BOOK REVIEW: Inkblot, Vol. 1 by Emma Kubert & Rusty Gladd

Inkblot, Vol. 1Inkblot, Vol. 1 by Emma Kubert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

Out: April 7, 2021

 

A sorceress, Seeker, spills an inkpot into some magic and accidently conjures a cat-ish being that can portal through space, time, and the boundaries of alternate dimensions. Said creature, Inkblot, has adventures by way of said spatial, temporal, and interdimensional travels, finding itself in the midst of battles with dragons, mutineers, a Sphinx, and sundry monsters. It’s a little like Forrest Gump, but with a cat stumbling through historic moments in a magic & dragons fantasy realm.

This volume makes for a cute reading experience, which – I suspect – is what the authors were going for. As anything more than lighthearted entertainment, it suffers problems of story. The most notable problem is that Inkblot is the only character whose story cuts across all six issues, and as a protagonist the cat lacks motivation, emotional experience, or agency. Inkblot is adorably drawn with huge eyes and little else by way of discernable features beyond its cat-like body, but its emotional range is Mark Wahlberg-esque. Arguably, the true protagonist is the cat’s creator, Seeker, but she is not a major player through much of the arc. Which speaks to a second issue, and that’s that issues two and three feel a bit random and disconnected. Both are fine issue level adventures, but they don’t seem to advance the overall story.

If you’re looking for a cute and very lighthearted read, you may want to check this one out. It’s drawn in a vibrant and whimsical fashion and is written to take one’s mind off pandemic woes.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Dark One, Vol. 1 by Brandon Sanderson

Dark One Vol. 1Dark One Vol. 1 by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

Out: May 5, 2021

 

This Fantasy graphic novel tells the story of a young man, Paul, who is in therapy for mental health issues, in our world (or an indistinguishable facsimile of it,) that is. However, it seems that the most pressing of Paul’s symptoms, hallucinations, result from bleed over from an alternate reality, a world called Mirandus. Mirandus is a quintessential Fantasy genre world with kings and castles, magic and monsters, and feudalism and fierce warriors. While the artists and writer take efforts to present a unique rendering of a Fantasy realm, in a way it’s a clear-cut and emblematic example, with – literally – forces of light arrayed against forces of darkness.

Mirandus is governed by something called “The Narrative.” I couldn’t decide whether that was too on-the-nose for a storybook world, or whether it was a clever way of hinting at the true nature of this alternate reality. (There are a number of other elements that make blatant the storybook qualities of Mirandus.) Whether it’s too on-the-nose or not depends on how one sees what is going on in the story. I mentioned the straightforward interpretation of the story – i.e. Paul thinks he’s mentally ill but then he’s drawn into another realm, one in which his symptoms are shown to have been a ghostly other-realm visitor, as well as repressed memories and general confusion. That’s the interpretation of the story that seems to be meant to achieve traction with readers, at least there are a lot of little pieces of supporting evidence for it. There are other ways of interpreting this scripted storybook world.

An alternative that one might consider is that Paul has had a full-blown psychotic breakdown and the events in Mirandus are a much more intense kind of hallucination as Paul works through the throes of flipping out. This interpretation doesn’t work as smoothly [but, it shouldn’t.] It leaves many questions unanswered while those of the main interpretation are reconciled by the narrative as we see it. Paul’s mind would definitely be working overtime to do things like build a backstory for the sister he’s been hallucinating. However, the explicitly storybook quality of Mirandus makes it feel more likely that it would be made up by a Fantasy reader than that it’s a real world that is the quintessence of a gritty fairy tale. [It’s worth noting that the [unlikely] psychotic break interpretation would be necessarily messier as the narration becomes unreliable and all clarity is lost.]

The story has a lot to say about fate and destiny, and the degree to which those concepts reflect reality.

I found the art to be easy to follow and nice looking. As I said, it walks a line between the novel and the familiar quite well. The “hallucinations” are very clearly differentiated from the real-world action. The sibling dynamic between Paul and his ethereal sister is nicely portrayed – even though he has no childhood memories of her through most of the story.

