Friday, April 15, 2016

Log Horizon II: Knights of Camelot by Mamare Touno

Log Horizon II: Knights of Camelot
by Mamare Touno

Once again I venture into the lands of Japanese light novels! Some of you may remember me being a bit... Singed from No Game No Life (read the review, not the book) so I kinda decided to stick to safe ground and return to Log Horizon. I'm really glad I did though. Because here is where I found a great example of how to write an actually intelligent character. Something which is frankly hard to do I'll admit but I have through mostly accident found the first rule, if you want to write a convincing intelligent character your first best step? Don't write everyone else as an idiot. Mr. Touno has managed to do this quite well.

Let me recap, Log Horizon is the story about a group of people several thousand strong who were playing a massively popular MMO game called Elder Tales when a new expansion was released. The players find themselves trapped in a fantasy world inhabiting bodies that appear to be much like their characters in the game. However the world doesn't map exactly to the game, for example the NPCs behave like real people not video game characters. On the other hand the menu creation system (making items via menus) continues to function, as does the in-game voice chat and so on. Another depressing fact is that food (all of it made via menus) has no taste. Shiroe our main character accepted a job to save a low level player from a Guild in another city that turned into bandits and thugs. He was able to rescue her with the help of an old friend Nyanta. Nyanta is an older gentleman who plays a damage orientated class called Swashbuckler. Nyanta in this book kinda comes across as the guy I would like to be someday. He's patient, kindly, wise unfailing in his support to his friends and able to open up an entire barrel factory worth of kick ass when needed. Nyanta has also discovered something very, very important. How to make food with actual, factual taste and flavor. After months of eating food that tastes of soggy crackers... Well let's say he's a popular fellow and he's earned it.

Shiroe and his crew return to Akiba, the main player city and find that it is swiftly sliding to seed. The big guilds are seizing territory for monster hunting so they can gain resources and power. The small guilds are squabbling among themselves with an attempt to unite having fallen apart under the weight of that disunity. Additionally because there are no laws, while the players are physically safe within the city due to the no combat rule... People just don't work together. Worse some of the shadier guilds have turned predator and recruit the newbies (many of them children or younger teens) to use as slave labor, forcing them to work in sweat shop condition to produce items for sale, or to hunt monsters barely in their level to farm resources. While everyone agrees it's a shit thing to do.... Well there are no laws and no cops so what can you do? The atmosphere has become a grey cloak of despair and apathy as most of the players have let themselves drift into a tired old dream of minimum effort just to get by. I'm going to be honest this part hit me, because I've been there. When you're tired and worn out and nothing you do seems to matter. Those days when it seems all you can do is throw all your effort into treading water and you're just to exhausted to even be angry or upset about it... I'm honestly lucky that I am to stubborn, pig headed and maybe just to damn stupid to give up. It also helps that I have good friends. Speaking of friends Shiroe decides that entire city of Akiba needs him to be that friend and shake it out of it's depression.

The plight of the newbies is brought home to us by the introduction of two other characters. The twins Minori and Tohya, both of them in middle school, who randomly met Shiroe in the game before the change. Shiroe had acted like a mentor to the kids showing them the ropes of playing the game but when the change happened and everything became real... He got distracted and didn't contact him. Neither could the twins bring themselves to contact him and instead fell prey to one of those shady guilds and became slaves in all but name. Mr. Touno does a good job of conveying the despair and bleakness of people who feel trapped with no escape and you might be thinking that this book is a dark, sad experience but you would be mistaken. Because this is the book where Shiroe embraces the idea of civil responsibility and decides he's going to stop fucking around. He's going to pitch in and help build an actual society. Not just any society, but the kind of society he can be proud of. Not just because he can't stand how things are shaking out, not just because people need help, but because he deserves an awesome society and so do his friends. How is he going to do this? By selling food with actual taste.

