Saturday, May 19, 2012

Comic Review - Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8 Vol. 1: The Long Way Home

Now that I’ve spent a few years rewatching the entire Buffy the Vampire Slayer series, I can finally check out the Whedon-penned Season 8 comics. Being an enthusiastic fan of the series, I’ve kind of built them up a little in my mind. Consequently, the first volume didn’t quite bowl me over as much as I was hoping, but it is a worthy successor to the show (so far), and that’s all that really matters.

This first volume largely picks up where the seventh season of the slow left off, albeit with some pretty major new developments. For example, Dawn is apparently a giantess, now, a side effect of an ill-advised and vaguely explained affair with a magical being called a Thricewise. Buffy is gathering all of the newly called slayers and training them, with Giles advising and Xander coordinating their squad attacks on various demon hotspots. Evil begins to stir again in the crater that was once Sunnydale, however, as familiar faces begin to rise from the dead and focus on Buffy. A mysterious reference to something called “Twilight” indicates that the new rise in demonic unrest may be more than a fluke.

These five issues seem to be an introduction to the Buffyverse for newcomers, and a transitional piece for those who are continuing on from the show. They feel very episodic, and while the larger plot arc gets established immediately, the story in each issue is very much self-contained. There are plenty of cool moments for established fans, and most importantly, Whedon’s trademark witty dialogue is in full effect throughout the volume. The interaction between the characters and the overall tone of the story feels exactly like it is advertised: another season of the show.

This dedication to the format does come with a drawback, though. Whedon was fond of circuitous storytelling when writing for the show, using clever bookends and waiting until the last minute to tie plot strands together. He carries this tendency over into this first volume of Season 8, and it doesn’t work quite as well in comic form, at least here in the beginning. The abrupt transitions between scenes are a lot more jarring in print, though the payoff when the story comes together at the end is still satisfying.

The artwork is great; I usually have trouble with comics based on real-life actors, but Jeanty does a wonderful job straddling the line between preserving the characters as portrayed by the actors and developing his own consistent visual interpretation of them. Also, it appears that both Whedon and Jeanty enthusiastically embraced the freedom from a special effects budget, as there is a definite trend towards more epic fantasy and sci-fi elements in this book.

Between the rampant experimentation with comic story structure and slight lack of cohesiveness in the separate issues, I left this volume feeling just the tiniest bit let down. However, the individual issues are strong (especially the last one), and the volume does a fine job of catering to both new readers and Whedonites looking for more Scooby action. I may have waited too long to start this series, and thus built it up a little too much in my own mind. I enjoyed finally diving in, though, and am excited to see what the next volume has in store.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Book Review - A Confusion of Princes, by Garth Nix

I’ve been on a distinct science fiction jag lately, and I’ve noticed that hard sci-fi is starting to pop up more often in YA lit, which makes me extremely happy. I’ve never read Nix before, but Sabriel has been on my to-read pile for quite some time. Even without his name attached, though, I would have jumped on this one; after hearing it summarized by a fellow librarian, I practically ripped an advance reader’s copy out of her hands. While I did have a few issues with its execution, A Confusion of Princes was every bit as fun to read as it seemed like it would be.

The story follows Khemri, a newly inducted Prince of a vast galactic empire. Contrary to the life of luxury he had imagined princehood to be, Khemri finds himself on the bottom rung of a vast and deadly society of millions of Princes, all of whom share the superhuman gifts of his biological, technological, and psychic engineering. Even his supposed immortality is no protection from the cutthroat political environment he is thrust into. However, someone high above him in the Imperial hierarchy has a plan for Khemri, which puts him onto a fringe world populated by normal humans. Khemri fights to return to his princely legacy, but his befuddling entanglement with a human girl named Raine is better preparing him for what he’ll face upon his return than he realizes.

The book is written from Khemri’s point of view, and therefore plunges the reader into Nix’s version of the galaxy without too much in the way of introduction to its particulars. As such, it took me a few pages to take in the lingo and understand what it was referring to. Once I got past that particular hurdle, though, I loved the worlds that Nix built. The balance of world-building, hard sci-fi details, and interpersonal drama is deftly achieved, making for an exciting bit of galactic escapism. The characters aren’t quite as nuanced as I prefer; in fact, the only character that gets any exploration at all is Khemri, and he follows a fairly predictable arc throughout the story. Even so, he’s a perfect protagonist.

My only problem is that Khemri is a little too perfect. It’s certainly not outside the bounds of the story, since his many psychic and technological powers are an integral part of the story. However, I did feel a little buffeted by Khemri’s constant ability to do everything perfectly and concoct ingenious workarounds to every challenge. It seemed to flatten his character out a little, and because the story is told in the first person, some scenes seemed to revolve around conveniently invented plot devices. The problem is somewhat compounded by the story's pacing. Over half of the book is spent on Khemri’s training in the ways of being a Prince. These sections are fascinating in their own right, but they relegate the main story to a comparatively cramped section of the book, forcing Nix to depict a lot of action in a short space without the benefit of much explanation or introspection.

Thankfully, Nix does hit all of the right notes to make Khemri’s story both sympathetic and thrilling. Meanwhile, the convenient badassery of the hero is an easy problem to forgive, considering the genre. While I wish we would have spent a little less time following Khemri’s awesome exploits of awesomeness and more time on his relationship with Raine or the differences between the Empire and their human thralls, I was still caught up by the story and thoroughly impressed with the slick, detailed universe that Nix creates. While adult fans of hard sci-fi might want something more from the story, this is a great read for general science-fiction fans, and perfect for teen readers who are looking for action and adventure.

Verdict: 4 / 5