There is a sub-plot involving the main character’s mother, a lawyer who is defending a serial killer, a man who is not what he seems. However, this subplot is meant to set up continued action through the subsequent volumes. While the subplot generates some intense moments and intrigue, it does not pay off in this volume as a story (i.e. having a climax and resolution.) That said, I liked that the main plot does pay off. We know from the “Volume 1” subtitle that this will be a serialized story, and so it’s certainly necessary to have some continuing intrigue. However, too often, serialization means that one is given a tiny speedbump or a big cliffhanger in lieu of a proper resolution. This book did resolve the main storyline. [Thus, avoiding running afoul of my firm policy about never continuing a series – multi-volume book or multi-season tv – that doesn’t resolve in the volume (or season) under review – if they don’t do it in a given volume / season, how likely are they to do so in the end? Not very, I feel.]

I enjoyed this story. If the set-up intrigues you, it’s definitely worth giving a read.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Neil Gaiman Library, Vol. 3 by Neil Gaiman

The Neil Gaiman Library Volume 3The Neil Gaiman Library Volume 3 by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

Out: June 1, 2021

 

This series collects short fiction of Neil Gaiman and presents it via the medium of the graphic novel. While there are four works listed, because two of these works contain multiple stories, there are actually eight stories contained in this volume. The selection is diverse both in terms of genre and artistic style. With respect to genre, the stories cut across fairy tale, fantasy, horror, supernatural, and tales of the weird. The artistic styles range from art nouveau to comic strip style. While this is the third volume, the included stories all stand on their own, and so there is no necessity to have read previous volumes. Because Gaiman draws heavily on fairy tale source material, parents might assume these are kid-friendly stories, but you should check them out first yourself as “Snow, Glass, Apples” and “The Daughter of Owls” both present somewhat sexually explicit content (the former both graphically and with respect to story events and the latter only with respect to story,) and while the horror stories are pretty calm as horror stories go, they are still works of horror.

“Snow, Glass, Apples” is a dark take on the princess-centric fairy tale. It imagines a vampiric young nymph who appears as challenger to the Queen. This is probably the most visually impressive work, being illustrated in a style that mixes art nouveau with Harry Clark’s stain glass artworks. It is definitely not the run-of-the mill graphic novel, graphically speaking. The art is exceptionally detailed and stunning.

“The Problem with Susan and Other Stories”: As the title suggests, this is one of the two multi-story entries in the collection. The titular main story features a retired Professor who is plagued by Narnia-like dreams, and who receives a visit from a reporter for a college paper. The art for this one is much more reminiscent of the typical graphic novel of today. There are three other stories included. “Locks,” the comic strip-esque illustrated story, is a take on “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” as it’s being told to – and imagined by – a little girl. “October in the Chair” imagines a kind of story competition taking place around a campfire by anthropomorphized “months.” It’s a bit more artistically rendered than the other stories in this [sub-] collection (although that may have to do with the dark tone that is used to reinforce that the stories are being told in the middle of the night in the middle of a woods.) The final story is a brief, but artistically dense, story that imagines a day in which everything goes wrong at once.

The sixth story, “Only the End of the World Again,” revolves around a man / werewolf who wakes up to find that he has clearly turned in the preceding night. The tale is set in a small and remote village, where everyone seems to know everything about everyone, and it doesn’t shock the man when select people let slip that they know his secret. As the story unfolds, it’s clear that the man / werewolf is caught up in something bigger than his own tragedy.

The last entry is a two-parter. The first is one of my favorite Neil Gaiman short stories; entitled, “The Price,” it offers an answer to the question of why some indoor / outdoor cats constantly come home battered and bleeding. The second story, “The Daughter of Owls,” revolves around “the baby left on the church steps” plot mechanism. Because the girl is enveloped in owl accoutrements, she is shunned by the village and forced into exile at a dilapidated former abbey. Both of these stories have a more brush-painted style that the usual graphic novel.

I enjoyed this collection immensely. While not all of the stories were new to me, the way they were illustrated shone a new light on the familiar tales. All of the stories are masterfully crafted and illustrated. While Gaiman draws heavily on well-known fairy tales, there is nothing banal about these stories. I’d highly recommend this book, even if you’ve read some of the stories already.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis

The Magician's Nephew (Chronicles of Narnia, #1)The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

Controversy swirls around this kid-friendly fantasy novel, a controversy not dissimilar to that which plays out among diehard “Star Wars” fans. This book was the sixth of seven books to be written by Lewis as part of what became “The Chronicles of Narnia,” but it’s a prequel that describes the creation of Narnia. Therefore, some people claim that it must be read first because it shows the dawn of the alternate world on which the rest of the series is based. Others, however, insist that the books should be read in the order written, i.e. beginning with “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” [Lest one think one is offending the author’s sensibilities by reading this one first, it should be pointed out that Lewis, himself, said he had no intention of writing more than the first volume when he started, and – therefore — it’s not as though reading this one first is an assault on his plans.] While I have no dog in the fight, per se, this is the first book of this series that I’ve read. I intend to read “Lion / Witch / Wardrobe” at some point, as it is one of the most popular books in the series. [After that, we’ll see; I’m not a huge fan of series books.]

