Book Review: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

Book Review: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table by Martin J. Dougherty

The Arthurian mythos is a familiar one to just about everyone in some form or another.  But unless you’re a scholar of the subject, you might not know where all the pieces came from and how they got put together.  This “coffee table” book gives an overview of basic information about King Arthur and his knights.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

This generously illustrated tome begins with a look at what we know of early British history, and historical figures that might have inspired the tales of Arthur, even if no actual King Arthur ever existed.

Then it moves on to the major sources of the Arthurian stories.  The first written account we still have is that of Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose Arthur is just one in  a line of probably fictional rulers.  The book also covers the romances of Chrétien de Troyes (who was big on graphic violence and courtly love), the Grail Quest (heavy on the preachiness and religious allegory), and of course Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which pulled material together from multiple sources and added some of his own touches.

A final chapter touches on modern retellings of the Arthur cycle, from Mark Twain’s satirical proto-science fiction work A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, through the musical Camelot to the recent television series Merlin.  The author also talks a bit about what might be called tertiary Arthuriana, where a character could say, “this bell was enchanted by Merlin” with no other references to King Arthur, yet the audience will immediately know what’s being talked about.

This book is for the layman, and should be suitable for tweens on up.  (Parents of younger readers might want to discuss the theme of marital infidelity that comes up in the relationship of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, as well as other places in the Arthurian cycle, not least Arthur’s own birth.)  There is an index, but no bibliography, so serious scholars will want something more advanced to work with.

The author also talks a bit about the enduring appeal of King Arthur and his stories.  Heroic knights and chivalry, a struggle of good against evil, a kingdom where right is more important than might, even if it is doomed to fall and be followed by a darker age.  “A moment so bright it will be seen on the far side of that darkness.”

This book would make a good gift for the casual fan of things King Arthur, especially bright teenagers.  Did they like the recent movie?

Audio Review: If We Were Villains

Audio Review: If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

Eleven years ago, seven drama students entered their fourth year at the prestigious Dellecher Classical Conservatory.  Now, a decade after the end of that school year, one of those students, Oliver Marks, is being released from prison.  Former police detective Colborne has never entirely bought the official version of what happened, and Oliver agrees to finally tell the truth of that year.  Or at least a truth.

If We Were Villains

The highly competitive nature of the school and constantly interacting with each other have made the seven students their own little troupe with defined roles.  But a couple of the students have begun resenting their typecasting, and natural born star Richard is on the verge of snapping.  Even when Richard is removed from the picture, the fractures in the group widen until the tragic climax.

This is a debut novel from Shakespearean scholar M.L. Rio, and is full of William Shakespeare’s words and ideas.  The theater kids often quote (or misquote) Shakespeare’s plays to each other in their dialogue, and sometimes to confused or annoyed outsiders.  A basic familiarity with the Bard of Avon will vastly enhance your enjoyment of the story.

The main characters are the kind of “party hearty” kids I did not get on well with in college; their substance abuse is a large factor in how badly their actions go off the rails, and the sexual shenanigans certainly didn’t help.  And of course, keeping secrets from the adults on campus who could have solved many of the issues early on makes things even worse.  (While I am on content issues, warning for rough language, slut-shaming and domestic abuse.)

Oliver has pressures outside school as well, as his parents are unsupportive of his career goals and one of his sisters has an eating disorder that needs them to redirect their limited financial resources.  (Oliver is alas completely unempathetic towards his sister’s problems.)  And some of the other students have even worse family situations, one of the reasons they’ve bonded with each other instead.

Once having established that the main characters are not the kind of people who make smart choices, the stage is set for the inevitable spiral into tragedy, mirrored by the plays they’re performing.

The version of the novel I’m reviewing is the audiobook from Macmillan Audio, and read by Robert Petkoff, himself an actor experienced in Shakespearean drama.  His voice is well suited to the text (though there were times when I could not distinguish between female characters) and conveyed emotion well.

However, the audiobook experience was sometimes difficult for me.  I sometimes missed important words, especially early on, and “rewinding” the CD was trickier than simply turning back pages to recheck lines.  On the good side, portions of the book are written in a semi-script style that made it clear who was speaking, very helpful when all the main characters are in the same room.

