Review: “Pretty Deadly Vol. I: The Shrike” by Kelly Sue DeConnick & Emma Rios

Title: The Shrike
Writer: Kelly Sue DeConnick
Artist: Emma Rios
Series: Pretty Deadly (Vol. I, issues #1-5)
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Image Comics, 2014

Ah. I’m really not sure what to say about this one. I picked it up from the library on a whim after the sticker on its spine screaming that it was a recent acquisition caught my eye and further investigation of the cover quotes revealed endorsements by the likes of Brian Michael Bendis (Marvel’s Civil War, Secret Invasion, and just about every other company-wide crossover from the last decade) and Warren Ellis (Planetary). Well, with recommendations like that, how can I refuse?

Welcome to DeConnick and Rios’s vision of the Old West. It’s a tale narrated by a butterfly and a skeletal rabbit (Yes, you read that right). It’s a tale where the line between people and animals is blurred, if it even exists at all. Sissy is a young girl with mismatched eyes who wears a vulture cloak. Together with Fox, an elderly blind man who can still kick your ass if need be, she travels from town to town, telling stories for coins and picking the pockets of those who earn her ire. Johnny Coyote’s pocket had something in it that she shouldn’t have taken. Johnny stole some sort of file from Death, and Death’s sent his agent Big Alice to collect it. This quest sets her on the tail of Fox and Sissy, and she’s not in a mood to talk…Now Fox and Sissy’s only hope lies with Death’s estranged daughter, Deathface Ginny. You don’t want to mess with Deathface Ginny….

Now don’t get me wrong, Pretty Deadly shows an ambitious vision that is rarely seen these days–comparisons to Gaiman’s Sandman are frequent, even among the negative reviews. The book is also visually stunning, with a stark attention to detail that serves the tale’s magical take on the Old West admirably. It’s a gritty tale, with no shortage of violence, but it also has something to say. I’m just not quite sure what….the story is incredibly confusing, and I had to read most of it twice before I figured out what was going on, turning back frequently for clarification. The book was fast paced, true–too fast, perhaps. It would have benefited greatly from more time to transition smoothly, explore characters, and even just figure out what the heck was happening. The art was pretty, but a lot of the action sequences got fairly confusing at times. The characters occasionally showed flashes of being interesting, but we never really got a chance to know them. The file Johnny stole is nothing but a MacGuffin, as we never find out what it has to say, and what purpose it has disappears once Alice and Ginny meet as Alice apparently forgets about it in favor of executing what I can only assume was a standing order that took precedence over her immediate mission. Everything builds to a climax that is over too quickly and which I’m still not entirely sure I grasped. Would I keep reading the series? Sure, if the library buys the next volume when it comes out. I’m curious, and want some clarification as to what just happened. I just hope it’s a little less frenetic, a little more streamlined, and that we get to actually explore the characters a bit more. And more Deathface Ginny would be cool, she intrigues me!

CONTENT: R-rated language throughout. Several sexually explicit scenes with Johnny and his prostitute girlfriend, plus a couple other random bits of nudity, both male and female. Strong, graphic violence, delivered both at the end of a gun and a sword. The whole thing is very otherworldly and occultic, with people transforming into animals at death (or apparently at other points in their lives as well, for that matter, if I interpret things aright. Actually, it may be more accurate to say that animals are walking about as humans, not that I think on it more….)

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Comics/Graphic Novels, Reviews

Mini-Review: “Star Wars–Rebels: Property Of Ezra Bridger”

Episode Title: Property Of Ezra Bridger (AKA Not What You Think in some sources)
Episode Writer: Simon Kinberg
Short Story Author: Michael Kogge
Series: Star Wars: Rebels
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Disney, 2014

Okay, last one. Property Of Ezra Bridger is the fourth and final three-minute short being released to help promote the upcoming Star Wars: Rebels TV series. I posted on the first, second and third shorts a while back, and I’ll probably post on the Spark Of Rebellion movie one of these days too. Those same four prequels were also adapted by Michael Kogge into a series of short stories in the book Rise Of The Rebels. These prequels are meant to introduce you to the characters from the show in the context of an actual story as opposed to their earlier introductions that focused more on the production/character conception side of things. This time we meet Ezra Bridger, the young orphan that will presumably be joining the crew of the Ghost once the series gets started. Check out the short below:

