Book Review: One Night in Sixes

Book Review: One Night in Sixes by Arianne “Tex” Thompson

Island Town used to be known as Sixes, when the Eadan Confederacy controlled this area.  But a decade or so back, the indigenous peoples pushed the Confederacy across the river.  Now Island Town is on the border, with only a handful of the old inhabitants providing continuity.  Like many border towns, the former Sixes is a mix of various peoples with different customs and languages, who cooperate or clash in many ways.

One Night in Sixes

Sil Halfwick knows nothing of conditions in Island Town–not even its new name.  The sickly displaced Northerner was hoping to sell some horses at the County Fair to show his business acumen and earn enough money to move back East.  That didn’t work out, so he gets the hare-brained idea to go across the border to Sixes, where horses are scarce.  He drags along mixed-race ranch hand Appaloosa Elim, who Sil is nominally in charge of, but considers himself Sil’s babysitter.

Elim has good reason to worry.  Across the border, “mules” such as himself are regarded with extreme suspicion due to the belief they carry disease. And if that wasn’t enough, certain people in Island Town have cause to be on the outlook for someone like Elim.

Sil is oblivious to all this.  He samples the local nightlife and becomes involved in high-stakes gambling.  He seems to win big, but a series of coincidences and petty cruelties result in a man being dead in the morning.  Now the two outsiders are in deep, deep trouble.  And it looks like neither Sil’s fast talking nor Elim’s steadfast endurance is going to get them out of it.

This Western-flavored fantasy is the first in the “Children of the Drought” series.  Despite many similarities, this is not Earth as we know it.  The various kinds of humans have supernatural talents, and some of the people in Sixes aren’t strictly speaking human.  The “white” people speak Ardish, which is not quite English, while the trade language is the not-exactly Spanish tongue Marin.  (There’s a glossary and list of characters in the back.  The latter is mildly spoilery.)

One of the big differences is that it’s much harder for mixed-race people to “pass”, as instead of melding features, they wind up with vitiligo-like mottled skin.  Elim has a very conspicuous eye-patch marking.

The story is told in tight third-person, with switches in viewpoint character revealing new information and making motivations clearer.  We see that much of the tragedy in the story comes from people’s biases blinding them to the good intentions or full humanity of others.

In addition to Sil and Elim, we hear the thoughts of:

Twoblood, the other mixed-race person in town.  She’s Second Man (effectively sheriff) and feels the need to be seen to enforce the law rigorously  to offset the suspicion against her because of her ancestry.

Fours, the livery owner who is not what he seems and has conflicting loyalties.  As a result, Fours has to work against his personal agenda from time to time.

Dia, the only Afriti (black person) in town.  She’s a grave  bride of the Penitent religion (roughly Catholic nun) and wants to give mercy where she can, but the wickedness in Island Town often thwarts her.

And Vuchak, a member of the a’Krah tribe (followers of Crow) who works in the local den of sin.  He’s poor-tempered, even with his partner Weisei (who’s a trifle addlepated.)  Vuchak takes his tribe’s honor very seriously, and doesn’t like compromises.

There’s quite a bit of world-building and examination of culture clash.  The book ends as several characters leave Sixes/Island Town for a long journey that will presumably be the focus of the next book, but there are indications that those who died in this book will still have an effect.

There’s some rough language, and discussion  of slavery.  (Sil claims Elim is a slave at one point, but Elim’s situation is more complicated than that.)  The fantastic racism may strike some readers as too close to real racism for comfort.

I found this book well-written and look forward to the next volume.

Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by  Victor Hugo

The Year of Grace 1482 is going to be the big one for Pierre Gringoire; he just knows it!  The poet, philosopher and would-be playwright is debuting his new mystery play for the Cardinal of Bourbon and the Flemish ambassadors on January 6th, the Day of Kings and Feast of Fools.  A good reception will net him rich rewards and fame.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Poor Gringoire!  First, the important guests are delayed coming to the Hall of Justice, and the audience nearly riots to get the play started on time.  Then a cheeky beggar heckles the audience for spare change.  Then the Cardinal and crew finally arrive, drawing all attention from the stage.  The Flemish ambassador pans the performance, and starts the election of the Pope of Fools.  And the few audience members left are drawn away by the mysterious La Esmeralda!

Gringoire is in for even more suffering tonight, but he is not the fellow the book is named for, but just one of the many characters who live near the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

Victor Hugo wrote two great novels that still inspire adaptations today; Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris.  The latter got a title change in English to focus on the most memorable character.  Quasimodo isn’t the protagonist either; the closest to a central character is La Esmeralda (“the Emerald”, named after her necklace), the beautiful dancer and goat trainer.  All the important male characters are defined by their relationship to her.

The 15th-Century date seems significant, a decade before the discovery of the New World would change everything, and so the characters behave as though the Old World will always be.