The physical presentation of the audiobook is barebones, just a box containing plain white sleeves for the ten CDs.  There are no liner notes (it would have been both helpful and apropos to provide a dramatis personae), nor a quick bio of Mr. Petkoff.

While this novel has mystery elements, it fits more comfortably into the “contemporary” subgenre.  Perhaps that New Adult category I’ve heard of.  Recommended to Shakespeare buffs, theater kids and fans of last minute twists.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this audiobook from the publisher to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was requested nor offered.

Manga Review: Vagabond Volume 2

Manga Review: Vagabond Volume 2  by Takehiko Inoue

Quick recap: In 17th Century Japan, failed soldier Shinmen Takezo has reinvented himself as wandering swordsman Miyamoto Musashi.  Dedicating his life to perfecting his own style of swordsmanship, he travels to Kyoto and starts a feud with the Yoshioka school of kendo.  Unknown to him, his childhood friend Matahachi is also in town, and accidentally sets fire to the Yoshioka dojo.

Vagabond Volume 2

This volume opens with Musashi being nursed back to health by the rough-edged Buddhist monk Takuan.  Realizing he still has a long way to go, Musashi decides to travel to Nara, there to pit himself against the spear style of the Hōzōin Temple monks.  A chance encounter with an elderly gardener may be more valuable than any battle.

Musashi is distracted by thoughts of his other childhood friend, the lovely Otsu.  She’s now the servant of a master of the Yagyu style of swordsmanship, who Yoshioka Denshichiro has come to train with in preparation for his next duel with Musashi.

Others are also on the road.  Gion Toji of the Yoshioka school is tracking Musashi to kill him, and is none too restrained about maiming other people along the way.

Matahachi’s on the run because of the arson thing, and a chance encounter allows him to also reinvent himself as the respected warrior Sasaki Kojirō.  His sections of the story are tragicomedy, as he keeps having good intentions, but the flaws in his character prevent him from following through in a crisis, and we watch him make excuse after excuse for doing less than he ought.

Miyamoto Musashi is better at learning from his mistakes; while he is not the sharpest katana in the armory, he’s partially grasped the concept of critical thinking and examining his own mindset.  Still has a long way to go before being the best swordsman in Japan though.

The successor to the Hōzōin spear style, Inshun, has his own issues.  He’s a natural combat genius who has never known “fear”, or had a truly serious challenge to his skills until now.  Thus his growth has stalled; Inshun must learn how to deal with defeat to become stronger.  His multi-chapter duel with Musashi is the centerpiece of this volume.

The art is stellar, but much of the credit for the plot and characterization must go to Eiji Yoshikawa, author of the novel this manga is an adaptation of.

There’s a lot of violence in this volume, some of it quite bloody.  There’s also a brief sex scene with female nudity–this is a “mature readers” title.

This continues to be a good choice for fans of samurai action stories.

Book Review: Life Is Beautiful

Book Review: Life Is Beautiful by Sarah M. Johnson

In 2008, an airplane carrying humanitarian workers to a remote village in Guatemala, where they were to build a school, crashed and burned.  The crew and most of the passengers were killed; one young woman survived relatively unharmed, though she had lost half her family, and her mother was severely injured.  This is her story.

Life Is Beautiful

Sarah’s life had not been an easy one for some time before the crash.  Raised outside a small town in rural Wisconsin, Sarah’s family was socially and emotionally isolated.  Her father was a recovering meth addict, they’d recently lost a close relative to cancer, and what little social life Sarah had revolved around heavy drinking with her friends.

At college, Sarah met Jacob, a young man who introduced her to a stronger belief in God, but was dangerously flawed; in particular he reinforced her drinking habits.  A combination of alcoholism and depression made Sarah’s  college career a bust, and Jacob cheated on her, so she had to come home feeling a failure.  The Guatemala trip was meant to help mend the family’s fences.

As this book is in the “inspirational” sub-genre, you might expect that Sarah turned her life around after hitting rock bottom, and you would be correct.  When she finally accepted the help of a therapist (it isn’t directly stated, but her father’s apparent ability to quit meth cold turkey may have influenced her to try to handle everything solo), Sarah began to be able to process her grief and make progress on recovery from alcoholism.  (Finding sober friends and a welcoming church group also helped.)

