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Review: “The Iron Assassin” by Ed Greenwood

Title: The Iron Assassin
Author: Ed Greenwood
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: TOR, 2015

Ed Greenwood is a legend in certain circles, having created the immensely popular Forgotten Realms fantasy world that serves as one of the primary settings for the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game series. I’ve yet to venture into this universe, but I’ve heard a good deal about it from friends and fellow geeks. Now Greenwood is venturing into a new universe, trading in Sword & Sorcery for Steampunk (or, as he refers to it, Gaslamp Fantasy.) The good news? Greenwood’s genius for world creation is unabated. The bad news? The book itself could have used a bit more work to bring it up to the expected degree of awesomeness.

In a world parallel to our own, the Empire of the Lion vies with the Spanish-based Empire of Amirondro and the Indian-based Rajahirate Empire for supremacy over a patchwork world of steam-driven innovation. Victoria III rules from seclusion, kept stubbornly alive with steam-powered heart & lungs while her son shoulders the responsibilities of government in a London rife with conspiracy and intrigue as the Dread Agents of the Tower seek to thwart the schemes of the villainous Ancient Order of the Tentacles. One such agent is Jack Straker, a brilliant (or reckless) inventor of numerous devices for protecting the Crown. His latest masterpiece: a clockwork-driven corpse to serve as the Prince Royal’s bodyguard…if it can be controlled. And if one man can control it, well…the Ancient Order is very interested in figuring out how to wrest that control away from the Crown and put the Iron Assassin to their own use….

While Greenwood is an old hand at classical fantasy, The Iron Assassin is his first foray into the realm of steampunk. Greenwood’s genius is in world creation, and that experience and attention to detail is clearly on display here. The book was a ton of fun, and I will definitely watch for the inevitable continuation. Unfortunately, the book could have used a little more editing before publication. There are numerous fragmentary sentences scattered throughout, and not just in the dialogue where such things are more accepted. The Dramatis Personae section at the beginning is wittily written but overlarge, running ten pages and containing every character found within these pages—even those who appear only long enough to expire. In the end, it’s more harmful than helpful, especially since it gave away the identity of the Ancient Order’s leader (I assume this was meant to be secret, as he was only ever referred to by his title in those sections, and by his name when he was acting in public.) Another sore spot is the somewhat inconsistent characterization. One character is introduced as a complete badass, then dies with barely a whimper. Perhaps forgivable, as the scene itself paints her as caught off guard at the end of a pleasant evening…except that several scenes beforehand it was established that she had managed to deduce that her killer was a member of the Ancient Order, and so should be very much on guard while accepting unexpected dinner invitations from said villain. At another point a character assesses the situation facing him and decides to get out of Dodge…and then shows up pages later at an induction ceremony for the Ancient Order, very much the opposite of fleeing for his life. Finally, there is an unresolved mystery surrounding the former identity of the Iron Assassin, Bentley Steelforce. Or maybe not, as everyone seems to think they know who and what he is: the reanimated body of a chimney sweep by the name of Bentley Roper. Except that there is clearly more to his story–when a startled knight starts to blurt out something about Steelforce’s past to Straker and a group of assembled notables, Steelforce calmly rips out his throat without missing a beat. I kept expecting the matter to be revisited, but it never was. Like I said, I enjoyed the book, but it was merely good when it could have been spectacular.

CONTENT: Surprisingly mild on the profanity front, though the “PG” words get quite a workout alongside the more colorful genre/era-specific cursing that litters nearly every conversation. Strong, sometimes grisly violence, scattered all through the novel. There are not infrequent sexual innuendos, mostly non-explicit, interspersed with slightly more jarring instances of explicit material such as is usually not found in this particular genre (at least so far as I’ve seen), including a clockwork corset for improving the quality of a lady’s “alone time.” There is little occult content, aside from references to a bogus (or is it?) cult that worships an ancient deity that sounds suspiciously like H.P. Lovecraft’s legendary Cthulhu. The Ancient Order supposedly uses this cult to muddy the waters regarding their activities, but there’s a bit of evidence towards the end of the book that suggests there is more to that story than is being said….

This is a longer version of a review I did for the Manhattan Book Review.

