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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: “Deadlands: Ghostwalkers” by Jonathan Maberry

Title: Ghostwalkers
Author: Jonathan Maberry
Series: Deadlands
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: TOR, 2015

Much to my chagrin, I’m not all that deeply embedded in the world of RPGs. The interest is there, but traditionally there’s been a shortage of people willing to follow me down the rabbit hole. I recently managed to con some of my family into trying the new Star Wars RPG from Fantasy Flight, but that’s a different story. Anyway, all that to say that I’d never even heard of Deadlands when I picked this up, but very much want to further explore this version of the Weird West.

The world was shattered in 1863 when a native shaman performed a ritual intended to banish the white man from the Americas. Instead, reality itself has unraveled. The dead walk the Earth, forcing the Civil War to end in an uneasy stalemate. In California, the land itself was ripped apart by a massive quake, leaving a broken labyrinth of chasms and canyons populated by mysteries and monsters. In the wake of the disaster, a new element is discovered: Ghost Rock, burning hotter than coal and with a host of strange properties that is driving a new era of scientific discovery. Ex-Union soldier Grey Torrance is a gun for hire haunted by the ghosts of those he’s failed to save, constantly moving in an attempt to stay one step ahead of the specters who would drag him down to Hell. Torrance would tell you he’s no hero, but a chance encounter with a native scientist sets the wheels in motion for a confrontation with a madman who would conquer the world with an army of the walking dead….

Based on a successful tabletop RPG, Deadlands: Ghostwalkers is pulp fiction at its best. The quick and the undead mix with everything from Lovecraftian gods to creatures from another age in a yarn that, while perhaps short on what some would call literary merit, is still a darn fun tale. Seriously, this book has it all. Zombies, dinosaurs, zombie dinosaurs, necromancy, a subterranean world right out of Jules Verne, steampunk weaponry, even a third-act cameo by Cthulhu. The characters aren’t always the most three-dimensional, but that’s to be expected from this genre. A couple incidents early in the book feel like irrelevant side adventures at first, but later are revealed to be essential plot elements. I’ve never played the game, but the book seemed a pretty good introduction to the world, and I’m looking forward to exploring it further.

CONTENT: Strong violence, occasionally gruesome. Occasional R-rated profanity, but mostly pretty PG-13. Mildly explicit sexual content. A lot of the elements of this world could potentially be considered occultic, from possession to necromancy.

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Review: “A Storm Of Swords” by George R.R. Martin

Title: A Storm Of Swords
Author: George R.R. Martin
Series: A Song Of Ice And Fire, Volume III
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Bantam, 2003

Three down, two to go! Then I’ll join the horde of poor souls clamoring for the next book’s release…. Obviously, I loved this one. This is no real surprise, though, since everyone says this is the high point of the series so far. Given the awkward structure of the next two books, I can certainly understand that. Obviously, this will contain MAJOR spoilers for the first two books. You’ve been warned!

The chaos that has engulfed Westeros is abating slightly, in that the War of the Five Kings seems to be winding down a bit, but that in no way means that normalcy is anywhere on the horizon. In fact, for most of our favorite characters, things just keep on going from bad to worse. Stannis Baratheon’s bid to capture King’s Landing was foiled spectacularly by the cunning of Tyrion Lannister, but our favorite dwarf was nearly killed in the fighting. When he awakens from his wine-and-poppy coma, he finds himself without a nose….or his position as the King’s Hand. Instead of being hailed as the savior of King’s Landing, all Tyrion has earned is the hatred of the smallfolk. Now under the distrustful eyes of his father and sister, Tyrion is left little power to wield as he navigates the corridors of power. In the Riverlands, Robb Stark’s cause is dealt a deathblow by the loss of the North to Ironborn raiders. On the battlefield, Robb remains undefeated. In every other arena, things are looking dire. People are whispering about this young king who has won every battle, yet managed to lose the war. Heartbroken by the news of the supposed deaths of her two youngest sons, Catelyn Stark has committed treason, releasing Jaime Lannister from his captivity in exchange for the freedom of her daughters held captive in King’s Landing. Unfortunately for her, events have moved beyond such an exchange. While Tyrion would have honored that deal, Tywin has no such intention. Arya was never captured, escaping the city in the guise of a young boy headed to the Wall and now roaming the Riverlands trying to find her way to her mother at Riverrun. Sansa, on the other hand, has had a harsh time of things in King’s Landing. Now it looks as though she’s to be freed from her engagement to the young monster Joffrey, but such a stroke of good fortune can only last so long….Meanwhile, Bran and Rickon are far from dead. The treacherous Theon Greyjoy was unable to catch them, and so resorted to killing and mutilating a couple of peasant boys in the hopes that everyone would believe them dead. Now Rickon is being protected by the Wildling Osha while Bran travels north towards the wall with Jojen and Meera Reed in search of the three-eyed crow that haunts his dreams. North of the wall, Jon Snow walks a fine line as he pretends to be a deserter from the watch, all while watching for an opening to escape and report back to his brothers all he’s learned….if they don’t execute him for desertion when he gets there. Across the sea, Daenerys strikes a desperate gamble for the forces she will need in order to return to Westeros and reclaim her father’s throne….