I'm sure you're scratching your head at that but I'm not going to give away the plan. I'm going to say that Mr. Touno surrounds Shiroe with smart capable people who pitch in with him to carry out an audacious plan that combines out of the box thinking, political and business shenanigans and buckets of balls to free the newbies of Akiba. Ensure that it can never happen again. Reinvigorate the economy and society of the city and get everyone to buy into the idea of government and law. This book becomes a love letter to civil society and Keynesian economics without becoming boring or dry and I LOVE IT for being so. I also love it because Shiroe could easily become a Mary Sue (that is a character who is perfect in every way and every other character exists to show and more often tell us how the Mary Sue is perfect in every way) but instead he's allowed to have faults. To make mistakes and admit them, which allows him to grow. Additionally and this helps a lot if you want to avoid having a Mary Sue... People are allowed to be just as awesome in their own ways as Shiroe. While his plan was amazing, it simply wouldn't have worked without the help of other characters and their own skills and talents that Shiroe lacked. In the end his greatest strength in this book was his ability to get other people to buy in and help him by making his plan a winning one for everyone involved. Well... Everyone involved who wasn't a child enslaving fuckhead but to hell with those guys anyways.

I highly recommend the Log Horizon series to anyone who has interest in Japanese light novels or likes planetary romances. I really enjoyed reading this book and it also gave a bit of a 101 down low on how Keynesian economics works (if no one is buying anything, then the economy goes splat!). That said, there's not a lot of action in this book til the end and that's over pretty quickly. Which means in some ways the book is kinda a prelude to the action to come. I am giving Log Horizon II: Knight of Camelot by Mamare Touno a B+.

Next week, we return to the American Revolution but we take a look at things from the English side! Stay frosty friends.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Hawkeye 1 My Life as a Weapon

Hawkeye 1 My Life as a Weapon
Written by Matt Fraction
Art by David Aja

So... Superheroes. You know, I actually like superheroes. As a kid I read comics causally often scoping them out at a local Walmart (those were the days..). An older cousin of mine graciously donated his comic collection, which was made up primarily of Superman, Legion of Superheroes and Conan comics. I spent a lot of good time buried in those books but I would always drift back over to Marvel. Mainly Spiderman and X Men, with a lot of Captain America and GI Joe (these to shall be reviewed!). As I grew older I would drift more to the Avengers. Especially as the X-drama (if you'll excuse the term) grew heavier and bleaker and I felt that the characters I liked were being crapped on and marginalized (I was never a huge fan of Wolverine.. Well I find the new one interesting). But let me get to the comic itself.

Hawkeye My Life as a Weapon is the first volume of the 4th Hawkeye solo comic series to be produced. It started it's run in August 2012 and is still in production today. Volume one was written by Matthew Fraction, born in 1975 in Chicago Heights Illinois, Mr. Fraction is a long time comic book reader and writer. He is an Eisner Award winner and has worked on Iron Man, Iron Fist, the Uncanny X Men, Casanova and the Sex Criminals (which is a really weird series). David Aja is a Spanish born artist who as also won an Eisner for his cover art. Additionally Mr. Aja was a teacher of the fine arts at the University of Salamanca before becoming a professional illustrator. If his teaching is anything like his art, the comic book world's gain is the University of Salamanca's lost! I don't comment on the art in a graphic novel often because am I as qualified to seriously discuss art styles and such as your average dairy cow but I really like the art in this book. It's distinctive, interesting and matches the tone of the writing very well.

Let me talk about Hawkeye aka Clint Barton, especially for those of you who might only know him from the Marvel Movies (which I like don't get me wrong) because they're two very different characters. In the comics Hawkeye received his training from the villain Swordsman who made him and his brother into the most bad ass marksmen to ever marksmen. For awhile Hawkeye would travel with a circus using his craft but felt unfulfilled and decided to be a hero. To bad for him he ran into the Black Widow (back then she was a Soviet Villain, this was a long time ago) who conned him into the supervillain game. After a series of battles and misunderstandings Hawkeye was able to make his case and was accepted into the Avengers under Captain America's leadership. At first they didn't get along but these days Hawkeye is one of Cap's better friend (not as close as the Falcon maybe but pretty close). Since then Hawkeye has evolved into a mainstay of the Avengers despite not having any superpowers (in fact he was originally hard of hearing but was later cured). While like everyone else I kinda giggle at a man with a bow and arrow fighting alongside demigods, super soldiers and all sorts of other oddness... With Hawkeye it kinda works and it hasn't gotten into ridiculous territory like some other superheroes I could name (looking at you DC, we all know who I'm talking about here). Unlike his film version, he is not a family man and doesn't have a long term partner. He did have a wife at one point (The superhero Mockingbird) but they divorced. Which I'm honestly okay with... Unlike other marriage breaking events I could think of. What am I talking about? Let me just put this way, what was done to Animal Man's family was criminal. What was done to Aqua Man's marriage was stupid. Spiderman was a great superhero and I feel it's terrible that his comic book series ended in 2007. I'm not going to go any further because that would be a derail but I think I've made my position clear on some matters.

