Friday, August 31, 2012

Book Review - Prodigy, by Marie Lu

This is a great sophomore effort. I was vaguely underwhelmed by Legend (the first book in the series), most likely because I had heard so much about it. Prodigy, on the other hand, strays out of familiar territory and into some interesting places. There are still a few predictable areas in the plot, but it’s wonderfully written overall and a whole lot of fun to read.

Having escaped Los Angeles, June and Day are not much better off than before. Day remains exhausted and gravely wounded, and medical attention seems unlikely while still trapped in and hunted by the Republic. Desperate for help, June turns to the Patriots, the violent revolutionary group that assisted with Day’s escape. In return, the Patriots demand their help for a grand plan to bring down the Republic once and for all. As the two of them close in on the Elector to seal the deal, however, they discover how muddy the political waters in the Republic really are.

The split narrative format works a lot better in this book. Part of it may be that June and Day spend a lot more time apart, which keeps the shifts between their respective viewpoints interesting. However, it feels like Lu has had more time to explore these characters, and their voices seem much more distinct now even without the nifty ink colors (Day’s chapters are blue this time). The story takes some interesting turns, and we get to see some equally interesting locales along the way; as with the previous book, the world-building is one of Prodigy’s strongest points, in my opinion. The writing is top-notch, and a lot subtler this time around. The characters are more introspective, and there are a few genuine surprises. Despite the grandiose ambitions of the plot, I never lost my suspension of disbelief. Most importantly, when the prerequisite love triangle eventually emerged, I not only bought it, but found it realistic and harrowing.

The only time I stumbled while reading was...

...minor spoiler ahead...

...when June and Day make it to the Colonies. After the chilling depiction of the Republic in the first book, I’ve been waiting to see how the Colonies are described in comparison. Lu does not skimp on details, but June and Day are in and out so fast that we don’t get much of a look, at least in this book. Moreover, the danger of the Colonies seems to be a little bit forced compared to the Republic. The systematic brainwashing of the Republic’s citizens is scary and affecting because it is believable. By comparison, the motivations of the Colonists don’t ring quite as true; things seem exaggerated in order to paint the picture of corporate statism in broad strokes. That being said, there’s plenty of room for a third book, despite a story that actually resolves itself quite nicely, so maybe we’ll eventually get a deeper look.

I still guessed a lot of the key story developments before they happened, but at no point does the book feel dumbed down or poorly planned out. In fact, this book is a pitch-perfect example of its genre. It’s a believable dystopia with plenty of action and romance. It asks readers to accept that its fifteen-year-old characters can do a lot of wildly unrealistic things, but what YA dystopia doesn’t? This is a solid standalone book, and brings the series a notch above its peers in the genre.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Comic Review - The Walking Dead, Vol. 7: The Calm Before, by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard

What a relief.

Seriously, after the parade of dumb that was This Sorrowful Life, I was fairly close to giving up on the series entirely. Considering how many more volumes there are, I wasn't willing to waste my time and money if the comic continued down that trajectory. Thankfully, this one returns to the quality of the earlier volumes, story-wise, and actually does a few things better.

After engineering a stalemate with the nearby Woodbury survivors, Rick and company dig further into their prison sanctuary and try to create something resembling a normal life. The due date for Lori's baby rapidly approaches, which gets some others in the prison thinking about starting a family while they still can. Supplies are found and preserved, the fences are patched and guarded, and things begin to settle down, just a little. However, the stillness allows our heroes time to finally experience the anger, jealousy, and despair that they've had to bottle up until now in order to survive. If that wasn't bad enough, they may come to learn that their stalemate with Woodbury isn't as ironclad as they had hoped.

Adlard's art remains consistent and visceral. I don't know if I've mentioned this in previous reviews of the series, but I really like that the main art is rendered in stark blacks and whites. I've lately been delving into a lot of comics with panels vividly colored by computer, and the return to to Adlard's style is striking by comparison. It prevents the gore from going over the top, and reinforces the drama by keeping distractions from the characters themselves to a minimum. Also, it's a nice callback to Night of the Living Dead, which I recently rewatched.

To my surprise and gratitude, Kirkman has backed down a bit on a few of the most grating character and story arcs. Lori is no longer a screeching, shrewish caricature of a hormonal pregnant woman, and for the first time starts to look and sound like an actual character. Andrea reverses course from the Submissive Female Sidekick #4 role, and acts like a strong protagonist again. There's a bit of a break from Rick's melodramatic he-man bullcrap, which was long overdue (and nicely capped off with a metaphorical scene where he finally gets to shave). Some long foreshadowed developments finally occur, along with one surprise that promises an interesting psychological change in one of the major characters. And, yes, just when you start to forget that this is a zombie story... GRAAHR ZOMBIE ATTACK.