Here we follow young Ezra as he walks home through the fields of Lothal, witnessing a brief battle between the Ghost and a lone TIE Fighter, which ends with the TIE a pile of smoking wreckage. Hopeful for a reward or some salvage, either way, Ezra heads for the downed fighter. The pilot is less than grateful for the “assistance,” and Ezra makes him pay for his ingratitude….On the whole, I did enjoy this one. I do have a couple quibbles though. Ezra is obviously inspired by Disney’s Aladdin, both in origin story and physical appearance, but I’m fine with that. He’s not nearly as annoying as Ahsoka was when first introduced, so that’s good. My main quibble has more to do with the way things work out here–Ezra climbs inside the cockpit of the fighter with the pilot and has room to maneuver, which should be clearly impossible. Every source, even the reference work for Rebels itself, emphasizes how cramped those cockpits are for just the pilot. Unless this particular one happened to incorporate TARDIS technology? Oh well. Thankfully, Michael Kogge alleviates this with his adaptation, which leaves Ezra on the roof leaning inside to do his thing. My only other concern is a reservation about how Ezra’s slingshot works. I don’t get it. If the balls are pure energy, he shouldn’t be able to arc them. If they aren’t, he should need to pull them from somewhere. I think on this one I might be unreasonable….requiring Star Wars to obey the laws of physics? I didn’t used to be this picky…..I’m going to go lie down and see if that helps.

Content: Some mild violence. No language, no sex.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Review: “The Commons, Book I: The Journeyman” by Michael Alan Peck

Title: The Journeyman
Author: Michael Alan Peck
Series: The Commons #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Dinuhos Arts, 2014

Wow. When you agree to accept a free copy of a book in exchange for writing a review of it, you always hope it will actually be good. I hate returning the author’s kindness with a negative review, but I also can’t lie to my readers (all three of them!) and tell them that something is good when it’s clearly not. If you’ve been around this blog for a while, you’ll have seen the results. If a book deserves to be skewered, I skewer it. This book? I’m not kidding you when I say that I couldn’t put it down. It was that engaging, and I heartily look forward to seeing what happens next in this universe.

Somewhere between life and death, there is the Commons. When you are on the verge of death, your soul enters the Commons, where you must complete a Journey or quest to decide your fate. Succeed, and you may be allowed to recover and reclaim your old life. Fail, and you succumb to fate and go on to judgement, for good or ill. The Commons is a shifting place, its geography and some of its inhabitants drawn from your memory and subconscious. Other inhabitants could be scraps of memory left over from other people’s Journeys, or even errant souls on their own Journeys. The Envoys serve to guide souls through this shifting landscape, helping to shield them from the worst of its dangers. Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. There is now only a single envoy still at his post, and he’s not seen an assignment since time immemorial. In the interim Mr. Brill, a corrupt corporate baron, has subverted the entire system, capturing souls and draining off their essence to fuel his own power. There are a few who remain free of his power, but even they enjoy freedom simply because they would be more effort to bring in than they are worth. Should they oppose him, that would change, and the result would not be pretty. Things look bleak for those who remember the way the Commons used to be….until Paul Reid arrives following a midnight bus crash. For some reason, Brill commits a disproportionate amount of his forces to recovering Paul’s fellow passengers from the crash, but even so Paul manages to escape with the help of Jonas Porter, the last envoy who has finally received another assignment. For some reason, Paul is special. For some reason, his Journey has the potential to put a kink in Brill’s plans for good. But with Brill committing everything he’s got, Paul’s going to need all the help he can get. He could use an army. What he’s got is an old man with a renewed sense of purpose, a silent Shaolin monk, a mummy in sunglasses, a goth girl with a living tattoo who happens to be the most beautiful thing Paul has ever seen, and behind the scenes the assistance of an Iraq vet and her autistic son. For the sake of everyone in the commons, they’ll have to be enough….

As I mentioned, I couldn’t put this down. The chapters were generally short, perfectly timed to fill a break at work, and suspenseful enough that when reading before bed I invariably spent longer than I’d intended before hitting the pillow. The characters were engaging, and even though you’re kind of thrown into things without much of an explanation, if you stick with it everything will eventually become clear. The book is written for a young adult audience, but I didn’t find that to be at all offputting. There are a number of heavy themes dealt with through the course of the story, and the book doesn’t pull any punches. It honestly reminded me of something Neil Gaiman might write, and that’s high praise indeed. As befits the first book in a series, the plot was mostly tied up, but with that one little thread leading off into the next story to keep you hooked. I thought it was very well done, especially for a book that I suspect was self-published. The publisher shares a name with a location/element from the story, and when I enter the publisher into Amazon this book is the only one that comes up. The good news? I would have had no idea if I weren’t researching the book for this review. It was that well done, even down to the professional-looking cover. Mr. Peck deserves a hearty congratulations on his achievement, and you deserve to read this book.