From a writing perspective, this book is a good example of how real people are far more complex and messy than they generally are shown in fiction.  Jacob is a prime example, a fervent believer who introduces Sarah to a personal relationship with her “higher power” but prone to bouts of unwanted preaching and self-righteousness when drunk, and who is a toxic boyfriend for her.

One misstep is Sarah’s breakthrough moment with her therapist, when she can finally tell the story of the crash and its aftermath while allowing herself to feel the emotions associated with it.  While it would be a powerful moment if the facts had been concealed up to that point in the book, on paper it’s mostly a recitation of details already covered in the first chapters.  This is a short book, and a reader with a decent memory will find this bit redundant.

Recommended primarily to fans of inspirational literature, and older young adult readers who like non-fiction stories as Sarah’s life is of interest.  Not necessarily recommended to those currently undergoing the grieving process; Sarah mentions several books that helped her, and those would probably be better choices.

If you would like to purchase the book, please consider getting it new, as part of the proceeds go to Habitat for Humanity.

Disclaimer:  I received a free copy of this book to facilitate writing the review; no other compensation was offered or requested.

Book Review: Three In One

Book Review: Three In One edited by Leo Margulies

According to the introduction by the editor, this book came about because there were three long science fiction stories in the to-publish pile, too long for short-story collections but too short to be their own paperback.  The cover by Emsh is a good choice with the three intelligent species cooperating in some vacuum-suited endeavor.  It doesn’t precisely match any of the stories inside, but gets across the ideas of “three” and “science fiction” nicely.

Three In One

“There Is No Defense” by Theodore Sturgeon takes place in a far future when the races of the Solar System have devised a weapon so fearsome it is only known as the Death.  This won the war against the Jovians, but so horrified everyone that there is now a complete ban against it, sponsored by the interplanetary Peace organization.

Now an invader ship has entered the system.  It will not communicate.  Its movements are seemingly random, as are its attacks with the power to slag small moons.  Its defenses seem to make it immune to any normal weapon, and it retaliates instantly and overwhelmingly to any attack.  And this is just one ship, presumably a scout for the main invasion.

It appears that there is no choice but to un-ban the Death, regardless of the damage to the Peace movement’s ethical standing.  But what if the invader is immune to the Death?  What then?

The story fudges on the difference between pacifism and passivism (as a lot of stories not written by pacifists do), but does show respect for the pacifist’s point of view.  The invader’s secret will be more easily guessed by modern readers than the characters in the story, I think.

“Galactic Chest” by Clifford D. Simak is contemporary to 1956, when it was published.  A Midwestern reporter chafes at his daily assignment of writing puff pieces for the Community Chest (a charity organization, forerunner of United Way; you may have seen the Monopoly cards.)  He wants to become a foreign correspondent and cover international stories!

The newspaper editor (nicknamed “the Barnacle”) doesn’t seem to be helping, sending our protagonist off on a series of stories that seem to be wild goose chases.  Finally told point-blank by the Barnacle that good reporters find their own stories, the reporter looks again at those and other incidents and notices a pattern.  A pattern reminiscent of brownies (the creatures, not the confections.)

This light-hearted story is closer to fantasy than science fiction, just substituting aliens for elfin creatures.  A couple of the “helpful” things they do come across as disturbing (they are okay with euthansia), but overall it’s a happy ending.  The main characters drink heavily (a bartender supplies a clue to what’s going on), and it’s strongly implied that the reporter and his love interest engage in hanky-panky before marriage.

“West Wind” by Murray Leinster is set in Eastern Europe of the then near future, though country names are very carefully not used.  Igor is a proud citizen of a small, militarily weak country.  They have atomic power plants, true, but their neighbor to the east has actual atomic bombs, enough to turn Igor’s country to glass.  The country to the east is large and militarily powerful, and has already bullied Igor’s country into ceding over one of its provinces to them.

Now the eastern nation has demanded another border province.  The President of Igor’s nation has agreed to cede this province as well, without a shot fired, just all the citizens evacuated.  The President did warn that any soldier entering the province would be doing so at their own risk, but that was a bluff, right?

Igor is incensed.  He knows full well that the aggressor nation will not be satisfied with this bite of territory; they will soon find some excuse to demand more, or even invade outright!  Igor decides to hide from the evacuation teams with a radio transmitter (he’s a news broadcaster by profession) so that he can send messages back to his people to shame them into resisting the invaders.

