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Review: “Down The Dragon Hole,” by Morgon Newquist

Title: Down The Dragon Hole
Author: Morgon Newquist
Series: The School of Spells and War #1
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Silver Empire, 2016

If you’re looking for a quick, fun read, might I suggest giving Morgon Newquist’s Down the Dragon Hole a try? It’s not a full novel, clocking in at only about forty pages, but it’s definitely entertaining and I plan to read the other four novellas currently in existence. You can find it on Amazon for $2.99 as of this writing, or you can sign up to write a review through BookSprout and get a free ARC copy if that’s your thing. (EDIT: This was a limited-time offer, apparently. I missed the chance to read the next several of these for free.) It’s possible that the couple typos and errors in word choice I ran into are fixed in the Amazon version, but I can’t verify that one way or the other.

Alis is a librarian in the magical side of the legendary School of Spells and War. It’s a quiet existence, doing what she’s good at and not putting her in any undue danger of adventure…until the day she tries to make an idiot warrior stop standing on her shelves yelling about a dragon. Not that Cahan hurt her – he’s far too honorable for that, or for her liking. It’s just that he was right. Before Alis can finish reprimanding him, the wall explodes in dragonfire. Alis and Cahan find themselves trapped, with nowhere to go but out the new hole in the wall. Now Alis is trapped outside the school (which has gone into bunker-mode) with the idiotic warrior who she grudgingly has to admit is not at fault for the dragon’s arrival. That doesn’t mean she has to be happy about his company…but with nothing better to do, she agrees to help him solve the mystery of why a dragon from the age of myth is suddenly flying around the countryside. Unfortunately, the dragon isn’t the only magical monster to return from the depths of myth…

This first entry in the series isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it doesn’t have to be. The world the author creates here is as of yet a fairly generic fantasy world – there’s magic, but for some reason magical creatures have largely been relegated to the days of old…until now. Then there’s the school, old enough that it was the only school around when it was founded, not really needing a name and so now just referred to as the School of Spells and War. Bit of a trope, but these things are tropes for a reason. The noble warrior Cahan and the timid but surprisingly brave and capable wizard-librarian Alis are not at all static characters, as Alis especially evolves and comes out of her shell over the course of the story, but they are straight out of central casting. The dragon is pretty standard, though the Formless are less common. Maybe a D&D thing? I haven’t had the chance to explore that the way I’d like. Are all these stock elements a problem? Not for me. I expect to get to know these characters a bit more in the future chapters of their story, and like I said, tropes serve a definite purpose. I enjoyed this little romp, and I can’t wait to revisit this world.

CONTENT: No profanity that I can remember. Mild violence and peril. Mild sexual innuendo (Alis announces that she’s not having sex with Cahan immediately before agreeing to help him figure out what’s going on, for example). And in case you didn’t pick up on this, there’s magic of the standard fantasy variety, nothing remotely resembling the occult.

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Review: “Altered Carbon,” by Richard K. Morgan

Title: Altered Carbon
Author: Richard K. Morgan
Series: Takeshi Kovacs #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Del Rey, 2003

This is probably the most interesting idea for a science fiction story that I’ve encountered in quite a while, and if you can handle all the grimy, squalid detail of this cyberpunk masterpiece, I heartily recommend it. On the other hand, this is pretty solidly in the noir category, so if the staples of that genre are going to put you off, maybe give this one a miss. And yes, I did go find a copy of this as a result of seeing trailers for the Netflix series. I’d never heard of it before! Not sure how that happened, but I’ve rectified it now.

