Book Review: A Shadow Bright and Burning

Book Review: A Shadow Bright and Burning by Jessica Cluess

Eleven years ago, Great Britain was a powerful nation with a thriving magical community.  Then the Ancients were summoned, seven supernatural beings who are hostile to human life as we know it.  Since then, the British have been at war with these occupying horrors, and quite frankly losing.  At the start of the war, orphan girl Henrietta Howel was dumped by her aunt at a dismal school where she is now a teacher, having no other place to go.

A Shadow Bright and Burning

Of late, there have been a series of mysterious fires at Brimthorn School, and a sorcerer has been called in to investigate.  The culprit is Henrietta herself, who has had trouble controlling her ability to set herself aflame.  The sorcerer Agrippa realizes that Henrietta is a rare female sorcerer, and thus the Chosen One of a prophecy leading to the defeat of the Ancients.  So it’s off to London for Henrietta to be trained!

However, it quickly comes to Henrietta’s attention that she probably isn’t the Chosen One, and the penalty for impersonating the Chosen One is dire indeed!  Can she navigate the treacherous currents of magical training and romantic interest before the  Ancients and their Familiars strike against the heart of the city?

The plot moves along at a nice clip, and there are some cool battle scenes.  In general, this book is competently written.

That said, many of the characters seem to come from Central Casting:  the heroine with a tragic backstory who believes she’ll never find love, the “lower class” childhood friend with a dark secret, the seemingly cold man who in fact feels very deeply, etc.

Sexism is the real “big bad” in this story; the branch of magic that is female-dominated is the one primarily blamed for the Ancients and is now banned completely; several of the characters object entirely to the concept of female sorcerers, and young Queen Victoria is being manipulated by male advisers who don’t trust her to run the country.

On the diversity front, which has become more relevant in modern young adult fiction:  one major character is described as having black skin, but this never comes up again and there is reason to believe that isn’t his actual appearance.  As opposed to Henrietta’s “dark” coloration from her Welsh ancestry, which is frequently mentioned.  Also, it’s hinted that two of the male characters are interested in each other, but it could also be just a very close friendship.

There is some child abuse in the early chapters.  Brimthorn is not a good school.  The Ancients tend to cause gruesome deaths or deformity, which may affect some more sensitive readers–I’d say senior high on up should be fine.

This is the first in a series, and a few plot hooks are left hanging; for example, it’s strongly hinted that the story of why the Ancients were summoned is still not fully revealed, despite some major pieces being revealed in this volume.  And just possibly Henrietta may not be a true orphan….

Recommended primarily to readers of YA paranormal romance.

Disclaimer:  I received this volume from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review.   No other compensation was requested or offered.

Comic Book Review: Saints: The Book of Blaise

Comic Book Review: Saints: The Book of Blaise written by Sean Lewis, art by Benjamin Mackey

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Saints: The Book of Blaise

“Monster” Blaise is a heavy metal musician with “one weird trick”–his glowing hands can cure throat ailments.  It’s never occurred to him to look further into this, so it’s a bit of a surprise when a mysterious archer interrupts one of Blaise’s assignations.  The bowman claims to be the reincarnation of Saint Sebastian, yes that  Saint Sebastian, and our protagonist is the reincarnation of Saint Blaise.

Blaise wasn’t raised Catholic, or even Christian, and is none too clear on what’s going on.  But bad things are going down, and they must find the last few reincarnated saints before the end of the world.  The next on the list is Lucy Sweetapple, a grocery store clerk with the gift of Sight, and whose parents own a painting of Jesus that talks to Blaise.  It’s only getting weirder from here.

The author of this Image Comics-published story was raised Irish Catholic, he tells us in the foreword, and he’s combined his childhood love of the Saints with metal and comics for this series.  He’s best known for his plays, and it takes a while for his comics writing to click.  The art is strongly inked to give it a bit of a stained-glass feel, and works well with the story themes.

