Tag Archives: magic

Review: “The Untold Tale” by J.M. Frey

Title: The Untold Tale
Author: J.M. Frey
Series: The Accidental Turn #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: 2015, REUTS Publishing LLC.

There is very little Forsyth Turn doesn’t know. As Shadow Hand, the king’s spymaster, he wages in secret the war his famous older brother carries out in songs and tales told in every tavern throughout the three kingdoms. Kintyre is everything an epic fantasy hero is made of—strong, brave, and oblivious to what’s going on around him. While Kintyre is off gallivanting about the world with his loyal sidekick and magic sword, slaying first and asking questions later if at all, Forsyth quietly manages the family’s holdings and keeps up with the mountains of paperwork generated by his legion of spies. Through this legion, Forsyth knows nearly everything there is to know about the world he lives in…which is what makes the girl so fascinating. Rescued from the clutches of the evil Viceroy by Forsyth’s men, Lucy Piper (Pip to her friends) is brought to Turn Hall to recover from the tender attentions of the Viceroy’s sidekick and torturer Bootknife, attentions that have left an intricate lattice of artistic scrolling vines carved into the flesh of her back. For anyone to have resisted Bootknife long enough for the carvings to become so intricate is alone enough to earn Forsyth’s attention and respect, but Pip also represents a complete mystery. In a world where Forsyth can usually match a face to its family heritage at a glance, Pip’s bronzed skin and the shape of her eyes are like nothing he’s ever seen. Then too there are the things she cannot know but does—such as the fact that mild-mannered minor nobleman Forsyth Turn, Kintyre’s worthless younger brother, so shy and graceless, is really the Shadow Hand of the king. Could it be true? Could the Viceroy really have managed to call down one of the legendary Readers, one of those all-powerful beings who watch all that happens from on high? But surely not. Readers, the Great Writer, the world being born from the nib of a pen, that’s all just mythology and nonsense…isn’t it?

“Yeah, yeah,” you say. “It’s a metafictional world, the girl is trapped inside her favorite book, we’ve seen that before.” Well, yes. I suppose you may have. It does bring Inkheart to mind, though that was sort of the polar opposite to what’s happening here. Such a metafictional narrative is itself a fantasy trope, if not a widely used one. But that just strengthens my point. J.M. Frey is a master of the fantasy trope, both the good and the bad. The central conceit here is that The Adventures Of Kintyre Turn were written by a stodgy (and frankly, downright lecherous) old man who ripped off, er, faithfully followed every single convention of his genre when creating the world his characters inhabit. Women exist solely to be damsels in distress, fainting at danger and then falling into the arms of the Conquering Hero. Minorities and non-humans are scattered through for flavor, but only in background roles or to be the Exotic Other. Quests all follow a certain formula. These tropes are so ingrained in the fabric of the world that they remain true even when the author isn’t writing. By dropping in an outside observer, Frey is able to really examine each and every one of these tropes even as she makes use of them herself. The result is truly incredible, a novel that is by turns hilarious and heartrending, at times a love letter to the entire genre, at others a biting indictment of its more appalling conventions. Beyond its agenda, though, the fact remains that this is simply a stellar book. The characters, while initially suggested to be little more than the stereotypes they inhabit, are all real living breathing people, and whatever you think you know about what’s going on is just waiting to be upturned. I would recommend this book to anyone with a healthy love of the fantasy genre, or just a love of good stories. I do offer fair warning, though, there’s quite a bit of sexual content in the back half of the book. It’s necessary to what Frey is trying to do here, but does render the book unsuitable for certain audiences.