Longtime readers of A Song Of Ice And Fire hail A Storm Of Swords as the high point in the series, at least as its been published so far. While I have yet to read A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons, I am inclined to agree. This was spectacular. Martin’s prose improves here, if anything. While some might describe the plot as rambling (a fair assessment, I suppose), I never got bored with it. The plot moved quickly despite various side roads, and the characters involved more than hold your interest through every up and down. And speaking of characters, Martin continues to shine here. The characters you already love get more complex, and new favorites are added to the mix…including one or two that you thought you hated. Believe it or not, all it takes to turn Jaime Lannister into an interesting character is the ability to get into his head. We got maybe a hint of his intriguing nature at the end of A Clash Of Kings, while he was being interrogated by Catelyn, but being inside his head takes the edge off his offensive tongue. Turns out he’s far more complex and conflicted than we’d been previously led to believe, and this reveal has been in the works since the first book. To say more would be to court spoilers, so I’ll shut up now. We also get a bit more insight into Tywin Lannister, though increased understanding does not necessarily bring with it increased affection. Tyrion is once again placed on the defensive, removed from his previous position of power and trying desperately to survive the machinations of his sister and father. As a result, he is somewhat less entertaining if no less interesting this time around. Without spoiling things, the major blows he takes towards the end of the book leave me holding my breath to see what happens to him next…and frustrated that I have to wait until book five to find out. In short, I cannot recommend this series highly enough. So go read it already!

CONTENT: R-rated profanity, not gratuitous, but not rare either. Rampant, disturbing violence, from hangings and decapitations to occasionally more grotesque fates–flaying comes up occasionally, though we don’t actually “see” that happen. There’s not-infrequent reference to torture though. Again, a fair amount of sexual content, including topics such as incest, rape, underage sex, and prostitution. Not really rendered in gratuitous detail, but often frankly and/or crudely discussed. There are also some elements that could be considered occultic, beyond the usual fantasy-based magic of dragons and monsters. The Others command an army of reanimated corpses, while the followers of R’hllor wield some very real power, including resurrecting the dead and reading the future (though not always reliably).

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Review: “Hellboy Vol. V: Conqueror Worm” by Mike Mignola

Title: Hellboy Vol. V: Conqueror Worm
Writer & Artist: Mike Mignola
Series: Hellboy
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Dark Horse, 2004

Yay! More Hellboy! Have I mentioned that my library is totally awesome? They got in another three or four volumes of the adventures of everyone’s favorite monster-fighting….er, monster. I’ve mentioned my affection for this rebellious demon before, here and here, and now there’s more to read! So without further ado, Conqueror Worm.

In the early days of WWII, while Rasputin was scheming to bring Hellboy to our world, Herman Von Klempt and some of his colleagues sought a more direct route to the apocalypse. There are non-corporeal beings living out among the stars, many of whom would love to end life across the universe if only given a body. The Nazis sent them one…a dead man, a hollow shell they could inhabit. Now that capsule is heading back to Earth, bearing with it the conqueror worm….

