Friday, March 31, 2017

Ruroni Kenshin Vol I By Nobuhiro Watsuki

Ruroni Kenshin Vol I
By Nobuhiro Watsuki

So it's the dawn of the 21st century. I'm stationed in Okinawa and like many young men there, bored out of my skull and in a video rental store (In my day you had to go to a store to get movies! In a car! Both ways!) when I see a skinny redheaded dude in a samurai get up plastered on a video box with the imaginative title “Samurai X”. I rented that movie and would watch it 10 times in 2 days during a weekend when we weren't allowed off base thanks to Bill Clinton (he was visiting so no one was allowed to see a civilian so we wouldn't embarrass the old horn dog). That was my introduction to Himura Kenshin the Battosai, and I was hooked. It wasn't until years later that I was able to hunt down the manga that kicked started the whole thing. Ruroni Kenshin was first published in venerable Weekly Shonen Jump magazine starting in April 1994 and would continue until November 1999. From that beginning would come forth anime series, movies, video games and a grand empire of licensed goods. So let's take a look at where it all started, but first, our humble writer and artist.

Nobuhiro Watsuki was born in Tokyo in 1970 and raised in Nafaoka in Niigata prefecture. It is currently a large city and while it was a big one in Nobuhiro's childhood, it has grown a great deal since then. A videogame and anime fan, Nobuhiro studied Kendo in high school but by his own admission wasn't very good at it. He has a long list of works, many of them set in historical periods although like in Ruroni Kenshin he does take certain liberties to tell a story. He does avoid my pet peeve of radically altering real people, or as far as I know he does. He's also known for encouraging his fans to write fan-comics and even asking fans to send them to him. Which honestly speaks well of him in my book. He currently lives in Tokyo with his wife Kaoru Kurosaki.

The Kenshin story is set in the early Meiji era of Japan, where the Shogunate was replaced after a series of battles, upheavals and turmoil known as the Bakumatsu. Our main character Kenshin was in the thick of it during that time working for as an assassin for the anti-Shogun forces. He gained a reputation as a walking blood bath by... being a walking blood bath. At the end of the conflict, Kenshin resolved to find a way to live without being one of the top five causes of death in Japan; even going so far as to have a sword forged that would be difficult to kill with (Katanas usually only have one side sharpened, Kenshin has the other side sharpened so a normal strike won't cut you open, just break your bones). Our story begins when Kenshin wanders into Tokyo and runs into a young lady trying to clear her dojo's name. Some mysterious thug has been running about killing people declaring himself a member of that dojo, giving them a reputation as a pack of mad dogs. As a result of this, most of the students have left. The young lady named Kamiya Kaoru is hoping to find this thug, beat him senseless and turn him over to the police to clear the dojo's name. Kenshin is drawn into this when he witnesses the confrontation and the thug declares himself the Battosai. While he's not proud of being the Battosai and is trying to be a different person… He ain't going to let just any two bit thug pick up his name and run with it either.

That said, I have to mention this: now I know it's before television or even radio but... Humira's a bloody redhead in Tokyo! He looks nothing like the towering thug who's pretending to be him. I mean sure I can understand some confusion over what an assassin looks like but he didn't kill everyone who saw him! Just like 90% tops! Considering everyone else in this series is drawn with a standard Japanese phenotype you think word would get around that hey, the Battosai is a skinny redheaded guy so if you find yourself in the street with one... run! Sorry, but that bugs me. Anyway, when the dust settles, Kaoru imperiously invites Kenshin to stay at her dojo, providing our set up for the series.

Let me touch on Kaoru a bit here, she is the only child of a sword master and dojo owner and when he dies, she is determined to keep the dojo going. This is despite the fact that women aren't really considered proper teachers of swordsmanship at the time. Lucky Kaoru is actually very talented in the martial arts, if completely out of her league at Kenshin's level. Kaoru is kind of the center of the group here, it's her dojo that gives them a base of operations and it's because of her that Kenshin hangs around long enough to form the group. Her main connections are with Kenshin and Yahiko though. Speaking of which let's talk about Yahiko.

