Book Review: Kings & Queens of Great Britain: A Very Peculiar History

Book Review: Kings & Queens of Great Britain: A Very Peculiar History by Antony Mason

For about 12 centuries, the English have been ruled by monarchs, and eventually this form of government spread to all of the British Empire.  That’s a lot of history, and many kings and queens to take account of.  This small volume with cartoony illustrations gives the reader an overview of those people and what they did.

Kings & Queens of Great Britain: A Very Peculiar History

There’s a brief discussion of monarchs before the official first king of the majority of England, Alfred the Great, starting in 871 C.E.  This includes the legendary King Arthur who may or may not have been based on an actual person.  After that is a chronological listing of English kings and queens, with a paragraph or page for each, with chapters cutting away to the Scottish monarchs.  (The Irish kings do not get the same courtesy.)  With King James I & VI, the lines are consolidated, and after that they’re all British kings and queens.

This is very much a highlights-only history book, with only the most famous bits of each reign mentioned for most of the monarchs.  There are, however, frequent sidebars on such subjects as palaces, revolutions, jewels, the Magna Carta and mistresses.  The serious scholar of British history is unlikely to learn anything new.  The book finishes up with a glossary, timeline, and index to make it easier to find the particular monarch you’re looking for.  It’s current as of January 2015.

Due to some salacious subject matter, I’d rate this as suitable for senior high students on up.  (There’s also a lot of violence; many of these people left the throne via murder.)  This would make a nice gift for your Anglophilic friend or relative, or Game of Thrones fans who have somehow never read the history that show is loosely based on.

 

 

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book Seven

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book Seven by Makoto Yukimura

Quick recap and spoilers for the previous volume:  It is the age of Vikings.  Canute, King of Denmark and (by conquest) England, needs cash to fund his occupation army.  Therefore, he has engineered an incident to force the wealthy Ketil family into outlawry and seize their lands and property.  Meanwhile, on the Ketil farm, slaves Thorfinn, Einar and Arnheid face the consequences of Gardar’s rampage–Snake and his men are not happy at all.

Vinland Saga Book Seven

Ketil returns home on Leif’s ship, in great emotional distress because of the king’s treachery.  He learns of Gardar’s attempt to rescue Arnheid (Gardar’s wife and Ketil’s slave) and reacts by beating Arnheid mercilessly, despite her being pregnant with his child.

Then Canute arrives with his thegns (top warriors) and fearsome Jomsviking mercenaries.  Ketil rallies the farmers who owe him money, but that and his small band of “guests”, veteran fighters though they may be are no match for the royal forces.

Thorfinn could just walk away from all of this, none of these people are saints or innocents, and he has no more obligation to them.  But his new commitment to pacifism as a way of life means he has to at least try to resolve the situation peacefully.

This volume of the long-running manga is filled with scenes of violence, often quite gory.  There are extended sequences of beatings that are painful to look at.  Rape does not occur on panel, but is referred to, and one character threatens it in an attempt to force consent.  There are numerous deaths, including important characters.

There are some lighter moments, however.  Canute and Thorfinn’s meeting after so many years leads to at least a temporary peace.  And chapter 100, the last of the volume, is primarily comedic as Thorfinn returns to Iceland at long last only to have no one recognize him.  There’s some humor derived from the fact that there’s another Thorfinn about the same age in the crew, distinguished by being nicknamed “Bug-Eyes.”

The legendary scene of King Canute ordering the waves to stop is in here, as the young ruler makes a point about his power compared to God’s.

The art and writing continue to be excellent, so if you enjoyed previous volumes, you’ll like this one.

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book Six

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book Six by Makoto Yukimura

To recap if you haven’t read the previous reviews:  It is the age of Vikings.  After the murder of Thorfinn’s father, he dedicated his life to revenge on the man who did it.  That didn’t end as he had hoped, and Thorfinn is now a slave on the estate of wealthy farmer Ketil.  He and fellow slave Einar have been told that they can buy their freedom by clearing and planting enough farmland.  Thorfinn has come to the realization that violence is not a way of life he can in good conscience continue, and wants to try out a new path of peace.

Vinland Saga Book Six

In this volume, Einar and Thorfinn are within sight of their goal of buying their freedom, but a new danger is afoot.  Gardar, a slave at a nearby farm, has escaped, killing his master and that man’s family.  A fearsome warrior, Gardar also just happens to be the husband of Arnheid, Ketil’s sex slave.   They were unaware how close they were, but now their paths cross.  Thorfinn and Einar, who has fallen in love with Arnheid, must make hard decisions when Snake and the other mercenaries hunt Gardar down.