Not sure why, but this one just didn’t quite do it for me. I can’t put my finger on it–we’ve got Hellboy doing his thing, intergallactic Lovecraftian beasties, another appearance by Herman the Head-in-a-Jar, even an undead early superhero dispensing justice (though it’s never explained why he’s resurrected just at this point in time). What’s not to like? I don’t know. I enjoyed it, really I did, it just wasn’t quite as awesome as some of the other Hellboy stories I’ve read. It’s still a worthy addition to the series, and an important one too–we’re given a bit more insight into the Ogdru Jahad as well as those funky aliens we saw standing guard over their prison in the first volume. I look forward to seeing where Hellboy goes from here, especially since….well, that would be telling….

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: “A Game Of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin

Title: A Game Of Thrones
Author: George R.R. Martin
Series: A Song Of Ice And Fire, Volume I
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Bantam, 2011

I know, I know. How am I just getting around to this? As usual, I can only point at my groaning TBR shelf and jabber incoherently. I had actually never heard of it until the television show started and I was confronted with the promo image of Sean Bean sitting wearily on a throne made of swords. That got my attention, for obvious reasons. I’ve yet to see the show, given my well-documented position on watching adaptations before reading their original sources, but I’m told its incredible. With stars like Sean Bean and Peter Dinklage, I don’t doubt it…. Martin is of the opinion that anytime a character is placed in danger, you should fear for their safety. Characters die. Minor ones, and major ones. Frequently. Anyway, I’ll do my best to be spoiler-free here. This is one of those series where that matters….

A Song Of Ice And Fire takes us to Westeros, a fantasy realm where the seasons wax and wane unreliably, somehow tied to the ebb and flow of magic within the world. In this land, summer can last a decade…and winter can last a lifetime. The series is written in third-person, with each chapter being from the perspective of one of an enormous cast of characters. Eddard “Ned” Stark is lord of Winterfell and the northern half of Westeros, a sparsely-peopled expanse where it is not uncommon to see a light snow even on a summer morning. He and the king, Robert Baratheon, were raised together, closer than brothers, and together deposed the Mad King Aerys Targaryen fifteen years ago before placing Robert on the throne. Now Ned is summoned south to court to serve as Robert’s right hand. It’s a position he has no desire for, but doesn’t trust anyone else to guard his friend’s back and get to the bottom of some troubling questions. Ned was one of my favorite characters in the book, largely because he was the only truly honorable man in the entire book, though that may change as his children grow older. Oldest son Robb (age fourteen) doesn’t actually get his own POV chapters, but is nevertheless an important character as he tries to fill his father’s absent shoes. Ned’s younger son Bran served as one of the more surprising characters, becoming far more interesting than I had expected a lad of seven to be, but I can’t say why without spoilers. Additionally, Ned’s daughters serve as frequent narrators, both the naive eleven-year-old Sansa and her nine-year-old tomboy sister Arya. I liked Arya a lot, but Sansa’s ill-fated naivete had me ready to throw the book across the room in frustration at times. Future books should see less of that, sadly for her. Ned’s wife Catelyn Stark also serves as a narrator for large portions of the story, initially holding down the fort in Winterfell before setting off on her own journey for reasons that are redacted here. Ned’s illegitimate son Jon Snow* (age fourteen, same as Robb) travels north to the Wall and joins the Night Watch, keeping a lonely vigil against the supposedly-legendary threat of the Others, despite the fact that they’ve not been seen for thousands of years. One of my favorite characters of all was the dwarf Tyrion Lannister  despite the fact that he stands opposed to most of my other favorites for most of the book. The twisted, ugly youngest son of lord Tywin Lannister, Tyrion is under no delusions about his situation in life. His sister, the queen Cersei, hates him. His father blames him for his mother’s death in childbirth. Only Jaime, Cersei’s twin, treats him with any measure of decency. Unable to compete in the field of physical combat due to his stature and deformities, Tyrion has developed his mind as his best weapon, and unleashes it on all he encounters. His are all the best lines, and it is incredibly obvious who Martin’s favorite character is. Across the sea, Daenerys Targaryen, thirteen-year-old daughter of the deposed king, will have her own tangentially-related adventures as her brother marries her off to a nomadic horse-lord in an attempt to secure an army with which to reclaim Westeros. Despite the lack of overlap in this branch, Danaerys is set to become another favorite. Her adventures are not yet having any effect on Westeros as a whole, aside from some tension at court as news reaches them, but that will certainly change as the series nears its end….