Yahiko was the son of a samurai who died during the transition from Shogunate to Meiji Era, his mother being dispossessed of her home and property had to turn to prostitution to keep her son and herself fed. This more or less worked until she contracted a disease and died from it. It's a sad but not uncommon story of the time. What's interesting is Yahiko isn't ashamed of his mother's action, but of his own after her death. He became a pickpocket working for the yakuza and goes after Kenshin. He gets caught and the arc becomes Yahiko wanting to go legit. We learn at the end of the story line that Kenshin is refusing to pass on his skills with the sword and encourages Yahiko to learn under Kaoru instead. Yahiko plays the part of the apprentice in most of the story lines, the jr. member that needs things spelled out to him because well, how else would he know?  

We're also introduced to Sanosuke, Sanosuke was a member of a extremist group, the Sekiho Army that was destroyed by the Meiji side of the civil war despite fighting on their side. It's touches like this that I enjoy about this series by the way. While Nobuhiro is clearly not a scholar, he is also very clearly a big fan of history and does study the period he uses a bit. While he does include a lot of fantastical elements, he also brings in little touches. Sano is pretty bitter about this and becomes what he calls a “fight merchant” or what I call a low rent mercenary. He's actually hired to fight Kenshin and is excited to battle him. The fight is a pretty good one without going overboard, in fact a lot of the early fights are actually pretty quick. Which helps enforce the idea that Kenshin is a scary man. Sano is the first fight that lasts for a bit, which helps give Sano a bit of credit with the readers.

We're also introduced to the last member of the crew Megumi, she's a woman from a long celebrated line of doctors, unfortunately it looks like she is the last survivor of a long line of celebrated doctors. Her older family members marched onto the battlefield to provide care for the injured during the uprising and  never came back. She did manage to get work as an assistant to another doctor but he turned out to be in bed with a very wealthy drug dealer making a type of super opium (this is another little touch). When the doctor is killed in a disagreement over money, Megumi is left as the only person who knows how to make this super drug. Despite the fact that she has been part of a drug ring that kills people, Kenshin is still more than willing to come to the rescue when he finds out.

Which brings us to the themes present in this collected edition. We met each of the members of the team, Kenshin, Kaoru,Tahiko, Sanosuke and Megumi. With the exception of Kaoru, each member of the team has a past they are not proud of and want to make up for. They all have special talents and skills that are the result of practice, study, and determination. They're all hopeful of a better world while admitting that the current world falls woefully short of the expectations of the people who sacrificed for it. Make no mistake the Meiji government is painted as corrupt and fairly insecure here. So we have hope and redemption against a background of sin and violence. This creates a great dynamic for the story. Nobuhiro manages to avoid the perils of Shonen stories, such as drawn out fights that devolve into “now let me show you my true power” or everyone having to wait around for the main character to solve everything, as Sano and Yahiko and even Kaoru are given things to do (although in many cases Kaoru is turned into a hostage or made to wait at home, the fights tend to be boys only here). There are touches of the ridiculous, such as a villain with flint for teeth and a oil bag in his stomach so he can be walking flamethrower but I'm willing to accept some fantasy here. That said, if you dislike manga on principals and can't stand Shonen stories, then you might want to pass on this. Still I enjoyed the book and for that I'm giving Ruroni Kenshin Vol I (the collected edition) By Nobuhiro Watsuki a A-.

Edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Monstress Vol I: Awakening By Marjorie Liu, Art by Sana Takeda

Monstress Vol I: Awakening
By Marjorie Liu, Art by Sana Takeda

Monstress is an dark epic fantasy comic published by Image Comics, it has been running since 2015. Its author Marjorie Liu was born in Philadelphia to a father from Taiwan and a mother from the United States; she spent her early life reading. She attended Lawrence University in Appleton Wisconsin, which is where she first got into comics books. While she was familiar with the X-Men due to the 1990s animated series (if you haven't seen it, try it out!) it wasn't until college that she started reading the comics and writing... well, fan fiction. Fan fiction for those of you who might be entirely aware are stories written about fiction universes by fans, like if your little brother wrote his own Superman stories for example. Honestly I'm rather supportive of fan fiction, it's a good place to practice your writing skills and learn how to write other characters. Anyway, after graduating, Ms. Liu went to law school at the University of Wisconsin and even did intern work for the US Embassy in Beijing. She grew disillusioned with law practice after that however and returned to writing.  First she wrote poetry, short stories and novels but after seeing a small boy in a Spider-man costume, she thought it would be awesome to write for Marvel. She ended up writing a number of X Men tie in novels and NYX, an X-Men spin off comic. Sana Takeda was born in Niigata Japan, while she started out as a CGI designer for SEGA, she is now a veteran comic book artist, having done work for Aspen, Image and Marvel comics (most famously doing the art for the Ms. Marvel comics (the blonde one, before Marvel decided to do the obvious thing and make her Captain Marvel). Now let's talk about the comic, shall we?

