

The book’s protagonist, Neva, lives in a country simply called Homeland that exists under a giant electrified dome known as the Protectosphere, which isolates them from the supposed aftermath of a widespread cataclysm. Hers is a country of stagnation; everybody looks the same due to generations of inbreeding. Homeland’s goods and technologies are slowly decaying, and even their population is on the decline, with young adults being desperately urged to pair off and procreate. Most disturbing are the disappearances, with more and more people (including Neva’s grandmother) simply vanishing and everyone else acting as if they never existed at all. Neva and her friends chafe underneath the increasingly draconian government, fearing that there will be no future for them, and resolve to do... something. That part isn’t really that clear, to the characters or to the reader, but it definitely involves civil disobedience of some sort. Neva’s first stab at defiance brings the full attention of Homeland on her, and she risks the safety of both her well-connected family and her loyal friends as she attempts to discover what has become of the missing.

The thing is, all of the Neva’s mysteries are crystal clear to the reader, for the most part. Isolated society. Rebellious grandmother suddenly disappearing. Big Brother attempting to manufacture happiness and patriotism. It becomes clear pretty early on that the Homeland government is up to something, so most of the book has the reader waiting for Neva to discover and catch on to what’s happening. There are some grim, exciting twists on the way, most notably when Neva explores the Women’s Empowerment Center, but for the most part the reader knows what’s going on well before Neva does.

On the other hand, I found the interpersonal aspect of the novel to be surprisingly believable, considering the book’s audience. The book gets its title from a gathering in the first chapter: a makeout party in a dark room that Neva and her best friend Sanna use as a cover to incite their fledging revolt. Neva shares a sudden, passionate kiss in the dark with Sanna’s boyfriend, Braydon, who she never really liked or trusted before. After the dark party, though, she can’t stop thinking about him, to the point of risking both her friendship with Sanna and her success in foiling her pursuers and striking against the government. Some may find that romance shallow and carnal, and, well, that’s because it is. Sanna’s deteriorating relationship with a longtime boyfriend she no longer loves, and her sudden lust for a boy she doesn’t know but loves to kiss, sounds like an authentic teenage experience to me. Moreover, the consequences from those decisions ripple out to affect the plot in meaningful ways.

As for the rest, though... eh. Again, I couldn’t really get worked up about this one, for some reason. I think my problem is that, other than the relationship aspect, nothing really has any subtlety. Grant drops some anvil-sized hints about the nature of Homeland and the Protectosphere throughout the story, which takes the edge off of the suspense. And though there’s nothing wrong with using familiar dystopia themes and tropes, they are used rather clumsily here. For example, one of the overriding themes in Dark Parties is the physical similarity of Homeland's citizens, and how it is a small act of rebellion to use “identity marks” (temporary or permanent tattoos) to establish oneself as an individual. Neva, whose name means “snow” in Latin, has a tattoo on her hip of a snowflake. That’s because her beloved grandma named her, and always called her that, and gave her a snowflake pendant that she always wears. Which is why there’s a big neon snowflake on the cover, you see. So naturally, it’s a huge revelation when someone actually tells Neva near the end of the book that she is unique and special like a snowflake. OMG I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE IT ALL MAKES SENSE NOW.

Which is not to say that this is a bad book. It’s actually a pretty decent book. The characters are good, the action is tightly plotted, and there’s a nice mix of sinister ennui and defiant hope sprinkled throughout. I think I’m just spoiled by my own expectations. This ends on a cliffhanger, so there’s obviously a sequel coming; I’m curious as to what happens next, but not really drawn in enough to be anxious about it. I’d label this a good primer for YA dystopias. There are better out there, but this is a good introduction to the genre, and worth reading for dedicated dystopia fans or for readers looking for a tale about emotion fighting against oppression.

Verdict: 2.5 / 5

Friday, July 15, 2011

Book Review - The Name of the Star, by Maureen Johnson

I came from the 2011 ALA Annual Conference in New Orleans with literally dozens of advance reader copies, and had the nice problem of trying to figure out which one to read first. I had a chance to meet Maureen Johnson while I was there, and she was one of the friendliest authors I had the privilege of talking to. So, I started following her Twitter feed, and if you don’t follow her, you really should. She’s manic and adorable, and I couldn't help but decide to read Name of the Star first. I’m glad I did, because even with a few hiccups, this is a great start to what looks to be a fantastic YA series.