It’s interesting to me how the changing fashions in literature affect some of Victor Hugo’s story beats.  In the Nineteenth Century, the tall, brave and handsome warrior on a horse was almost invariably the hero of books, while a deformed or disabled or ethnic minority character (Quasimodo is apparently Roma by birth) is cast in a villainous role.  The partial reversal of roles between Phoebus (who is only interested in La Esmeralda for sex) and Quasimodo (who defends La Esmeralda even though it’s clear she is revolted by him) was shocking at the time.  Nowadays, there’s more variation in who gets to be the hero of stories.

And then there’s Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame and very much the villain of the story.  A teen genius and rising star in the religious hierarchy, he loved his little brother Jehan and had good intentions when he adopted Quasimodo.  Claude Frollo was a loving (if excessively stern) adoptive father to Quasimodo, and the local expert on alchemy.  Until he saw La Esmeralda dance, and for the first time had sexual feelings he could not pray away.

With no experience of how to deal with women, and bound by a rigid set of personal and religious codes, Frollo chose to interpret the girl’s effect on him as witchcraft, and began the rapid mental decline that ends with him seeing La Esmeralda hang rather than be with anyone else.

Between this book and Les Miz, I get the distinct feeling that Victor Hugo was not a fan of the French legal system.  Every time a character comes up against the courts and law enforcement, injustice is what ensues.  This is most symbolized by the auditor (assistant judge) who is deaf, and cannot hear that Quasimodo (who is also mostly deaf) isn’t responding to his questions.  He condemns the bellringer based on what he imagines Quasimodo might have said, and increases the punishment when someone tries to convey the truth to him.

The representation of Quasimodo as a person with disabilities is pretty good for the time when the novel was written.  I can’t say the same for the representation of the Roma people, called “Gypsies” or “Egyptians” here.  They’re depicted as a thieving, superstitious lot who hang out with the other worst elements of society.  Part of establishing La Esmeralda as a good person is the reveal that she’s adopted.  (As part of the “stolen by gypsies” myth.)

Mr. Hugo often takes the opportunity to spend a chapter talking about architecture, geography or how technology changes culture.  This can be fascinating, but may irritate people who just want to get on with the story.  He also uses some contrived coincidences to move the tale along.  (In particular, one moment towards the end of the book would in a normal melodrama have been the end of Frollo’s scheme and La Esmeralda’s triumph.  But it is ultimately useless.)

Definitely worth reading if you’ve liked any of the movies and are ready for more moral complexity.

Here’s a bit from the 1939 Charles Laughton film:

Book Review: The Book of Van Vogt

Book Review: The Book of Van Vogt by A.E. van Vogt

In 1972, DAW Books was a brand new publishing company started by noted speculative fiction editor Donald A. Wollheim.  Its mission statement was to publish quality science fiction books that had not previously appeared in paperback.  (As opposed to reprinting old books with a new title, as often happened in the paperback market.)  For their fourth publication, Mr. Wollheim reached out to A.E. van Vogt for a collection of old and new stories, trusting to name recognition to sell the book.  I mention this because the inside front page is devoted to this information rather than a teaser for the contents.

The Book of Van Vogt

There are seven stories in this collection, starting with a brand new one, “The Timed Clock.”  It’s set at a dinner party, and the host tells the tale of how he became his own grandfather.  Is he playing a joke on his guests, or does the clock in the hall have special powers?

“The Confession” is a weird story about a man who can’t quite remember why he doesn’t meet his girlfriend any more, or why he took a menial job sweeping floors when he used to be quite wealthy.  And he has visions of a future where things are better, but it’s impossible to see how he got from here to there.  Could it have anything to do with the hypnotist whose stage act he participated in?  An ambiguous ending.  Content note: attempted rape.

“The Rat and the Snake” is set on the homefront during World War Three.  Mark Grey loves feeding rats to his pet python, especially hearing their tiny screams.  But the availability of rats has dried up due to rat-catchers being drafted and pet stores put on rationing.  Mark finds a government research station filled with lab rats, and doesn’t question how easy it is to get inside and steal some.  Poetic justice ensues.

“The Barbarian” is a reprint from the 1940s.  In the far future, the Linn Empire rules Earth, and has successfully conquered Mars and Venus.  But now a new threat arises from Europa, a barbarian horde that looks as though it will sweep aside the decadent empire.  Clane Linn, a priest-scientist and acting leader of Linn, is the only hope of dealing with Czinczar.  Czinczar is far more intelligent than the title of “barbarian” would imply.  Clane is despised by many in the empire (including his late uncle, the former leader) for being a “mutant.”  We never learn the extent of his mutation, except that his clothing is designed to conceal the shape of his shoulders.  He is, by 21st Century standards, the nicest guy in his government.

“Ersatz Eternal” concerns three men who have crashlanded on an alien world.  One of them is insane, but that may make him the best suited to survive in this new environment.

