Monthly Archives: January 2015

Review: “Divergent” by Veronica Roth

Title: Divergent
Author: Veronica Roth
Series: Divergent #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Katherine Tegen, 2012

I know, I’m late to the party. I have this bad habit of avoiding high-hype books out of a sense of general stubbornness, not because I really doubt their quality (a certain series involving glitter-ridden “vampires” excluded, of course) but partially from general cantankerousness, partially from convenience (I heavily rely on the library, making high-demand books somewhat inconvenient at times), and partially from the fact that my “to-read” stack has become a full set of shelves, crammed to bursting, and lower-priority works have overflowed into a series of boxes until I can get things under control. This procrastination only gets worse when there’s a perception of market glut; i.e. “Twilight is big! Let’s ride this angsty faux-vampire thing all the way to the bank! Oooh….look at the sales numbers on The Hunger Games…..” This last is unfair, I know…there are some seriously good dystopian books coming out now. It’s just a matter of digging through the glut to find the gems. I’m hoping to read The Maze Runner soon, and I’ve heard good things about The Blood Red Road as well. In the case of Divergent, my sister is obsessed. Some of the other YA dystopian stuff she’s into holds no interest for me (Matched, for example), but this looked interesting. Plus, my wife wants to see the movie, and to watch it before reading it would be pure heresy. Thus, I borrowed my sister’s beloved copy and dove in (Thanks Chloe!)

In the unspecified future, Chicago has become a self-sustaining dystopian fortress. Within its walls, the citizens are divided into five factions based on their most dominant character trait–Amity, the peaceful; Abnegation, the selfless; Candor, the honest/impartial; Erudite, the learned; and Dauntless, the brave. Children are raised in the faction of their parents until the age of sixteen, when they take a test that tells them which faction best fits their character/thinking/instincts. They then choose their faction, once and for all. They are free to choose a different faction than their test indicates, providing some thin semblance of democracy, but once the choice is made it cannot be changed…and if you can’t make it in your chosen faction, you become one of the Factionless, the faceless untouchables that perform the menial labor for the entire city.

Beatrice “Tris” Prior has been raised in Abnegation all her life, but she doesn’t feel she really fits in. She wants to be good and selfless, but the fact is that politeness and seeing others’ needs isn’t what she’s good at. If she ends up in another faction, its likely she’ll see her family only on rare occasions (“Faction before Blood” is the motto of the new society), but Tris frankly isn’t sure she can stay in Abnegation for the rest of her life without going crazy. Things only become more complicated when her test comes back inconclusive–Tris could be suited for Dauntless, Abnegation, or even Erudite. The test overseer informs her that she is Divergent, and that to tell anyone her secret could get her killed. The test results are wiped and the overseer pretends there was a problem with the readings, while Tris leaves the test that should have given her guidance with only more questions. Right up until the moment she makes her choice, she doesn’t know what she is going to do, but once she decides there is no going back….

This book garners all sorts of comparisons to The Hunger Games, and I can see the similarities, but I think the differences are far more significant–and I think Divergent is better, on the whole. Both books feature an oppressive social system, a strong-willed female protagonist who narrates the work in first-person POV, and an incredible amount of violence perpetrated against children. At the same time, even these elements bear only a passing resemblance to each other. While neo-Chicago’s faction-based society is clearly flawed, it was founded with the best of intentions while Panem makes no bones about being a bloody dictatorship that televises an annual live-action adolescent death-match. Katniss and Tris definitely share similarities (bravery, a strong survival instinct, and the determination to protect those they care about,) but there are also marked differences. For one thing, Tris is a very active character. Most of what happens in the book happens because makes a decision and does something. Katniss is more reactive, largely as a product of the plot, but the former still makes for a more interesting character. Then of course there’s also Katniss’s angsty whining for the first half of Catching Fire, followed by her slow descent into madness during Mockingjay. I wasn’t too big a fan of those elements. Tris manages to still have a love interest without being quite so whiny about it. Just my opinion.*

