Friday, February 24, 2017

Caliban's War by James S.A.Corey

Caliban's War
            James S.A.Corey

Caliban's war is the sequel to “Mr. Corey's” (it’s a pen name for two authors) rather amazing Leviathan Wakes. Caliban's War was published in 2012 by orbit publishing. I should note: I am about to spoil the hell out of Leviathan Wakes so stop here if you haven't read it yet. In Leviathan Wakes, Mr. Corey took us to the sort-of-distant future where humanity has colonized the Moon and Mars and is expanding into the outer planets and the asteroid belt. While the Earth is politically and economically unified, Mars has become a rival state and the outer planets/belt have evolved into a radically different culture with it's own language, customs, and mores from Earth or Mars. With the evolution of that separate culture has come resentment of the more powerful inner planets as the people of the outer system view them as foreign imperialists. This was all brought to a head when a cabal of corporate scientists began experimenting on an alien piece of biological technology known as the protomolecule. As an experiment they release it on a large and very densely populated outer system habitat. The protomolecule kills everyone and uses their biological mass to rewire the habitat and turn it into a spaceship on a ramming course toward Earth. The cover up leads Mars and Earth into the brink of a shooting war and it's only by heroic action that the protomolecule is diverted into Venus and war averted. Now the protomolecule is reworking Venus and what does the divided solar system do?  Start prepping for another war against each other of course!

Both Earth and Mars move to divide up the solar system between themselves while the Outer System resists both of them, tensions are simmering high and everything just needs a match. On Ganymede, which is the breadbasket of the outer system and the safest place to bear and give birth to children, that match gets struck. When Gunnery Sgt Roberta Draper's platoon of Martian Marines finds itself confronted by a monster of nightmare that just wiped out a UN Marine platoon and proceeds to tear them apart, their attempts to kill the damn thing kick off a mass fleet conflict that shatters Ganymede. Gunnery Sgt Draper, aka Bobbi, finds herself the sole survivor of a confrontation of what seems to be a weapon of war made from the alien protomolecule. However neither her government or the government of Earth seemed as interested in that fact, as they are interested in getting ready to blow each other to pieces.

Except for Chrisjen Avasarala assistant to the undersecretary of the executive administration of the United Nations. A woman who if she isn't the most powerful person on Earth, politically speaking, is certainly in the top five. When she gets involved in trying to stop a war from occurring and getting everyone focused on the fact that Venus is being rewritten into... No one knows what, she's finding a lot more resistance than she expected and finding out that she can trust a lot fewer people than even she thought she could. She's trying to piece together who is doing this and why before everyone is dragged into a shooting war that is going to benefit no one--not even the cockroaches--if things go wrong. This is because if whatever Venus is turning into is hostile, not even the cockroaches are gonna be around afterwards. It's not that no one’s paying attention to Venus mind, just about everyone is aiming telescopes, radars and more at the planet and watching as some alien technology thousands of years beyond our own is changing the very nature of the planet in months. It's just that everyone else is reacting by plotting to clunk their neighbors over the head so they can consolidate power in the face of this mind boggling event.

Meanwhile suffering the consequences of all this is Dr. Praxidike Meng, a biologist on Ganymede who before all of this cared about exactly two things. His daughter Mei; a toddler who suffers from a rare disorder which renders her immune system defunct unless she gets regular medical doses; and his research into growing better and stronger plants in low and zero g, so he can fed the outer system. All of that is torn to pieces when Mars and Earth start shooting each other in his home and he finds out that his daughter was kidnapped... Before the shooting started. His work is ruined, his home is a bombed out war zone and is slowly sliding into utter ruin but that doesn't matter. Doctor Prax has just one goal after his life has been shattered by forces outside of his control: find his daughter no matter where he has to go or who he has to go through and the only one who can help him is…

The one and only Captain James Holden. The maniac who inadvertently started the last round of shooting and helped saved civilization. When his boss (for a loose definition of the word) points him at Ganymede to figure out just what is going on, he sets Captain Holden on the trail of conspiracy to create the next revolution in warfare and to unify humanity under one banner, even if everything humanity has built has to be wrecked beyond repair first. Only Captain Holden isn't doing so hot, as what he saw the last time he confronted the protomolecule has scarred him for life and his attempts to ignore that or pretend it didn't happen are dragging him deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole. It's an open question as to whether or not he can tame his demons long enough and well enough to be of any use but if he doesn't everyone might end up paying for it.

