Saturday, September 29, 2012

Book Review - The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater

I was really afraid I was getting into a romance with this one. I’m a little romance-weary when it comes to teen lit, and I’m especially done with paranormal romance; I can happily live out the rest of my days without reading another book involving a girl’s forbidden interspecies love with a vampire, werewolf, ghost, zombie, angel, orc, mummy, leprechaun, or any other miscellaneous creature of the night. Stiefvater’s Mercy Falls series fits that bill, which is why I’ve never read any of her work until now. As it turns out, I’ve been doing myself a disservice. Stiefvater is an excellent writer, and this a taut and fantastic book.

The story of Raven Boys follows two distinct households. Blue Sargent has grown up in a loud and eccentric household of psychics in rural Henrietta, Virginia. She can’t see the future, but she seems to amplify the extrasensory powers of those around her. Ever since she was born, she has carried the burden of an ominous prophecy: if she ever kisses her true love, he will die. As a result, she’s carefully cultivated a veneer of solitary weirdness, content in her own eccentricity. Meanwhile, across town, Richard Gansey III continues a longstanding eccentricity of his own: hunting for the final resting place of the mythical Welsh king Glendower. He is a Raven Boy, one of the well-heeled princelings that attend the prestigious Aglionby Academy. He methodically searches for traces of old magic with three fellow students: surly Ronan, studious Adam, and inscrutable Noah. Blue is thrown in with this motley crew through a twist of fate: one of them may be the true love of her prophecy, and despite the warnings of her family, she can’t help but be drawn into their quest. However, they are not the first people to try and wake the magic that lays sleeping in Henrietta, and the stakes become much higher when others around them realize what they are doing.

The book defied pretty much every expectation I had of it. Instead of being a romance, it was an ensemble piece that deftly examines class differences and the profound effects that ripple out from broken family lives. There isn’t any hand-holding when it comes to the paranormal aspect of the book; the reader is dropped right into the quest for ley lines and ancient wish-granting kings, and catches up by way of fascinating little bits of expositional trivia. The characters are charming, realistic, and an absolute joy to read. The story is pretty grim overall, but the heavier moments are balanced by plenty of humorous interludes and by the surprisingly homey feel of Blue’s oddball family.

The ending is a bit problematic, as this is very clearly the first volume of a pending series. However, Stiefvater avoids the common trap of using a cliffhanger to hook the reader. She does paste on a last-minute reveal, but for whatever reason it didn’t really put me off. The climax is a bit vague, but the most urgent plotline is resolved nicely, and the reader is left with few wildly waving loose ends that lead enticingly into the next volume.

This book was exquisitely enjoyable, and a very impressive series opener. The story is odd enough that I have trouble recommending it for a specific group outside of “teens” or “paranormal fans,” but I honestly liked it from cover to cover. It’s definitely worth a try.

Verdict: 5 / 5

Friday, September 21, 2012

Comic Review - Fables: The Deluxe Edition Vol. 1, by Bill Willingham

I've run across various volumes and offshoots of this series for the past few years, and finally decided to buy this deluxe volume on a whim and dive in. As a rule, I'm generally careful of pantheon comics that come to me with universal acclaim; The Walking Dead and Buffy Season 8 have taught me that I will be disappointed if I expect too much. However, while Fables isn't quite perfect, it is really, really good.

The first story arc of this volume begins in The Woodland, a New York City high-rise that serves as a kingdom-in-exile for the inhabitants of every conceivable myth and fairy tale. Driven out of their respective storylands by a mysterious adversary, these "fables" are trying to make their way in the world of the "mundanes" by sticking together in their own little community, ruled by Old King Cole and administered by a considerably more world-wise Snow White. The suspected murder of someone close to Snow threatens to throw a tenously peaceful community into disarray, so she leans on reformed predator Bigby Wolf to solve the case.