The titular nephew is a boy whose mother is ill and his father is working in India, and, therefore, the boy and his sick mom are living with an aunt and uncle. Soon after Digory meets the next-door-neighbor girl, Polly, who will be his partner in adventure, the young explorers accidentally stumble into the uncle’s office / laboratory. The uncle is what Christopher Booker calls a “Dark Father-figure / Tyrant” – i.e. he is a manipulative and cowardly old man who uses others recklessly to his own advantage. In the case of Digory and Polly, he tricks the girl into donning a ring that will send her into a parallel universe, and then he manipulates Digory into going after her so that he can get a report in order to learn what is on the other side (The rings come in pairs and she has no “return ring.”) [Note: for the adult reader — and even many older and / or more sophisticated young readers – the weakest part of this book is the fact that the uncle was able to create these rings when it’s clear he doesn’t even know how they work. This element requires one to check one’s credulity at the door, and just accept the answer is “magic.” It is, after all, a kid’s book.]

The ring transports the dynamic duo to a forest that serves as a transshipment station between worlds. It is a quiet and peaceful place. Once Digory follows Polly through, the natural question arises as to whether they should go straight back home or check out one of the other worlds. They decide to go into another world to see what it’s like. One of the prevailing themes of this book is the very Biblical question of how one confronts temptation. When they get to the parallel world, they find that its inhabitants have been frozen by some sort of magic. The first [major] temptation of the book regards whether they should ring a bell, an action that will have unknown consequences. In a switch on the Bible story, this time the girl is the voice of reason who urges against temptation, while Digory is quite insistent and – ultimately — gets his way. This unfreezes the world, waking up a beautiful “queen” who turns out to be a witch and completing a collapse of the city that the freezing had interrupted. When Digory and Polly escape back to the forest, they unwittingly bring the Witch along with them, and – even worse – she manages to follow them back to their world.

While the Witch doesn’t retain all her magical powers on Earth, she is quite strong and does manage to create quite a ruckus. Realizing he is responsible for the mayhem, Digory realizes he must get rid of the Witch. In the process of trying to get the Witch back to her own world, Digory, Polly, the magician / uncle, a cabman, and the cabman’s horse are pulled into a different alternate world, a world where Aslan, the lion, is in the process of creating Narnia. The Witch escapes off to do mischief, happy to be back in a place of magic. In Narnia, some of the animals are of an intelligent / talking variety, and – as it happens – this includes the cabman’s horse, Fledge.

Digory believes that Narnia, being a magical place, might have something that can save his ill mother. While he tries to get Aslan to give him some such magical medicine, what Aslan actually gives him is an opportunity for redemption, a chance to again face temptation and to decide whether he will do the right thing. This opportunity involves Digory, Polly, and Fledge going on a mission for a magical MacGuffin, a mission that ultimately, Digory – alone — can complete.

I read an illustrated version of this book. The illustrations might be nice for reading to children, though they didn’t add a lot for adult readers, and were fairly sparsely placed throughout the story.

If one can get past the implausibility of the uncle – who is a bit of a doofus – creating these high-powered magic rings that allow trans-dimensional travel, a power beyond that of the Witch who is shown to be in all ways more advanced than the uncle with respect to magic (except, with regards to the rings,) then the rest of the story is reasonably sound for a fantasy novel. I found the book to be engaging and worth reading. As I said, I can’t say whether it is better to read this volume first or sixth, but it does read as a standalone story.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Neil Gaiman Library, Vol. 2 by Neil Gaiman

The Neil Gaiman Library Volume 2The Neil Gaiman Library Volume 2 by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

Out: November 24, 2020

 

This is a graphic novelization of several pieces of Neil Gaiman’s short fiction. The component works are all speculative fiction (i.e. taking place where the fantastical is possible,) and – more specifically – most would be classed urban fantasy — though there is a touch of horror.

The book contains four parts, and could be thought of as four stories. However, the first chapter, “Likely Stories,” is actually a collection of tales connected by being told in the same private after-hours club. So, the connective tissue is bar patrons trying to one-up each other with more intriguing stories. The pieces included are: “Feeders and Eaters” (the entry most likely to be classified as horror,) “Looking for a Girl,” and “Closing Time.”