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Review: “The Dresden Files: Ghoul Goblin” by Jim Butcher, Mark Powers, & Joseph Cooper

Title: Ghoul Goblin
Writers: Jim Butcher & Mark Powers
Artist: Joseph Cooper
Series: The Dresden Files
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Dynamite, 2013

After producing comic adaptations of the first two Dresden Files novels, the creators decided to go in a different direction: original stories starring Dresden instead of just adapting preexisting tales. Personally, I’m in favor of this decision, since my favorite of the comics so far was the prequel that was set before the series began. And thus we get Ghoul Goblin, an original adventure set several months after the events of Fool Moon, taking Harry Dresden away from the Windy City and all the way to Boone Mill, Missouri in defense of a family of orphans.

Nearly a century ago, Major Archibald Talbot had the spectacularly bad sense to insult and offend a cadre of Egyptian mystics, a lapse in judgement that led to a nasty curse being placed on him and his entire bloodline. Ever since, Talbots have tended to draw supernatural trouble like flies to a rotting corpse. Today, all that remains of the Talbot bloodline is a single family…and the last week has seen two of the seven orphaned siblings die under mysterious circumstances. Can even Harry Dresden manage to protect the remaining Talbots and lift the curse? You’ll have to read on to find out!

On the whole, I really enjoyed this. It fit well into the larger Dresden universe, referencing other events and maintaining its connection to the series as a whole without making you feel lost if you were a new reader. It was interesting to see a few future elements foreshadowed too, such as Harry’s fight with a creature that just might be first contact with the Fomor. The art was great, if not as striking as Ardian Syaf’s in earlier books. (I’ll stop whining about that someday, I promise….) Syaf did come back long enough to do the covers, though, so that was better than nothing I suppose.

CONTENT: Some R-rated profanity, but not too gratuitous. Minor sexual innuendos, nothing explicit. Some gruesome violence, with varying degrees of gore. Harry is a wizard, working with magic and spells. There are various degrees of magical and monstrous creatures in this universe, with varying degrees of connection to the occult. Take that how you will.

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Review: “Dark Horse Presents #141: Buffy The Vampire Slayer” by Dan Brereton, Christopher Golden, Andi Watson, Joe Bennett, Hector Gomez, & David Perrin

Oh look! More Buffy. This is a special issue of the anthology comic Dark Horse Presents, focusing on Buffy and her friends. These three stories have apparently never been reprinted anywhere except Buffy The Vampire Slayer Omnibus Volume IV, so they may be hard to find….

Hello Moon
Written by Daniel Brereton & Christopher Golden
Art by Joe Bennett
Rating: *****
Synopsis:
Buffy cuts her patrol short for the night to go for a moonlight stroll on the beach. So of course she meets a fish monster and a quartet of vampires….
Review:
This was great across the board, if a little predictable in its resolution. The art was superb, though I think the vampire designs were a bit recycled from some earlier comics, be they Buffy or Blade….
Continuity: This is supposedly set during Buffy’s third season, but otherwise there’s no clue as to when it happens. I arbitrarily set it after S03E03: Faith, Hope & Trick.

Cursed
Written by Christopher Golden
Art by Hector Gomez
Rating: ****
Synopsis:
Buffy and Angel run into one of Angelus’ old comrades, causing Angel to flash back to just after his transformation as he stalks and kills his former best friend.
Review:
Aside from the fact that this is inconsistent with what we’ve seen in the show, this was actually really good. Gomez’s art still isn’t my favorite, but it didn’t bug me this time. And the story? It was good, an excellent exploration of Angel’s character and his own personal Hell. I only wish it was consistent with the rest of the details we know about the same period.
Continuity:
Like I said, this doesn’t fit. It’s supposed to happen sometime during Season 3 though.

Dead Love
Written by Andi Watson
Art by David Perrin
Rating: ***
Synopsis:
Buffy goes snooping for some light reading, and finds an account of one of Giles’ solo adventures.
Review:
Meh. It wasn’t bad, and the art was okay. I just wasn’t a huge fan. Just….mediocre I guess.
Continuity: Set sometime during Season 3. I arbitrarily stuck it after Revelations, mostly just to keep it out of the insanely-busy later part of the season.

