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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: “John Constantine, Hellblazer: Bloodlines” by Garth Ennis, John Smith, William Simpson, Steve Dillon, Sean Phillips, David Lloyd, & Mike Hoffman

Title: Bloodlines
Writers: Garth Ennis & John Smith
Artists: Will Simpson, Steve Dillon, Sean Phillips, David Lloyd, Mike Hoffman, Mike Barreiro, Kim DeMulder, & Stan Woch
Series:  John Constantine, Hellblazer (Volume VI, Issues #47-61)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Vertigo, 2013

Ummm….yeah, I have no idea what’s up with that cover. It appears to be Constantine standing over a demon he’s beaten to death with a crucifix. Just so we’re clear, that never happened here. Which is kind of a shame, now that I think about it….This is mostly a patchwork anthology, one-offs and shorter story arcs. Most of them were good, a couple not so much.

When last we left our antiheroic mage, he’d just conned the three princes of Hell into healing his fatal lung cancer lest they be forced to go to war over his soul. Needless to say, they’re not too happy about being outwitted by a mortal…. Constantine’s going to have to get back in the saddle pretty quickly, though, as the magical catastrophes aren’t taking a break. First up, its stopping a pair of poltergeists after an insurance scam turns deadly. Will Simpson’s art is great in part one (The Pub Where I Was Born), but I wasn’t a fan of Mike Hoffman’s in the second half (Love Kills). Next Constantine explores the “real” meaning of Christmas (i.e. getting hammered and laid, possibly but not necessarily in that order) in Lord Of The Dance. It is alleged that the titular song (“Dance, then, wherever you may be….”) was not originally about Christ but about a pagan spirit of revelry, who was in effect neutered by the coming of Christianity to the British Isles. Steve Dillon’s art was good, and I managed to be (mostly) unoffended by the slurs against my own worldview. It’s par for the course when reading certain series…. A couple days later in Remarkable Lives, Constantine is summoned in the middle of the night to a darkened park where he finds none other than the King of the Vampires trying to recruit him. Obviously, that goes real well…. Will Simpson once again handles the art, and does an excellent job of it for the most part. This is followed by the only story in the book that I actually disliked, Counting To Ten. John Smith serves as guest writer, while Sean Phillips handles the pencils. Honestly, I’m not sure I get this story even on a second read-through. Something with a dead woman who isn’t dead, and a friend of Constantine’s in need of an exorcism. There’s no tie-in to anything else, no payoff or fallout from the events therein described. I’m gonna try and pretend it never happened…. Next up we get the closest thing to a main story this volume offers, the four-part arc Royal Blood. In London, the Caligula Club caters to the every twisted, perverted whim of the rich and famous, from bloody cocktails to catfights all the way to matters of the occult. Last night they summoned up the demon responsible for the Ripper killings, and it possessed the heir to the throne. Now  they’re loose on the streets of London, and the body count is rising….Will Simpson’s art is excellent, if morbid, and I have to wonder if Ennis consulted Alan Moore about using the plot of From Hell as backstory. This Is The Diary Of Danny Drake was a particularly disturbing tale, drawn by the legendary David Lloyd, featuring a man being haunted by his diary. Yeah, you read that right. It makes sense in the story, kind of. Mortal Clay/Body And Soul features Steve Dillon back on the artwork, this time exploring a shady munitions testing firm that’s graverobbing to help provide test corpses. Problem is, they’ve made off with the corpse of Chas’s uncle, and that’s got Constantine after them…. The two-part tale Guys And Dolls sees the First Of The Fallen put in place the first elements of his latest scheme to lay low our favorite antihero, this time using a young succubus of Constantine’s acquaintance. Trouble is, Chantinelle has no interest in revealing just how she met Constantine, as that conversation would go very poorly for all involved. Seems she’d fallen in love with an angel a few years back, and Constantine managed to save her skin. But can he do it again? Find out in She’s Buying A Stairway To Heaven! I look forward to seeing what happens next as Constantine readies for war with Hell once more….

