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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: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” by Alan Dean Foster

Title: The Force Awakens
Author: Alan Dean Foster
Series: Star Wars: Episode VII
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Del Rey, 2016

Okay, let me be incredibly clear about this: the rating above applies to this novelization only! I loved the movie, with just a couple minor quibbles to complain about. It was incredible. This book? Sadly mediocre.

Hey, look at that! I managed to make this review almost spoiler-free even without trying to!

Thirty years after the events of The Return Of The Jedi, it seems that the more things change the more they stay the same. The Rebellion has become the New Republic, now the dominant power in the galaxy…at least for the moment. After the death of the Emperor, the Empire fell prey to numerous revolutions and uprisings, signing a peace treaty with the New Republic before melting away and reforming in the Unknown Regions as the First Order. Now, faced with a Senate that is unwilling to risk war and mounting evidence of First Order skulduggery, Leia Organa has formed the Resistance in the image of the Rebellion of old, a private military force to keep an eye on their old enemies. This would be so much easier if Luke was anywhere to be found, but in the wake of a particularly heart-wrenching family tragedy both he and her husband Han have disappeared….

I’m not sure what happened here. Alan Dean Foster is an accomplished author, both of original works and novelizations of films. As I noted above, I absolutely loved the movie. So what went wrong with the book? Let me put it this way: if I hadn’t seen the movie already, this would prove far from satisfactory. While I projected the amazing performances from the film onto the characters as presented in the novel, even managing to carry that through the “deleted scenes” as it were, they would have been fairly uninteresting if I were experiencing them here for the first time. The writing was fairly (though not completely) emotionless when it came to exploring the characters, or perhaps it just pales in comparison with the onscreen performance backed by John Williams’ score. (EDIT: I think this was a huge part of my issue. A number of my favorite moments in the film weren’t captured in full effect here, possibly because Foster was working from a screenplay and not the finished film, which would of course not reflect any added nuance of character injected by the actor. Other scenes are more fully rendered.) Part of the problem is that we almost never get into their heads. That’s why I was so excited to get my hands on this–there are a number of places in the movie where I really wanted to know what a given character was thinking. Normally, this would be the province of the novelization. Not this time. We get a couple snippets of thought, but mostly obvious stuff. Was this a forced tactic by those in charge of maintaining the secrets yet to be revealed? Maybe. I’ll admit that I was hoping for more clues on certain theories, especially Rey’s backstory.

Of course, there are good things to find here too. Numerous sequences that were cut from the film, such as more with Leia, Rey’s first encounter with snow, or a scene where Unkar Plutt tracks down Rey and the Falcon on Takodana. Usually these scenes offer illumination to other moments in the film, such as Rey reminding herself to flip the safety off on her blaster before firing. Too, Foster puts in a valiant effort when it comes to making other elements feasible. Starkiller Base gets a pseudo-scientific explanation for its power and firing mechanism, and Finn has trouble figuring out which tools Rey needs because of their disorganization, not because he’s unfamiliar with mechanics. Then too there are a few more hints regarding the resolution of certain mysteries. Kylo Ren finally realizes Rey’s true identity just before they commence their battle (meaning he’s still one up on us), and Snoke drops several more hints regarding his origins that still fall far short of revelation.

Bottom line: I’m not telling you to give this one a miss, but I am telling you to see the movie first. That experience will add some much-needed flavor to this one.

CONTENT: Mild to no profanity. Mild violence, occasionally heart-wrenching. You know the part I mean. Little to no sexual content.

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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: “The Prison In Antares” by Mike Resnick

Title: The Prison In Antares
Author: Mike Resnick
Series: Dead Enders #2 (The Birthright Universe)
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Pyr, 2015

Colonel Nathan Pretorius is the best agent the Human-led Democracy has in their war with the alien Transkeii Coalition. Fresh from a suicidally-difficult mission behind enemy lines that went off without even the slightest setback, Pretorius and his team are given a new assignment: rescue or eliminate a scientist captured by the Coalition before he loses the entire war for the Democracy. This time around the team is joined by Iris “Irish” Fitzhugh, a psychologist tasked with determining whether or not their target has given up vital information before being rescued. The rest of the Dead Enders all reprise their appearances from the previous book: contortionist and thief Sally “Snake” Kowalski, cyborg strongman Felix Ortega, computer genius Toni “Pandora” Levi, part-alien empath Circe, and the alien shapeshifter (kind of) nicknamed Proto.

The Prison In Antares is the sequel to Mike Resnick’s 2014 novel The Fortress In Orion. Resnick has an impressive reputation in the sci-fi community, with five Hugo wins and over thirty nominations, so I had high hopes. Too high, as it turned out. The first book was marred by a plot where a seemingly-impossible mission was pulled off without a single setback or casualty. This time around Resnick has at least somewhat improved on the failings in the last book, but not enough. This time the mission doesn’t go off without a hitch, there are setbacks and obstacles that the team must deal with, and the mission isn’t without casualty either. Unfortunately, some of that difficulty comes about because the apparent intelligence of the characters seems to have been markedly reduced between books. Casualties, when they do occur, spur from characters making idiotic mistakes instead of meaningful moments of self-sacrifice or calculated risks to achieve a desired end. The book is still fun and entertaining, and Resnick’s reputation suggests that this series is not representative of his work, but I’d start someplace else in his bibliography.

