Monthly Archives: August 2014

Mini-Review: “Star Wars–Rebels: Art Attack”

Episode Title: Art Attack
Episode Writer: Greg Weisman
Short Story Author: Michael Kogge
Series: Star Wars: Rebels
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Disney, 2014

And here we go for take two! Art Attack is the second of four three-minute shorts being released to help promote the upcoming Star Wars: Rebels TV series. I posted on the first short a couple days ago, and the final two will soon follow. 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 Sabine Wren, a teenage Mandalorian artist-slash-explosives expert. Check out the short below:

Here we watch as Sabine creates a diversion to allow the Ghost to take off unnoticed, and her preferred method of creating diversions seems to involve graffiti and taunting stormtroopers, followed by explosions. I really did enjoy this one, and I think Sabine will probably end up being one of my favorite characters. She’s spunky and sarcastic, both of which are traits I fully enjoy seeing in my characters. Plus, Mandalorian! That said, I’m hoping that the actual show doesn’t veer as far to the kid-side as this one did–without spoilers, there should be a body count to this diversion. Plus, the stormtroopers are portrayed as being even stupider than usual. The short story adaptation here irked me as well with it’s portrayal of the troopers. You don’t have to work so hard to convince me that stormtroopers are bad! We know that. Having the POV trooper reflect on how he was recruited as a result of his school detention record for bullying was blunt. Having him think “Artists were almost as bad as rebels. They could draw, paint, and create things he couldn’t. And for that they deserved to be crushed.”? That’s about as subtle as a brick upside the head. I don’t have a problem with “black and white” characters, per se, but it stands in stark contrast to the more nuanced work of earlier writers, such as Timothy Zahn’s stormtrooper characters in Allegiance and Choices Of One, or Davin Felth, the character from Doug Beason’s short story When The Desert Wind Turns. On the other hand, the story did explore some of Sabine’s motivations as well, and lent an added effect to her paint bomb, so it wasn’t all bad. These shorts are being referred to as prequels to the series, so I’m assuming this is part of a minor mission set before the introductory TV movie coming in April.

CONTENT: No profanity, but some unkind name-calling. Mild violence, no body count. No sexual content whatsoever.

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Review: “The Dresden Files: Skin Game” by Jim Butcher

Title: Skin Game
Author: Jim Butcher
Series: The Dresden Files #15
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: ROC, 2014

You should probably know by now: I’m a huge Dresden fan. Jim Butcher has an uncanny ability to top his previous achievements each book, and this time is no exception. Obviously, this review will contain spoilers for previous books in the series.

Right. It was revealed at the end of Cold Days that Dresden had some sort of parasite in his head that was causing his recurring headaches, and that it will eventually kill him if left unchecked. Demonreach, the sentient island/monster prison located in the middle of Lake Michigan, can use its bond with Dresden to keep the parasite suppressed for the moment, which is why Dresden has been living there alone for the past year. Unfortunately, time is running out. If the parasite isn’t dealt with soon, Harry will die. Mab, queen of the Winter Fae and Harry’s boss since he accepted the mantle of Winter Knight to save his daughter, offers a solution…after he completes a mission for her. That mission? No less than helping one of his Archenemies pull off a heist from the vault of Hades himself. Nicodemus heads the Order of the Blackened Denarius, a group of thirty fallen angels who are each tied to a particular silver Roman coin (Yeah, THOSE coins) and form a symbiotic relationship with whoever holds that coin. The Denarians are locked in an eternal combat with the Knights of the Cross, a trio (usually) of knights who each wield a sword forged with a nail from the cross (Yeah, THAT cross) in the hilt. Harry has crossed the Denarians before, even owned one of their coins for a while, but so far he has always come out ahead. This time? This time he’s got to help Nicodemus get his hands on one of the holiest relics in the world, and refrain from any treachery until after their objectives are met. This time, there may be no way out….