One particular element of the story (Alice's ambition and methodology for further studying the zombies) is something any fan of the genre will recognize, and easily predict what it portends. However, it felt more like a homage than a trope.

The Calm Before is an appropriate name for this volume, because it is rather slow and light on action compared to the previous books. It's by no means boring, though. Indeed, of the volumes I've read so far, this one comes the closest to doing what Kirkman set out to do: tell a zombie apocalypse story that's less about the apocalypse itself, and more about the people who are left.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Friday, August 17, 2012

Comic Review - Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8, Vol. 2: No Future for You, by Joss Whedon, Brian K. Vaughan, and Georges Jeanty

The second volume of Season 8 breaks away from the emerging threat of Twilight to focus on another returning character: Faith. Brian K. Vaughan takes up the writing duties for a four-issue arc. Apparently still on her quest for redemption and self-acceptance, Faith is contacted by a similarly disenfranchised Giles and offered a deal. If she can get close to and take out a rogue Slayer that runs in British high society, he will provide her the resources to travel anywhere she wants to go in order to get away from vampires and hellmouths.

Whedon returns to write the last story in the volume, a one-shot that is almost entirely composed of foundation for future issues, with a fight scene thrown in for flavor. Buffy and Willow confront a demon to get more information on Twilight, and address some of the growing discord between the two of them. Meanwhile, the reader learns a little bit more about Dawn’s giantess predicament.

The screen-to-comic format works a lot better in this volume, and Vaughan’s writing is a match for Whedon’s. Jeanty’s illustrations still tread a nice line between photorealism and an original take on the characers. Still, this volume feels very setup-heavy. We get a little villainous monologue at the end that moves things forward, but beyond that, this volume is still in the territory of establishing characters and foreshadowing conflicts, and so I never got too worked up while reading it. Faith’s undercover mission, interplay with Gigi, and resulting alliance with Giles are all interesting, but happen very quickly. Whedon’s story at the end is diverting, but not particularly substantial.

That being said, I can see the strands being drawn together. I think that once I read the next few volumes and the main story arc finally gets going, I’ll appreciate this volume and the previous volume a little more. I’m still not particularly impressed with Season 8 as standalone stories up to this point, but I'm getting a sense of the bigger picture.

Verdict: 3 / 5

Book Review - Legend, by Marie Lu

I took my time getting to this one, due to my tendency of avoiding hype and being slightly burnt out on the YA dystopia genre. That may be why I ended up being less impressed with it than I thought I would, despite glowing reviews and a few flashy writing and format tricks. Even so, it’s a worthy addition to the genre, and has promise as the first in a series.

Legend takes place in a future version of Los Angeles. This LA is an important city in The Republic, a coalition of western states that bears more than a passing resemblance to North Korea. Children are physically and mentally tested at a young age, with the best and brightest being inducted into an endless war with The Colonies to the east. June Iparis is a young Republic prodigy who is preparing for a military career and an affluent life, but a sudden tragedy derails her plans and puts her on the the trail of Day, the most wanted criminal in Los Angeles. For his part, Day is simply trying to survive, scrounging food and supplies for his impoverished family and tweaking the Republic’s nose along the way. When he finds himself implicated in a crime he didn’t commit, he will have to rely on someone who has every reason to hate him in order to escape retribution.

The book relies on split narration by two separate protagonists, which is becoming dangerously close to overdone as a YA literary trope. Lu handles it pretty well, though; despite other reviews to the contrary, I found June and Day to be well-developed characters with very distinctive voices. The neat gimmick of using colored ink in Day’s chapters didn’t hurt, either. In my opinion, though, the book’s greatest strength is in the world itself. As I mentioned above, Legend’s Republic mirrors North Korea, where the cult of personality, ceaseless propaganda, and brutal repression of anything that resembles dissent results in a populace that brainwashes itself in order to survive. Lu’s vision of this particular future contains all of the elements that I find so appalling and fascinating: the enormous gulf between social classes, the bellicose and dishonest jingoism, and the trap people get caught in when the state demands loyalty to itself over one’s own friends and family. For this reason, I found Day’s chapters especially readable.

I couldn’t get as excited about the book as I wanted to, though, and I think it’s because there weren’t any real surprises in store. The plot and character threads follow familiar patterns, and the twists are well foreshadowed. There were a couple of particularly interesting mysteries that were left unresolved, presumably to be explored in later books. This feeling of familiarity is compounded by a smattering of setting and plot elements that aren’t quite as original as some of the others. Teen girls that attract the attention of totalitarian heads of state and dystopian capital cities in Colorado sound an awful lot like another series I've read.

However, while I wasn’t floored, I still enjoyed the book. It’s a solid YA dystopia, and definitely worth checking out for fans of the genre. I was intrigued enough by the setting to pick up an ARC of the next book, because the world Lu builds has a lot of promise.