The world of Monstress is a sharply and likely unnecessarily divided one. On one side we have the Federation of Man, ruled from the shadows by the all girl religious order of the Cumaea. The Cumaea are women with psychic powers and access to a hidden science which allows them to extend their lives and enhance their powers at a hideous cost, but I'll come back to that. On the other side we have the Arcanics, who really aren't a race, yes, I'll explain. Leading arcanic society is a group of beings known as Ancients. They're--to be blunt on the matter--immortal beast men, who have a number of magical powers and from time to time like to dally with humans. The Arcanics are the offspring of such unions, some look entirely human, most don't. They live divided into two courts, the Court of Dusk and the Court of Dawn. This leads me back to the method through which the Cumaea get their extended lives and powers. It's called Lilium and the only way you can get it is by rendering the bodies or bones of Arcanics or Ancients. The “witch-nuns” of the Cumaea would use their Lilium fueled powers to take over the Federation of Man from within and goad it into war with the Arcanics. It was a brutal and devastating conflict made all the worse by the atrocities the Cumaea would lead humanity into in order to feed their need for Lilium. Arcanics were enslaved, experimented on, murdered and chopped up,  not always in that order. The war ended in a truce, when something caused utter destruction at a place called Constantine. The Arcanics convinced the Cumaea that it was a new magic weapon and they would use it again.

Our main character Maika Halfwolf was at Constantine and survived, the war did not leave her unscarred however; she lost her mother and her arm. She also gained something, what she gained is more of an open question. It is not an open question however, of how insanely dangerous that thing is, for something sleeps inside of Maika Halfwolf and when it wakes, people die. It's not like Maika really understands what's lurking inside of herself either, in fact she spends the entire story on a quest for answers. Answers like “what did you people do to my mother?”,  “What did my mother have to do with you?”, and  “What did my mother do to me and what the hell is going on?”. This quest is going to involve Maika going into the very sanctuary of her enemies to find clues to the answer and then to escape with what she's learned. Meanwhile everyone else is starting to figure out what is going on and their reaction is to panic and Maika's quest may restart a war that no one human or otherwise can afford to have restart. Joining Maika in this quest is Kappa the young Arcanic who Maika liberates from the illegal slave pens of the Cumaea and Ren the cat (cats are a mystic race, who seem to add tails as they get older and more powerful).  Kappa doesn’t really do much but act frightened but determined, while Ren serves as the voice of reason in the group.  Which means his job is to be utterly ignored until everything Maika has tried has failed, which is less often than you would think.

Most of the book is taken up with Maika's rampage, subsequent escape and the consequences of both. Now Ms. Liu has avoided the trap of making everyone on one side to be monsters and everyone on the other side shining paladins. We run into good humans (one minor character named Emila is frankly the moral and upright character in the book, risking her life to save people she doesn't know simply because it's the right thing to do) and bad Arcanics. Even our bad guys for the most part show positive emotions like love and affection. Which only highlights the terrible effect that racism has on both sides have when you see characters be loving and gentle and then turn into cold blooded torturers because they've decided their target isn't a person and has no rights. What underscores for it me is that this has all been deliberately stoked and fed (there are repeated mentions in the book how Arcanics and Humans were once much closer as little as 3 generations ago) so a small elite group of women can have an excuse to use fellow sapient beings as fuel. What I do like is this is never spelt out for the reader, you're not clubbed over the head with an Aesop as Ms. Liu seems to trust you can figure this out on your own once you've been informed of the facts.

