Book Review: The Play of Death

Book Review: The Play of Death by Oliver Pötzsch

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

The Play of Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: A Clash of Kings

Book Review: A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

Note:  This review contains spoilers for the previous book A Game of Thrones; if you haven’t read that one yet, check out the review here.

A Clash of Kings

Westeros has too many kings.  In the south, the King on the Iron Throne is Joffrey Baratheon, heir to the late King Robert.  He is a beardless boy, and cruel, and there are those who say he is not Robert’s trueborn son.  Still, he has the support of Queen Mother Cersei, Robert’s widow, and her powerful Lannister clan.

To the east is the King of the Narrow Sea, Stannis Baratheon, middle brother of Robert.  He is the one who instigated the rumors of his nephew’s illegitimacy, which would make him the rightful heir, and has a strong navy.  He is a hard man who has few friends, and has taken up with a foreign god.

To the west, his younger brother Renly is the King in Highgarden.  While Joffrey and Stannis yet live, Renly’s claim to the throne is tenuous at best.  However, Renly is a man who makes friends easily, and has the support of most of the southern lords who are not directly connected to the Lannisters.

The King in the North is Robb Stark, son of the former King’s Hand Ned.  He is barely older than Joffrey, but far more accomplished in strategy and battle, and has the support of the northern lords.  He may have too much of his father’s tendency to do the right thing rather than the wise thing, and grows weary of his mother Catelyn’s counsel.

Further north is Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall, who is rallying the free wildling people for a journey south, as the Others begin to stir.

In the far west islands, Balon Greyjoy is styled King of Salt and Rock.  He has long chafed under the rule of landsmen, and intends to pay the “iron price” for such seaports as he can seize while Westeros is in chaos.

And far to the East, Danerys Targaryen is the last known descendant of the previous rulers of Westeros, and thus the rightful queen of that line.  But she has another, perhaps more important title now:  Mother of Dragons!

Perhaps this might be a good time for Westeros to switch to representative democracy.

This is the second book in the A Song of Ice and Fire novel series, and source material for the Game of Thrones TV series.  It’s a thick book, with lots of events, though the tight third person narration means that many of those events take place “off-stage.”  Even the battle of King’s Landing, which gets a lot of detail, requires a key moment to be given in an after action report as none of the viewpoint characters are there.

So, let’s look at the viewpoint characters.  Eddard “Ned” Stark is dead (told you there’d be spoilers) and we still don’t get chapters for Robb or Rickon.  But the rest of the Stark family is represented.

Catelyn Stark (nee Tully) initially is with King Robb’s forces until he makes her ambassador to Renly.  She tries to mediate between him and Stannis, as their rival claims endanger them both.  It does not go well, and she is forced to retreat with one of Renly’s bodyguards, the female knight Brienne.

Jon Snow has joined a Night Guard expedition beyond the wall to learn Mance Rayder’s intentions and if necessary stop him.  There are dark doings afoot, both those of ordinary men and of the supernatural.

Sansa Stark remains a hostage of the royal family in King’s Landing.  She’s trying to retain what shreds of her optimism and belief in chivalry she can, but the story seems intent on crushing every last bit of her naivete.

Arya Stark has managed to escape the royal city disguised as a boy named Arry, only the first of several name changes.  She experiences the war from the perspective of the “smallfolk” who have no choice but to obey whichever master currently holds sway or be killed.  Her sections include a really cool character, but naming them would be a huge spoiler.

And Bran Stark learns that his body may be crippled, but he has powers of his own.  Also, being the eight-year-old lord of Winterfell castle is not as much fun as you might have thought, especially when enemies come knocking.

Meanwhile, Tyrion Lannister continues to be his family’s viewpoint character.  He’s appointed acting King’s Hand while his father Tywin deals with the military aspects of the multi-sided war.  His short stature is no handicap in a job that primarily involves making and carrying out plans, and Tyrion has more success than any other viewpoint character.  But because he took the post just as the ill effects of the war hit King’s Landing, he’s despised by the citizens.  And his relatives aren’t making things any easier!

Further afield, Dani is trying to parlay her baby dragons and handful of followers into a force that will retake Westeros for the Targaryen line.  This is the plotline with the most overt magical elements, including a trippy sequence where Dani gets a great deal of symbolic information that she can’t use because she has no context for it.  Apparently, dragons enhance magic merely by existing, but most magic is used in unpleasant ways so that’s not a good thing.

The first new viewpoint character is Theon Grayjoy, who appeared as a minor player in the first book.  He is at last released from his hostage status with the Starks so that King Robb can offer an alliance with Balon, Theon’s father.  Theon has a lot of resentment against his foster family, and is planning to betray them as soon as it’s convenient.  Balon, on the other hand, has no interest in an alliance in the first place–worse, he distrusts Theon because the young man has been too long away from their pirate island.  And indeed, Theon does very poorly trying to navigate between the differing ideas of correct behavior of the Northmen and the Ironmen.

Davos Seaworth, the Onion Knight, is completely new.  He’s a former smuggler raised to knighthood by Stannis Baratheon for services rendered, while also being punished for his crimes.  Thus Davos is one of the few men totally loyal to the would-be king while not having any illusions about his character.  Ser Davos speaks truth to power, which does not bode well for his longevity.

This volume is full of signs and portents, beginning with a red comet that a number of characters think is relevant to them…but they can’t all be right.  Several other clues are disregarded due to prejudice or past experience.

Content issues: Rape continues to be the go-to “gritty realism” thing in this volume; none of the viewpoint characters are raped this time, but it is frequently threatened.  Incest gets an increased emphasis, once played for comedy!  Lots of violence of course, torture is mentioned more than once, and frequent cruel and pointless deaths  And of course salty language.