Both Holden, Doc Prax and Bobbi are struggling with nasty cases of PTSD in this book and one thing I like is how Mr. Corey has them express it in different ways. Captain Holden growing more and more paranoid and prone to violence to solve his problems, something that hasn't escaped the notice of his engineer and girlfriend Naomi Nagata, who feels he's becoming more like the burnt out cop Detective Miller... Who didn't survive the last confrontation with the protomolecule. Doc Prax is suffering PTSD from being turned into a refugee and losing his daughter. Either one is something I can only imagine dealing with. I mean, imagine your home being turned into a bombed out ruin with foreign troops everywhere. Your friends are fleeing or slowly going insane and you're not much better but you can't leave because the only family you have left is missing and you have to find them. Meanwhile Bobbi has become withdrawn and rather obsessed with finding the monster that killed her Marines and killing it back. Interestingly enough, another crew member kind of steps up to the fore here, Amos Burton. Like Holden, Amos is from Earth but while Holden had a rather idyllic childhood being raised on a farm by his 8 parents (genetic engineering makes having children more interesting!), Amos had a much darker past and it gets brought to light here. Part of it is the rather odd connection between Amos and Dr. Prax, as Amos becomes rather committed to finding the Doctor's missing child himself. The stakes are both low and intimate with the survival of a single child and the sanity of her father at stake and high and frightening as things could spin out of control and start the most destructive and possibly last war in history.

I do have trouble with how eager some people are to start this war has well, because frankly this is like the US and the USSR in that no one can win it. Basically Earth and Mars can utterly ruin each other to the point of wrecking their planets for human habitation. Mars is still only habitable by dome and Earth has over 30 billion people on it. Both planets are basically a few high speed rocks away from utter collapse and with that wrecking civilization itself. I know I'm discounting the outer planets but I have doubts about their ability to keep a high tech functioning civilization going without the inner planet's resources and infrastructure. I'm not saying that such a group wouldn't arise or wouldn't try for it. The Soviet Union and the United States both had warhawk factions after all and frankly my thought is if you have leadership who thinks they can win a final confrontation with the enemy and achieve total control... Then sooner or later they're going to go for it. But you think more people would be saying “hey would there even be anything left on a meaningful level and would there be enough of that left to protect us from whatever is going on on Venus?”. The larger story here that the story of Prax's search for his daughter and Bobbi and Holden grappling with their traumas and losses threads through is how do civilizations deal with outside context problems and do you come together in the face of that problem or do you try and force everyone to follow your lead?

We also get to see Earth and get some interesting facts. For one thing Mr. Corey does try to address the objections to the population of Earth by pitching the idea the once everyone had reached a certain standard of living and most jobs were lost to automation that there was little else for most people to do but collect their government monies and make more people to collect government monies. It's a tidy answer, given to us by Bobbi so it also has a certain amount of deniability, because Bobbi could be wrong. On its own I don't buy it. What tends to drive birth rates is whether having children is economically viable or profitable. When the majority of people were farming for a living it made sense to have large numbers of kids, each child was another mouth to feed but you could turn them into additional farm labor pretty quickly and they would cost a lot less than hiring a non-related adult to help you on the farm. These days having kids is an economic net negative, ask any parent, kids are pretty damn expensive. Basically you need to make having kids not be a money pit. That said it's not a huge part of the setting and the rest of the setting is pretty awesome so I suppose I can let it go.

I also like how Mr. Corey treats the military in this book. There are military villains to go with our heroes yes, but the book is able to touch on the virtues displayed by members of every military involved as well as looking at the vices those same services have. The military as an institution is not mindlessly praised or disparaged, instead we are shown that the militaries involved are full of good people and bad people with many virtues and vices shared among them. Some of them are venial, selfish, short sighted or just mean, but we are also shown self sacrifice, loyalty, and a willingness to go beyond what is expected of you for the benefit of the group.