“The Sound of Wild Laughter” concerns Marie Hazzard, a physicist who has been in a loveless (and sexless on her part) marriage with the philandering and maniacally jealous Carl Hazzard for over a decade.  She is briefly relieved when Carl dies, only to learn that his brain has been kept alive and able to communicate.  The situation winds tighter and tighter, as Dr. Marie must deal not only with her semi-deceased husband, but three greedy men who think they know what really happened.

That story is heavy on the misogyny, most directly from the noxious Carl, but also from the other men trying to manipulate Marie–and she has some internalized misogyny to deal with as well.  There’s some dubious consent sex.

And we wrap up with “Lost: Fifty Suns”, reprinted from the 1950s.  In the very far future, descendants of humans who fled to the Magellanic Cloud centuries past learn that the government of Earth has now reached their galaxy.  While the representatives of Earth claim now to be more inclusive of genetic minorities, they will not stand for there being an independent star nation anywhere in the universe.

The Earth ship issues an ultimatum:  Either the civilization of the Magellanic Cloud reveals itself and surrenders, or the Star Cluster will come looking for them with planet-destroying weapons.

This is especially relevant to Captain Maltby, as he is secretly the hereditary ruler of the “Mixed Men”, a new genetic minority that arose from crossbreeding different strains of humanity.  Gifted with strange powers, the Mixed Men tried to take over their galaxy’s civilization, only to be beaten back by force of numbers.  Some of the Mixed Men think this is a golden opportunity to make a deal with the Earthlings to become local satraps, while many others want to use the ultimatum to pressure their own civilization into giving them back civil rights.  Captain Maltby must try to decide what is best for his people, and convince them to accept it.

We also get to see the viewpoint of Lady Laurr, commander of the Earth ship.  Her crew has already been on this mission of mapping the Magellanic Cloud for ten years, and was looking forward to going home when they stumbled on evidence of the Magellanic civilization.  While their technology is highly advanced, they’re still looking for maybe fifty inhabited star systems out of millions of suns; it could take another decade to locate the Magellanic civilization provided this ultimatum doesn’t flush them out.  Lady Laurr faces legal mutiny if she doesn’t get results quickly.

The ending has one side’s efforts and infighting go all for naught.  Somewhat surprisingly, this story passes the Bechdel Test.

Of the stories, I liked “The Rat and the Snake” best; to the point with no faffing about.  “The Sound of Wild Laughter” goes on too long and has too much misogyny that isn’t challenged for my tastes.

If you like van Vogt’s stuff, this isn’t his most famous work, but is pretty representative.  Those who are new to him might want to try Slan or The Voyage of the Space Beagle nstead.

Magazine Review: Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946

Magazine Review: Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946 edited by John W. Campbell, Jr.

Before Analog (see previous reviews), there was Astounding, the science fiction magazine that led the field for many years.  Having gotten a copy of an issue from the pulp days, let’s take a look at what wonders lie within.  Despite the cover date, the ads indicate it came out in early December 1945.

Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946
Cover by Timmins

The lead and cover story is part one (of two) of “The Fairy Chessmen” by Lewis Padgett (a pseudonym for Henry Kuttner working with C.L. Moore.)  It is roughly a century into the future, and the world is at war…again.  After World War Two, the governments of Eurasia had crumbled, and reformed as the Falangists.  They and America are the two superpowers and implacable enemies.  Thanks to atom-bomb-proof shields and robot warfare, the war has stalemated for years.

Most Americans live deceptively peaceful lives in scattered communities on the surface, while the warmen toil in vast underground cities whose actual locations are closely guarded secrets.  Low Chicago might be below the ruins of Old Chicago, or anywhere in the Midwest.  Of course, in such conditions claustrophobia and other mental illnesses are a continuing concern, and it’s up to the Department of Psychometrics to keep the warmen in good mental health.

Which is why it’s concerning that Cameron, the head of the department, has been having hallucinations of eyeball doorknobs and talking clocks.  He’s trying to keep it a secret, but his help is desperately needed by the War Department.  It seems they have captured a scientific formula from the enemy, one that drives anyone who studies it mad (sometimes giving them strange powers in  the process.  For example, the levitating man who thinks he’s Muhammad’s corpse.)

There are time travel shenanigans involved, and  one character seems determined to produce a specific future.  The title comes from “fairy chess”, variants of the strategy game that use changed rules, such as a knight that can only capture backwards, or a 10×10 board.  The formula changes the rules of physics, sometimes in mid-equation, and scientifically trained minds crack under the strain.

A nifty throwaway (probably) bit is the existence of “fairylands”, miniature cities with tiny robots that people play with ala the Sims.  There’s also an amusing typo when one character claims he’s “half misogynist” when he means “misanthrope.”

Unfortunately, this novel is long out of print, so I have no idea how it ends.  The cliffhanger is neat:  “The edges of the spoon thickened, curled, spread into cold metallic lips.  And kissed him.”