Wow. What can I say about this? Martin’s prose is incredible, and I fully intend to further explore his bibliography both within and without this series. I love the use of multiple viewpoints, and the unreliable nature of these narrators adds an interesting factor to the narrative. Characters can be mistaken, and there are several scenes that are positively heartbreaking because we the reader know something the character doesn’t yet…and finding out could literally kill them. Plus, the information we’re given is all filtered through their perceptions–while there is little doubt that Aerys Targaryen was a lunatic, there are a couple tantalizing hints that his son Rhaegar was not nearly as vile a man as Robert and Ned believe him to be, and that the “kidnapping” of Ned’s sister that sparked the rebellion wasn’t quite as non-consensual as they believe. Occasionally you want to grab a character and shake them, force them to pay attention to vital information that is being disregarded because they have no idea of its significance, but of course that is impossible. Martin’s characters are also masterfully realized. Every single one that we spend significant time with is a fully-rounded, complex human being, and you sympathize with them. I even felt sorry for Cersei, albeit briefly, and the Hound keeps showing a core of deep humanity and compassion beneath his ruthlessness. If he didn’t work for the snotty little turd Joffrey I could probably come to like him…. The worldbuilding here is stellar, and I absolutely love the sense of history you get from the narrative. Positively Tolkienesque, and that’s a definite compliment. While this is fantasy, it’s not your typical romp. You can usually be assured that the protagonist will not only survive but triumph; not here. “In life, the monsters win.” Most fantasy is defined by the many different species, especially elves and dwarfs, but the only dwarf here is Tyrion, a dwarf in the historical sense–I’m not sure what the politically correct term is these days, I’m pretty sure “midget” is now considered derogatory, but I could be wrong. No elves either, the Children Of The Forrest are said to be long extinct. Of course, so were the Others, the White Walkers, and that turned out to be wishful thinking. Maybe the Children and the Giants still exist north of the Wall, but they don’t make much of an appearance here. There are elements of so-called “High Fantasy,” but the book is primarily a historical fantasy. Magic only slowly seeps in, starting off as largely dismissed by our protagonists and inexorably revealing itself to be alive and well. Dragons. Clairvoyance. Frozen wights that can resurrect the dead and turn them on their friends. As summer ends and magic grows powerful once again, one thing is clear: Winter is coming.

CONTENT:R-rated language, present but not gratuitous. Strong violence, often disturbing, and occasionally directed at animals. There’s a fair amount of sexual content, though its not rendered in unnecessary detail. This does, however, extend to some socially reprehensible acts such as incest and underage sex, along with quite a bit of discussion of prostitution and illegitimate children. There’s some magic, as noted, but I would class it as more fantasy-based than occultic, at least thus far.

*There’s a theory regarding Jon Snow’s true parentage that is widely regarded as the only good explanation for a number of inconsistencies that come up over time, but I’ll not be that guy and spoil the experience. Google it if you need to.

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Review: “Rated R” by Mike Leon

Title: Rated R
Author: Mike Leon
Series: Kill, Kill, Kill
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Self published, 2014

So, I agreed to read and review this on a whim, based on the synopsis the author posted when he offered digital copies to members of one of the GoodReads communities I’m a part of. Normally I write my own synopsis, but since the official one plays such a prominent role in this review (because of the expectations it created), I’ve decided to use it instead this time. So see below:

Lily Hoffman is trouble. The teenage video clerk is deceptively intelligent, exceedingly beautiful, and boldly prepared to use what she has to get what she wants. She’s not a bad person, just the product of the horrors in her past—and those horrors are catching up with her.

Then she meets a stranger who changes everything. He shows no fear. He performs death-defying feats without hesitation. He kills with merciless indifference while growling out snarky one-liners. He is nothing short of the hard boiled action heroes in the movies Lily loves.

