BOOK REVIEW: DMZ, VOL. 1: ON THE GROUND by Brian Wood

DMZ, Vol. 1: On the GroundDMZ, Vol. 1: On the Ground by Brian Wood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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DMZ is a work of dystopian fiction that ditches the tired plot devices like Zombies and Nuclear Holocaust in favor of the fresh and simple idea of the American political divide run amok. The demilitarized zone (DMZ) in question is a sealed off New York City that exists in an armed and anarchic state.

The story features a journalism intern, Matty Roth, who helicopter crashes with a news crew in the NYC DMZ. At first, Roth is in over his head and just looking to escape to safety, but over the course of this volume he undergoes trial by fire and comes out the other side following his journalistic impulse to share the stories of the DMZ, stories which are much richer and more complex than people have been led to believe.

I had mixed feelings about the story as it feels like the protagonist is robbed of agency by always being saved. However, the story does show the character grow considerably and to face challenges voluntarily, and the assistance he receives does demonstrate community and humanity in a place that is supposed to be devoid of both.

Ultimately, I found the concept compelling and was deeply pulled into the world of this story. If you’re up for dystopian fiction, you might give it a try.


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BOOK REVIEW: Y: The Last Man, Vol. 1: Unmanned by Brian K. Vaughan

Unmanned (Y: The Last Man, #1)Unmanned by Brian K. Vaughan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This graphic novel has a fascinating premise, a dystopia in the aftermath of the extinction of all males – except for one man (of whom we know.) The “Y” in the title is a reference to the Y chromosome that no doubt factors into the cause of the eradication of males, and some genetic mutation presumably explains why there’s this one male survivor. The state of the world is as seen in any apocalyptic dystopia in which a huge proportion of the populace dies off, leaving governance and essential services broken down, being replaced by anarchy. However, there’s also the unique feature that the clock is ticking on the last generation of humanity (and some other species,) unless something can be done about it.

The protagonist is a love-struck man-child who wants nothing more than to get to the other side of the world (to Australia from America) because it’s his fiancé’s last known location. However, given that the key to continuation of the species may lie within his chromosomes, what remains of the government insists he be studied. Other segments of the population have their own ideas about what they’d like to do if they get their hands on him. All of this makes international travel infeasible.

I’m a bit torn on this book. On the positive side, not only does it have a compelling premise, but it presents a thoughtful examination of some of the problems that might arise — such as political bodies being tremendously thinned and that the remaining women politicians wouldn’t necessarily be proportionately distributed between political parties. On the negative side, the volume doesn’t have a substantial climax and conclusion, and thus isn’t a satisfying standalone read. This isn’t uncommon among comic books written with vast serialization in mind. My problem with such writing is that if the first volume doesn’t provide a satisfying self-contained arc, I don’t trust that the story will ever conclude satisfyingly – especially if it’s something that turns out to be popular.

If you’re committed to reading the whole series, you’ll find this volume to provide a gripping and humorous start. However, I can’t say I’d recommend it as a standalone read, and I can’t speak to the overall story.


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BOOK REVIEW: After the Fall by Laurent Queyssi

After the FallAfter the Fall by Laurent Queyssi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Out: October 12, 2021

This isn’t exactly a thinking person’s read. It’s a fine, if simple, return home quest story with plenty of action. But it feels like the production process began with an artist’s Wishlist – e.g. “I would like to draw a comic that combines my love of dinosaurs, aliens, roided-up dudes, scantily-clad women, fantasy genre weaponry, bare boobies, zombies, and set it all within a crumbling 21st century Earth city.” To which the writer said, “We can do that! I’ve been working on this story about a friend who got his headphones stolen.” And the artist said, “That sounds perfect!”

It’s not until the end of the book that we learn what could create such a disparate set of conditions. We know that nuclear radiation could only account for the super-huge and preternaturally-aggressive animals, as well as the superpowers. How are we to account for the fact that all the men look like Conan the Barbarian, all the women look like their previous gig was sitting atop a muscle car for a muffler shop calendar, and some of the dudes look like video game monsters / aliens? I won’t spoil the mystery radiation that could result in such a range of afflictions, as well as bringing back the dinosaurs, except to say that I didn’t find the explanation compelling.

