Monthly Archives: July 2014

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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Mini-Review: “Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Angels We Have Seen On High” by Fabian Nicieza, Scott Lobdell, & Jeff Matsuda

Angels We Have Seen On HighTitle: Angels We Have Seen On High
Writers: Fabian Nicieza & Scott Lobdell
Artists: Jeff Matsuda (Characters), Hakjoon Kang & Nolan Obena (Backgrounds)
Series: Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Dark Horse, 2002

So, once more I’m faced with a short Buffy comic that really doesn’t fit well into any other review. Angels We Have Seen On High is a short story published in the 2002 Dark Horse anthology one-shot Reveal. So far as I can find, it was only ever collected as part of Buffy Omnibus Volume II, which is a shame because it’s a fun little interlude.

This is set before season one of Buffy, so far as I can tell falling between Slayer, Interrupted and A Stake To The Heart. It’s Friday night and Buffy’s been tasked with keeping an eye on Dawn as they hang out on the Santa Monica Pier. Of course, her Slayer duties get in the way, placing Dawn in danger and requiring a save from the unseen Angel.

The writing for this was spot-on, down to the humor and character voices, and the art was interesting. As you can see from the cover, it was done in a very stylized…style…that usually isn’t my cup of tea, but I really enjoyed it here. It worked really well, and everyone was still recognizable as themselves despite the stylization–not something to be taken for granted, I can assure you! Even some of the early Buffy comics that aren’t shooting for an odd style don’t manage this level of character-recognition, though admittedly this one has it easy due to its small cast of characters. If you can find a way to get your hands on this story, I would highly recommend it….

CONTENT: Vampire violence, though significantly milder in this tale than in most episodes of the series. Mild language. Mild innuendo, but no real sexual content. Buffyverse vampires.

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Review: “Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Remaining Sunlight” by Andi Watson, Joe Bennett, Jen Van Meter & Luke Ross

Title: The Remaining Sunlight
Writers: Andi Watson & Jen Van Meter
Artists: Joe Bennett & Luke Ross
Series: Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Buffy The Vampire Slayer #1-3 + Dark Horse Presents Annual ’98)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Dark Horse Comics, 1999

The Remaining Sunlight is the first collection of the actual ongoing Dark Horse series. The previous stuff I’ve reviewed so far has either been one-shots, mini-series, standalone graphic novels, or the “Year One” arc they did at the end of the run just before cancelling the book. I’m trying to go in chronological order, or as close as possible given the information at hand, so that would be why this wasn’t the first review I did in the series. As for where to find these aside from this particular collection, the main issues here are included in the Buffy Omnibus Vol. III, while MacGuffins is included in Vol. II.

The first three issues of the ongoing series (collected here) were all written by Andi Watson and penciled by Joe Bennet. Wu-Tang Fang (issue #1) opens the series as an ancient Chinese vampire comes to Sunnydale in search of a worthy opponent. Meanwhile, Xander begins taking karate lessons because he’s tired of being pushed around by bullies and bloodsuckers. Given the relationships still in place here and the lack of Faith (not to mention the publication date), I’m sticking this tale in the increasingly-populated gap between Buffy S03E02: Dead Man’s Party and Buffy S03E03: Faith, Hope & Trick. Plus, if we assume Stinger happens just before this tale, it lends extra meaning to Buffy’s comment about bullies messing with Xander. Then Halloween (issue #2) has come again, and this time the bloodsuckers are staying true to character and staying in for a movie marathon. Unfortunately, they grabbed Willow first to serve as their snack break when the time comes. Based on broadcast dates, this falls between Buffy S03E04: Beauty And The Beasts and Buffy S03E05: Homecoming. Faith is still nowhere to be seen, but oh well. In due time Thanksgiving comes along in Cold Turkey (issue #3) as Buffy is stalked by a vampire with a grudge…and has to deal with last-minute grocery shoppers to boot! Given the broadcast schedule, this is set between Buffy S03E07: Revelations and Buffy S03E08: Lover’s Walk. The writing for these is every bit as excellent as you would expect, and everyone most certainly sounds like themselves. The art….well, Buffy looks right, and Giles is mostly ok, but I’m increasingly of the opinion that there are few artists who can get Xander to look right. I mean, this was better than some I’ve seen, but still not Dark Horse good. Oz, Willow, and Cordelia fared slightly better, but Principal Snyder didn’t look at all right, at least in his first appearance–if I didn’t know better, I’d say he was away and someone else was filling in for him. Seeing Xander dressed as Gary Oldman’s version of Dracula for Halloween, valentine-hair and all, somewhat made up for this though. The art did improve each issue though, and the vampires actually watching the 1992 Buffy The Vampire Slayer movie? I literally laughed out loud when I realized what was showing. I think Joe Bennett was actually just about to find his groove for the look of the supporting cast, but for whatever reason he was replaced after these three issues.