CONTENT: PG-13 grade profanity, missing R-rated by the strategic placement of word bubbles. Some moderately explicit sexual content and nudity, including a shot of Constantine’s ass as he uses a urinal. We all needed to see that…. Strong, gory violence, frequently disturbing. Strong occult content, par for the course in this series.

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Review: “Hellboy Vol. VII: The Troll Witch And Others” by Mike Mignola, P. Craig Russell, & Richard Corben

Title: The Troll Witch And Others
Writer & Artist: Mike Mignola
Additional Artists: P. Craig Russell & Richard Corben
Series: Hellboy
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Dark Horse Comics, 2007

That figures. I stated in my last Hellboy review that I couldn’t wait for the next volume to figure out where the story was going, and so of course the next collection was an anthology. Oh well, I like those best anyways….While he still handles most of the art, this time out, Mignola collaborates with a couple guest artists for special occasion stories.

We open in Malaysia, 1958 as Hellboy investigates a local creature known as The Penanggalan, a demon born when an old priestess accidentally kicked her own head off. (“That might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” “I did not say it was true, only that I believe it.”) A short, predictable, and delightfully strange tale. We then move on to Alaska, 1961 as Hellboy investigates claims of a monster haunting the grave of Hercules in The Hydra And The Lion. Mignola is the first to admit that this one doesn’t make a lot of sense, but in Hellboy’s world that really doesn’t matter too much. The Troll Witch takes us to Norway, 1963 as Hellboy investigates a series of horrific murders. This has the distinction of being one of the only stories where Hellboy doesn’t get to punch something, which leads to a bit of a subversion of your expectations. The Vampire Of Prague is set in 1982 and is Mignola’s first time writing for P. Craig Russell. This is some good stuff. I especially enjoyed the part where the vampire is chasing his own severed head down the street…. Dr. Carp’s Experiment takes us to New York, 1991 as Hellboy and the BPRD investigate a newly-discovered secret chamber in a notorious haunted house. This one was good, I always love a good time travel story. The Ghoul is set in London, 1992, and is one of the strangest Hellboy tales I’ve seen. It features our favorite demonic hero beating the crap out of a ghoul who speaks solely in creepy poetry, and a puppet theatre production of Hamlet. Makoma is another weird one, this time a collaboration with Richard Corben. Mignola draws the framing story set in 1993, while Corben draws the legend being narrated. I’m not entirely sure how to understand this one, but it seems to be about Hellboy in a past life. Sort of a “Wheel of Time” thing where everything repeats throughout time. If so, it sheds some light on Hellboy’s eventual battle with the Ogdru Jahad….

Content: Minor language, some stylized violence and gore. Mild sexual content, and some non-sexual nudity. A fair amount of occult content, however. In Hellboy’s world, everything supernatural would seem to exist in….well, not harmony, but a unified worldview. This includes the Christian God and the Devil as well as more Lovecraftian things such as the Ogdru Jahad. God and the Church have power, but there are other things abroad in the world that have power as well and were old long before Christ was born in his manger. Hellboy is brought to Earth from another plane–implied to be Hell–in a dark ritual performed by Grigori Rasputin. He later tries to use Hellboy as the focus of another ritual to free the Ogdru Jahad (similar to H.P. Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones) and bring an end to the world as we know it. One of the short tales implies that Hellboy himself is the son of the Devil and a mortal witch. Ghosts, vampires….the Beast of the Apocalypse…..

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Review: “Midnight In The Garden Centre Of Good And Evil” by Colin Sinclair

Title: Midnight In The Garden Centre Of Good And Evil
Author: Colin Sinclair
Series: Invaders From Beyond
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Solaris, 2015

This is not how it was supposed to work. A couple months ago, Miller was knee-deep in a graduate degree studying agricultural science. Now, after a bender left him and his future father-in-law’s car upside down in a lake, he finds himself without a fiancé and cut off by his parents to find his own way in the world, working a dead-end job at a garden centre in the middle of nowhere alongside an eclectic crew of fellow misfits. Then just as Miller adjusts to his new life, starts to think the future might not be so bleak after all, that’s when the aliens show up….