Anyways, the series itself shows just what it is that Clint is doing with himself when not an active avenger. What he's doing is apparently being awesome and crazy. Whether it's paling around with the normal citizens in his apartment building in New York City, dealing with his Russian Mob Landlord's attempt to run everyone out of the building so he can sell it for millions or yes, rescuing dogs from traffic! Most of the book takes place on the street level, with Clint mixing it up with track suit wearing Russians who believe the word bro is the best way to address anyone. That said there is a little trip to the hive of scum and villainy that is Maripoor, which had me laughing out loud. The writing is clever, somewhat irrelevant and playful while not taking anything away from Hawkeye and the trouble he gets into. Frankly I laughed a good deal reading this which I needed this week honestly. We got car chases, fist fights, arrows flying everywhere and proof that a boomerang arrow is a great idea (because it comes back!).

We also have Clint teaming up a lot with Kate Bishop, who is honestly pretty fucking awesome herself. Kate Bishop is a wealthy young woman who took up the mantle of Hawkeye when everyone thought Clint was dead (you know... Superheroes) and when he came back... They pretty much decided ah what the hell let's have two Hawkeyes, it'll be funny that way! Kate Bishop mainly stars in the Young Avengers' line up and you would think that she would be the Jr. partner in this but for the most part Clint treats her as an equal. Yes, she doesn't have the experience he does and he has things he can teach her (like don't leave home without your bulletproof vest) but she ain't a side kick. I like that. Of course we also see Clint fucking up pretty often when it comes to personal relationships so he does make his fair share of missteps. Basically Clint can be a bit of fuck up when he's not on the job but at least he's trying to help people and be a decent human being. Which is frankly all I ask, just try to be a decent person and Clint gives that his all, as this book is pretty much full of him and Kate helping people. Often at great personal risk and cost. Which is what makes him a hero, not the bow and arrows, not the custom but the fact that he keeps helping people even when it costs him.

That said, the book does suffer from a lack of an over arching story line and the time skipping in the first issue of the 6 collected here (5 from the Hawkeye series and 1 from Young Avengers showing how Kate and Clint made their peace) gets a bit jarring in places. It smooths out quickly enough though. So all things considered? Hawkeye My Life as a Weapon by Matthew Fraction gets a B+, I'll be getting the second volume, no question.

Friday, April 1, 2016

The White Luck Warrior R. Scott Bakker

The White Luck Warrior
R. Scott Bakker

Wutteat Father of Dragons page 556

White Luck Warrior is the second book in the Aspect Emperor Trilogy, which is itself the sequel series to the Prince of Nothing trilogy (aka Drusus Achamain is Not Allowed Nice Things!). For those of you who didn't read my review of the Judging Eye, I'll try to explain things as we go, just stay with me.

Kellhus, who has united the civilized lands of the known world into a single empire for the sole purpose of forging an army to attack the strong hold of the Consult (a group of genocidal aliens and their slaves, creations and worshipers) and destroy it before they can create a second No-God (a thing of unknown nature that prevents sapient creatures from giving birth to live young and allows for control over the Sranc, who I will get to later) has led the greatest army ever assembled in human history into the wild wastes where that fortress is located. He has in essence, conquered Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, used those lands to build a massive army and lead it marching into the wilds of west Siberia. The army is marching through lands completely barren of any human habitation, not even nomadic tribes and there's a good reason for that. These vast plains are utterly infested with Sranc, humanoid creatures created to crave the flesh of human beings. My own view of the Sranc is they are what is created when you have a bunch of manics in charge who care more about fear, terror and murder then creating an army that wins wars (as evidence I would like to point out that the Consult has been trying for thousands of years to wipe out sapient life and not only have they failed but they've had new forms of sapient life emerge into civilization). They're brutish and savage in a way that makes even most fucked up person looked angelic but they're also frankly pretty damn stupid.