By the twenty-fifth century, mankind has conquered death. Everyone on Earth is implanted with a cortical stack, a small disk at the base of your skull that stores everything that makes you…well, you. Your memories. Your consciousness. You. You die, they download your stack and stick you in a new “sleeve” or body…if you can afford it. Most can, at least once, but aging takes a toll. At the end of the day, most people refrain from more than a couple lifetimes. There are, of course, exceptions. The truly rich can afford to clone themselves and keep a small stock on hand for emergencies, complete with a period off-site stack backup in case of catastrophe. These fortunate few are referred to as Methuselahs or “Meths” by the masses, after the biblical figure who lived nine hundred and sixty-nine years, and most view them as slightly inhuman. To be sure, watching a few centuries of history march by does give most of them a slightly different take on the world and society – they tend to disregard the “little people” even more than the rich and powerful here in the twenty-first.  Of course, this societal revolution has impacted literally every element of the world. Travel? Beam yourself across the stars instantly and have them sleeve you in a new body halfway across the galaxy. Or across the globe, if you’re really impatient. Prison? Nope. Criminals are simply stuck on the shelf for the length of their sentence, their bodies sold off as bargain sleeves unless a loved one can pay to keep it mortgaged. Your sentence is over, you get resleeved into whatever is available. You went in as a twenty-year-old black man? You might come out a middle-aged white guy, or vice versa. Murder isn’t as much a thing, since “you” are your stack, not your body, and thus far more durable. Cases of “real death” do occur, but mostly it’s “organic damage” and the victim can be resleeved in time to testify about their own attempted murder.

This is the world of Takeshi Kovacs. Once a crack UN Envoy, specially trained to be sent all over human space to fight minor wars, now Kovacs is a mercenary and a criminal for hire on the fringes of the Protectorate. After dying in a hail of gunfire on Harlan’s World, Kovacs understandably expects to be on ice for a century or two. Instead, he finds himself resleeved on Earth. It seems a Meth, Laurens Bancroft, blew his own brains out a couple weeks ago…or at least that’s what the police report says. Bancroft, now in a new sleeve, doesn’t believe it. He doesn’t remember the night in question, but he’s pretty sure he wouldn’t try to kill himself, and if he did want to kill himself, he’d have done it right so he couldn’t be resleeved. If Kovacs manages to figure out who actually had Bancroft killed, he’s a free man in a designer sleeve on whatever world in the Protectorate he desires. If he fails…well, that’s not a good idea. Kovacs might be inclined to take the police at their word – every single piece of evidence points to Bancroft vaporizing his own head – if not for their stubborn resentment of his presence. Not to mention the hitman who knows his name and (new) face on a world he’s never visited in his life. Someone doesn’t want Kovacs to find out the truth, which means that there’s truth to find. Tipping him off to that fact was their first mistake. Pissing him off was their second. They may not get a third….

As I said before, this book was superbly executed. The worldbuilding is spot-on, and I can’t think of a single arena where Morgan didn’t think through the implications of the tech he was unleashing on his fictional world. There are throwaway lines left and right that hint at a larger world and history at play here, and I want to explore them all! I wasn’t a huge fan of the religious subtext, though. Morgan is pretty anti-religion here, especially Catholicism. The Catholic church has decided that your soul cannot be separated from your body, and so resleeving yourself is forbidden. And since there’s no special provision for an alternative punishment, Catholics that are sentenced to any time in storage – even a week – are as good as dead. Reasonable bit of extrapolation there, given real-world trends in Catholic doctrine, but Morgan (through Kovacs) is really vitriolic on the subject. It’s also a huge plot point, as Catholics make perfect targets – they can’t be resleeved to testify at trial, so you’re likely to get away with whatever crime you commit against them. Thus, there are several brothels that unofficially only hire Catholic girls in case they have to make them disappear. (No word on how prostitution can be made to square with their beliefs.) Protestants aren’t mentioned, though I think that debate within my branch of the church would grow rather heated as well. Muslims don’t come off well either, especially in Kovacs’ flashbacks to the fighting on an Islamic world, Sharya.

CONTENT: Strong R-rated profanity throughout. Graphic violence, including virtual torture where a character is downloaded into a mainframe, in a simulated female sleeve, and repeatedly raped, beaten, and mutilated to death, only to have the system reset. This isn’t described in great detail, but is pretty disturbing nevertheless. Graphic sexual content, including the torture scene described above. Some pretty heavy drug and alcohol use – fictional drugs, not describing the effects of anything that actually exists (to my knowledge), but still. Bottom line: not for kids or the faint of heart.

