A Brick a Day

All you need in life is the will to succeed.  And maybe a bit of free time.  Even so, when I woke up to the sound of my alarm clock this morning, actually eager to wake up so that I could start my brick, I didn’t think that I’d finish it in a single day.  That possibility first crept into my mind at work, not too long before I punched in.  And since this was the last day of summer hours this year, enabling me to leave early on Fridays, I decided to take full advantage of it.

The brick in question is Green Lantern by Geoff Johns Omnibus: Volume 1.  You may recall that I started taking note of how often the name Geoff Johns was showing up on comic books that interested me.  With a bit of digging, I discovered that his entire run on Green Lantern had been collected into three massive omnibi.  And I decided to start investigating and investing further.  The first volume was the logical starting point, not just because of being first but because I knew already that it would have the most new material for me.

When Johns’ began writing Green Lantern, Hal Jordan was dead.  Not gone though, still lingering around as the Spectre.  He’s kind of like…an avenging angel.  Except he’s no angel, though he does have immense power.  Jordan was killed because, in his possession by Parallax, he slaughtered almost all of the Green Lantern Corps.  And I guess Kyle Rayner was the only Green Lantern in the universe for a while.  Not sure how John Stewart still had his ring but, whatever.  If I really want to know I can figure out what book would’ve happened just before this.

So, Hal’s dead but still hanging around and wandering down memory lane.  Obviously he comes back to life or we wouldn’t actually have a story.  There’s a series of stories that read more like one shots after that – think episodes of a TV series that have to happen after a major plot point but could take place in any order between that plot point and the next.  There’s an arc where he’s got a bounty on his head, he meets a new love interest, rejoins the air force, etc.  The Green Lantern Corps gets rebuilt and things develop and we get into the Sinestro Corps War, which I have read before.  Meaning that the next volume of the omnibus is going to contain all of Blackest Night.

I may have summarized this brick fairly quickly, but make no mistake.  This is not a book, it is most definitely a brick.  With a total of twelve hundred thirty-two pages weighing about the same as my two annotated Dragonlance books combined, it’s no small feat to read it in a single day.  Though I can’t say I read it cover-to-cover.  The last section is that informational bit from the back of Tales of the Sinestro Corps.  I did read through it once before this month, and I really don’t feel the need to go through and reread factoids about every living Green and Yellow Lantern known at this time.  Plus all the rest of the miscellany.  Good stuff to have in general, but not something that I see a need to reread very often.  If at all.

I gotta say though, this book is gorgeous.  I like it better without the dust jacket, and not just because it’s so massive I’m afraid I’ll damage said covering just carrying it around.  True, the inner pages are no different from any graphic novel, but the whole just…makes it so much better for me.  I don’t know that I’d choose to invest in these massive omnibi all the time, but I already know that I thoroughly enjoy most of Johns’ work on Green Lantern.

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For the record, this is a bottom view of the brick, so you can appreciate just how massive this thing is.  With a penny for size comparison.  The height and width are the same as any comic book and graphic novel of course, so it’s not small in any way, though it’s also not oversized in either of those dimensions.  Just the fact that they decided to compress years of comics into only three omnibi.  When I took this to work today, I ended up sticking it in a reusable bag just so that I had handles I could use to carry it more easily, with less fear of dropping it.  You bet I care that much about my new brick that I’ve been super careful in transporting it, even in how I read it.  I want this to last a lifetime.

Of course, the downside is that this is much less transportable than a normal graphic novel, but I think it’s a fair tradeoff.  Generally speaking, graphic novels tend to start at $16 on the low end, and most are around $25.  This is specifically paperbacks that I’m talking about, since I tend to go for the cheaper edition.  Needless to say, I’m pretty sure that this thing, with its $125 price tag, is still a better deal.  In my case, it’s definitely a better deal because I was able to get it on sale through my local comic shop.  Maybe a little pricier than amazon for this volume, but I can support a local business.  For this volume at least.  The other two are significantly cheaper on amazon.  So we’ll see how soon I get around to acquiring them.  “Cheaper” is far from “cheap.”  But I haven’t bought any board games lately, which helps.

Obviously I thoroughly enjoyed myself reading this brick.  There were some parts I didn’t care for as much, some artwork that grated on my nerves for an issue or two, but overall I’m pleased.  It helps to fill in some of the gaps in my understanding of Hal Jordan’s history, but I may still need to do some poking around about how he became the Spectre at some point.

I don’t need to see how Jordan became a Green Lantern in the first place though.  I do believe it was shown no less than three times in this book, and summarized at the start of too many issues of the comic.  I fully understand that any single issue might be someone’s first, but I really, really think we could’ve taken out the summary of Hal’s backstory out of a few more books.  It gets repetitive in a way that is more noticeable in collections like this, but even so I have to imagine that avid readers don’t need a monthly refresher.

Oh well, into every sunny day, a little rain must fall.  At least the majority of the brick is good.  Now for the hard part – moving things around to find the best place to shelve it.  I’m starting to think I may want to move all my graphic novels around for various reasons…the question is what do I move first.

Not for Me

Kate Forsyth, I am very disappointed in you.