As a bonus, this volume includes the story MacGuffins from Dark Horse Presents Annual ’98, written by Jen Van Meter and penciled by Luke Ross, set during Buffy’s summer vacation between the first two seasons. Buffy thinks she has a pest problem with the house flies infesting her dad’s apartment, but she hasn’t seen anything yet…. A fun, short little story with stronger art than most of this early Buffy material can boast. I enjoyed it.

CONTENT: Mild profanity. Vampire violence, a bit bloody at times. No real sexual content aside from a couple scantily-clad vampire vixens. As I’ve mentioned before, Buffyverse vampires could be considered a bit occultic since they are partially demons.

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Review: “Doomsday Diaries: The Complete Series” by Aaron Powell

Title: Doomsday Diaries: The Complete Series
Author: Aaron Powell
Series: Doomsday Diaries
Rating: **
Publisher/Copyright: CreateSpace, 2013

I wanted to like this. Really. The author was incredibly generous and sent me a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review, even after I failed to win the giveaway on Goodreads. This is described  as a series, but more properly it’s a serial novel. There’s nothing self-contained about the individual works, and you have to read all four to get the story. There are a couple of other stories set in this same world, starring Luke’s father, but I don’t plan to track them down. I almost never leave a book unfinished, but I was strongly tempted this time. Had I not agreed to do a review, I don’t know if I would have finished. Although, all things considered, Mr. Powell may have been happier if I’d stopped…. My reviews for the individual works are below, while this review will be the collection as a whole.
Doomsday Diaries
Doomsday Diaries II: New World Order
Doomsday Diaries III: Luke The Protector
Doomsday Diaries IV: Luke And The Lion

It all begins with the end of the world. Most of the Earth’s population perished instantly in the nuclear fires set off by the New World Order, the world’s elitists purging the unwashed masses from the Earth in their pursuit of a new Eden that they firmly controlled. Some, like Luke Mitchell and his family, survived in bunkers and shelters prepared against just such a day. Many did not. When Luke and his family finally emerge from hiding, they will find a world that is not at all what they expected…Can Luke find the strength within himself to do what has to be done, to meet his destiny and take down the New World Order once and for all?

Like I said, I wanted to like this, but alas, I found it to be mediocre at best. The plot was needlessly cliched, and the conspiracy theories he draws from make Mel Gibson’s character from Conspiracy Theory look sane. The characters were kind of cardboard, but not always uninteresting. At first we get a good sense of who Luke is, his wants and dreams and so forth, because everything is presented as him writing in his diary a la D.J. MacHale’s Pendragon novels, but as things move forward he becomes less and less believable as a character. Why? Because aside from his libido, Luke has not a single character flaw. He’s set up as an incredibly vanilla Christ figure, so this makes sense in a way, but that’s no excuse for a lack of inner conflict. The only thing Luke is ever conflicted about in the course of the story (at least after leaving the fallout shelter, anyway, which is where the real story starts) is his feeling for the two separate girls vying for his attention–and even that falls flat. I’ll get to that later. It’s no spoiler to tell you that Luke will die at some point, given his status as a Christ figure, but even that he meets with an even keel. Christ himself was in great turmoil over this prospect, to the point of sweating blood, while Luke calmly meets his fate without flinching. I’m all for exploring and reinventing Christ’s story if there’s something interesting to be gained from it,* but in this case it was simply hijacked to serve as a front for an uninteresting New Age parable about how the Universe itself is God, and we are all a part of that. Again, more of that later. There’s an interesting conversation to be had about why all our fictional Christ figures come out looking more like Neo than they do like Jesus, but that’s a bit outside the scope and purpose of this blog. I will grant that Mr. Powell does a little better in this regard than most, even if it does introduce an annoying inconsistency to the character. At one point Luke is revolted by the NWO’s cloning program and the “soulless creatures” it is turning out, and mercilessly guns them down as abominations. (Again, I’ll deal with this particular facet in a minute.) Fifteen pages later he and his men are pinned down by more of the clones, and he begins praying in despair at the violence on both sides. The result is a character you can’t quite accept as genuine.