The writing here was tight and action-packed, flowing so smoothly and keeping me so engaged that I’ve ended up staying up later than I intended several times over the past week, lost in the ruins of Chicago. That said, there are elements of Divergent that I’m a bit conflicted about. The world itself is overly simplistic, for one thing. And yet….maybe that’s the point. The idea of a society where everyone is defined by a single character trait is ridiculous, on the face of it, but on closer examination Divergent makes it work much better than I expected when I started the book. For one thing, the factions aren’t necessarily built around the only character trait that its members exhibit, but the one they want to emphasize. It can require bravery to be selfless or honest, or even simply to leave your faction and family for a new one at the choosing ceremony. You can have brave Abnegation, honest Amity, or even Dauntless who recognize that violence isn’t always the best option. Beyond that, there’s also the simple fact that this is a dystopian vision. A society based around these factions wouldn’t work? Exactly. That would be why it’s falling apart…. I am less thrilled by the underlying anti-intellectualism necessitated by the plot, but even here Ms. Roth makes it clear that its not learning and knowledge itself that is bad, but the underlying human nature–i.e., a lust for power. You see this moral decline in both the Erudite and the Dauntless, and to some degree even in Abnegation. If we explored Candor or Amity a bit more in this book, I suspect we’d see the same decay in their values, and I expect exactly that from the other two books in the trilogy. The problems we see come to fruition in the book are the result not of a particular character trait, but of each faction valuing their chosen ideal to the point where they dismiss or denigrate the others. The faction manifestos included in the back shine an interesting light on the original ideals of each faction, as well as how they’ve drifted from that original conception. The point was that each virtue was supposed to be the best way to ensure the common good, not that each virtue was an end in itself. Thus we see Dauntless emphasizing bravery in defense of the weak, and Amity admitting that fighting to defend another is also laudable. We see Erudite going out of their way to emphasize that while knowledge is a powerful tool, it must be wielded as a tool for the greater good and not a weapon for their own gain. If you’ve read the book, you’ll recognize how far each of these factions have fallen from their initial ideals…and the original good that underlies the corrupted society they’ve inherited.

Divergence itself confuses me a bit, and I hope this supposed anomaly is explored further in the next couple books. Initially, it appears that divergence is simply displaying the character traits of multiple factions, thus making the placement test inconclusive. If this is all it was, you would expect most people to be divergent, and this apparent disconnect is the source of quite a bit of griping from other reviewers. However, one of the effects of divergence is the ability to mess with whatever simulation they’ve got running in your head, thus implying its more of a neurological anomaly. Since the test itself is a simulation designed to force the subject into specific situations requiring particular traits, that fits, as does the apparent genetic nature of it. As for the apparent rarity of divergents, events soon prove that while they are not the norm they certainly aren’t as rare as everyone assumes. Two of the main characters prove divergent, as do at least two minor characters and several others that are only mentioned in passing.

CONTENT: Brief R-rated language, but otherwise PG-13 on the profanity front. Strong, occasionally gruesome violence, including a potential attempted rape. Some sexual innuendos and references, but nothing too explicit.

*Keeping in mind, I read Catching Fire on a very slow night at work, reading almost the entire first half at basically one sitting. That’s a lot of concentrated angst, and had I read it over a longer span of time I may have reacted slightly less negatively.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Novels, Reviews

Review: “Horns” by Joe Hill

Title: Horns
Author: Joe Hill
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Harper Collins, 2011

I’d been meaning to read some of Joe Hill’s work for a while, and just hadn’t got around to it yet. Then they announced that Horns was going to become a movie, and so of course I had to read it. Can’t commit heresy by seeing something without reading the book first, right? (I still haven’t seen it, but they’ve got my name on the list at the library for when it comes in.) In case you don’t know, Mr. Hill is the son of horror fiction’s crown prince, Stephen King, and has taken to his father’s craft with a vengeance. I’m not kidding when I say that every single book he’s produced has been recommended to me by one person or another, usually multiple times. I’ve mentioned before that in my limited reading of King I tend to not be particularly fond of the protagonist for one reason or another (there are exceptions, of course.) That’s not a problem Hill has, at least not here. The project here is ambitious–I half-imagine someone bet Hill that he couldn’t write a story with the devil (or more accurately, a devil) as the protagonist and make him sympathetic. Well, if that’s the case, Hill won the bet.

Until a year ago, Ignatius “Ig” Perrish was a saint. No, that’s not quite right–saints don’t typically smoke, drink, or spend the night with a girl they’ve not yet married (even if there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that such an event is in their future.) Ig does all of these things on a regular basis. So, a sinner, but a good-natured one. All that changed the night his girlfriend, Merrin Williams, was raped and murdered in the woods. Ig was the only real suspect, as she had just broken up with him in a very public drunken shouting match at a local restaurant, but the case went cold for lack of evidence. Ig never got his day in court, and so never had a chance to prove that he didn’t do it. Even if he had, it may not have convinced anyone. Ig spent the next year a bitter, drunken wreck of a man. On the one-year anniversary of the murder, he spent the night drunk and doing terrible things. The next morning, he woke with horns growing from his temples–not that anyone else can seem to see, but they’re there. Also, people seem to be confessing their deepest, darkest desires to him, almost seeking permission to fulfill them. Skin contact reveals their most hidden secret sins they’ve committed in the past. Ig has no idea where this diabolical power has come from, but he knows what he’s going to do with it: find whoever killed the woman he loves, and give them Hell….