The second story is “Troll Bridge,” and it shows a man’s repeated encounters with a troll who exists in the pedestrian tunnel under an abandoned rail line. These meetings begin when the protagonist is a young boy and continue until he’s middle-aged.

The penultimate story is entitled “Harlequin Valentine,” and it’s about an amorous Harlequin who develops an infatuation with a young woman and begins to stalk her. When he gives her his heart, it doesn’t go as expected.

The final story is “The Facts in the Case of the Disappearance of Miss Finch.” When a writer is roped into a double date in which his date is a dowdy and humorless scholar, the night that had been a train of misery ends in a mind-blowing (if disconcerting) fashion.

This was an excellent read. While it’s a second volume, because it’s short fiction, the book is completely self-contained. One doesn’t need to read the first volume beforehand to follow these tales. Each of the stories is satisfying in itself. I’d read at least one of these stories previously (possibly more) but it didn’t feel redundant because the conversion of the textual stories to graphic ones gives each an entirely different feel. The art is clear and the various styles match the tone of the respective stories nicely. If you like Neil Gaiman’s work, you should definitely check this one out. [And if you’re unfamiliar with Gaiman, I’d recommend you get familiar.]

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu

The Hidden Girl and Other StoriesThe Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Out: February 25, 2020

 

This smart collection of speculative short stories by Ken Liu is mostly science fiction, but includes a few works of fantasy (including the titular story, which is what one might call “martial arts-fantasy” – i.e. imagine “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” with more magic.) Depending how one counts up the stories, one could call the collection nineteen stories or sixteen stories and a novella. The novella, broken into three parts, is “storified” enough that its sections are interspersed among the other stories.

Liu doesn’t neatly contain his stories within boundaries of genre. In some cases, he jumps through time — including historical fiction, contemporary / near future, and distant future within a single story. He also takes on social issues like the Japanese internment during World War II in “Maxwell’s Demon” and the blight of technology on social interaction (best shown in “Thoughts and Prayers.”) There are hard sci-fi stories that show intergalactic travelers in a distant future, such as “The Message,” but there are even more that peer into the worries of the near future, such as artificial intelligence or the replicating of human consciousness in computers.

The novella imagines a world in which companies have captured the consciousnesses of great, but dying, minds for their own purposes. It then explores considerations such as: what happens when a great mind gets tired of being trapped as an acorporeal intelligence for the benefit of a company, and what does humanity mean in the context of fully replicated human minds?

I found these stories to be both intriguing and thought-provoking. I enjoy a good story, but stories that make one think deeply hold that much more allure. I’d highly recommend this collection for fiction readers. Whether or not you read genre fiction, you’ll find stories of great appeal.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Valiant (#1-4) by Jeff Lemire, et. al.

The ValiantThe Valiant by Jeff Lemire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book gathers four comic books into a full story arc. It tells a simple story of good versus evil involving a team of superheroes versus an extremely powerful opponent called “The Immortal Enemy.” The Immortal Enemy takes many forms over the course of its life, and in this case (as always) it chooses a form designed to unnerve the Geomancer who opposes it. It’s an allegorical tale of environmental protection versus degradation that blends fantasy and sci-fi with a touch of the weird.

At the heart of the story there is a blossoming relationship of an unlikely pairing. The first is an inexperienced Geomancer. She is just learning the ropes and is a very human and emotionally-oriented character. He is a Wolverine-esque character named “Bloodshot.” He’s stoic and rocksteady. The gist is that she becomes more confident through her exposure to him, and he regains some humanity through exposure to her.

The story’s resolution felt a bit deus ex machina to me, involving an artifact whose role and function aren’t clear until it proves instrumental, but overall it was an entertaining read.

I found the artwork to be well done. I don’t have any particular expertise in such matters, but it looked good too me.

If you enjoy graphic novels, this one is worth picking up.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard BookThe Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book begins with a family being murdered by Jack, a cold-hearted killer – a family all save the infant. It’s readily apparent that this isn’t a random violent crime. For one thing, the fiend is far more concerned with finding the baby so as to complete his treacherous task than he is with absconding with loot or reveling in carnage. We don’t know why the family is killed or how a baby could possibly be a worthy target for an assassin, but it’s a mystery that will play out over the course of the book. What we do know is that the boy, Bod – short for Nobody [Owens] – crawled from his crib, out of the house, and into a graveyard that night and that he was taken in by the dead [and a vampiric guardian named Silas] and granted free access to the graveyard.