Caliban's War is a great book and shows just what great science fiction can be. Mr. Corey has given us a great story that builds on the last one and shows us the consequences of those actions. The story doesn't entirely work as a stand alone but honestly that doesn't bother me too much. I'm giving Caliban's War an A. This is one of the better books I've read this year.   

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

So a note on what's to come. I got graphic novels spilling out of the box, so it's time go ahead and clear some of out. So next month is graphic novel month! I also want to give some time to independent writers so April will be independent novel month.

March 3rd - Vader's back!
March 10th - Dwarves vol I!
March 17th- Ravine vol II
March 24th- Monsters
March 30th Rurouni Kenshin Vol I

Coming up in April- State Machine, Warp III and Seedbearing Prince III! Keep reading folks and next week we once again turn to the Dark Side!

Friday, February 17, 2017

Contact information

Okay just a quick announcement.  We've added some contact means for the review series.  First off is an email and a twitter account you can catch at @frigidreadseri1

Keep reading folks.

Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon by David Barnett

Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon
by David Barnett

Published in 2014, this book is the sequel to the book Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, which was reviewed here. I am going to warn everyone up front: there are spoilers for the first book in here. Taking place in a steampunk clockwork world where the British Empire still reigns supreme over the American colonies and most of the world in the year of our lord 1890, the first book gave us Gideon's rise to heroic status and his first mission to avenge the murder of his father and prevent the destruction of London by an Ancient Egyptian made superweapon: the aforementioned Brass Dragon. The Mechanical Girl in the title refers to Maria, a woman made of clockwork, kid leather, a murdered women's brain and tied together using a strange artifact found on a shipwreck in the Atlantic ocean. At the close of the last book, Gideon saved London and avenged his father but managed to have the dragon and Maria hijacked out from under him. To be honest it's not bad for a first attempt at heroism all things considered.

This book, the second in the series picks up with Gideon having completed several weeks of firearm and hand to hand combat training and being sent out into the world. His first mission is to recuse a pair of British Scientific and Action icons, the Professor of Adventure Stanford Rubicon and the steam powered cyborg Charles Darwin. Both of these gentlemen have been shipwrecked in Japanese waters (I'll come back here) on the mysterious island known only as Sector 31, the Lost World, which is full of you guessed it.. Dinosaurs. It's a sadly brief section but I enjoyed it. After finishing this mission Gideon finally gets the mission he wants, he gets sent off to North America to find the Brass Dragon and Maria and bring them back to English hands.

It's a strange and fractured North America that Gideon is being sent to, at least to our eyes. The West Coast is in Japanese hands, although they are mainly focused in California. This comes from when Emperor Komei of Japan was infected with smallpox, a Japanese scientist figured out a way to keep him alive using well... Steampunk Cybornetics to replace his blood daily. Aghast at his father turning into a high tech (well by their standards high tech) vampire and realizing there's not a lot for the heir of an immortal machine Emperor to do, Mutsuhito, heir to the Japanese throne fled with his followers to California to establish a more progressive and less blood drinky version of Japan. Louisiana is still ruled by the French government, given that the Louisiana purchase never happened. To be honest I don't view that as realistic, but the book doesn't go into that so I'll let it go. Meanwhile over in the east, the British government still rules the colonies, due to a mysterious British hero named Gideon stopping Paul Revere's ride (if this isn't a clear and obvious time travel set up then I don't what is, but we'll have to see). The exception to this is the Deep South, which split when slavery was abolished. This led to the British government building a vast wall across the border. British control doesn't extend very deep into the continent however, with a part of the interior under the control of the Free States of America, where various rebels fled when the revolution failed and Texas being split into warlord states. The wealthiest and most powerful of these being Steamtown ruled by the madman Thaddeus Pinch.