“N Day” by Philip Latham (pen name of R.S. Richardson) concerns an astronomer who discovers the sun is about to go nova.  He tells the world, but is dismissed as a crackpot.  (Had there been more time, someone would have checked his math and found him correct.)  As a result, he finds his spine for the first time in decades.

“Veiled Island” by Emmett McDowell takes place on Venus (the pulp Venus of swamps and jungles.)  A three-person anthropological team goes in search of the title island to investigate reports of a new variant of human.  Apparently, unlike Earth, Venus just keeps producing new human variants out of the swamps which then climb up the ladder of civilization as they travel to the other side of the planet.

The Earthlings promptly crash-land, losing their clothing and supplies–they themselves have to start from scratch.  While struggling to survive, they run into the new variant of humans they were looking for.  A variant that seems destined to replace homo sapiens.

The sexism is pretty thick here, the action guy protagonist denigrates his female colleague for wanting to be treated as an equal, calling her a “tomboy” and the type who would have been a suffragette back in the day.  (Apparently something like feminism happened in this future, but he’s not too keen on the results.)  Over the course of the story, she comes to realize how awesome he is, and they are planning to get married (in the now considered barbaric Twentieth Century fashion) at the end.

The evolutionary science is suspect–emotionlessness is viewed as a huge evolutionary advantage that will allow the new species to outcompete other humans and replace them.

“A Matter of Length” by Ross Rocklynn (pen name of Ross Louis Rocklin) takes place in a far future with galactic travel.  A stable mutation has created a new kind of human, the “double-brained” Hypnos, who have the ability to hypnotize ordinary humans.  They are not physically distinguishable from other humans, but can be detected by “Sensitives.”  Hypnos face severe prejudice, and there’s a war going on between societies that want to exterminate them and those that tolerate them.

All that is background.  A Hypno named Joe has been captured by anti-Hypno forces, and was being shipped back to their planet for a show trial and execution when the ship went off-course and landed on a planet where time has gone wonky.  There’s a paranoid belief among some of the crew that Joe somehow caused this, or is making them hallucinate this, despite the anti-mind control forcefield surrounding his cell.  Eventually, the time wonkiness allows Joe to escape, and he rescues the two people on the ship who are not entirely anti-Hypno.

It turns out that Hypno powers have been vastly exaggerated as propaganda by the anti-Hypno forces; Joe never actually uses his mind control abilities during the course of the story.  It’s the holding cell force field that gives him the temporary advantage he needs as it shields him from the time wonkiness for a while.  Keitha, the Sensitive woman who tracked him down, is dismayed to learn that she’s next on the extermination list after all the Hypnos have been eliminated (as Sensitives are Hypno/ordinary human crossbreeds.)

Apparently, there are also longevity treatments in this future, as the captain of the anti-Hypno ship holds a grudge against the Hypnos for the death of his daughter nearly a century before, with the war starting later.  (It’s a “failure to save” instance–a doctor who was secretly a Hypno couldn’t cure the daughter from a fatal disease, and when his secret was revealed, he was lynched for deliberately killing a human girl.)

“The Plants” by Murray Leinster takes place on a planet with only one form of life.  Plants with flowers that follow the sun…or anything unusual that happens.  Four men whose spaceship was sabotaged crash-land on the planet.  Are they more in danger from the pirates that sabotaged the ship for its precious cargo…or from the plants?  A story that has some creepy moments, and could have gone full on horror if the author wanted.

“Fine Feathers” by George O. Smith is the final fiction piece.  It’s a science fiction retelling of the fable “The Bird with Borrowed Feathers” usually ascribed to Aesop.  A ruthless businessman discovers a way to artificially boost his intelligence by energizing his brain.  The process renders the user sterile (somehow) but since he wasn’t interested in having children, Wanniston considers that a small price.

Being superhumanly intelligent gives Wanniston a huge advantage over his fellow Earthmen, and he is soon the most powerful businessman on the planet.  But he yearns for more, and when a suicide trap makes it untenable for Wanniston to stay on Earth, he decides to join Galactic civilization, where dwell people who have come to super-intelligence by eons of evolutionary processes.  He keeps using the brain energizer, and is soon even more intelligent than the Galactic Ones.

Being logical beings, the Galactic Ones recognize Wan Nes Stan’s (as he now calls himself) superior intellect, and are willing to install him as their leader…as soon as his experience catches up to his intelligence in a few centuries.  Wan Nes Stan tries to shortcut the process, only to discover his true limitations and destroy himself.

The story bookends with identical dialogue at the beginning and end, which would be effective if the language in those conversations wasn’t so stilted.  It also uses the 10% of your brain gimmick (which admittedly was less debunked back then.)

Calvert Ad 1945
Patches considers switching the gift labels.

John W. Campbell’s editorial “–but are we?” is prescient on the subject of nuclear proliferation though thankfully humanity has survived so far.