I’ve read Forsyth’s Eileanan books for years now, ever since my mom (of course) bought me the first installment more than fifteen years ago.  There’s nine books in that world, so you can imagine how significant a series this has been for me.  And I was browsing amazon one day realizing “huh, Kate Forsyth has other books that are not in this world.  I should probably read them.”  So I tacked a bunch onto my wishlist and when a little more was needed for free shipping…here we have Bitter Greens.

It’s a retelling of Rapunzel, or so the blurb says, and touches on the origin of the story itself as well.  Rapunzel is not my favorite fairy tale by a long shot, but I do enjoy fairy tales so I figured, why not give it a shot?

I think I should’ve thought twice this time.  Frankly, Bitter Greens is an indulgent mess.  We have three stories going on.  First is Charlotte-Rose de la Force, a Frenchwoman who spent most of her life in the court of the Sun King, Louis XVI, who is sent to a nunnery for…reasons.  I don’t really care.  Second is Margherita, AKA Rapunzel herself.  Last is Selena Leonelli, the witch who imprisoned Margherita.

Charlotte-Rose and Selena’s portions are told in first person, while Margherita is in third.  And the book is divided very oddly.  It’s not that there’s ten sections overall, it’s that you’ll have several chapters devoted to one of the three characters, then suddenly it flips over to someone else.  And the three stories take place in three different time periods and two major locations…it’s really just a confusing mess.  As I read, I kept thinking of other books that have done these things better.  Holes by Louis Sachar is a great example of how the author can intertwine two different stories in two different locations.  I’ve seen other books with multiple protagonists that delineate chapters by heading it with the character names.  Not always, but that’s one I like.  But the most important thing to do with such separate chapters is to balance the three characters throughout the book.

It’s not helped by the fact that Charlotte-Rose’s story is the main one, but is mostly told in flashbacks that bounce around the timeline of her life.  I’m not a big fan of telling stories out of order unless you can truly capture my attention.  Like the movie Memento which tells the story somewhat backwards – only somewhat because the scenes themselves unfold as normal.  It’s the order of the scenes that’s reversed.  Well, except for that opening (closing) which is actually shown backwards and lets us see the blood going back into the man’s body…and then the epilogue is actually the epilogue.

But again, I like my stories to go in order.  That’s why I shelve all my series in chronological order, which can be a feat when it’s something like Dragonriders of Pern.  Even with series like Pern or Alliance-Union, I may not choose to read the books in any particular order, but it’s important to me simply to know it.

I really didn’t care for Bitter Greens.  It’s historical fantasy that either needs to be more historical or more fantastical.  For me, it’s currently an uncomfortable mix where it feels like the author is trying to be very historically accurate…but also wants to add in magic and witches to suit herself.  And it just…doesn’t mesh.  The world Charlotte-Rose knows does not at all feel like one in which magic is real.  And the magic in Margherita’s story feels added to justify the Rapunzel tale.  Selena’s tale is where the fantasy elements work best…but she’s also the least likable of the three characters.  Like I said, it’s just a mess.  And it feels like what Forsyth really wanted to write was a romance, but didn’t want to be shoved aside into that category.

Luckily, I should be reading something better next.  I’m looking forward to it…but it may take a bit to get through it.  It’s a significantly thicker book, and I have lots of plans for this weekend.

Reading Local

Based on the title, I was convinced this book would be a graphic novel when I bought it.  Because why should I do that much digging on amazon when it’s already a suggestion from an author I’ve previously enjoyed?  Today’s book is Black Dog Volume 1 by Rachel Neumeier.  As you may recall, she’s a local author who attends some of the same conventions I do, and I’ve played board games with her brother.  Not at any of those conventions, just to make things sillier.  But that has nothing to do with the book.

I don’t actually recall when Black Dog first attracted my attention.  It might have actually been through browsing amazon, though how the website knew I’d read anything by Neumeier is anyone’s guess.  My only other book of hers, The City in the Lake, came from the author’s own hand at a convention, nothing electronic involved.  Of course, I also wonder how internet ads know I was looking at Home Depot’s plant section even though I didn’t buy anything.

Anyway, Black Dog sounded interesting enough that when I needed a few things online (that actually have nothing to do with books for once) and needed a bit more for free shipping, it became the best choice add-on.  It’s a young adult book I know, but that’s because it’s Neumeier’s field.  I didn’t really know anything more about it because I wanted to be surprised.

Black Dog toggles between two viewpoint characters, Natividad and Alejandro Toland.  ‘Jandro is the eldest sibling to Natividad and Miguel (the latter two are twins) and one of the titular black dogs.  Essentially, black dogs are demonic werewolves, ridden by the shadows that allow them to shift forms.  Those humans unfortunate enough to suffer a bite become the more conventional werwolves we know, but the true black dogs are born that way…though they can also have much more control.  Some of that is stubbornness and training, but some can be granted through the blessing of a Pure.  The Pure are magic-users who can calm black dogs and protect humans.  Their spells are more effective against vampires than black dogs, but since the vampires are all dead in the war, that need is fading.  Natividad is, of course, a young Pure woman and, as such, a valuable potential wife to any black dog man.