Like I said, a very ambitious book. The premise alone was intriguing, but the execution was simply masterful. I wholeheartedly recommend the book to anyone with a fondness for the horror genre, or that likes a story that’s just a little bit off the wall. I will warn you though, the book can be incredibly disturbing at times. There’s a whole section of the book told from the perspective of the killer, including the night of the rape and murder of Merrin Williams. The night I hit that section I stayed up reading long past when I had planned to stop, simply so that I didn’t have to go to bed still in his head and could reach the (comparatively) wholesome POV of Ig once again before drifting off to sleep. I didn’t want SPOILER OMITTED spending the night in my subconscious. The whole story is told somewhat out of order, starting the morning Ig wakes up with horns and then spending large chunks of time filling in the background through flashbacks as different revelations are made and need context or someone inadvisedly touches Ig and reveals their darkest secrets.

There are all sorts of issues with the book theologically-speaking, of course, but that’s not the point of the book and so I really won’t get into that here. Christianity, the church, and the Judeo-Christian God don’t come off well in the book, but that’s to be expected from a character who feels so betrayed and embittered towards Heaven. And really, given the treatment Hill’s father gives similar themes on a repeated basis, are you really all that surprised? I more or less expected something along those lines.

CONTENT: R-rated profanity throughout. Some gruesome and disturbing violence, including a rape and subsequent murder. Some explicit sexual content, including but not limited to the aforementioned rape (though this scene is played for horror, not titillation). The main character is becoming something along the lines of the traditional Judeo-Christian devil, including an array of diabolical powers. I think that probably counts as occult content.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Novels, Reviews

Review: “The Dresden Files: Fool Moon” (GN Adaptation) by Jim Butcher, Mark Powers, & Chase Conley

Title: Fool Moon Volume I/Volume II
Original novel by: Jim Butcher
Adapted by: Mark Powers
Artist: Chase Conley
Series: The Dresden Files
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Dynamite, 2011/2013

By now, I shouldn’t really have to explain my absolute love of Jim Butcher’s masterwork, The Dresden Files. I think I’ve made that abundantly clear on a repeated basis, whether reviewing the last couple books in the series (Cold Days, Skin Game) or either of the previous graphic novels–the prequel Welcome To The Jungle and the adaptation of the first book in the series, Storm Front. And now we come to the graphic novel adaptation for book two: Fool Moon, again in two parts that I will review together here. The general consensus among fans of the series is that the first two or three books are merely good, while every book after that goes up in awesomeness by something like an order of magnitude, and I largely agree. It’s been quite a while since I read the actual novel version of this (which means it’s time to go back and re-read the entire series!), but from what I remember this seemed pretty faithful to the book.

Harry Dresden is having a bit of a rough patch. I know, what else is new? With their friendship still strained by the lies he told to protect her back in Storm Front, Murphy has been calling him in for jobs less and less, which means that Harry is having to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find money for rent. All the same, Chicago has been mostly quiet on the supernatural apocalypse front, and for that Harry is grateful. Alas, it can’t last. People are dying at every full moon, and even a rookie would know what that means–there’s a werewolf in town. Harry had better figure out what’s going on quick, before more people end up as dog food….but that’s not going to be easy with “Gentleman Johnny” Marcone on his tail, along with a crew of suspicious Feds watching his every move, Murphy still not sure she trusts him, and a lycanthropic street gang out for his head. Why can’t it ever just be simple? Oh, right….because that’s no fun….

Like I said above, this was pretty faithful to the book. The only thing really missing was Dresden’s snarky humor as he narrates, and I’ll admit that I missed it a bit. The real downfall here though, and what cost it that fifth star, is the artwork. It wasn’t atrocious, it wasn’t even really objectively bad, but I didn’t like it. Partially, yes, it’s the fact that I still miss the stellar work of Ardian Syaf. I recognize that, and I need to get over it. But then, I don’t tend to be a fan of this particular style of art anyway. There’s also the fact that half the time I can only tell Murphy from Tera based on their clothes, and the female characters tend to be over-sexualized even when that’s not a part of their character. Susan, I get that. That’s how she is. Tera, likewise. As much time as she spends without clothes on shifting back and forth or as a distraction, I can see why she would be sexualized. I’m less understanding of Kim’s neckline–that’s not the kind of relationship she has with Dresden–and I highly doubt that Murphy would dress quite so provocatively (even if she’s fairly conservative compared to the others). There’s never quite anything that would send the book into Vertigo territory (were this DC), but the shadows and foreground objects get quite a workout keeping this book PG-13.