This is not a book for those who like their religion orthodox; the writer plays fast and loose with the abilities of the saints, the motivations of angels and the nature of God.  The ministers who have joined up with the antagonists are from non-standard churches, and there’s a children’s crusade filled with child soldiers.  Meanwhile, the protagonists’ forces include morally dubious metal bands and a demon.

While this isn’t specifically labeled “mature readers”, there’s nudity, gory violence, sexual situations and some unnecessary vulgarity.  Urine drinking in the first scene for shock value, for example.  Lucy attacking Blaise in the mistaken belief that he was about to sexually assault her is played for laughs, but it’s pretty obvious men have tried it enough before to make her violence an ingrained reaction.

There are some clever bits with the saints’ abilities being based on their folklore but not confined to that; and very effective artistic renderings of revelatory messages.  But in places I was uncomfortably reminded of some of the excesses of early Vertigo Comics.

I think this will go over best with lapsed Catholics and comparative theology majors.

Open Thread: Webcomics You Might Enjoy

Open Thread: Webcomics You Might Enjoy

Over the holiday weekend, I went to ConVergence 2016 in Bloomington, a yearly science fiction convention.  One of the panels I was on was “Web Comics”, during which we discussed many webcomics that panelists and audience members have enjoyed.  As promised, here’s a list combining the handout by Kathryn Sullivan http://kathrynsullivan.com/ with those mentioned by other people that I remembered to write down.  Descriptions I am copying from Ms. Sullivan will be marked by (KS).

O Human Star Volume One

Some of these strips may have Not Safe For Work (NSFW) content, and not every webcomic will appeal to every reader.  Nor is this anywhere near an exhaustive list of good webcomics.  If you don’t see your favorite, by all means comment and tell me about it.

Achewood http://www.achewood.com/index.php?date=10012001 by Chris Onstad is surrealist humor focusing on a small group of anthropomorphic animals, stuffed toys and robots living in the house of the never-seen Chris, in the community of Achewood.  The most celebrated storyline in the series is “The Great Outdoor Fight” which is to an extent exactly what it sounds like.  Sometimes has NSFW content.

Anna Galactic http://www.baldwinpage.com/annagalactic/2015/01/28/43/ by Christopher Baldwin.  Anna and her friends investigate why their ship seems to be settling a planet rather than just refueling.  Updates Monday, Wednesday, Friday.  (KS)

Batgirl Inc. http://batgirlincorporated.tumblr.com/tagged/read%20batgirl%20inc  by Max Eber & Yulyn Chen is a fan comic which teams up the various characters who have been Batgirl in the DC Comics as their own group.

Blindsprings http://www.blindsprings.com/comic/blindsprings-page-one by Kadi Fedoruk is about spirits and the politics of those attempting to control magic.  Updated Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Breaking Cat News http://www.breakingcatnews.com/comic/everything-is-broken/ by Georgia Dunn is a news show where all the reporters are cats, with their own special take on what seems newsworthy.

Cucumber Quest http://cucumber.gigidigi.com/cq/page-1/ by Gigi D.G. is a cute fantasy adventure comic starring bunny children.  (Note that I have not read all the way through–check carefully for surprises before letting your kids on.)

Demon http://www.shigabooks.com/index.php?page=001 by Jason Shiga begins with Jimmy Yee attempting to commit suicide and failing repeatedly.  Eventually he discovers that he didn’t fail–every time he dies, his spirit simply possesses the closest available living person.  Somehow the Feds know about his ability even before he does, and now Jimmy is on the run with an escalating body count.  NSFW.

Digger  http://diggercomic.com/blog/2007/02/01/wombat1-gnorf/ by Ursula Vernon is for an older audience than her Dragonbreath series.  The completed version won the Hugo Award and is the tale of a wandering wombat and the beings she encounters.  The collected issues are available in paper.  A wombat wandering a magical world.  (KS)

Dinosaur Comics http://www.qwantz.com/index.php?comic=1 by Ryan North has the exact same images for (almost) every strip as a Tyrannosaurus Rex discusses philosophical questions with other dinosaurs while running amok.  Often funny, sometimes makes you think.