Then there’s Miguel.  He’s human and so not a viewpoint character.  Oops.

The three are half Mexican, half American, and have been on the run since their parents were slaughtered.  They hope to find shelter in the Dimiloc pack, up in Vermont.  In December, when the snow is deep and the air is cold.  But it’s possible that the doom that came for their parents may still be pursuing them even now…

I honestly did not expect to be as invested in Black Dog as I came to be.  There was a point earlier tonight when I stopped and considered.  I could stop reading the book and watch the movie I meant to put on last night (before I got distracted), or I could most likely finish the book.  It’s less than four hundred pages, but I don’t always have to read that length in a day if I don’t want to.  But…I didn’t want to put it down.  I genuinely wanted to know what happened next.

I regret nothing of my decision.  The pacing was good, the characters are likable and interesting, and Neumeier never forgot the actual time passing.  The entire book takes place in less than a week which may sound reasonable…only in comparison to movies, which tend to compress events into a fairly short period of time.  Most books will cover some months at least.  But there are more than enough references to how much time has (or hasn’t) passed that make it clear that the author fully understands her timeline and has no intention of pushing too hard.

It’s a young adult book.  There’s got to be a romance of some kind, right?  And there is…sort of.  That is to say, we know that Natividad is a valuable commodity for the children she can produce.  However, there are two very clear aspects to this.  One: it’s hands off for all men until she’s sixteen years old.  Two: the author doesn’t force her or any of the others to fall in love by the end of the book.  There’s attraction in multiple potential relationships as well as behavioral cues, but no commitments are made and nothing is acted upon yet.  And that’s just fine with me.  As I’ve said before, I don’t hate romance on principle.  It’s a normal thing.  I just don’t like it being shoehorned in, especially at the expense of the plot.  You can have a story that doesn’t end with a kiss, you know.  And it can be an amazingly wonderful story.

It’s important to note that Neumeier intends this to be a five book series, though it seems two of the books are actually anthologies of short stories.  Not necessarily usual, but it can certainly work if you know what you’re doing.  I don’t think I’ve read any of Neumeier’s short fiction before, but at this point I’m willing to trust the woman and stick the next volume (the first anthology) on my wish list against gifts or the next time I need that amount for free shipping.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my dive into this world of not-werewolves and dead vampires – it reminds me of Robin McKinley’s Sunshine in several ways and that’s no bad thing.

But now I really have no idea what I’m reading tomorrow because frankly, I doubt whatever it is will be as good.

Not Who I Expected

I play a lot of games.  Not video games mind you – my newest system is a PS2 that I turn on every so often – but board games.  I’ve played some tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons too, but not regularly and not in years.  Mostly I play board and card games.  And not your parents’ games, like Monopoly (only good for destroying friendships) and Guess Who? (great for babysitting), but the more complex Eurogames and others that have seen an upsurge in the past couple decades.  And, me being me, I love games with dice.  Because even if you have the best strategy in the world, you can still get completely screwed over by the dice.  Yes, I am an agent of chaos when it comes to games.

Years back when Dominion was the hottest thing (it’s a deck building game, you start with basic cards and use them to put better cards into your deck that will hopefully win you the game), a friend of mine came by for a visit and introduced me to something similar…but far more up my alley.  It was called Quarriors, and it was a dice-building game.  Same concept, but as I implied before, still eminently possible to get screwed merely by which die face came up topmost.  I still love the game for its replayability because although there’s only so many dice available, only ten are used for each game, and each die has three or four different cards to explain what you can actually do with it this game.  So a die’s abilities can change from game to game, though its basic stats remain the same.

Quarriors was so successful that its creators were commissioned to make a variant called Dicemasters, wherein the dice now represented characters from both Marvel and DC Comics.  This one, however, was a collectible dice game, similar to the old collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering and Pokemon.  They’re still making new Dicemasters sets to this day, though I stopped collecting years ago.  A lot of the characters featured were directly based on popular comics at the time, such as the War of Light set from the leadup to the Blackest Night event – one of my favorites to play.  And then there was Marvel.  Because I cannot tell you how shocked I was when I pulled out my Thor dice for the first time and saw the basic card…with a woman on it.  (The subtitle, because all cards have subtitles, is “Not Who You Expected?”)  I was curious at the time, but never pursued it.

Fast forward to Friday when I was returning my books to the library and decided to browse the graphic novel collection again.  I saw that they actually had several books featuring the female Thor and decided now was as good a time as any to finally satisfy my curiosity about not seeing the figure I expected on a card.

This brings me to Thor: The Goddess of Thunder and Thor: Who Holds the Hammer? by Jason Aaron, Russell Dauterman, and Jorge Molina, which seem to be the first appearances of the new figure wielding Mjolnir.  For anyone who was following the comics in realtime, the surprise wasn’t about the inability of Thor Odinson to pick up his own hammer: Nick Fury had whispered something into his ear that made him unworthy, and he could no longer budge it.  The real mystery in these books is the identity of the new Thor.