CONTENT: Brief R-rated language. Some gory violence. No outright nudity, thanks to incredibly-convenient shadows or foreground objects, but so close it’s almost no difference. Also….Dresden’s a wizard. There’s gonna be magic. You’ve been warned.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Comics/Graphic Novels, Guest Posts, Reviews

Review: “The Blood Of Titans” by C. Michael Forsyth

Title: The Blood Of Titans
Author: C. Michael Forsyth
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Freedom’s Hammer, 2013

Meh. I’ve commented before that sometimes these Goodreads giveaways sneak up on you–there have been quite a few where I have to scratch my head and wonder why I ever entered the giveaway for that particular title. There’s even been a couple where I’ve been notified that I won, but have no memory of signing up! Clearly I need to be more careful, and have been putting an effort into doing so. At least in this case I do remember clicking that fateful link, though I can’t recall why. This isn’t my usual fare. As such, my opinion of it was perhaps lower than many others would be. It wasn’t that it was bad, per se, and in fact when I would pick it up the pages flew by fairly quickly. The problem was simply that I had no motivation to pick it up. It would lay there by my bed, untouched for a week or longer before I picked it up once more. It wasn’t bad, it just didn’t really engage my interest. I’ll also admit to having a “bad taste in my mouth” (if you’ll pardon the expression) towards the book from the get-go. You see, when I received the book in the mail, it came with the following letter:

I hope you enjoy the novel. If you do, please take the time to post an Amazon Review and paste it on Goodreads as well – but only if you rank it 4 or 5 stars. And let your friends know about it on Facebook and Twitter.
If you don’t like it, well please be courteous and don’t post a review–simply pass it on to a friend!
Best wishes,
Mike

I’m sorry, but that’s not the deal. The whole point of the FirstReads program is to generate honest reviews for the books being publicized. To ask me to refrain from reviewing if I didn’t like the book? That’s just manipulative, and subverts the whole program. Not to mention that you only seem to “win” more giveaways after finishing and reviewing the ones you’ve already got, so….yeah, not going to be following those instructions. Not an option.

Our tale is set in ancient Africa, in a time of glorious kingdoms and stunning betrayals. The coastal kingdom of Kali has long thrived under the rule of it’s king, Babatunde The Good, but now their ancient enemy, the Zimbai people of the plains, stand ready to finally destroy them. Each of the king’s seven sons have fallen in battle, and now he is left with only is daughter Halima. With little choice in the matter, Babatunde has betrothed Halima to Olugbodi, the young king of the Snake People, formidable warriors in their own right, to cement an alliance against the Zimbai. But all is not as it seems….what follows is an adventure full of intrigue, romance, peril and betrayal.

Like I said, the book wasn’t bad. It flowed easily, was remarkably well constructed for what I believe is a self-published work, and (when I got around to picking it up) was a moderately-enjoyable tale. Others would probably rate it higher. It just wasn’t for me. Not being an expert on ancient Africa, I can’t speak to the accuracy of Mr. Forsyth’s research, but I will say that it certainly seemed plausible. By and large the characters were well-rounded, or at least showed hints of being even if the plot didn’t always allow them to display their different facets. Even the villain(s) were more subtle than the simple black hats that so many of us want to write, and for that I give Mr. Forsyth credit.

I did have a couple issues, of course, which I shall discuss below. Minor spoilers may occur, read at your own risk. Longtime readers know that I routinely do this even when I’ve otherwise given nothing but praise to a book, so please understand that there’s no ill will here. Had I gone hunting, I might have come up with more, but these are the ones that are still bugging me.

  • The character of Rashida seemed….inconsistent. Maybe even bipolar. When the plot demands that she hate Halima, she does. When it requires she defend Halima, she does. There is some justification for her behavior (jealousy, grief, or gratitude, depending on the scene), but on the whole I had trouble buying into the extremes of her behavior.
  • The alliance between Kali and the Snake People is explained and makes sense. The inclusion of Zimbai in their attack on the Abaka is not–it is randomly mentioned in passing, then never becomes relevant again and is never explained. Were Zimbai and the Snake People in cahoots the entire time? Did Olugbodi conquer the Zimbai completely in the short time Halima is away? We don’t know. And it doesn’t really matter, I suppose, but little things like that bug me.