Of course, where there are larger-than-life heroes, there are larger-than-life villains, and the ones hunting Lily’s new friend are like nothing she has ever seen before: machine gun toting mercenaries, an invincible cannibal butcher, a ninja master, and a killer psychopath more bloodthirsty than death itself. As enemies close in from all sides, Lily’s life spirals into a catastrophe that is eerily similar to a big-budget Hollywood body-count movie. And this is one blockbuster she may not survive…

So. My expectations going into this book. Some of them turned out to be accurate–for example, I figured it would earn its title. Had I actually looked at the cover art (much easier to overlook when dealing with ebooks) this expectation would have been strengthened. Others…not so much. Based on that synopsis, I expected some sort of clever meta-fictional tale where one or more of the characters either come from blockbuster action movies or get pulled into said movies a la The Last Action Hero…or something clever like that. And I suppose this kind of works, since the book pretends to be written up as a screenplay, with setting notes at the start of each chapter and closing credits where Mike Leon does literally everything, even things that aren’t required for the production of a novel. But mostly we just have over-the-top action-movie characters existing in a world where that’s not normal. You know how you kind of accept certain things in action movies because there’s an understanding that the rules are different? Cars explode when shot, the character named Karl can be full-out hung with a mass of chains around his neck and still come charging out the building in the last two minutes ready to be gunned down for the last thrill of the film, and Jason shrugs off everything anyone ever throws at him just so the studio can make another crappy sequel. The rules are different. By and large, people in those movies aren’t surprised when it turns out that the ninja can deflect bullets with his sword, or at least don’t react by breaking the suspension of disbelief and comparing him to a movie character. Here, the characters embodying all those action movie stereotypes exist alongside-but-not-related-to the action movies from which the author ripped them. So, I was disappointed in that aspect. Oh, it was entertaining enough, I suppose, but not nearly as awesome as I had hoped. Someone with more accurate expectations would probably star it higher than I did. Also, to be fair, nothing in that synopsis was especially misleading. I apparently just read into it what I wanted to see. If you’re looking for over-the-top violence, sex and profanity, this might be for you. Me? I was hoping for something a little more interesting.

Apparently, despite not being an official series, everything Mike Leon writes features most of the same characters. Thus, this novel brings a number of plot threads from his earlier book Kill, Kill, Kill to a close. I’ve not read any of the others, but that didn’t really hinder the reading experience this time. Normally I would be compelled to hunt down the rest of the not-series, but I think this time I’ll pass.

CONTENT: As the title would indicate, there is strong, bloody violence throughout; explicit sexual content; and R-rated profanity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: “Feed” by Mira Grant

Title: Feed
Author: Mira Grant (real name Seanan McGuire)
Series: The Newsflesh Trilogy #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Orbit, 2010

I don’t cry, not usually. Not for fictional characters. I can count on one hand the characters I might have cried over, half of them I can’t remember either way. I definitely shed a tear at the end of Odd Thomas–still do, for that matter, every time I read it. Back in early High School I remember crying at the end of A Walk To Remember, not for the girl, but for the guy who has to live on without her.* I may have cried for Anakin Solo when he died at the end of Star By Star, but I don’t remember. I usually cite him as one of my favorite dead characters, so it’s not impossible. Likewise when Mara Jade Skywalker fell. Again, I don’t remember. Last night, however, as I finished the last hundred pages of Feed, tears definitely flowed. I also don’t typically binge on a series, trying to spread them out with other books between. It’s been a long time since I’ve been so tempted to chuck my no-binging policy and find the next book….If the library was open on Sundays I might have succumbed. Alas, it is not, and my record is safe. In these reviews, I usually tell you, the reader, that I enjoyed this particular book and why. I usually leave any imperative to follow in my footsteps unstated. Not this time. This time, I’m telling you to put down the computer and head to your local library and check out this book. They don’t have it? Request it! Their selection will be improved by its addition.

In the world Ms. Grant creates in Feed, the zombies arose in 2014, the product of a well-tested cure for cancer and a not-so-tested cure for the common cold joining forces. Unlike most apocalyptic visions of the future, humanity survived with our society intact, if weathered. The world we see in 2040 is very much ours, with believable differences. Ms. Grant also manages to make the plague sustainable–the virus is in everyone in a passive state, just waiting to be activated by a zombie bite or the subject’s death. That’s right: in this world, you die, you rise. It’s that simple. There are bloodtests everywhere making sure nobody with an active infection can access your house, and the CDC is now a military force in their own right. Bloggers are now the main source of news for most people, a side effect of being the only people to report the truth when the dead started walking. Much of the nation has returned to their Christian faith in desperation, and we have sacrificed every freedom that was asked of us in the name of protection from the walking dead. You find this world less than believable? Go look at how we reacted after 9/11. I sadly find it all too believable.