The art is amazing, it's manga influence but avoids the excesses of the styles (just about everyone is drawn fairly realistically) and blends in a heavy influence of western style creating something rather lovely to the eye in my opinion. Ms. Takeda should be praised for her work. Additionally the writing is very well done, the characters have layers to their personalities, the dialogue is interesting with different characters having different speaking styles and the story is entertaining and manages to avoid being too predictable. I am constantly shown not told things and the setting is peeled back slowly and carefully. Folks, take notes this is how you do an epic fantasy in comic form. Ms. Liu was nominated for an Eisner for best new series and I think she earned that nomination. Monstress by Ms. Liu and Ms. Takeda has earned itself an A. I'm already lined up for volume II which will be coming out this year.   Next week, we’re going to back to the past to take a look at a certain red headed Ronin.  Keep reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Ravine II Written by Stjepan Sejic and Ron Marz

Ravine II
Written by Stjepan Sejic and Ron Marz

Have you ever wanted to like something but just couldn't bring yourself to? Ravine is the epic fantasy creation of Mr. Sejic and Mr. Marz. I've discussed Mr. Sejic and Mr. Marz in prior reviews so I'll just get to Ravine itself. It's a very interesting setting with a lot of things happening in it, many of them are very interesting.  Some of these interesting things even get to be in this story, which is kind of the problem here. Ravine looks and feels like a very dense setting with a lot of moving parts and the story doesn't really give us time to discover the setting or really understand it. It's kinda like if JRR Tolkien had started his stories of Middle Earth in the middle of The Two Towers and expected us all to just catch up. To be fair some very gifted writers can actually pull that off with a combination of engaging characters and well crafted plot. Here on the other hand... It's the end of Volume II and I still have no idea what the main bad guys of the piece actually want or a vague idea of their plan other than kill things with dragon like monsters and make ponderous speeches about fate and sacrifice. Additionally the characters are a mixed bag.

Our main character is still Stein (although thankfully Lynn is still there) and I still don't like him. A lot of the problem with Stein is his presentation, I constantly get other people telling me how awesome Stein is, or lamenting how awful a burden he carries. You see, Stein is also “The Reaper” a powerful magic user who can use entropy to destroy and decay. The Reaper is a morally ambiguous figure as he's primarily known for destroying cities and armies. But that doesn't mean he is unwelcome everywhere he goes. For example, when they arrive at Wade, a city state that is independent mostly due to the efforts and power of Stein, we get a random character who has the power to see how many people you've killed. As you can guess that character mostly stands around talking to other characters about how terrible and awful Stein's life might be. This is filler, it serves no real point in furthering the plot and doesn't tell us anything new. Plus he's not exactly isolated or hated in Wade; he's welcomed into the royal palace, he gets to have dinner with the ruler of the city, and he runs into friends who are happy to see him and help him. The issue becomes less that Stein is forever cut off and isolated from his fellow men by his “dark burden” and more that Stein is unable to confront and accept that part of himself and learn to live with it. While he does carry around some rather intensely destructive power (in addition to being practically invincible and carrying a super-power magical weapon) that only makes him feel more like an edgy fan fiction character. I mean, he has friends all over the place but keeps talking about how isolated he is. His dialogue when he uses his power doesn't help, nor does his insistence that his travel mate Lynn never see him use it. For that matter part of it may be that I read Death Vigil first where he approaches a character with Stein's abilities much more maturely and makes much better use of them. Honestly, this leaves Stein looking like a prototype for a much better and more interesting character but that might just be me.

As for Lynn I like her a lot more than I like Stein. That said she could also use some work, what with with the whole “being a secret heir to the throne who was hidden and raised as an orphan in a foreign land for reasons” thing. We learn this was because her entire family was wiped out in a plague and if Lynn dies or is somehow disinherited, another branch of the family will rule: a branch known for it's fervent support of the The Church of Damanal, for those of you who didn't read the first Ravine review (link here) or have forgotten, Damanal is a god imprisoned under a mountain for reasons unknown. His church has been growing in secular power recently as their worship spreads across the allied states. The various kings and lords are working to maintain a balance of power to keep the Church of Damanal from turning all the allied states into de facto theocracies. If Lynn takes the throne of the country she hasn't seen for most of her life she maintains that balance (as you might guess I find their plan for maintaining her safety slightly flawed), if her distant cousin does then the majority of nations will be controlled from under the mountain. Lynn herself is actually fun and interesting though, even if she is as thick as two short planks sometimes.  However, that's a common character flaw in fantasy protagonists, especially in an author's early stories. To be fair David Eddings would defend this by pointing out that by making your main character ignorant of the world around them, you could educate the reader by simply having someone educate the main character. While her backstory is actually rather standard (secret hidden orphan heir! Complete with magic powers!) her personality is fun and at times funny, that will carry you a good distance.