Steamtown, built where our own San Antonio is, became wealthy on two things. Coal mines, crewed by slaves and a massive amount of sex slavery where kidnapped women from around the world are forced to work as whores in the brothels of the town. It's a vile, loathsome place that exists because everyone else is too far away, too weak, or too busy to stomp it out and it's ruled by a man who’s been replacing every part of himself that he can with cutting edge steampunk machine parts. I noted that Charles Darwin had been made a cyborg earlier and it's interesting to contrast the two characters despite Darwin's very brief appearance. Charles Darwin remains a very human character despite being made up of a high amount of metal and needing to burn coal to be able to move. Thaddeus Pinch however, is pure monster. Spurning the flesh he was born with, he believes that each replacement brings him closer to godhood, which gives him the right to treat mere mortals as pawns and tools to do with as he pleases. Somehow, I don't think this is what the average transhumanist had in mind, or at least I hope not. Thaddeus Pinch has the dragon but sadly not the means to control it as Maria was removed from the wreckage. So he holds Louis Cockayne prisoner, hoping that Louis will cough up what he needs to know to operate the dragon, unite Texas, and conquer the world so he can rule it as a steampowered god forever. Into this, armed with a pistol, his wits and hopefully more luck then he needs, rides Gideon Smith.

Gideon Smith has grown since the first book, this is no longer a young man who needs his hand held and everything explained. That said, Gideon still has a lot to learn and a fair amount of growing to do. Interestingly enough Louis Cockayne turns out to be his main mentor despite the fairly adversarial relationship between them. This relationship stems from the fact that it was Cockayne who stole the brass dragon at the end of the last book, with Maria plugged into it. Speaking of Maria, another issue is Gideon confronting and grappling with his feelings for the mechanical girl. A lot of us would have some problems admitting that we're actually in love with what is essentially a robot using a dead person's brain as it's CPU, let alone a young lad raised in the conservative British country side of the late 1800s. Again it's Louis Cockayne who guides him through this. I actually like this somewhat adversarial relationship, you can clearly see that Cockayne likes and cares about Gideon but really can't help himself when faced with temptation. It gives their relationship a jerky big brother and scrappy little brother feel that isn't a bromance but something a bit more interesting in some ways. That said Gideon is going to have to take everything that Cockayne teaches him while proving Cockayne's worldview wrong. That'll be interesting to see.

There’s an interesting theme running through this as well which links our villain Pinch and Gideon. Gideon is learning to accept the fact that he’s different and that it’s that difference that lets him achieve the heights he can.  Pinch has already achieved heights, granted as a slaving monster trapped within a shell of man being turned into a monstrous machine but none the less.  This is illustrated when Gideon and Pinch first come face to face with each other.  Pinch asks if Gideon is disturbed by his appearance as a half machine, half bleeding wreck of humanity and Gideon being a brave lad cops to it. When called unnatural Pinch doesn’t deny it but instead embraces it, rightly pointing out there’s nothing natural about men flying through the sky or well… Anything about industrial society, so why deny it?  It’s humanity defiance of nature that holds the seeds of its greatness as according to nature we should all be naked shivering on the African plains hoping the Lions find someone else to eat tonight.  I hate Pinch’s mechanical guts but I gotta admit he’s got a point here.  So we’re led to the statement that Gideon’s life might just be unnatural but… So what?  It’s not like your life is all that natural either is it?

We also have a cast of supporting character returning in this sequel, most specifically Rowena and Bent. Rowena is a lady airship pilot and in the last book she didn't have much to do other then fly the ship and flirt with Gideon. This book is good enough to give Rowena something to do besides play air taxi and be turned down by the main character. That said even that arc doesn't get a lot of space but it's more than she had in the prior book. Bent is actually moved somewhat into the background for this story mostly to clear space for new characters; such as the daughter of a Spanish appointed governor of a Mexican town named Inez (with no American Revolution, it seems that the Mexican Revolution also did not get off the ground) and her Indian boyfriend named Chantico. Inez is an interesting girl, who has a slight obession with a disappeared Mexican hero, who wore all black and was really good with a sword. He was of course named Zor... La Chupacabras, yes, that's totally it. Inez has taken fencing lessons in secret because that's practically required for any young aspiring aristocratic lady character. Chantico, I didn't care for. Mainly because his role is to do stupid shit in the plot and then have everyone who says they love him tell him what an idiot he is. I would say if you have a character whose main role is to do stupid crap to advance the plot and be called an idiot you need to rethink that character. It's a shame not just because he's the only major Indian character in the story but because I'm thinking that he could have contributed a lot more to the story if he had been allowed to be even slightly useful.