CONTENT: Mild language. Some violence, occasionally strong. Some sexual innuendo, notably a flashback where Paul saves one of his fellow street kids from being raped (you have to read between the lines, they were both getting beat up, and from the direction of his female friend he hears “elastic being ripped”) and some flirting, but on the whole it was pretty clean. Nearly the whole story happens in a fantasy setting, but there are some significant philosophical claims made. It’s not a Christian novel, and so the metaphysics of the story are unsurprisingly inconsistent with a Christian worldview, but I don’t believe that should disqualify it from consideration.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews, Books, Novels

Review: “Star Wars: A New Dawn” by John Jackson Miller

Title: A New Dawn
Author: John Jackson Miller
Series: Star Wars (Canon)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Del Rey, 2014

Much has been made of the fact that this is the first entry into the Star Wars Expanded Universe since Disney hit the reset button, despite the (apparently unnoticed) publication of several tie-ins to the series Star Wars: Rebels that preceded this. Even the title makes a reference to it. Maybe those don’t count because they’re not geared at adults. Anyway, all that hype is a little misleading. There is very little here that harkens the new era of Star Wars publishing. It was good, don’t get me wrong, but it had very little to do with the reboot. I’m pretty sure the book was mostly written already by the time that edict was handed down. That’s not its function. The place of this book in the ongoing Star Wars canon is to serve as a prelude to Star Wars: Rebels and introduce a couple of the main characters from that show. And it does that, superbly. Just don’t expect a grand departure from what came before, because almost everything therein was consistent with the Legends canon that existed before. There was no reason to foist major structural change on the book just to buck tradition and highlight the fact that there was a new sheriff in town.

The old order is dead. It died eight years ago, and when it fell it took everything Kanan Jarrus knew with it. He was just a Padawan at the time, only starting his journey to becoming a Jedi, but that didn’t matter to the Emperor when he issued Order 66. Kanan’s master sold her life to give him time to escape, and he’s been running ever since, floating from system to system, just avoiding the Empire’s notice, never in one place too long. He’s put his Jedi heritage behind him, and looks out primarily for number one even if he can’t resist sticking his neck out for a friend every once in a while. These days he makes ends meet flying transports loaded with high explosives between the mined-out planet Gorse and it’s still-rich moon Cynda as the companies scramble to meet Imperial quotas. Given how often they fall short, the Emperor has sent an envoy to see what he can do to speed up production. Cyborg businessman Baron Vidian made a fortune during the Clone Wars, and since has been working for the Emperor, smoothing logistical bumps in the rapid expansion of the Imperial Navy. The cost in sentient lives and suffering has been noticeable, and would-be rebel Hera Syndulla has followed him to Gorse in an attempt to learn all she can about Imperial security in general and Vidian in particular. When Vidian launches a coldhearted plan to speed up production at the expense of countless lives, Kanan and Hera will be thrown together in a desperate attempt to stop him. But can the massive might of the Empire really be resisted?

Like I said, I enjoyed this, and I’m if anything more excited for the launch of Rebels. The characters of Hera and Kanan were well-rounded and interesting, as were most of the assorted allies and acquaintances featured here. Unfortunately, the villain Denetrius Vidian was not nearly so nuanced as I’ve grown to expect from Miller’s work. He’s far from the only starkly-evil villain in the Galaxy Far, Far Away, but could have been given some more shades of gray. It didn’t detract from my enjoyment, but its still worth noting. The book was also notable for its inclusion of those incredibly rare creatures, female Imperials. There were several female stormtroopers thrown in (although not by name, and it didn’t make any difference to the story what gender they were), as well as the commander of Vidian’s Star Destroyer. I’m not sure if this is an attempt by the new Lucas Story Group to make the Empire more inclusive, or just Miller trying to even the playing field a bit. The only thing here that really conflicted with previous canon was the inclusion of Depa Billaba as Kanan’s former master when previous canon had established her as lying comatose at that point in the timeline. Obi-Wan makes a pointed comment in the prologue about the various “legends” contained in the Jedi archive, but that’s about the only nod they make to the reboot issue aside from the title. In case anyone’s interested, this is set eight years after Revenge Of The Sith, six years before Rebels and eleven before A New Hope.

CONTENT: Mild language. Some violence, not all that gory or gratuitous. No sexual content, but Kanan flirts with every female he meets–occasionally, as in the case of the Star Destroyer’s captain, just to annoy them and get them to leave him alone.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Novels, Reviews, Star Wars

Review: “Iron Night” by M.L. Brennan

Title: Iron Night
Author: M.L. Brennan
Series: Generation V #2
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: ROC, 2014

A few months ago I reviewed the first book in the new(ish) urban fantasy series Generation V. As you can probably surmise from the fact that I’m now reviewing the second entry (and have the third on preorder), I was a huge fan. And this second entry? It’s just as excellent as the first, if not more so.