Several other characters are given time in the volume but I honestly kind of consider it a waste as Volume II is the last entry in the Ravine series as far as I can find. Which is a shame because the setting is actually good. While most of the elements aren't new here, the way they're put together is at least stimulating. This is a problem with doing epic fantasy in something like a comic series, unless you can ensure a long enough run time to really explore your setting, you end up with a story that drowns in it. Additionally a neat setting isn't enough to make up for rather lackluster characters. It’s easier to do this kinda stuff in a novel (where you have the space to tell a complete story) or a webcomic (which you can keep going by simply finding a place to post your comics and keep working). If you are going to tell the story in a comic, focus on a single contained story that can lead your readers to the setting (Last week's comic Redwin of the forge did that magnificently if you ask me). In short get your readers hooked on the characters and the plot first, then you can tool around in your lush, dense fantasy setting. This story simply wasn't focused enough, nor it's characters engaging enough to keep things going.

Sadly I'll have to give Ravine by Stjepan Sejic and Ron Marz C-. An interesting setting just isn't enough to make up for lackluster characters and a struggling plot. It's not terrible to read but... We can all do better. I honestly want to give it a higher grade, but on this review series I give you the grade you have earned. There's talent in here but it's in dire need of more practice, which thankfully Mr. Sejic got. Go read Death's Vigil for an example of what Mr. Sejic can do with some more practice. Next week we go into strange distant corners with Monsteress by Majorie Liu. Keep reading!   

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Dwarves Vol: 1 Redwin of the Forge By Nicolas Jarry, Ar by Pierre Denis Goux

Dwarves Vol: 1 Redwin of the Forge
By Nicolas Jarry, Ar by Pierre Denis Goux

Our great art must be expressed through life.” Ulrog the blacksmith

I was bopping around the internet when an advertisement for comixology popped up letting me know they were having a fantasy comic sale where I could grab a bunch of graphic novels for $2.99. I've never heard of the series on sale (Dwarves and another series called Elves, not exactly the most descriptive title but there you go) but what the hell, so I dropped $15 and got 7 graphic novels. Not a bad trade. I wasn't expecting much but this time I got lucky. Dwarves was published in 2016 by Delcourt comics, if you've never heard of them, the reason for that is simple: they're a French company and Dwarves is a French comic. Delcourt is the 3rd largest publisher of Frenco-Belgian comics with about 480 publications in a year. It was founded in 1986 through the union of two magazines. The comic Dwarves was written by Nicolas Jarry, a French novelist and comic book writer who prefers writing fantasy. He was born in 1976, studied biology in Bordeaux and worked in a bookshop before committing to writing. He's been accredited in about 119 distinct works since he's been published. All that having been said, let's get to the comic itself.

Dwarves is, obviously, set in a fantasy world and is concerned with the workings of dwarven society and with dwarven characters. There are some interesting breaks from tradition here; the dwarves live above ground divided into fortress-states but unified by orders that function as guilds maintaining the interests and knowledge of their craft across borders. Our main character Redwin and his father Ulrog belong to the order of the Forge. The order of the Forge is a powerful and wealthy one because as you might imagine not only do they forge all the weapons and tools needed for society to function but they have also have a monopoly on the runes that grant magical powers to those same tools and weapons. Of course while the order is wealthy and powerful, not all of it's members share equally in the wealth. Ulrog the master blacksmith is not a well regarded or respected dwarf because of his refusal to forge arms or armor. Instead he makes tools, toys and art from the metal and stone he works with at his forge. His son Redwin is less than thrilled by his father's stubborn refusal, he not only wants to become a weaponsmith but wants to become a powerful warrior. Not just a warrior, but figure of power, respect and fear, a Runelord. Runelords are warrior smiths that fight duels that decide legal disputes between the fortress states, preventing all out war and providing something of a blood sport. There's a bit of frustrating realism thrown into this conflict in that Ulrog never really explains himself nor do find out what if any events led him to his position. We learn that he did forge some weapons in his youth but stopped for reasons unknown leading to a rift between Ulrog and his own father. This makes the conflict between Redwin and Ulrog faintly ironic in a way but also more real. Redwin wants to be a traditional dwarf, glorying in arms and combat and Ulrog while standing against that never really explains why beyond a short speech about how such violence is a poison to the soul and no way to run a society. I found this realistic because it's very often that I see parents failing to properly explain their beliefs and reasons to their children, often assuming that because they raised those same children that they magically absorbed their parents reasoning. For that matter by making Ulrog something of a mystery even to his only son, it does reflect how for many children large stretches of their parents lives are unknown and hard to imagine.