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Review: “American Vampire, Volume VII” by Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque, & Matias Bergara

Title: American Vampire, Volume VII
Writer: Scott Snyder
Artists: Rafael Albuquerque & Matias Bergara
Series: American Vampire (Volume VII, American Vampire: Second Cycle #1-5)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Vertigo, 2015

Finally! American Vampire is back from hiatus, and my library got it in! As always, this review might spoil previous collections, so you might want to start from the beginning…. (Volume I/Volume II/Volume III/Volume IV/Volume V/Volume VI) You’ve been warned!

It’s now 1965, and in the ten years since Pearl Jones and Skinner Sweet last saw each other everything has changed. America is a different place, from the space race to a war half a world away. Pearl has converted her family farm to a safe haven for young and innocent vampires on the run from the real monsters, while Skinner spends his time on the southern border robbing smugglers and drug lords. It’s peaceful, comparatively speaking. Of course, it can’t last….The Gray Trader, the original vampire, the first link in the evolutionary chain that ends with Skinner and Pearl, is coming. He’s powerful. He’s evil personified. He may just be the Devil incarnate. What does he want? God only knows, and unfortunately he’s not all that chatty with our protagonists….Rounding out the collection is a flashback story featuring Gene Bunting as he tracks the myth of the Gray Trader in 1947, following clues left in the journal of a doomed miner working a claim digging its way to Hell.

Gotta say, this was definitely worth the wait. Whereas the previous entries in the series have been stellar, they were admittedly lacking in a cohesive, ongoing narrative that tied the different stories together. Not that I didn’t enjoy reading about the various adventures of our protagonists, those were great stories! But now it looks like we’ve got an overarching story to tie everything together. What’s more, it’s looking to be a doozy! Rafael Albuquerque’s art is stellar as usual, with his trademark style that fits this book so well. Newcomer to the series Matias Bergara also hands in a great bit of work on the backup tale. I can’t wait to see what happens next….

CONTENT: This isn’t for the kiddies! It’s a Vertigo book, so you’ve been warned. R-rated language. Strong, gory violence, as you would expect from such monstrous creatures as appear here. Pearl and Skinner are on the side of the angels, but they’re monsters nevertheless. Their opponents? They’re worse. Mild sexual references, plus a couple creepy bits of nudity in the sketches from the journal. Not too explicit, but there nevertheless. No occultic content; these vampires are purely physical.

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Review: “Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Pale Reflections” by Andi Watson and Cliff Richards

Title: Pale Reflections
Writer: Andi Watson
Artist: Cliff Richards
Series: Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Buffy The Vampire Slayer #17-19)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Dark Horse Comics, 2000

Here we go! The conclusion to the Bad Blood storyline began here and here. I have to say, despite a couple of rough patches in the middle there, it’s been a fun ride. It was mostly good to see the book get away from the “villain of the week” format and do a longer-running villain, even if it maybe stretched a bit in the middle unnecessarily. This conclusion, though, was absolutely top-notch. These three issues can be found collected either here or in Buffy The Vampire Slayer Omnibus Volume IV.

These three issues are titled as if they’re two separate stories, with the first two going under the title She’s No Lady and the last being entitled Old Friend, but that’s not really accurate. These three issues are clearly a single unit, and I’ll discuss them that way. The Scoobies have been tasked by Principal Snyder with preparing a float to represent the school during Mardi Gras, (Which apparently is also celebrated in Sunnydale? Who knew?) which is taking a good deal of time away from the search for the origin of the super-vamps. Meanwhile, Selke and her pet doctor have managed to magic together an evil doppelganger of Buffy. Yep, things are heading for a showdown….

On the whole, this was great. The writing was back on top, and mostly there were no loose threads left hanging around. Spike & Dru show up again at the very end, but I suspect that that’s a seed for a future story rather than sheer randomness. The art was likewise stellar, and I think Cliff Richards has finally hit his stride. Chronologically, this happens soon after the previous story/soon after Buffy S03E11: Gingerbread.

CONTENT: No profanity that I can recall. Vampire violence consistent with the Buffy television show. Some mild sexual innuendo…. Buffyverse vampires could be considered occultic due to their demonic nature, but it didn’t bug me.

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Review: “Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Crash Test Demons” by Andi Watson & Cliff Richards

Title: Crash Test Demons
Writer: Andi Watson
Artist: Cliff Richards
Series: Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Buffy The Vampire Slayer #13-15)
Rating: **
Publisher/Copyright: Dark Horse Comics, 2000

The Buffy binge continues! This time we have the next three issues in the ongoing arc begun back in Bad BloodCrash Test Demons collects issues #13-15 of the ongoing Dark Horse series, which can also be found in the Buffy The Vampire Slayer Omnibus Volume IV.

