Review: “The Circuit: Executor Rising” by Rhett C. Bruno

Title: Executor Rising
Author: Rhett C. Bruno
Series: The Circuit #1
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Mundania Press, 2014

Reading works from debut authors can be a game of Russian Roulette, especially if the book has been self-published (This book is not, in fact, self-published, but I thought it was for some reason.) You sometimes find a gem, and other times you wind up beating your head against the wall wishing you’d never won that giveaway. This time, I’m pleased to say, I found something quite enjoyable. Unlike most of the relatively-unknown books and authors I’ve featured in these reviews, I didn’t actually seek this one out. Mr. Bruno was apparently trolling Goodreads reviews, found the one I did of Ancillary Justice, and figured I’d be a good candidate to review his own book. He was incredibly courteous, and of course I cannot speak highly enough of anyone who gives me free books, but beyond that the book was actually very enjoyable. Not perfect, there are some minor quibbles to be hashed out, but very enjoyable nevertheless.

It’s been five hundred years since the Earth was rendered uninhabitable, but humanity remains unbowed. We’ve spread throughout the solar system, scrounging and scraping a meager living wherever we can aided by the Kepler Circuit, a series of space stations set up by the Ancients of Earth before the planet burned. The stations of the Circuit are linked by the Solar Arks, traveling at nearly the speed of light from world to world distributing supplies and resources without bias. Most of the solar system is controlled by the New Earth Tribunal, a fanatically religious sect forged around the idea that the Ancients ruined the Earth with their technological and scientific hunger for knowledge that was not theirs to attain. They believe that all humans are linked together into a New-Agey collective spirit that remains tied to the Earth, and that someday the Earth will heal itself and we will be able to return home if we prove ourselves worthy. This has not, of course, stopped them from continuing to mine the Gravitum from the core of the Earth, allowing for humanity’s continued existence away from our home planet. Cassius Vale is an ex-Tribune, exiled to his home on the moon of Titan for heresy until the Tribunal is forced to ask for his help dealing with a string of attacks on their transports. Little do they realize that Vale himself is responsible for the attacks, or that these hijackings are only just the beginnings of his plan to bring down the Tribunal he has come to hate. ADIM is an android built in secret by Vale to further his plans. The Tribunal has outlawed all robotics research, declaring such artificial life to be abominations that have no place in helping us reclaim the Earth, even waging a genocidal war to wipe out as many of them as possible. ADIM is wholly devoted to his creator, and for his part Vale sees ADIM as a surrogate son. Together, they may very well bring down civilization as the Tribunal has shaped it for centuries. Sage Volus is an Executor for the Tribunal, operating behind the scenes to find and destroy their enemies wherever they hide. Her latest mission takes her to Ceres Prime, the asteroid colony that constitutes the largest threat to Tribunal domination of the entirety of the solar system. Talon Rayne is a Ceresian miner, formerly a general and bodyguard for one of the clan leaders who dominate the colony before a failed assassination attempt left him slowly dying and obsessed with providing  a better life for his daughter before he succumbs. These four characters are on a collision course with one another, and when the dust finally settles fate only knows who will be left standing.

Like I said, I really enjoyed this. It was really a great story, especially for a debut work. The prose was simple but cinematic, and you could “see” everything that happened very vividly. I understand the author is currently studying screenwriting, so the visual focus may have something to do with that. The characters were well-formed and complex, not the two-dimensional cardboard cutouts that populate the horde of mediocre fiction the age of internet publishing has unleashed upon us. There were minor issues of grammar, punctuation, and word choice, but much less than I’ve seen in other Indie works. (“He was a shadow of his formal self” vs. “former self,” things like that.)

