Book Review: Mort

Book Review: Mort by Terry Pratchett

Mort is a farm boy who is completely unsuited to farming.  Or, it seems, to any other occupation.  He’s all elbows and knees and random thoughts.  In desperation, Mort’s father takes him to a village festival where boys are apprenticed.  Mort is the last boy left after being rejected even for beggary, when Death happens by, and takes him on for an apprentice.

Mort

As an anthropomorphic representation, Death probably doesn’t need an apprentice.  Or a manservant, or indeed an adopted daughter.  But he seems to want these things, and there you are.  As with any new job, Mort struggles with even the basics at first, but soon becomes reasonably good at filling in for Death.

So Death decides to take some time off, to investigate various things that humans do.  And it’s at this point that Mort lets his feelings get the better of him, and he breaks the Rules.  Once couldn’t hurt, right?  Yes.  Yes, it could, and reality doesn’t like it when a dead person is still alive.  Can an increasingly desperate Mort convince a wizard to lend a hand to save a princess before it’s too late?

This was the fourth Terry Pratchett Discworld book, and the first to have Death as a central character, instead of an extended cameo.  To a large extent, it feels like Mr. Pratchett was still piecing together the larger picture of Discworld after having decided to make it a series.  There are definite signs of what will become beloved characters and institutions, but vague at best.   Perhaps the most important part of the book is establishing Death’s interest in humanity, something of a soft spot for him that flowers in better books down the line.

Mort is much in the line of comedic fantasy’s unlikely protagonists, the sort of good-natured but clumsy fellow who dies quickly in more gritty works.  If you’ve read a few of the other Discworld books, you’ll quickly figure out where the intended twist of the normal fantasy romance storyline will come in.  Even if Mr. Pratchett is engaged in tweaking serious fantasy’s nose, he’s a big softy at heart and all ends well…mostly.

There is a bit of talk about suicide, but it isn’t a plot point.

If you’re new to Discworld, you might want to start with one of the later books in the series, when Mr. Pratchett really hit his stride, then come back to this.  It’s decent, but not his best.

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book Four

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book Four by Makoto Yukimura

SPOILER WARNING:  This review contains spoilers for earlier volumes.  If you have not read them, please see my earlier reviews.

This manga’s main protagonist to this point has been Thorfinn, a young Viking serving in the mercenary band of Askeladd.  Years before, Askeladd treacherously slew Thorfinn’s father Thors, and the boy has sworn vengeance in a fair duel.  Recently, they’ve become involved with politics, clashing with the legendary warrior Thorkell the Tall (who turns out to be Thorfinn’s great-uncle) over the fate of Prince Canute, son of King Sweyn Forkbeard.

Vinland Sage Book Four

As of this volume, Canute has manned up, earning the respect and temporary service of both Thorkell and Askeladd.  Thorfinn tags along for his own reasons.  They come into the camp of King Sweyn, where the politics become hot and heavy.

Thorfinn meets a figure from his past, who offers him a last chance to turn away from the path of vengeance.  And then in Chapter 54, “End of the Prologue”, several of the subplots come to a head in a climax that isn’t shocking (It’s a Viking saga, everyone expected a bloodbath) but still manages to be surprising.

The next chapter finds us in Jutland (part of Denmark in modern times), with a new viewpoint character.  Einar has recently been enslaved, and is sold to a landowner who needs some forest land cleared.  Einar is less than happy with the whole slavery thing, but he meets one of the characters from the prologue, who has changed greatly.

Much of the focus in this volume is on Askeladd, whose full background is finally revealed, and whose complex motivations make him a key player in Prince Canute’s plans to take the throne.  We also see a fair bit of Canute himself, as he swiftly grows into the role he must play to stay alive.  Thorfinn, on the other hand, is mostly characterized by his refusal to turn from his destructive path; it seems likely he’ll have more development in the next volume.

In addition to the expected violence, some of which is quite graphic, there’s a bit of female nudity, and some implications about owners of slaves sexually mistreating them.  A fair amount of strong language as well.

The art and writing continue to be excellent.  Highly recommended for fans of Viking stories.