We start out on a weird note in Love Sick Blues, with Cordelia deciding her image needs revamped and deciding to compete with Willow in the school’s “Quiz Bowl.” Yeah, you heard that right. Of course, to have a hope of succeeding Cordy’s going to need some supernatural help, and that comes with consequences….In the untitled following issue, things start to get serious as Buffy and Angel encounter several “super-vamps” that take a lot more killing than usual. Oh, and after Buffy saves his bacon, Todd (the creep from A Boy Named Sue) develops an unhealthy fascination with our favorite Slayer….Finally, Lost Highway sees Buffy attacked by a trio of super-vamps after a fortuitous (under the circumstances) hit-and-run. All the while, Selke and her pet doctor are trying to raise a new dark power in Sunnydale….

Meh. The art was great, with the briefly-confusing exception of a few moments where the super-vamp gang contains a member who looks just like Buffy. The writing though….not so great this time through. The first story was mostly okay, but the other two are plagued with unresolved subplots, like Spike & Dru showing up just long enough to work some mischief and (apparently, since they don’t appear again) disappear without so much as a how-you-do. The characters’ dialogue was all spot-on, but the plotting and pacing could use some work. I think they just tried to stretch this ongoing story a little too long, causing issues here in the middle of the tale. Timeline-wise, for lack of any other information this continues to follow the previous so many stories, in the slot between Buffy S03E10: Amends and Buffy S03E11: Gingerbread.

CONTENT: No profanity that I can recall. Vampire violence consistent with the Buffy television show. Some mild sexual innuendo…. Buffyverse vampires could be considered occultic due to their demonic nature, but it didn’t bug me.

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Review: “Hellboy Vol. V: Conqueror Worm” by Mike Mignola

Title: Hellboy Vol. V: Conqueror Worm
Writer & Artist: Mike Mignola
Series: Hellboy
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Dark Horse, 2004

Yay! More Hellboy! Have I mentioned that my library is totally awesome? They got in another three or four volumes of the adventures of everyone’s favorite monster-fighting….er, monster. I’ve mentioned my affection for this rebellious demon before, here and here, and now there’s more to read! So without further ado, Conqueror Worm.

In the early days of WWII, while Rasputin was scheming to bring Hellboy to our world, Herman Von Klempt and some of his colleagues sought a more direct route to the apocalypse. There are non-corporeal beings living out among the stars, many of whom would love to end life across the universe if only given a body. The Nazis sent them one…a dead man, a hollow shell they could inhabit. Now that capsule is heading back to Earth, bearing with it the conqueror worm….

Not sure why, but this one just didn’t quite do it for me. I can’t put my finger on it–we’ve got Hellboy doing his thing, intergallactic Lovecraftian beasties, another appearance by Herman the Head-in-a-Jar, even an undead early superhero dispensing justice (though it’s never explained why he’s resurrected just at this point in time). What’s not to like? I don’t know. I enjoyed it, really I did, it just wasn’t quite as awesome as some of the other Hellboy stories I’ve read. It’s still a worthy addition to the series, and an important one too–we’re given a bit more insight into the Ogdru Jahad as well as those funky aliens we saw standing guard over their prison in the first volume. I look forward to seeing where Hellboy goes from here, especially since….well, that would be telling….

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: “Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Bad Blood” by Andi Watson & Joe Bennett

Title: Bad Blood
Writer: Andi Watson
Artist: Joe Bennet
Series: Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Buffy The Vampire Slayer #9-11)
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Dark Horse Comics, 2000

It’s been a while since I read any of these Buffy comics, hasn’t it? Got a bit sidetracked. Anyway, the Bad Blood collection contains a mere three issues (#9-11), the first part of a larger long-running arc. Andi Watson is still going strong as the writer, and Joe Bennett subs back in as the artist for this arc. These three issues are available either here or in Buffy The Vampire Slayer Omnibus Volume IV.