Additionally we have the conflict between Redwin and the local bully boy Rom, who receives everything that Redwin wants. Training in the martial arts, in battle runes and how to create weapons of death and destruction, and misuses those gifts by beating up Redwin and sneering at everyone else. Rom is a living example of why if you're going to teach someone violence, you need to teach them the why and when of it. Learning how to fight without learning some moral code that teaches you when to fight, who to fight, and what to fight for simply creates thugs and brutes. These thugs often enough let themselves grow lazy by simply bullying those who can't fight back. Redwin himself comes to display that when he falls in with his uncle Jarsen, a wealthy and powerful member of the Order of the Forge who takes Redwin's training into dark and dangerous places. Jarsen realizes that Redwin doesn't have time to catch up to people training to fight since they could walk and simply teaches Redwin how to kill, and frankly Redwin is very good at it. That said the violence, while coming in fast and often as Redwin sinks deeper and deeper into a lifestyle of debauchery and state endorsed brutality, it's not the main conflict of this book. Hell, the appearance of a trio of demon possessed mages attacking the dwarves homes isn't the main focus of the book. Which is likely just as well as we've all read the story of a the great war to drive back demons in fantasy. The main conflict and story here is the conflict between father and son and how far a loving father will go to protect his child, even when that child has spit in his face and rejected him. While Motherhood is a great thing and deserves to have books written about it, I think it's a good thing to have a story praising fatherhood.  Also I like this way of presenting a good parent, I’m going to pick on J.K. Rowling here but Ulrog is actually a character in this story… Lily Potter isn’t, she’s a combination of plot device and platonic image.  Think about it, James Potter had flaws, he changed and grew and Harry’s understanding of him did as well.  Not so much Lily who was always presented as this perfect mother figure/perfect woman. This honestly made her less believable as a character and a person.  Whereas Ulrog’s faults and emotional outbursts when dealing with his son Redwin did makes him a believable person and character, that actually draws a reader in more than being told how great and wonderful a person was.

There's a lot of blood and fighting in this book and there are scenes of topless female nudity so this is definitely not a book to hand to a child. That said, the art is very good and the story is a good one as well. We are pulled along with Redwin in a downward spiral that he has no idea how to stop and isn't sure that he wants to stop or accelerate to the rock bottom. I've read it several times now and I still enjoy it. For that reason I am giving Redwin of the Forge an A, every now and again you get lucky and find something awesome when you go digging. I would really like to see a translation for a physical copy of this series someday and frankly if this is what we can expect from French writers, we might want to see what can be done to bring more of their works to the States…

This Review Edited by Dr. Ben Allen

Friday, March 3, 2017

Darth Vader: The Shu-Torun War by: Kieron Gillen, Art by Salvador Larroca

Darth Vader: The Shu-Torun War
By: Kieron Gillen, Art by Salvador Larroca

“Of course I'm not going to shoot you, I'm queen, I have people for that”

When we last checked on Darth Vader, we saw him fight his way out of a situation where a Battalion or 3 of rebels had found themselves trapped alone on a planet with him. You might laugh to read that, but I can assure you, the rebels ain't. Despite being set up by a rival for his job and having plots within plots against him, Vader fought his way to and murdered the traitor through the power of his sheer awesomeness and the Force. That also marked the first appearance of the main Star Wars cast into the Darth Vader comic and the capture of Darth Vader's right hand girl Dr. Aphra. With the loss of the leader of his evil adventurer crew, Vader is finding himself having to get his hands dirty. Which frankly doesn't seem to be a problem for him. That's good because the Emperor has a very dirty job for him.

The World of Shu-Torun is rich in metals and heavy elements, things that the Empire needs to build things. Things like blasters, useless stormtrooper armor, star destroyers, Death Stars; you know all the little bits of the Empire's war machine of doom and despair that we know and love so much. These metals have been mined under a feudal government where the Ore-Dukes organize and lead the mining from great mining citadels that function as massive mobile equipment, cities, and fortresses. This system has been co-opted by the Empire to fuel the imperial war machine Now that really hasn't been a problem for these nobles (the opinions of the common miners aren't really mentioned), but lately the quotas have been skyrocketing and the payments aren't increasing to match. They don't mind supplying a genocidal regime mind you but they expect reasonable demands and payment equal to the supply and risk. Despite my snarling this isn't an unreasonable expectation so long as you don't live under a brutal military power that doesn't give a damn about your opinion. Anyway, with the nobility restless, the crown of Shu-Torun grows uneasy and begins plotting on it's own, which ends badly for most of them.

