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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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Review: “Wanted” by Mark Millar & J.G. Jones

Title: Wanted
Writer: Mark Millar
Artist: J.G. Jones & Dick Giordano (Flashback sequences in issue #6)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Image Comics, 2007

Every once in a while you run across a book like Wanted. Well written, excellent art, genius premise, a smart story and interesting characters….and a stated goal of offending every sensibility you have. In that, Wanted certainly succeeds. Am I recommending you go read it? That depends on who you are and how easy you are to offend. This one’s not for everyone. It’s been billed “Watchmen for super-villains,” if that tells you anything.

Wesley Gibson is the ultimate loser. His girlfriend is cheating on him with his supposed-best friend, he has a dead-end job with a boss who chews him out regularly, he’s a hypochondriac, and to top it all off he seems to be a clone of Eminem. But all that changes when a woman named Fox upends his life. It seems that Wesley’s father was the Killer, one of a cabal of super-villains who have secretly run the world since 1986. Now the Killer is dead, and Wesley stands to inherit not only his worldly possessions but also his place in The Fraternity. Before you know it, Wesley is a whole new person with a whole new set of…well, maybe not friends. Associates might be a better word. Tensions are rising within the Fraternity. After years of peacefully keeping the world subjugated, certain members are getting tired of living behind the scenes. Civil War seems eminent, and there’s no better time to be the Killer….

Imagine suddenly having the ability to do whatever you wanted, with absolutely no consequences. Blow away a restaurant full of people? Police have no suspects. Make your “friend” who’s cheating with your girlfriend disappear? Doesn’t even make the news. Whatever your fancy, it will be covered up. How? Because the super-villains are ruling the world. Do you remember the Heroes? No, of course you don’t. They’ve been relegated to cheesy TV shows and comic books. They never really existed. Or at least, that’s the story now. Turns out that in 1986 all the super-villains – ALL of them – teamed up and took down the mighty Heroes, rewriting reality so that they never even existed. A certain pair of caped crusaders now think they just played those characters on TV, and the world’s greatest hero spends his days in a wheelchair staring out the window at a world that has forgotten him, wondering just what he’s trying to remember. The gang’s all here, given a gritty update and with their names changed to protect the author from lawsuits. Some of them are recognizable, others less so. Remember Bizarro? The failed clone of Superman that turns everything opposite? He’s been translated into [REDACTED]*, a “Down’s Syndrome copy of the world’s greatest hero.” Clayface? Try [REDACTED]*, a creature made up from the feces of the world’s six-hundred and sixty-six most evil beings that have somehow become sentient. There’s more in the same vein. Fox is clearly Catwoman stuck in Halle Berry’s body. (No, I have no idea whether that’s a coincidence. The comic was released first, but I don’t know how far back the casting for Catwoman was announced.) Mister Rictus is a darker take on the Joker, a former priest who died for a few moments only to find that there’s nothing waiting on the other side. Now? Now he does whatever he wants, eats what(or who)ever he wants, fornicates with whatever he wants. Currently? He wants to take America from his old rival Professor Solomon Seltzer….

The content here is over the top offensive. There’s the obvious profanity, sexual content and gore, but there’s also adapting DC’s Bizarro to have Down’s Syndrome (and then making fun of him), or putting not-Superman in a wheelchair….just like the guy that used to play him in the movies. At the same time, the premise is genius. The characters are all incredibly well executed. The plot is a purposeful inversion of Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” theme. This is an incredible piece of work….except for how offensive it is. So, should you read it? I’ll let you decide.

CONTENT: R-rated profanity throughout. Explicit sexual content, including references to rape and bestiality. Strong, gory violence. Not for children!

*I keep this blog PG, even when the works I’m reviewing definitely aren’t. Redacted names contain profanity.

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Review: “The Shards Of Heaven” by Michael Livingston

Title: The Shards Of Heaven
Author: Michael Livingston
Series: The Shards Of Heaven Vol. I
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Tor, 2015

I enjoy books that take history and turn it on its head, showing the secret machinations that are happening behind the scenes. This was one of those books.

Julius Caesar is dead, assassinated just before his finest moment, and now the civilized world is ripped in two. Tensions run high between Rome and Alexandria, with the fate of an Empire hanging in the balance. In Egypt, Antony has aligned himself with Cleopatra and her son Caesarion, the blood-heir of Julius Caesar. In Rome, Caesar’s adopted son Octavian gathers his forces for a war that seems inevitable. Meanwhile, the Numidian prince Juba scours the Earth for an object of power that will allow him to avenge himself on Rome for the subjugation of his people. What he finds could bring the world to its knees….