Life goes on apace for the Scoobies in these three issues. Nothing too life-changing happens in the parts of the story focused on our favorite slayer and her friends, as these issues blend a fairly episodic approach to the Scoobies with a long-game story featuring Selke, the vengeful vampire who got torched back in Cold Turkey. Hey Good Lookin’ (issues #9-10) sees Selke recruits an amoral plastic surgeon to try and fix her “cosmetic issues” while Buffy tries to balance tracking a band of ghouls who have been using the local cemetery as a diner with her surprising new gig: modelling! Then in A Boy Named Sue (issue #11) Buffy and the gang have to deal with an arrogant and duplicitous something-or-other, frontman for a band that rivals Oz and the Dingoes while being utter tools. Todd Dahl has decided that it’s time to add another “S” to his little black book of conquests, and he’s settled on our favorite Ms. Summers despite the fact that she’s not interested. Amy is, though, and she can be quite vengeful when spurned….

My reactions this time are…mixed. The art is definitely improving, even Xander is mostly recognizable. Probably a mix of the artist improving and me getting over my grumpiness with his appearance in these books. Everyone else is pretty well done though. Kudos to Mr. Bennett, he’s put my complaints to rest. The writing is where I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s perfectly spot-on when it comes to dialogue and characters sounding like themselves. On the other hand, there are deep flaws in this story arc. I don’t buy that Joyce Summers would be considering plastic surgery–it just doesn’t seem consistent with her character. The plastic surgeon suddenly becoming adept at magic? Maybe, I can buy that, especially if he’s a quick study. He seems to accumulate enough arcane books quickly enough, probably from Selke. But being able to pull off a tricky translation from an ancient language? Not exactly something they teach at medical school. This is of course somewhat balanced by the sheer hilarity of his attempt to buy time by passing off a jar of mayo as some mystery salve. Why did he have a random jar of mayo sitting in his operating room? I have no idea, and for once I don’t care. The writing was occasionally quite abrupt, switching scenes without warning, and I think each of these issues could have benefited from another couple pages, but that’s not always an option. Timeline-wise, these still have to happen before Buffy S03E11: Gingerbread since Amy makes an appearance. Xander and Cordelia seem to be together, but that’s never explicitly said so I guess we just ignore that.

CONTENT: No profanity that I can recall. Vampire violence consistent with the Buffy television show. Some mild sexual innuendo, from tight clothes consistent with a comic book to a character attempting to seduce a girl (and then lying about his failure the next day), plus the requisite jokes when a male character gets magicked into a female. Buffyverse vampires could be considered occultic due to their demonic nature, but it didn’t bug me.

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Review: “The Book Of Apex Volume IV,” The Apocrypha

You may remember a year ago I reviewed the stories contained in The Book Of Apex: Volume IV Of Apex Magazine. This anthology reprinted the fiction from Apex Magazine issues #30-44, in it’s entirety (or so I thought.) Turns out, there was at least one story from each issue left out of the collection! So far as I can tell, all of these were reprints when they appeared in Apex, but I’m a completist. And so, I give you the omitted stories from Apex #30-44!