Things are looking up for Fortitude Scott. He’s made an uneasy peace with his own budding vampirism as well as his family, and has even spent the summer training with his brother Chivalry every morning in between running “errands” for the family. And yes, that sounds suspiciously mafia-like for a reason. He’s traded his minimum wage job at the coffee shop for a slightly better paying (though no more pleasant) job as a waiter at an upscale restaurant, although the head chef loves nothing more than to force him to taste-test the newest meat-based menu items despite his professed vegetarianism. Suzume Hollis, his kitsune friend, is no less mischievous than before, but at least she hasn’t pulled anything too destructive lately. He’s even managed to find himself a decent roommate after a long stream of complete assholes. Unfortunately, this happy state of affairs cannot last, and one night Fort is yanked from a deep slumber by a noise just at the edge of consciousness. When he investigates, he discovers his roommate’s body, hands and genitalia missing and with suspiciously little blood present. For reasons that defy comprehension, someone has ritualistically tortured and killed him before dumping the body back in his own apartment. That someone is going to pay. Fort’s ensuing investigation takes him far deeper into the local otherworldly community than he’d ever hoped to go, from tangling with a skinwalker to learning the ins and outs of the elf community’s attempts to breed themselves back from extinction. These are dangerous forces he’s messing with, and it’s going to take everything he’s got to wrap this up without more friends dying along the way….

One of the things I appreciate about this series is the strides the author takes to distance herself from the conventions of what has become a popular but occasionally-derivative genre. She goes out of her way to showcase the more unusual members of the otherworldly community–the kitsune, for instance, which I’ve only ever heard of elsewhere in the midst of a deranged coworker’s attempt to get me hooked on one anime or another.* If she is going to use a more conventional creature, you’d better forget what you know. Vampires are generally monstrous, true, but most of the other stuff you know is wrong. Crucifixes are worthless. Garlic and sunlight are no issue when you’re young, but as you advance in age and you lose more and more of your humanity they can become deadly. Mirrors work just fine, and shapeshifting just simply isn’t in their repertoire. They’re not immortal, but they are incredibly long-lived, and sorry, but you can’t join them. They’re an entirely separate species, albeit one that looks very human. In fact, one of Fort’s granduncles sponsored the publication of Dracula in order to spread those false notions. The elves are far from the proud-but-good nature spirits that Tolkien wrote, instead being a ruthlessly violent race that nearly exterminated themselves before realizing their danger. Now there are only a handful of pure-blooded elves in the world, all male, along with a slew of half-breeds with more or less magical ability. Now, considering the depths of my disdain for Twilight and it’s changes to the vampire archetype, why do I approve of this? Quite simply, Ms. Brennan changes the details but remains true to the core of what vampires are–apex predators, monsters who (with rare exceptions) will kill you without batting an eyelash. Ms. Meyers just neutered them. There’s a difference. Fort gets more of a chance to shine this time, as he’s on his way to inheriting his full vampire abilities and is forced to rely less on Suzume to do the physical heavy lifting, but don’t worry, she’s still along for the ride in all of her scene-stealing glory. Bottom line: I really can’t wait for the next book to get here.

CONTENT: R-rated language, present but not gratuitous. Some fairly disturbing violence. Quite a bit of flirting and innuendo, along with some mildly-explicit sexual content. Some magic and ritual sacrifice, but it’s more rooted in the elves’ or kitsunes’ natural abilities than it is any occult connection.

*I have no problem with anime, per se, but I’ve yet to find one that catches my interest. And said coworker has forfeited all claims to good taste with some of the titles he’s described as “excellent.” Seriously, one of them was all about a father-son team who are cursed to become attractive coeds whenever something (I don’t remember what it was, I was too busy trying to decide whether to laugh or back away slowly) happens, which of course causes all sorts of comedic mix-ups and misunderstandings. Oh, those wacky Japanese animators…..