It seems there’s been an awful lot of girl power in Asgardia (I have no idea what happened to go from Asgard to Asgardia and I’m really not asking because comic books are weird) of late.  Odin was…elsewhere…and Freyja took charge as the All-Mother for a more egalitarian and even more democratic brand of leadership.  Odin’s returned, however, and seems determined to make himself into a tyrant, refusing even to listen to anyone else who disagrees with him.  And in the midst of all this, someone walks up on the moon and picks up the hammer.  I’m told there’s air in this one section of the moon because the Watcher used to live there before he died.  I have a vague understanding of the Watchers – that they’re immortals who are just sort of there, usually silent witnesses to all the things – but I really don’t care because they don’t seem to have much bearing on what I’ve read.  Point being, breathable air so as long as a person could get to the moon, they could get to the hammer.

The villian is a CEO/minautaur named Dario Agger, whose company Roxxon is your typical evil corporation.  Plus the minotaur thing that I’m not even touching with a stick.  There’s also frost giants and Malekith, king of the dark elves.  Because nothing is simple in comics.  We do, at one point, get the predictable “fight between two Thors” because of course we do, but then we also get the Odinson trying rather intelligently to figure out who this woman is, running down a list of names of women he knows who are likely to be worthy, have the access, and be willing to do the job.  Oh, and Odin’s still being an ass off to the side.

So when the reveal finally does come, it’s a real shock.  I mean, I figured that it couldn’t be the person they were implying because that would be too straightforward and people like to be sneaky and keep us guessing.  But I’m glad I was surprised because this character adds a lot of depth and interest that others probably wouldn’t have.

Who Holds the Hammer also includes the three stories from the annual, only one of which features the lady Thor, but the one with Old Thor is also pretty good.  The less said about Young Thor, the better.  At least the art style goes with the tone of the story…

But the last part of that book is probably the most interesting of all.  It’s a “what if” story from 1978 that shows us the first time someone asked “what if Thor was a woman?”  I’m sure that this was the original basis for the modern arc, just as that Green Lantern showcase of Geoff Johns’ picks were all stories he used as inspiration and basis for his run on the character.  Still, I can see why it was an intriguing tale and why it should probably be better remembered than it is.  I mean, this is the first time I’ve read any Thor comics, but as I have a decent base knowledge of comic books and characters, I’m surprised I never even suspected there was a precedent for a female Thor.

All things considered, these are a pretty solid pair of books and I’m eager to read more about Thor, goddess of thunder.  How fortunate that my library also had two volumes of The Mighty Thor on shelf.  These are Thunder in Her Veins and Lords of Midgard from the same creative team and they pick up where we left off in the Thor volumes, complete with the audience knowing her secret identity.  Who is actually on the cover of one and if I’d actually paid attention to the illustrations when I was looking at them I could’ve figured that out a lot sooner.  Still, better this way.

If Asgardia now has a Council of Worlds with representatives from each of the Realms, it seems that Malekith’s forces have a similar Dark Council, although the first we see of it is Loki petitioning to join.  Whether or not he makes it is left in the hands of his blood father, King Laufey of Jotunheim.  Loki being Loki, he’s a wildcard all throughout.  Although I do love the showcase where they bring in all the variants of Loki from every single incarnation in Marvel.  It’s a cool bit even if it doesn’t really accomplish anything.

There’s also a bit of a civil war in Asgardia.  But it ends almost as abruptly as it begins.

These two volumes are middle works.  They build on what was established in Thor, but there’s no real conclusion of any kind, save that Thor does tell one person her identity.  Also there seems to be a lot more to Mjolnir than anyone’s previously given the hammer credit for.  They’re still good reads, but again, there’s not much more to say without giving away major plot points.  And, like I said, there’s no resolution because the story is very obviously not done yet.  Based on the final panel in Lords of Midgard, I would guess that the next installment is called War of the Realms.  It would be nice if my library has this and I either overlooked it or it simply wasn’t on shelf, because I still don’t see any reason to invest in these books.  They’re fine, but nothing I feel the need to own.

Or at least, nothing I feel the need to own at this time.  I original read the Secret Wars series by Mercedes Lackey and friends from the library’s copies, but eventually determined that I really did need my own copies.  So it’s not impossible that I might change my mind.  It simply doesn’t seem likely at this point in time.

I’m not sure what tomorrow’s reading shall be.  I do have one more library book, but I don’t know that I’m in the right mindset to start it.  Maybe I’ll pull something from the Pile, since I haven’t really been thinking about rereads lately.  But, of course, there’s every chance I’ll change my undecided mind between now and when I stick my bookmark into my next choice.

Modern Classics

I stopped by the library yesterday to finally return the last of my load of books, including the one I’d put on hold for the title and never got around to reading.  We’ll see if I go back to get it at some point or just let it drift away into the ether.  Since I was there, I decided to see what else my local library had to offer in terms of graphic novels.  There were some I’d been thinking of reading again, though I don’t own them, and who knew what else I might find browsing the shelves?