Unless you’ve been looking for a book that combines pterodactyls, aliens, superpowered anti-heroes, boobies, roided-up dudes, and stylized battle axes, you can probably pass on this one. But, if you’re into such things,…

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BOOK REVIEW: Scout’s Honor by David Pepose

Scout's HonorScout’s Honor by David Pepose
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: October 5, 2021

This is one of those books that I found myself liking more and more as I continued to read, though which, frankly, the opening left me with low expectations. Said opening was pure Cold War cliché. In the aftermath of a nuclear war, radioactivity has had no impact on the human population besides thinning it out tremendously, but it has rendered incredible size, aggression, and monstrous adaptations upon every other species on the planet. [This preference for being cinematic over being smart is getting a bit old.] Between this and one of the lead characters hotwiring a car that had ostensibly not moved in decades, I was feeling I’d chosen poorly.

However, eventually, I did get the book that I’d expected from reading the blurb, a book based on the intriguing premise of a religified and militarized Boy Scout-like organization in a dystopian / post-apocalyptic future. The protagonist is named Kit, a highly-motivated Scout who has risen to the top of the troop through valor and clever-thinking. Kit has a secret, but learns an even bigger secret of the organization, one that throws the Scout’s worldview into doubt.

The book does a good job of establishing relationships to build emotional intensity, as well as in how it deals with the apparent truth that any organization that holds itself as a moral paragon is going to have some skeletons in its closet. I found it worthwhile to continue reading, even when this book felt like it was going to be just another post-apocalyptic cliché-fest.


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BOOK REVIEW: Ashes, Ashes by Jean-David Morvan

Ashes, Ashes #1Ashes, Ashes #1 by JD Morvan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: October 5, 2021

[Note: The book I’m reviewing is the 144-page multi-issue story.]

This is the story of a technological apocalypse and a post-apocalyptic Alexander the Great who was born of it. The bulk of the story reveals the cataclysm and life in the early days of its wake. But there is an interspersed subplot that takes place in a present-day that is well after the apocalypse. The big difference between this “world-conqueror” (actually, it seems to be only a small area of what had been southern France) and other power-consolidating titans is his luddism. He vehemently hates [almost] all technologies and insists that all (but one) post-Amish technology be eschewed because he feels human innovation to be cause of humanity’s fall. Otherwise, he checks the boxes: narcissistic, nihilistic, and probably a psychopath.

The story is compelling, and it definitely draws one in. I thought the pacing was well-executed and the concept was intriguing. Both the art and story have a unique feel, though I don’t know that the book will be able to distinguish itself within an extremely bloated dystopian / post-apocalyptic sub-genre.

There were a few elements that felt clunky. First of all, the mid-twenty-first century technological landscape is strange. I didn’t think anyone still imagined flying cars on the near-future time horizon. I think they only existed here to make the moment of doom impressively fiery. Second, a romance is established with great effort that is allowed to flameout to a lukewarm puddle of nothing. Perhaps, this was the point — to show the romance as victim of the demands of life under an anarchic dystopia. (If so, it gets lost amid the more exhilarating happenings.) Third, there is one modern technology that the protagonist is quick to adopt. This might be an intentional way of showing his love of self far exceeds his hatred of technology, but it’s curious.

If you don’t have dystopia fatigue, you may want to give this book a look.


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BOOK REVIEW: When the Sparrow Falls by Neil Sharpson

When the Sparrow FallsWhen the Sparrow Falls by Neil Sharpson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: July 8, 2021 [June 29, 2021 some places.]

The Caspian Republic is a Soviet-style dystopia, but set in a future in which it is the sole holdout against rule by Artificial Intelligence (AI,) against virtual living, and against downloading one’s consciousness. When, Nikolai South, an unimpressive agent of the State Security agency is given the seemingly undemanding, yet diplomatically sensitive, job of escorting the foreign widow of a deceased “journalist,” something is amiss. Nikolai’s work philosophy has been to find the sweet spot where he is neither noticed as a shirker nor for his excellence, and his mastery of this Goldilocks Zone has made him nearly invisible to upper management – or so he thought. What makes the job tricky is that the journalist, a man who wrote rants against AI and downloading of consciousness, turns out to be a downloaded consciousness, as is his wife, making her visit a little like the head of the Dalai Lama Fan Club being invited to Beijing.