You know I actually feel really sympathetic to the royals of Shu-Torun. Rebellion against the Empire is a dangerous bet at best. It's one thing to bet your own skin against the enemy or even your family but the royals would be betting every man, woman, and child on the planet. Rebellion against the Empire has two outcomes, either you win (which at this point no one has really managed to do yet) or eventually the Empire masses enough troops and firepower to kill you and everyone who is within a light year of you. With those as the stakes, if you take the responsibilities of being in charge even slightly seriously, you're sweating bullets and crapping bricks. Sure your underlings will talk a big game about putting everything on the line for your principals but when everyone's kids are on fire and your entire culture is being erased from the face of the universe, it'll be all on you. So the royals here have to walk the line of dealing with overwhelming force from above and boiling discontent from below. There are many ways to deal with this, many of them very subtle and complex involving playing different factions against each other and a lot of give and take as you reach an arrangement that everyone can live with.

This however, is the Empire. Additionally while the last two volumes have shown us that Darth Vader can do under handed and subtle... That requires him to give a crap and Vader does not have time for Shu-Torun's shit. As far as he is concerned this is a sideshow from his important work, so he's giving Shu-Torun two choices, submit or go the way of Alderaan. So when he walks in to present this choice and gets an assassin team sicced on him? Vader decides to just start killing his way across the hierarchy until he reaches someone sensible enough to listen. This actually brings in a new character Trios, 3rd daughter of the king and newly crowned Queen of Shu-Torun by the grace of Vader's lightsaber. She's the character with the biggest arc here as she grows from a dutiful daughter and unassuming young royal to a rather canny and aggressive political operator under Vader's “leadership” and the extreme pressures he puts her under. Trios puts a face on the dilemma that the Empire presents to rulers across the galaxy. She is a collaborator with the Empire, the very force that murdered her family, because the alternative is the very death of her culture. She is surrounded by people who refuse to see that and she finds herself going further and further to kick these people into submission so she can keep the Empire from killing everybody. I wouldn't mind seeing more of her honestly.

Our evil droids are very present in this story arc and we get to see them interacting directly with Vader, which honestly isn't as entertaining as their interactions with the good Doctor Aphra. There's no give and take with Vader, the droids have wacky antics and Vader sort of puts up with them as long as they achieve the goals he's set. Vader just doesn't do interpersonal relationships on that level I suppose. Still despite the lack of humor there's a good story here showing just how the Empire maintains its control and Vader's role in this. This is a weak point because without Doctor Aphra here, the interactions lack a certain spark as Vader doesn't really play off other characters well in anything but “obey or be destroyed” ways. It doesn't advance the main plot of the series all that much beyond the confrontation Vader has with the pair of cyborg twins trained from birth. The confrontation lays seeds of future plot but doesn't really pay off in this novel. To be honest the plot of Vader confronting twisted mockeries born of DARK SCIENCE! Is fun but holds no suspense. We know the Dark Lord of the Sith is going to ruin them all sooner or later it's just a question of when and how.

Additionally, we see Vader as a battlefield leader and frankly he's a good one. He leads from the front, often taking dangerous missions to sway the balance of power on his own leaving his men in protected positions while he goes and shows off his murdering skills. I'll be honest this basically feeds into my belief that Vader would have been rather popular with the enlisted Stromtrooper. What's that? What about his tendency to choke people? Well let me ask two questions. One: do you really think the enlisted Stormy is going to be upset that Vader choked to death... let's the say the guy who screwed up the insertions into the system and alerted the enemy that they were coming insuring that there would be heavier casualties on the assault? Two: did you ever see Vader choke someone under the rank of Captain? Trust me, your average Lance Corporal isn't going to be that broken up if an incompetent officer or 5 pay for their mistakes.

I really like this series and I enjoyed reading this part of it, however the group dynamic is wounded by the lack of my favorite evil Archaeologist/techie and it's more of a side story than a part of the main plot. Because of that I'm giving The Shu-Torun War by Kieron Gillard a B. It's good but not as good as the past installments.