  • This Creeping Thing, by Rob Shearman. (***)
    From issue #30, originally appearing in Love Songs For The Shy And Cynical. Susan has trouble loving, but once she gets there….once she gets there, her love can move mountains. I didn’t like this one, and I can’t explain why. It just rubbed me the wrong way. It wasn’t poorly written, though. You may like it okay, I just didn’t. CONTENT: Sexual content, non-explicit. Mild profanity. A cat gets euthanized after being hit by a car, so I suppose that counts as violence. Occult-wise, we have ghosts….
  • The Yellow Dressing Gown, by Sarah Monette. (*****)
    From issue #31, originally appearing in Weird Tales #63.2. A museum curator obsessively tracks down the yellow dressing gown worn by a famous artist during the last days of his life, alone in his gallery painting away while he slowly went mad from syphilis. This one was delightfully creepy! I highly recommend it if that’s your thing. CONTENT: Brief sexual innuendo. No profanity that I can recall. No overtly-depicted violence, although the aftermath of a murder or suicide is dealt with. The story is also fairly creepy, it should be pointed out. Occult-wise….there are implied to be some supernatural figures that don’t overtly appear in the story but hover around the fringes. I won’t say more because spoilers.
  • The Prowl, by Gregory Frost. (*****)
    From issue #32, originally appearing in Mojo: Conjure Stories. A former slave tells the tale of how he came to America, his troubles once he arrived, and the strange creature that came along with him in disguise. I cannot stress enough the high level of quality in this tale, nor how much I enjoyed it. Go read it–you won’t be sorry you did. CONTENT: Mild profanity. Some frank but non-explicit discussion of sex. Violence, occasionally a bit gory. I don’t think the plateye quite counts as occult content, but he is a semi-spiritual figure, so that may depend on your definition.
  • Useless Things, by Maureen McHugh. (***)
    From issue #33, originally appearing in Eclipse 3: New Science Fiction And Fantasy. A woman battles the New Mexico desert, the economic downturn, and the general ups and downs of life. This tale contains doll-making, burglary, illegal immigrants, cheating spouses, all kinds of stuff. I didn’t connect with it, personally, but I do have to admit that it was well-written. Just not up my alley. Unlike most of the stuff published in Apex Magazine, I don’t think there was anything fantastical or speculative about this story. Very bleak, which I’m not usually a fan of. CONTENT: Mild profanity. No violence. The only sexual content comes when the protagonist breaks down and uses her doll-making skills to craft specially-ordered sex toys in order to make ends meet.
  • Lehr, Rex, by Jay Lake. (****)
    From issue #34, originally appearing (so far as I can tell) in Forbidden PlanetsAn Imperial scout ship is dispatched to the rescue when a twenty-year-old distress signal is finally received from the INS Broken Spear. On arrival, however, the rescuers discover that the now-delusional Captain Lehr has no intention of leaving, and that there may be more to their mission than meets the eye given the planet-buster stored in the hold of their ship. What was on the Broken Spear that the Empire deems so dangerous? This was a very fun story, with a twist that I at least did not see coming until the very end. CONTENT: Very mild sexual innuendo. Some sci-fi violence. No profanity.
  • Alternate Girl’s Expatriate Life, by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz. (****)
    From issue #35, originally appearing in Interzone Magazine #229.  I can’t describe this story. It wasn’t my favorite, but it was obvious that the author put a lot of effort into shaping exactly how much is revealed and when, and to describe that would be to upset the balance she worked so hard for. Like I said, I wasn’t a huge fan (and that’s a subjective judgement I can’t quantify), but it was a well-written piece nevertheless. Some would call it beautiful. CONTENT: Mild sexual innuendo. Some implied violence. No profanity.
  • The Chaos Magician’s Mega Chemistry Set, by Nnedi Okorafor. (****)
    From issue #36, originally appearing in Space And Time #101.  Ulu wants to be a chemist like her uncle, and spend her days protecting the land from pollution and other threats. Ulu is a very orderly little girl. So, her dad stops at Ugorgi’s store and buys her The Chaos Magician’s Mega Chemistry Set. Ugorgi’s store is a very interesting place, full of things that shouldn’t exist–a six-legged dog, for example. But when a “laboratory accident” disrupts the local space-time continuum, it’s up to Ulu and her chemistry set to make it right…. CONTENT: Brief profanity. Mild violence. No sexual content. Occult content….that depends on the conclusions and definitions of the reader.
  • Blocked, by Geoff Ryman(****)
    From issue #37, originally appearing in The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction. This one was….confusing. I first took it to be a dream, (it does begin with “I dreamed this….”) but now I think that the narrator was speaking figuratively. I didn’t like this story, per se, but I do have to admit that it was well written. It was quite a scathing indictment of humanity’s discontent…. CONTENT: Brief profanity, mild innuendo, and no real violence despite some very adult themes such as suicide.
  • Wolf Trapping, by Kij Johnson(****)