While the plot is about a killer on the loose intent on murdering Bod, a lot of the book deals with the boy’s challenges as the one living human among a community of the dead. Silas and his adoptive – if deceased – parents, the Owenses, are reluctant to let the boy out of the graveyard because they know he is in danger and they can protect him there were a different set of rules apply, but he has a desire to experience the world. An abortive experiment with going to school fails because Bod sticks up for bullied kids and can’t help but employ some of the skills he’s acquired as a denizen of the graveyard. In the graveyard, he is a living person among the dead, but he is no less the outsider among the living.

This is written for a young audience, and is therefore highly readable while avoiding all the gore that one might expect of a book that begins in murder. Gaiman masterfully creates the ghoulishness and suspense without being horror, per se. I’d recommend this book for readers of low (intrusion) fantasy works.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster CallsA Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

A twelve-year-old boy, Conor, is forced into early adulthood when his mother is laid low by a terminal illness. Conor’s father is remarried and lives across the ocean in America (the book is set in England.) When Conor’s mother has to be hospitalized, Conor must go to stay with his grandmother. This is undesirable both because Conor longs for a return to normality and because his grandmother— while a fundamentally caring woman—is much more uptight and prim than Conor’s mother.

Conor has been terrorized by a recurring nightmare of late, and when the Yew tree from outside his window comes to life, the Yew tree monster is, relatively speaking, a welcome relief from the much more dire scene that confronts Conor nightly in his nightmare. The Monster informs Conor that it will tell the boy three stories over multiple nights, and when it is done Conor will be required to return the favor by telling the Monster one true story in return. The book plays out with the monster telling Conor stories as well as encouraging the boy to act out to release the building tension that threatens to destroy him. All the while, the story builds toward a moment of reckoning. The idea of repressed rage building into a monster of its own is central to this work.

The book is generally classed as “low fantasy”—a genre in which a limited supernatural element barges into an otherwise real world story. However, it can arguably be read as more psychological in nature. When the Monster visits, Conor finds evidence of his presence— e.g. leaves and berries—but to my recollection no one ever sees such evidence besides Conor, and so the reader is free to view these clues as harbingers of a descent into madness.

The book, itself, has an interesting back story. Apparently, the idea came from Siobhan Dowd, a writer of children’s / YA literature, when she had cancer. Patrick Ness was brought in after Dowd died to take her characters and premise and turn them into a book. Ness completed the book, which was made into a film a couple of years back.

I’d highly recommend this book. It builds and maintains tension throughout the story and is highly readable.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Doctor Strange: Way of the Weird, Vol. 1 by Jason Aaron

Doctor Strange, Vol. 1: The Way of the WeirdDoctor Strange, Vol. 1: The Way of the Weird by Jason Aaron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is the first arc of a multi-arc story. The Volume consists of “Doctor Strange” (2015), #1-5.

Something even more mysterious and odd than usual is afoot. An unprecedented number of trans-dimensional beings have taken up residence on Earth. Magic begins to go on the fritz. The Sorcerer Supreme of other dimensions are being executed. A mysterious enemy, with powers based in technology, threatens the very existence of magic–not only in our universe, but throughout the multiverse. Magicians are constantly under attack in the world of Doctor Strange, but in this case the killing of magicians is just collateral damage in a battle of bigger stakes.

A new character, Zelma Stanton, is introduced. She’s a young librarian who seeks out the help of Doctor Strange because she has grown a nefarious looking toothy maw at the top of her skull—some kind of previously unseen mind maggot. In treating her for said maggots, the wild and weird creatures are set loose upon Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum. Doctor Strange hires Stanton to reorganize his library. She provides a straight-man of sorts, a muggle’s eye reaction to the weird world of Doctor Strange.

The theme of this story is that there’s always a cost associated with the use of magic. This idea (which, stated differently, is also the central premise of economics—i.e. no free lunches) is an important rule for any literary world containing magic, because free lunches drain all tension from a story. In this case, it’s not just a principle sitting the background, its ramifications are explicit.

I enjoyed this book. I found the story premise intriguing and the dialogue well-written. The artwork was easy to follow and suitable strange. The art was imaginative. It can’t be easy to convey weirdness on a grand scale, but Chris Bachalo seemed to make it work.

I’d recommend this book for fans of Doctor Strange and others who like fantastical fiction.

View all my reviews