The second arc deals with an upstate farm that houses the more anthropomorphic Fabletown denizens, hiding them away from the mundanes. The forced seclusion and loss of their ancestral lands have made the farm fables restless; murmurs of revolution roil at the farm, fomented by two of the three little pigs and encouraged by Goldilocks. Snow takes a trip to the farm in order to ease tensions, but is drawn into a sudden, violent coup that could mean chaos both there and in the city.

I don't know what I was expecting when I flew blind into this series, but fairy-tale characters acting out hardcase mystery and quasi-political intrigue were pleasant surprises. Willingham plays most of this stuff pretty straight, and while the result isn't anything that moves beyond the realm of what one usually sees in comics, it's still novel and downright fun enough to keep me turning pages. The artwork is top-notch, particularly the consistent character work. The visual style seems a little comic-retro, somehow; Snow White looks like a 1950s model, and it definitely adds the right visual feel.

My only complaint is that the plotlines, for all of their excitement, are a bit superficial. This is compounded by melodrama that pops up in odd places; dialogue will occasionally take a stilted turn, and characters will artfully cry for a panel or two and suddenly stop. The comic doesn't lack for grittiness in the appropriate places, but I think it gets a bit too airy (and not in the fairy-tale way) in a few others.

As I said, though, I don't expect any different from a decent comic, and Fables is much better than decent. It's a cleverly written, beautifully drawn diversion. I'm definitely sold on the second volume.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Book Review - Redshirts, by John Scalzi

After being underwhelmed but intrigued after reading Zoe’s Tale earlier this year, I’ve been meaning to start John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series from the beginning (I’ve even bought the whole series since then). Instead, I picked this book up on an impulse, after hearing so many good things about it. I vacillated for a while, wondering if maybe Redshirts is a little too smug for its own good. Overall, though, the book’s concept is strong and the story is legitimately exciting and often hilarious. Mild spoilers ahoy.

The title of the book refers to the random crew members on Star Trek (especially the original series) that you can tell aren’t going to make it past the second commercial break. You know what I’m talking about. When a routine away mission to perform an ostensibly boring task on a nondescript planet is revealed to be made up of Ensign Bob and three senior officers, at least one of whom should be on the bridge of the ship, it’s clear right away that things aren’t going to end well for Bob. The book uses this established truism to launch a transparent parody of sci-fi television tropes.

The story revolves around a group of fresh-faced Universal Union cadets, newly assigned to the UU flagship, the Intrepid. Once there, however, they quickly realize that something is amiss. The ship’s crew goes out of its way to dodge away-team duty, which has a consistent track record of random accidents and bizarre fatalities. The senior officers often act inexplicably strange, and people take every opportunity to dodge them. Even the laws of science tend to go a little weird on the Intrepid, from time to time. Investigating these odd occurrences leads to a crazy theory on what the Intrepid really is, and the newest redshirts embark on an equally crazy mission to possibly save themselves from an early, meaningless death.

Redshirts appeals to the same group of people who enjoyed the brilliant satirical movie Galaxy Quest: those who love science fiction television enough to poke fun at its glaring flaws. Scalzi uses metahumor for this purpose, to great effect. The first half of the book is packed with in-jokes, and the second half plows right through the fourth wall and makes a determined assault on the fifth. This element of the writing is consistently funny, but it also gave me pause in the first few chapters. Scalzi’s trademark wit in both narrative and dialogue is present here, and combined with the emphasis on metahumor, there were quite a few moments where I felt a little stir of annoyance even as I smiled. Golly gee, I would think to myself, isn’t this book just so goddamned clever. Look how clever you are.

The thing is, though, it really is clever. The concept never strays into being the one-trick pony it could easily be; Scalzi gets a lot of value out of the “we’re expendable” meme, but he deftly sets it up as an integral part of the plot, so it never feels tired. Instead of repeatedly going for the same joke, he layers a bunch of other metafictional elements on top of it. The result is a mishmash of gleefully absurd and unexpectedly somber moments that create a fast-paced, engaging story; in other words, a classic pulp science-fiction plot. I couldn’t put this book down, and since it’s pretty slim to begin with, I tore through it much quicker than most of the books I read.