The Firelight Isle https://www.paulduffield.co.uk/firelightisle/1  by Paul Duffield is a fantasy coming-of-age story about two childhood friends about to undergo the trials of adulthood on an island controlled by a mysterious religion.  Done in “ribbons” that require scrolling down to see all of.

Forming http://jessemoynihan.com/?p=11 by Jesse Moynihan (one of the Adventure Time people) involves ancient astronaut “gods” and their effects on the civilizations of Earth.  Some NSFW material.

A Girl and Her Fed  http://agirlandherfed.com/1.1.html by K.B. Spangler is about a young woman who’s haunted by the ghost of Benjamin Franklin and the federal agent who has been assigned to watch her and has his own annoying invisible companion.

Girl Genius http://www.girlgeniusonline.com/comic.php?date=20021104#.V3sALvkrLcs by Phil and Kaja Foglio is an alternate Earth story where mad scientists called “Sparks” have run amuck and made history unrecognizable.  Agatha Clay discovers that she is actually Agatha Heterodyne, a powerful Spark and the heir to a near-mythical dynasty.  Largely comedic, but with an epic story.  Has won several Hugos and has multiple print collections.

Girls Next Door http://pika-la-cynique.deviantart.com/art/GirlsNextDoor-Introductions-73082145 by Pika la Cynique has Christine Daae (of Phantom of the Opera and Sarah of Labyrinth as college roommates, dealing with their stalkers and trying to get through finals.  Irregular updates as it needs to be translated from French.

Gunnerkrigg Court http://www.gunnerkrigg.com/?p=1 by Tom Siddell concerns Antimony Carver, whose mother has recently died.  Her rather distant father ships her off to the school of the title, which is decidedly weird, especially if you add in the magical forest across the bridge.  Almost everyone has secrets, many of them dangerous.  Note that the art improves drastically over the course of the series.

Hark! A Vagrant http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=1 by Kate Beaton is a humorous strip, mostly doing historical & literature jokes.  Updates have become sporadic as Ms. Beaton has gotten paying gigs.

Homestuck http://www.mspaintadventures.com/?s=6 by Andrew Hussie is a recently concluded epic fantasy that operates like a cross between a webcomic and a Flash game, using the writing style of an old-style computer adventure game.   John Egbert and three of his friends are going to be playing a new virtual reality game, Sburb.  Naturally, the game hides secrets that affect real worlds and has many plot twists that are massive spoilers.

How to Be a Werewolf http://www.howtobeawerewolf.com/comic/coming-february-3rd/ by Shawn Lenore is yes, about werewolves.  It just started last year.  Updated Tuesday and Thursday.  (KS)

Hyperbole and a Half http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2010/10/god-of-cake.html  by Allie is more of a heavily illustrated blog than anything else, often telling stories from Allie’s childhood.

JL8 http://limbero.org/jl8/1 by Yale Stewart is a fan comic depicting members of the Justice League as roughly eight-year-olds attending elementary school.  Very irregular schedule.

Kill Six Billion Demons http://killsixbilliondemons.com/comic/kill-six-billion-demons-chapter-1/ by Demonaic starts with Allison about to have sex with her boyfriend when the room is invaded by “demons” that drag off the boyfriend while Allison has a “key” forced upon her that transports her to the world of Throne which is inhabited by demons, “angels” and other weirdness and must make her way without knowing anything about her new setting.  NSFW.

A Lesson Is Learned but the Damage Is Irreversible http://www.alessonislearned.com/index.php?comic=1 by David Hellman and Dale Beran is a Dada-esque strip that takes advantage of “the infinite canvas” to have as much space as it needs to tell the day’s story, which is seldom directly linked to any other story.

Namesake http://namesakecomic.com/comic/the-journey-begins by Megan Lavey-Heaton & Isabelle Melançon follows Emma Crewe, who is a “Namesake”, a person who is expected to follow in the footsteps of a literary character, in her case Dorothy of Oz.  She has no interest in being locked in the story, and is prepared to fight fate with the help of new friends she’s made and her little sister who develops the powers of a Writer.