Which does have me echoing a complaint I've had for decades now. Why? Oh WHY? Do people keep thinking ravening psychopaths are the best choice for super soldiers? Sure they can kill a lot of people but indiscriminate body counts don't win wars! Killing the right people at the right time wins wars (sometimes not killing the right people wins wars!). Sure it's hard to win a war without killing people but having legions of stupid motherfuckers with one tactic available to them is a sure fire way to get your ass handed to you. Course there are other tools in the Consult's armory the Ursranc for example are Sranc who are more capable of thought and able to obey complex instructions. We are informed of their existence in this book but we don't really get to interact with them beyond seeing them whip a yoked legion into battle (it's pretty simple, you chain up a bunch of Sranc and march them towards a bunch of men, while starving them and then unchain them when they can smell all the man flesh on the move). We see a lot of battles here, as the Sranc will flee the army until the mass of them reaches the point that the plains cannot support them, then in hunger and insanity the Sranc horde will mob forward until the army kills enough to force them to break.

There are logistical problems to consider here as well. The Army of the Great Ordeal as it is called, is vast. With soldiers, sorcerers, witches nobles and slaves from every nation in the known world. Hundreds of thousands of men and horses (and women as Kellus has trained women in sorcery as well) marching and fighting... The amount of food they need is vast and there is no way to keep constant supply columns going without stripping the army of the men it needs to ward off the Sranc attacks. Kellus has tried to reduce the logistical strain by breaking the army into 4 columns increasing their ability to live off the land (made difficult by the fleeing Sranc eating everything they can) but making them more vulnerable to attack. Add in to this that the Consult is aware of their march and is unleashing abominations to whittle down their numbers. The Army of the Great Ordeal is locked in a death struggle against wild Sranc, an enemy army of shadows and monsters and against an increasingly empty and hostile land... And this is only the trip to the actual battlefield. In the middle of this Sorwell, captive Prince of Sakarpus, the last nation between the Consult and the Empire and thus the last to fall, wrestles with his beliefs and concerns as he realizes that Kellus' war with the Consult is real but the goddess Yatwer demands that he kill the God-Emperor anyways (this is complicated by the fact that the gods cannot see the Consult and the No-God, meaning even if Kellus is telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth... They wouldn't know and would still try to kill him). What parts of this story line that isn't taken up with the army's struggle to survive and keep marching forward are filled by Sorwell internal conflict and the actions he takes has he veers back and forth between seeing the God Emperor as a divine agent on a real mission or as a lying demon leading everyone to their doom.

Meanwhile Drusus Achamain with the daughter of his ex-wife Esmenet (who is currently Kellhus' wife and Empress of humanity and trust it's as awkward as you think) Mimara and the ragged remains of the Skineaters venture deeper into the wilds of the north. The North was once the center of human civilization but was utterly destroyed in a war against the Consult, Drusus is something of an expert on this civilization because... Well he dreams the life of one of it's greatest heroes every time he goes to sleep, the founder of his school. Drusus has become an expert in digging through these dreams for facts and information. It's in these dreams that he realizes that he knows where a map leading to Kellus' birthplace is. This is important because Kellus is a Dunyain, the result of a eugenics and schooling program to create people capable of rejecting desire in exchange for rationality. They've focused on breeding for intelligence and motor control and relentlessly training people in full expression of their mental and physical gifts. This genetic legacy and training program enabled Kellus to walk into the first Holy War a penniless vagabond and walk out the God-Emperor of Mankind. The common way of explaining it within the book series is the phrase “Kellus to us as adults are children.” Ask yourself how easy would it be to outsmart and manipulate a society of people with the mental and emotional development and control of 5 years and you get an idea of Kellus' situation and abilities. Drusus intends to learn as much about Kellus as humanly possible and then wreck Kellus' shit as revenge for stealing his wife and basically screwing him over again and again. To do this he has lied to the Skineaters and led them into one of the dark heartlands of Sranc, an impenetrable forest that has driven off constant attempts by humanity to explore it and has swallowed up whole companies of hard bitten adventurers. Drusus means to push through it with a handful or so of men, a single Non-Man sorcerer (Non-Men are pre-human sapient who were made immortal at a terrible price, think Elves with all the nice parts taken out) and Mimara, who is learning more about her abilities to look into people's soul (aka The Judging Eye).