I have no trouble reading stuff that comes with a different worldview than the one I embrace–in fact, I often welcome the chance to examine the ideas inherent in such narratives and the questions they raise. There’s a group of Christians that choose to wall themselves off from the parts of popular culture that conflict with their beliefs, and I understand that. I’m not a part of that group, and that attitude frustrates me, but I understand it. It’s easy. I choose to engage the culture in conversation and examine the ideas it presents–for example, the discussion Buffy The Vampire Slayer prompts about the nature of evil and the soul. Some of the characters and elements that are inherent to that show automatically disqualify it from the watch lists of many of my brethren, and that’s sad. So when I gripe about the New Age agenda presented in this book, please understand that my problem isn’t that I disagree with it or stand in firm opposition to it–though I do, unflinchingly–but that it preaches. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t tolerate that even when I agree with what you’re shoving down my throat. When I disagree with the line you’re feeding me, and especially when you’re not giving me anything interesting to engage in conversation, I just want to throw up my hands in frustration. Give me angels disobeying God for the greater good (Legion) or attempting to cause the apocalypse in order to cleanse mankind and make us worthy of God’s love (Constantine). Give me a morally complex tale of good and evil (Buffy) or the nature of personhood and identity (Dollhouse). Give me ideas to play with, don’t shove an ideology down my throat. Give me questions, not answers, and most importantly–above all else–present it in the form of an interesting story. Otherwise you’re wasting my time.

Less subtle but no less off-putting: this book is so sexually explicit it borders on pornography. The prologue is simply a graphic scene of Luke masturbating. I don’t object to sexual content when it is presented tastefully and/or to good purpose, but there’s a limit. I was prepared to forgive the prologue due to the fact that it really did a decent job of putting you inside Luke’s head and where he’s at emotionally, very much depressed and wondering how the model died even as he relieves himself. I didn’t appreciate reading about it, but I admitted it’s effectiveness in its assumed purpose. The rest of the material? It was overly detailed, even pointlessly gratuitous. I don’t deny that the characters would act the way they do in the given situations, but I don’t need details! Extra creepy since everyone involved is underage, and with an added creep factor since the main character is basically modeled on Mr. Powell’s son.** Subtlety is an art, and one it seems Mr. Powell has yet to achieve.

Other more minor issues include a “love triangle” that is less triangle than it is bait-and-switch and a complete lack of moral ambiguity on the issue of cloning. Here, clones are “soulless creatures that cannot understand the beauty in the world.” (New World Order, pg. 102) Why? In-narrative, no reason is given. Since they seem to be unquestioningly obedient, you could posit the theory that there’s some mental conditioning or mind control going on, and we know they’re being genetically engineered for certain traits (like a healing factor a la Wolverine), but to me that only makes them more of a victim and has no bearing on the “soul” as it is traditionally understood. If, as is posited here, everyone and everything in the Universe is a part of God then that should include the clones as well. They deserve help and pity, not to be mercilessly gunned down (self defense aside). I could go on for pages here about the nature of the soul and the ethics of cloning, especially if I dug into my archive from philosophy class for the paper I did on the topic, but I’ll spare you. I’ll leave it at this: the cloning factor gave Mr. Powell the chance to do something really interesting here, but he’s beat out by literally every other cloning-related story I’ve ever encountered, including Michael Bay’s The Island (which is really much better than you would expect, given Bay’s reputation. I credit the acting talent involved.) When Michael Bay, king of explosions and eye candy, tells a more morally complex tale than yours, that’s sad.

I don’t want you to think that this was completely negative with no positives. For most of the book I was at least moderately entertained, at least when I wasn’t distracted by my annoyance with the aforementioned issues. In addition, Mr. Powell definitely knows what he’s talking about in terms of military hardware, slang, and maneuvers. Was this enough to save the book for me? No. Not nearly. But it is enough to win the book a second star in its rating.

CONTENT: Hands-down the most sexually explicit novel I’ve ever read. There is graphic descriptions of masturbation, oral sex, and the main character losing his virginity, as well as multiple other acts he witnesses but does not participate in. You’ve been warned. R-rated language, occasional but still present. Strong violence. A preachy, cliched New Age agenda.

*I’m still hunting for a copy of ¡Hero!: The Rock Opera off and on….
**At least, he dedicates the book to his son Luke.