CONTENT: Moderate amounts of violence, occasionally gruesome. Occasional R-rated language. Occasional sexual innuendo, nothing too explicit.

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Review: “The Fortress In Orion” by Mike Resnick

Title: The Fortress In Orion
Author: Mike Resnick
Series: Dead Enders #1 (The Birthright Universe)
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Pyr, 2014

As some of you may know, I review for the San Francisco/Manhattan Book Review in exchange for free books. I’m usually careful not to inadvertently get myself dropped into the middle of a new series. Then I requested The Prison In Antares, not realizing it was book two in a new series. So I hastily tracked down The Fortress In Orion to catch up before I set in. Now I find out that everything Resnick has ever written is set in the same universe! (Okay, just most of it.) I’ve got a lot of reading to do….

The (mostly) human Democracy is at war with the alien Transkei Coalition, fighting a war that they may not be able to win. Colonel Nathan Pretorius is the Democracy’s go-to man for crazy, impossible missions…when those missions haven’t left him in the hospital growing a new spleen. This next mission? This one is going to top them all…. The Democracy has managed to clone a replacement for General Michkag, the top Transkei commander. Its up to Nathan and whatever fools he can convince to follow him to capture if possible, kill if necessary, the real Michkag and leave the friendly one in his place to try and bring the war to a peaceful conclusion. The odds of this mission ending in death for the entire team? Not worth thinking about. Failure isn’t an option. Pretorius and his Dead Enders are just going to have to find a way to infiltrate The Fortress In Orion….

This one…this one has me conflicted. I really liked the characters, every one of them felt well-realized and interesting. The setup was good, and had the potential to be a great story. But you know what you need for a great story? There’s this literary device called Things Going Wrong. You see, its just not interesting when everything goes to plan and the good guys carry off their allegedly difficult, nay, impossible mission without a hitch or casualty. Its far more interesting when the crap hits the fan and everything goes wrong but they somehow manage to squeak out victory anyway. Unfortunately, that’s not what happens here. Occasionally a wrench gets thrown into the works, just for flavor, but since Pretorius is following a careful plan of winging it anyway that never seems to matter. Something went wrong? Give me three pages and I’ll turn it to my advantage. There’s never any real danger or tension, despite everyone saying how dangerous everything is. I’m not giving up on Resnick, his reputation is too shiny for one book to tarnish, and I’m obligated to read the sequel anyways, but I will admit this was a disappointment. On the other hand, he managed to keep things moving along at such a clip that I didn’t quite notice until the ride was over that there was never any real danger. The tongue-in-cheek tone was also pretty great.

CONTENT: R-rated language, not gratuitous. Mild sexual innuendo. Occasional violence, sometimes disturbing.

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Review: “Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor Archives Vol. I” by Tony Lee et al.

Title: The Eleventh Doctor Archives Vol. I
Writers: Tony Lee, Joshua Hale Fialkov, Matthew Dow Smith, & Dan McDaid
Artists: Andrew Currie, Richard Piers Rayner, Horacio Domingues, Tim Hamilton, Mark Buckingham, Matthew Dow Smith, Josh Adams, Paul Grist, Blair Shedd, Mitch Gerads, Dan McDaid, Charlie Kirchoff, Phil Elliott, Rachelle Rosenberg, Kyle Latino, & Deborah McCumiskey
Series: Doctor Who (Series 2, 2010) #1-12 + Annual 2011
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Titan Comics, 2015

How do you explain Doctor Who? The Doctor is an alien who looks human (“No, you look Timelord!”), the last of his kind, travelling all of time and space in a vessel camouflaged to look like a 1960s British police telephone box. There’s a fair bit of tourism, to be sure, but the Doctor is always willing to help someone in need…and since his ship has a habit of depositing him when and where he’s needed rather than where he wants to be, he has ample opportunity. When critically injured he regenerates into a new body, thus allowing the showrunners to do a semi-reboot every few years without actually hitting the reset button and starting from scratch. Clear as mud? Good! Let’s move on to the book, shall we? This particular tome is a collection of Doctor Who tie-in comics starring the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) and his companions Amy and Rory Pond, set during Amy and Rory’s honeymoon in between the fifth and sixth seasons of the revived series. It’s status as canon is questionable, but even with the occasional inconsistency* it shouldn’t be too hard to square things given the shifting nature of the timeline.