Igor doesn’t even get one broadcast off before he’s caught by the invaders and arrested as a spy.  As the only living resident of the province, the eastern nation believes he must know something about what the President meant in his speech.  Igor makes up some stories under torture, but he has no clue whether or not the veiled threat was a bluff, or what trap could possibly have been laid.  The only comfort he has is an old nursery rhyme about the West Wind protecting his homeland.

There are some evocative scenes in this one, from the solitude Igor faces in the abandoned province, to a chilling calculus as the eastern dictators decide how many of their own troops need to die to make their planned invasion look like a fair fight.

The reveal itself seems unlikely given advances in our knowledge of that field of science; to quote Morbo, “it does not work like that!”

This is mid-level work by a trio of excellent authors, worth looking up if you are a fan of any of them.  It doesn’t seem to have been reprinted recently so try used book stores and libraries.

 

Comic Book Review: Oni Press Starter Pack 2016

Comic Book Review: Oni Press Starter Pack 2016 by various

While I spend many of my comics-related posts on this  blog talking about the Big Two’s superhero comic books, there are a number of worthy small press comics companies that put out interesting material every year.  Oni Press has put out an affordable collection of seven first issues from various series they’ve printed over their existence.

Oni Press Starter Pack 2016

Leading off this trade paperback is The Sixth Gun by Cullen Bunn & Brian Hurtt.  This horror-western about a collection of cursed firearms is as it happens something I have reviewed before.  I won’t repeat myself here, but note that the series lasted eight collected volumes in its main storyline, with three extra graphic novels of spinoff stories.  Pretty impressive!

Letter 44 by Charles Soule and Alberto Jiménez Alburquerque is science fiction.  When incoming president Stephen Blades reads a letter left for him by his predecessor, he learns that many of the bizarre actions taken by Francis T. Carroll were based on information not shared with the American people..  It seems that there are aliens doing…something…in the asteroid belt.  President Carroll felt it was most important for America to arm itself just in case the aliens are hostile, thus his warmongering activities on Earth that have made a mess of foreign policy while neglecting domestic issues that are coming to a head.

The United States also sent a secret manned space mission out to the location of the alien activity in an effort to learn more; they’re just now coming close to their destination.  The astronauts have concealed certain information from their Earth-bound mission controllers…among other things, one of them is pregnant.

There are some pretty clear parallels to the Bush/Obama transition, with mentions of lies about weapons of mass destruction, and a white conservative president with a bad reputation on the economy and war being replaced with a darker-skinned liberal.  But as the series progresses, the special circumstances lessen those similarities as President Blades tries a very different approach to the same situation President Carroll faced.

Meanwhile, the astronauts learn the truth behind the alien presence, and we learn the backstory of their mission.

The Bunker by Joshua Hale Fialkov & Joe Infunari starts with five recent college graduates going out to the woods to bury a time capsule.  Except that they find themselves uncovering a bunker with four of their names on it.  A bunker that contains items alleging to be from the post-apocalyptic future, including letters from their future selves.

It seems that by their actions, the quintet will bring about the near-extinction of the human race.  But not doing so might create an even worse future.  It’s not clear if the future selves are trying to create a time loop, or avert one.

This was a double-sized first issue, so a lot goes on.  This does include nudity and on-page sex, as well as some nasty violence and strong language.  The last page twist is foreshadowed, but still pretty shocking.

Stumptown  by Greg Rucka and Justin Greenwood appears to be the first issue…of the third series.  Private detective Dex Parios participates in an amateur soccer match (her team loses) before going to a professional game of footy with her brother Ansel and friend Mercury.  It’s hometown Portland vs. Seattle, and autographs after!  But afterwards, Dex and Ansel find a badly beaten (maybe dead) Mercury in the bushes.  Is it hooliganism or a crime unrelated to sports?

Greg Rucka is well known for his crime comics, but the soccer elements took up most of the issue for a slow start.

Helheim by Cullen Bunn & Joëlle Jones takes place somewhere up North during the Sixth Century.  A stockaded village is caught in a war between witches.  A raiding party is chased by warriors of the witch Groa who soon become the undead.  A man named Rikard keeps having visions of himself weeping tears of blood.  When the village itself is breached, Rickard is beheaded, but that’s not the end of his participation in the war.  Especially if his lover Bera has anything to say about it!