I found this story compelling. The book perspective jumps toward the end (throughout most of the book, it’s first-person narrated,) but for the most part the perspective shifts aren’t problematic. While this shift away from first person narration isn’t hard to follow, I would say this section goes on longer than I would have preferred. There is a point about two-thirds of the way through at which we lose the the thread of Nikolai, and at that point the story becomes largely a history of a fictional country (which, sans a central character, is a bit tedious,) but then the book resumes a character-centric story to the book’s end (and I resumed enjoying it.)

If you’re interested in books that make you question what being human means, and where the boundaries lie, you’ll find this book intriguing and worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: We Live by Inaki & Roy Miranda

We LiveWe Live by Inaki Miranda
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: May 19, 2021

In a dystopian future on the verge of the Earth’s doomsday, aliens send humanity an opportunity to preserve itself on a limited scale. Bracelets (gauntlets, really) are dispersed around the planet, and any child [no adults allowed] wearing one who can get to the closest beacon site can be rescued.

Hototo is an orphan boy (preschool to kindergarten-aged) who has one of the bracelets, and his sister, Tala (early elementary school-aged,) is to be his escort to the beacon. [Hototo thinks they will both remain together, but Tala knows that she will drop him off and will stick around on the planet to witness the end of the world.] The story told in this volume is essentially their perilous journey from home to the beacon site.

What I liked most about his story is that it creates the visceral scenario of these two vulnerable kids traveling together through a landscape laden with all manner of threats, and – as in any story worth its salt – one thing after the other goes wrong for them. I also found the art appealing. It creates an intriguing story world. (Though the fantastical story world did rely heavily a popular, if overused, idea in sci-fi of late that some combination of toxins, radiation, and high-speed evolution spurred by rapid environmental change will create super-powered, super-intelligent predatory species. And in this case, they are in explicably conspicuous species – making them more visually interesting, but less sensible.)

The biggest problem with the story is that our two protagonists, while generating a lot of angst in the reader about their well-being, have no agency. Tala and Hototo show braveness, particularly Tala, but they must be rescued every single time. That’s realistic, because Kindergartners who could deal with the threats that they do would either have to be superpowered or put into question how serious the threats really are. [Either of which would damage the tension of the story.] There is a secondary character, Humbo, who is (or seems) slightly older than Tala, who is much more interesting than the sister/brother protagonists. In fact, Humbo is one of the primary rescuers of the two children throughout the story. The only other problem I had with the story is that the pacing at the end is so rapid that it makes it hard to track whether the story is making sense – i.e. being internally consistent.

As for recommendations, I think some will love this story and others will loath it, because it is an experimental piece. Hopefully, I’ve provided sufficient information for the reader to make their own decision. I did enjoy reading it, and found the interesting story world and events of the story to counterbalance the fact that the protagonists were leaves on the wind. (Though I probably would have preferred a story that centered on Humbo.)

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BOOK REVIEW: V for Vendetta by Alan Moore & David Lloyd

V for VendettaV for Vendetta by Alan Moore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This graphic novel is set in a fascist, dystopian Britain that grew up in the wake of an apocalypse that left England relatively untouched but ripe for the rise of a fascist political party, Norsefire. The book was written in the eighties at the height of the Cold War, and imagines this fascist Britain in the late 1990’s. The nature of this dystopia is part Orwell’s “1984” and part Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” meaning it’s an authoritarian surveillance state, but religion (and the morality thereof) is definitely an active participant in the abuse of power.

While the protagonist is a shadowy figure who goes only by the nom de guerre “V” and whose backstory is gradually revealed over the course of the book, another central character – one who presents a more human face – is Evie Hammond, a young woman who is turning tricks on the street to get by. The book opens with Evie being cornered by a couple of “Fingermen” (Brownshirt-like secret policemen who intend to rape and murder her) when she is rescued by a Guy Fawkes-mask wearing mystery man, V. V takes Evie back to his hidden lair, and while their paths diverge and converge over the rest of the story, Evie remains a crucial character to the bitter end.

In the early part of the story, we see that high-ranking fascist party members are being murdered in ways and with clues that are clearly meant to make a statement. In the first half of the book, a police detective, Finch, is trying to solve the murders – which first requires figuring out a motive. About the time he comes to understand the basis of a revenge motive, it becomes clear that V intends much more than just getting personal revenge for the wrongs done to him at a concentration camp.

At the beginning of Part II, Evie is separated from V after a falling out over an action she participated in against a pedophilic Bishop that ended in a murder that she found distasteful. However, she has a change of heart about the use of lethal force when the man she is staying with receives a visit from the Fingermen. She makes an amateurish attempt to invoke street justice that is interrupted by a man she assumes to be with the authorities. In reality, it is V conducting a clever ruse designed to put her through what he went through so that she can experience the freedom of mind that he acquired when his fear died.