There are some really cool moments and the general quality of the writing is high.  On the other hand, the survival rate of likable characters is low (and unlikable characters are only somewhat longer-lived) so this tends to be a depressing book.

Recommended if you liked the first book or the TV series.

Now, let’s have the TV show opening credits!

 

Book Review: A Game of Thrones

Book Review: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

About three centuries ago, the land of Westeros was known as the Seven Kingdoms.  Then Aegon Targaryen and his sisters came from the collapsed civilization of Valyria with their dragons and conquered six of the Kingdoms.  (The seventh Kingdom joined up later semi-voluntarily.)  Eventually, the dragons died off, but the Targaryen dynasty stayed in power through inertia and intermittent smashing of rebels. Finally, King Aerys the Mad was such a poor ruler that a rebellion led by Robert Baratheon and his supporters succeeded in overthrowing the Targaryens.

A Game of Thrones

Robert is…a better king than Aerys, anyway.  He had intended to marry a member of the Stark family, lords of the North, but she perished during the rebellion and Robert settled for Cersei Lannister, member of a powerful Western family.  The Lannisters have become powerful at court, but one of their intrigues is about to have a slight glitch, putting their plans in jeopardy.  Other noble families have noticed the success of the previous rebellion, and remembered that their ancestors were also kings.   Across the Narrow Sea, the last heirs of the Targaryen dynasty are still alive and dreaming of retaking the Throne of Swords.  Far to the North, beyond the Wall, an enemy older than the Seven Kingdoms itself is stirring with the coming of Winter.

If this were a history book, we’d be about to see a lot of maps with flags and arrows on them.

This is the first volume in the vastly popular A Song of Ice and Fire series, which has spawned a TV series, Game of Thrones.  There are planned to be seven volumes, of which five are out and the sixth is scheduled for release in 2017.  This may mean that the TV show will need a completely different ending.  Mr. Martin started writing this epic fantasy series with the idea of making it more “realistic” (cynical) than  many of the doorstopper fantasy books then  on the market.  As such, things do not always go well for people who try to stick to ideals such as honor and justice, leading to cruel, pointless deaths for them or others.   I should mention here that yes, GRRM does go to rape repeatedly as a way of showing how gritty and realistic the setting is, and there are at least a couple of child marriages that are pretty creepy.  (I am told that the TV series aged a couple of characters up.)

This book is written in tight third-person, so we only know what the current viewpoint character senses and thinks about.  This allows the author to keep certain things a mystery until another character is the point of view, and to shade the interpretation of certain events.

Most of the viewpoint characters in this first volume are members of the Stark family.  Eddard “Ned” Stark is more or less the main protagonist of this book.   A childhood friend of King Robert, he’s now been called upon to become the King’s Hand, the person who handles most of the daily details so the king can concentrate on ruling.  Their mentor had been the previous Hand, but recently died, and his wife sent the Starks a letter accusing the Lannisters of having a hand in it.  Eddard is a very honor-bound man and constantly attempts to do the right thing.  Given the nature of this series, that’s not healthy.  His clan motto is “Winter Is Coming.”

Catelyn is Ned’s wife, originally of the Tully family.  Her sister is the wife of Jon Arryn, the former hand.  Catelyn is fiercely protective of her children, which causes her to make several rash decisions.

Robb Stark is the eldest child and heir to their castle Winterfell.  At fourteen years old, he must assume a man’s role before even his harsh homeland’s usual standards.  We don’t get any point of view chapters for him.

Jon Snow is allegedly Ned Stark’s illegitimate child of about the same age as Robb.  While he certainly does resemble Ned, the older man’s refusal to explain anything about Jon’s conception or mother  beyond “he’s my bastard” suggests there is some mystery about his actual parentage.  Catelyn doesn’t like him one little bit.  He’s sent North to the Wall to join the Nightwatch like his Uncle Benjen, only to find out that conditions there are not as expected.  (Benjen goes missing shortly thereafter, one of the big mysteries of the series.)

Sansa Stark is the older daughter, who is good at activities considered traditionally feminine in Westeros.  She’s also a huge fan of chivalric romances, and thinks that’s how the world works, at least for her as she’s clearly the lady fair type.  (Think of an eleven-year-old Twilight fan who actually lives in a world where vampires follow horror tropes.)  She’s engaged to Robert’s handsome son Prince Joffrey and ignores some important clues to his real personality.  (In fairness, her father told her none of his evidence of what was really going on.)

Arya Stark is her slightly-younger sister, who is initially more likable for modern audiences, as she gets all of the “rebellious tomboy” personality bits.  She gets some important clues early on, but only being ten and not having context, doesn’t get to do much with them.

Brandon “Bran” Stark is seven, and an avid climber.  This gets him in trouble when he passes by a window that should have been unoccupied and learns a dangerous secret.  His subsequent near-death experience causes him to forget what he learned, but the person whose secret it is can’t take chances on that, and the assassination attempt made on Bran moves much of what Catelyn does for the rest of the book.

Rickon Stark is the baby of the family at three, and doesn’t get any point of view chapters in this book.  Nor does family guest/hostage Theon Greyjoy, who is slightly older than Robb and Jon, and is boarding at Winterfell as a hostage to the good behavior of his father.

Tyrion Lannister is the only member of his family to get point of view chapters.  Born with dwarfism, Tyrion was barely tolerated by his father Lord Tywin and sister Cersei, and marginally treated better by his handsome brother Jaime (now a Kingsguard.)  Clearly never going to win glory in knighthood, Tyrion has concentrated on honing his mind, and his razor tongue.  He is kind to Jon Snow and later Bran, but runs afoul of Catelyn Stark due to the manipulations of his enemies.