Rikard is relatively nice for a Norseman of the time, not happy about abandoning comrades or turning over loved ones to the enemy as a peace offering.  His father is made of sterner stuff, but neither of them is fully prepared for what happens next.

Kaijumax by Xander Cannon is a considerable change of pace.  The world has long been infested with monsters who ran rampant over the human civilizations.  But now the humans have developed a way to give themselves giant superpowered forms (ala Ultraman) and have been capturing the kaiju they see as criminals, placing them on an island prison.

One of the latest inmates is Electrogor, who claims to have been just out looking for food for its children.  Alas, the humans take poorly to kaiju eating their power supplies.  Electrogor knows the humans are after its children, and it appeals to E68FE3 (“Hellmoth”), a monster that’s about to be released on a technicality, to help the kids out.

E68FE3 wants a return favor though, and the resulting altercation puts Electrogor in solitary confinement.  It’s only then that a guard lets Electrogor know that the “technicality” Hellmoth was released on is that there are no living witnesses to its crimes.  Especially the children.

Despite the cartoony art and many jokes, this series is a commentary on the American prison system and the abuses rampant within it.  So Not For Children.

We finish with The Life After by Joshua Hale Fialkov & Gabo.  Jude sleepwalks through his life, every day seeming exactly like every other day.  Perhaps a little too much exactly like every other day–how many times can one woman drop her handkerchief on the bus?  But today is different.  Today, Jude picks up the handkerchief and tries to get it back to the woman.

It seems like the world is out to stop him, and it starts getting much weirder, but Jude eventually does catch up to the woman, and seemingly breaks her out of her routine as well.  This disturbs secret watchers who say that no one has escaped in two thousand years.

Shortly thereafter, Jude meets Ernest Hemingway, who believes that everyone in their city is in fact a suicide, and this is the afterlife.

Some nifty use of panels and other art tricks, reminiscent of the Franco-Belgian style.

Content note:  the woman’s flashback includes on-panel prostitution, gore and childbirth as well as suicide.

There’s a wide assortment of genres represented here, and this is a good choice to pick up if you’re unfamiliar with Oni Press and want to know which series you might like.  Based on these first issues, I’m least impressed with The Bunker which skews even more cynical than I have a taste for.

Manga Review: Platinum End Volume 2

Manga Review: Platinum End Volume 2 story by Tsugumi Ohba, art by Takeshi Obata

Quick recap:  Up until now, Mirai has had a miserable life as an orphan with an abusive family.  When he tried to commit suicide, Mirai was rescued by Nasse, an angel who had enlisted the boy in a contest to choose the next God.  There were twelve other candidates, but one was murdered by a person dressed as Metropoliman, a TV superhero.

Platinum End Volume 2

This volume opens with last time’s cliffhanger, as Mirai is stabbed with a love-inducing red arrow.  The culprit turns out to be Saki, the girl Mirai already had a crush on.  (And it would seem she reciprocates.)  This might not be so bad, except that the red arrows induce not normal love, but slavish absolute devotion.

We’re also introduced to Saki’s partner, Revel the Angel of Trickery.  He’d prefer to be titled the Angel of Tactics but honestly isn’t that smart.  After some negotiation, it’s decided the four will team up against the murderous Metropoliman.

Meanwhile, Metropoliman continues fighting petty crime to keep up his superhero disguise.  He’s getting frustrated because his challenge to fight the other god candidates is not bearing fruit.  (Unsurprisingly, none of them wants to die.)  He decides to switch tactics and offer to negotiate with the other candidates at an open-air stadium.  (This would theoretically allow them to fly away if the negotiations go badly.)

What follows is the Ohba trademark plan vs. plan battle, involving multiple disguises, mind control and misdirection.  Mirai and Saki manage to escape with their lives, but it’s clear that Metropoliman is much more than they can handle.  Where can they get allies?

Good:  The art continues to impress, and the characters that are supposed to be intelligent really do come across as smart.  Nasse continues to be nicely creepy.  She’s an Angel of Purity, not an angel of good, and freely admits feeling nothing when humans other than Mirai die.

Not so good:  Female characters other than Nasse are poorly developed and lack personality.  (I am told Saki will improve in later volumes.)  Most of the female angels are drawn as Victoria’s Secret models with wings and the lingerie fused with their bodies.