There are two science fact articles.  “Hearing Aid” by George O. Smith is a very short piece on radio proximity fuses.  “Electrical Yardsticks” by Earl Welch is about the international standards for the volt, ampere and ohm; how they were decided, and how they are maintained.  Lots of math here, and possibly the technology is dated, but likely fascinating reading if you want to know more about electrical engineering.

I liked the Leinster piece best because of the thin line it walks between horror and SF; “The Fairy Chessmen” has some great imagery, but with only part one I can’t judge its full effectiveness.

Overall, an average issue, but well worth looking up for old-time science fiction fans.

Book Review: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Book Review:  Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Tom is a good man, a Christian man.  Tom is kind, hard-working, trustworthy, intelligent (though barely educated) and honest.  He’s respected by his colleagues, a faithful husband to Chloe and a loving father.  But Uncle Tom is also a slave, and all his positive qualities mean nothing to the law which makes him a piece of property to be bought and sold.

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Tom’s owner, Mr. Shelby, lives in northeastern Kentucky, not far from the Ohio  border.  While a kindhearted fellow, whose wife is practically a saint, Mr. Shelby is unlucky in his stock speculations and has become heavily in debt.  His notes have fallen into the hands of Mr. Haley, a slave trader.  Mr. Shelby can clear his debts by selling Mr. Haley his best hand, Uncle Tom, and the handsome, witty child Harry…or all the other slaves on the farm.  Mr. Shelby’s choice is clear; it grieves him, but after all, they’re just property.

Eliza, Harry’s mother, refuses to give him up.  Her other children died in infancy, and she knows her husband George Harris is soon to be sold by his own crueler master.  Forewarned of the sale, she runs off with Harry in the middle of the night.  But even if she can cross the broken ice in the river separating Kentucky from Ohio (for it is early spring), the free state holds no safety, for this is the time of the Fugitive Slave Act, and the law requires her and the child to be returned to bondage.

This 1852 novel was originally published as a newspaper serial (which is most obvious in the final chapter “Concluding Remarks”.)  Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was an abolitionist, but some of the heartfelt sorrow in the writing came from her own experience of losing a small child.  The 1850s were a time of high infant mortality, and nearly every woman in the United States would have known the heartbreak of losing a child or be personally acquainted with someone who had.  So one of the main target audiences of the book was the nation’s mothers.

At first, Uncle Tom’s fate does not seem too hard; though separated from his wife and children, and everything he’s known, Mr. Haley prides himself on his humane treatment of his goods.  Why, he even makes sure not to sell children directly in front of their mothers!  As it happens, Tom saves the life of a little white girl, Evangeline St. Clare, who begs her father Auguste to buy Tom.

In many ways, Auguste St. Clare is the nicest slaveowner in New Orleans.  He despises the institution of slavery, and the abuses the law allows, so tries to be kind to his servants.  But his own heartbreak has left Auguste feckless, and prone to “I’m only one man, what can I do about the system?”   Worse, he married his wife Marie as a rebound relationship without taking time to see if they were compatible–they aren’t, and she is a cause of misery to all around her.

Evangeline, on the other hand, is too good for this sinful Earth, and is a joy to everyone with her simple and kindly faith.  She forms a special bond with the trustworthy Tom, and even manages to reach the heart of Topsy, an abused girl who frequently acts out with destructive pranks.  Too soon, Eva’s health fails, and she passes away to the sorrow of the household.

Between Eva and Tom, Auguste’s heart is moved, and he resolves to reform, beginning with doing the involved paperwork required for freeing Uncle Tom.  Before he does more than start, however, St. Clare is mortally wounded in a tavern brawl.  While it appears he finally comes to Jesus before he dies, Auguste fails to tell Marie his intention to free Tom, and she refuses to hear anyone else informing her of this.

Thus it is that Tom is sold at auction to Simon Legree, a planter who hates everyone, but especially his own slaves.  Legree is a cruel man who cares only for profit, driving his slaves until they die from overwork.  Tom is deeply unhappy at this twist of fate, but is willing to work hard and help his fellow slaves.  Legree can’t abide kindness, so tries to drive it out of Tom.  But this is where Tom draws the line.  He will not be cruel, even if it costs him his life.  Nor will he inform on runaways, which leads to the final crisis.

This is a very religious book, heavy-handed on the Christian message.  Which is not to say that it’s comfortable reading for Christians.  Many white Christians of the time believed that the Bible fully sanctioned the system of chattel slavery  practiced in the United States, and this is on full view.  At one point, we even have pastors quoting dueling proof-texts.  We also have the character of Miss Ophelia, Auguste’s cousin from Vermont.  She’s firmly against slavery as a matter of principle, but deeply prejudiced against black people, and must overcome her own narrow-mindedness to help Topsy.

And though the people of best character in the book are fervent believers in God, He is silent throughout.  Perhaps He has a hand in fortunate things that happen, and lends strength to His children to endure; He also seems to allow vast suffering and withhold punishment from the wicked.  It’s up to Christians themselves to do the right things as best they know how.

