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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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Review: “Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Play With Fire” by Christopher Golden, Doug Petrie, Tom Sniegoski, Ryan Sook, Hector Gomez & Cliff Richards

Title: Play With Fire
Series: Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Publisher/Copyright: Dark Horse, 2003

Play With Fire is a collection of shorter stories from all over the place–special issues, one-shots, annuals, even TV Guide. As such, its somewhat inconsistent, and I’ve chosen to handle each story as a separate mini-review within this post. A couple of these overlap with the later collection Food Chain for some incomprehensible reason. None of these are officially canon, since Whedon didn’t have any direct involvement, but they don’t contradict the official canon unless otherwise noted. I’ll make note of where they fall in the timeline, as well as where you can find them aside from this collection.

Stinger (Buffy The Vampire Slayer/Wizard #1/2)
Written by Christopher Golden
Art by Hector Gomez.
Rating: ****
Synopsis: Xander is forced to fight a local bully, but both are surprised by a nasty scorpionesque demon that feeds on those who enjoy inflicting fear and pain.
Review: Well-written, but with mediocre art. The characters sound like themselves, and I enjoyed the story, but the art kinda bugs me. Hector Gomez also did the art for The Dust Waltz, and I wasn’t a fan there either. Xander’s look is a little bit too “square-jawed handsome hero” for my taste–the draw of the character is that he doesn’t look like that, but is a hero when the chips are down nevertheless.
Continuity: Since Cordelia and Xander are dating but Faith is nowhere to be seen, this happens between the second and third episodes of the third season of Buffy.
Where to find it: This story is one of the harder ones to find. To my knowledge, it was only reprinted in this collection, Food Chain, and Buffy Omnibus Vol. IV.

Play With Fire (Dark Horse Extra #11-16)
Written by Christopher Golden
Art by Hector Gomez
Rating: ****
Synopsis: Buffy is out patrolling with Willow and Giles, who is growing concerned with Willow’s dabbling in the Dark Arts. Events soon provide them with even more material for this discussion….
Review: Not outstanding, but not bad. The characters all seemed like themselves, though Giles is a bit more clumsy here than he should be. Staid British librarian or no, Giles can kick @$$ when he wants to. The root of this story is particularly interesting since it was published long before the events of season 6, where Willow’s magical abilities grow out of control. The art was okay, and Xander was nowhere to be seen so Gomez’s art didn’t really annoy me as much this time. It’s still not up to the regular standard I expect from Dark Horse, but it’s consistent with his other Buffy material so I feel like harping on it is getting unfair.
Continuity: This is set sometime during Buffy Season 3, with no real way to be more specific. Since I think Faith would have come along if she were in the picture, I set this between the second and third episodes as well.
Where to find it: Again, this is rare. Looks like it’s only included here and in Buffy Omnibus Vol. III.

The Latest Craze (Buffy The Vampire Slayer Annual ’99)
Written by Christopher Golden & Tom Sniegoski
Art by Cliff Richards
Rating: *****
Synopsis: There’s a new craze sweeping Sunnydale High–Hooligans, little stuffed monsters in the vain of Furby but twice as creepy and a hundred times more kleptomaniacal.
Review: This was a fun tale in the vein of Gremlins. References to Furby were in evidence as well, which makes sense. The art was excellent, as should be expected from Cliff Richards.
Continuity: I put this one just after Buffy S03E11: Gingerbread, given the relationships in evidence, the presence of “Pez Witch,” and the lack of Wesley. It’s a bit close to Ethan Rayne’s last appearance (Buffy S03E06: Band Candy) but that really just makes the jokes about him being a glutton for punishment even funnier.
Where to find it: This story is reprinted here, in Food Chain, Buffy omnibus Vol. III, and online via the BBC (link).

Dance With Me (TV Guide Special)
Written by Christopher Golden
Art by Hector Gomez
Rating: ****
Synopsis: Buffy skips a school dance to go out patrolling, only to run into the student she turned down eight times. Seems he knew she was the slayer, and got himself vamped in order to force her to pay attention….
Review: Again, I have no problem with Christoper Golden’s writing. This was incredibly short at five pages, but nevertheless captured the characters and their interactions pretty well. The art wasn’t bad, although I’m still not a fan of how Hector Gomez draws Xander.
Continuity: The credits page places this during Buffy‘s third season. Based on Cordelia and Faith being absent, I place it late in the season, arbitrarily placing it between episodes 15 and 16. Honestly, though, there’s nothing in the story itself to say that this isn’t happening during the first or second seasons.
Where to find it:
This one is really rare. So far as I can tell, its only reprinted here and in Buffy Omnibus Vol. III.

Bad Dog (Buffy The Vampire Slayer Annual ’99)
Written by Doug Petrie
Art by Ryan Sook
Rating: *****
Synopsis: During the full moon, Buffy finds Oz’s cage smashed and both Oz and Willow missing. Fearing the worst, Buffy and Angel set out to track them down….but the real enemy may not be Oz after all.
Review: Doug Petrie’s work is always spot-on, probably a benefit of being one of the writers for the actual show. Ryan Sook’s work here shows some improvement over his Spike & Dru stuff, but is not yet up to the level of awesomeness he achieved on Ring Of Fire.
Continuity: I set this tale just after Buffy S03E18: Earshot for no good reason whatsoever. Wesley is nowhere to be seen, but he could just be conveniently absent for the day. Plus, at this point his character is so useless that I wouldn’t put it past Giles and the others to simply exclude him.
Where to find it: This story is reprinted here, in Food Chain, Buffy omnibus Vol. IV, and online via the BBC (link).