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Review: Frank Miller’s “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns”

Title: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
Writer: Frank Miller
Artists: Frank Miller (pencils) & Klaus Janson (ink)
Series: Batman: The Dark Knight Saga Vol. I
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: DC Comics, 1986

Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is a masterpiece, though an imperfect one. The book regularly appears on or even tops lists of the most influential comics of all time, and has strongly impacted the on-screen portrayal of the titular Dark Knight ever since its publication in 1986. Along with Alan Moore’s Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns helped usher in a new era of gritty, dark comics across the board, and helped distance the character of Batman from the lingering memories of Adam West.* It’s a seminal piece of comic book history, a must-read for any fan of the Dark Knight, and one of the best Batman stories ever written. All that said, it’s not perfect. While some elements of the story transcend the cultural milieu in which it was written or are even ahead of their time, others are incredibly dated. The plot is a bit unfocused and lacks a central antagonist, even while being an interesting character study of Batman and his supporting cast. The art…is a complicated issue I’ll get into more below.

The setting: 1986. It’s been ten years since the last sighting of the Batman, and the age of heroes is over. Superman has put away his cape and accepted a position working for the government in exchange for their ignoring his retired former compatriots as long as they keep their heads down and don’t draw attention to themselves. Martian Manhunter runs a bar. Oliver Queen turned communist and is presumed dead. Wonder Woman went back to Themyscira. Commissioner Gordon is about to retire, finally ending his never-ending battle against corruption in the GCPD. Crime across the city is rampant, and the Mutant gang rules the streets. On the world stage, the United States and the USSR are locked into the Mexican standoff of the Cold War, which is heating up as both players find themselves supporting opposing sides of a revolution on the island of Corto Maltese. Having hung up his cowl in the wake of Jason Todd’s gruesome end at the hands of the Joker, Bruce Wayne has been using alcohol to manage his emotional trauma and help him sleep, but the growing violence on the streets of his city grows to be too much to bear. He’s rusty, he’s not as young as he used to be, but he’s still the Batman. Nevertheless, he’s going to have his hands full with the likes of a not-so-reformed Harvey Dent, the Joker, and the Mutants gang…not to mention the U.S. government, which isn’t as tolerant of vigilantism as it once was, and now has the abilities of Agent Kent to deploy. Even in the face of all these obstacles, however, one thing remains true: the Batman is incapable of backing down from a challenge…even if it kills him.

First, the writing. As I mentioned, this is probably the single most influential Batman story ever written, and for one very good reason: Miller’s characterization of Batman. Miller took Batman back to his roots: a damaged man out to exorcise his demons and save his city at the same time, mostly by inflicting pain on those who would hurt the innocent. He’s older now and has to learn to fight smarter than when he was young, but he’s still Batman. Miller’s Batman is cold, relentless, a soldier fighting a war that he knows he can never win. His only goal is to hold the darkness at bay until a new generation can take up the fight – and he has a couple ideas about that, too. The characterization of Commissioner Gordon is also a strong point, painting a complex picture of a man who has faced an incredible dilemma his entire career in Gotham: to watch the city entrusted to his protection descend into (worsening) corruption and vice, becoming a haven for evil, or to endorse and enable a vigilante who operates outside the law, committing assault and battery left and right, punishing crime without even a hint of due process. Ellen Yindel, Gordon’s successor, will have to decide how to face that same dilemma. Miller also gives Gordon credit for being remotely observant: he’s only been pretending not to know Batman’s identity all these years. Fans of Superman will be less thrilled, however, as the Man of Steel’s characteristic optimism is here transfigured into fatalism regarding humanity’s view of heroes and naivety regarding his role on the world stage. It’s not exactly a negative portrayal, per se, but neither is it positive. Miller also interjects more animosity and disdain into the relationship between these two titans than do most of their incarnations. Superman believes Batman to be pigheaded and stubborn, and that his return will cause humanity to rise up and destroy those they once called heroes. Batman thinks Superman a fool who has allowed world events to reach a crisis point. Neither is entirely wrong, and that nuance is one of the strengths of the book. Other characters are not as strongly written. New Robin Carrie Kelly is not given much of a motivation for turning caped-hero, aside from the fact that Batman saves her life and she needs a father figure. The psychologist treating Harvey Dent and the Joker is a caricature of bleeding-heart liberals that blame everyone but the perpetrators for crimes, arguing at one point that Batman is the true perpetrator every crime committed by his enemies because he created them by his very existence. Contrasting this narrative is that of the various ultra-right-wing commentators that argue Batman isn’t going far enough and the gangs of reformed Mutants calling themselves the “Sons of Batman” and murdering criminals wherever they can be found. Neither characterization is subtle, but Miller uses both voices to discuss the issue of vigilantism with a level of nuance not often seen in the comics. Then you have Bruno**, a neo-Nazi thug who wears swastikas on her breasts in lieu of a shirt and where she has cut the rear out of her pants. You don’t get much more of a caricature than that. Former Robin Dick Grayson doesn’t feature here but is nevertheless mentioned briefly in a conversation between Gordon and Bruce where it is revealed that Wayne is not on speaking terms with his former protege. In contrast to the generally strong characterization, the plot is a bit unfocused. There’s no central antagonist, for one thing. Batman battles Harvey Dent and the Joker immediately after his return, fights the leader of the Mutant gang later in the story, and then battles Superman in the climax. There’s not much of an over-arching narrative, aside from Batman’s return and the powder keg that it ignites, and the book is arguably poorer for it. The social commentary is similarly all over the map. Miller explores the issue of vigilantism, and that’s a timeless debate, but a lot of his other political agenda is incredibly dated. His portrayal of Ronald Reagan is not flattering, though it can also be said that his portrayal of every politician, real or fictional, is equally negative. Miller’s Gotham has interesting hints of his future work with Sin City, minus (most of) the sex, and that’s an interesting take on things that you don’t typically see. Is Gotham an early form of Miller’s Basin City, or is Basin City what Gotham would turn into without the Batman? Given that Miller is (deservedly) in disfavor these days, due to his more modern output, I doubt this is a question that will be answered.