Book Review: The Greatest Knight

Book Review: The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an uncorrected proof, and there will be changes to the final edition.  Specifically, there will be maps, genealogical charts, and an index.

The Greatest Knight

William Marshal started life as the younger son of a minor noble, so little regarded that when he was taken hostage, his father pretty much said, “go ahead, I can make more.”  But a combination of superior battle prowess, a gift for political maneuvering, and a certain amount of luck caused William to rise through the ranks of knighthood, until he ended his career as regent of all England, acting for the boy king Henry III.  In some ways, he came to define what people expected a knight to be.

We know more about William Marshal than many other figures of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries because his family commissioned a flattering  biography of him, the sole remaining copy of which turned up in the 1860s, and was finally read and translated in the 1880s.   Now, I say “flattering”, but as the author points out, what people in the 1220s considered admirable traits do not necessarily conform with what Twenty-First Century folks consider to be the ideal of chivalry.   William often acted out of naked self-interest to gain rewards of land and titles.  It’s also pointed out when The History of William Marshal skips over or obfuscates events we know from other sources that William was involved with, but don’t reflect well on him.

William Marshal’s life was strongly tied to the fortunes of the Angevin dynasty, and this book covers the political situation of the time, as well as a general discussion of  knighthood as it then existed.  It puts the treachery of John Lackland against his brother Richard the Lionheart into perspective when we see that their entire family was like that (Richard was actively trying to overthrow his father when the old man suddenly took ill and died.)  It’s just that King John was much less competent at it than most of his relatives, so he got saddled with the worst reputation.

While the writer has to speculate in places, it doesn’t feel forced.  He has the advantage of writing about an interesting subject who lived through many historic events.  But William Marshal soon fell into obscurity; all his sons died without heirs, and his biography was written in the days before printing presses, so only a few copies were ever made.  By Shakespeare’s time, he was reduced to a cameo in the King John play as “Pembroke.”  Thus you may be hearing about him for the first time.

While this book is written for adults, it should be suitable for junior high students and up.  I’d especially recommend it to readers who love tales of knights and kings, and Game of Thrones fans who want deep background.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Weird War Tales Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Weird War Tales Volume 1 edited by Joe Kubert & Joe Orlando

As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, the relaxation of the Comics Code in the early 1970s created a horror anthology boom at DC Comics.  At the same time, the once best-selling war comics were going into a slump, at least partially due to the real-life Vietnam War becoming increasingly unpopular.  So a hybrid title was created that combined the two genres.

Showcase Presents: Weird War Tales

Like many anthology comics, there was initially a framing device of a narrator telling the stories to a soldier and the reader.  This switched around a few times, until the series settled on Death as the host of the book.  For who knows the stories of war better?  The majority of the stories are set in World War Two, both because the writers and artists had served in that conflict or were close to those that were, and because the sides were so clearly drawn.  None of the stories in the first twenty-one issues are set in the Vietnam conflict; the most recent war covered is the Korean War in one story, and even then not presented by name.

The art in this volume is stellar.  Joe Kubert (who also got to be an editor on this title), Russ Heath, Irv Novick and others are well-served by the black and white reprint.  The stories range from good to trite.  The two most often used plots are “Corporal Bob saved your life?  But he died last week!” and “Arrogant Nazis disregard local superstitions, die horribly.”  A couple of standouts are Issue #11’s “October 30”, which is a series of interconnected stories taking place on that date in different years as Von Krauss seeks glory and promotion in more than one war; and “The Warrior and the Witch Doctors!” which has a Roman legionary time traveling, but a unique twist ending changes everything.

The Comics Code, while loosened, was still in effect, so while rape and suicide are implied, they are never directly shown.  The gore is also turned way down, unlike many current horror comics.  (On the other hand, there’s enough violence to make the “Make War No More” buttons that sometimes end the stories seem out of place.)  There are some period ethnic slurs in a couple of the stories.  Only one female soldier is seen, and very briefly at that in a post-atomic war story.

The subject matter means that this volume won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but the art makes it well worth it for fans of war comics who can take a little weirdness in with it.