Additionally we have a mysterious character knocking about the story who calls himself Nameless. The Nameless is a man who is very good with a gun and seems to have an ability to basically will himself across the North American continent. The Nameless mainly works with the secondary characters pursuing a bit of a side plot where he tries to create a new melting pot in America. A place where various peoples of different backgrounds can live together and pursue common goals in peace. It's a nice nod to some of the ideals that fueled our country, of many people from diverse places coming together to build something greater. I won't go into details to avoid spoilers but I am left wondering why the Free States of America (which got named dropped but remain unseen) couldn't serve this function? The Nameless is fairly clearly a supernatural character and fits in well.  I find the idea of a human embodiment of the melting pot ideal something interesting in and of itself in this day and age and I’m going to note it’s a part of America worth defending and embodying.

Mr. Barnett continues to provide us with two fisted, steampunk style action, very much in the style of the old pulp stories. At the same time he's able to inject a good amount of grey into this world and additional complexity by not shedding away from the dark parts of the time period and of an openly imperialist culture. I enjoyed seeing these characters again and I did enjoy the tour of at least some of North America. Unfortunately we don't get to really spend a lot of time anywhere but Steamtown which is the one place I didn't want to see a lot of. That said there was at least a good pay off for it. I did think there were a couple more side plots in this novel that weren't needed but Mr. Barnett does manage to tie them all together in a workmanlike manner if not in an especially eloquent way. All in all I'm giving Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon a B-. It was good and fun but there was a lot of flailing around for not enough pay off. Still there are a lot worse books out there.  

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Emperor of the Eight Islands: The Tale of Shikanoko By Lian Hearn (Gillian Rubinstein)

Emperor of the Eight Islands: The Tale of Shikanoko
By Lian Hearn (Gillian Rubinstein)

Published in 2016, Emperor of the Eight Islands (EEI from here on) is a fantasy story set in I Can't Believe It's Not Japan. Released under the name Lian Hearn, the writer, Ms. Rubinstein, was born in England in 1942 growing up in the countryside and splitting her teen years between English boarding schools and her mother and stepfather's home in Nigeria (her father died when she was 14). She studied languages in Oxford and worked in London and Europe as an editor, freelance journalist and film critic before moving to Australia in 1973, she remains there with her husband Philip with whom she has had 3 children, all adult now. She released her first book in 1986 (Space Demons which won a number of awards and was fairly popular), since then she has written over 30, as well as 8 plays and a vast number of articles and short stories. She began writing under the name Lian Hearn in 2001 when she released Across the Nightingale floor, which was the first of a five book series set in a fictional feudal Japan. As I mentioned earlier EEI is also set in a Japanese style setting but is a fantasy. Ms. Rubinstein has insisted that she is not a fantasy writer and these books shouldn't be necessarily considered fantasy. While I can't speak to her other books, in this book the main character gains magic powers through a ritual where he is imbued with power through a deer bone mask. There are spirits, magical creatures and more. This book is a fantasy and I have to wonder at attempts to declare it as anything but some strange denial. I have to wonder if this is part of the idea that fantasy novels cannot be adult or serious.

This idea lead Scott Bakker's professors to mock his stories as children's books and for others to suggest that you cannot be writing anything with any real depth or impact if you dare put an elf or have some magic knocking around. Which frankly is a ridiculous idea. Yes, there are plenty of silly or bad novels published in the genres of sci-fi and fantasy but to be blunt more than a fair share of “serious literature” is made up of self-indulgent pretentious crap that could have issued forth from your average three year old. We all remember the books that our english teachers insist are great but you find yourself utterly loathing. Ghettoizing genres just because we don't care for them is a sign of immaturity in my opinion. I don't care for romance novels but I won't declare the genre worthless, I'm sure there's at least two or three romance novels worth reading, just damn if I'm gonna spend the time to find them. Let me actually talk about the book.