It’s interesting to see what they have.  A ton of Batman, less of Superman, random popular manga series mixed in…not a lot of Fantastic Four and I don’t think I saw a single Hulk book.  Neither of those last are any I’m particularly interested in, but I wonder if that isn’t just me but an overall shift in zeitgeist.  Like I said, I recognized almost all of the manga series by name or reputation, even if I haven’t read them myself.  Likewise with the other volumes in this section, I generally had an idea of what I was looking at even if I had no interest in reading it for myself.  So maybe characters like the Hulk just aren’t as narratively interesting to the people the library’s built this collection for.  The two main ways I’m familiar with as far as library acquisitions go are either for a patron to request that the library buy a book or series, or for the acquisitions department to decide that a particular direction will encourage more patrons.  Graphic novels have been an increasing popular category for the past ten or fifteen years and while some titles are obvious choices, others are far less so.  But I don’t know what’s gone on behind the scenes of this library, so I can only hazard guesses with minimal information input.

Anyway, I did bring home another armload of graphic novels, this time mixed between rereads and new material.  Some of it very new material for me that I’m not even certain I’ll enjoy, but thought I’d try anyway.  But I haven’t gotten to that yet.  I wanted to start the day off with something I’d brought up in conversation recently.

This is Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross.  Originally published in 1996, it’s an intense biblically inspired narrative about a world where Superman has vanished from public view and metahumans run amok.  Passages from Revelations are our guide, as well as the elderly pastor Norman McCay.  We open, past the cryptic Biblical lines, with Norman at the bedside of Wesley Dodds, who was once known as the Sandman.  Dodds has been babbling about the End of Days to his last remaining friend in the pastor, and finally passes away.  But he has passed his burdensome sight of the future to McCay, who is then picked up by the Spectre to be a moral compass in the coming doom.

It doesn’t matter that I have no idea how this book fits into the DC universe of its time, nor that I only know a handful of key characters throughout the book.  I know the important ones like Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman among others, and through them and their interactions I can extrapolate what I need to about the situation.  Kingdom Come is, among other things, a gorgeous showcase of DC heroes through the years in a beautiful painterly art style.  I may not be able to identify most of the heroes shown without resorting to the cheat sheets in the back, but that’s not overly important.

And yes, there are cheat sheets.  Kingdom Come was originally published in four issues and the title page of each is a two-page spread showing a huge array of heroes featured in its pages.  Except for the last issue which shows only Superman…but that’s part of the story.  Of course part of the problem with identification might just be the fact that many of the heroes shown are the children and grandchildren of DC characters I may or may not know, and I haven’t the faintest idea how many of them were created specifically for this series or how many of them actually did exist in other works.  It’s also very difficult to place Kingdom Come because I know for a fact they’re using a Golden Age Flash and a Silver Age Green Lantern and I don’t even want to know at that point.  I’d rather just enjoy the story for what it is.

Is it weird that I kind of want to compare Kingdom Come to Neon Genesis Evangelion?  After all, both rely heavily on Christian imagery to boost the particulars of the story.  Although I’ve heard that if the creator of Eva knew it was going to become such a global phenomenon, he wouldn’t have done so.  That Eva was intended for Japanese audiences and the Christian (foreign) imagery was to add a different flavor.  Well, being Jewish, it’s still a foreign flavor to me even though Kingdom Come might expect its readers to be somewhat versed in that imagery.  And I do know some things…but I generally don’t care.  It’s still not my religion, and I don’t get into doomsday predictions regardless of religion.  At least, not as more than a good plot device.  Like in that Tzfat story I love, or when I’m roleplaying my false prophet character (yes, I totally have a character who is a street corner doomsday prophet and she’s wonderful).

The point is that Kingdom Come is a powerful story about right and wrong, gods and men, hope and despair.  It’s a story about broken people and their broken world, and trying to make things better in the only ways they know.  It’s about those of us who are bystanders, unable to truly affect things, but still there, bearing witness to the people who hold our fates in their hands.  This is what Marvels was trying to recreate almost a decade later, though in a different fashion.  I suppose that would be the better comparison instead of Evangelion, but I don’t feel up to reading Marvels as well today.  The library has that one too, but I’ve owned a copy for years.  I’ll probably never buy Kingdom Come unless if I saw a good quality one for $5 or less.  The library has it, and I’m not so attached to Biblical quotes that I need it in my library.

There was another graphic novel I’d wanted to reread.  A friend offered to loan me his copy, but my library is much closer and costs me a lot less in gas money.  Not to mention that it’ll take a lot less effort to remember to return it…but that’s besides the point.  This comic is a “modern” classic in many ways, one of the best “what-if” stories of the Marvel universe.  And yes, for reasons known only to me I opted to go from a solid DC story to a Marvel one.  But then again, whereas my last load of graphic novels was exclusively DC, this one is definitely weighted towards Marvel.  It was just more interesting to me at the time.  My personal collection is weighted in favor of DC…even before you include Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.  It’s kind of odd when I think about it, because I do generally prefer the Marvel characters.  I guess it’s probably because the definitive Marvel incarnations for me are from the various animated series, as opposed to certain eras of comic books.

Anyway, this book is Marvel 1602 as created by Neil Gaiman, Andy Kubert, and Richard Isanove.  It is, as I said, the story of “what if” the Marvel characters we know and love emerged four hundred years earlier in the timeline?  What sort of world would it be, and how would that affect and change things?