And then there’s Daenerys “Dani” Targaryen.  She and her older brother Viserys are the sole remaining grandchildren of the former king, and Viserys is thus the rightful ruler of Westeros for the Targaryen loyalists.  However, in exile in the Free Cities, their cause has not gone well, and the royal pair are broke.  In a last-ditch effort to raise an army which he can use to take back Westeros, Viserys arranges for Dani to be married to Khal Drogo, a mighty leader of the Dothraki horse nomads.

Despite his taste for child brides, Khal Drogo is a pretty good husband by Dothraki standards, and Danerys learns to love him.  Even better, their child is prophesied to become “The Stallion That Mounts the World.”  Viserys isn’t willing to wait until his nephew is born to start conquering things, and pushes a little too hard.  He probably never really understood what it means to “wake the dragon.”

Don’t get too attached to any of these people, Mr. Martin has no qualms about killing viewpoint characters in cruel and pointless ways.

Good things:  There are a lot of vividly-drawn characters in multiple factions–my edition has a list of the major clans and their members at the back, along with a timeline of the Targaryen Dynasty, and that still leaves out multiple members of the cast.  The politics are detailed but not too difficult to follow.  The main thing is that far too many nobles remember bad things that happened to their families decades and even centuries before, and operate on the principle of getting payback for that.

There are many twists and turns in the plot, so other than “someone’s going to have a cruel and pointless death soon” it’s hard to guess what’s happening next.    Sometimes I did get frustrated by people making boneheaded decisions for stupid reasons, but the majority of actions made sense given earlier or later explained motivations.

Less good:  The content issues noted earlier; Mr. Martin likes him some earthy language too, and is overfond of the word “bastard.”   This is rather obviously not a standalone book, with most of the plot threads still hanging loose at the end of Book One, and I am told many of them dangling through the end of Book Five!  Perhaps I should have stuck with my original intention of not starting until all the books are out.

To be honest, this series has had so much hype that you probably already know if you’re interested in trying it.

Let’s enjoy the Sesame Street version of the plotline!

Book Review: The Book of Andre Norton

Book Review: The Book of Andre Norton edited by Roger Elwood

Andre Alice Norton (1912-2005) was a prolific author,  best known for her science fiction and fantasy novels marketed to the young adult sector.  (I’ve previously reviewed her 1960 book Storm Over Warlock.)  Her output of short fiction was much less, but enough good stories were available for this volume.  The hardback edition was titled The Many Worlds of Andre Norton.

The Book of Andre Norton

The introduction is by Donald A. Wollheim, the publisher of DAW Books.  He notes that he republished one of her “juveniles” with a new title and without mentioning its original marketing category, and it sold just fine, thank you.  At the time of his writing, “young adult” was still a new name for the category and felt awkward to him.

“The Toads of Grimmerdale” is about a rape survivor named Hertha.   Her homeland of the Dales has recently managed to repel an invasion, but at a high cost, with the land impoverished and the various fiefs thrown into confusion.  The man who assaulted Hertha was not one of the invaders, but of a Dalish army.  She didn’t get a look at his face, but there is a clue by which she will surely know him.  When it became clear that Hertha was pregnant, her brother Kuno offered her a choice of a dangerous abortion…or exile.

Hertha undertakes the harsh midwinter journey to the shrine of Gunnora, goddess of women, and is assured that the evil of its father will not taint her child.  But Hertha also wants revenge, something Gunnora (who only has domain over life) will not offer.  So it is that Hertha also seeks out the title creatures, which are not toads in any human sense, who do offer vengeance.  But it is said that the gifts they offer are often not to the pleasure of their supplicants.

Then  we meet Trystan, a mercenary who is no longer needed by his army, and looking for a place to settle down.  He may or may not be the man Hertha is looking for, but soon he must deal with the Toads.  But can either man or woman stand against the gods of the Old Ones?

This is the cover story, and that illustration is at least in the right neighborhood.  Of note is that the Toads do something to Hertha’s face that makes her hideous to men, though we never get a description beyond patches of brown skin.

“London Bridge” is set in a post-apocalyptic city.  It was sealed against the pollution of the outside world, only to fall victim to a plague that killed all/most of the adults.  (It’s not clear if “Ups” are the few adults that remain, driven to madness by drug addiction, or people the same age range as the protagonist who are drug addicts.)  Lew is the leader of his gang of youths and children, and is on the trail of “the Rhyming Man”, a mysterious figure who speaks only in nursery rhymes and seems to be responsible for the disappearance of the younger members of this and other gangs.   This story seems to be more fantasy than science fiction, as the power of belief is an important plot point.

“On Writing Fantasy” is an essay by Ms. Norton about where she gets her ideas and the process of writing fantastic stories.  She was a big believer in reading history and historical fiction to get inspiration and technical details, and shares a list of her favorites.  (The history books may be a trifle dated due to new discoveries and scholarship.)   She also talks about writing Year of the Unicorn, her first book with a female protagonist.  Reader response was apparently very divided–girls really appreciated Gillan, while boys did not like her at all.  (“The Toads of Grimmerdale” turns out to take place at roughly the same time as this book, but does not share any characters.)

“Mousetrap” is a short tale set on Mars.  A man destroys a priceless alien artwork and suffers the consequences.  Hard to discuss further without spoiling.

“All Cats are Gray” also starts on Mars.  A computer operator approaches a man down on his luck with the news that a derelict spaceship loaded with loot is returning to the general orbit area.  She invites herself and her cat along on the salvage mission, which turns out to be a very good idea.  Ms. Norton’s themes of bonding with animals and distrust of computers are both seen here.

“The Long Night of Waiting” is set in a new suburban housing development.  The children of the first family to move in meet two children who are very out of place.  This is despite the pair having lived there to begin with; they’ve been trapped in the land of the Fair Folk for what seems like a short time to them, but more than a century to those outside.  The ending might be happy, or chilling, depending on your attitude.