This first entry in Johnson’s new Shades of London series introduces Rory Deveaux, a Louisiana teenager who comes to England with her parents and enters a boarding school in London. Coinciding with her arrival is a spree of murders that are eerily reminiscent of those committed by London’s most famous serial killer: Jack the Ripper. Rory tries to adjust to her new surroundings, but London has become a surreal carnival of glee and fear, with “Ripper mania” spawning macabre parties, thronging vigils, and 24/7 news coverage. The grim mystery gets deeper when Rory realizes that she spoke to a sinister man at the scene of one the murders that nobody else could see, even when he was in plain sight. Still trying to make sense of being an American in England, Rory quickly finds herself overwhelmed by the discovery of a rare ability, which draws a whole lot of attention. Attention from those who want to help her, but also from the Ripper himself.

It must be said at the beginning that the general setting doesn't really fall outside of what readers might have seen before. It’s a British boarding school, with quirky roommates, mean girls, and a cute boy with a hot British accent. That almost qualifies as a subgenre, by now. Also, a few early twists are apparent a mile away to anyone who has seen the Sixth Sense (but, let’s be honest, that group is mostly comprised of people like me: thirty-somethings who are increasingly panicked about no longer being the arbiters of pop culture). And Ripper stories are always fascinating... seriously, always... but they are also prolific.

So it speaks highly of Johnson’s talent that this well-trodden path is so fun to walk down. The opening chapter grabs you immediately, and the beginning exposition is suffused with atmospheric tension. It also helps that Rory is such a likeable character; she has just the right mix of humor, awkwardness, and angst. Perfectly believable, and wholly sympathetic. Rory’s snark and self-effacing humility is a fantastic counterpoint to the rising tension and bloody attacks as the Ripper re-enacts the famous 19th-century rampage, ensuring that the story never falls too far on one side or the other of the drama/comedy spectrum. The setting is evocative and immersive; both the interiors and exteriors of this book's London resonate in the imagination, because they are written with an easy realism and an effortless eye for important detail.

The book heads in a different direction around halfway through, when Rory finally begins to understand what she can do and what that really means. This is where the story steps away from being a Jack the Ripper story, and determinedly sets up the larger Shades of London series premise. It’s a delicate moment, being the place most likely to lose readers who have been glued to the story so far, but I felt that Johnson handled it masterfully. The brooding tension that permeates the first half isn't lost, and Rory seamlessly moves from the boarding school into the wider, scarier world. Most importantly, though, Johnson keeps hot on the main mystery's heels while setting up the series, ensuring that this remains a strong standalone novel.

There are two minor quibbles I had with the book. At one point, the villain gets excessively monologue-y, which is a pet peeve of mine that I can never get over. The rest of the exposition was so good that it made that one "now I shall reveal my plan!" moment excessively grating. Also, for as much as Rory is smart, resourceful, and brave, she never really moves past being a perpetual damsel-in-distress until the very last moment. She spends the book being guarded, hunted, manipulated, herded, and being forced into uncomfortable situations, and even though there are plenty of moments that exemplify her innate strength, she spends too much time being at the mercy of her environment. To be fair, this could be attributed to overall tone of the book: unfamiliar school, unfamiliar city, unfamiliar culture, and, uh, unfamiliar ghosts. Still, I kind of waited for a definitive "Rory starts to kick ass" part of the story that never really came.

Both of these little issues are redeemed by a fantastic ending that wraps up the mystery nicely, but still leaves the reader with a tantalizing cliffhanger that sets up Rory's future exploits. It actually reminded me of the ending format that most Doctor Who episodes use (coincidence, considering the Amy Pond reference in the book? I THINK NOT). The Name of the Star pulls double duty as a gripping novel and as a series introduction with aplomb.