The book is melodramatic, full of coincidences and unlikely twists.  Like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, while individual incidents and types of people are drawn from real life and things that actually happened, all of this happening to a small group of people is clearly fiction.  The last few chapters heap on happy coincidences as if to make up for what happens to Uncle Tom, and point towards what people of conscience should be doing.

As one might expect, the book is full of period racism (much use of the “N” word included) and period sexism also plays a part (in later years, Mrs. Stowe was what we now call a first-wave feminist.)  There is suicide, infanticide, animal abuse, torture and what is obviously rape takes place offstage.  The old-fashioned writing style can also be a bit difficult to get through; I would not recommend this book for teenagers, as it works better if you have some experience with adult life.

This is an important book, and Mrs. Stowe really knows how to hit a reader in the “feels”, while also knowing when to use heavy sarcasm.  If you haven’t already read it, consider doing so; it’s in the public domain, so easily available in affordable editions, or free at the library or online.

Comic Book Review: Oddly Normal Book 1

Comic Book Review: Oddly Normal Book 1 by Otis Frampton

Life is not good for Oddly Normal (who was named after her great-aunt.)  As the product of a human/witch marriage, her green hair and pointed ears make her stand out in her small town elementary school.  She’s constantly bullied and treated as a freak.  Worse, her parents seem oblivious to just how miserable she really is.

Oddly Normal Book 1

This comes to a head on Oddly’s tenth birthday, when none of the kids her parents made her invite bother to come, only using the moment to further bully her.   And then her parents refuse to understand the situation, coming up with excuses for how this isn’t actually happening.  It’s no wonder that Oddly makes a wish that they would both disappear.  It’s slightly more of a wonder that the wish seems to work, as she’s never shown any magical aptitude before.

While trying to work out what actually happened, Oddly’s aunt takes her to Fignation, the “imaginary” world Oddly’s mother came from.  She enrolls her niece in Menagerie Middle School, and Oddly thinks that maybe here she won’t be treated like a freak.  Small hope of that–though there do seem to be some kids who aren’t completely horrible.  Of course they’re the unpopular, uncool ones.  Worse, at least one of the teachers seems to be out to get Oddly for reasons that aren’t exactly clear.

This Image comic book series is by one of the people who creates the How It Should Have Ended webtoons.   The first volume collects the first five issues, out of six published as of this writing.

A lot of kids will identify with Oddly; feeling like they’re persecuted for their minor differences; and quite a few older readers will remember the same feelings.  It’s made Oddly a somewhat surly loner who’s only sympathetic because she’s the underdog.  Given some power, she could easily turn Carrie on her peers.  (The sixth issue shows that Oddly has more in common with her mother in that respect than she might have guessed.)

The other characters are fairly stock, with no one really stepping outside their stereotypical roles yet.  The series is also suffering from considerable decompression, and the first five issues feel less than a complete story, or even a full five chapters.

I’d say that it would be a good idea for Oddly to succeed at something soon, or show some useful skills or personality traits.  As is, she’s just a victim and pinball, bouncing from one miserable event to the next.

The art isn’t bad, but the writing needs to step up.  Keep an eye on this series, and if it improves come back and read this.

Comic Book Review: Essential Sub-Mariner Vol. 1

Comic Book Review: Essential Sub-Mariner Vol. 1 Edited by Stan Lee

Namor, the Sub-Mariner, first appeared in Marvel Comics #1 in 1939.  The son of Captain Robert McKenzie, an icebreaker commander assigned to the Antarctic area, and Princess Fen of Atlantis, Namor possessed hybrid vigor that made him stronger than any ten humans or Atlanteans, the ability to breathe both water and air, and tiny wings on his ankles that allowed him to fly.  (Best not to think about that too hard.)  Despite his mixed heritage, Namor considered himself an Atlantean first and foremost.

Essential Sub-Mariner

When surface-dwellers’ actions threatened Atlantis, Namor decided to conquer them to put an end to this.  By himself.  This didn’t go exactly as planned; while individual surface-dwellers were puny (but often decent people) en masse they were extremely dangerous (and hostile.)  After a massive battle with the original Human Torch (one of comics’ first crossovers) Namor chose to concentrate his ire on the most evil surface-dwellers, criminals and Nazis.  Thus he became superhero comics’ first successful antihero feature.

After the war, superhero comics were on the wane, and Namor stopped being published in 1949, with a brief revival in 1954-55 that did not pan out.

By 1962. however, superheroes were back in force, and Namor reappeared in Fantastic Four #4, when the new Human Torch found him as an amnesiac derelict in the Bowery district of New York City.  Exposure to the Torch’s flame and being dunked in the ocean revived many of Namor’s memories, and the Sub-Mariner swam home to Atlantis, only to find it flattened, supposedly by surface-dweller atomic tests.  Incensed, Namor once again became an enemy to air-breathing humanity, battling the Fantastic Four and the Avengers (and accidentally helped bring back Captain America.)