“The Gifts of Asti” is another story that blends the fantasy and SF genres; the last priestess of the title god flees her temple in advance of the barbarian hordes that have sacked the nearby city.  Passing through underground passages with her telepathic lizard companion, Varta emerges in a valley that has not seen human life in a long time, possibly because of the glass plain where a city once stood.  Varta finds a gift preserved from a time when the ancient towers were not yet built, and this provides hope for the future.

“Long Live Lord Kor!” is a novella-length work.  Mental time travel has been invented, but restricted to meddling with planets whose populations are dead in “the present” to try to bring them back to life.  Special agent Creed Trapnell is assigned to follow up a failed mission.  For reasons not fully discussed, it is only possible to be projected back into a brain that has near-zero intelligence of its own.  Trapnell finds himself not in the body of the oracle he was intended to inhabit (and why would an  oracle be devoid of thought?) and instead inhabiting Lord Kor Kenric, the son of the king.

It seems Kor recently took a bad wound to the head, and was not expected to live, let alone recover with only a case of amnesia.  Now the new merged Lord Kor must seek out the “sorceress” who is the primary agent in this time period and attempt to complete the mission before the oracle sets the planet on the road to nuclear war.  Turns out there were some important things left out of Trapnell’s briefing…but did the supercomputer ZAT deliberately conceal these topics, or just not know?

There’s some use of what used to be acceptable medical terms for people with mental handicaps, but are now considered slurs.

“Andre Norton: Loss of Faith” by Rick Brooks is a survey of the themes in her work, and what seemed to be an increasing pessimism in her books.  Many of the darker sides of her settings had been there all along, but Mr. Brooks felt they were becoming more central in the late 1960s material.

The volume ends with a complete as of 1974 bibliography for Ms. Norton.

I enjoyed “Mousetrap” and “Long Live Lord Kor!” the best; “The Long Night of Waiting” felt too “old person complainy” for my tastes.  Overall, a strong collection of stories, and it’s been reprinted several times so should be available in better used bookstores as well as libraries.

Manga Review: Platinum End 1

Manga Review: Platinum End 1 Story by Tsugumi Ohba, Art by Takeshi Obata

Have you ever looked at the world around you and thought, “Wow, God’s not doing a very good job.”?  Perhaps you have even succumbed to hubris and thought you could do a better job if you, personally, had God’s power.  As it turns out, God’s retiring and has assigned thirteen angels to seek out candidates for the open position.  Each will be able to give their candidate special powers, and there will be a 999-day competition period, at the end of which the new God will be chosen.  Special rank angel Nasse already has someone in mind.

Platinum End 1

Which brings us to our protagonist, Mirai Kakehashi.  He’s introduced to us by tossing himself off a building on the day he graduates from middle school.  Seems that Mirai is an orphan whose life has been made utterly miserable by his abusive relatives (yes, shades of Harry Potter) and now that he’s past mandatory school age, aunt and uncle want him to get a job and sign over the paycheck in return for their “generosity.”  Nasse catches Mirai before he hits the pavement.

The angel explains that she has been keeping an eye on Mirai for a while as his “guardian angel” and she is at last able to intervene to make him happy.  Nasse grants him three nifty powers; wings to fly, red arrows that will make people love him, and white arrows that kill painlessly.  Mirai isn’t too sure about this, especially as Nasse suggests using these powers in ways that seem…unethical to the boy.  He does, however, wind up using the red arrows to resolve the issue of his abusive relatives.

Now that Mirai has a future again, he works hard to get into the same school as his crush, Saki.  While that’s going on, Nasse explains more about the “replace God” contest, and they become aware of a God candidate who is most definitely abusing his powers.  This story doesn’t really intersect with theirs, as he’s quickly taken out by a third candidate, who has decided to murder his way to victory.

“Metropoliman” uses his powers to appear to be a superhero so that he can  openly hunt for the other candidates with the public on his side.  This makes Mirai worried, but the murderous “hero” isn’t his top priority when a fourth candidate turns out to be going to the same high school.  A candidate who’s gotten the drop on him!

This monthly manga is by the creators of Death Note and Bakuman, and was much anticipated.   The art is certainly excellent!  But large chunks of the premise seem to have been lifted from the Future Diary series, and several of the characters in these early chapters are kind of blah.  In particular, Ohba seems to struggle with the right balance of competence and initiative for female characters.  I am hoping that future chapters will improve this.

That said, Nasse has a lot of potential as an angelic creature that doesn’t quite grok human morality.  Her design which makes it difficult to tell whether she’s wearing clothes or just has an unusual body is also nifty.

Content issues:  In addition to frequent mentions of suicide (and one on-camera attempt) and child abuse, there’s rape and female nudity in a sexual context.  While the series is aimed at high schoolers in Japan, it gets a “Mature Readers” tag in the U.S.

Primarily recommended to fans of the creators’ previous series.  Consider getting the physical edition–there are some neat effects on the cover that don’t come across in a scan.

Manga Review: Blade of the Immortal Omnibus 1

Manga Review: Blade of the Immortal Omnibus 1 by Hiroaki Samura

Manji used to be the samurai retainer of Lord Horii, and served faithfully until the day he discovered that the people he’d just killed on orders from Horii were in fact not criminals, but innocent peasants who were going to the government with evidence of the lord’s tax embezzlement.  In a fit of rage, Manji executed his master.  Now a fugitive, Manji wound up killing one hundred police officers in his efforts to remain free.