Content note:  Metropoliman absolutely will murder small children to get what he wants.  We’re also told that all the god candidates live in Japan due to its high suicide rate.  This is a Mature Readers title.

Most recommended for fans of Death Note.

Magazine Review: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Nov/Dec 2016

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Nov/Dec 2016 edited by C.C. Finlay

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction started publication in 1949.  According to Wikipedia, it was supposed to be a fantasy story version of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine as it was at the time, classic reprints mixed with new material of a higher literary quality than was common in the pulps of the time.  Science fiction was added to expand the possible pool of stories.  F&SF has managed to publish fairly regularly ever since, though in recent years it’s bimonthly.  It has a reputation for literate fiction.

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Nov/Dec 2016

The cover story is “The Cat Bell” by Esther M. Friesner.  Mr. Ferguson is a successful actor in the early Twentieth Century, even having a fine house with servants.  One of those servants, Cook, greatly admires Mr. Ferguson.  Mr. Ferguson greatly admires cats, and has nineteen of them that Cook must feed every day.  One day there are twenty cats, and Cook finds herself in a fairy tale.  Content note:  Cook suffers from several of the less pleasant “isms” and isn’t afraid to say so.

“The Farmboy” by Albert E. Cowdrey is set on a distant planet being surveyed by a scout ship.  The crew has discovered a massive deposit of gold, but even if they had room to take it with them, the government would simply confiscate the wealth, giving nothing to the survey crew.  Several of the crew members come up with a scheme to make themselves very rich at the expense of the rest of the crew.  But if you can’t spot the sucker at the poker game, it’s probably you…some unpleasant sexism.

“Between Going and Staying” by Lilliam Rivera takes place in a future Mexico even more dominated by the drug cartels.  Dolores is a professional mourner using the newest bodysuit technology.  She’s been making very good money performing for the wealthy, but this funeral is personal.

There are two book review columns, one by Charles de Lint, in which he admits not being fond of psychological horror.  The other is by Chris Moriarty and focuses on books about human survival.

“The Vindicator” by Matthew Hughes is the last story in his current cycle about Raffalon the thief.  Raffalon is a mediocre burglar in the sort of fantasy city that has a Thieves’ Guild.  For some reason a Vindicator (assassin) is after Raffalon, and the Vindicator’s Guild isn’t being helpful for calling it off.  Raffalon hires a Discriminator (private investigator) and the truth turns out to be explosive.

A relatively rare Gardner Dozois story follows, “The Place of Bones.”  A scholar and his companion discover the Dragonlands, where dragons go to die.  More of a mood piece than a proper story.

“Lord Elgin at the Acropolis” by Minsoo Kang involves a police officer and writer meeting to consider the problem of a museum director who believes that one of the paintings in the museum is fake, despite no other evidence.  Is he just crazy, or is there another explanation?

“Special Collections” by Kurt Fawver is a horror story about a library with a section you must never enter alone, which is the first rule.  And then there’s the second rule….

David J. Skal reviews High-Rise for the film section, and compares it to the J.G. Ballard novel.

There’s the results of a contest for updating older science fiction works to today’s world.  Including a “Dishonorable Mention” update of 1984.

“A Fine Balance” by Charlotte Ashley is set in a city where all disputes between the two major parties are settled by specially trained duelists.  Except that one side doesn’t want to play by those rules any more.  Very satisfying story.

“Passelande” by Robert Reed takes place in a depressing near future with electronic backups for people who can afford them.  Backups who have their own feelings and motivations.  This one grated on me, as I felt the characters had their motivations poorly explained/depicted.

“The Rhythm Man” by James Beamon is a variant on the legend about talented musicians selling their souls for skill or fame.  A lot of set-up for one great scene at the end.

And the stories wrap up with “Merry Christmas from All of Us to All of You” by Sandra McDonald.  It’s a dystopian tale of a gift-making community that ensures none of its children can truly escape.  But perhaps there is a ray of hope?

There’s an “Easter egg” in the classified ads, and then an index of stories and features that appeared in 2016’s issues.

I liked “The Vindicator” and “A Fine Balance” best, though “The Cat Bell” was also quite entertaining.  “Passendale” was the weakest story for me.

This magazine has consistently high quality stories and some nice cartoons; consider a print or Kindle subscription.