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Review: “The Far Time Incident” by Neve Maslakovic

Title: The Far Time Incident
Author: Neve Maslakovic
Series: The Incident Series #1
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: 47 North, 2013

You know how Amazon advertises their Kindle Owners Lending Library as one of the benefits of having a Prime account? Well, I forgot to cancel my free trial in time (“30 Day” is apparently not the same thing as “1 Month”) and so I’m stuck with a $100 membership for the year. Wouldn’t hurt the pocketbook so much if it wasn’t a lump sum….anyway, I figured I should try and get my money’s worth out of it, so I pulled up my truly massive TBR list and started searching Amazon’s KOLL. It took me fifteen minutes of searching before I found one on my list that was available to borrow, but I have to say that I truly enjoyed this book. I first heard of this book when I entered a giveaway over on Goodreads. I didn’t win, but a year or so later I’ve finally got around to reading it anyway.

Julia Olsen’s week just got harder. The tiny campus of St. Sunniva University is thrown into an uproar when the Time Travel Engineering department’s senior scientist, Xavier Mooney, is seemingly lost to one of History’s ghost zones, and as assistant to the Dean of Science, it falls to Julia to deal with a good deal of the fallout. It seems Mooney stepped into the department’s time machine, STEWie, for an unauthorized late-night run, and never returned. His modern clothes and effects were left behind, everything in order and as normal, he simply failed to return with STEWie’s “basket.” When the subsequent investigation points to foul play, the security chief insists on taking a short trip himself to see how a “normal” run goes. Julia, a Shakespearean scholar, and a couple grad students all tag along. Their intended destination is JFK airport, to see the Beatles arrive on US soil. Instead, they find themselves on the slopes of Vesuvius the day it’s traditionally expected to erupt….

Like I said, I thought this was incredibly fun. The early parts of the book are chock-full of academic politics as Julia tries to keep things running in the wake of the tragedy, and it was fun to revisit that world for a while even if I was never a part of that side of it. Once in the past, I also really enjoyed the depth of research into Pompeian culture. I’ve never been there myself, but everything my wife told me about her visit jived with what I read here–right down to the overabundance of phallic symbolism. Like I said, I enjoyed these elements. Other readers/reviewers have found the book a bit slow. Another minor issue: most of the mysteries here were decently easy to figure out. The central mystery remains mysterious until the reveal, but I called that they were in Pompeii way before they figured it out,* and also figured out who trashed Secundus’ garum shop way in advance. This didn’t really detract from my enjoyment, but I know some people are finicky about that stuff. I look forward to reading the sequel soon, as it is also available via the KOLL.

CONTENT: I don’t recall any R-rated language, but there may have been a little. Mild profanity otherwise. Mild violence. Some sexual innuendo, but nothing explicit. No occult content aside from Romans praying to their gods, as you would expect in 79 A.D. Pompeii.

*This may have been residual knowledge from having read the book’s blurb last year, though, or the fact that I watched the movie Pompeii last week. This is so easy to figure out (and revealed in the book’s synopsis to boot) that I don’t feel bad spoiling that particular non-surprise.

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Review: “Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Play With Fire” by Christopher Golden, Doug Petrie, Tom Sniegoski, Ryan Sook, Hector Gomez & Cliff Richards

Title: Play With Fire
Series: Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Publisher/Copyright: Dark Horse, 2003

Play With Fire is a collection of shorter stories from all over the place–special issues, one-shots, annuals, even TV Guide. As such, its somewhat inconsistent, and I’ve chosen to handle each story as a separate mini-review within this post. A couple of these overlap with the later collection Food Chain for some incomprehensible reason. None of these are officially canon, since Whedon didn’t have any direct involvement, but they don’t contradict the official canon unless otherwise noted. I’ll make note of where they fall in the timeline, as well as where you can find them aside from this collection.

Stinger (Buffy The Vampire Slayer/Wizard #1/2)
Written by Christopher Golden
Art by Hector Gomez.
Rating: ****
Synopsis: Xander is forced to fight a local bully, but both are surprised by a nasty scorpionesque demon that feeds on those who enjoy inflicting fear and pain.
Review: Well-written, but with mediocre art. The characters sound like themselves, and I enjoyed the story, but the art kinda bugs me. Hector Gomez also did the art for The Dust Waltz, and I wasn’t a fan there either. Xander’s look is a little bit too “square-jawed handsome hero” for my taste–the draw of the character is that he doesn’t look like that, but is a hero when the chips are down nevertheless.
Continuity: Since Cordelia and Xander are dating but Faith is nowhere to be seen, this happens between the second and third episodes of the third season of Buffy.
Where to find it: This story is one of the harder ones to find. To my knowledge, it was only reprinted in this collection, Food Chain, and Buffy Omnibus Vol. IV.