CONTENT: Intermittent R-rated profanity. Strong violence, occasionally gruesome. Moderately explicit sexual content, scattered throughout the back half of the book.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Novels, Reviews

Review: “Robin Hood: Demon’s Bane–The Mark Of The Black Arrow” by Debbie Viguie & James R. Tuck

Title: The Mark Of The Black Arrow
Authors: Debbie Viguie & James R. Tuck
Series: Robin Hood: Demon’s Bane #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Titan Books, 2015

Dark days have come to Sherwood. King Richard has sailed for the Holy Land to do battle with the forces of darkness, taking with him the best of England’s strength. In his absence, darkness has taken root across the land aided by the would-be king John and his right-hand, the demonic Sheriff of Nottingham. Those loyal to Richard and the forces of light face an uphill battle as they try and protect the innocent from the heavy hand of the usurper. A man can be killed for standing against the king, but a legend? A legend can inspire hope even in the darkest of times. It is time for the Hood to once more protect the people of England….

Just when you thought you’d seen every incarnation of the Robin Hood tales imaginable, Debbie Viguie and James Tuck pull this out of the hat. This time around John is no petty tyrant, concerned only with how much gold he can ring from the people and aided by cruelly efficient human agents. This time John is a servant to the forces of darkness, determined to break the spirit of the people and deliver all the world to darkness. Unless, of course, our heroes can stop him….Enter Robin Longstride, youngest son of Richard’s right hand. He’s more at home hunting in the forest than trying to fill his father’s shoes, but with the elder Longstride off to the Holy Land Robin hasn’t much choice. The only bright spot in being called to the castle is the chance to see the king’s niece, Maid Marian. The king’s ward since the death of her parents in a tragic fire, Marian was supposed to serve as an adviser to John in Richard’s absence. John…has a different idea. Robin’s cousin, Will Scarlet, is far more comfortable at court than in the woods, but his task is far more dangerous–to stay in the usurper prince’s confidence, saying nothing while horrors are perpetrated before his eyes. The book walks a bit of a tightrope between dismissing and wholly embracing the power of the Church, but I think that is appropriate for the time in which it is set. There were undoubtedly good monks and church leaders, like Friar Tuck and the Cardinal, but there were also brigands hiding in their ranks. Then too, it is politically incorrect (not to mention historically inaccurate) to cast the Crusades as a struggle between Good and Evil. Not that this book is all that concerned with historical accuracy–it is far more concerned with staying true to the traditional narrative, which is deeply flawed in historical terms. King Richard spent little time in England at any time during his reign, and certainly little resembled his benevolent character from most Robin Hood tales. John did die in Nottinghamshire, but it wasn’t his headquarters. He was just passing through when he took ill. I’m not saying this is necessarily a weakness to the book, or even that I’d take it a different direction if I wielded the pen, just that like most Robin Hood legend it smacks far more of fiction than it does history. It was an unusual tale, but very fun. I look forward to the publication of the rest of the trilogy with great anticipation.

CONTENT: Strong, occasionally disturbing violence. Some crude language, mostly PG-13. Moderately-explicit sexual content. Strong occult content, from demons to necromancy.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Novels, Reviews

Review: “John Constantine, Hellblazer: The Fear Machine” by Jamie Delano & Mark Buckingham

Title: The Fear Machine
Writer: Jamie Delano
Artists: Mark Buckingham, Richard Piers Rayner, Mike Hoffman & Alfredo Alcala
Series: John Constantine, Hellblazer (Volume III, issues #14-22)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Vertigo, 2012

John Constantine is at it again. You may remember I reviewed the first two volumes of the series not too awfully long ago, and wasn’t too impressed. I really like the character, but the first couple volumes left me underwhelmed. With Original Sinsthis had a lot to do with being dropped into the middle of events already moving (from the Swamp Thing book, of which this was a spin-off) and the lack of resolution (rectified in the second volume.) My issues with The Devil You Know mostly stemmed from my general dislike of stories that unfold in nightmares, astral journeys and/or acid trips (yet I think Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is some of the best storytelling in the medium, so figure that out), which comprised most of the stories in that collection. I’m in the minority, I know–Jamie Delano’s entire run on this book apparently holds legendary status among the fans, but I’ve just not been amazed yet. That said, The Fear Machine was a definite step in the right direction.