Doctor Who is at its most fun when it’s reveling in its core of whimsical lunacy, but there’s a deep vein of tragedy and determination to the character of the Doctor, and it’s the moments that this is revealed that make the franchise one of my favorites. Thankfully, this collection does both elements extremely well. There’s whimsy galore, from spam email infecting the TARDIS’ mainframe and manifesting as holograms to Kevin, a robotic tyrannosaur that briefly joins the adventuring. There’s a story that functions on one level as a standard Doctor Who romp and on another as an homage to the show Castle, transplanting the cast of that series to a space station. There are also more serious moments, such as a conversation between Rory and the Doctor about how much Amy means to them both, or between Rory and Kevin about finding your place and purpose in the world. These moments serve to ground the characters, making the Doctor, for all that he is an alien, very human. There’s a wide variety of art styles, and while I’m more a fan of some than others, they all seem to work for the stories being presented.

Most of these are written by Tony Lee, with the exceptions being the stories from the 2011 Doctor Who Annual. Spam Filtered (art by Andrew Currie, colors by Charlie Kirchoff) sees the TARDIS overrun with holographic spam mail after Rory and Amy use it’s extra-temporal internet connection to check their email, forcing the TARDIS to set down and reboot. Unfortunately, the planet they land on is scheduled for destruction in about an hour…. The art here is pretty good, especially when it features the Doctor or Amy. Rory kind of gets the shaft, though. Also, the leader of the Scroungers is totally Danny Trejo. In The Ripper’s Curse (art by Richard Piers Rayner, Horacio Domingues, & Tim Hamilton, colors by Phil Elliott) the Doctor and company get sidetracked to Whitechapel, London just in time for Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror. The art on this one is shared among three artists, which leads to some small inconsistencies in the visuals, but the colorist is the same all the way through and helps to smooth things out with a painted (maybe watercolor?) aesthetic. It was different. I liked it, most of the time anyway, though I’m starting to think nobody can draw Rory properly. They Think It’s All Over (art by Mark Buckingham, colors by Charlie Kirchoff) has our protagonists once more sidetracked on their way to their football match, this time a case of right place, wrong time. This time, they’re in the ninth century, stuck between the invading Vikings and Alfred The Great’s defending Britons. Good story, and it includes a scene that should help explain just why the Doctor and Rory are two of my favorite characters ever, in different ways. The art was good, as is expected from Buckingham. When Worlds Collide (art by Matthew Dow Smith, colors by Charlie Kirchoff) gives us a minimalist, geometric aesthetic that actually worked better than I’d expected. The story involves a strange resort built on a rift allowing for different spaces slightly out of phase with each other….until an accident merges them all. Suddenly, there’s a dozen Amys, a dozen Rorys, and a dozen Doctors….and a whole army of Sontarans. Also introducing Kevin the Dinosaur! Space Squid (art by Josh Adams, colors by Rachelle Rosenberg) was weird. I think the writer had a fixation with the television show Castle (and who can blame him?) because the side characters are all named after the cast of that series. Commander Katic, Major Fillion, everyone down to Ensign Quinn. It was honestly a bit distracting, though I did laugh when I first noticed. The likenesses aren’t bad, either…most of the time anyway. The story involves a mind-controlled cult on a space station that wants to enslave the galaxy to their giant squid god. Yeah, you read that right. It’s not Cthulhu though, unfortunately. Body Snatched (art by Matthew Dow Smith, colors by Charlie Kirchoff) sees the Doctor set off to save his friend Trevor, the Horse Lord of Khan. It seems Trevor has had his mind transferred into a bioengineered plant person on the hospital planet of Bedlam….Smith’s art is once more strangely suitable for the story being told. Silent Night (art by Paul Grist, colors by Phil Elliott) is a “silent” tale featuring the dynamic duo of The Doctor and…Santa Claus? Odd, but fun. Not sure how it fits in with last year’s Christmas Special though… Run, Doctor, Run (written by Joshua Hale Fialkov, art by Blair Shedd) is an homage to the Looney Toons, featuring a planet without conventional physics that makes up and down unpredictable. Down To Earth (written by Matthew Dow Smith, art by Mitch Gerads, colors by Gerads & Kyle Latino) was a nice little tale featuring an alien stranded on Earth who would rather just stay if it’s all the same to everyone. The art was good, too. Tuesday (written and art by Dan McDaid, colors by McDaid & Deborah McCumiskey) is told in the form of a letter home to Amy’s parents detailing a few of their adventures. The art was odd, but it worked.

CONTENT: Mild profanity, nothing too severe. Several murders, played to be quite scary in The Ripper’s Curse. A couple scantily clad characters. Minor sexual innuendos in the form of a couple “little blue pill” jokes in Spam Filtered or Rory’s sudden enthusiasm for a beach vacation at the thought of Amy in a bikini. Some prostitution in The Ripper’s Curse, nothing too explicit.

*One that springs immediately to mind is Jack the Ripper, here shown to be an alien stopped by the Doctor and friends, elsewhere stated to have been “stringy, but quite tasty” by Madame Vastra.

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