CONTENT: No profanity that I can recall. Some violence, occasionally a bit gruesome. Some unexpectedly explicit sexual content.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Novels, Reviews

Review: “John Constantine, Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits” by Garth Ennis, Jamie Delano, William Simpson, Sean Philips, Steve Pugh, & Dave McKean

Title: Dangerous Habits
Writers: Jamie Delano & Garth Ennis
Artists: William Simpson, Sean Phillips, Steve Pugh, Dave McKean, Mark Pennington, Tom Sutton, Malcolm Jones III, Mark McKenna, Kim DeMulder, & Stan Woch
Series:  John Constantine, Hellblazer (Volume V, Issues #34-46)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Vertigo, 2013

I’d kind of prefer to review this one as two separate volumes, because midway through the book the entire production team changed. This is tied into a single collection largely for convenience, but its pretty much two separate stories. I was less a fan of the first half, which is where it lost a star, but the second half was probably the best bit of the series I’ve read to date. Remember the Constantine film with Keanu Reeves? Yeah, I know, you were trying not to. Sorry. Anyway, they pulled a significant number of the subplots for the film from this volume–specifically, Constantine’s fatal lung cancer. It was resolved a bit differently though….

We start the book with Jamie Delano firmly in the seat as writer, with a  rotating roster of artists. Following on after the events of The Family Man, Constantine’s in a rough place emotionally–he’s just killed a man, which is never easy, and to top it off his estranged father was one of the casualties. Catching up with Marj and Mercury, he tries to lose himself in their nomadic lifestyle, but only manages to pull Mercury into his nightmare flashback to his childhood. I wasn’t a huge fan of this three-issue arc, drawn by Sean Phillips. That wasn’t really Phillips’ fault, mind you, though I wasn’t a huge fan of his art either. It was more about the dark and depressing tone. I know, I know, it’s a horror book, what do I expect? I just didn’t like it. Sue me. Steve Pugh then takes over the pencil as we meet Martin, a sensitive young vegetarian, and his sadistic butcher of a father. Of course their paths are bound to cross with our protagonists, though this particular two-issue arc is more focused on Mercury than it is on Constantine. Again, not a huge fan of either the story or the art, at least a little because I wasn’t all that engaged. Martin was kind of pathetic, literally, and I happen to be pretty disdainful of the vegetarian propaganda that was most of this tale. Also, I’m pretty sure that the butcher in the tale needs to be arrested for a whole multitude of crimes, from domestic abuse to health code violations. Pugh continues to draw the first half of the next arc as Constantine attempts to explore his missing half, the Golden Boy, his twin brother who died with their mother in childbirth. The second issue, drawn by Dave McKean, gives us an alternate universe where the other twin lived. Far more successful than the John Constantine we know, he has managed to come out ahead in several of the same conflicts that our John only barely survived, even saving some of his friends along the way. Now he leads a pagan commune, their wise and beloved Magus, but even still he is haunted by the spirit of his lesser, sickly brother who died in the womb. The art of Dave McKean is a bit of an acquired taste, since it is so weird, and I’m not really a fan. I do have to admit that it fits the series well, however, and this tale seems to have achieved a legendary status among fans of the series.

Immediately following on (and with no real transition from that really strange ending) Garth Ennis takes over the writing chair, with Will Simpson picking up the pencil. So what do you do when you’ve just been handed the lead writing position on a well-revered title? Well, if you’re Garth Ennis you promptly try and kill the main character….Those thirty silk-cut cigarettes a day have finally caught up with our favorite anti-hero. He’s dying of lung cancer, and there’s not a thing he can do about it. Not a one of his magical tricks can save him. It’s far beyond his power, and there are very few beings he can turn to for help. Even fewer who would be willing to do anything…. This arc is hands-down my favorite so far. The first issue as Constantine tries to wrap his head around his own impending mortality is incredibly poignant, and the consistency of having a single artist (and a good one at that!) really helps the series in my opinion. I think my favorite bit was the second issue of the arc, though, as Constantine visits an old friend in Ireland and ends up having an ill-fated meeting with one of Hell’s rulers, the First of the Fallen. (I presume this is Satan, though I’m not sure how that jives with Lucifer from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, which are supposedly in the same universe.) There should be no surprise that Constantine manages to wiggle out of his predicament–the series ran until just a couple years ago, after all–but knowing that doesn’t detract at all from the impact of this story. I look forward to seeing what happens next as Ennis adjusts to his new job….

CONTENT: Some grotesque and gory violence. Some strong profanity, especially of the British variety. This time the sexual content was largely implied as opposed to explicit, but it was there nevertheless. Obviously there is quite a bit of occult content, as you would expect from this title.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Comics/Graphic Novels, Reviews