Verdict: 3 / 5

Book Review - Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor

I am an absolute mark for fantasy that strays outside the Medieval European box, and Who Fears Death puts forth an interesting and woefully underrepresented alternative: African-based folklore. It also blends magic with a definite touch of post-apocalyptic science fiction, which makes things extra interesting. Ultimately, the story fell a little flat for me, but it was worth reading for the world-building alone.

The story follows Onyesonwu, a headstrong young woman that has been an outcast her entire life due to her appearance; her sand-colored skin, light hair, and strange freckles marks her as a child of rape, a shameful existence in the eyes of the dark-skinned Okeke people. Her neighbors have greater reason to fear her, however, when her talents for sorcery and shape-changing begin to manifest. As her power grows, her dreams are invaded by malevolent and deadly being: her biological father, a powerful sorcerer of the Nuru people across the western desert. Furious at the pain this man has caused her mother, and at his bewildering attempts to kill her, Onyesonwu sets out with the few friends she has to track him down. On the way, however, she gets caught up in a prophecy that promises to rewrite the history of the Nuru and Okeke peoples, and end the horrifying violence between them.

The setting evokes something between high fantasy and alternate history, like something from the pen of Guy Gavriel Kay. However, Okorafor makes it clear early on that this is not an epic. It’s the story of one girl, who eventually becomes a woman and accepts a series of burdens that she didn’t choose but must endure. I actually prefer it this way; while I love speculative fiction that takes place on a grand scale, I love good characterization even more. Honestly, Onyesonwu is not an easy character to like, but she’s definitely an interesting character to follow.

The plot itself feels a little loose, though. Okorafor’s take on this mythology is less fantasy fiction and more magical realism, and though it’s not a particularly fair critique, I tend to lose patience with magical realism rather quickly. Putting that aside, though, there’s an odd vagueness that suffuses the entire story- the mystical elements of the book are described in very broad terms, and left largely unexplained. Despite the urgency of Onyesonwu’s quest, her path is meandering, and the stops along the way seem arbitrary. The book’s beginning is strong, and its ending is exciting and satisfying, but the connecting points in between lack something that I can’t quite put my finger on.

That doesn’t make for a bad read, though. Just one I wanted to like a little more than I did. The world Okorafor builds and the mythology she places within it are absolutely wonderful, and the characters are beautiful for all of their glaring, maddening flaws. There are some incredibly dark elements to the story, especially in the beginning; I’d recommend it primarily to adults and very mature young adults. But this is a great choice for fantasy or post-apocalyptic fans that want a break from the usual genre tropes.

Verdict: 3 / 5

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Comic Review - Astonishing X-Men Vol. 4: Unstoppable, by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday

I forgot how much I love the grandiose insanity of the X-Men series. The movies that mainstream audiences are familiar with never really get into the fact the X-Men spend so much time battling space aliens that they don’t really think much of it. This volume spends all of its time either on an alien planet (the Breakworld) or in space battles above it. It neatly wraps up Whedon’s run on the series, though I am glad I was familiar with the preceding volumes before reading these issues.

Whedon has a talent for weaving large story arcs. Most of the major plot points from the last three volumes (all of which felt decidedly standalone) are effortlessly connected in this last volume. The character work is still perfect, and Cassaday’s art is back to the high standard set in the first volume. His renditions of Kitty in particular were interesting; he continues drawing the distinctive features that began emerging on her in the last volume (which disoriented me a little, back then). The plot in this arc also gives him a lot of panels to really zoom in and draw her in intimate, emotive detail. The result is a character that looks a lot more like a living, breathing individual, rather than a stock brunette superhero (Whedon’s deft characterization and dialogue notwithstanding).

The story does seem to bulge a bit at the seams in a few places, mostly because there’s not enough room in the comic format to slot in all of the necessary exposition and connecting action. It’s hard to track exactly where everybody is at any given time- they’re on a ship! They’re on a planet! Back on a ship! Now on a moon, or something! Somebody’s gravely injured! Now they’re all back on the ship, somehow! There’s also a short sequence that brings together a lot of Earth’s superhero heavy hitters for no discernible reason other than to indulge in a couple of fun cameos.

Also, I’ve realized that Whedon has a very distinct writing style that I can easily recognize now that I have some experience with it. The clever bookends and writing tricks that are the hallmarks of his screenwriting are still evident here, which can be a little taxing in individual issues but are extremely effectual in a read-through volume. Also, in a few scenes, Kitty Pryde sounds an awful lot like Buffy Summers. I don’t have a huge problem with it, fanboy that I am, but it’s worth noting.

So, all told, this is a great conclusion to the Breakworld story. Even better, it continues the superhero soap-opera tradition of irresistible open-ended plot threads and cliffhanger endings. I wasn’t particularly planning to continue with the series after Whedon's run, but I don’t think I can help myself. I can’t just stop after that last page.

Verdict: 4 / 5