Play With Fire (Dark Horse Extra #11-16)
Written by Christopher Golden
Art by Hector Gomez
Rating: ****
Synopsis: Buffy is out patrolling with Willow and Giles, who is growing concerned with Willow’s dabbling in the Dark Arts. Events soon provide them with even more material for this discussion….
Review: Not outstanding, but not bad. The characters all seemed like themselves, though Giles is a bit more clumsy here than he should be. Staid British librarian or no, Giles can kick @$$ when he wants to. The root of this story is particularly interesting since it was published long before the events of season 6, where Willow’s magical abilities grow out of control. The art was okay, and Xander was nowhere to be seen so Gomez’s art didn’t really annoy me as much this time. It’s still not up to the regular standard I expect from Dark Horse, but it’s consistent with his other Buffy material so I feel like harping on it is getting unfair.
Continuity: This is set sometime during Buffy Season 3, with no real way to be more specific. Since I think Faith would have come along if she were in the picture, I set this between the second and third episodes as well.
Where to find it: Again, this is rare. Looks like it’s only included here and in Buffy Omnibus Vol. III.

The Latest Craze (Buffy The Vampire Slayer Annual ’99)
Written by Christopher Golden & Tom Sniegoski
Art by Cliff Richards
Rating: *****
Synopsis: There’s a new craze sweeping Sunnydale High–Hooligans, little stuffed monsters in the vain of Furby but twice as creepy and a hundred times more kleptomaniacal.
Review: This was a fun tale in the vein of Gremlins. References to Furby were in evidence as well, which makes sense. The art was excellent, as should be expected from Cliff Richards.
Continuity: I put this one just after Buffy S03E11: Gingerbread, given the relationships in evidence, the presence of “Pez Witch,” and the lack of Wesley. It’s a bit close to Ethan Rayne’s last appearance (Buffy S03E06: Band Candy) but that really just makes the jokes about him being a glutton for punishment even funnier.
Where to find it: This story is reprinted here, in Food Chain, Buffy omnibus Vol. III, and online via the BBC (link).

Dance With Me (TV Guide Special)
Written by Christopher Golden
Art by Hector Gomez
Rating: ****
Synopsis: Buffy skips a school dance to go out patrolling, only to run into the student she turned down eight times. Seems he knew she was the slayer, and got himself vamped in order to force her to pay attention….
Review: Again, I have no problem with Christoper Golden’s writing. This was incredibly short at five pages, but nevertheless captured the characters and their interactions pretty well. The art wasn’t bad, although I’m still not a fan of how Hector Gomez draws Xander.
Continuity: The credits page places this during Buffy‘s third season. Based on Cordelia and Faith being absent, I place it late in the season, arbitrarily placing it between episodes 15 and 16. Honestly, though, there’s nothing in the story itself to say that this isn’t happening during the first or second seasons.
Where to find it:
This one is really rare. So far as I can tell, its only reprinted here and in Buffy Omnibus Vol. III.

Bad Dog (Buffy The Vampire Slayer Annual ’99)
Written by Doug Petrie
Art by Ryan Sook
Rating: *****
Synopsis: During the full moon, Buffy finds Oz’s cage smashed and both Oz and Willow missing. Fearing the worst, Buffy and Angel set out to track them down….but the real enemy may not be Oz after all.
Review: Doug Petrie’s work is always spot-on, probably a benefit of being one of the writers for the actual show. Ryan Sook’s work here shows some improvement over his Spike & Dru stuff, but is not yet up to the level of awesomeness he achieved on Ring Of Fire.
Continuity: I set this tale just after Buffy S03E18: Earshot for no good reason whatsoever. Wesley is nowhere to be seen, but he could just be conveniently absent for the day. Plus, at this point his character is so useless that I wouldn’t put it past Giles and the others to simply exclude him.
Where to find it: This story is reprinted here, in Food Chain, Buffy omnibus Vol. IV, and online via the BBC (link).

CONTENT: Vampire & Werewolf violence consistent with the show. Brief sexual innuendo and flirting, but nothing explicit. Mild profanity. Buffyverse vampires, which could be considered occultic if you wanted to go there.

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Filed under Books, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Comics/Graphic Novels, Reviews