 

 

Book Review: The Play of Death

Book Review: The Play of Death by Oliver Pötzsch

Disclaimer:  I received a Kindle download of this book through a Goodreads giveaway to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

The Play of Death

The year is 1670, and the people of Oberammergau are preparing their every-ten-years Passion Play…though some of them think it might be sacrilegious to be doing so four years early.  When the actor playing Jesus Christ is found actually crucified on the prop cross, the villagers suspect the Devil is afoot.  The deaths of other actors in the manner of the Biblical figures they’re portraying certainly lends credence to that hypothesis.  Or perhaps it’s God’s wrath, and there’s always the slim possibility of less supernatural murderers.

As it happens, medically trained bathhouse operator Simon Fronwieser is in town to enroll his son Peter in grammar school.  The town medicus having recently died, Simon is drafted to examine the crucified body for clues and treat the town’s sick people.  He’s soon joined by his father-in-law Jakob Kuisl, the hangman of Schongau, who has come with the district secretary to investigate the strange goings-on.

But are these murders tied in to the wooden Pharisees?  The little men from Venice?  Ancient pagan sacrifice?  The wrathful quaking of the very mountain under which Oberammergau sits?  As the mysteries mount, can the medicus and hangman survive?

This is the sixth in The Hangman’s Daughter mystery series to be translated into English; I have not read any of the previous volumes.  Naturally, the hangman’s daughters also come into the story.  Magdalena is pregnant with what she hopes will be her and Simon’s third child, and waits anxiously for her husband back in Schongau.  But Barbara has just reached the age where she is flirting with young men, and she attracts the attentions of a lustful doctor.

When Barbara rejects her unwelcome suitor and Jakob backs her up, the doctor vows vengeance and soon he’s using his political connections to have Barbara accused of witchcraft.  (It doesn’t help that the young woman has books containing spells under her bed.)  There’s a conspiracy on the Schongau town council, and Magdalena must make the perilous voyage to Oberammergau to alert her menfolk to the danger.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and much of the solution is figuring out which of the mysterious happenings are directly connected to each other, which are outliers, and which are just coincidence.  There’s some topical material:  Jakob is struggling with his binge drinking, and the Oberammergau villagers both exploit and hate the immigrant laborers who have come to their valley.

Content issues:  In addition to the expected violence (including a suicide), there’s also rape and child abuse in the story.  Torture occurs off-stage; as the hangman, Jakob is a skilled torturer, but prefers to avoid this part of his job whenever possible (he’s okay with torturing people he personally knows to be guilty.)  Other hangmen are not so scrupulous.  Classism is a constant issue.  (This leads me to a translation quibble:  while “dishonorable” might be a direct translation of the German word for despised occupations, the connotations in English make it a bad fit.)

Good:  The plot is nicely convoluted, providing plenty of cliffhanger moments, while wrapping up nicely with no important threads dangling.

Not so good:  Some of the villains are cardboard cutouts, with no redeeming qualities to explain how they got into the positions they occupy.

Recommended for fans of historical mysteries, especially those who haven’t read a German mystery yet and might enjoy the setting.

Comic Book Review: Ambassador of the Shadows

Comic Book Review: Ambassador of the Shadows by Jean-Claude Mézières and Pierre Christin

The universe is vast, and intelligent life has arisen on many worlds.  Over millennia, these different lifeforms have spread out from their points of origin and met each other.  Sometimes, these meetings have led to friendly interaction, sometimes they have ended in interspecies war.  No one remembers precisely when, or who did it, but an artificial habitable environment was created to serve as a meeting place for diplomats.  Each new species has added on to that space station to create Point Central, our last, best hope for peace.

Ambassador of the Shadows

Now at last it is Earth’s turn to preside over the Council in the Hall of Screens, and the new ambassador from that planet has big plans.  Plans so big, he needs to be guarded by top spatio-temporal agents Valerian and Laureline.

Valerian and Laureline is a French comic book series originally published from 1967 to 2010, very popular in European comics, and an influence on the look and feel of the movie The Fifth Element.  A new live-action movie version is coming out this summer, so I thought I’d check in on the source material.

The future Earth civilization, Galaxity, is based on time travel technology, which their space travel utilizes for faster than light speed.  This technology is dangerous in the wrong hands, thus the need for special time/space agents.