Blade of the Immortal Omnibus 1

The last one turned out to be his sister Machi’s husband, and witnessing this event drove her mad.  This sobered Manji somewhat, and he reconsidered his habit of resorting to lethal violence while trying to take care of his sister.  It was at this point that Manji met the Buddhist nun Yaobikuni, who infested him with the kessen-chu (holy bloodworms) that regenerate any wound, making Manji functionally immortal.

After a ronin (masterless samurai) gang murders Machi to force Manji into a duel, he no longer has a reason to be immortal.  It turns out that he can be released from the bloodworms if he can complete a worthy goal.  Manji decides to make up for murdering one hundred cops by killing one thousand criminals.  But he believes he must have proof of evil before he kills someone, otherwise he’ll just be adding more stains to his soul….

This 1990s seinen manga series (originally titled Mugen no Juunin “Inhabitant of Infinity”) is set in the Edo period of Japanese history, but uses deliberate anachronisms to indicate that historical accuracy is not to be found here.  The creator states in an interview contained in this volume that he was trying for a “punk” sensibility.

After the introductory chapter, the story begins to focus on the other protagonist, a young woman named Rin.  She is seeking revenge on a man named Anotsu who murdered her father (in revenge for his grandfather’s offense against Anotsu’s grandfather) and had her mother raped before carrying the woman off.  The problem is that Anotsu is the leader of the powerful Itto-Ryu gang, renegade warriors who are out to destroy all other schools of weapon use.  Rin may be plucky, and can handle weapons, but she hasn’t had nearly enough training to handle expert fighters.

Yaobikuni suggests that Rin hire Manji to help her.  He’s dubious at first–he’s been lied to before, after all, and how does he know which if any side of a revenge cycle are the evil ones?  But because she reminds him of his sister, he’ll at least come along and see for himself.

As it happens, one of the Itto-Ryu members is locatable as Kuroi Sabato has been sending Rin love poems since participating in the murder of her father.  As you might guess from this inappropriate behavior, Kuroi is very wrong in the head(s), and Manji agrees to help Rin out with her revenge.

The remainder of the series is trying to track down Anotsu and getting him to stay in one place long enough for Rin to get revenge, while battling members of the Itto-Ryu and other enemies made along the way.

This omnibus edition covers the first three Japanese volumes.  The art is nifty with distinctive character designs (though the young women do tend towards same face.)  There’s plenty of exciting blood-drenched fight scenes, and musing on the cycle of vengeance and where it gets you.  The dialogue is generally good, but heavy on the snark from most of the characters, which can get tiresome.

Manji wears his namesake symbol, the counter-clockwise swastika, on his back.  This is in context a Buddhist reference and has nothing to do with Nazis.

More problematic is that there’s a lot of rape in this series.  While none takes place onstage in this volume, there’s discussion of it in the backstory , and male characters often threaten or express a desire to rape women.  (Later on in the series, one of the recurring villains is a serial rapist.)  Also, when we see Anotsu’s backstory, we learn that his grandfather was physically and emotionally abusive to both him and his cousin.

That cousin, Makie, has a story that’s centered around the ill effects of sexism.  Because she has a natural talent for weapons use that is far greater than any other person in the series, Makie can’t fit into the standard social roles for women.  (She tries being a prostitute for a while, and then a geisha; neither work out.)  But she can also never get the respect or rank that her skills would earn if she were a man.  To be Makie is suffering.

I’d recommend this series to fans of samurai revenge drama who enjoy some anachronism and can overlook the problematic elements.

There’s an upcoming live action movie, but in the meantime, here’s a trailer for the anime version.

Comic Book Review: Essential Ms. Marvel Vol. 1

Comic Book Review: Essential Ms. Marvel Vol. 1 by Various

In 1976, Marvel Comics felt the time was right for another try at a overtly feminist superhero to appear in a solo book.  (Their first stab was 1973’s The Cat, who became Tigra.)  Someone, probably Gerry Conway, who would be the first writer on the series, remembered the existence of Carol Danvers, a supporting character in the Captain Marvel series who early on had had an experience that could be retconned into a superhero origin.  The name was deliberately chosen to reference feminism, and the first issue had a cover date of January 1977.

Essential Ms. Marvel Vol. 1

Ms. Marvel’s backstory came out in bits and pieces over the course of the series, so I am going to reassemble it in in-story chronological order.  Carol Danvers was a Boston, Massachusetts teenager who loved science fiction and wanted to become an astronaut and/or a writer.  She was very athletic and whip-smart.  Unfortunately, her father was a male chauvinist pig who felt that the most important thing for a young woman to do was marry a good man and have kids.  (In his partial defense, this would have been in the Fifties.)  He told Carol that he would not be paying for her to go to college, as the limited funds would be needed for her (not as bright but his dad’s favorite) brother’s education.

Carol pretended to have given up, and after graduating high school with honors, continued a part time job until her eighteenth birthday.  At that point, without telling her family, she enlisted in the United States Air Force.  Her father never forgave her for this defiance.  Somehow Carol got into flight school and became an officer and one of the Air Force’s top jet pilots.  Then she transferred into intelligence and became a top operative, partnering with her mentor/love interest Michael Rossi and rising to the rank of major.  (At some point, her  brother died in Vietnam.)

NASA recruited Major Danvers out of the Air Force to become their security chief at Cape Canaveral.  While there, she became entangled in events surrounding Mar-Vell, the Kree warrior who became known to Earthlings as Captain Marvel.  Carol was attracted to the mysterious hero, but that went nowhere as he already had a girlfriend.   During a battle with his turncoat superior, Colonel Yon-Rogg, Mar-Vell saved Carol from exploding Kree supertechnology.  At the time, no one noticed that the Psyche-Magnitron’s radiation had affected Ms. Danvers.