EEI has a host of characters who all share several things in common. They tend to be unlucky, whether it's in having their father's die young and thus turning them into a victim for power grasping uncles; or having fathers who decide to break your little brother's marriage so you can marry his wife; or having an enemy with vast magic powers and royal protection. Secondly, they all make terrible decisions or convince themselves that they have no choice but to make terrible decisions. The second one is honestly very true to life and I have to congratulate Mrs. Rubinstein on capturing that so well. I mean the book opens with a terrible decision when the main character Shikanko's father decides to go play Go with a group of tengu (Japanese Birdmen, who sort straddle the line between goblins and fairies in their mythology). As you might guess, Shikanko's father never makes it back and his mother decides to get herself to a nunnery leaving the boy in the not-so-tender care of his Uncle. When Shikanko (side note, that's not the story that Shikanko starts the story with, but since it's the one he uses most often and the one he prefers, it's the one I'm using for this review) approaches manhood, his Uncle decides it would be best if Shikanko had a hunting accident. Fortunately, he's as skilled at creating hunting accidents as he is an honest and honorable man, being perhaps the only person to actually kill a deer when he was just using it as cover for an assassination attempt. Then again, Shikanko's Uncle was only able to take power when circumstances cleared away all opponents so maybe I'm expecting too much of him when I expect him to be able to kill an unarmed teenage boy. In fact, he makes such a hash of it, not only killing a member of the wrong species but the way the killing took place allowed Shikanko to be able to access the mystic power of the deer. Shikanko encounters a mountain sorcerer who, in a long magical ritual, carves him a mask from the bones of the deer that died in his place, allowing him to become something much greater than he ever would have without that assassination attempt. Thus our story beings.

The main driver of the story is a dynastic dispute over who should inherit the throne. The Emperor is old and frail and while the Crown Prince has a lot of supporters and is reasonably competent, he's got enemies. A member of the royal family, known as the Prince Abbot (because he's a Prince and an Abbot) is a wealthy and politically powerful man who is also a powerful wizard. Served by monks, warriors, and magical creatures such as talking birds called werehawks who serve has his spies and couriers. The Prince Abbot is looking to place his own candidate (a nephew of his) on the throne. Not himself of course, as being a Buddhist Monk, he can't hold a throne. Our next character is the guy who pulls Shikanko into these politics: Lord Kiyoyuri of Kuromori. Lord Kiyoyuri is a man with bad luck, who makes worse decisions. His bad luck comes in the form of the death of his first wife and his rather cold blooded father. While Kiyoyuri is in deep mourning of a woman he cared for and loved, his father decides not to waste an unmarried child. So he announces to both his sons (Kiyoyuri and Masachika) that he's going to have Masachika's marriage broken up and have Kiyoyuri marry the girl instead. To Kiyoyuri's credit, he argues against this but being a Feudal Japanese Noble, gives in when his Dad puts his foot down. I expected this but found it disappointing as I would really like for someone to just “Well, yes we could do that honored parent and I could also take my knife and make myself head of the clan in a sudden and tragic homicidal stabbing accident. Let's both agree we should back off from having ideas for a while okay?”

