Tuesday, September 24, 2013

James A Moore “Seven Forges” (Angry Robot, 2013)

The setup for Seven Forges is straightforward. A retired soldier is hired to lead an exploratory expedition into the unmapped wilderness bordering an empire.  To his surprise he encounters members of a brutal theocracy.  Members of this society, the Sa’ba Taalor, are sent back to the Empire and the effects of this visit could change the world for everyone.

It’s difficult to evaluate Seven Forges because it reads like half a novel.  As the book ends, all important storylines are going full speed.  How can a reader evaluate the development of character, theme, etc when it is all willfully left until the second volume?  At the end of the book, character and world building both feel a bit under cooked.  Is this intentional?  Will there be significantly more in the next volume?  Your guess is as good as mine.

I will say that Moore does a great job controlling the information that we get about these strange people at the edge of the world.  The mystery of what exactly is going on with the Sa’ba Taalor is central to the book, so it feels intentional that we don’t know very much about them.  However, Moore slowly gives us information, some of which just raises more questions.

This sense of discovery and learning just exactly what is going on is central to what is enjoyable about Seven Forges.  Most of the time the reader doesn’t know any more than the characters from the Empire.  And as events start to get more complicated, we want to understand just what exactly is going on.  But Moore steadfastly refuses to answer all the questions, even as we start to puzzle out answers to a few.

If you are the sort of fantasy reader who enjoys super detailed lists and food descriptions, or elaborate magical systems, then this may be a frustrating read for you.  Seven Forges is not that kind of book.  I would encourage you to try to embrace the bloody mysteries of this world. 

Brian Azzarello & Cliff Chiang “Wonder Woman Vol. 3: Iron” (DC Comics, 2013)

Even though we’re two years into the reboot, I still hadn’t gotten around to reading any of the core titles of the new 52.  For me, it’s been all Batwoman, Dial H, and other titles not really integrated into the center of the DCU.  So I was excited to have an opportunity to read some of one of the “Big 3”.  After all, this should be one of their flagship titles, right?

The third volume of Azzarello’s Wonder Woman is deep in the midst of a story he’s been telling since he took over the title.  Without some help from the Wiki, I would have been totally lost.  The big maguffin in the story is the child of a woman named Zola.  Apparently the father is Zeus, and now everyone wants to kill the child.  Wonder Woman wants to protect the child, but first she has to find it.  There’s also a running plot about The First Child of Zeus, who has been buried under ice for thousands of years, but is freed and now has some vaguely evil plans that we are not told.

Anyway, there’s an awful lot going on plotwise, and yet it feels like nothing is really going on.  Wonder Woman runs around and interacts with a large number of gods & demigods trying to find the maguffin.  There’s lots of not particularly exciting fighting, and in the end the plot(s) don’t really seem to progress at all.

Overall the story is almost hard to evaluate.  So much of what happens in this book is ultimately inconsequential.  And to have a story running over three trades with so little progression since the beginning?  Maybe it will work out…. But the payoff better be very good with so much buildup.  All the meandering plotting is made worse by the fact that there are so many characters that are woefully underdeveloped.   The only real character development I read was a consistent snarky bitchy tone that seemed to be employed by almost all the characters.

Now I know that there is a lot of support for Cliff Chiang’s art.  As far as I know, this is the first time that I’ve read a book that he’s done.  It was strongest in the sequences with the First Child.  These bits were a simple “barbarian in the modern world” set among ice flows and fighting sea monsters.  His style seemed to be best suited for these pure fantasy/horror bits, and significantly weaker when portraying more standard superhero fare.

There were a couple of specific things are have really stuck in my craw after reading this trade.  Wonder Woman flies into the Middle East, interrupting a small battle.  She does her thing, deflecting all the rounds that are shot at her.  Later, she’s leading a small child into the presumed safety of an ancient underground temple (because we know *that* never turns out bad, right?).  Wonder Woman has promised to protect the child.  When a sudden storm of butcher knives appears, Wonder Woman somehow FAILS to deflect one (apparently they’re harder to block than the high velocity rounds she was knocking around moments before), and the child DIES.  (OK, it’s later revealed that it wasn’t really a child after all, but do we really need to see an image of Wonder Woman failing to save a child?  Is this what DC heroes are about now?)

Later there’s an appearance by Orion of the New Gods.  He’s sent to Earth because they’ve detected a “grave danger” to the Source.  Now apparently the new Orion is actually some kind of super-bro, because he’s all “no problem, I’ll kill it.”  He gets mixed up in the storyline and spends his time making sexist statements, hitting Wonder Woman on the ass, and talking about how he’s going to kill the maguffin.  What are they thinking?  Do they think that the people who are interested in reading a Wonder Woman book want to read about a superbro?  The only way to make this work is to use that characterization to generate heel heat, but Orion is never portrayed as a villain.  

Additionally, this portrayal shows such a lack of understanding of the whole Fourth World mythos as to be ridiculous.  Orion may be the son of Darkseid, but he’s always fighting against his darkness.  He wants to avoid all of that, and not be like his father.  And the All Father, representing the opposite of Darkseid, would not order the death of a child.  That’s just blatant disregard for all of Kirby’s work on this mythos.