Finally, we have the art. A decade ago I would have told you that I simply didn’t like Frank Miller’s art across the board, but today I have to admit that it’s not that simple. Frank Miller has a specific style that serves him well in things like Sin City, where he can really lean into it and play with monotone and shadows, but when applied to a Batman comic falls a bit flat for me. It’s not that the art here is bad, but I also can’t say that it’s good. Sure, there are a few iconic moments that stand out – the image of Batman back in action for the first time in a decade, silhouetted against a bolt of lightning is iconic, and has been imitated countless times since – but on the whole the word that is best suggested by the art in this book is “mediocre.” I’m not a fan, but that is a minority opinion. Apparently, the “Millerness” of the artwork here is toned down by having Klaus Janson ink Miller’s pencils and moderate his stylization, a collaboration that, based on the sequel to this book where it was lacking, was sorely needed.

CONTENT: PG-grade language. Some fairly strong violence, PG-13 depicted “on-page,” with stronger instances happening just “off-panel.” Moderate sexual content, including the character of Bruno (mentioned above), Catwoman running an escort service (complete with politician customers), and a character clearly intended to be Dr. Ruth (though that might be lost on anyone too young to actually remember the 80s). While the book flirts with nudity in a couple places, saved from crossing that line by shadows*** or Bruno’s swastikas, the quality of the art keeps this from being at all appealing. This is not really a book for younger readers, even as the actual content may not prove traumatic, as most of what Miller is trying to do would be lost on them.

*Though I for one LOVE the zaniness of the 60s Batman television series, the effect it had on the comics was deeply unfortunate. Batman…is not supposed to be jolly. That’s all I’m saying.
**I swear that my younger, more innocent self didn’t get the significance of her name (or several of the comments made about her) when I first read this over a decade ago. Now I feel dumb.
***A common comic trick for keeping things PG, not unique to Frank Miller’s writing, though readers of Sin City will agree that he leans into it quite heavily.

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Review: “The Ice Dragon,” by George R.R. Martin

Title: The Ice Dragon
Author: George R.R. Martin
Series: A Song of Ice & Fire….kind of.
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: TOR, 2014 (originally 1980)

The Ice Dragon was originally published in 1980 as a short story and later reworked into a short novella for younger readers. Does it tie into Martin’s magnum opus, A Song of Ice and Fire (better known to some by the title of the first book and HBO series, A Game of Thrones)? That depends on who you ask. The book jacket says yes, in an obvious attempt to boost sales. Martin says no, and that ASoIaF wasn’t even a thing yet when this was written.  If you read it, you can easily tell that this is at best tangentially connected to Martin’s more famous work–there are thematic connections, but it bears little resemblance to any of the recorded history of Westeros and Essos, nor to most of the mythology mentioned therein. Could it take place in the pre-history of Valyria? Sure. It could describe the early days of that empire, forgotten by the time of ASoIaF, but there is little to suggest that beyond the thematic connections and, obviously, the dragons. Even the titular ice dragon is different from what audiences reportedly saw last season on the show. So officially, it’s not a part of the ASoIaF canon, but if you want to make it part of your headcanon, go ahead. Be my guest.