In Part III, V’s grand plan unfolds, sinking London into chaos in the hopes that something glorious (or at least better) will arise in its place. Alan Moore was a proponent of anarchism, and the suggestion is that by tearing down the existing political order, a period of peaceful anarchic or quasi-anarchic coexistence might come to be. I should point out that Moore doesn’t tell the story as an ideologue. He creates sympathetic characters among the fascists and ensures that a light is shone on V’s dark side. He also leaves the outcome open. The reader doesn’t really see what grows out of the ashes.

In addition to being political fiction, “V for Vendetta” can be read as a kind of superhero story. It’s not known precisely to what degree V is superpowered, if any. He does seem to possess some degree of superhuman ability, but it might just be that he’s crazy enough to succeed in activities such as taking on multiple armed opponents at once. It seems that the experimentation that was done on him, which killed most of his fellow subjects, may have made him stronger and / or more physically capable, or – alternative – maybe being preternaturally robust in the first place allowed him to survive what others couldn’t. Still, it is clear that he is not invulnerable.

I enjoyed this story tremendously. It’s thought-provoking, both at the political level and at the level of individual psychology. We are led to consider what brings people to accept authoritarianism, and to also wonder whether people could accept an anarchic approach to social existence. But there is also the question of what is freedom for an individual, and in what way one can have freedom within when there is no freedom to be had without? If you’re intrigued by these themes, I’d highly recommend reading this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Fall, Vol. 1 by Jared Muralt

The Fall, Volume 1The Fall, Volume 1 by Jared Muralt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: March 17, 2021

 

I’m really curious about how this book will do. On the one hand, the writer / artist does an incredible job of creating a visceral and gripping reading experience. On the other hand, I suspect the reaction will be a resounding: “too soon.” The story is essentially the worst-case scenario of our current, pandemic-dominated, world. What would happen if the fatalities became so disruptive that governance and economic production faltered and then collapsed? In the marketing materials, the publisher makes a comparison to Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and “The Fall” does share with that literary masterpiece the idea that there’s virtually nobody left that one wants to run into – i.e. everybody left is looking out for number one, and is, thus, untrustworthy. While that’s not strictly true, it’s true enough that one has to treat everyone with suspicion and with a finger on the trigger (literally or figuratively, as one’s state of armament allows.) Looking at the matter from the other direction, everyone left has done (or will end up doing) something of which they aren’t proud.

The story is built around a blue-collar family. The father and two children (a teenaged daughter and pre-teen boy) had one of the early variants of the flu, giving them adaptive immunity with a less lethal strain. The mother, a health-care worker, succumbs to the highly lethal evolved variant, leaving the three to survive in a rapidly escalating apocalyptic scenario.

At first, the family tries to survive in the city, but the father discovers that there is no food left and there are dangerous elements about. The trio then heads to stay with relatives in the countryside, not without running into challenges. They end up in a town that is allowing “tourists” to stay (with all the fatalities, housing is the only necessity that’s not lacking,) but there is not enough food or medicine for everyone. The characters are repeatedly pressed up against the kinds of challenging scenarios one might expect in a post-apocalyptic winter wonderland. Most pressingly, the father suffers an infection that seems like it may have him on his deathbed.

This is an intense read. As I say, I’m not sure everybody’s ready for it. If you have anxiety about where we are presently, I wouldn’t recommend it as it might take you to dire places that you wouldn’t have imagined yourself. That said, for readers of horror, dark stories, dystopian and post-apocalyptic wasteland stories, it’s a strong entry.

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BOOK REVIEW: Aster of Pan by Merwan

Aster of PanAster of Pan by Merwan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: Individual issues are available now, but this edition comes out on February 16, 2021.

 

This is one of the most compelling graphic novels I’ve read in some time. It’s a bit challenging to describe in simple terms because when I say its about a game of dodgeball played in a post-apocalyptic setting for the fate of a people, “dodgeball” makes it sound more frivolous than it is, and “post-apocalyptic” makes it seem bleaker and more ominous than it is. Yet, strictly speaking, it’s a sound description. The “nation” of Pan has largely reverted to a state of tribal living, surviving on rice and goods scavenged from the abandoned urban areas. While Pan seems quite tribal with respect to religious and social beliefs and behaviors, it mixes elements of communism and a simple barter economy with those superstitions and in-group preferences.