It does have its problems, though. You may notice that I did not mention any specific characters in my synopsis above. That is because the main characters are largely indistinguishable from one another. The narrative of Redshirts is enormously reliant on dialogue, and Scalzi eschews any sort of physical description of the protagonists, except for mentioning that one of them is a woman. The hero, Andrew Dahl, has black hair in my mind’s eye, but I can’t remember if he’s written that way or if I just did it on my own to make him stand out. Anyway, this can be an effective writing tactic if the characters' voices are distinct, but all of the heroic redshirts (and a good number of the supporting characters) repeatedly fall back on the same sardonic wit for which the author himself is known. They all quickly started to bleed together, and that honestly made me care a bit less about them. One could argue that it’s another satirical reference, but it doesn’t feel that way.

The codas at the end of the book are the big payoff, and they are solidly written and emotionally powerful. They are also radically different in tone and format than the rest of the book, and while I wasn’t overly bothered by the shift in gear, I kind of wish all of that interesting, affecting stuff was somehow integrated into the main story.

All of those issues circle back to the general tongue-in-cheek tone, though, which taken as a whole is what makes the book work so well. There’s a genuinely gripping story and hints of existentialism hiding underneath the snark, too, which ensures that the book transcends mere parody. I can definitely see where it might lose some readers; hard science-fiction fans will probably be annoyed by the blurry, completely nonsensical plot mechanics that drive the last part of the story. I took my cue from the general tone of the book, though, and didn’t get bogged down in the details. This is quick read that has a lot of pathos lurking alongside its deft satire of genre tropes, and is required reading for anybody that has ever attended a sci-fi convention or can rattle off actual episode names of their favorite series. Also, it comes with a companion song from Jonathan Coulton, which only adds to its credibility.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Book Review - The Violinist's Thumb, by Sam Kean


Kean’s newest nonfiction book traces the history of DNA, from humankind’s earliest attempts to understand how life develops through to the implications of working with the recently unzipped human genome. There’s plenty of hard science that introduces the structure and inner workings of chromosomes, but the book is definitely written for the layperson.

Much like Mary Roach’s works, The Violinist’s Thumb is divided into thematic chapters that are composed of related vignettes that range from fascinating and tragic to offbeat and absurd. These vignettes tend to connect to and reference each other, due to the generally linear progression of scientific breakthroughs related to DNA. While the book doesn’t qualify as narrative nonfiction, I got a clear sense of a solid beginning, plenty of harrowing adventures in the middle, and an ambiguously open ending.

The stories in each section range far and wide in their subject matter, from mystery illnesses and scientific scandals to frog sex and microscopic sculptures. In short, it delivered everything I want from science nonfiction: plenty of offbeat curiosities and humorous asides to give context to complex, genuinely interesting scientific information. Kean writes simply and offers plenty of casual (and occasional acerbic) editorials, which occasionally come off as one-liners but still keep the more data-driven sections from seeming too much like a textbook.

There is enough simplification and use of weasel words to annoy readers who are already well-versed in the subject matter, but it’s absolutely perfect for someone like me: eternally interested in science, but not all that adept with the lingo or basic theory. After finishing this book, I’ve been casually perusing articles and videos on molecular biology, which says almost everything I need to about it. Thankfully, Kean includes a meaty reference list with plenty of suggestions for what to read next on the subject. As mentioned above, a few of the chapters may be a little hard to follow for people without a science background, but this is a must-read for anybody who has even a passing interest in what DNA is, how it works, and how our understanding of it has evolved and affected almost everything we do. There is more than enough compelling human drama in these pages to offset the strings of As, Cs, Gs, and Ts.

Verdict: 5 / 5