BOOK REVIEW: 1000 Storms by Tony Sandoval

1000 Storms #11000 Storms #1 by Tony Sandoval
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: August 10, 2021

As in A Wrinkle in Time, a girl whose father disappeared under mysterious circumstances travels through a portal to a strange and menacing world of adventure. The art is beautiful and – where applicable – simultaneously grotesque, and I found the surreal aesthetic compelling. The protagonist is well-developed and interesting, being a seemingly orphaned girl, living with relatives, who likes to go off on her own adventures, and whose solitary nature encourages a reputation for oddity among her peers. Unlike A Wrinkle in Time, the protagonist’s motivation (other than getting out of the house and collecting peculiar things) is not so clear, and so the story feels like it stumbles toward an ex machina resolution. There’s plenty of engrossing action, but little sense of motivation or agency. It’s a coming-of-age story split between the real world and a kind of fairy story demon realm.

It’s a tad darker than the average down-the-rabbit-hole children’s story, but except for a couple frames it would be unobjectionable for the youth market. [That said, given what seems to be the youthful age of the characters, these frames (involving sexual exploration) seem awkward and out-of-place – though they definitely separate this graphic novel from Alice in Wonderland, A Wrinkle in Time, or other stories that share its subgenre and themes.]

This is an intriguing adventure story with a pleasing aesthetic, but I felt it could have been driven by the protagonist’s goals to a greater degree, rather than reacting to events unfolding around her. Though it’s occurred to me that what I really might have been missing was a greater sense of what her “opposition” was after.

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BOOK REVIEW: Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere Adapted by Mike Carey

Neil Gaiman's NeverwhereNeil Gaiman’s Neverwhere by Mike Carey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a graphic novelization of one of the greatest urban fantasy novels, ever. While it’s been a while since I read the novel, this adaptation felt true to my memories of the original (one of my all-time favorite novels.) Carey did make a perspective shift from the third-person in the book to first-person in the comic book, but, otherwise, the story is substantially unchanged.

The protagonist is Richard Mayhew, a seemingly preternaturally average middle-class Londoner. Mayhew is going about his life as a suit-and-tie office worker with a domineering fiancé when he almost literally stumbles across a wildly-dressed young woman on the sidewalk. Mayhew’s decision to help the young woman will force him to reckon with a London that exists in parallel to the one he knows, a London of Marquises and angels and monsters and magically-endowed thugs for hire – any (or all) of which may present hazards to his health and well-being. The young woman is the last remaining heir to an important aristocratic family of London Below, and her problems are more dire than being passed out on the sidewalk.

Despite having read the novel, I enjoyed the graphic novel immensely and found it well worth retaking this beautifully rendered trip through the looking-glass into the London that exists beyond our world. This hero’s journey offers a satisfying character arc and many turns and surprises. Even if you’ve read the novel, I’d recommend giving this adaptation a look.

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

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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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BOOK REVIEW: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

NeverwhereNeverwhere by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Neverwhere taps into a reader’s imagination and the fantasy that beyond closed doors and locked grates, beyond the prying eyes of common men, lies something magical—not just the mundane sewers and conduits our rational mind tells us exist there. This magical world is “London Below,” and–to a lesser extent–rooftop London. It’s a world that exists below the workaday London that we know. It’s a London of angels and cutthroats, witches and warriors. It’s a London trapped in time, but unconstrained by the laws of physics or men as we know them.

The lead character is Richard Mayhew, a perfectly normal resident of London Above. He has a fine—if boring—job in the business world, and a fiancé isn’t right for him, but who he believes is close enough for an imperfect world by virtue of her being pretty, smart, and capable.

Mayhew is living an ordinary and comfortable life until he and his girlfriend come across an injured young woman on the street. While his fiancé, Jessica, steps over the girl because the couple are on their way to meet Jessica’s VIP boss, Richard refuses to leave the girl. The injured girl is a resident of London Below, and had collapsed to the sidewalk after escaping from the two London Below master assassins who killed her family. It turns out the girl, Door, is from a family whose magical gift is the ability to open doors—even doors that are locked, sealed, or that no one even recognizes the existence of. As no good deed goes unpunished, Richard’s assistance of Door pulls him into the world of London Below, and he soon finds that he’s almost invisible to the residents of London Above and that he’s been forgotten by Jessica, his friends, and his coworkers.

The rest of the book is a hero’s quest in which Door is trying to discover who ordered the assassination of her family and why, and Richard is trying to find out whether (and, if so, how) he can get back his life in London Above. Because the fates of Richard and Door are intertwined, they travel together along with a bodyguard named Hunter and a Marquis / conman in the debt of Door’s father named the Marquis de Carabas.

I enjoyed this book immensely. It’s highly readable and the reader will be drawn to the fate of the characters. It has that page-turner quality. I’d highly recommend this book for anyone who reads fantasy / speculative fiction–or who doesn’t but is willing to give it a try.

Neil Gaiman is, as always, the master storyteller. When the story calls for humor, it is genuinely funny. When it’s time to be scary, it creates shivers. The storytelling was good enough that I was willing to overlook an ending that—in less capable hands—would have felt flat and too easy.

I didn’t realize that Neverwhere was based on a BBC miniseries. In other words, for a change the book is based on the movie rather than the other way round. However, the book does concisely but vividly portray setting—a task that one might imagine being easier having gone in this developmental direction. And, of course, setting is extremely important in this book. The distinct feel of London Below, London Above, and Rooftop London must be conveyed.

Here is a link to a piece of said BBC miniseries:

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