It’s a fascinating story.  At first you’re just excited to see and recognize well-known staples of Marvel, from Sir Nicholas Fury and his assistant Peter Parquagh to the handsom Count Otto von Doom and Carlos Javier.  (Gaiman writes in his afterword about how he cursed himself for including thirty major characters in every issue.)  But there is a story going on as the world seems to be coming rapidly to the End of Days (whoops, there’s a connection to Kingdom Come) and it’s up to our heroes to stop it.

Where Kingdom Come was about people being pushed beyond their boundaries and how that affects their character, 1602 is about the characters being true to themselves in a setting the reader is unfamiliar with.  It’s a way to showcase the characters in a Gaiman-esque manner, for his storytelling is as powerful as ever.  I don’t have nearly as much to say about 1602 because it’s really just an enjoyable story that doesn’t feel compelled to beat us over the head with a message.  It’s different, the art is excellent, and it’s just a damn good read.  Also there are dinosaurs and did I make it clear I like dinosaurs?  Yeah, they’re kind of random, but who really cares?

I won’t be finishing any other of my library books today, but I’m certain I’ll be back again tomorrow with more.  The remainder fall into two groups, and I haven’t decided yet which I’ll read first.  If I was going to be home long enough to finish something, I am very tempted to go with one over the other as it would probably echo several of the themes from the first part of this post.  The other would be more related to the second, and not just because it’s Marvel.  But only time (and my mood tomorrow) will tell.

My next used bookstore expedition is planned to be a week away, and I hope to investigate at least one location for the first time.  I have hopes that I may actually find a some good stuff there based on what I’ve heard, but only time will tell the answer to that question as well.

In the mean time, I’d better get going.

Movie Time

The last time I was at the library picking up an armload of graphic novels, I drove all around in search of such things.  I went up north to a comic store I usually only visit on Free Comic Book Day (it’s significantly out of my way) and since I was in the area, I decided to stop by a used bookstore as well.  It’s not my favorite place – they specialize in romances, for example – but their sci-fi section is decent.  And there I saw the novelization of Titan A.E. by Steve and Dal Perry.

I enjoy the movie, and remember it was one of the last my family acquired on VHS (others include Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and Toy Story 2) before DVDs took over.  A simple enough story of following a map to treasure…and yet so much more.  I bought the book and put it in the Pile.  Then last night, after shelving The Blue Sword, I paced my library deciding what to read next.  I felt I should read something new, but I definitely needed some science fiction to contrast with the fantasy I’d been reading lately.  Titan A.E. seemed like a good choice.  I stuck it in my book cover and left it to begin the next morning over breakfast.

When I woke up this morning, I remembered.  I have read Titan A.E. before!  This exact novelization!  I clearly remember that a friend of mine thrust the book at me in college as a suggestion.  And I read it and really enjoyed it, especially with the added perspective of the Drej Queen to flesh out the story.  But somehow I didn’t remember until I was just about to start the book.  Weird, huh?  I guess it’s better than beginning the book and realizing I’ve read it before.

For those who don’t know or weren’t there, Titan A.E. was a turn-of-the-century movie by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, with a distinct visual aesthetic of two-dimensional characters against three-dimensional backgrounds and enemies.  The Drej are an alien race who destroyed Earth (A.E. stands for After Earth) fifteen years ago.  Now Humans are refugees throughout the galaxy, many living in drifter colonies, and just trying to survive.  Their only hope is a near-mythological spaceship named Titan.

The Titan was the creation of Professor Sam Tucker, the only one who truly understood what it was capable of.  In the chaos of the Drej attack, he managed to get the ship into space, where it disappeared from all but legend.  It’s Humanity’s hope, though no one knows why.

Cale Tucker has grown up and has a huge chip on his shoulder for how the aliens around him look down on Humans.  But that doesn’t mean he’s going to get into a lovefest with any other Humans he runs into, especially those he doesn’t know and seem to want something of him.  He’s also got daddy issues, being Sam Tucker’s son and remembering his father abandoning him to go to the Titan.  So he’s not noticeably friendly when Korso, the human captain of the Valkyrie, tries to recruit him.

Things change when Korso asks to see Cale’s ring, a final gift from his father, and activates it.  Turns out, the thing is a map to the Titan, locked to Sam Tucker’s DNA…and his son’s.  But they are in a race to find the legendary ship for as soon as the Drej hear about their quest, they’ll be on our hero’s tail trying to destroy him.

Like I said, this story is so much more than a treasure hunt.  It’s about being refugees, about holding on to cultures and traditions, about maintaining one’s identity in a foreign world.  It’s about hope and sticking together, about making sacrifices for a better future.

I saw a quick headline on Facebook recently about how Judaism is not simply a religion, but a packaged identity.  That is to say, my ancestors found a way to form their religion in such a way that it contained everything that was important to them: beliefs, lifestyles, traditions, etc.  You don’t need to believe that the Torah is the word of G-d to be Jewish.  Hell, you don’t even have to believe in G-d to be Jewish!  It’s so much more than that.  And it’s been maintained and passed down generation to generation for centuries…just like Humanity’s survivors in Titan A.E. do with their own traditions, cultures, faiths, languages, and more.