Adara is a winter child, born during the deepest freeze anyone can remember, and is always happiest when the land is in winter’s icy grip. She’s a cold child, both physically and emotionally, able to handle the small ice lizards that come during the winter without melting them as her playmates are wont to accidentally do. But what no one else knows is that Adara also has a dragon. Not the smallish, green fire dragons that the Empire’s men ride into battle, no–those terrify young Adara. Adara’s dragon is the legendary ice dragon feared by her entire village. It’s been seen in the sky each year since she was four, and each year the winter comes earlier, freezes harder, and lasts longer. Adara loves her dragon, loves riding it through the sky, the frigid wind in her face. But now it is summer, and her dragon is nowhere to be seen. Now it is summer, and the war in the north is not going well for the Empire. Imperial Dragonriders have been retreating in the face of their enemies, but Adara’s father refuses to leave their farm….until enemy Dragonriders show up and capture Adara’s family. Now only Adara is left to defend her home….but how can she do that in the middle of summer?

This is a quick read, and surprisingly nuanced for a children’s book. Martin weaves a complex tale of love and sacrifice that is fit for children, yet appeals to adults as well. And to top it off, Luis Royo’s artwork is superb. Most of it is uncolored line art, but even that is beautiful. See below for the full version of the cover art. This feels like the kind of story Old Nan would tell to the young Stark children at Winterfell, yet as I mentioned above the history described therein is not consistent with Westeros. Maybe early Valyria, if they ever faced an enemy that also rode dragons…

CONTENT: No profanity or sexual content whatsoever. Some violence, not gory, but neither is it sugarcoated. When dragons battle, people burn.

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Review: “The Name of the Wind,” by Patrick Rothfuss

Title: The Name of the Wind
Author: Patrick Rothfuss
Series: The Kingkiller Chronicle #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: DAW, 2008

Somewhere, in a small village in the middle of a land burning with the fires of revolution, there is an inn. The innkeeper is a massive man, with hair red as flame, but most of the time he seems remarkably unremarkable. A relative newcomer to this tiny village, an outsider, but otherwise not worth particular notice. Except…every so often, when he forgets himself or thinks no one is watching, his eyes light with an inner fire that seems it could set the world ablaze. The name he gives his new neighbors is Kote, but he was born Kvothe, one of the Edema Ruh, and that name is spoken in whispers across the land. Kvothe the Bloodless, they say. Slayer of dragons. Musician without compare. Kingkiller. Come listen in, as Kvothe tells the long and twisting tale of his life and adventures….

Beautiful prose, an interesting world, and a complicated hero combine to make this an excellent read. It’s massive and arguably a bit rambling, but well worth the effort. Rothfuss weaves a web where even the smallest detail could have dire implications for later events, as Kvothe is recalling things with the 20/20 vision granted by hindsight and the narrative flair of his Ruh heritage. There are secrets here, and mysteries, but you’ll have to work for most of them. Some would argue that Kvothe, the young man of the main tale, is perhaps a bit too precocious for belief, but this offers an interesting contrast to the broken failure of a man he sees himself as in the frame tale. I very much look forward to continuing this series and finding out how that change was affected, even as I know that the third book is notoriously overdue…

CONTENT: Probably some R-rated language, but I honestly don’t remember any. PG-13, for sure. Definitely some violence, ranging from the fairly dark and a bit disturbing to harmless mischief. Some sexual innuendo, but nothing explicit yet. Later books? Not sure. Mild fictional drug content. There’s definitely magic and talk of demons, but it’s not occultic. The magic is part of the fabric of creation, and the demons are superstitious interpretations of monsters from the land of the Fae…which doesn’t do much to comfort those slain by them, to be sure.

