BOOK REVIEW: The Dreaming, Vol. 1: Pathways & Emanations by Simon Spurrier

Pathways and Emanations (The Dreaming, #1)Pathways and Emanations by Simon Spurrier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This title is part of the “Sandman extended universe” that was spurred by the success of Neil Gaiman’s comic about the lord of dream realm –“the Dreaming” being said realm of dreams and nightmares. The Dreaming is usually presided over by Dream of the Endless, one of seven siblings commanding various domains. In this story, Dream is gone, no one knows where. Readers of Sandman will remember that in the original run Dream is kidnapped and imprisoned for 70 years. This isn’t the same disappearance (it’s not even the same “Dream,” but as he’s not a major figure in this book, there’s no need to elaborate.) While this may seem like a rehash, the Sandman story was focused on the character of Dream and mostly took place in our world, occasionally visiting the Dreaming as relevant to Dream’s story. This story is all about what happens within the Dreaming when the master is away, allowing decay, internal treachery, and the potential for invasion.

The story heavily focuses on three characters: Lucien, Mervyn, and Dora. One of the things this story does well is to build a tension between Lucien and Mervyn, a tension that is relatable and contributes substantially to the turmoil within the story. Lucien is ordinarily the librarian, and he’s a scholarly fellow who is an excellent librarian but is in over his head running the Dreaming (especially as he’s trying to keep it a secret that Dream has vanished so as to avoid panic or invite attacks.) Mervyn (Pumpkin-head) is like the head of maintenance, a blue-collar stiff who doesn’t know Dream is gone and thinks Lucien is making a powerplay and has bitten off more than he can chew. Dora is a mysterious rogue of a character who we don’t know much about other than that she’s not from the Dreaming (but lives there with Dream’s permission,) she’s quite powerful, and she does her own thing — which often runs her afoul of the staff of the Dreaming.

I felt this volume offered an entertaining story and resolved it nicely, while setting up for continued chaos in additional volumes. If you enjoyed the Sandman comics, this book is definitely worth a read.


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BOOK REVIEW: Step by Bloody Step, Vol. 1 by Simon Spurrier

Step By Bloody StepStep By Bloody Step by Simon Spurrier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release date: August 30, 2022

This is the story of a young girl who goes on journey through a wondrous – and often perilous – exotic land with only the company of her giant knightly protector. The early part of the book involves this odd couple confronting various threats as they engage in their quest, but then they arrive in a fantastical realm, running up against their most dire threat yet — humanity.

This fantasy quest / adventure graphic novel is presented almost entirely without words. Each section is begun with a few poetically vague lines, but otherwise it’s entirely pictorial. The question is whether it works, or is like watching a movie with the sound and subtitles turned off – i.e. confusing and frustrating. The answer is complicated. For one thing, the part of the book where it’s just the girl and the giant works quite well because there aren’t a lot of characters to confuse or complex actions to grasp. However, this limits the story to a series of random unfortunate events. From the part where they arrive at civilization, it becomes less easily comprehended. There’s a lot of potential for: “Who is that, and why are they doing that?” And the conclusion has some complex story elements that are hard to comprehend without textual cues.

For another thing, it really depends on how attached one is as a reader to grasping what the author intended. If one is highly attached, one will probably spend a fair amount of time flipping back and forth and it will become an exercise in frustration as one tries to decipher meaning. If you don’t have such hang-ups – i.e. you see the act of reading as interpretative and believe all you need to do is let your brain make sense of the story (as it might in a dream — ) then it can be great fun. I came down on the latter side.

The artwork is imaginative and the “reading” process fascinating. If you’re game for a wordless story, you may want to check this one out.


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BOOK REVIEW: Dwellers by Eliza Victoria

Dwellers: A Novel: Winner of the Philippine National Book AwardDwellers: A Novel: Winner of the Philippine National Book Award by Eliza Victoria
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: August 16, 2022

This well-crafted tragedy features a form of magic handed down within a family that allows one to shift one’s consciousness into to the body of another, though this bodily colonization kills the original owner. While it might seem like just another sci-fi / fantasy plot device designed to make for an interesting adventure, the book conveys lessons about the discontentment and the inability to escape oneself. It’s also worth noting that despite its speculative fiction / fantasy gimmickry, the story is also a taut drama of family dysfunction.