Necropolis http://necropoliscomic.tumblr.com/post/118905492171/prologue by Jake Wyatt is a high fantasy story with some fine illustration work; it’s still relatively new so the full plot isn’t know, but there’s a war between kinds and a young woman who battles the undead.

O Human Star http://ohumanstar.com/comic/chapter-1-title-page/ by Blue Delliquanti begins with a robotics engineer having a dream of dying, only to awaken to it being true.  He’s now in a robotic body that resembles his original appearance, and it’s fifteen years in the future when intelligent robots have won civil rights.  Alastair is originally told his former lover Brendan arranged his “resurrection”, but Brendan denies this.  Also how does Brendan have a teenage daughter that strongly resembles Alastair?  I reviewed the first print volume, and a second is in the Kickstarter process.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn http://www.gocomics.com/phoebe-and-her-unicorn/2012/04/22 by Dana Simpson was formerly known as “Heavenly Nostrils.”  A delightful story of a young girl who becomes friends with a unicorn.  It’s now available in newspapers and past issues were collected into three books, Phoebe and Her UnicornUnicorn on a Roll, and Unicorn vs. Goblins.  Updated daily.  (KS)

PS 238 http://ps238.nodwick.com/comic/12072006/ by Aaron Williams is an elementary school for metahumans hidden beneath a regular school.  Amazon has both the collected and the individual issues available in paper, so trying to find the collected issues can be difficult.  (I’ve found the term ‘paperback’ worked.)  This one I recommend starting from the very beginning, as the setup for the school is very interesting.  Updated weekly.  (KS)

Questionable Content http://questionablecontent.net/view.php?comic=1 by J. Jacques is slice of life in a world where weird things happen but usually don’t get life-threatening.  This is another one where the art drastically improves over time.

Rice Boy http://www.rice-boy.com/see/index.php?c=001 by Evan Dahm is a surreal fantasy about a young fellow who may or may not be the one who can fulfill a prophecy, but is curious enough to at least investigate what the prophecy is.  Completed, and there are two other series set in the same world accessible from the website.

Spacetrawler http://spacetrawler.com/2010/01/01/spacetrawler-4/ by Christopher Baldwin is a comedic SF actioner about a group of Earth humans abducted by aliens who want to free an enslaved species.  It’s currently on hiatus, but a sequel is scheduled to start soon.  The original is collected in three print volumes, the first of which I reviewed on this blog.

Strong Female Protagonist http://strongfemaleprotagonist.com/issue-1/page-0/ by Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag follows a young superhero who has come to question if “fighting crime” is the best use of her powers, and discards her costumed identity to explore other paths to help people.

Subnormality http://www.viruscomix.com/page324.html  by Winston Rowntree is a “deconstruction” webcomic that looks at tropes and finds new ways to examine them.  It’s an “infinite canvas” strip that takes as much space as it needs.

Unshelved http://www.unshelved.com/2002-2-16 by Gene Ambaun & Bill Barnes is a gag-a-day comic about the workers at a city library and their eccentric customers.  Often has book recommendations.

Wapsi Square http://wapsisquare.com/comic/09092001/ by Paul Taylor is a “paranormal slice of life” comic originally about an archaeologist named Monica who discovers that she’s not crazy, the whole world is.  It starts out as gag-a-day before the plot kicks in, and what a plot it is!  The focus has shifted to another character and her adopted daughters as they try to blend into human society.

XKCD http://xkcd.com/1/ by Randall Munroe is full of math and science jokes.  After some experiments at the beginning, it settles down to stick figure art, but many of the ideas are nifty, and if you like math and science jokes…

Freakangels and City of Reality came up during the panel, but are no longer reliably available on the internet.

Book Review: Hokas Pokas!

Book Review: Hokas Pokas! by Poul Anderson & Gordon R. Dickson

The Hoka of the planet Toka are the galaxy’s best live-action roleplayers.  Given a story they find interesting, the teddy-bear-looking aliens will take on the characters as their own personalities.  And they especially love Earth stories.  Thus it is that they have entire subcultures based around Sherlock Holmes, or the pop culture version of Napoleon or the Lord of the Rings novels.  Alexander Jones, Ambassador Plenipotentiary of the Interbeing League, has his hands full trying to keep the Hoka safe until they’re considered advanced enough to join galactic civilization.