In his attempt to draw Constantine out of hiding, Nergal massacred his housemates and left them for Constantine to find in his apartment. Nergal has been dealt with, but the mess he left behind is still causing problems–Constantine’s face is splashed all over the front pages as the number-one suspect in the brutal slayings. (Apparently, this came to a head after his side trip to track down The Horrorist last volume. I won’t complain, that story was good stuff.) Dodging the police, Constantine falls in with a group of nature-loving hippie Travelers and finds something that has been in short supply since Newcastle–a modicum of peace. In this collection of hippies and misfits, Constantine finds the closest thing to a family he’s had in a long time. He should have known it wouldn’t last. When a brutal raid by a faux-police force ends in the kidnapping of Mercury, the kooky girl with special powers that first pulled him into his strange new community, Constantine resolves to find her and make things right. Of course, this isn’t as simple as it should be. Constantine soon finds himself embroiled in a web of conspiracy and intrigue that involves a secret Masonic order in control of a powerful weapon, a disgraced cop, a Soviet spy, and an old lover he betrayed. The stakes are the future of the entire world, but this time Constantine may be in way over his head. This time he may not even be able to save himself, let alone his friends….

The fact that I actually liked the story presented here in The Fear Machine is a little bit baffling to me at first glance. There’s a heavy dose of hippie free-love the-Earth-is-our-mother ideology, an unhealthy amount of drugs, not to mention the New Age/Ne0-Paganism that underlays the entire story arc. None of these are things I’m a fan of, either in person or (generally, at least) in fiction.* The plot rambled all over the place and was fairly slow to get moving. On top of that, those nightmare/acid/astral sequences I was complaining about last time were still present, center-stage even. And yet, it worked. I liked a lot of the characters despite disagreeing with nearly everything they stood for. The plot rambled, but always with it’s end in sight. It started slow, but there was a sense of rest and restoration for Constantine that we the reader got to share. And yes, the nightmares/acid trips/astral journey sequences I so dislike were still heavily featured, but unlike last volume, this time there was a point to them. They may have even have subtly pulled in the Merlin/Kon-Sten-Tyn thing with the finale, I’m not sure. Plus, we got a nod to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Constantine’s appearance in the early issues of that book. The end result was a story that I actually felt justified the reputation this book holds, and I will most certainly keep reading this as my library gets in more volumes.

CONTENT: Profanity, everything shy of the dreaded “F-bomb,” and a lot of British profanity to boot. Strong, bloody violence, including occult ritual and nightmarish madness. Strong sexual content, including nudity–mostly of the featureless “Barbie-doll” variety, but still–homosexual content, and a discussion of rape.

*I don’t condemn the appearance of such themes in fiction, per se, and will take their presence over censorship any day, but I have zero interest in them. If you want to use them to good purpose in your story, fine. I can deal. Just don’t expect me to be thrilled at the prospect.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Comics/Graphic Novels, Reviews

Review: “John Constantine, Hellblazer: Original Sins” by Jamie Delano & John Ridgeway

Title: Original Sins
Writers: Jamie Delano & Rick Veitch
Artists: John Ridgeway, Alfredo Alcala, Rick Veitch, Tom Mandrake, Brett Ewins, & Jim McCarthy
Series: John Constantine, Hellblazer (Volume I, Issues #1-9 + Swamp Thing #76-78)
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Vertigo, 2011

I’m ashamed to say that my first real encounter with the character of John Constantine was the decidedly mediocre 2005 film. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate the movie, but I was unaware at the time (the time being years later when I actually saw it, not when it came out) that it had very little to do with the actual character it was based on. Constantine is blonde and British, not brown-haired and living in LA. That’s Angel. I say my first real encounter, because he did feature in one of the early issues of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, but I had no idea who he was at the time. Anyway, I’ve been meaning to try this series for a while, so when I found the first volume at the library, I checked it out.