While the Mar-Vell mess wasn’t really Carol’s fault, she hadn’t covered herself in glory either, and her security career floundered.   Between the time we last saw her in the Captain Marvel series and her own series, Carol had decided to try her other childhood dream and wrote a book about her experiences at NASA.  (Apparently it was a bit of a “tell-all” as some at the agency are angry about it when they appear in this series.)  She also began experiencing crippling headaches and lost time, and consulted psychiatrist Michael Barnett.  Dr. Barnett was at a loss for a diagnosis but began falling in love with his client.

Which brings us to Ms. Marvel #1.  An amnesiac woman in a “sexy” version of Captain Marvel’s costume (plus a long scarf that was a frequent combat weakness) suddenly appears in New York City to fight crime.  She soon acquires the moniker of Ms. Marvel.  At the same time, Carol Danvers has been tapped by J. Jonah Jameson to become the editor of Woman magazine, a supplement to his Daily Bugle newspaper.  JJJ is depicted as being rather more sexist than in his Spider-Man appearances to better clash with Ms. Danvers over the direction the magazine should be taking.

Mary Jane Watson befriends the new woman in town (her friend Peter Parker appears briefly, but Spider-Man never does in this series.)  But their bonding is cut short by another of Carol’s blackouts.  Across town, the Scorpion, who has a long standing grudge against Jameson, has captured the publisher and is about to kill him when Ms. Marvel appears to save the day.

Eventually, it is discovered that Carol Danvers and Ms. Marvel are the same person, but having different personalities due to Ms. Danvers being fused with Kree genes and having Kree military training implanted in her brain.  Thanks to this, she has superhuman strength and durability, and a costume that appears “magically” and allows her to fly (until she absorbs that power herself.)  From her human potential, Ms. Marvel has developed a “seventh sense” that gives her precognitive visions.  Unfortunately, they’re not controllable and often make her vulnerable at critical moments.

Much later, the personalities are integrated as Carol learns to accept all of her possibilities.  Ms. Marvel fights an assortment of villains, both borrowed from other series (even Dracula makes a cameo!) and new ones of her own, especially once Chris Claremont starts writing her.  The most important is the mysterious shape-shifter Raven Darkhölme, who considers Carol Danvers her arch-enemy, even though they have never met.  Carol doesn’t even  have Raven on her radar!

In issue #19, Ms. Marvel finally meets up again with Mar-Vell for the first time since her transformation, her origin is finalized, and they part as friends.  The next issue has Carol change her costume to one that looks much less like Mar-Vell’s. but is still pretty fanservice oriented (like a swimsuit with a sash, basically.)  It’s considered her iconic look.  Shortly thereafter, Carol is fired from Woman (she missed a lot of work) and Dr. Barnett starts getting pushy about advancing their romantic relationship.

And then the series was cancelled.  Ms. Marvel was still appearing as a member of the Avengers team, but that was about to change as well.

In the now notorious Avengers #200 (not reprinted in this volume), Carol Danvers is suddenly pregnant despite not having been in  a relationship in some time.  The pregnancy is hyperfast, and the baby is delivered within 24 hours.  The child, Marcus, rapidly ages to young adulthood and explains that he is the son of time traveler Immortus, who’s been stuck in  the Limbo dimension all his life.  In order to escape, he had brought Ms. Marvel to Limbo, and seduced her with the aid of “machines” so that he could implant his “essence” inside her.  He then erased her memories of these events and sent her back to Earth so that Marcus could be born within the timestream.

Marcus’ presence is causing a timestorm, and a device he is building only seems to make the storm worse, so Hawkeye destroys it.  Sadly, it turns out the device was meant to “fix” Marcus so that he would not be detected as an anomaly, and without it, Marcus must return to Limbo.  Ms. Marvel volunteers to go back with him, because she is now in love with the man and wants to stay with him forever.  None of the other Avengers find this the least bit suspicious, and it’s treated as a happy ending for the character.

But come Avengers Annual #10, which is in this volume, Chris Claremont got the chance to respond to that.   Raven Darkhölme had since been revealed as Mystique, leader of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants  One of the Brotherhood, Rogue, ambushes Carol Danvers in San Francisco, where Ms. Danvers has been living incognito.  Rogue is a power parasite, able to steal the abilities and memories of her prey.  Still clumsy with her powers, Rogue steals Ms. Marvel’s powers and memories permanently; attempting to hide the results, she dumps the victim off a bridge.

Spider-Woman just happens to be nearby and rescues the amnesiac Carol.  The arachnid hero then calls in Professor Charles Xavier of the X-Men to assist in figuring out what happened.  Professor X is able to restore many of Carol’s memories from her subconscious, but not all of the emotional connections.

Meanwhile, the Avengers battle the Brotherhood, which is trying to break some of its members out of prison.  Once that’s settled, they go to meet Carol.  She explains that Marcus made a fatal mistake in his calculations.  By being born on Earth, he’d not made himself native to the timestream, but he had made himself out of synch with Limbo.  Thus the rapid aging he’d used to make himself an adult on Earth couldn’t be turned off, and he was dead within a week.  This freed Carol from the brainwashing, and she was able to figure out just enough of the time travel tech to get home.  And then Carol rips into the Avengers for not even suspecting there was something wrong.  Once freed of the brainwashing, she recognized the rape for what it was and didn’t want anything to do with those who had condoned it.  Chastened, the Avengers leave.

(One bizarre bit is that Carol Danvers is established as being 29.  Nope.  Sorry, not even if she got promoted first time every time in her military career.  She’d be a minimum of 32 by the time she made major, was in that rank for at least a few years, and then there’s her next two careers.)