The narrative isn’t linear, and this allows the story to begin in medias res, with the protagonist / narrator finding himself in the fire after having leapt from the proverbial frying pan. Two crucial mysteries are solved over the course of the book. The first mystery is why two young men would jump into new bodies, apparently with such urgency as to not realize the bodies they were taking possession of belonged to people whose lives were a horrifying mess. The other mystery is why those lives were such a mess in the first place.

I found this story intriguing and it kept me reading with an interest in discovering the base truth. The book’s beginning is a bit disorienting because all one knows is that the two characters living in the house aren’t it’s rightful owners, but rather mental settlers of unknown identity who’ve taken possession of the occupants’ bodies, and — speaking of bodies – there’s a mystery corpse in the basement freezer. The body in the freezer is both an excellent hook, and also the means to create a pause in any reader who might tend to think, “if I could, I’d definitely change bodies.” Despite the nonlinearity and the snarl of characters within the bodies of other characters, the book is readable; i.e. it’s not as challenging to follow the thread of plot as it often is in books with such narrative complications.

If you enjoy philosophical speculative fiction, this book is well worth looking into.

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BOOK REVIEW: He Who Fights With Monsters by Francesco Artibani

He Who Fights With MonstersHe Who Fights With Monsters by Francesco Artibani
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release date: August, 30, 2022

This graphic novel tells a story featuring the Prague Golem, a mighty protector figure from Judaic folklore – formed of clay and breathed to life by magic words. The setting is Nazi-occupied Prague, and the golem is brought to life after a great period of dormancy, having been stored in the rafters of a synagogue, in order to once more act as protector to the Jewish people.

It’s a gripping tale of wartime resistance, but with a flat ending. However, I’m not sure it could have concluded in a satisfying way. That’s the challenge of writing a story of a superhero versus Nazis. The Holocaust is such a colossal tragedy that to rewrite the it resets the book into some alternate reality fantasyland, striking a raw nerve and killing any poignancy in the process.

The artwork is skillfully rendered and captures the grim nature of a city under fascist occupation quite well.

I enjoyed the story, despite not really knowing how to process the ending. Maybe that’s the point, that one can’t turn such mindless brutality into a storybook satisfying ending [by satisfying I don’t mean happy, but rather concluded in the definitive and intrinsically reasonable – if horrifying – way of tragedies.] Still, one is left wondering about apparent changes in character motivation and whether they make any sense — because they don’t feel like they do.

If you’re intrigued by a historical fiction / fantasy mashup set in Prague during the Second World War, check this book out, but expect to be left in an uneasy space at the end.


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BOOK REVIEW: Bolero by Wyatt Kennedy

BoleroBolero by Wyatt Kennedy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Release date: August 2, 2022

This speculative fiction graphic novel follows a struggling millennial, Devyn Dagny, as she leaps through parallel universes in search of a better life. This plot device, being presented with a key that allows one to escape one’s current world and try others on for size, is a brilliant way to show that one can’t fix one’s life by changing one’s scenery — one has to change one’s self. Otherwise, attempts to escape are just exercises in Einsteinian insanity (i.e. doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.)

Unfortunately, I didn’t feel this was the lesson conveyed. It seemed like the lesson in question was that it’s impossible to escape one’s history and that world-hopping in the hope that some external environment will align to make everything perfect is a valid approach. In the back-matter there’s a line written by the book’s artist (Luana Vecchio) that says, “Most of our traumas come from our parents.” That philosophy explains the story arc without character growth. Nothing is my fault, everything is my parents’ fault — ergo, I’ll forever be broken unless someone else can come along and make everything alright for me.

I will admit that I might have missed the intended point of the story because the book reads chaotically. It’s not so much the jumps between parallel worlds, but jumps around in time and in relationships.