Eventually, it was discovered that most of the Atlanteans were still alive, if scattered, and Prince Namor brought them together to build a new Atlantis.  He also met Lady Dorma, who would be his romantic interest for some years.  This softened Namor’s approach somewhat, and Marvel decided it was time for the Sub-Mariner to get his own solo feature.  Which brings us to the volume at hand.

Essentials are the Marvel counterpart to the DC Showcase volumes I’ve reviewed previously, thick volumes of black and white reprints for a reasonable price.

The storyline begins in Daredevil #7, with Namor trying to resolve his dispute with the surface-dwellers through legal means, randomly selecting the law firm of Nelson & Murdock.  Sadly, Namor doesn’t really understand the American legal system and has the patience of a cranky two-year-old, so he’s soon on a rampage that Matt Murdock has to contain as Daredevil.. It’s a severe mismatch, as Daredevil is basically a very acrobatic middleweight boxer and Namor can throw down with the Hulk.  It’s a pity this one is in black and white, as it’s the first appearance of DD’s red costume.

We then go to Namor’s solo feature, which took up half of Tales to Astonish while the Hulk had the other half (due to a distribution deal with DC Comics, Marvel could only print so many titles a month, and so many of them were timeshares.)  We learn that while Prince Namor was in the Big Apple, Warlord Krang seized power in Atlantis.  Namor decides on a dangerous quest to get proof of his right to rule, assisted at points by senior citizen Vashti (who is made vizier in gratitude.)

Namor cannot get a moment’s peace.  Even after regaining the throne, he must deal with crisis after crisis.  If it is not some surface-dwellers accidentally endangering Atlantis, it’s an Atlantean pretender to rulership who wants to overthrow Namor and sit on the throne himself.  There are epic clashes with Iron Man and the Hulk, as well as classic villains Puppet Master and the Plunderer.

In 1968, Marvel Comics finally got its own distribution, and it opened up space for the Sub-Mariner to get a full-length book of his own.   As a lead-in, there is a plotline in which Namor is banished from Atlantis, and finally decides to pursue the question of just how he came to be an amnesiac derelict for several years.  This turns out to have been the work of a powerful villain calling himself Destiny, who also destroyed the first underwater Atlantis.  Destiny temporarily defeats Namor, who then spends the first issue of his own title recapping his origin.

And that’s where we leave off.  There are some pages of original artwork, a spare cover from a story that was not printed in this volume because it only had one panel of Namor, and Namor’s Who’s Who entry.

This was the era of bombastic Marvel dialogue, as Stan Lee was writing (to a degree) most of the line’s output.  This gives us such gems as “Eternal Atlantis!  How my very heart leaps at the sight of its undersea beauty!  This is the land I was born to rule, and nothing that lives shall ever rob me of my birthright!”  There’s also some great art from the likes of Jack Kirby, Gene Colan and Bill Everett (who designed Namor back in the Golden Age.)

Namor’s greatest weakness is not fire, which weakens his powers and saps his health, but his own overweening pride and hair-trigger temper.  Time and again, he leaps to conclusions, or reacts violently to minor slights, which leads to unnecessary battles and mutual distrust with the surface-dwellers.  Still, he does not wish to kill unnecessarily, and often goes out of his way to spare or save individuals who may not deserve it.

If you don’t mind a hero who consistently makes boneheaded decisions based on losing his temper, this is great stuff, and classic Marvel action.

Comic Book Review: Top 10: The Forty-Niners

Comic Book Review: Top 10: The Forty-Niners written by Alan Moore, art by Gene Ha

In an alternate America with science heroes and other weird or wonderful “characters”, it’s been decided to move everyone who isn’t “normal” to one city, Neopolis.  It’s 1949, and war veterans Jetlad and Sky Witch are reunited on the relocation train.  The new city is bursting at the seams with the continuing arrivals, and crime is on the rise.

Top 10: The Forty-Niners

Jetlad, whose real name is Steve Traynor, finds a mechanic job with the Sky Sharks, an aerial team that themselves are at something of loose ends with the end of the war.  Leni Muller, the Sky Witch (who’d defected from Germany during the war) winds up joining the understaffed police department.

In addition to the usual random street crime, there’s a lot of prejudice against the mechanical-American minority (vulgarly called “clickers”,) something is up with the Nazi scientists the U.S. has kept away from the Russians, and vampire gangsters are taking over the city’s rackets.  Although a romance is blooming, the climax is a major battle to determine just who the law is in Neopolis. and who it will serve.