Book Review: That Ain’t Right

Book Review: That Ain’t Right edited by Jeremy Zimmerman & Dawn Vogel

Disclaimer:  I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

That Ain't Right

Howard Phillips “H.P.” Lovecraft (1890-1937) was a minor writer of horror fiction in the early 20th Century.  But thanks to a gift for purple prose, a strong philosophical unity in his stories’ viewpoints and (most importantly) a willingness to share his ideas, he’s been immensely influential in the development of the horror field.  He’s best known for the Cthulhu Mythos, a series of stories involving cosmic “gods” that are implacably hostile to humanity as we know it, not out of malice as such, but because humans are irrelevant to the universe at large.

A number of his stories were set in the Miskatonic Valley region of Massachusetts, a fictional backwater including such shadowed locations as Innsmouth, Dunwich and Arkham.  That last one will be familiar to Batman fans.

Which brings us to the book at hand, an anthology of first-person narratives set in the Miskatonic Valley.  They range in time period from about the 1890s to the far future, and one is set in an alternate history.  As is traditional in Lovecraft-inspired fiction, several of the narrators cannot be telling their stories to any living person, although none of them are quite to the level of that one Lovecraft protagonist who was still writing in his journal even as the monster was actually entering the room.  An especially nice touch is that the fictional narrators have their own author bios at the end of the stories.

Some standouts in the anthology include:

  • “Arkquarium” by Folly Blaine:  A high school student working part-time at the Arkham Aquarium tries to impress the girl he likes by sneaking into the locked laboratory section.  Turns out there’s a reason no one is supposed to go in there.  The protagonist shows some gumption, but isn’t unrealistically competent beyond the average teenager he is.
  • “The Reservoir” by Brian Hamilton:  A direct sequel to Lovecraft’s classic “The Colour Out of Space” which has a microbiologist investigating particles in the water of the title lake.  He finds an old well still calling–or is it a hallucination of the deep?
  • “The Pull of the Sea” by Sean Frost:  A ghost learns that not even death can protect you from the worse horrors that come from the ocean.  The story carefully sets up rules, then the creatures that break the rules come along.
  • “The Laughing Book” by Cliff Winnig:  A college student studies the title book in the restricted stacks of Miskatonic University.  This story is more influenced by Lovecraft’s “Lord Dunsany” period of dark fantasy than his straight-up horror.

The quality of writing is generally good, absent a couple of typos, and the annoying use of phonetic dialect in “Dr. Circe and the Shadow Over Swedish Innsmouth” by Erik Scott de Bie.  Horror tends to be subjective as to whether it works for you or not; I found most of the stories nicely creepy, with a couple going a bit too much for the gore for my tastes.

Recommended for fans of the Cthulhu Mythos, and the more literate horror fan in general.

Book Review: The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries

Book Review: The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries edited by Otto Penzler

The title of this volume is slightly misleading; “locked room” stands in for the general idea of impossible crimes in mystery stories.  A man  is found stabbed in the back in a windowless room with the door locked from the inside.   A woman is strangled in the middle of a snowy field, but the only tracks are her own.  Precious jewels disappear from a safe that hasn’t been opened.  It’s a thriving subgenre of the mystery field.

The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries

This book starts with a selection of the most reprinted stories of this type, including Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and G.K. Chesterton’s “The Invisible Man.”  After these, which most readers will already know the endings to, the remaining stories are grouped by category, such as stabbings or impossible thefts.   A wide swath of famous mystery authors is included, and some more obscure writers with particularly good stories.    At least one of these stories has not been reprinted before.

Not all of these stories are “fair-play” mysteries where the reader can figure out the solution from the clues given, but they all play by the important rules of the subgenre.  It’s never as simple as “there’s a secret passage” and the murder itself is never accomplished by the paranormal.    Some of the stories are tinged with the possibility of the supernatural (Stephen King’s “The Doctor’s Case” is not one of them, surprisingly), but the solution is always possible, if highly implausible.  (Seriously, random Ourang-Outang attack in the middle of Paris?)

The genre-savvy reader will be able to figure out many of the stories before they end, especially as a couple of them use the same dodge as earlier ones in the volume.  Still, there are often other twists that distinguish the story, such as “The Wrong Problem” by John Dickson Carr, where solving the murder isn’t the real mystery; and “The House of Haunts” by Ellery Queen, which features the overnight disappearance of a three-story stone house, foundations and all!