I guess that’s why I’ve always loved Titan A.E. as compared to something similar like…Treasure Island.  Oh sure, I’ll watch Muppet Treasure Island, but that’s the only adaptation I’ve ever had the patience to sit through in its entirety.  And that might just be because of Muppets and Tim Curry.  (The musical numbers in that movie are excellent too.)

So sure, my perspective on this book is biased because I love the movie.  It’s not one I pull out very often, but I always enjoy it when I do.  I think the novelization adds a lot – not only Cale’s thought process and the additional perspective of the Drej – but also Akima’s backstory and thoughts.  Akima is the not-at-all-subtle love interest and on this particular reading I felt their relationship was rushed, but that could be more of my mindset at this moment than anything else.  I give the movie points in that regard – there’s a lot of good facial expressions that give you a good idea what’s going through their heads at any given time.

As for which is better?  Hard to say again.  The movie has some stunning visuals at points…but it’s been a while since I watched it so I can’t say offhand how the CGI has aged.  Plus some people may not like the contrast between 2D and 3D styles.  And if you’re one of those people who has issues with famous voice actors, that could affect your experience as well.  On the other hand, the book is quite short, a mere 223 pages, and moves at a good clip throughout.  There’s more detail on the world and background (when available) than you can get in a 94 minute movie too.  I think overall I’m going to pick the movie slightly more than the book simply because of the visuals.  After all, Don Bluth and Gary Goldman are masters and several of the scenes in Titan A.E. are so much more effectively shown than told.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to pick up a copy of this book for myself.  It’s a good addition to my novelization collection, even if I have read it before.

A Better Book

I couldn’t resist.  I had to go back and reread The Blue Sword.  By Robin McKinley, of course.  As a quick reminder, last time’s The Hero and the Crown was a prequel to this book, written two years later.  And, having reread the first book (written), I most definitely still prefer it.  Harry (do not ever call her Angharad) is a much more engaging character than Aerin and the story itself is far more interesting.  Part of this is because the prequel suffers from trying to fit in all of the “if x then y” bits from when The Blue Sword referred to Aerin’s time.

Another part is because “ancient” Damar is a much more European place than “modern” Damar/Daria.  The people lived in cities and villages, they wore elaborate clothing, etc.  In Harry’s time, the Damarians are most commonly referred to as Hillfolk and I’m not even certain the Outlanders are aware that there is a city deep within their territory – still the capital after all this time.  The Hillfolk often live a more nomadic lifestyle, reminiscent of the Mongolian hordes where horses were a mark of wealth.  There are still villages though, so it’s an interesting mix.  But given that much of Damar is now a desert, when before it was arable land, a different lifestyle is necessary.

Another thing that chafed me in Aerin’s book is that Lady Aerin-sol, Firehair and Dragon-killer, is also the one who invented the Hillfolk’s style of horseback riding as well as the one who brought the folszta cats and yerig dogs to her people.  It’s too much to lay on a single individual, no matter how remarkable.  It pushes the bounds of what I consider to be believable.  I’ll bring it up again – authors get one “gimme” – one suspension of disbelief from their readers that is to be the foundation of their story.  But when you ask readers to go beyond that one, that’s when your story becomes more fragile and readers are more likely to put it down.  The Hero and the Crown goes one suspension of disbelief too far for me.

I would definitely say I’ve become more critical of books since starting this blog over two years ago, but that’s probably a side effect of routinely delving into each and every book I read in some detail.  I started making these posts simply because I wanted to talk about what I’d just finished, something I’m not always able to do with my friends and family – if only because it would be all I ever talk about.  But I do feel obligated to assemble several hundred words each time I write a post, and any time I revisit a book I want to talk about different aspects than I had the first time, if only because there may be some visitors to the site who have read both and it would be cruel to expect them to read the same thoughts twice.

I guess that’s kind of like my deep-seated suspicion that all of Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books are the same story, but with different details every time.  But since I haven’t been able to see the pattern for myself, I can still (usually) enjoy them as I read each and every new volume.  I don’t know if I personally am that good a writer, especially given my stream-of-consciousness style where I usually only go back to fix typos, but I hope to at least cover different topics even if my style doesn’t noticeably change.

I wonder if The Hero and the Crown is one of the reasons why Robin McKinley doesn’t write sequels.  After all, I can only help but compare it unfavorably with its predecessor novel, and it’s the only time in my experience I’ve found (and read) a second book she’s set in the same world.  And you know, some authors are strongest when writing standalone novels.

I had complained to a friend once about C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy.  I’d originally read the three books in college and while the books weren’t spectacular, they did have a lot of original concepts that I found quite interesting.  Later I had tried to reread them…but I had such trouble getting through the first book.  Because I no longer had novelty on my side, I simply couldn’t force myself through her writing style, which was incredibly disappointing.  My friend agreed, then told me that she’d found Friedman to be strongest when writing single novels, and gave me a couple recommendations.  I thoroughly enjoyed In Conquest Born and I think The Madness Season may be in my top tier of favorite books.