    From issue #38, originally appearing in The Twilight Zone Magazine. A disturbing tale of obsession and its consequences, how far we will go to achieve the thing we want. Richard is living alone in the woods, observing the wolves and their behavior. One day he stumbles across a lone woman doing the same, but whereas Richard strives to remain detached and not affect their behavior, this woman wants to join the wolves and be a part of their pack….. CONTENT: R-rated language. No sexual content. Some disturbing and gory violence.
  • Undercity, by Nir Yaniv(*****)
    From issue #39, originally appearing in Hebrew in Dreams Of Aspamia #19, in English as a bonus novellete in The Apex Book Of World SF II. There is a city that exists beneath the Tel Aviv that you know. No, that’s not quite right…you couldn’t dig your way to the Undercity. It exists in another plane entirely, a cold, sunless echo of the world that we live in. And tomorrow the two Tel Avivs will switch places….I’m not entirely sure I “got” what the author was trying to tell me here, but I was very much pulled into his world. This was a dark, very atmospheric tale, and whether or not I completely understood it, I have to say that I loved it. CONTENT: No profanity that I recall. Some mild sexual content, fairly non-explicit. Mild violence.
  • Sacrifice, by Jennifer Pelland. (***)
    From issue #40, originally appearing in Dark Faith: Invocations. A woman sits by her father’s bedside as he lays dying of lung cancer. A voice offers to allow her to trader her life for his…. OR A man stands outside his daughter’s funeral, mourning with every fiber of his being the deal he made to save his own life at terrible cost…. Was this well done? Yes. I have to admit that it was. Did I like it? No, I really didn’t. You should have noticed by now that I’m really not a fan of stories that cast God as a sadistic old creep. CONTENT: R-rated language. Mild sexual references. Mild violence and the heavy subject of death and sacrifice.
  • Sonny Liston Takes The Fall, by Elizabeth Bear. (****)
    Also from issue #40, originally appearing in The Del Rey Book Of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Sonny Liston was a boxing legend back in the day, until the day he faced off against a young up-and-comer by the name of Cletus Cassidy. Cassidy? He went on to change his name to Muhammad Ali. Liston lived a hard life, full of controversy, and died the way he lived. Elizabeth Bear spins a poignant tale of this controversial figure, and I’ll admit I had no idea about any of this. Prizefighting legends from fifty years gone aren’t really my specialty, you see. I did enjoy the tale though…. CONTENT: R-rated language. Fighting violence. Mild sexual innuendo, non-explicit.
  • Simon’s Replica, by Dean Francis Alfar. (****)
    From issue #41, originally appearing in the Philippines Free Press. An aging queen, feeling her mortality creeping up on her, commissions a perfectly accurate replica of her lands so that the golden age of her kingdom will be remembered. I have to admit that I did see the ending coming, but it was still a pleasant tale. CONTENT: No language, no sex, and no violence.
  • The Glutton: A Goxhat Accounting Chant, by Eleanor Arnason. (****)
    From issue #42, originally appearing (so far as I can tell) in Tales Of The Unanticipated #22. Here we are treated to an epic poem by an alien race very different from our own. This is my first encounter with the Goxhat, but apparently their culture has been the author’s pet project for quite a while now…. CONTENT: No sex or profanity, some violence.
  • Relic, by Jeffrey Ford. (**)
    From issue #43, originally appearing in The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet Of Curiosities: Exhibits, Oddities, Images, and Stories From Top Authors And Artists. Out at the end of the world, there is a church to a maybe-saint by the name of Ifritia. It only holds services four times a year, once for each season, and its main claim to anything resembling fame is the supposed relic of its namesake saint in a shrine behind the church. Father Walter is ordained by no particular higher authority; he simply built the church and recalled that the preachers from his boyhood were called Father. Sister North simply joined the church one day after an infrequent sermon. I feel like this story was supposed to tell me something, but I missed the message. Without whatever it was supposed to tell me, the simple almost-plot left much to be desired. Maybe it’s something you’d enjoy, but I wasn’t particularly impressed. CONTENT: No profanity. Some violence, some non-explicit sexual innuendo.
  • The Patrician, by Tansy Rayner Roberts. (*****)
    From issue #44, originally appearing in Love And Romanpunk. In the Australian outback, there is a town built of Roman stone, in the Roman style, and committed to the Roman way of life….as long as the tourists are looking, of course. But there are monsters that called Rome their home, and they are drawn to things that are Roman….there are also those who hunt them, on a quest to rid the world of its monsters. I absolutely loved this story, and I am very much looking forward to tracking down a copy of the collection it originates in. Roman monsters, monster-hunting, immortality, this tale has it all. Highly recommended. CONTENT: Mild profanity (At least, I don’t recall any that wasn’t mild, but its possible it slipped my attention. I was kind of distracted by the sheer awesomeness of the tale.) Some violence, usually perpetrated against dragons or manticores or lamia or some such, but occasionally extending to their victims as well. Some sexual content, not too explicit.