I did have two character-related complaints; one a matter of taste and one I think is more a case of semi-universally accepted practice. I’ll start with this latter one: Cassius Vale is too perfect. He’s an interesting character, don’t get me wrong–I was fascinated by his character, sympathized with him, even occasionally found myself rooting for him despite my misgivings with his work (I’ll address that in a minute), but he really had little standing in his way. No, that’s not it exactly. He had all kinds of things standing in his way, a whole slew of obstacles to overcome before he can unleash his plan to bring down the tribune…and every single domino falls just the way he plans it. Every single thing that happens is according to his design, or at least easily dealt with. He’s got an incredibly complex scheme running here, and not a single wrench gets thrown into it. Maybe this isn’t as much a problem as I think it is; it certainly didn’t significantly detract from my enjoyment of the story, but I would have preferred to see him have to adapt on the fly to changing conditions in order to achieve his goals. A more minor complaint, more a matter of taste, is that while I enjoyed all of the POV characters found here, I found most of them very hard to root for. Cassius Vale is a snarky antihero with a tragedy in his past, and I think I’ve adequately demonstrated my weakness for those characters, but he’s ruthlessly pursuing a vendetta that cost countless innocent lives. ADIM is awesome, but working towards the same ends as Vale. Sage Volus is a kickass secret agent, again with a tragedy smouldering in her past, but she’s completely drank the Tribunal’s Kool-Aid and believes their crap wholeheartedly.* I like these characters, but I don’t necessarily want theirs goals to be achieved. The only character I can root for without reservation is Talon Rayne, and even there I have to wonder what use his bosses have for the Gravitum shipment they’re forcing him to hijack. But who knows, other readers may see this same issue as one of the strengths of the book–heaven knows that it can’t be easy to write a character you like even if you don’t want him to win.

The world Bruno has created here is incredibly complex, and I believe he at least is very familiar with its ins and outs. I could have used a little more information at times though. I had serious questions about a number of things as I read. Most of those were eventually answered, but having that happen sooner would have been nice. I would have been significantly more confused than I was if it weren’t for the book’s blurb that set the scene. That said, Bruno did manage to almost completely avoid that dreaded practice of “infodumping.” For some, that’s a cardinal sin. I don’t believe so myself, if it’s done well and manages to be engaging, but enough people have embraced that doctrine that a writer must think twice before employing it. Thankfully, he also managed to avoid the rookie mistake that many a writer has fallen prey to in their efforts to avoid this dreaded practice: characters telling each other things they should already know in an effort to inform the reader. “As you know, Bob, if Doctor Neffario manages to get his hands on the MacGuffin device he’ll end life on the planet Damsellus!” I would have liked to have been told what exactly happened to leave the Earth a barren cinder–it’s somewhat implied that it was a result of mining the core for Gravitum, but if that were the case I think the Tribunal would stop the mining as part of their efforts to make the Earth habitable again. Unless that’s just rhetoric to keep the unwashed masses in line, of course.

Some of the science is wonky, or at least under-explained–you can break the rules of physics, but you should acknowledge doing it and offer some explanation. Some examples: the ease of communication between Vale and ADIM, even across vast distances. Elsewhere in the book it is implied that distance affects the ease and clarity of communication, but ADIM has a communicator with seemingly infinite range built into his head? Seems like that device should be pretty big, if it’s possible at all in this universe. Or maybe not, it just seemed a little inconsistent to me is all. Then there’s the Circuit itself. Everything is described as if it stays stationary relative to each other, but all of those planets are orbiting the sun at different speeds. I assumed the Circuit was a teleportation network like the Stargates in that universe, but it’s revealed towards the end that instead they are space stations that allow the Solar Arks to pick up and drop off people and cargo without ever slowing down from their near-light speed. The routes of those Solar Arks take must be convoluted as all get out and subject to some killer calculations. Again, not insurmountable, but some acknowledgement of the issue and a throwaway line about how it works would be nice.

CONTENT: R-rated language, pervasive but not gratuitous. Some brutal violence. Some fairly strong sexual innuendo, but I don’t recall it becoming very explicit.

*Do I detect the mold of Mara Jade in this character? Methinks I do! That’s okay, if you have to imitate somebody, Timothy Zahn is one of the greats. There are other loans from Star Wars, such as the name Talon (not-Karrde) or the Hands and Executors (though their roles are modified/flipped.)

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Review: “American Vampire, Volume VI” by Scott Snyder & Rafael Albuquerque

Title: American Vampire, Volume VI
Writers: Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque, Becky Cloonan, Francesco Francavilla, Jason Aaron, Jeff Lemire, Gail Simone, Gabriel Ba, Fabio Moon, & Greg Rucka
Artists: Rafael Albuquerque, Becky Cloonan, Francesco Francavilla, Ivo Milazzo, Ray Fawkes, Tula Lotay, Gabriel Ba, Fabio Moon, & JP Leon
Series: American Vampire (Volume VI, American Vampire: The Long Road To Hell oneshot + American Vampire Anthology oneshot)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Vertigo, 2014