Sadly not to be, instead both brothers yield to their father's will. This also means Masachika gets sent off to a rival clan to marry their daughter. Splitting your kids up and sending them over to rival teams was actually a fairly common practice in Japan back then. The rationale being: that way no matter who won the fight, at least one family member stood a fairly good chance of being alive and in the good graces of the winner. It... worked often enough to justify the scheme. This leads us to the Lady Tama, who found herself passed between brothers like she was a football. I honestly appreciate the story giving her some agency and goals. She makes her own bad decisions, which I won't spoil but I will say she misjudged which brother was the better man and by the end of the story she knows it. She is also bound and determined to keep her family lands and home and if she has to do so over everyone's dead bodies so much the worse for them. I respect someone who has clear goals and is willing to commit to them. That said, this book is clearly a prelude to the rest of her story so she doesn't get much time on the page. Most of it is given to Kiyoyuri and Shikanko.
Both of them get pulled into the civil war that flares up in this book but from different ends so to speak. In Kiyoyuri's case his story is a fairly straight forward and mundane one. He is a feudal lord trying to keep faith with his lord. He does this by fighting and bringing his own men who can fight in support of his lord's cause. Things get complicated when his son gets kidnapped and he has to make decisions that he frankly isn't built to make wisely and his family pays for it. The fantastic elements of the story weave in and out of this hitting Kiyoyuri without warning and he is utterly defenseless against them. Nor does he understand these mystic powers and the people who use them. Despite this, he tries to do what he believes he’s suppose to. Shikanko on the other hand is on a very mystic and strange journey that would seem to have next to nothing to do with anyone else except for the fact that our Prince Abbot keeps pulling him in. The Prince Abbot flat out wants Shikanko working for him and is willing to train him and teach him and reward him if that's what it takes. He's also willing to utterly destroy him and tear him apart if that's what it takes too. So Shikanko has to decide in this book if he's going to take a position as the student and servant of a man willing to murder thousands of people to put a puppet on a throne or fight a man who commands armies both magical and mundane. He has to make this decision while struggling to understand just what it is that he's been given and what the stakes are in this game. In short he has to make a decision when he's the least equipped to and at the worst possible time to get it wrong. Isn't that just life in a nutshell?

Emperor of the Eight Islands is an interesting and fast-paced story where Mrs. Rubinstein has managed to capture the feeling and sights of feudal Japan fairly well and infuse it with a magical side that is wondrous and strange with amazing powers and dark secrets that people will kill for. That said there is a bit too much going on in this book. At 250 pages, a number of the characters and stories are basically just set up. Almost half the book is used to set up stories that will be told in sequel books and not brought to any satisfying conclusion in this one. Which you know, does affect the grade. If you're a fan of Japanese culture or you would like some magic heavy political skullduggery in a book that doesn't imitate a brick, then this is one is for you. Just keep in mind to see everything through you are committing to buying at least one more book. I'm putting Emperor of the Eight Islands by Lian Hearn at a C+. It's an interesting story and it's going interesting places but if it's going to do this much set up you could at least take another 20 or 40 pages to bring everyone to a good stopping point.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Ravine Written by Stjepan Sejic and Ron Marz

By Stjepan Sejic and Ron Marz

Mr. Sejic is becoming one of the most featured people on this review series, he is a Croatian comic book artist and writer and I've covered him in both my second Rat Queens review (Oct 2015) and in Death Vigil (Oct 2016). I've really enjoyed his work and I really enjoy fantasy so picking up a fantasy comic by him wasn't a hard choice. Ravine is an epic fantasy comic written by Mr. Sejic and Ron Marz (yes, I'll get to him) published in 2013 by Top Cow, which I discussed in the Death Vigil review so I'm not going to retread that ground. Instead let's talk about Mr. Marz.

Ron Marz has been writing comics since at least 1991, which means his work is measured in decades. He's worked for Marvel, DC, Darkhorse, Image (and through Image, Top Cow), and Valiant; and was a writer for several Crossgen comics (Oh Crossgen, you keep coming up and I keep pushing back when I talk about your story). Ron Marz is likely best known for his work in DC however, especially his work on Green Lateran, specifically a story known as Emerald Twilight. That's the story line where Hal Jordan went insane and became a mass murderer and Kyle Rayner became a green lantern; and for awhile at least the only Green Latern. How you feel about that is going to come down to how you feel about Kyle. For the record I like Kyle (at least more than Hal) but I didn't care for turning the Green Lantern Corps into the Green Lantern dude. The argument was that being part of a Corps meant he wasn't special, my response to that is taking away the Corps means he's pretty much just like all the other heroes on Earth. So instead why not embrace the entire sci-fi magic insanity part of it? I should stop here since this isn't a GL review.