Meanwhile, King Canute returns to Denmark to attend the deathbed of his brother, King Harald.  The young king will become the ruler of both England and the Danelands, but the budget is stretched tight–he needs to squeeze some more wealth out of his Danish subjects to support the occupying army in Britain.  Opportunity arises when Ketil and his sons come to pay homage to the new king.  One of the sons, Olmar, is a vain fool who wants to be a great warrior, but is unable to defeat a dead pig.  It’s easy to trick him into “defending his honor” in a way that can be labeled treason.

The art and writing remain excellent; in the endpapers, Mr. Kitamura mentions that it takes four times as much work to do the backgrounds as it does to draw the people, since he wants the scenery to look as authentic as possible.  He also talks about the long-term plan of the story–an action series set in a violent time where the hero renounces killing; how does that work, especially if the writer doesn’t cheat?

Despite Thorfinn’s newfound ethical stance, there is a lot of violence in this volume, some quite graphic.  There’s also discussion of rape, though none of it happens in this particular part of the story.  This is still a Mature Readers seinen (men’s) manga.

Although there are some light moments, the overall mood of this volume is tragic, as the characters’ actions and goals trap them within their wyrd (fate); their pride or honor or love preventing them from stepping aside from doomed pathways.  Olmar and his brother Thorgil are by no means sympathetic people (and their father Ketil, we are reminded, is a slaveowner and rapist) but it’s still painful to see them fall into the king’s trap.

There’s an interesting parallel between Thorfinn and Canute; both of them are haunted (literally?  who knows?) by the men they hated.  Thorfinn’s mentor and archenemy Askeladd wants Thorfinn to succeed in rising above the path of murder,  while Canute’s father Sweyn Forkbeard seems amused as his son uses ever more morally dubious methods to steer the kingdom, despite his lofty goals.  Or both men could just be hallucinating.

This series has slowed production, and the next volume isn’t due out until December 2015, so savor this installment.  Highly recommended.

Book Review: From Ghouls to Gangsters: The Career of Arthur B. Reeve Volume 1

Book Review: From Ghouls to Gangsters: The Career of Arthur B. Reeve Volume 1 edited by John Locke

Arthur B. Reeve (1880-1936) was a newspaper reporter who decided to try his hand at writing fiction.  As it happened, he turned out to be very good at it, making a huge hit with his most famous character, scientific detective Craig Kennedy.  He became America’s most popular detective story writer from 1910-1920, and continued to do pretty well thereafter (despite a bankruptcy when a man who’d commissioned a  bunch of work failed to pay) until his death.  Mr. Reeve also worked on films and radio, and did true crime reporting as well.

From Ghouls to Gangsters

This first volume is a collection of short stories; the second volume has non-fiction by and about Mr. Reeve.  The first story appears to be his first sale, “The Cat that Didn’t Come Back” (1907), a gruesome but comedic tale of a man attempting to dispose of a cat’s corpse.  The majority of stories are about Craig Kennedy, a professor of chemistry who decides to use his knowledge of science to solve crimes.  He’s assisted by newspaper reporter Walter Jameson, the Watson-like narrator.

We begin with the 1910 story “The Case of Helen Bond.”  A man has died of a heart attack, but the fact that his safe was burgled the same night casts a suspicion of foul play.  Mr. Kennedy uses a primitive type of lie detector (and his brain) to crack the case.   The professor owes a great deal to Sherlock Holmes, but is considerably less eccentric.  In the Holmes tradition, the reader is not given all the clues, but must wait for Mr. Kennedy to sum up the case and how the science plays in.

That story was published in Cosmopolitan, but Kennedy stories appeared in many places, including Boys’ Life (which introduced a young nephew for him) and Country Gentleman.  By the 1930s, Mr. Reeve’s stories mostly appeared in the detective pulps, and took on a more “gangbusters” feel.  He was also beginning to reuse plot beats from earlier, out of print stories.

The science in some of the stories is a bit dated, particularly the case that’s solved by Freudian dream analysis.   As well, period ethnic prejudice pops up from time to time.  Mr. Reeve appears to have been progressive in his views of women for 1910, but some bits look odd from a modern perspective.

Mr. Reeve wrote several stories with female protagonists as detectives, including medical Dr. Mary Mannix and “secret agent” Clare Kendall.  One of the latter’s stories closes out the volume, “The Royal Racket” (1935).  Clare helps identify two corpses, and is then asked to advise a young couple that suspects some of their new social crowd might be less than honest.   The two cases are of course connected.