This is a prequel to the Top 10 series by the same creative team, and fills in some of the background of the city seen there.  As with the original series, some of the characters are thinly-veiled versions of well-known comic book and comic strip characters.  Centrally to this volume, Jetlad and Sky Witch are takeoffs of classic characters Airboy and Valkyrie.  (Airboy was also used in the Wild Cards series under another alias.)  The Sky Sharks are the Blackhawks, and other characters are pretty obvious to fans of the original material.

Gene Ha also puts in many background cameos and sign references, readers can have hours of fun trying to spot and identify them all.  The coloring also deserves a mention, using sepia tones for a nostalgic feel.

The writing, as expected from Alan Moore, is good, but tends to dip into some of his favorite themes, which had gone a bit stale by the time this series appeared.  There’s a fair amount of seamy sexual content (including a vampire brothel) which makes this volume unsuitable for younger readers.  (I’d put it senior high and up.)

If you enjoyed the main Top 10 series, this is a good addition to that.  Otherwise, I recommend this most to older comic book fans who will get the references and are able to handle the seamier aspects.

Book Review: Girls Research! Amazing Tales of Female Scientists

Book Review: Girls Research!  Amazing Tales of Female Scientists by Jennifer Phillips

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

Girls Research!

This is a part of the Girls Rock! series by Capstone Books, which presents short biographies of women and their achievements, aimed primarily at young girls.  In this book’s case, the stories are about female scientists and women who made advances in science-related fields.   The introduction talks a bit about the difficulties that faced women who wanted to become scientists, and still do.  But it’s emphasized that these are women who overcame those obstacles.

There’s a variety of presentations, from short quarter page blurbs to two-page spreads.  Some entries have a dry recitation of facts, while others use “creative non-fiction” for the scientist to tell her story in the first person.  There are plenty of photographs, some in color.

Naturally, the usual suspects such as Marie Curie and Florence Nightingale appear, but there are also much less well known examples, such as Chien-Shiung Wu, who was a vital member of the Manhattan Project.  There’s a good effort to include diversity, but the book does tend a little bit U.S./Western Europe-centric.

The obstacles faced by women who are scientists are mentioned in various stories; difficulty getting an education, getting hired, getting listened to (a couple of them had their research outright stolen!)  At least one is mentioned as having additional difficulties because she was Jewish in Mussolini’s Italy.

But there are also accounts of Frances Glessner Lee, who turned her dollhouse hobby to good use in developing forensic crime investigation techniques, and Hedy Lamarr, who was a glamorous Hollywood actress when not inventing torpedo guidance systems.

The biographies are grouped by the type of science (astronomers here, primate researchers there) with an alphabetical index at the end.  There’s also a timeline of when these scientists did their most important work.  My major nitpick is that the source citations are on the indicia page in tiny print, and not well-formatted.  The bibliography is short and a bit lacking; parents will need to do the heavy lifting to find more complete biographies and vet them for their children.

The book has a nice sturdy binding, suitable for elementary and middle school libraries.  While the primary audience is of course elementary school girls, boys should also find the biographical sketches interesting, and parents may find out some new things too.

Anime Review: Magi: The Kingdom of Magic

Anime Review: Magi: The Kingdom of Magic

This is the sequel to last year’s Magi: The Magical Labyrinth so please see my review of that show, and the Magi manga if you don’t want to be spoiled for those.

Magi: The Kingdom of Magic

After defeating another dungeon, our heroes are in high spirits.  But soon new matters come up.  Prince Hakuryu must return to his homeland of Kou (basically dynastic China) as his father is dying.  Alibaba decides that he needs instruction in combining his swordsmanship with his djinn powers in Leam (roughly Imperial Rome.)  Morgiana wants to visit the place her tribe came from, even though no one lives there any more.  And Aladdin?  Well, he wants more magic training, so he’ll go undercover as a student to the land of Magnostadt, the only kingdom where wizards rule.

After some adventures getting to the continent where all these places are, the main characters split up, having separate adventures.  We mostly follow Aladdin, who may have great power as a magi, but needs much more training for finesse and versatility.  Magnostadt is a great place for wizards, but there are some strange things that don’t quite fit the outward image, and the city has a terrible cost for its power.  Also, one of Aladdin’s fellow students has a secret that could lead to global war–if El-Sarmen doesn’t bring about the end of the world first!

The most interesting new character in this storyline is Mogamett, leader of Magnostadt.  He clearly wants to be the Professor X of wizards, but has fallen into Magneto territory instead.   The contrast between his kindly demeanor and his cruel acts stuns Aladdin, and me as well.

The biggest weakness of this season is the absence of Morgiana through most of it.  Her quest is left hanging about halfway through, then we don’t see her until  the penultimate episode, when she shows up out of the blue with a new power.  At least Alibaba got to show up a few episodes earlier for some character development.

The manga is not yet complete, so the series ends on a sequel hook in case it gets renewed for another season.

Aladdin continues his obsession with breasts, and the script obliges him every so often.  On the good side, we get a bit more skin tone variation.

If you liked the first season, you should enjoy this one too.

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