So, it has come to this. The sixth and latest collection of American Vampire comics. Now it’s not just my library’s slow acquisition policies holding me back, but the fact that there haven’t been any more published yet! Apparently the creators put the book on hiatus for a while, but they’ve at least started publishing again. I just have to wait for it to hit the collections….This particular collection is a couple of one-shots they put out in the meantime to keep our appetites whetted–one from the main American Vampire team, one with them letting a whole bunch of other comics creators play in their sandbox. Obviously, this review could spoil events from the previous collections. (See them here: Volume I/Volume II/Volume III/Volume IV/Volume V)

First off, we have The Long Road To Hell. Snyder and Albuquerque set out the story for this one together, with Albuquerque taking over to script and draw the story. Billy Bob and Jo are the Bonnie and Clyde of petty thieves, picking pockets by night to add to their stash. They’re hoping to have enough soon to cover the cost of renting a chapel, but one fateful encounter with a vampire coven recruitment team and everything changes…not for the better, I’m afraid. Jasper Miller is a young orphan, favorite target of a group of bullies. It seems that young Jasper is a very insightful young man, and some of what he knows makes these bullies very nervous, and he decides that the open road would be safer for him than the old orphanage. Vampire hunter Travis Kidd we’ve already met back in Vol. IV, and it’s good to see that he survived the ambush he willingly dove into at the end of that book. Seems to have picked up a katana somewhere in the interim too, which is always cool. Fate has these four on a collision course, and blood will be spilled by the time they reach the end of the road….

Moving on to the American Vampire Anthology, we open with the frame story by Snyder and Albuquerque. The Man Comes Around is set in 1967 as Skinner Sweet hides out in the middle of nowhere, hoping to avoid the major events he can sense just over the horizon. Seems there’s always someone trying to kill him, though…. Jason Aaron and Declan Shalvey then enlighten us as to what really happened on Roanoke Island in The Lost Colony. Here’s a hint, vampires were involved. We then move on to Bleeding Kansas, where Albuquerque puts down his pencil and takes a shot at writing the story, leaving the art to Ivo Milazzo. Set against that tumultuous time and place, Albuquerque and Milazzo set down for us a tale of what I can only assume are Henry Jones’ grandparents. Next up, Jeff Lemire and Ray Fawkes serve up a tale of terror in the frozen north with Canadian Vampire as ex-Mountie-turned-bounty-hunter Jack Warhammer is hired to find out what happened to a German fur trading expedition missing in the wild. Becky Cloonan handles both the writing and art for Greed, starring Skinner Sweet and featuring his first encounter with those crazy folks who hail from a place called “Hollywood….” Francesco Francavilla then pulls the same trick for The Producers, detailing the birth of a star as he makes a shady deal in exchange for fame and fortune. Gail Simone and Tula Lotay treat us to Hattie Hargrove’s origin story in Essence Of Life, showing us just what happened to her that made her willing to screw over her best friend in the world. Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon share both the writing and artist credits for Last Night, as a lounge singer describes to a reporter the events leading up to the previous evening’s massacre at the club. Finally, Greg Rucka and JP Leon tell the tale of a dying drunk and the lowlifes who try and shanghai him in Portland, 1940.

On the whole, I really enjoyed this as per the usual for this series. The writing was stellar, and the anthology format really served well for the world being depicted. As with any comics anthology, there’s a wide variety of artistic styles represented, and some of those styles I’m not really a fan of, but that’s largely a matter of taste. I could sit here and tell you that I really wasn’t a fan of Ivo Milazzo’s art on Bleeding Kansas (which is true), but the next guy might have loved it. I could laud Tula Lotay’s work on Essence Of Life (also true), but the next guy may not have been a fan. That’s kind of how it works–peoples’ tastes are pretty subjective. I did enjoy getting into Hattie’s head a bit more than we were able to back when she was introduced, and Skinner Sweet’s adventures are always fun–I’ve mentioned before my weakness for antiheroes. As a historian, Roanoke’s lost colony is always a fascinating topic, and a number of the plot twists contained here were very satisfying if not always surprising. I really can’t wait for the next volume to come out so I can see the payoff to some of the plot threads being set up both here and in the teaser from the end of volume V….

CONTENT: R-rated language. Brutal, bloody vampire violence–these aren’t sparkly, angst-ridden pretty boys, these are monsters through and through. Some explicit and implicit sexual content, including what more or less constitutes a rape. No real occult content, as there isn’t a spiritual element to this version of vampirism.