Georgia and Shaun Mason are brother and sister, two of the three headliners for the blog team After The End Times. Georgia heads up the Newsies, the serious news side of the site. Shaun is in charge of the Irwins, those crazy folks who go out and court danger for your education and entertainment. The third part of their triple-threat is Georgette “Buffy” Meissonier, (“I’m cute, blonde, and living in a world full of zombies. What do you think I should call myself?”) tech wizard and head of the Fictionals who offer you your escape from cold, hard, zombie-infested reality now and then. The Masons and Buffy have just been given the chance of a lifetime–they have been selected from hundreds of other applicants to be the personal press corps for Presidential hopeful Peter Ryman. They will join his campaign and follow it from day one all the way to the steps of the White House, assuming he makes it that far. This is the make-or-break moment for all of their careers, but it is also far more important than that. Someone is determined to make sure Senator Ryman never reaches the White House, and they are willing to kill to make sure their ends are met. Whoever this is has no scruples, stooping to using the zombie virus itself in their campaign of destruction–an act of terrorism viewed with the same horror we reserve for attempting to fly an airliner into a building full of innocents. There is a conspiracy here, dedicated to hiding the truth. And the one thing that matters to Georgia Mason as much as her brother does is the truth….

My personal opinion? This was the best book I’ve read in quite a while. This book would at first glance appear to be just another zombie novel, a genre that is populated with too much dross and too few gems. On a second look, it’s a political thriller with a unique twist, i.e. being set after the Rising. Inventive, but still only of interest to folks with an interest in those genres. I’m here to tell you that you should read it anyway. It really is that good. It took second place for the Hugo Award in 2011, and I honestly am a little disappointed as I sit here that it didn’t win. The book that beat it out had to be pretty special….I should look into that.

Some reviewers have criticized Ms. Grant for having “stock” characters. With a couple of caveats, I can’t particularly argue. First, I would clarify that there is a difference between “stock” and “cardboard” or “one-dimensional.” Stock characters are recognizable archetypes you find throughout countless works, and they’re stock characters for a reason. Do a lot of them have twists to differentiate them from every other (to choose Rick Cousins as an example) “reporter with a tragedy in his past who is running from it and trying to bury himself in his work?” Not really, but that’s not the point. I don’t believe it detracts from the quality of the work. Secondly, I would also say that I didn’t find the main characters (Shaun, Georgia, maybe Buffy) to be stock characters at all. I thought they were well-rounded and original, and I empathized with them fully. Even when I realized [CHARACTER NAME(S) DELETED] was/were doomed well before his/her/their death, it didn’t decrease the impact of the blow. Especially experiencing the event through the eyes of the survivors and seeing their pain. As I mentioned, I cried for [CHARACTER NAME DELETED.] I’m not particularly ashamed of that, either. It takes a d*** good writer to get me to empathize that much with a character, and I think Ms. Grant deserves credit for her expert manipulation of my emotions.

As with nearly any novel that touches on political or religious issues and comes from a mainline press, the author and I don’t see eye to eye. I’m a Christian, and I have to say that Christians don’t come off well in this story. On the other hand, Ms. Grant’s premise here–that the Rising would prompt a fear-based resurgence in religious fervor–is probably accurate, and those conditions are not conducive to positive depictions. Revival based on fear isn’t sustainable, and faith based on fear isn’t healing. The fact is that anyone can claim to be a Christian, but a number of the characters herein that represent that group don’t do so very well. Are there idiots out there like Governor Tate? Yes. Yes there are. But I would argue that they are poor specimens of Christianity. Politically, Ms. Grant’s views would seem to fall moderate-liberal, while mine are firmly conservative, but I am pleased to say that Ms. Grant isn’t a jerk about it. Always a pleasure to “meet” a member of the opposition with whom you can be friendly.

CONTENT: R-rated profanity, present but not gratuitous. Zombie violence, sometimes very gory, and sometimes involving characters you’ve grown very close to. Mild sexual innuendo, but nothing explicit.

*What? They held a gradebook to my head. Plus, I’m a hopeless romantic under this gruff exterior. Get over it.

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