I can’t so much describe the plot to this collection, because there’s not much of an overarching plot to describe. The events described are loosely tied together, but at least for this first volume there’s no real resolution. (The library bought the first two volumes, so I’m hoping the overarching plot is resolved in the second one.) This is mostly about establishing the character and the world he inhabits. John Constantine is a powerful magician, but he doesn’t take much enjoyment in the fact. Magic and his own mistakes have cost him too many friends and loved ones, faces that literally haunt him both waking and sleeping. He’s a bit of a jerk–actually, more than a bit, and you could use stronger language if you wanted to–and has few moral qualms. About the only temptation he’s good at resisting is the temptation to walk away from a losing fight. Amateur magicians, the forces of Hell, the forces of Heaven, they all have a way of causing trouble. And Constantine just can’t help trying to stop them, whether it’s in defense of a friend or out of sheer curiosity. We’ve got a hunger demon, finance demons, a pedophiliac necromancer, time-slipped soldiers from the ‘Nam, the struggle between the Resurrection Crusade and the Damnation Army (the loose overarching plot that takes over halfway through), and a strange interlude featuring the Swamp Thing that I’m not really sure should have been included here. Constantine will take his licks and deal out some in return, even if it kills him. Or, more likely, even if it kills everyone he’s ever known….

I…had some issues with this. Some of these issues are clearly taste, while others are situational. Most frustrating for me, given my slight OCD over getting the whole story, is that this feels like you’re coming into the middle of the story despite it being the first volume. John Constantine was created as part of the Alan Moore run on Swamp Thing, and this spins out of that with Constantine reeling from the events of a particularly casualty-heavy story arc over there that is never really explained here. Also frustrating for me is the rather cynical view implicit to the events here that the forces of Heaven are no better than the forces of Hell. In fact, I would almost say that the Resurrection Crusade is more sinister than the Damnation Army! At least the forces of Hell are upfront about it–they’re demon’s! What do you expect? Look, I get that some televangelists are/were money-hungry frauds that give the rest of us Christians a bad name. That doesn’t mean you have to have to feature only the worst of the lot. Now, I do admit that it was not Heaven itself that was portrayed as sinister, but rather some of their earthly human agents, who don’t necessarily represent the will of God. It just rubbed me the wrong way, I suppose. I’m hoping this is handled better in the future. We’ll see. I could also do without the gratuitous commentary on ’80s British politics and social issues. I get it, there wasn’t a single British comic writer that approved of Margaret Thatcher! Can you stop slapping me in the face with it?

CONTENT: Quite a bit of language. No uses of the “F-Bomb” that I can recall/find, but everything else is used, including a heap of British profanity and slang. Harsh violence, occasionally torturous. Strong sexual content, including a rape and the implication of pedophilia (portrayed as horrific in both cases, not glorified), semi-explicit without going so far as outright nudity. Strong occult content, which should be obvious. Demons, spells, necromancy….it’s all here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Comics/Graphic Novels, Reviews

Review: “Libriomancer” by Jim C. Hines

Title: Libriomancer
Author: Jim C. Hines
Series: Magic Ex Libris #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: DAW, 2012

About a year ago, I was walking about in Barnes & Noble killing time and looking at books when the cover of Libriomancer caught my eye. Now, I’ve seen a good deal of criticism of the cover art on the internet, and I’ll admit that there are perhaps a couple issues with it on closer examination, but it served its purpose and got my attention. I snapped a picture of it with my phone, intending to check it out from the library (Hey! I was broke!) and promptly forgot about it. Months passed, and I found The Little Red Reviewer’s blog where she gave the book a glowing review (which you can find here). With it back on my radar, I tracked down a copy…which sat in my to-be-read stack for far too long. Oh well, I finally got around to picking it up, and I have to say that this was a truly incredible ride.