The art was nicely drawn. There may have been palette changes to distinguish different times and / or worlds, but besides the red of the interdimensional space, I couldn’t keep them straight – i.e. there were either too many different palettes or they lacked distinction. Am I in a flashback, a flashforward, and alternate dimension? I couldn’t always tell.

I have mixed feelings about this one. Some will love it and others will find it frustrating. The premise and much of the execution was splendid, but the helter-skelter feel and missed opportunities for character development and growth resulted in a dissatisfaction.


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BOOK REVIEW: Darryl Openworld by Rémi Guérin

Darryl OpenworldDarryl Openworld by Oliver Peru
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Out: July 26, 2022

This fantasy comic book is set in a multiverse where journalists are rock stars, and none more so than the protagonist, Darryl Openworld. It combines high and low fantasy (moving between created / fantastical worlds and our own world – the latter being called the gray world.) It’s Darryl’s quest to solve the mystery of a series of improbable events so that he can get his story, doing so with an entourage of living and dead, human and fairy, and a magician and a magic bird.

At the broad-brush level, the story is interesting and coherent. It’s got the makings of a fine quest adventure with a love triangle on the side. However, when it came to the story details, it was clunky. The biggest problem was a lack of emotional resonance tied to a lack of pacing, a lack of ebb and flow. I found myself on several occasions thinking, “Why is this person being so emotional right now?” I think the author was trying to establish every moment as fraught to the max by showing the characters as being emotional, and because no story can sustain every moment being at max stakes, it just feels like overacting (or that the characters have low emotional IQ, which doesn’t jibe with what we’re told about them – especially not our iron-willed protagonist.)

The art is beautiful and creates a distinct otherworldliness of the other worlds. The one criticism I would present is that many characters had a similar androgenous appearance (including some of the main characters) and it wasn’t always instantly clear who was who.

The book has some unique features going for it. It’s nice to imagine a world in which journalism hasn’t crashed and burned, and where it’s still a respectable profession. But in the end, it wasn’t my cup of tea. Your results might vary. While there were a few small story problems, the bulk of what felt off about it boiled down to feeling like they were trying to keep the emotion dialed to eleven, but that just compressed the emotional arc of the book.


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BOOK REVIEW: Doctor Strange: Surgeon Supreme, Vol 1: Under the Knife by Mark Waid

Dr. Strange, Surgeon Supreme Vol. 1: Under the KnifeDr. Strange, Surgeon Supreme Vol. 1: Under the Knife by Mark Waid
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Those who know the character of Doctor Strange from either the comics or the movies know that his backstory is as an arrogant – but brilliant – surgeon whose hands are badly damaged in an accident. In his far-flung search for a cure, he stumbles onto the realm of magic and ends up making a career change from surgeon to sorcerer. The premise of this volume is that Strange’s hands are cured and he precariously divvies up his time between the demanding jobs of neurosurgeon and Sorcerer Supreme.

The plot of this six-issue arc revolves around a theft from Strange’s own estate, a theft which grants his unknown enemy and her known henchmen the power to give the Sorcerer Supreme a run for his money, magically speaking. The shift to a two-hat wearing Stephen Strange facilitates him being none-the-wiser about the magically powerful weapons being deployed against him coming from his own forge. It also creates a series of tense periods during which he’s simultaneously urgently needed in the magic and material worlds.

I felt the volume did a good job of building up to a face-off with the big bad while making each issue a worthwhile standalone story. There are false flags and other mechanisms to keep one guessing about how the story will unfold. Some of the issues were more gripping and creative than others. The most brilliant, in my opinion, was the issue three battle in a tattoo realm to which the tattoos of humans – including one of Strange’s patients – drain said individuals’ life-forces. That issue most captured the psychedelic bizarrity that makes Doctor Strange comics so splendidly clever, unique, and enjoyable to read. The concluding story / resolution was also compelling.

I enjoyed this volume and would recommend it for fans of Doctor Strange.