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Mini-Review: “The Magicians” by Lev Grossman

Title: The Magicians
Author: Lev Grossman
Series: The Magicians #1
Rating: **
Publisher/Copyright: Viking, 2009

Premise: Quentin Coldwater is a brilliant but bored high school senior, dissatisfied with the world he sees around him and longing for something to give life meaning. School offers meager challenges, the girl he crushes on is instead attached to his best “friend,” and his only real escape is the “Fillory and Further” series of children’s novels. Then, on the day he was to interview for admission to Princeton, he finds himself inadvertently competing for a place at Brakebills College of Magical Pedagogy, the only magical university in North America. Magic is real, you can study it, and those Fillory novels? True stories, as told to and distorted by their pedophilic, alcoholic author by his neighbor children. Soon Quentin has new friends and a new place to belong. Surely magic will make him happy….right? Huh. Nope. Alcohol, sex, drugs? Drat. Well, maybe if we found our way into Fillory….

Pro: A realistically-imagined exploration of what it would be like to actually have magical abilities, to do whatever you could possibly want with nearly no restrictions. There’s no Voldemort threatening the world to struggle against, no higher purpose to serve. This ain’t no fairy tale, folks. This is life.

Con: Life sucks. The story is very bleak, as the protagonists search for meaning in all the wrong places. I’d like to believe I’d not turn out as jaded as Quentin, but I see a lot of my own potential weaknesses in his character. I identified with him (usually – there were times he took it too far) but really didn’t much like him. Other characters too, to varying degrees.

Pro/Con: The world presented here is interesting, but it is lacking the sense of fun that usually comes with reading genre fiction. With good reason – “The Magicians” uses all the genre tropes, but it’s LITERATURE, thank you very much. Look how bleak it is! (I’m on record as being disdainful of all literary pretension, even preferring genre to the hoity-toity capital-L-Literature, but whatever floats your boat.) In other words, I appreciate its existence without being overly fond of the actual product.

TL,DR: Interesting but bleak, Harry Potter and Narnia for an adult, jaded audience who finds life meaningless and wants their fictional characters to inhabit that same headspace. Will I read the rest of the trilogy? Probably. After I read some Star Wars, Jim Butcher, and S.M. Stirling to clear my palate.

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Review: “Assassin’s Creed Vol. I – Trial By Fire” by Anthony Del Col, Conor McCreery, & Neil Edwards

Title: Trial By Fire
Writers: Anthony Del Col & Conor McCreery
Artist: Neil Edwards
Series: Assassin’s Creed Vol. I (Issues #1-5)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Titan Comics, 2016

The Assassin’s Creed franchise chronicles the never-ending struggle between the power-hungry Order in all its forms, from the Templars to the mega-corporation Abstergo, and their sworn enemies the Brotherhood of Assassins. The games have allowed players to explore such rich environs as Renaissance Italy, France and America during their respective Revolutions, even the Holy Land during the Crusades. Now the first volume of Titan Comics’ new ongoing series adds a new setting: Salem, Massachusetts, during that village’s infamous witch scare.

Charlotte De La Cruz is living the dream—a useless degree and a dead-end job as a teller for the same bank that holds her mountain of student debt. Her only escape is playing Abstergo’s popular VR game Helix, which allows players to reenact the “fictional” battles between the heroic Templars and the dastardly Assassins…until that battle finds its way into her apartment. Before she can blink, Charlotte finds herself living the adventures of her ancestor Tom Stoddard in a quest for a powerful relic, racing to warn her new friends before they unwittingly walk into a deadly trap.

I enjoyed this, personally, but as a reviewer I have a couple caveats. On the one hand, this was definitely an interesting story and a valuable addition to the Assassin’s Creed mythos. If you’re a fan, you’ll enjoy this. On the other hand, if you are unfamiliar with the franchise you may find yourself lost. Also, this is just the first act of a larger story, not a standalone tale. The ending is less ending and more transition to the next chapter. The writing and art were solid, while the history showed the Assassin’s Creed team’s usual levels of both research and editing. Bottom line: if you enjoyed the adventures of Altair and Ezio* you’ll enjoy this.

CONTENT: Strong, bloody violence, occasionally disturbing. PG-13 profanity. Mild sexual innuendo.

*I’m still all the way back in Assassin’s Creed II, so I’m not too solid on the later characters.

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