Most of us (at least if you’re reading this) know that books are magic. How else are you able to travel faraway lands and have exciting adventures without ever leaving your house? Books have a magic all their own. But for those with the gift, this magic goes even deeper. According to Mr. Hines, there are two factors when dealing with magic: access and form. Access is the innate gift–either you’ve got it or you don’t. Form, now that’s the hard part…you’ve got to have an incredible amount of willpower to form even the simplest object. Or you did, until Johannes Gutenberg hit on the idea of harnessing the collective belief of the masses. Get enough people reading the same book and so long as you have access you can form whatever you want from its pages. So long as it will fit through the book, at least. Then of course there are items deemed far too dangerous to be allowed to be accessed, their books “locked” to prevent Libriomancers from accessing them. No Rings of Power, no time turners, no zombie plagues. Gutenberg runs the Porters as a benevolent dictator, granted immortality by the Holy Grail before he locked it away, and the Porters try to protect the world from the effects of magic run amok, concealing the existence of vampires, werewolves, and any number of other creepy-crawlies. Gutenberg’s Automaton golems serve as his personal enforcers and cops, keeping anyone from causing too big an issue. It’s a system that’s worked for hundreds of years…but now it may be falling apart at the seams.

Isaac Vainio is a Porter, pulled from fieldwork after proving he lacked the control necessary to operate safely without endangering himself or others. These days he works as a librarian, cataloging new books and their magical potential for the Porters. It’s not what he’d like to be doing, but he can’t really complain. At least until a couple of “sparklers,” an upstart vampire race more properly known as Sanguinarius Meyerii, crash his library and start demanding to know why the Porters are hunting vampires. The legitimacy of your complaints aside, attacking a Libriomancer in a library? That’s a really bad idea, even if he’s a little rusty. Isaac never was one to leave well enough alone, and he soon discovers that he’s not the only Porter to be attacked. In fact, someone has it out for Porters and vampires alike, hoping to start a war between the two. To make matters worse, Gutenberg is nowhere to be found, and some of the destruction could only have been caused by an Automaton…. Isaac is out to discover just what’s going on, joined by Lena Greenwood, a nymph with her own scores to settle, but with the entire magical world in an uproar there may be little they can do–and few people they can call for backup….

I really enjoyed this book, in case you couldn’t tell. It’s a little pulpy at times, but with more quality than you can reasonably expect from a genre experiencing such a population boom as Urban Fantasy is having at the moment. There were echoes of The Dresden Files in there, but not in a ripped-off sense. Inside this book you’ll find well-written characters, a convoluted plot, heroes, villains, moral ambiguity, mild philosophizing, snarky dialogue, and a narrator who is as big a Sci-Fi geek as I am. And that’s saying something!

I see a lot of reviewers on the internet, Goodreads in particular, who have a mistaken understanding of what Mr. Hines was doing with the character of Lena Greenwood. Lena is a dryad, born out of a cheap Gor knockoff. Are you unfamiliar with Gor and its reputation? Count yourself lucky. Short version, it’s a long-running sci-fi/fantasy series by John Norman in which he reveals his fantasies, writing about (and if Wikipedia is accurate, actually advocating for) a society where women are all subservient to men, especially sexually. Lena was pulled from one of the many knockoffs of this series, and being a fictional race is subject to the rules set forth in her novel. Essentially, she’s hardwired to be submissive to the desires and preferences of her lover. Her likes, dislikes, personality, and even to some degree her physical appearance will shift to align with what her lover wants her to be. Bad enough under normal circumstances, but her current lover has been captured by the vampires…. Now, I see a lot of reviewers expressing outrage over how Lena is written, but they’re all missing the point. Unlike with John Norman’s fantasy-fulfillment exhibitionism, which I get the impression was never meant to be anything but, you’re not supposed to be okay with how Lena was written. You’re supposed to be horrified for her, to sympathize, to see what that kind of writing would entail if pushed to its logical extreme. Mr. Hines isn’t being sexist, he’s exposing and protesting against sexism. Don’t believe me? Look up his Wikipedia article, especially the section linked here, and then tell me that I’m reading him wrong.

CONTENT: Violence, sometimes a bit disturbing. R-rated language. Sexual content and themes that, while not explicit, are most certainly not meant for younger audiences (See above).

UPDATE: Here’s a short story detailing Isaac’s first encounter with Smudge the fire spider, in which Mr. Hines refers to himself as a “midlevel hack.”

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Novels, Reviews