The Shards of Heaven is the first in a new series that takes the real-life history of the birth of the Roman Empire and infuses it with a healthy dose of historical fantasy behind the scenes for a fast-paced romp full of engaging characters. If you know your history, then you know certain characters are doomed from the start, but that doesn’t stop you from rooting for them. The central conceit here is that there are several artifacts that have shaped history through the ages, giving rise to myth and legend, always half-remembered versions of the truth. Poseidon’s trident/Moses’ staff, Zeus’ Aegis…and the Ark of the Covenant, the most powerful Shard of Heaven in existence. Some things were not meant for the hands of man….

CONTENT: Some strong violence. Moderate sexual innuendo, nothing too explicit. I don’t recall any profanity (though at this point its been several weeks since I finished it due to scheduling snafus), but there may have been a bit. Definitely some supernatural elements going on, kinda-sorta opposed to the traditional Judeo-Christian worldview, but also not really. To explain would court spoilers….

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Review: “Darkstorm” by M.L. Spencer

Title: Darkstorm
Author: M.L. Spencer
Series: The Rhenwars Saga Vol. I
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Stoneguard Publications, 2016

Thought I had posted this already. I received a copy of this in exchange for a review. Now I can’t find any information on it to link to, be it Amazon or Goodreads, which is a bit frustrating for purposes of this blog. Oh well…..

Eons ago, the nation of Caladorn and the kingdoms of the Rhen existed in harmony. Those days are long past. Though they still share a root philosophy, at least so far as the nature of magic is concerned, relations between Bryn Calazar and Aerysius are far from friendly. Braden Reis is a Master of the Lyceum, sent to Aerysius as an ambassador in a last-ditch attempt to prevent war . . . but all is not as it seems. When an Acolyte from Aerysius’ Hall of Watchers stumbles upon an unholy conspiracy involving the demonic power of Xerys, Prince of Chaos, Braden finds himself embroiled in a struggle against the most powerful members of both Colleges of Magic for the future of his entire world. If he fails, Chaos will reign supreme. If he succeeds, it may mean the end of the world as he knows it.

The world presented in Darkstorm is fascinating, to say the least. I initially feared Caladorn would prove the stereotypical fantasy land where women are forced to rely on men to protect them, but this wasn’t quite accurate—that only proves necessary if the woman in question has little status. There are many powerful women in Caladorn, though a good deal of their status and prestige seems to be founded in how alluring they are able to make themselves. Aerysius seems to be a bit more founded on equality, but as we spend a comparatively short time there I cannot say for certain. Fantasy tropes pop up left and right, but usually cast in a new light or employed in interesting combinations that dampen any potential annoyance.

The characters shown here are without fail three-dimensional and complex. One seems inconsistent at times, but that turns out to be intentional. Braden Reis is a man of convictions, with blood on his hands despite (or because of) his strong moral compass. Braden’s lover, Master Sephana Clemley, holds a similarly steady morality despite serving a rival nation. Faced with evidence of corruption infecting both their orders, Braden and Sephana barely hesitate before seeking the truth. Also caught up in events is Sephana’s apprentice, Merris Bryar, whose nosiness tips the Masters off to the conspiracy in their midst, and Braden’s wine-sotted brother Quinlan. Even the antagonists prove complicated, and their motivations understandable even as we deplore their methods. We aren’t even entirely sure they’re wrong, in most cases.

Bottom line, this was an amazingly entertaining read. I do have some issues with the ending, but I cannot discuss them without courting spoilers, and so will leave off with merely that vague caveat. I look forward to seeing more in this trilogy when the time comes.

CONTENT: R-rated profanity. Strong violence. Strong sexual content. Magic, though mostly fantasy-based as opposed to occultic.

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Review: “Star Wars Annual #1” by Kieron Gillen & Angel Unzueta

Title: Star Wars Annual #1
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Angel Unzueta
Series: Star Wars Annual #1 (Official Canon)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Marvel Comics, 2015

I’m annoyed by comics stories that don’t have a proper title. It makes things like this more difficult. Ah, don’t mind me. I’ll get over it….

Rebel agent Eneb Ray has spent years in deep cover on Coruscant as a minor revenue official. It’s not the most glamorous assignment, but it does allow him access to information on Imperial shipping that he can feed to the Alliance. Eneb Ray will be the first to tell you he’s no hero…until a small collection of Alliance-sympathetic senators are scheduled for execution. On orders from Princess Leia, Ray infiltrates the prison only to find himself presented with an unprecedented opportunity–the Emperor himself is scheduled to arrive in under an hour….

This was a pretty good story. As a one-shot it has little relation to the events of the ongoing series, and its not entirely clear when exactly this is set other than sometime after the battle of Yavin. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it. Ray was an interesting character to get to know, and I look forward to hopefully seeing him show up again in the future. I think given the early setting and our knowledge of later events I can say without spoilers that the assassination attempt goes poorly, in no small part due to the machinations of Palpatine. You simply don’t outwit that guy, not usually. Bottom line: this story is non-essential but well worth the read.

CONTENT: Mild violence, no gore. No sex or profanity.

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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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