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Novels, Reviews

Mini-Review: “Star Wars–Rebels: Entanglement”

Episode Title: Entanglement
Episode Writer: Henry Gilroy & Simon Kinberg
Short Story Author: Michael Kogge
Series: Star Wars: Rebels
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Disney, 2014

Take three! I think this is my favorite of these shorts so far. Entanglement is the third of four three-minute shorts being released to help promote the upcoming Star Wars: Rebels TV series. I posted on the first and second shorts a while back, and the final one is on its way. Those same four prequels were also adapted by Michael Kogge into a series of short stories in the book Rise Of The Rebels. These prequels are meant to introduce you to the characters from the show in the context of an actual story as opposed to their earlier introductions that focused more on the production/character conception side of things. This time we meet Garazeb “Zeb” Orrelios, the brawny (yet intelligent) Lasat who serves as the muscle for our crew. Check out the short below:

Here we watch Zeb get lost on his way to a rendezvous and get distracted rescuing a local street merchant from Stormtroopers, who of course have to call in reinforcements. It was a lot of fun, especially his running banter with Kanan over the comlink. Zeb is an interesting character, and I look forward to seeing him develop as the series gets rolling. There’s an interesting fighting dynamic here with his “Bo-Rifle” that we didn’t really get a chance to see put through its paces, but that’s a function of the runtime. Plus, he’s voiced by the guy that does Wolverine in all of the animated Marvel stuff–Steve Blum, if you were wondering. And he’s got the whole thing where he’s based on the early Ralph McQuarrie designs for Chewie, which is cool. The short story version of this tried to add a little bit to the choreography of the fighting, adding a bit where Zeb starts an abortive chase down the adjacent alley, but literally goes nowhere because three sentences later he’s back in the hangar. I laud the effort, but decry the lack of follow-through. Maybe this was an artifact from a previous version, or or maybe it just needed one more draft. I don’t know. I wanted it to work, but it didn’t. Based on everyone referring to these shorts as prequels, this is set sometime just before the Star Wars: Rebels series kicks off.

Content: Some mild violence. No language, no sex.

Leave a comment

Filed under Films, Reviews, Short Stories, Star Wars

Mini-Review: “Death By Dahlia” by Charlaine Harris

Title: Death By Dahlia
Author: Charlaine Harris
Series: The Southern Vampire Mysteries (AKA The Sookie Stackhouse Novels, AKA True Blood)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Ace, 2011

Charlaine Harris is definitely one of the biggest names in urban fantasy right now, what with her popular book series becoming an HBO show that seems to be equally popular. Nevertheless, I’ve not really had any interest in visiting her world–my impression of it was “Twilight + more sex – glitter,” and anytime something is mentioned in the same breath as Twilight I try and stay far away. Then I found the anthology Down These Strange Streets at Walmart for an absurdly low price and picked it up. Ms. Harris is obviously the name they want to emphasize on the cover, but I was more drawn to S.M. Stirling (always a favorite) and Simon R. Green (whose work I’ve been meaning to try), among the others. I thought there was a Dresden Files story here too, but there’s not so that sucks. Anyway, I’m a completist, and the first story up was Ms. Harris’ Death By Dahlia, so I resolved to give it a shot. While I’m still far from sold on the Southern Vampire Mysteries or whatever the series is being labeled these days, I do have to admit that it was better than expected.

Dahlia Lynley-Chivers is apparently a fan-favorite side-character from the Southern Vampire Mysteries who the author has been exploring in a series of short story solo adventures in anthologies like this one over the years. I definitely felt like I was coming into the middle of a story without all the information, but that was to be expected since I had zero reliable information about the world in question before starting. Apparently this is a world in which vampires have “come out of the closet” and announced their presence to the world, along with the fact that they’ve successfully managed to invent a synthetic blood compound that allows them to live without preying on humans anymore. Which is all well and good, but a lot of vampires prefer the real thing. Fortunately for them, there are a bunch of humans more than willing to oblige for a price…or even just for the thrill of it. The vampires typically organize themselves into nests, with the ruler of a nest apparently being called a Sheriff. Dahlia is a truly ancient vampire, among the oldest in her nest, though her small stature belies how dangerous she is.

Dahlia is enjoying herself. There’s a party going on at the nest’s mansion to celebrate the rise of a new Sheriff, and Dahlia has found an old flame to help her avoid the awkwardness surrounding the old Sheriff’s hurt feelings. Everything is going well, until one of the human “donors” is discovered dead in the kitchen….with Dahlia’s best friend and her Werewolf husband as the prime suspects. Dahlia will have to move quickly to get to the bottom of the murder….which would be easier if nobody had called the cops.

Like I said, this was better than I expected. I still have the impression that the series as a whole is more focused on the romance element than I would prefer, and is definitely one of the influences in the cultural shift I disparagingly refer to as “the taming of the vampire,” but I may actually give the main series a look one of these days. Dahlia is an interesting character, and the world she inhabits is a much more complex one than I was led to believe. The mystery itself was solid, not too obvious nor too shocking, and the story turned out to be just plain fun.

CONTENT: Brief R-rated language. Bloody violence and the forensic examination of its aftermath. Strong, moderately-explicit sexual content.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Reviews, Short Stories