Valerian is a native of the 28th Century, and initially is quite respectful of authority, and does not question his orders, even when they seem ethically dubious.  That said, he is a good-hearted fellow who does the right thing as he sees it when the chips are down.  While in Middle Ages France, he recruited Laureline as a guide, and she proved so effective that he brought her home with him as an agent.

While Laureline is a fast learner who quickly adjusts to her new surroundings, she has an outsider’s view of them.  A fiery redhead, Laureline is impulsive and suspicious of authority figures, especially when their behavior is fishy.  (She initially was scheduled to be a “girl of the week” but was so well-received by the audience that she became the co-star.)

Earth’s ambassador initially emphasizes the “ass”, but that quickly becomes moot, as both he and Valerian are abducted by mysterious parties immediately upon arrival at Point Central.  Laureline must track them down through the labyrinthine construction and clashing cultures of the diplomatic station.  Comic relief is provided by a cowardly protocol officer Laureline dragoons into service as her sidekick.

The story becomes something of a shaggy dog when things going on in the background make the heroes’ actions irrelevant in the big picture, but this volume is important to the continuity because it introduces two recurring elements.  The Grumpy Transmuter from Bluxte is an astonishingly rare animal that can create copies of any item it ingests; since it’s a tiny animal with a small mouth, it’s limited to things like gems and pharmaceuticals.  Since the galactic community has no common currency, it’s like a portable cash machine and becomes Laureline’s pet.  Also, the Shingouz, greedy information brokers who will dispense helpful data in exchange for large payments.  Laureline becomes one of their favorite customers and they frequently appear in later stories.

The art is good, with the setting allowing the artist to go wild with interesting alien designs.  I’m not a fan of the coloring, though, which is often garish and inconsistent.  In particular, the humans often have bright orange skin.

There’s some violence, but it’s non-lethal, and one scene takes place in an alien brothel where we see some scantily-clad aliens (including Laureline in a disguise.)  Say a PG-13 rating.

Recommended to fans of science fiction adventure and/or French comics.

The City of Shifting Waters

And now a special bonus review of The City of Shifting Waters, which is as of 5/13/17 available for free download on Kindle.  This is an earlier adventure, when Laureline was still a new partner for Valerian.  A mad scientist named Xombul has escaped confinement and used a one-way device to travel to New York City in 1986.

Time voyages to that era are forbidden as global disaster, including melting of the polar ice caps, wiped out the existing civilizations, and there’s a blank spot three centuries long in the history books.  It’s not clear what Xombul is up to, but he must be stopped, so Valerian is sent back.

The secret time portal in the Statue of Liberty becomes inoperable shortly after Valerian arrives when the statue collapses, and the agent is pressed into service by a gang looting the flooded city.  While Valerian does manage to find a clue as to what Xombul is doing, he can’t do much with it.

Until Laureline shows up.  When Valerian didn’t report back in, she went to the time portal in Brazil and worked her way up to New York.  Reunited, the time agents make a deal with the leader of the looters, Sun Rae.  Since there are no historical records of this period, one petty warlord or another makes no difference but allowing Xombul to take over would change the future unpredictably.  They’ll let Sun Rae keep any 1980s science Xombul has gathered in exchange for his help against the intruder.

Turns out Xombul has big plans indeed, and intends to spread his “benevolent” rule over all of space-time!  Will our heroes (and their not so heroic ally) be able to stop him before the future vanishes?

The faces are a bit more cartoony in this volume; perhaps the artist hadn’t quite settled his style yet.  Valerian also comes off a bit more sexist, with some stupid remarks.

Thankfully, even in this cartoonier style, Sun Rae (who’s presumably African-American) doesn’t look too much like a racist stereotype.  When he’s first introduced, we learn he was a flutist before the Great Disaster, and he’s pretty sharp, instantly grasping the advantages of having scientific knowledge once he’s alerted to the idea.  He also doesn’t go out of his way to be evil despite his ruthlessness.

Xombul’s a bit more of a stereotype, given to explaining his brilliant plans to his enemies before disposing of them, and wanting to try out new cool gadgets on human subjects before they’ve been completely tested.  His captive slightly saner scientist, Schroeder, is clearly based on Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor but is better at social skills.

The writing isn’t quite up to the peak of the series, but is pulpy good fun.

Here’s a trailer for the movie!

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