CONTENT: Vampire & Werewolf violence consistent with the show. Brief sexual innuendo and flirting, but nothing explicit. Mild profanity. Buffyverse vampires, which could be considered occultic if you wanted to go there.

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Mini-reviews: Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, part 1

This is a compilation of my review for the first three Hellboy collections. Why only the first three? Because that’s all my library has. I’m going to have to explore other avenues to get my hands on Hellboy’s further adventures…..

VOLUME I: SEED OF DESTRUCTION (****)
Story and art by Mike Mignola, Written by John Byrne

I’m a huge fan of the Hellboy films—the character, the world it creates, all of it. I didn’t realize until after watching it that there was a comic it was based on, and for a while I had no good way to access those comics even after discovering their existence. I did eventually get my hands on a collection of shorts, including the source for that talking corpse from the movie, but never the original miniseries they mainly drew from for the main thrust of the film. That eluded me….until now. The problem is, that first miniseries was created a long time ago and the character and world have had a long time to mature and grow since then. As a result, this first effort didn’t compare well. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but not nearly as epic in scale as the film. A vast underground complex in Russia, accessible through Rasputin’s tomb? I’m sorry, but that trumps the comic’s crumbling lakeside manor. Though I suppose that manor is a bit more Lovecraftian, which was probably what Mignola was going for….Some other stuff kind of bugged me—such as the moment Hellboy and Abe identify someone from a photograph of a doomed expedition that has been talked about but never seen by the reader. It felt like we should have been able to make that leap too, and I spent five minutes hunting for where we had been shown that picture only to find it doesn’t exist. I’m told it all gets better as it goes, and there’s not a chance this disappointing start will get me to quit, but it saddened me nonetheless. On the other hand, there was some interesting material as well, such as the aliens monitoring the Ogdru Jahad’s prison. I’ll be interested to see if they appear again.

VOLUME II: WAKE THE DEVIL (*****)
Written and drawn by Mike Mignola

This is more like it! You may recall I was disappointed in the first Hellboy volume’s lack of scope. This volume, however, hits the mark without fail.

So you thought the death of Rasputin in volume I was the end of Project Ragna Rok? Think again! The rest of Rasputin’s cult is still at large and newly-awakened, and Rasputin himself is not so dead as Hellboy and company would like to think. In a Nazi castle above the arctic circle, plans are being set into motion to once more try and bring about the end of the world…..unless Hellboy and his friends can once more stave off the apocalypse!

We are introduced to more of the BPRD crew this time around, as well as getting more of an idea of Hellboy’s origins and destiny. On the whole, I love this series!

VOLUME III: THE CHAINED COFFIN AND OTHERS (*****)
Written and drawn by Mike Mignola

This is so far my favorite collection of Hellboy comics. Instead of a long, cosmically-significant storyarc, here we have a number of shorter works–vignettes, even. This collection is really an anthology, collecting various one-offs or short serials Mignola created as backups to other features. While I enjoy the longer storyarcs, I think for my money that Hellboy works best in this format. Introduce monster, give backstory for monster, have Hellboy fight monster, get his butt kicked, and finally win. Rinse and repeat. And yet it never gets boring or repetitive as Mignola uses each tale to build the occult-encrusted world Hellboy inhabits. This collection by rights ought to be read alongside the first two volumes, as some of the stories happen in the interim between Seed Of Destruction and Wake The Devil. The stories included are:

  • The Corpse (Ireland, 1959): Hellboy challenges the Little People for the return of a kidnapped child. Remember the bit in the first Hellboy film with the talking corpse Hellboy carries around for a while? That’s inspired by this story, I believe.
  • The Iron Shoes (Ireland, 1961): Hellboy takes on one of the Fae who does not share the usual faery aversion to iron.
  • The Baba Yaga (Russia, years before Wake The Devil): Mignola planned out this story as a backup feature in a canceled miniseries, so it never actually got published. The events therein, however, are referenced in Wake The Devil, so Mignola went ahead and wrote it specially for this collection.
  • A Christmas Underground (England, Christmas Eve 1989): Hellboy takes on an ancient evil and ends the curse haunting an English manor.
  • The Chained Coffin (England, immediately after Seed Of Destruction): Shaken by Rasputin’s allegations regarding his origin and fate in Seed Of Destruction, Hellboy travels to the ruined church where he entered this world in search of answers.
  • The Wolves Of Saint August (The Balkans, 1994): Father Kelly, an old friend and compatriot of Hellboy’s, is murdered along with an entire village. Hellboy wants to know why….and who he’s going to make pay!
  • Almost Colossus (Romania, immediately after Wake The Devil): This serves to tie up some loose ends from the Wake The Devil story–namely, the fates of Liz Sherman and the homunculous.

Content: Mild language. A fair amount of violence, some of it bloody, but given the stylized nature of Mignola’s art this is usually not too disturbing. Likewise the nudity that occasionally creeps in–female monsters are not going to wear clothes just because the Comic Code Authority thinks they should…..

Occult content: A fair amount. 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. Vampires show up, and the particular vampires in question are implied to be the unholy offspring of a man and the godess Hecate. In one story Hellboy has to find a burial place for a reanimated and talkative skeleton before dawn. The Russian…..godess? Superstition? How do you describe Baba Yaga?….anyway, Baba Yaga shows up. There is a werewolf tale that has its root in a curse leveled on the local nobility by a wandering priest outraged at their idolatry. The Colossus story in itself doesn’t have any real occult elements, but the characters do debate matters of theology and the role of creation.

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