A word of warning: this is dark YA! *dramatic music* You know, because there's murders, and darkness, and making out, and everything is really foggy and whatnot! So, steer clear if you don't want your precious angel reading about subjects they might discover in other things you presumably don't let them read, like history books, or the newspaper. Otherwise, this is definitely one to check out once it hits shelves. The first Shades of London book is a great read, and I'm excited to see where the series goes from here.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Book Review - Cordelia's Honor, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Let’s all agree on this right up front: the covers of the Vorkosigan Saga books are horrible. Just plain awful. The cover art for anything published by Baen is pretty bad, enough to make even the proud nerds of today cringe and place the book face-down whenever possible to avoid being snickered at. But these covers in particular, with their dramatic poses and odd retro fonts, seem to house a strange breed of quasi-historical space pulp that embodies everything that “serious readers” should avoid. And that’s a damned shame, because Bujold writes fantastic, accessible science fiction. Were I to browse this by cover instead of trying out a no-frills ebook version, I may well have never discovered it.

I’ll try to stick to well-known details, but there are a few mild spoilers here if you want to fly completely blind. Cordelia’s Honor is an omnibus, comprising two separately published novels: Shards of Honor and Barrayar. These two books represent the first chronological stories in the sprawling Vorkosigan Saga, and begin a generation before the introduction of that saga’s hero, Miles. Shards of Honor begins with Betan explorer Captain Cordelia Naismith, attempting to chart a new, unclaimed world. Her party is surprised and attacked by a squad of the warlike Barryarans, and she barely escapes with her life. She finds herself lost on an unfamiliar planet, and thanks to a mutiny within the Barryaran ranks, she is forced to rely on a gruff Barrayaran outcast named Aral Vorkosigan, better known to her people as the Butcher of Komarr. She comes to know him better than she would ever have guessed during their ordeal in the wild, and their understanding of one another becomes crucial when they meet again, once the reason for the Barrayarans' presence on the untouched world becomes clear and their respective peoples stand on the brink of a brutal war.

The second book, Barrayar, picks up on the titular planet. Having forsaken her homeworld of Beta Colony after her unpleasant homecoming, Cordelia attempts to build a peaceful life with her new husband and the eventual birth of their son. However, after the Barrayaran emperor dies, Aral Vorkosigan finds himself manipulated into being the regent for the child heir, and thus a prime target for those lusting after the child heir’s power. An attempted assassination has dire consequences for Cordelia’s unborn child, and before she and Aral can gain their balance, a Barrayaran noble launches an insurrection and attempts to seize control of the empire through force. Cordelia, loath to accept the responsibilities placed on her by political momentum, must decide how far she is willing to go to rescue her fledgling family, and how much she should compromise her personal ethics in order to do so.

This is the second collected omnibus of sequential novels that I’ve read in the past year (third if you count graphic novels), and I’m starting to notice a distinct feeling that the novels contained within such volumes work a lot better together than they do apart. I can’t decide whether that’s a psychosomatic thing that’s brought on by there being so many pages left after getting through one book; I finished Shards of Honor feeling like more should have happened, and glad that I had a second half to move on to. In retrospect, I think that has everything to do with Bujold’s writing style, and I’m pretty sure I would have liked each book on its own, had I approached them that way. These books are referred to as a “saga,” and that’s an appropriate label. This is the first entry in a space opera that spans great distances, unravels intricate political intrigues, and narrates epic battles, but it’s immediately clear that the books are first and foremost about the characters. The saga follows the rise and fall of its players, and the landmark events in the plot provide the catalyst and backdrop for the landmark changes in the character arcs. This is what makes these books transcend pulp sci-fi and confirms them as a great choice for anyone who wants to read a good story.

There are a couple of snags, though. The characters are pitch-perfect, but their dialogue can get a little awkward from time to time. The narration is also a little odd, as well, especially in Shards of Honor. Bujold tends to get a little informal with the narrative voice, occasionally letting Cordelia’s sardonic humor bleed into the exposition and narration. Compounding this problem is the lack of italics or any other device to differentiate character thoughts in the first book, making the whole story feel a little slapdash. There was apparently a fair amount of time between the publication of the first book of this story arc and the second, and it definitely shows; Barrayar is much more tightly plotted, better paced, and efficiently narrated than Shards of Honor, displaying Bujold’s evolution as an author between the two stories. Standing as a testament to her talent, however, the joining of the actual story is seamless and natural.