The Boys’ Life story “The Polar Flight of the ZR-10” (1924) is notable for not being so much a mystery as a speculative fiction story.  The title dirigible is being used to test a transpolar flight route between America and Europe, and finds a long-lost colony of Vikings.  The mystery subplot arises from a “beat the Reds” race that feels more 1950s than 1920s.

Overall, the stories are good, if mostly dated, and demonstrate Mr. Reeve’s ability to write to a specific magazine’s intended audience.  Most of the earlier stories were heavily edited for book publication to make them pseudo-novels, and the later ones have never been reprinted before, which makes this a good collector’s item for detective story fans.

 

Manga Review: Vinland Saga, Book Five

Manga Review: Vinland Saga, Book Five by Makoto Yukimura

Warning: This review contains spoilers for the first four volumes of this series, so you may want to read the reviews for those if you are new to Vinland Saga.

It has been a few years since the end of Thorfinn’s quest for vengeance on the man who killed his father.  In the aftermath, he has become a thrall (slave) to Ketil, a Danish jarl (wealthy landowner.)  He is joined by a young man named Einar, a Norse-Briton who is not happy about having been enslaved.

Vinland Saga, Book Five

Ketil is, as slaveowners go, a fairly decent fellow.  If Thorfinn and Einar can clear enough farmland and grow crops on it in addition to their other tasks, they may eventually be able to buy their freedom and become small landowners in their own right.  There’s a former slave that’s done just that who is employed by Ketil.  It also helps that our young men take the fancy of Sverkel, Ketil’s elderly father, who gives them a hand in return for them doing extra work in his garden.

But don’t let that fool you into thinking that slavery is an okay thing.  Einar and Thorfinn are still property, and if Ketil’s son needs to kill someone to prove his manhood, there’s no law against him destroying his own family’s stock.  And then there’s Arnheid, who is Ketil’s bedservant, and has no chance of ever buying her freedom.

There’s trouble stirring in Ketil’s household, with one son useless at farming but too cowardly to be a warrior, and the other a ruthless raider who begins to think that his war hero father is going soft in the heart.  The mercenary guards may have their own agenda, and the karls (free farmers) have a hate on for the idea that slaves could rise above that station.

Back in England, King Canute is consolidating his rule,  He does it with as little battle as possible, much to the disgust of Thorkell the Tall, now one of his generals.

Believe it or not, it is only in this fifth volume that we are starting the main plot of the series.  While many events swirl about him, the main arc here is Thorfinn finally shaking out of the apathy that he’s been in since the death of Askeladd.  “Being empty means that anything can fit inside you.”  But what is to be his future course, without vengeance to guide Thorfinn’s steps?

This volume continues to be fascinating, even as the main focus switches from battle to farming.  There’s still plenty of violence, though.  And some nudity in a sexual context, but no on-panel sex.   (Ketil’s relationship with Arnheid isn’t exactly consensual on her part, although he has real affection for her.)  Einar’s approach to religion (pray to any and all gods in the hope that one will deliver) might offend some readers.

There are hints of tragedy on the horizon, but we may have to wait a while to see what they are as I am told production on these hefty volumes has been delayed.  Still an excellent buy if you are interested in this sort of thing.

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book Four

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book Four by Makoto Yukimura

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

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

Vinland Sage Book Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Showcase Presents: Weird War Tales

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

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

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

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

Manga Review: Vinland Saga, Book Three

Manga Review: Vinland Saga, Book Threeby Makoto Yukimura

Note:  This review will contain SPOILERS for the first two volumes.  If you do not want to be spoiled, see the reviews for those volumes instead.

Vinland Saga, Volume 3

It is the Twelfth Century C.E., the age of the Vikings.  Thorfinn Thorsson serves as a Viking warrior in the band of Askeladd.  But he does so only for the eventual chance to kill the treacherous murderer of his father in an honorable duel.  Askeladd himself holds secrets about his heritage and true loyalties.

In Volume Two,  Sweyn Forkbeard invaded England.  His son, Prince Canute, has fallen into the custody of Askeladd’s band, who are trying to get him back to his father’s camp in the middle of a harsh winter.  They are pursued by the English warriors under the command of Thorkell the Tall, a near-superhuman fighter who switched sides to get better battles.

In this volume, Thorkell and his men catch up with Askeladd’s band.  An epic battle between Thorfinn and Thorkell is the centerpiece, with Thorkell revealing some things about Thors that Thorfinn was unaware with.  Meanwhile, Prince Canute comes to a realization about his fate and makes a decision that may change the course of history.