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Review: “Eureka–Substitution Method” by Cris Ramsay

Title: Substitution Method
Author: Cris Ramsay
Series: Eureka (Media tie-in)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Ace, 2010

Media tie-ins are a tricky business. They aren’t meant to be great literature–they aren’t even really intended to appeal to a wide audience. They cater to the tiny segment of the populace who watched the original source and wants more. If the book is just a rehash of a popular film, there’s usually little point to giving it the time required to read it. On the other hand, there are times that the book transcends the source material and adds something new. Getting inside Anakin’s head in the Revenge Of The Sith novelization? That story almost made sense after that. Almost. With regards to TV series, a tie-in can offer a chance to do something that the time or effects budget of the show wouldn’t normally allow. In such a case, the highest praise you can offer is that it felt like another episode of the series. That was my experience reading Substitution Method. Though that cover image has nothing to do with anything….

Okay, let me get this out of the way: if you haven’t watched Eureka before, you really should. It’s a great sci-fi comedy series. The basic premise is that Einstein and a bunch of his fellow world-changing scientists founded a town after WWII where they would all be in one place to share ideas, resources, and security measures. The result is a town full of super-geniuses who have a habit of letting their projects get out of hand. Jack Carter is the everyman sheriff of this town, and it certainly keeps him on his toes. If he isn’t trying to shut down some girl’s escaped mini-sun science project before it goes supernova and vaporizes the entire hemisphere, it probably means he’s busy trying to undo the consequences of that latest button Fargo couldn’t resist pushing. For obvious reasons, you need a truly frightening security clearance just to know Eureka exists. Which is why it’s especially troubling when people and buildings in Eureka suddenly start being swapped with people and buildings out in the wider Pacific Northwest….

Like I said, this very well captured the feel of the show. All of your favorite characters show up, even a bunch of the background characters we only met for that one episode when their project threatened the existence of life on the planet. The central gimmick of the novel was something suitably beyond the scope of the show’s effects budget without feeling forced or out of place in this universe, and the mini-subplot of Carter questioning his place in Eureka now that Zoe’s in college was something that you’d never get from a show that eschews inner-thought voice-overs. Oh! And in case you care, this is set between seasons three and four.

CONTENT: Pretty consistent with the show, which maintained a PG equivalent throughout its run. Some mild language. The threat of violence or bodily harm, what a kids’ movie might describe as “mild peril” in its rating description. Mild sexual innuendo, but nothing anywhere nearing explicit.

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Review: “John Constantine, Hellblazer: The Fear Machine” by Jamie Delano & Mark Buckingham

Title: The Fear Machine
Writer: Jamie Delano
Artists: Mark Buckingham, Richard Piers Rayner, Mike Hoffman & Alfredo Alcala
Series: John Constantine, Hellblazer (Volume III, issues #14-22)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Vertigo, 2012

John Constantine is at it again. You may remember I reviewed the first two volumes of the series not too awfully long ago, and wasn’t too impressed. I really like the character, but the first couple volumes left me underwhelmed. With Original Sinsthis had a lot to do with being dropped into the middle of events already moving (from the Swamp Thing book, of which this was a spin-off) and the lack of resolution (rectified in the second volume.) My issues with The Devil You Know mostly stemmed from my general dislike of stories that unfold in nightmares, astral journeys and/or acid trips (yet I think Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is some of the best storytelling in the medium, so figure that out), which comprised most of the stories in that collection. I’m in the minority, I know–Jamie Delano’s entire run on this book apparently holds legendary status among the fans, but I’ve just not been amazed yet. That said, The Fear Machine was a definite step in the right direction.

In his attempt to draw Constantine out of hiding, Nergal massacred his housemates and left them for Constantine to find in his apartment. Nergal has been dealt with, but the mess he left behind is still causing problems–Constantine’s face is splashed all over the front pages as the number-one suspect in the brutal slayings. (Apparently, this came to a head after his side trip to track down The Horrorist last volume. I won’t complain, that story was good stuff.) Dodging the police, Constantine falls in with a group of nature-loving hippie Travelers and finds something that has been in short supply since Newcastle–a modicum of peace. In this collection of hippies and misfits, Constantine finds the closest thing to a family he’s had in a long time. He should have known it wouldn’t last. When a brutal raid by a faux-police force ends in the kidnapping of Mercury, the kooky girl with special powers that first pulled him into his strange new community, Constantine resolves to find her and make things right. Of course, this isn’t as simple as it should be. Constantine soon finds himself embroiled in a web of conspiracy and intrigue that involves a secret Masonic order in control of a powerful weapon, a disgraced cop, a Soviet spy, and an old lover he betrayed. The stakes are the future of the entire world, but this time Constantine may be in way over his head. This time he may not even be able to save himself, let alone his friends….