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BOOK REVIEW: Doctor Strange: The Oath by Brian K. Vaughan

Doctor Strange: The OathDoctor Strange: The Oath by Brian K. Vaughan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The story begins with Doctor Strange being hauled into the office of the “Night Nurse,” a doctor (misclassified because of Marvel’s great love of alliteration) who treats superheroes off the books and at all hours. Stephen Strange has been shot in the chest by a burglar, Brigand, who proves more capable than your average thief in the night. The drama is all over a potion. It turns out that said potion is intended to treat Wong (Strange’s valet, ally, and martial arts instructor) who is in advanced stages of cancer. However, there’s more to the potion than Strange realizes. This five-issue arc is a race against the clock to get the potion before Wong succumbs to his disease, but there are those who want nothing more than to keep the potion out of Strange’s hands.

Marvel fans will likely be familiar with the “Thanos was Right” movement, a group of fans who propose that in the last phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thanos wasn’t really a villain but was, rather, doing what needed to be done. This book plays similarly with ambiguity of villainy, asking the question “would a panacea really be good for mankind?” I enjoy such approaches to story in which its far from obvious who is right, making it completely believable that the story’s villain could see themselves as the hero (not to mention some of the readers seeing them that way.) Virtuous villains and heroes who make tragically bad decisions are one thing that Marvel does right both in the comics and the movies.

This book offers an intriguing story. It’s thought-provoking, though not the kind of trippy, surreal tale that many are looking for when they turn to Doctor Strange comics. It revisits Strange’s origin story, but just in enough detail to provide backstory for an important character. It’s a must-read for fans of Doctor Strange.


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BOOK REVIEW: Cross to Bear by Marko Stojanović 

Cross to BearCross to Bear by Marko Stojanović
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: July 5, 2022

This Western-Dark Fantasy hybrid tells the story of two men who fled the Old World, seeking anonymity in the American West, two men whose stories tragically intersect. The protagonist is a battle-weary ex-killer for the enforcement arm of a secret society. It’s a twist on the clichéd “man-of-violence who walks away from it all only to be drawn back.” The other immigrant to the West is none other than Jack the Ripper.

I thought the author built a clever story that both drew heavily on the conventions of the Western, but with some atypical elements to give it a unique flavor. While the story draws on the clichés of the genre, by telling it slant they aren’t quite as blinding. The story builds emotional resonance and feels unique despite the fact that the components of the mashup are familiar.

I only felt one clunker in the story, a point during which the protagonist tells another man that he should keep in mind that the protagonist’s son is a Lord and, therefore, is this other man’s better. This would make an American LAUGH and LAUGH. I’m not saying that promise of equality embedded in the American mythos worked out for everyone, but the idea that this deputy would find claims to aristocracy a meaningful basis of superiority (and that the protagonist wouldn’t know better than to say it, having lived there as long as he did) seem unbelievable.

If you like Westerns and cross-genre comics, you’ll probably find this one to be a compelling read.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Dark Room by Gerry Duggan

The Dark RoomThe Dark Room by Gerry Duggan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: June 29, 2022

The MacGuffin of this dark fantasy story is a camera that shows scenes not as they appear to the photographer, but in a way that reflects the blessings or curses of the photographic subject. There’s a demon looking for the camera, and he’s focused his search on Dounia, proprietress of a cabinet of curiosity style collection of usual objects. Dounia is a plucky young woman who’s well-connected within the supernatural community.

The setting of the story is a New York that’s a bit like the London of Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere” book, which is to say normal on the surface but overlapped with a city of mythic and magic beings.

The art is clearly drawn and uses color boldly, particularly given the ghastly subject matter. Different color palettes are used for different realms, and the cast does move around among the homes of folkloric and fantastical beings. I liked the color and don’t think it detracted from the macabre content, and – it should be noted – that the tone always retains a level of humor and lightheartedness.

I enjoyed reading this comic, and thought the art was skillfully rendered. If you’re interested in dark fantasy graphic novels, you might want to give it a look.

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