The stories were mostly written in the Twentieth Century, and the first half of it at that, so there’s some period racism and sexism.  (The Flying Corpse” by A.E. Martin relies a lot on the narrator being unable to follow his wife’s “woman logic” )   I should also mention that at least one of the stories has the “it was suicide disguised as murder” solution, which may be triggery for some readers.

This book would make a terrific gift for the mystery-lover on your holiday list, or for yourself if locked-room mysteries are your thing.  I do have one caveat; the cover is a bit flimsy for the size of the book, and will not stand up well to more vigorous transportation.

Manga Review: Shonen Jump Weekly (USA) 2014

Manga Review: Shonen Jump Weekly (USA) 2014

It’s the second anniversary of this blog, so it’s time for the annual look at the online edition of Shounen Jump Weekly, the best-selling manga anthology in Japan.

Shonen Jump 2014

The big news this year was the end of the long-running and popular Naruto series (see my previous post on the topic.)   But there was also a switch in the way new series are added to the online edition.  Previously, new weekly series were added on the week they replaced an ending series in Japan, unless it was felt for whatever reason they would be unsuitable for Western audiences.  Series that didn’t happen to hit the right dates would be skipped.

This resulted in the online edition posting series that didn’t do well, while the ones that got skipped went on to great success.  Not a particularly useful marketing strategy.  So now they have “Jump Start”, a program in which the first three chapters of all new series are published in the online edition, so that if any of them do well, they can be promoted to full-time status.

Let’s start with a quick rundown of the current Jump Start contenders:

Takujo no Ageha:  Ageha’s Table Tennis by Itsuki Furuya:  A ping-pong based story.  Ageha is a table tennis champion who has returned from Germany for advanced training from one of Japan’s former world champions.   Ririka is the beautiful but spoiled granddaughter of that champion.   Grandpa wants to ensure that his ping-pong center will continue in the family, so wants them to get married.  But first, Ageha must battle twelve other Golden Successors to become the table tennis champion.  Some exciting ping-pong action, plus generous fanservice.  A running gag is that Ageha is trying really hard to be totally devoted to table tennis and training for same, but just below the surface is desperate to get laid.

E-Robot by Ryohei Yamamoto: Yuuki is a typical high-schooler who wants to date Hikari, the school idol.  His shyness has prevented him from even talking to her directly.  Meanwhile, Yuuki’s father wants to create world piece through the use of erotic robots.  No, seriously, this is his plan.  In aid of this, he sends an e-robot named Ai to help his son out through the power of sensuality.   Have I mentioned that this is a young adult magazine?   The conflict comes in when it turns out Hikari is repulsed by the least hint of perversion or sexuality, so Ai’s efforts to help Yuuki get with her are not terribly helpful.  The fanservice is just slathered on here, and the female lead is literally a collection of body parts used as tools to please men.  Very skippable.

Gakkyu Hotei: School Judgement by Nobuaki Enoki and Takeshi Obata:  In the near future, a collapse in discipline has changed the way grade schools handle rules violations.  Now there’s a court system in place, with prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges.  Our protagonist is Abaku Inugami, a renegade defense attorney, who along with prosecutor Pine Hanzuki transfers into a class where a crime has taken place so that the case can be tried.  Abaku is rude and enjoys verbally tearing down other people’s reasoning, but is smart and observant.  In a nice touch, the first chapter ends with an Ellery Queen-style “you have enough facts to solve the mystery, can you figure it out before next week’s chapter?” moment.  The Obata (Death Note, Bakuman) art should help this one be popular.

In addition, each issue now has a “Jump Back” feature, which shows the earliest chapters of a previous hit manga.  Right now, they’re running the first bits of Naruto, which means that even though that series is now over, they can still draw in the orange-wearing ninja fanbase.