The fact that I actually liked the story presented here in The Fear Machine is a little bit baffling to me at first glance. There’s a heavy dose of hippie free-love the-Earth-is-our-mother ideology, an unhealthy amount of drugs, not to mention the New Age/Ne0-Paganism that underlays the entire story arc. None of these are things I’m a fan of, either in person or (generally, at least) in fiction.* The plot rambled all over the place and was fairly slow to get moving. On top of that, those nightmare/acid/astral sequences I was complaining about last time were still present, center-stage even. And yet, it worked. I liked a lot of the characters despite disagreeing with nearly everything they stood for. The plot rambled, but always with it’s end in sight. It started slow, but there was a sense of rest and restoration for Constantine that we the reader got to share. And yes, the nightmares/acid trips/astral journey sequences I so dislike were still heavily featured, but unlike last volume, this time there was a point to them. They may have even have subtly pulled in the Merlin/Kon-Sten-Tyn thing with the finale, I’m not sure. Plus, we got a nod to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Constantine’s appearance in the early issues of that book. The end result was a story that I actually felt justified the reputation this book holds, and I will most certainly keep reading this as my library gets in more volumes.

CONTENT: Profanity, everything shy of the dreaded “F-bomb,” and a lot of British profanity to boot. Strong, bloody violence, including occult ritual and nightmarish madness. Strong sexual content, including nudity–mostly of the featureless “Barbie-doll” variety, but still–homosexual content, and a discussion of rape.

*I don’t condemn the appearance of such themes in fiction, per se, and will take their presence over censorship any day, but I have zero interest in them. If you want to use them to good purpose in your story, fine. I can deal. Just don’t expect me to be thrilled at the prospect.

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Review: “The Runestone Incident” by Neve Maslakovic

Title: The Runestone Incident
Author: Neve Maslakovic
Series: The Incident Series #2
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: 47 North, 2014

If you’ll remember, last month I read and reviewed Neve Maslakovic’s The Far Time Incident in an attempt to get my money’s worth out of my Amazon Prime subscription. Fortunately, the second book in the series is likewise available to borrow, and so now I give you a review of The Runestone Incident. Obviously, there will be spoilers for the previous book. Nature of a series and all that. You’ve been warned.

“We…found ten men, red from blood and dead. Ave Maria save from evil.” Unlike Pompeii, I actually had no prior knowledge of the Kensington Runestone. I was most of the way through the book before it even occurred to me that the artifact in question (and thus the debate being explored) really existed. It does, and you can read about it on Wikipedia here. It’s an interesting debate, but since we unfortunately don’t have access to a real-life time machine, one that will likely never be satisfactorily solved.

St. Sunniva University was just getting back to normal, and then this. Last year there was the thing with the missing professor, and the attempted murder-by-time-machine, followed by the shock of the travelers’ return and the revelation that the supposed-culprit was framed. Julia Olsen and her companions returned safely, but they managed to keep one relevant fact out of the news stories that followed–they accidentally brought a young Pompeiian girl home with them when they returned. Now Julia’s not-quite-ex-husband (the divorce papers, like the proverbial check, is “in the mail”) has shown up in town threatening to expose their secret if he’s not allowed the use of the time machine to prove the authenticity of the Kensington Runestone, which his grandfather supposedly helped discover. Being a stubborn sort, he refuses to take no for an answer, and soon disappears into the past with Dr. Holm, who is herself fixated on finding the fabled Vinland. Is Holm a hostage or a fellow conspirator? Julia doesn’t know, but they can’t take any chances….they’re going to have to follow the pair into pre-Columbian America and hope for the best….