I am to understand that the Vorkosigan books don’t really get going until we get into the exploits of Miles Vorkosigan, but as a newcomer to the series, I found this book to be a wonderful introduction to this particular world(s) and set of characters. It gives insight into the politics and technology of two distinct planets without seeming either contrived or confusing, leaving plenty of room to get to know wonderfully nuanced characters like Cordelia, Aral, Droushnakovi, and my favorite, Bothari. This gets a solid recommendation to any science fiction reader that puts a premium on good characters.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Graphic Novel Review - Penny Arcade Volume 6: The Halls Below, by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik

I’ve been a dedicated Penny Arcade reader since before they were Internet rock stars with their own convention, children’s charity, webseries, and video games. As such, it’s not so odd that I’ve only picked up a print version of the comic at the publication of book six, seeing as how I’ve already read every single strip. Should I feel the urge to go back and reread, these strips are still all available for free online. The value of this book is in the added features, just as it would be for a DVD: new commentaries on each comic, slick packaging (though not as slick as previous editions, I am told), and extra content at the end. I’m an enthusiastic fan, so I’m pretty easy to please, but these added features should be enough to sway any fan of the series.

This is not a graphic novel, but a more traditional collection of comic strips with occasional spurts of continuity. For the uninitiated, Penny Arcade is a hilariously crass webcomic that revolves around two gamer protagonists, Gabe and Tycho, along with a revolving misfit cast of recurring characters. Gabe and Tycho are rough analogs of the two personalities behind the comic: artist Mike Krahulik and writer Jerry Holkins, respectively. The humor is a little inside; working knowledge of gaming culture and at least a passing familiarity with current gaming news is usually necessary to get the jokes, though there are occasional exceptions. However, the often obscene strips have a lot to offer for anybody who has an appreciation for the absurd, especially if you enjoy dark sarcasm, snappy dialogue (Holkins/Tycho is an unabashed logophile that uses a symphonic vocabulary both in the strip and in the accompanying commentary), or, well, poop jokes.

This volume collects all the strips published in 2005, and although I think 2004’s bouquet might be a little more piquant, this was a pretty good year for Penny Arcade and its readers. I’m especially fond of Krahulik’s art in this period, although I think that might just be nostalgia talking. Penny Arcade has existed for over a decade now, and the artwork has evolved along with Krahulik over that period. The latest change has occurred in the past year or so, with the characters beginning to look increasingly like they were drawn by John Kricfalusi. Now, I will concede that it is a fascinating exercise to watch an artist try new things and incorporate their various influences into their work as they mature. But I’ve never liked John Kricfalusi's artwork, and so I’m feeling a little sullen about the new look. This book covers the heyday of the clean, angular art that drew so many people to Penny Arcade in the first place, and I really enjoy the novelty of having prints from that time period, if not for entirely objective reasons.

The actual content from this year included more hits than misses, and introduced more than one long-standing character or meme. The Merch is a notable exception, but I’m heartened by Holkins’ commentaries on these strips, which seem to indicate that he was as skeptical of that particular angle as I was. Balancing that out in this volume are two classic, fantastic subplots: Annarchy, and the Elemenstor Saga. The first involves a rare bit of story continuity revolving around Tycho’s eleven-year-old niece Ann, providing a surprisingly funny and poignant take on both Tycho and on Penny Arcade’s general content. Annarchy is living proof that a warm, fuzzy teddy bear lives deep inside a lot of cynical, foul-mouthed gamers like me. The second started as an obscure one-off comic and sparse wiki, and through the machinations of the Penny Arcade fanbase became a sprawling faux-franchise, allegedly covering over a dozen novels, two animated series, and a collectible card game. This meta-narrative is admittedly a little hard to appreciate, being that it lives mostly outside of the actual comic and is purposefully obtuse and ridiculous. However, anybody that has ever read a licensed fantasy novel or attempted to immerse themselves in the lore of an RPG or CCG will find this absolutely hilarious. The premium content at the back of the book is devoted to the Elemenstor Saga, consisting of an introduction to the joke’s concept and some excerpts of the vast fan-authored wiki page. My only disappointment is that The Halls Below doesn’t really cover the second half of this enormous in-joke: the rival “franchise” Song of the Sorcelator, and its flamboyant mastermind, L. H. Franzibald. Yes, it's as funny as it sounds.

It’s kind of hard to recommend this to curious readers who aren’t already familiar with Penny Arcade, since the actual website is the best place for that. But speaking as a longtime fan of the strip, this is a nice little curio, and worth buying just for the additional commentary on each strip.

Verdict: 5 / 5