Midnight In The Garden Centre Of Good And Evil is a very British book in its language and vocabulary. That’s not a bad thing, to my mind, but is something to know going in. Not everyone watches as much Sherlock and Doctor Who as I do. Equal parts comedy and horror, the book demands comparison with Shaun Of The Dead, possibly crossed with Kevin Smith’s Clerks (I can’t say for sure, not having seen that one). It’s a quick read, and I managed most of it at a single sitting–the last two-thirds, to be precise. While not bad, it didn’t really suck me in until that point. The only real complaint I had with the book is how much information is left obscure, lost between the lines. While Brackett’s establishment is undeniably shady, it took most of the book for me to connect the various offhand hints and realize that its real income is dependent on the marijuana being grown in the basement tunnels. (Admittedly, this may have had something to do with my own lack of experience with that particular plant beyond the requisite stoner characters in various films.) Plus, you never do find out Miller’s first name so far as I can find looking back. It’s not a big deal, given the first-person narration, but serves to illustrate my point. Anyway, if you’re looking for an irreverent comedy-horror combo, this just might be the book for you.

CONTENT: R-rated profanity. Strong horror violence, occasionally gruesome. Moderate sexual innuendo, mostly in the form of crude jokes made by one or more of Miller’s coworkers.

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Review: “Magic Brew” by T. Rae Mitchell

Title: Magic Brew
Author: T. Rae Mitchell
Series: The Edge Chronicles
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Original Mix Media, 2015

Alright, let’s get one thing out of the way up front. Yes, this is an Urban Fantasy version of The Warriors. If you can’t get past that idea, this book isn’t for you. Everyone else, you’re in for a treat.

Even in a city overrun with supernatural creatures, Edge is special. While elves, demons, vampires, were-whatevers and the Fae are a dime a dozen, Edge is the only Djinn in New York City. Well, half-Djinn anyway, which means the Forsaken are the only family he knows. The Forsaken take in the rejects and the half-breeds of the city, those not good enough for the purebloods that run the other gangs. They have power beyond imagining, but also their share of weaknesses—both physical and emotional. And when they are betrayed by the one man they’ve trusted above all others and lured into a trap, the journey back to their home turf may be the death of every last ­­one of them….

Like I said, this one was a pleasure. The world created here is imaginative and engaging enough to make it well worth overlooking the recycled plot, and every single character you meet is a fully-rendered person with their own personality, strengths, weaknesses, and desires. There’s Edge, obviously, half Djinn and half mystery, reeling from having his entire world pulled down around his ears. There’s Pandora, Nyx and India, three half-pixie sisters dealing with the effects of their other halves. Pandora is half Chaos demon, killing anyone who hears her voice. India is half succubus, driving everyone who enters her bar mad with desire just by looking at them. And Nyx is half Shadow elf, able to disappear and move unseen through shadows. Then you have Justice, half cherub and half Chinese Mogwai demon. I know, I thought the same thing….”You mean an angel came down here and ****ed that creature from Gremlins?” Turns out Mogwai is a generic Chinese word for demon, so that makes more sense. Less funny though. You care about every one of them. This matters, because as the body count climbs you feel each casualty as acutely as the survivors. Bottom line: if you’re a fan of Urban Fantasy (or The Warriors, for that matter) I cannot recommend this highly enough.

CONTENT: Strong violence. Some R-rated language. Strong sexual innuendo. Various occultic topics such as demons and magic, handled as fantasy.

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Review: “Hellboy Vol. VI: Strange Places” by Mike Mignola

Title: Strange Places
Writer & Artist: Mike Mignola
Series: Hellboy
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Dark Horse Comics, 2006

“Don’t mess with me, lady. I’ve been drinking with skeletons.”