As with the previous volume, the author really did a great job with her research. Just as important, she manages to communicate the relevant factual information to the reader in a way that avoids at least the worst brand of info-dumping (i.e. Character 1 telling his friend, “As you know, Ourland has been at war with Daenemy for over a century….”). Most of the relevant information is being learned for the first time by the primary characters, and believably so. Do the secondary characters lecture? Sure, some, but the lectures are required not only by the reader but also by the characters. Anyway, I wasn’t bugged by it. You might be. The story was fun, and I enjoyed it immensely, but I wouldn’t say it’s incredibly thrilling. The stakes just aren’t all that high. Quinn is going to reveal their secret? Oh darn, the media will pester them. So horrifying! Quinn and Holm have disappeared into the past? We don’t really like Quinn, so if he comes to harm it’s little loss to us. We like Holm somewhat, but Julia (our POV character, and thus our filter for all information) doesn’t trust her completely, nor does she believe Quinn is capable of kidnapping and/or murder, so there’s not really the highest of stakes there either. Of course, she could be wrong, and like I said I was interested all the way through, but it’s not life-or-death for the most part. The most dangerous factor is actually History itself trying to keep them from changing anything. The historical question? Well, I am interested, but a novel is hardly going to actually solve a real-world mystery. Whether the Runestone is real or fake at the end of the book, it’s still a mystery here in the real world. For those of you who complained about the obvious “sequel-bait” ending to the first novel, be forewarned that Ms. Maslakovic has done it again here, but don’t expect me to share your annoyance. It just doesn’t bug me. Some of my favorite authors do that. Jim Butcher put a bullet in his main character’s brain and left him sinking unconscious into the depths of Lake Michigan, for Heaven’s sake! My only reaction to that was to bite my nails until the next book came out….

CONTENT: Mild language. Brief violence, or at least the threat thereof. Mild sexual innuendo, far more subtle than most authors would make the implication.

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Review: “Halo: The Thursday War” by Karen Traviss

Title: The Thursday War
Author: Karen Traviss
Series: Halo: The Kilo-Five Trilogy Book II
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: TOR, 2012

This will be the first Halo book I’ve read since starting this blog (unfortunately, it’s part two of a trilogy), but for a while there I was on a real bender. I read all of them that were published, and then waited impatiently for this one to be released. Once it was, it sat unread on my shelf for a year and a half for some unfathomable reason….I’ve always appreciated the depth of the world created for the Halo games. It goes way deeper than any I’d encountered before when I first discovered it, way back with the prequel novel to the first game, The Fall Of Reach by Eric Nylund. I’d never even played the game at that point, but that book so gripped me and pulled me in that I’ve been hooked ever since. There have of course been some ups and downs, including the necessity of avoiding the cutting edge of the ongoing plot between the release of Halo 2 and Halo 3 to avoid spoilers, but on the whole it’s been a fascinating universe to visit in these novels. So when I heard that they’d hired Karen Traviss to write a trilogy setting up Halo 4 I was ecstatic. Karen Traviss happens to be one of my favorite writers of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, second only to Timothy Zahn, and even there I waffle back and forth at times. She no longer works with Lucasfilm after a very public falling out over some idiotic restrictions they placed on what she could and couldn’t do in the final book of the series she was writing,* but I’ve kept an eye on her work ever since. I’m looking at powering through the Gears Of War tie-ins she’s written in the near future as well.

Okay, so here’s the world of Halo: five hundred years from now (give or take) humanity has colonized the stars under the authority of the United Nations Space Corps. (UNSC), spreading across the galaxy the way we’ve done since the dawn of time on our own world.** Eventually, we ran up against the Covenant, an expansionist theocratic empire composed of a number of different alien races. The Covenant worship the Forerunner, a vanished ancient civilization that left behind a wealth of artifacts and installations strewn across the galaxy. Humanity found itself locked in a brutal war against an enemy that believed our annihilation was their god-given duty. On the ground, humanity could hold our own with the Covenant. In space they hold most of the cards, and having lost a ground engagement can simply pour plasma fire into the planet’s surface until it’s uninhabitable. Colony by colony, the UNSC lost ground. The tide was stemmed somewhat when the Spartan II’s joined the fray, super-soldiers kidnapped as kids and put through a series of genetic and surgical treatments on top of the most rigorous training program that could be devised. But even the Spartans could only do so much, and soon Humanity faced a far more dangerous threat. According to the Covenant Prophets, the Forerunner ascended to another plane of existence by activating the Halos, a series of artificial ring-shaped worlds. What really happened, as discovered by the Master Chief (the player character for the core Halo games), is that the Forerunner were facing the annihilation of all intelligent life in the galaxy by the Flood, a nasty parasitic organism. They built the Halo arrays as a weapon of last resort, hiding specimens of every species inside the massive Ark installation far out of reach of the Halo arrays. They planned to retreat to a shielded world themselves, then activate the Halos to purge the Flood from the galaxy. They never made it to the shield world. Somehow, the Halos were activated and the Forerunner perished alongside the Flood. The Covenant tried to activate the Halos, hoping to follow the Forerunner into godhood. The Master Chief was able to thwart them–twice–and in the process certain elements of the Covenant learned the truth about the Covenant, causing a violent schism. The Arbiter, an Elite warrior who had been instrumental in the discovery, led a revolt against the prophet overlords and allied himself and his followers with the humans, working together to thwart the Prophets’ final plan to fire all the Halo arrays. It worked, but the Master Chief was lost in the attempt.***