These abilities are terrifying and come at an awful cost but Mimara might not be able to survive without them. For that matter neither may Drusus. Mix in their relationship which whips between one between a father and daughter to a coldly hostile one and back as they both have to deal with the trauma of their experiences and the problems of the march. Especially has the Skineaters become increasingly insane. Captain Kosoter for example is going madder and madder as they head farther north and becoming as dangerous to his own men as he is to the enemy. Cleric, the Non-Man mage is impossible to predict as always and may turn on them on any moment (has he is the kind of Non-Man that kills the people he loves so he can remember them, the price of immortality being unable to remember anything but the most traumatic of events). Clerics true name and the reasons for his wandering now have to be discovered and brought to light or they may be murdered by their own allies. In fact, being murdered by their own allies in the wilderness is a concern that Drusus and Mimara will have to deal with and one that may be more dangerous to them then all the Sranc in the world.

Lastly in the Imperial City Esmenet is fighting hard to maintain any level of control over a rapidly spinning apart Empire. Without Kellus and his army, and in the face of revolts being inspired by the gods (who are blind to the Consults plots) and starting a feud with her brother in law Maithanet, who was basically made the Pope. She was egged onto this by her psychopath son Kelmomas, her youngest surviving child. Kellus often reminds me of a sociopath in his behavior but Kelmomas takes it to a whole new level, murdering his own twin to make sure his mother pays more attention to him in the last book for example. Getting her to feud with his Uncle weakening the Empire when they can least afford it because he doesn't want him ratting him out to Esmenet. Because of the madness of one small prince the entire Empire may fall to ruin, bringing all of humanity into a state of warfare and madness when they can least afford it, because if Kellus' army fails, if the Consult wins... Then the No God will emerge and every man, woman and child that falls in that war will have been a waste that humanity can ill afford. To be honest this remains my least favorite story line. While I go back and forth on whether I prefer the army story or the adventurers story line, I always kinda of sigh when we hit this one. That isn't Esmenet's fault although there are times I want to shake her until her teeth rattle but rather while the behavior shown in the story line is completely realistic (people back stabbing each other and going apeshit) I've never been able to really grasp the motivations. I mean for fuck sake if Kellus is lying (if he is why is he leading a massive army out into the wilderness?) then we're all going to find out soon. If he's telling the truth we literally do not have the time and resources to waste on this. But no, the rats have to eat each other right fucking now. It's depressing really.

In the midst of this is the character that the book is named after, the White Luck Warrior. A creature of Yatwer (a goddess) he is able to see his future, present and past all at the same time. Because of this he always knows which actions will work out best for him. Sent out to start tearing down the empire he is on a quest to murder the imperial family. We don't spend a lot of time with him which is good because the sections written from his view point have to be read 3 or 4 times sometimes to finally figure out what you're reading (maybe that's just me). I find the idea fascinating mind you but I feel I don't want to read it from a first person view.

You know I'm not going to lie to you folks, while incredibly well written and layered with history and atmosphere a lot of this book is depressing on a massive scale. While I like it... I frankly had more fun reading the Judging Eye. Because of this White Luck Warrior get's an -A. Tense, dark and moody but at times exhausting and depressing. Still a good read however. I should note that this isn't something I would hand to anyone of a young age or to anyone who can be thrown into a funk because of their entertainment.
Okay, next week? Let's do something fun... Hey I haven't reviewed a Superhero graphic novel yet have I?