Seriously, how many characters do you know who could deliver that line in all seriousness? Pretty much just Hellboy, which goes quite a ways towards explaining his appeal. The entire series is so….over the top, ridiculous, ambitious….not really sure of the best word to sum it up, but you have to admit it’s pretty great. This time around in The Third Wish, Hellboy is pitted against the Bog Roosh, an undersea witch who wishes to save the world….by ending Hellboy once and for all. Sure, Hellboy has rejected his birthright as Anung Un Rama, the Right Hand Of Doom and devoted his life to saving the world, but so long as he exists someone could use the power of his hand to loose the Ogdru Jahad and burn the world. The Bog Roosh would end this threat once and for all. Then, in The Island Hellboy washes up on a forsaken island and is given a lesson in the origins of the world and all things that culminates in his death. Kind of. Maybe. Guess we’ll have to wait for the next book to see how that works out.

I won’t pretend that I understood everything that happened here, but I don’t think you’re meant to. Mignola is giving you an inside look at the creation of his world, true, but what is left out is as relevant as what is shown. We’ll see where the path Hellboy is set upon leads, I suppose. The book is filled with scattered moments of Hellboy being delightfully himself, and that is most definitely worth the rest of what is undoubtedly one of the darker entries in this series so far.

Content: Minor language, some stylized violence and gore. Little to no sexual content. A fair amount of occult content, however. In Hellboy’s world, everything supernatural would seem to exist in….well, not harmony, but a unified worldview. This includes the Christian God and the Devil as well as more Lovecraftian things such as the Ogdru Jahad. God and the Church have power, but there are other things abroad in the world that have power as well and were old long before Christ was born in his manger. Hellboy is brought to Earth from another plane–implied to be Hell–in a dark ritual performed by Grigori Rasputin. He later tries to use Hellboy as the focus of another ritual to free the Ogdru Jahad (similar to H.P. Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones) and bring an end to the world as we know it. One of the short tales implies that Hellboy himself is the son of the Devil and a mortal witch. Ghosts, vampires….the Beast of the Apocalypse…..

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Review: “Deadlands: Ghostwalkers” by Jonathan Maberry

Title: Ghostwalkers
Author: Jonathan Maberry
Series: Deadlands
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: TOR, 2015

Much to my chagrin, I’m not all that deeply embedded in the world of RPGs. The interest is there, but traditionally there’s been a shortage of people willing to follow me down the rabbit hole. I recently managed to con some of my family into trying the new Star Wars RPG from Fantasy Flight, but that’s a different story. Anyway, all that to say that I’d never even heard of Deadlands when I picked this up, but very much want to further explore this version of the Weird West.

The world was shattered in 1863 when a native shaman performed a ritual intended to banish the white man from the Americas. Instead, reality itself has unraveled. The dead walk the Earth, forcing the Civil War to end in an uneasy stalemate. In California, the land itself was ripped apart by a massive quake, leaving a broken labyrinth of chasms and canyons populated by mysteries and monsters. In the wake of the disaster, a new element is discovered: Ghost Rock, burning hotter than coal and with a host of strange properties that is driving a new era of scientific discovery. Ex-Union soldier Grey Torrance is a gun for hire haunted by the ghosts of those he’s failed to save, constantly moving in an attempt to stay one step ahead of the specters who would drag him down to Hell. Torrance would tell you he’s no hero, but a chance encounter with a native scientist sets the wheels in motion for a confrontation with a madman who would conquer the world with an army of the walking dead….

Based on a successful tabletop RPG, Deadlands: Ghostwalkers is pulp fiction at its best. The quick and the undead mix with everything from Lovecraftian gods to creatures from another age in a yarn that, while perhaps short on what some would call literary merit, is still a darn fun tale. Seriously, this book has it all. Zombies, dinosaurs, zombie dinosaurs, necromancy, a subterranean world right out of Jules Verne, steampunk weaponry, even a third-act cameo by Cthulhu. The characters aren’t always the most three-dimensional, but that’s to be expected from this genre. A couple incidents early in the book feel like irrelevant side adventures at first, but later are revealed to be essential plot elements. I’ve never played the game, but the book seemed a pretty good introduction to the world, and I’m looking forward to exploring it further.

CONTENT: Strong violence, occasionally gruesome. Occasional R-rated profanity, but mostly pretty PG-13. Mildly explicit sexual content. A lot of the elements of this world could potentially be considered occultic, from possession to necromancy.

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