Such is the state of things at the end of Halo 3: the Covenant is defeated and splintered, at least for the time being. Humanity is triumphant, and the Elites are our new allies. All is well, yes? Not so much, actually. The end of the war with the Covenant means that the old tensions between Earth and the colonies are heating back up without the more pressing threat to keep the Insurrectionists at bay. Then too, how much do we trust the Elites? The Arbiter himself seems honorable, so far as that goes with a species whose culture we barely understand, but we spent a generation fighting each other. Even if we can trust the Arbiter to keep his word, he won’t hold onto power forever. Eventually, we’re going to have to fight the Elites again, and it would be in Earth’s best interest if they weren’t allowed to regain their former power before we do it. Both of these issues fall under the purview of the Office of Naval Intelligence, or ONI–the UNSC version of the CIA, but with even more dirty tricks up their sleeve. The head of ONI puts together Kilo-5, a mixed-bag strike team capable of dealing with both threats. There’s a Spartan, Naomi, a couple ODST Helljumpers, an expert on Elite culture and language, as well as the team leader who is being groomed to take over the entirety of ONI one day and a fourth-generation AI. Their mission consists mainly of spying on known Insurrectionists in between a series of “dirty tricks” operations to supply weapons to forces hostile to the Arbiter–ostensibly because ONI believes they’re more trustworthy, or at least more stable in the long term, than the Arbiter and his forces, but in reality just because it’s to our advantage to keep them fighting among themselves and too busy to come after us. Of course, it’s not all that easy. First, an overzealous underling discovers where his boss’s weapons are coming from. Then it’s discovered that Naomi’s dad is still alive, contrary to assumptions since his colony was glassed, but is now an Insurrectionist leader convinced that the government was behind his daughter’s kidnapping. It would be less complicated if he was wrong….but Kilo-5 doesn’t have time to worry about that now, because their expert on the Elites is stuck on their home planet in the middle of the suddenly-erupted civil war.

This was excellent–pure Karen Traviss at her best. There are few writers–or at least, few who deal with licensed properties–who can take in the world that’s been created by other authors in a variety of media and see the subtleties, the right places to poke and show you that the struggle you thought was black and white is actually composed of a rainbow of shades of gray. That the villains aren’t always evil, and the heroes aren’t always noble. That sometimes it comes down to people doing bad things for a good reason. There are obvious parallels to her Republic Commando novels, even beyond the Commandos/Spartans who share an origin rife with moral ambiguity. To some degree this is a departure from previous Halo stories in that it features an almost-entirely new set of characters, but that’s pretty much required by the status quo Traviss was handed, and I have no problem with that. Will this be confusing to people unfamiliar with the world of Halo? Yes, I fear it would, and you can’t get a good handle on the world without playing at least the second and third games (the first game has a novelization, but the second and third do not). I tried, back when I didn’t have an X-Box. Will this trilogy end leaving you somewhat unfulfilled? Probably not too much, given Traviss’ abilities, but certain plot threads are definitely being woven as a set-up for Halo 4. Bottom line: I loved it, but I’m already invested in this world. If you aren’t, this probably isn’t the place to start.

CONTENT: Mild language, PG-13 grade. Violence, occasionally gory. Mild sexual innuendo, but nothing explicit.