And now, a look at the regular features, starting with the weeklies:

Food Wars! (Shokugeki no Souma in Japan):  A young fellow named Souma has been an assistant cook in his father’s restaurant since childhood.  He has higher ambitions, and applies to a prestigious school of higher cuisine.   Despite his lower-class upbringing, he’s able to barely pass the entrance examination.  Now, he must compete in a series of cooking duels to prove his true worth.  This is new to the online edition this year; it was originally not carried due to heavy fanservice (women seemingly orgasming from delicious food) in the early chapters.  It’s dialed back the fanservice, concentrating on the food porn.   The most annoying thing about this series is that Souma is depicted as the underdog every. single. time. despite winning every. single. time.  You’d think people would catch on.

Bleach:  Ichigo can see ghosts, which is mostly an irritation to him until the day he meets a Soul Reaper and becomes involved in the afterlife’s violent politics.   This one is still on its final plot arc as the hidden Quincy army invades the Soul Society, apparently so their leader can take control of or destroy the entire afterlife.   Most of the last year has been minor characters facing off against lesser members of the invaders and showing off their weird powers.

One Piece:  Monkey D. Luffy, who lives on a world that’s 90% ocean, decides he wants to be the Pirate King and gain the One Piece treasure.  To this end, he assembles a wacky crew, and sails around the globe, finding adventure and fighting evil pirates.   The crew is still in and around Dressrosa, where many of the dark secrets have been revealed, and the entire city has been turned into a combat zone.  Luffy and his temporary ally Trafalgar Law  have engaged main villain Doflamingo, which is causing massive flashbacks.    This continues to be one of the magazine’s top series.

Toriko:  Toriko is a Gourmet Hunter, who searches for new food sources on the former Earth.  He and his companions are currently attempting to revive the human world by reconstructing a menu that revives those who are exposed to it.  Team chef Komatsu is in critical condition, and the heroes must battle a King Monkey who throws around mountains as skipping stones.

Hi-Fi Cluster:  In near-future Japan, “Ability Labels” allow anyone to gain skills instantly, and society has re-formed itself around this technology.  Young Peta is unable to use these labels, and feels disaffected.  But one day he discovers that he is able to use a super-powered Hi-Fi label and joins a special law enforcement unit that handles label abuse.  Someone claiming to be the labels’ inventor, Landscape Mole, has appeared, and declares that society hasn’t changed enough–so he’s going to smash it himself.  This was the winner of the previous Jump Start vote…it hasn’t been doing too well in the rankings.

World Trigger:  Earth is being invaded by the Neighbors, illegal aliens from a parallel dimension.  Fortunately, we are protected by the agents of BORDER.  Our main protagonists are Osamu, an underpowered but compassionate  strategist, Yuma, an undocumented immigrant with many secrets, and Chika, a tiny girl with huge amounts of the series’ gimmick, Trion power.  After staving off a raid from one sect of the Neighbors, the team is trying to get good enough to be promoted to field agents.  Also, the series now has an anime adaptation that has been poorly received.

Nisekoi:  Raku and Chitoge are the scions of rival criminal syndicates.  They meet and almost immediately take a strong dislike to each other.  But for peace treaty reasons, they must pretend to be dating.  Over the course of the series, Raku attracts several other attractive young women, many of whom are actually his childhood friends and thus possibly the girl he made a marriage proposal to years ago.  The most recent development is the appearance of substitute teacher Yui, who Raku thinks of as an older sister–but she may think more warmly of him than he’s comfortable with.

And then there’s the monthly installments:

Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal:  In the children’s card game obsessed culture of Heartland City, Yuma is a great enthusiast of Duel Monsters–theoretically, since he is really bad at it.  Then he gains a mysterious spirit partner named Astral.  Things have escalated from there, and now he and his friends/rivals must battle a goddess of despair for the fate of two worlds.

Seraph of the End:  A mysterious disease has wiped out ninety percent of the world population, and most of the remainder are held as food reserves by vampires.  Only the Demon Army stands against them, but are they really any more healthy for humanity?  Yuichiro hopes they are, as he’s finally bonded with his unit, and their friendship helps him control his cursed weapon.   A search and destroy mission has gone slightly awry as several of the troopers have been taken hostage.

Blue Exorcist:  Rin Okamura discovers that he is the son of Satan, and decides to fight against his father’s works by becoming an exorcist.  Rin and his allies have finally rescued Izumo at the cost of Shima’s betrayal (what is he up to, anyway?)   Now Izumo must learn what remains of her family heritage.

 

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