When a militaristic nation called “Fortuna” comes to call, the people of Pan are given an ultimatum: pay a part of their crop yield to Fortuna or face the consequences. It’s essentially a protection racket – i.e. pay us and we’ll offer you protection, BTW we’ll mostly be protecting you from us. But then they are introduced to a third option: challenge Fortuna to a game of “celestial mechanics,” a game that is strikingly similar to dodgeball, but which allows for some pretty wild variations on the basic premise. While the ball game seems preferable to the other two options, there is a problem: nobody in Pan knows how to play the game, or has any experience with it — while Fortuna is passionate about the sport and has elevated the game to its national pastime. Fortunately, the Chief’s son, Juba, has been away in Fortuna playing as a second-stringer, he will become the team captain. [It also sets up tension with the Father / Chief who resents Juba’s having left.]

The setting is in the latter part of this century in what is now France. We learn that this is in the distant wake of a multi-part catastrophe that has killed off most of the population, and reshaped the map. There is a highly radioactive area that is presumably either the result of a major nuclear power plant meltdown or, possibly, a nuclear war. The fact that Pan has flooded ruins tells the reader that it is also post-climate change crisis. The fact that one can grow paddy rice near present-day Paris is also a big clue about the role of climate change. However, we don’t learn precise details of what happened, or how the events were (or were not) interrelated. There may be more tragedies that are or aren’t connected to those mentioned, but the present day seems far enough down the road that Pan doesn’t have much of a sound memory of the collapse. [It strains credulity a bit that a brand-new religion and such an intense reversion to primitive living would occur, selectively in Pan, over less than 50 years – i.e. Ceres and Fortuna both have seen technological advancement, while Pan – except for scavenged materials – has reverted to early agrarian living. But it serves to make them a greater underdog.]

The titular character, Aster, is a rambunctious young woman who is “un-Pan,” which is to say that she is not a member of the “tribe” and neither gets food rations nor is allowed to participate in Panian politics. When the dodgeball game comes up, they make an exception of their laws to allow Aster to participate because: a.) they need to maintain a balance between the sexes (no more than four of a given sex on the seven-person team,) and; b.) because she is one of the most naturally athletic people who live in Pan. Over the course of the story, we eventually learn a great deal about Aster’s backstory, but she starts as a mysterious outsider. While she has at least on close friend and is treated well by the Chief, we also see that she is subjected to repeated discrimination. The artist draws Aster in huge, over-the-top movements that create a perception of rough-and-tumble dynamism. Despite the post-apocalyptic dystopian situation, the book is drawn in a manner more like “Peter Pan” than “Mad Max.” It’s green and kind of magical — despite the detritus of a collapsed civilization (overgrown high-rise buildings and repurposed container ships.) [And, yes, I assume the reference to “Pan” is a callback to the Neverland of the Barrie books.]

The tournament is a best two-out-of-three affair that rotates locations between the three nations we know of. The first game is played in Ceres, a third-party nation that is also agrarian, but much more advanced than Pan with respect to technology and governance. [Ceres secretly becomes a Pan ally because they are already under the thumb of Fortuna’s militaristic dystopia and hope to show the cracks in that hegemonic superpower by helping the underdog win. Ceres’s court is the simplest version of a celestial mechanics court. It’s essentially just a sunken basketball court — sans the hoops and with lines drawn suitably to the futuristic sport’s rules. The other two rounds are played out on Fortuna and Pan, respectively, becoming progressively more militant affairs. [It’s not clear how Fortuna is able to set the version of rules they play by regardless of where they play – except on Ceres. But it’s clearly meant to allow them to make the game ever more challenging.]

I found this book to be immensely intriguing. The story was engaging, and presented a solid standalone story arc. Both the art and the text create an emotional richness that provides story tension that might easily be lost given the fanciful premise. The book subtly teaches the value of teamwork and the need to put one’s petty impulses and ego behind one. The book’s art creates a wonderland, as well as endearing characters. [“Wonderland” may seem a strange descriptor for a post-apocalyptic world, but it’s only demoralizing if one thinks about what must have happened in the past to cause it. Otherwise, it seems like a green and quiet – if somewhat anarchistic — place to live.]

I’d highly recommend this book for readers of graphic novels.

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