*Not very objective, am I? No, I realize that. Here’s the short version of my nerd-rage rant: Karen Traviss had a series she was working on featuring the Republic Commandos during the Clone Wars. By the later part of the series, almost the entirety of the action was set on the planet Mandalore, the culture of which she had managed to stitch together from a hundred disparate and contradictory threads into something that was actually cohesive (and incredibly awesome!) Just as she reaches the climax of the series, with one book to go, she’s told that she’s no longer allowed to do anything with the Mandalorian planet or culture because the Clone Wars animated series is going to be pulling a major retcon dealing with those topics. Frustrated for obvious reasons, Traviss left the franchise. Having read her series up to it’s final cliffhanger (that will now never be resolved) and watched the series at least that far, I can tell you without a doubt: Traviss’ vision was better. The show made the coolest warrior culture in the GFFA (in my humble opinion) into a bunch of pacifists! Really? Gah! Okay, I’m cutting this off before my nerd-rage erupts and embarrasses us all….
**There’s another series of Halo tie-ins I’ve yet to read that suggest Humanity has colonized the stars once before, only to devolve back into the stone age, but I’m ignoring that here for simplicity’s sake.
***Not dead–lost. He was in the wrong section of a ship that got cut in half when a portal failed. The UNSC presumes him dead, but we know he was last seen entering cryosleep as what’s left of the ship drifts through the void….

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Review: “American Vampire, Volume V” by Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque & Dustin Nguyen

Title: American Vampire, Volume V
Writer: Scott Snyder
Artists: Rafael Albuquerque & Dustin Nguyen
Series: American Vampire (Volume V, Issues #28-34 + Lord Of Nightmares miniseries)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Vertigo, 2013

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, my library recently got a large infusion of graphic novels I’d been waiting on. Volume V of American Vampire was one such acquisition, and so I bring you the latest in this particular series of reviews. Given the nature of a series, this review will unavoidably contain some spoilers for volumes I-IV (See them here: Volume I/Volume II/Volume III/Volume IV). You’ve been warned.

Volume V consists of two stories happening simultaneously. Well, more like two stories and a teaser for the next one, but whatever. First off, we have Lord Of Nightmares (originally published as a miniseries under the same title) in which we catch up with Felicia Book. When we last saw Felicia she resigned from the Vassals of the Morning Star and went off the grid with Gus, Cash McCogan’s son. Gus was once a vampire, now cured by the serum his father gave his life to protect. Agent Hobbes was content to let them go…but now he has nowhere else to turn. The original Carpathian vampire, the originator of the Dracula story, has been freed by his followers and is amassing an army to destroy not only the VMS but every other race of vampire that refuse to bend their knee. The London VMS office has been wiped out, the coffin-prison containing Carpathian Prime has been stolen by the Soviets, and Felicia and her son are the only ones close enough to help Agent Hobbes close the books on the Carpathian before he engulfs the world in his fiery bloodlust….This miniseries featured guest artist Dustin Nguyen while Albuquerque worked on the main book, and I have to congratulate him on his ability to match his style to that of the book. He does a much better job of it than some that have filled in for past issues. The story started strong, and I’m always up to see new interpretations of Dracula, but the ending was a bit anticlimactic and rushed, I thought. It didn’t really work for me, and I’m not entirely convinced that Carpathian Prime won’t show up again later. We’ll see, I suppose.

While Hobbes and Felicia are battling Dracula, Pearl Jones is out for blood in The Blacklist. Years ago she faced down a cabal of ancient vampires based in Hollywood, and most of them didn’t get out alive. She and her husband Henry have been one step ahead of the wolves ever since, but now they’re done running. One of the cabal paid a visit to their house while Pearl wasn’t home, ripping out Henry’s throat and leaving him for dead. The only place he can receive care in safety is with the VMS, so Pearl reluctantly teams up with Skinner Sweet to take out the remnants of the cabal once and for all. But fate has some surprises in store for when the players are finally revealed….old friends, old enemies, and old grudges are all placed on the table, and when the dust settles not everyone will be left standing. We are then teased with a final brief tale setting up (I assume) the next big antagonist: the Gray Trader. This tale almost felt final, which is fitting I suppose since the book went on hiatus for a while following these stories. Snyder took us full circle, bringing back characters and resolving plot threads introduced in the first volume, all the while winking and telling us that this was not THE end, merely AN ending. Albuquerque’s art was perfect for the tone, as always, and I look forward to seeing what happens next in this universe….

CONTENT: Not for kiddies, folks! This is a Vertigo book. There’s strong, bloody violence, as you would expect from a strain of vampire mythology as brutal and vicious as this. We’re talking dismemberment, throats ripped out, point-blank gunfire, and a close encounter with a pride of lionesses. R-rated language, though not as gratuitous as some other Vertigo fare. A panel or two of sexual content, though no nudity unless you count a shot of Skinner Sweet’s ass. No occult content–these vampires aren’t spiritual, just monsters.

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