Eventually I felt like this book was like a bad burrito:  I tasted it for days afterward.  Just when I thought I had moved on, I’d burp up another taste.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Kim Stanley Robinson "Shaman" (Orbit, 2013)

If I were to try to create some kind of thematic key to the many books of Kim Stanley Robinson, nature would be high on the list.  He’s always been fascinated with the natural world, whether it is the artificial landscape of an orbiting habitat, the wonders of other planets in our solar system, or the Earth itself.  Shaman gives him a chance to explore the wonders of prehistoric Earth.

The plot itself is slight.  Shaman is a coming of age story for Loon, a shaman’s apprentice during the Ice Age.  But the plot is just a frame work for Robinson’s real concern:  what was life like during the Ice Age?

With that in mind, Robinson crafts an immersive world, where we are following Loon as he goes through the rhythms of life.  Loon’s world is as terrifying as it is wonderful.  For every spectacular vista or view, there are dangerous predators or Neanderthals. 

This immersive experience is the real draw here.  The lack of a propulsive story means that the book doesn’t move quickly.  Just as Loon lives to rhythms that are slower than the modern world, so to this book demands a slower read that simply is content to exist in the past that Robinson has crafted.  This isn’t an experience that will appeal to all readers.  But for those that have felt the lure of the Wild, this is an unforgettable experience.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Chris Roberson & Denis Calero "Masks" (Dynamite, 2013)

You don’t have to read comics very long before you come across an example of the team-up story.  The basic setup is simple:  there’s a threat that is more than any of the heroes can handle separately, so they have to overcome their differences and band together to defeat the enemy.  

Roberson sticks to the template, but that’s OK.  The formula works.  And ultimately what you want to see is this large group of pulp age heroes working together, right?  His setup is simple.  After elections, New York State is now run by a new party – the Justice Party.  Of course this party is crooked, and their idea of “justice” is oppression and legalized robbery.  And the party plan to take their agenda national.  But the law is on their side, and they have plenty of gun toting thugs, so a large group of heroes work together to put an end to their machinations.

Roberson has a lot on his plate here.  There’s a fairly large cast in play – The Shadow, The Green Hornet, The Green Lama, The Spider, Miss Fury, Black Terror, Zorro, and the Black Bat plus their sidekicks.  He’s got to do some world building, while making the plot accessible.  It’s easier said than done, and Roberson’s results seem to be mixed.  The plotting is very effective.  He creates a story that is big enough to need all of these heroes, yet still easily comprehensible and fitting into the world he’s created.  With the characters he is less successful.  Roberson seems to be operating on the assumption that readers are familiar with all these characters.  I can’t speak for everyone, but my familiarity was limited to just a few of the high profile characters (Shadow, Green Hornet, and Zorro).  I still don’t have a grasp on which these other people were.  To make matters worse, the characterizations feel a bit shallow—everyone talks and looks basically the same.  At times the dialogue seemed a bit too contemporary for a story set in 1938.

Dennis Calero does a fine job with the art in each issue.  His realistic style is extremely compatible with the Alex Ross covers, adding a certain continuity to the visuals.  At times things did appear murky, but I think that is inescapable given so many black clad characters operating in darkness or shadow.

Despite these misgivings I found Masks to be a very enjoyable read.  It was fun to journey back in time with these precursors to modern superheroes. 

Frankie Y Bailey "The Red Queen Dies" (Minotaur, 2013)

Albany New York, 2019:  Police are finding bodies of young women.  With the third death, the police think there’s a serial killer involved.  Detective Hannah McCabe is the lead on the investigation, as the police work to find connections between the victims and stop the killer before there are more deaths.

For reasons that escape me, Bailey has decided to set this story in the near future of an alternate universe.  This universe is nearly identical to ours.  But Dewey did beat Truman, and Elvis retired in 2000. And this University of Albany has a graduate program in theatre.  Based on the author’s afterword, it seems that she used an alternate universe as a CYA for the technology used in her future scenario.  But even then, the changes are subtle and seemed totally extraneous to the story itself.  Police weaponry is slightly different, with use of nonlethal technology that is currently primarily military.  Cars are slightly different, and people use the internet differently.  Cell phones don’t seem to be used, people use something called ORBs.  Except that ORBs don’t seem to be that different from my iphone – they just actually use the facetime feature.  So why bother with the SFnal elements at all?  None of them are actually relevant to the crime or its solution.

There are quite a few story elements that are either setups for future volumes in the series, or simply left hanging.  The “lullaby” drug heavily hyped in the promotional material – it does not matter at all.  A strange interlude where we learn that McCabe is having some sort of romantic relationship – we don’t know the identity of the other party in the relationship, but don’t worry about it because it doesn’t affect the story in any way.  Now I have not read any other books by Bailey, so I give her the benefit of the doubt & assume that these elements (& some others which I haven’t mentioned) are included for future volumes of the series.  If that is indeed the case, why is there so much of this material?  My subjective sense is that this fairly short novel contains perhaps a third filler material for future use.  That seems a bit excessive.

As a standard police procedural, The Red Queen Dies feels a bit bland.  The protagonist, Hannah McCabe, is professional and competent, but doesn’t seem to have any defining personal traits.  The other police officers –including her partner—seem rather interchangeable.  The Alice in Wonderland elements are there, but just a bit of background color, and ultimately not of any significance.

While I enjoyed reading The Red Queen Dies, I have the feeling that in a week I won’t even remember that I read this book.  It’s not that there was anything bad here, just nothing very memorable.