Hokas Pokas

The Hoka stories are comedic science fiction; some of the funniest ever written.  This volume contains three of those stories.

“Full Pack (Hokas Wild)” gives Alexander Jones’ wife, Tanni, a rare day in the limelight.  While her husband is away, Tanni goes to investigate a downed starcraft, along with her young son Alex Jr.  It’s in the Hoka version of India, which is based more on Rudyard Kipling books than on the Mahabhrata.  The mission is complicated when her Hoka escort overnight switches from a British military regiment to a wolf pack from The Jungle Book.  Yet those who are familiar with the book rather than the Disney movie may catch on to the twist more quickly than Tanni does.

“The Napoleon Crime” explains where Alexander Jones was during the previous story, on Earth negotiating for an upgrade in the Hokas’ status.  But back on Toka, someone or something has been twisting the Hoka games, and the planet is on the brink of having actual wars.  With the aid of the heavyworld free trader Brob, Alex must return to Toka unannounced and go undercover as Horatio Hornblower to head off a deadly reenactment of the Napoleonic Wars.

Star Prince Charlie moves the setting to the world of New Lemuria, and the archipelago kingdom of Talyina.  This feudal society has been contacted by the Interbeing League, which hopes to eventually bring the Lemurians up to galactic standards with the minimum of outside interference.  Talyina is visited by young Charles Edward Stuart and his Hoka tutor, taking a vacation from the cargo ship of Charlie’s father.

There’s trouble in Talyina, though.  The current king is a usurper and tyrant, and the people grumble.  One drunken night for the tutor and a local warrior later, a prophecy about a destined prince and the tradition of the Young Pretender cast Mr. Stuart in the role of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and the Hoka is now his Highland Scots retainer, Hector MacGregor.  A local lord is pushing Charlie to fulfill the prophecy, and due to the League rules, the boy can’t just have technologically advanced guards come get him.

The prophecy begins to come true, with a little “help”, and the people rally behind their alien prince.  But as events sweep Charlie along, he comes to realize that overthrowing one tyrant may only lead to a worse one taking the throne.  For the sake of Talyina, he must become the hero they deserve, if not the one they think he is.

This is actually a short novel, written for the young adult market.  It’s very much a boys’ adventure in the spirit of Robert Louis Stevenson, with rather more humor.  (All the chapter titles are literary references, for example.)  Charlie moves in a world of men; women are mentioned from time to time, but none are important to the plot, and I cannot remember Charlie ever having a conversation with one.  He does, however, learn not to look down on people just because they’re less educated or technologically advanced.  The bittersweet ending demonstrates how much he’s grown as Charlie chooses to do the right thing rather than the easy thing.

There’s some college papers waiting to be written about colonialism and cultural appropriation in the Hoka stories–much of the humor derives from the latter being turned on its head, and the League tries to avoid the worst effects of the former, but those things are worth considering.

While the first two parts are not specifically written for young adults, they should be okay for junior high students on up.  Some references are likely to go over the heads of younger readers, which makes this a good choice for re-reading later.   Highly recommended to fans of science fiction humor.

 

Book Review: The Blue Fairy Book

Book Review: The Blue Fairy Book edited by Andrew Lang

Once upon a time, (1889 to be specific), British children did not have access to collections of fairy tales.  Educators of the time thought fairy tales were too unrealistic and harmful to children, and beneath adults.  Mr. Lang felt differently; he had delighted in such tales when young, and the Grimm Brothers had done quite well with their books.  He selected stories from many countries, and his wife and other translators brought the foreign ones into English for the first time.

The Colour Fairy Book series was a huge hit, running twelve volumes (finishing with The Lilac Fairy Book in 1910.  But since the Blue book was the first, it’s been the most reprinted (and the one I review here is the 2012 Barnes & Noble edition.)