The volume also contains the Ms. Marvel stories from Marvel Super-Heroes Magazine #10-11, which have the plotlines originally intended for issues #24 & 25 of the series.   Here we learn that Mystique’s grudge against Ms. Marvel was caused by a self-fulfilling prophecy that Rogue meeting Carol Danvers would cost Rogue her soul/life.  As Mystique had adopted Rogue as a daughter, she felt that the best way to protect the power parasite was to kill Ms. Marvel in advance.   The last few pages are obviously drastically rewritten to have Carol vanish from the timestream (and thus invisible to precognition) for a while before returning and the plot of Annual #10 kicking in.

After the issues published in this volume, Carol Danvers went through several different name and power set changes, before becoming the current Captain Marvel.  She’s scheduled for a movie in the relatively near future.

Good bits:  Lots of exciting action sequences, and some decent art by Marvel notables like John Buscema and Dave Cockrum.  (Have to say though that Michael Golden’s art looks much less good without color.)  Despite some clumsiness at the beginning, Claremont does a good job with Carol’s characterization, peaking with her interactions with the mutated lizards known as The People.

Less good bits:  Carol’s costumes are clearly designed with the male audience in mind, rather than any kind of practicality.  Many male characters seem to feel obliged to use words like “dame” and “broad” much more than they came up in conversation even back in the Seventies.  Male (and male-ish) villains seem to default to trying to mind-control Ms. Marvel into serving them–this is one reason why Marcus succeeding at it jars so badly.  And Dr. Barnett suddenly getting so pushy about the relationship and his plans to convince Carol to give up being Ms. Marvel seems off-and we would never have found out why as he was scheduled to be murdered in the next issue.

Most recommended to fans of the current Captain Marvel series who want to see where the character came from; other Marvel Comics fans might want to check it out from the library.

Manga Review: Inuyashiki #1-3

Manga Review: Inuyashiki #1-3 by Hiroya Oku

Life is tough for Ichiro Inuyashiki.  He’s only 58, but looks a good ten years older.  His wife and children think he’s a loser (and they’re not entirely wrong,) he gets pushed around by jerks, and now he has cancer.  The prognosis is terminal, a few months at most, and he’s not sure anyone will miss him when he’s gone.

Inuyashiki 1

The only creature on Earth that seems to appreciate him is his Shiba dog Hanako.  And it’s when he’s out walking Hanako in the park that Ichiro’s life takes an unexpected turn.  When he wakes up in the wee hours of the morning, Ichiro has missing time, and his aches seem to have disappeared.  Little things keep adding up, until Mr. Inuyashiki finally realizes he isn’t human any more.

This seems to be the last straw, until Ichiro sees some juvenile delinquents attacking a homeless man, and for the first time in his life, he can step up to help…

The “aliens accidentally kill an Earthling, and rebuild him (or her) with superpowers” plot device is a long-running one, even being parodied in Osamu Tezuka’s A*Tomcat.  The writer is fully aware of this, and references Tezuka’s Astroboy, which A*Tomcat was riffing on.  But it’s mixed with the “dying man finds a new purpose in life” plot from Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Ikiru.

The opening scene is the Inuyashiki family moving into the new home that Ichiro has saved up years to be able to buy–which would be a nice place except that it’s literally overshadowed by newer and bigger houses on either side.  It’s clear that Ichiro didn’t consult anyone else in the family before making the purchase, and the surprise he wanted to impress them with is a huge disappointment.  Still, they could be a teensy more appreciative.

The homeless man later in Volume 1 is almost ridiculously sympathetic.  He’s working again, tomorrow he’ll be able to move into a place with a roof, his ex agreed to take him back, he has everything to live for…so naturally now is when the monstrously cruel tweens decide to attack him for funsies.  Saving him and finding a way to punish the children without using violence against them makes Ichiro feel alive again.  Saving lives makes him feel…human!

Inuyashiki 2

Unfortunately, Ichiro wasn’t the only person in the park that night.  Teenager Hiro Shishigami was also present, and also rebuilt by the aliens with unusual powers.  In Volume 2, he takes center stage for a while, helping one of his friends who’s being bullied–and also murdering an entire family for fun.  Hiro only feels alive when he’s killing, and now he can whenever he wants.  Ichiro tries to confront the boy, but neither of them recognizes the other, and while Hiro is able to escape, his instant-death power doesn’t work on the older man.

In some ways, Hiro is a very typical teenager.  He likes comics, is bad at talking to girls, wants to help his friend, and lets his impulses override his better judgement.  The excessive bloodthirst is much less typical.

Not knowing how to track Hiro down, Ichiro explores various ways his abilities can help others.

Inuyashiki 3

In the third volume, the gigantic Yakuza thug Samejima becomes the main enemy.  A man of enormous appetites, he chooses to kidnap a woman to be his sex slave until his abuses kill her.  Through gumption and quick thinking, she temporarily escapes, but that just makes Samejima angry and willing to kill her boyfriend.  It’s at this point that Ichiro interferes; but even with his new powers, Samejima’s physical prowess may be too much for him to handle.  Plus, of course, making the entire Yakuza his opponents.

The creator’s previous work was Gantz, a long-running SF action series noted for over-the-top violence, gratuitous nudity and disturbing sexual situations.   The first volume of this series might fool you into thinking it’s more sedate, but by the third volume we’re back to things like mass eye-gouging and on-page rape.  Sensitive readers should exercise caution.

One thing this series has that Gantz initially didn’t is a sympathetic viewpoint character.  Mr. Inuyashiki means well from the beginning, even if he doesn’t have the courage or physical skill to back up his convictions.  And while his family does come off as pretty awful people, we can understand some of their feelings about the situation.

On the other hand, the “teens are monsters” thing gets tiresome quickly, and in a way it’s a relief when the adult criminals take center stage.

Recommended to fans of Gantz and those who enjoy well-drawn ultraviolence with gratuitous nudity in their science fiction.