This is just one of a series of posts I did on this anthology. You can find the others here:
Part One (My personal favorites….)
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
-Apocrypha (The reprinted stories from the relevant issues, not included in the anthology)

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Review: “X-Men: Magneto–Testament” by Greg Pak & Carmine Di Giandomenico

Title: Magneto–Testament
Writer: Greg Pak
Artist: Carmine Di Giandomenico
Series: X-Men
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Marvel Knights, 2009

“On Kristallnacht, my father wanted to fight. But then the Nazis might have killed my whole family. In the ghetto, I could have gutted a Nazi murderer. But then they would have killed a hundred Jews in retaliation. Two months ago, I could have pushed the Hauptscharfuhrer into the fire pit. But then they would have killed the rest of my work crew.

“So to save everyone, I did nothing. And guess what? They killed them all anyway….” (Max, issue #5)

Whoah. I mean….whoah. Magneto has always been one of the most interesting characters in the Marvel Universe, a nominal villain who seems to fight for the side of the angels almost as frequently as he opposes them. There are all kinds of Marvel villains who are irredeemable psychopaths (Carnage, Mr. Sinister, Apocalypse, the Purple Man, the list is endless), but Magneto is a different breed entirely, the most dangerous kind of villain possible: Magneto believes he is doing the right thing. His methods may be occasionally merciless, but Magneto is  a man who has lived through genocide once before and sworn to never again let that happen to his people. He could not save the countless Jews who went to the gas chambers under the guns of their Nazi overlords, but he’ll be damned if he sees the same thing happen to his new brothers, mutantkind. Given the human response to fear that which is different, and destroy what we fear, Magneto has come to the harsh conclusion that the only way to safeguard his people is to install a new world order ruled by mutants. To that end, he has at times served both as hero and villain. He’s a conflicted character, forged by tragedy. And now, with Magneto: Testament, we’re given the definitive story of his beginnings, from 1935 Nuremberg to the horrors of Auschwitz….and all with an eye to absolute historical accuracy.

In 1935, Max Eisenhardt was a simple German schoolboy. Top of his class, excellent athlete, he’s even managed to catch the eye of a pretty girl. Unfortunately, Max just happened to be Jewish, and Magda just happens to be Romany. Neither ethnicity is going to be able to weather the storm ahead, when the Nazi regime unleashes their Final Solution and institutes the most comprehensive and systematic genocide program the world has ever seen. From the Nuremberg Laws to Kristallnacht, Berlin to the Warsaw Ghettos and on to death camp of Auschwitz, young Max Eisenhardt serves to give us a new lens into this horrific period of human history….and a new insight into one of the most fascinating comic characters I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

This should go without saying, but this is not a happy book. An important book, one that punches you right in the gut and takes an unflinching (yet respectful) look at the deepest darkness of the human heart, but not one for young children. That said, this book could provide a very compelling supplement to a high school study of the Holocaust–it’s painstakingly accurate, annotated every step of the way with endnotes containing citations for facts and elements that are incorporated into the story, and even contains a teachers guide with suggested activities. I fully intend to add it to my own personal collection at some point when I have the funds. The book is compelling, well-written, and brilliantly haunting, yet at the same time treats the real, historical people who suffered in this most horrific of periods with the utmost respect. For example, the Nazi practice of tattooing the prisoners with their identification number. Showing that number on Max’s arm would be unremarkable, aside from clearing up some of the more geeky arguments about Marvel canon since there have been several different numbers used in different stories over the years. Yet the writer refrained. “We made the decision not to show Max’s actual number in this tattooing scene. The more I read the testimonies of actual survivors, the more uncomfortable I became with the notion of giving our fictional hero a number that a real human being once bore.” (Greg Pak’s endnotes to issue #4) The creators here don’t shy away from the horror of the Holocaust, even dealing with it more in-depth than some other sources due to Max’s status as one of the Sonderkommando prisoners who had to process the bodies from the gas chamber to the crematorium, but neither do they play it for shock value. Every effort is made to preserve the humanity and dignity of the real humans who suffered and died all those years ago. I respect that.

CONTENT: Minor language. No real sexual content, though there is some low-detail nudity as prisoners are stripped for the gas chambers and Max’s uncle (implied to be a bit of a hedonist) is paraded through the streets with a sign that says “I have shamed a German woman.” The violence here is occasionally bloody, but usually restrained in its visual representation. That doesn’t make it any less disturbing as characters are murdered, groups of prisoners gassed, and their bodies piled up or incinerated. Like I said, though I recommend this book wholeheartedly, this is not for young children.

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