Ravine is an epic fantasy set in a world that has been deeply shaped by the relationship between dragons and men. Magic is a gift from dragons to mankind, to aide in their survival dragons changed men into different races as they confronted new magical threats. It's hinted at here that dragons have come into the world of mortals from a different world and brought baggage with them. Most of that information comes from a short story and appendix in the back of the comic, however none of that is really necessary to understand the story itself so I'm not going to ding the comic for it. I will however take points off for how one of the main characters is introduced and honestly for the prologue. Ravine opens up with a massive battle full of people we don't know anything about fighting for reasons that... I honestly find myself indifferent to. It's told to us in narration boxes while splashing the page full of truly beautiful battle art but without any investment into it, I'm left cold. The prologue is meant to introduce us to our villains but honestly I'm left confused as to their motivations and desires. This isn't a bad sequence though, it just lacks context to make it meaningful in any way. If it had been moved to later in the series after the heroes had run into the villains and were trying to learn about them then it would have been a good reveal I think. I can't say the same for our introduction to one of our main characters Stein, where we met him surrounded by a band of adventurers... As he's leaving to go follow a migrating... flock of dragons? Flight of dragons? What do you call a group of dragons anyways? He's following them to some semi-mythical gathering place so he can loot a bunch of dragon scales and sell them off to retire filthy rich. Of course we have one of the party members muttering about how Stein is bitter behind his smile and carries a burden beyond his tender years... All things we've seen packed into everything from bad fan fiction to worse movies. Don't tell he's bitter behind a laughing facade, or that he carries burdens beyond that of mortal men... show me! It's just pretentious and eye rolling to have some character I never see again pontificating about it as the main character wakes away to be edgy.

As you might guess, I don't like Stein. A big deal is made of him but he doesn't do much besides run around at the edges of what looks to me as the real plot. Frankly if I had been the editor I would have told Mr. Sejic not to waste the comic space but use it to greater effect on the things revealed to us with the other main character's story, that being the dragon riding redhead Lynn. Lynn's personal story isn't anything all that special. She's the heir of a nation training in secret to be a dragon rider because the military strength that dragon riders bring is important enough that even heir's to the throne get risked in the rather dangerous training. Honestly I would have thought that if this is a feudal system that dragon riders would be the lords, them or mages. I've never been able to figure out feudal systems where the people with the most military strength don't have elite social positions, especially those modeled off of the western feudal systems. Those were founded on the idea if that if you had a lot of military strength, you got to be a social and economic elite too. Here we learn that Lynn is dreading losing her freedom to the throne (fantasy protagonist plot #3 I believe) but will have to assume the throne because (say it with me) her parents are dead!

Additionally she and her nation are being sucked into a conflict between the feudal lords and the local church. The Church of Damanal worships an imprisoned god, trapped below a mountain. The leader of the church, the hero of the last epic war has been subverting feudal lords and soldier into following him instead of their kings. This of course begs the question, who imprisons a god and why would you imprison a god? Any answer that I can come up with leaves me asking why worshiping this guy is a good idea. That doesn't make people worshipping the imprisoned god unrealistic mind you, just likely not a good idea. Honestly this conflict is the part I like most about the book besides Lynn hanging out with her military friends, worrying about how adulthood is going to go. Lynn of course complicates everything by deciding during her knighting ceremony to make a go for a Grimlas: super magic weapons with spirits living in them. Of course drawing one means you lose all title and are sentenced to wander about doing whatever you please. This is backed up by divine mandate so I don't question it has much but I am lukewarm on the super magic weapon bit, especially since on that front all we get in this story is set up for what they might be able to do.

Ravine is densely packed and takes a bit of reading to unwind. There's good ideas here and some interesting characters but the execution is spotty and there are also not-so-good ideas and characters. Frankly Mr. Sejic ends up trying to do too much here and the story suffers for it. This was written before Death Vigil (2 years before) and I can clearly see the lessons he learned in focus and pacing. Frankly I would advise a rewrite, this is reads a lot like a 1st draft of what might become a great epic fantasy but is in need of a lot of work. While I found some interesting stuff in here I find myself having to give Ravine by Stjepan Sejic a C-. If you want to see what he's really capable of, go read Death Vigil.

This review Edited by Dr. Ben Allen.