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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: “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: “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: “Crown & Key: The Shadow Revolution” by Clay Griffith & Susan Griffith

Title: The Shadow Revolution
Authors: Clay Griffith & Susan Griffith
Series: Crown & Key
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Del Rey, 2015

You know me, always on the lookout for some good urban fantasy or steampunk. If said book happens to be set in the Victorian era, I’ll not complain. I’ve a growing taste for that sub-genre tentatively labeled “gaslamp fantasy.” My newest find? Clay and Susan Griffith. This is their first book that I’ve found, but I’m already on the hunt both for the remaining two novels in this trilogy and their previous endeavor, Vampire Empire.

Something stalks the gas-lit streets of London, hungry and hunting. Few would peg dashing playboy Simon Archer as a supernatural vigilante, but then there aren’t many aware that he’s possibly the last scribe in existence. Give him something to write with–pen and paper, clay and a stylus, blood and anything relatively flat–and you’ll never know what hit you. Simon is usually more interested in charming his way into high society’s boudoir than he is in chasing things that go bump in the night, his magical adventures more of a hobby than a serious pursuit. Until, that is, a slavering werewolf tears out the throat of an old friend. Now Simon is on the trail of a threat far bigger than he had ever imagined, and he’s going to need all the help he can get…Help like his mentor/sidekick Nick Barker, a magical jack of all trades who would rather kick back with a pint than endanger himself in thrilling heroics. Help like Malcolm MacFarlane, a strapping Scottish werewolf hunter whose father may or may not have killed Simon’s. Help like Kate Anstruther, beautiful-yet-brilliant daughter of the Empire’s foremost explorer and a talented Alchemist. Together, they just might manage to put an end to the impending onslaught. If they’re incredibly lucky, they might even survive….

The Shadow Revolution is a gaslamp fantasy rollercoaster of a thriller, a summer blockbuster in novel form, and this is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. The action never lets up, delivering a truly thrilling tale. Unfortunately, this breakneck pace leaves little time to take some of the characters much past their Central Casting descriptions. There’s some character development, to be sure, especially Simon and Kate, but a number of the interesting side characters get shortchanged. I’d like to know how Kate’s manservant Hogarth became such a beast, and the steampunk engineer Penny Carter is definitely intriguing as well. So far as that goes, we never do find out just what the villains’ endgame was, just that it was nasty and necessitated the removal of our protagonists as an obstacle. That’s enough, though, and you never really notice the omission until things are wrapped up. At the end of the day, if you’re looking for a fun, by-the-numbers thriller, look no further. That’s what the authors set out to deliver, and they do a masterful job of it.

CONTENT: R-rated profanity, if you’re British. If you’re American, probably PG-13. Moderate sexual innuendo, not too explicit. Strong violence, occasionally gory and/or disturbing. Rampant magical content, from necromancy to alchemy.

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