BOOK REVIEW: The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley

The KingdomsThe Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The Kingdoms is a cross-genre work of speculative fiction built around the grandfather paradox — not in the narrow sense (no one murders an ancestor) but in the broader sense that the time traveler’s mucking about in the past will kill the version of him that otherwise would have been. It’s a time machine story sans the time machine, just a strange time-portal near a remote coastal village, on one side of which it’s near the turn of the 19th century and on the other it’s about a century later. As a work of counterfactual historical fiction, that time gap is important. It takes one from an age of wooden sailing ships to one of mammoth steel steamers, and a future man might know a great deal (historically and / or technologically) that could rewrite the world.

There’s another dimension to the story beyond the sci-fi time-travel. There’s a love story whose major complication is amnesia, and it’s a big enough complication that it takes the course of the story to bring the relationship into focus.

When we pic up the story, we find our protagonist, Joe, is in a hospital in Londres, the London that would exist if the French had come to rule Britain. Joe is amnesiac, and has the misfortune to learn that he is a slave. Joe will eventually receive a clue directing him to a lighthouse on the Scottish coast near the rift in time.

I enjoyed reading this novel. It’s both thought-provoking and entertaining. It has enough complication that it keeps one guessing, and keeps one reading, in an effort to bring into focus that which is chaotic and cloudy throughout most of the story. But in the end the intrigue is resolved clearly, and oh what a ride one has taken.

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BOOK REVIEW: Seven Shakespeares, Vol. 1 by Harold Sakuishi

Seven Shakespeares Vol. 1 (comiXology Originals)Seven Shakespeares Vol. 1 by Harold Sakuishi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The title and premise of this manga-style historical fiction graphic novel are presumably influenced by Gilbert Slater’s 1931 work that proposed that William Shakespeare as poet / playwright is a myth and that, in actuality, seven different writers produced the canon attributed to Shakespeare. While there remains disagreement and speculation about precisely what was composed by Shakespeare – as opposed to either being heavily co-authored or exploiting his name recognition – I don’t believe this extreme expression of the idea is so popular anymore.

But it doesn’t really matter for the purpose of this story because Sakuishi’s work suggests some truly outlandish, if intriguing, origins of the Shakespeare canon. In the case of this first volume, it is an adorable young Chinese witch (for lack of a better term,) Li, who goes from learning English via crude a pointing-out-concrete-nouns approach to penning sonnets that will be considered some of the best poetry humanity has ever known, and she does so over a period of weeks.

The volume includes light supernatural elements – either that or superstitious people in conjunction with unseen and / or unbelievable activities. So, it’s a cross-genre work. Most of the story revolves around a Chinese community who feel beleaguered by the gods or fates, and who attempt to sacrifice Li to appease said deities.

I found the premise to be intriguing. The art was cleanly rendered in the manga style. The story didn’t feel quite as clean, with some events feeling random and inorganic. If you’re looking to get some lightly dramatized historical fiction, you’d probably feel this is a bit fanciful, but if you’re down for the story’s exaggerated nature, it’s a compelling tale.


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BOOK REVIEW: Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman (Art: Andy Kubert)

Marvel 1602Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is anachronism done right by Neil Gaiman. The title gives one the jist of this graphic novel’s theme. It’s the Marvel Universe circa 1602. There’s a big cast of Marvel characters in this collection of eight comics. However, those who don’t follow comics might not recognize some of the characters because they are decidedly less comic-esque in this take. The characters mostly go by their given names rather than their superhero nom de guerre and not one of them wears spandex—and even capes are fairly few and far between. While the cast is large, there’re just a few main players and some major Marvel superheroes play only minor or unheroic roles.

The principal heroes in this book are Nicholas Fury (as head of the Queen’s Intelligence Service), Carlos Xavier (principal of a school for mutants), Virginia Dare (the first girl born in the Roanoke Colony), Rojhaz (the–decidedly Caucasian but–Native American protector of Dare), Stephen Strange (close to his modern-day namesake), Matthew Murdoch (think Daredevil), and a smattering of other X-men, Avengers, and Fantastic 4 members.

The principal villains are King James I (as himself), Count Otto Von Doom (similar to the modern character), The Inquisitor Enrique (a Magneto-esque character), David Banner (advisor to James I and–it would appear–the gray Hulk), and Natasha (think Black Widow). Before one bemoans the fact that the slate of heroes seems much stronger than the slate of villains, it should be noted that there is a threat that far exceeds the likes of Von Doom.

The world of Marvel 1602 is quite similar to Earth 1602, but there are differences such as the existence of pterodactyls and dinosaurs in some locales. The plot includes political intrigue in the form King James I of Scotland’s desire to nudge an ailing–but beloved—Queen Elizabeth I out-of-the-way. We soon find out that three assassins have been dispatched to target Fury, the Queen, and Virginia Dare, but finding out who hired them and why takes up a fair piece of story line. There’s a substory that features Matthew Murdoch and Natasha on a mission to retrieve what can only be described as a McGuffin (a highly sought after artifact whose value and purpose remain completely unknown until a big reveal, but for which characters are none-the-less willing to lay their lives on the line on pure faith) that offers its own intrigue. There is also the matter of strange weather that increasingly comes to be considered a harbinger of doom (not Von Doom the character, but actual doom.) Ultimately, this is a bigger threat than is presented by any of the human villains, and it can only be overcome through a combination of Richard Reed’s brilliance, Nicholas Fury’s courage, and Rojhaz’s sacrifice of what matters most to him.

I enjoyed this graphic novel. First, having a top-rate writer like Gaiman was certainly a help. There was none of the juvenile / poorly written dialogue that usually plagues comic writing. Gaiman is his usual clever, witty self. Second, while the anachronisms often border on silly (e.g. 1602 Reed’s noodling out Einstein’s discovery of 300+ years later), they are intriguing and recognize real science. Third, the last being said, there’s a lot of effort put into making the comic appropriate for the era in which it’s set. It’s not just putting frilly shirts on modern-day characters. The blending of fact into the fiction is thought-provoking.

If you read graphic novels–even sparsely–this is one that you should definitely check out.

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