The Blue Fairy Book

The first thing I was reminded of was how random fairy tales seem at times.  Our hero or heroine will be walking along to get to the main plot, but there is suddenly a glass mountain in the way, and it’s time to work for a blacksmith for seven years to earn iron shoes.  Or a wish will be made for a ship that has St. Nicholas at the helm.

The stories have been bowdlerized (edited to be “safe for children”) which seems to do little to tone down the violence, but I note a couple of stories where a man comes to a woman’s bed and promptly falls asleep there…suspicious.  Other stories seem to have the numbers filed off–“The Terrible Head” is the story of Perseus without any of the names.

I also notice a strong theme of materialism.  Humble and giving though many of the good characters are, there’s a lot of attention paid to sacks of gold, diamond-encrusted dresses, houses with so many rooms you could not visit them in a year, and exotic, fabulous food.   I was surprised when Aladdin used his genie sensibly for a quiet steady lifestyle for several years (until he falls in love with the princess, at which point it’s time to pour on the wealth.)

But still, some classic tales, others that I don’t recall reading before, and well worth looking into.  There are even a couple with active heroines; “The Master-Maid” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” (Morgiana is the real hero of the story.)

While the Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome, sturdy cover and overall good presentation, it leaves out several stories from the original, and more importantly, Mr. Lang’s introduction.  If you’re mostly interested in reading the stories for yourself, it may be best to download it from Project Gutenberg to get the full text.  The physical copy would do very nicely as a gift for a child with strong reading skills, or a parent looking for old-fashioned bedtime fare.  To that end, I should mention that two of the stories are in Scots dialect, and you should probably rehearse before reading those to your children.

Book Review: Prophets and Apostles

Book Review: Prophets and Apostles by Joseph Ponessa & Laurie Watson Manhardt

Disclaimers: I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would read and review it. I am a Christian, but not a Catholic, which influences my reaction to this volume.

Prophets and ApostlesThis volume is part of the “Come and See” Bible study series; I have previously reviewed the “Acts and Letters” volume and you may wish to look that up. It’s important to remember that this is not a stand-alone book. For full value, you will need to have a Catholic translation of the Bible with all the books (in particular Baruch and Daniel) and a copy of the most recent revision of the Catholic Catechism. It’s also meant to be used not individually, but in the context of a small Bible study group, meeting regularly and advised by a priest or elder.

This volume, Prophets and Apostles, concerns itself with the so-called “minor” prophets, and the shorter apostolic letters. The primary theme is that the prophets point the way to the ministry of Jesus and the redemptive power of His sacrifice, while the apostles explain how the prophecy was fulfilled in Jesus and give advice for going forward in the life of the church.

As there isn’t a separate “leader’s guide”, this book begins with a chapter on how to set up the Bible study group and keep it running, which is very similar to the one in Acts and Letters.

The text switches back and forth between Old and New Testament, keeping the material fresh. Each chapter covers a book or two, or a large section of a book, discussing the salient points the author of this volume wants to point up. A selection of questions and suggestions for group discussion follow each chapter. There are frequent quotations from Catholic scholars, in particular the previous two Popes.

The text shows the author’s Biblical scholarship, and also a strong adherence to Catholic dogma. The writer’s a bit more personally visible in this volume than in Acts and Letters. Great care is taken to show that the Bible does not contradict itself, even when verses taken out of context would seem to do so.

One nitpick here–In discussing Galatians 4:4-7, the author makes the claim that “sons” is inclusive language, while “children” is exclusive. This seems to be based on the Greek word Paul uses, direct translation “sonship” having special meaning above and beyond ordinary adoption. But such would not be obvious to the lay reader, who is more likely to come to the conclusion that Paul was simply using the pre-Twentieth Century practice of using masculine nouns and pronouns as the generic, on the assumption that male is normative, with the subtle damage that does to communication. The author doesn’t make his case well, and thus comes across as blinkered by his patriarchal training.

Overall, while I do not agree with all the interpretations of Scripture herein, nor the conclusions drawn therefrom, it’s well-written and I believe would serve a Catholic Bible study group well.

“These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath.”–Zechariah 8:16-17

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