As with previous volumes, the author’s research really shows (and he talks a bit about it in an interview at the back of the book.)  The art is detailed and dynamic, and the writing is layered.  Thorfinn remains something of a one-note character, but we can see the chips being made in his monomania, and ask what will become of him if he ever achieves his goal.

On the cautionary side, there’s a lot of over-the-top violence, so it’s for older teens and up.  There’s also  some theological discussion as to what “love” is that may be uncomfortable for some readers.

If you enjoyed the previous volumes of Vinland Saga, this one continues to be worth reading.

Manga Review: Vinland Saga, Book Two

Manga Review: Vinland Saga, Book Two by Makoto Yukimura

To recap for those of you who haven’t read the review of Book One, Vinland Saga is set in the early 12th Century, the time of the Vikings.  Our protagonist is Thorfinn, son of Thors, who serves in the war band of Askeladd.  Askeladd murdered Thors, and Thorfinn serves the wily warrior for the sole purpose of one day getting revenge in a fair duel.

Vinland Saga, Book Two

In this volume, the action shifts to the British Isles, and the war of King Sweyn Forkbeard against King Ethelred the Unready.  While Ethelred himself has fled, the city of London stands fast, largely due to the presence of Thorkell the Tall on their side.  Thorkell is a mighty man who hopes to perish in battle against a truly worthy foe, so that he might enter Valhalla with honor.  He switched sides to fight against the Northmen, because they were the tougher opponents!

Askeladd sends the relatively tiny lad Thorfinn in to kill Thorkell, and although it doesn’t work, Thorkell is impressed enough to want to fight Thorfinn again.  Sweyn decides to consolidate his rule over the rest of the country, and appoints his sickly son Canute (who’s the blond on the cover) to handle London’s siege.

Things don’t go as planned for just about everyone, and soon Askeladd’s band is in possession of Canute, and being chased by Thorkell’s warriors across the countryside.  Askeladd is forced to resort to one of the aces up his sleeve, a shocking secret from his past.

There’s a bonus story about Thorfinn’s sister Ylva dealing with the loss of her brother and father, and a chapter of “For Our Farewell Is Near”, about a samurai dying of illness .

There’s plenty of action and violence in this volume, and Askeladd’s idea of “mercy” is a cruel one by modern standards.  Some readers may also be turned off by the alcoholic priest who is not very good at explaining theology.  And probably the real Canute wasn’t that pretty.

However, it’s got good art, interesting characters and a setting that appeals to me, so I recommend this to fans of Viking stories, and students of English history.

Book Review: Splatterlands

Book Review: Splatterlands edited by Anthony Rivera and Sharon Lawson

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

Splatterlands

According to Wikipedia, “splatterpunk” was a movement in horror writing between roughly 1985 and 1995,  distinguished by its graphic and often gory descriptions of violence and attempts to create “hyperintensive” horror with no limits.  Supernatural elements are neither necessary or forbidden.  It seems to have been subsumed by newer trends in horror fiction, but never entirely died out.

Splatterlands is an anthology of thirteen short stories that try to recapture the feel of the splatterpunk movement.   As such, it is filled with sex, violence, sexual violence, crude language and a fascination with body fluids.  I’m going to come right out and issue a Trigger Warning for rape, torture, abuse and suicide.

For example, the first story, “Heirloom” by Michael Laimo, is about a woman who inherits a phallic symbol.  The main action of the story involves an explicitly described act of semi-consensual sexual violence.  If that immediately triggers your “do not want” instinct, then this volume is not for you.

Some stories that stood out include “Violence for Fun and Profit” by Gregory L. Norris, about the origin of a hired assassin/serial killer that’s frighteningly topical; “Housesitting” by Ray Garton (the only reprint), a relatively  understated tale of a housesitter who snoops and finds out things she’d rather not about her neighbors; “The Defiled” by Christine Morgan, about a band of Viking raiders who meet a karmic fate; and “The Devil Rides Shotgun” by Eric del Carlo, in which a police officer makes a demonic pact to track down a serial killer.

One story that really didn’t work for me was “Empty” by A.A. Garrison.  It’s about a woman in a post-apocalyptic world seeking medical assistance for her husband.  It turns out to be metafictional humor, (and I did like the protest sign that said “Too Many Adverbs”), but really came across as trying too hard.

Recommended for horror fans with strong stomachs, especially those who were fans of the original splatterpunk movement.  Probably not suitable for anyone else, despite the high quality of some of the stories.

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