Manga Review: Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1

Manga Review: Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1 written by Kazuo Koike, art by Goseki Kojima

Ogami Itto was once a samurai warrior of high rank, the official executioner for the shogunate.  He had a lovely wife and new son; life was good.  But another clan was ambitious, and framed Ogami for treason.  Under sentence of execution and with his wife murdered, Ogami asked his infant son to make a choice between merciful death and life on the run. now Ogami is a ronin, and an assassin for hire.  If you need someone dead, and you can find them, you can hire the Lone Wolf assassin who travels with his cub.

Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1

This classic manga series was popular enough to spawn a series of live-action movies, a television series and several spin-off manga.  It was also influential outside of Japan, notably influencing the art and storytelling style of Frank Miller (who provided the cover for this omnibus edition.)  As such, it was one of the first manga series to be translated for the emerging American market, using the expensive and painstaking “double-flipping” method to make it read left to right.

This volume contains the first three volumes of the Japanese version, and these stories are very episodic, focusing on an difficult assassination, a particular facet of feudal Japanese life, or a philosophical point.  It is not until several stories in that anyone recognizes Ogami for who he is, and even longer before even a partial explanation of his past.

Ogami is a stoic character who works hard not to give away his emotions; his tenderness towards Daigoro is almost entirely seen in his actions, not his face.  This does not prevent him from placing his son in danger if it will help with an assassination plan.  Daigoro himself is one of the most ambiguous characters I’ve ever read.  He seems most of the time to act like the small child he is, but in other instances is far too mature for his age, even allowing for the massive trauma Daigoro has undergone in his short life.  It makes him kind of creepy to be honest.

The art is dynamic and varied, able to handle both exciting battles and calm scenes of nature.  There’s a fair amount of reused faces, which with the episodic stories make the manga feel like a television series with a limited pool of guest star actors.

As expected from a samurai revenge story, there is plenty of violence and death; not all of Ogami’s assassination targets are evil people deserving of death.  In particular in this volume, one target is a Buddhist priest who must die for political reasons–he teaches Ogami how to attain mu (“emptiness”) which allows the assassin to strike without projecting sakki  (“killing intent”).  This becomes an important part of Ogami’s personal sword style going forward.

There is also quite a bit of female nudity, and at least one rape/murder scene.  Ogami himself is decent to the women he meets, but feudal Japanese society is not a good place for them.

Because of its influence on the subgenre of samurai manga, this series is well worth reading and rereading.  Recommended for fans of this sort of thing.

Book Review: Nexus

Book Review: Nexus by Ramez Naam

In the not so distant future, technologies for human alteration and augmentation have advanced rapidly, so that many people are considered “transhuman” and there are a few that are possibly “post-human.”  One of the new developments is Nexus, a “nanodrug” that allows humans to communicate mind-to-mind to some degree.

Nexus

Kaden Lane and his friends have developed a new variant of Nexus they call Nexus Five.  It makes the effects of Nexus permanent and gives the user new capabilities that are near or at superhuman levels.  Young and idealistic, they want to help the world with this new technology.  Samantha Cataranes and the agents of the Emerging Risks Directorate want to protect humanity from the misuse of new technologies like Nexus Five, even if it means holding back progress by the strongest means available.  These two groups, and several more, are on a collision course.

After several horrible incidents (one of which Samantha was a direct survivor of) involving various new human enhancement technologies, the governments of the world decided that people who had passed a certain line were no longer human in the legal sense, and thus had no human rights.  In the U.S., the ERD has taken this to an extreme, censoring, imprisoning or even killing as necessary to prevent what they see as harmful alterations to humanity.  Of course, to battle criminals with these enhancements, the government agents themselves have to become transhuman, a bitter taste in Samantha’s mind.

Kaden and his friends are caught early on before they can spread Nexus Five beyond their immediate circle, and Kaden is extorted into working for the ERD.  It seems there’s this Chinese scientist, Su-Yong Shu, who is violating the international agreements on behalf of her government, and she’s taken an interest in Kaden’s work.  The ERD wants Kaden to go to a scientific conference in Thailand to be contacted by her and eventually infiltrate her laboratory.  If he doesn’t do what the ERD wants, his friends will be imprisoned incommunicado permanently.  Naturally, the agent assigned as his partner is Samantha, the one who busted him.  She is against her will dosed with Nexus Five to help in the assignment.

While firmly in the science fiction camp, this book has the structure of a techno-thriller.  Every so often, the action is interrupted for “Briefing” sections that fill in some of the future society’s backstory.  The technologies have both good points and bad ones–it’s pointed out by a minor character that because many of the enhancements are produced illegally due to the heavy restrictions, safety and side effects aren’t tested as rigorously as they would be if researching the technology was legal.

One of the things I like about this book is that most of the characters are at least trying to do the right thing.  The ERD really does good work pursuing criminals who abuse new technologies.  Kaden and his friends want to improve everyone’s lives.  Su-Yong Shu wants to protect her people, even as her government perverts her work.  A scientist-monk wants to invite people to live in harmony.  But these goals come into conflict, and there are a few people in the story whose motives are greedy and self-serving, and they force the story on to a violent path.

Kaden and Samantha both grow over the course of the story, Kaden learning to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions (and to think more carefully what those actions should be) while Samantha moves past the pain of her past to find a new way into the future.

Early on, there is a scene where a faulty “sensual enhancement program” turns a consensual encounter into involuntary sexual assault, and one character’s backstory involves rape and sexual abuse.  The abuse of mind control technology is a constant theme.

In the author’s note, he discusses the real-life technologies he’s extrapolating from–it’s fascinating stuff.

Recommended for science fiction fans up for discussions of transhumanism and the possibility of post-human people.

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