You’ve gotta love a good heist. Ocean’s Eleven was good, but robbing the Underworld itself? That’s the ultimate challenge. Will Dresden and his temporary allies succeed? Can Dresden thwart Nicodemus plan without breaking Mab’s orders? And given Nicodemus’ track record for flawless honesty, what on (or under) Earth is the real play here? You’ve gotta read on to find out! I will say that this was every bit as excellent as you would expect, and I stayed up way too late multiple nights in a row reading this book. Dresden is as snarky as ever, and after the last several books it was good to see a bunch of his allies again. One of the main strengths of this series is the secondary characters, every one of whom is interesting in their own right. You’ve got Karrin Murphy, former cop and arguably Dresden’s closest friend. Michael, crippled former Knight and one of the few men on the planet who are truly and unequivocally Good. Waldo Butters, Chicago coroner and budding supernatural vigilante, also the current holder of Bob, the spirit of intellect who formerly served Dresden. For the past several books Harry has walked a lonely road, and it’s good to see his friends again. Now he just has to keep from getting them killed….

CONTENT: R-rated language, not gratuitous but still present. Strong violence, sometimes very disturbing. Some fairly explicit sexual content this time, but I would argue that it was included for good reason. Since the main character is a wizard, I think the “occult content” is a given, but I urge you not to let that discourage you from this series.

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Mini-Review: “Star Wars–Rebels: The Machine In The Ghost”

Episode Title: The Machine In The Ghost
Episode Writer: Greg Weisman
Short Story Author: Michael Kogge
Series: Star Wars: Rebels
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Disney, 2014

And here we go! I think this is officially the first new story released for the rebooted Star Wars Expanded Universe. That honor was supposed to go to the upcoming novel A New Dawn, but the people over at Star Wars: Rebels jumped the gun a bit in promoting their new show. What we have here is a three-minute short, part one of a four-episode series of prequels to the actual show. 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 Kanan Jarrus, Hera Syndulla, and C1-10p or “Chopper”. Kanan is a former Jedi Padawan who managed to survive Order 66 and has locked away his lightsaber, living on the run until he hooked up with rest of this crew. Hera is the pilot and owner of the Ghost, with her own unrevealed (so far) reasons for hating the Empire. Chopper may be the grumpiest astromech droid you’ll ever meet, but there’s no way he’s going to let the Ghost and her crew be blown to smithereens on his watch. There are links to the introduction videos above, and you can see the short below.

The actual video itself is so short that I can’t give much of a summary without spoilers. Basically, we find Kanan, Hera and Chopper alone in the Ghost being pursued by a quartet of TIE Fighters after being ambushed when they tried to raid an Imperial supply convoy. When the ship starts taking damage, Chopper has to balance conflicting orders from Kanan and Hera as to what to fix first before the TIEs blow them out of the sky.

Since I’m a huge Star Wars geek, I’m obviously excited about this upcoming show. A lot of the same people from the Clone Wars cartoon have been carried over, and as much as I gripe about that show it definitely did improve as things went along. Plus, you know, since they rebooted the timeline I can’t gripe about how much they screwed stuff up anymore–that other stuff no longer exists. I think the crew has learned a lot (they say they have) from that experience, and I look forward to seeing what they can do in this new time period. Regarding this particular installment, it was very fun. I really enjoyed the banter between Kanan and Hera, but Chopper was the real focus here, I suspect because Kanan and Hera will be getting much better introductions when A New Dawn hits shelves. We know that Kanan and Hera meet in that book, set in 11 BBY,* while the show is set in 5 BBY. This short could hypothetically be set anywhere in that interim period, especially since the rest of the crew is absent, but I’m placing it as close to the start of the show as possible given the characters’ unchanging appearance. Obviously, as more information emerges as to the status quo at the start of the series I can refine that further. Is the short story version worthwhile? It doesn’t really add much, aside from refining the context of why they’re being chased and pointing out that the guns Chopper fires are mounted on the Phantom, a smaller fighter docked to the back of the Ghost. You also get inside Chopper’s “head” a bit more to see what he’s actually thinking, but there’s really no need–he’s a very expressive droid, so it doesn’t add much to the experience. It’s not bad, I was just hoping it would be expanded a bit. Use the short as a jumping-off point or something, maybe even offer context as to whether this happens before the rest of the crew joins up or if they’re just off on another errand (I doubt this, since the Phantom is still present, but who knows).

CONTENT: Aside from TIE pilots being blown up, no violence. If you understand the binary language Chopper beeps in, I imagine his dialogue would be profanity-laden, but you can’t and so there is none. No sexual content.

*Star Wars dates are measured in years BBY or ABY, before or after the Battle of Yavin respectively. Effectively, BC/AD with Star Wars: A New Hope as the tipping point.

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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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