Going back to The Blue Sword (the nominal topic of today’s post), another aspect I like is the acceptance of who and what you truly are.  It’s an ongoing theme as Harry finds herself fitting in amongst the Hillfolk as well or better than she does among her own people.  And she’s not the only one who might very well find themselves more comfortable in the Hills either, as McKinley hints and Harry muses throughout the novel.  There’s a similar theme in Aerin’s story, true, but in that case it definitely comes off more as a coming of age story than as an individual finding their niche in society.  I think Aerin herself put it best, here in The Blue Sword: “I found out that those at home don’t like having no part in adventures.”  She’s talking about how she herself went alone on her quest.  Harry, in contrast, was followed by two Hillfolk, plus Outlanders, plus even more allies she had never suspected.  She was very rarely alone and always supported by her friends and companions, something that we didn’t always see with Aerin.  In fact, it kind of makes Aerin into a Mary Sue – able to do it all alone.

This is probably more than enough rambling and musing today.  I have no idea what book I’ll be reading tomorrow, but I’ll find something.  I always do.

Prequel Problems

Today I finished Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, which I’d managed to turn up at the Newberry sale.  This is the prequel to The Blue Sword, which I read a while back and was completely enthralled by.  Here, McKinley revisits Harry’s world to tell the tale of Aerin and how she acquired the blue sword…among other things.

It’s the story of how the world of The Blue Sword came to be, in many respects, and I do regret not rereading the other book before starting this one.  But my mind’s been going so many places, I was too impatient.  The regret is very real.

This wasn’t as fascinating as The Blue Sword though.  I remember that I did not expect to finish the first book in a single day, though the length was within the realm of possibility.  It was simply that, after I started the book, I couldn’t put it down for any length of time except work.  The Hero and the Crown, in contrast, never sucked me in as thoroughly.  It’s odd – Harry’s story felt like a legend coming to life, especially as she was impelled by a power not necessarily her own to take on her destiny.  Aerin’s story though, reads as a more typical coming of age.  Yes, her life is the stuff of legends…but it starts very ordinary and Aerin herself never acts anything but a normal young woman.  So for all this is the story of a woman who became a legend, it doesn’t carry that kind of weight for me.

We begin with a fifteen year old Aerin.  Her father is the King of Damar and her mother was a witchwoman from the North who died in childbirth.  A number of people look askance at her for the latter two factoids, and her…cousin?…Galanna is not averse to putting her down at any chance she gets.  After all, Aerin’s rank as first sol (princess) will always be higher than Galanna’s…unless Galanna can manage to marry the next King.  Unlikely, but there you have it.  The girl is just jealous.

Aerin’s a retreating young woman who is not often seen in public, although she’s a frequent visitor down by the stables.  She has a pony…but she also has a stallion, Talat, who was her father’s before her.  Talat was wounded in battle, one of his hind legs maimed, but King Arlbeth could not bear to put down such a strong spirit.  Aerin found him and won his heart and loyalty even as she fought her own weakness from eating a powerful herb on Galanna’s dare.

It’s a slow story at the start, discussing Aerin’s life and circumstances and how she began to push out of her self-defined boundaries and expand her understanding of the world.  Then she starts slaying dragons.

But that’s not the climax.  The climax only comes long after she slays the last of the massive dragons, Maur, and sets out on a quest that ranks right up there with some of the crazier shit you see in Narnia.  I suppose for me the first portion of the book seems fairly strongly grounded in reality and it makes some of the more fantastical elements of the second part stand out all the more.

I think I prefer The Blue Sword rather strongly.  I guess this feels to me like someone trying to write an epic…and failing.  Events don’t seem to have the right impact, the pacing is irregular, and Aerin just seems too real to be a figure of legend.  It’s not even the same impression I get when contrasting books like The Black Gryphon or The Outstretched Shadow to books in the same universe a thousand and more years later where the heroes of the first tales have grown into demigods as the past and present diverge.  There’s a lot of bits which, even without a refresher on The Blue Sword, were clearly stuck in there to explain how the world got to that point from The Hero and the Crown and the notes are often jarring.  It’s a major problem with prequels that they feel the need to “explain” what will come to be later.

Overall, I’m disappointed with this book, especially because I did read The Blue Sword first and it was truly wonderful.  The Hero and the Crown tries to recreate the magic while breathing life into a woman who became a legend to her people and fails on most counts.

Although now I’m strongly tempted to reread The Blue Crown to get a better feel for those tie-ins and to experience a better overall book.  So we’ll see what happens next and what book I start tomorrow.

Different Protagonist

Because I’m so picky about my books (though I try, I do, to be more open), I don’t usually get very many even when I go to big book sales.  The same day I went to the Newberry’s annual sale, I also went to Women and Children First’s annual used book sale.  There my only find of the day was Remnant Population, the first novel I’ve read by Elizabeth Moon with no coauthor.

Before I actually began the book, I glanced at the acknowledgements and there found something truly surprising.  Moon attributed part of her inspiration to one of the more random books I’ve read and own: Two Old Women by Velma Wallis.  For those who haven’t read that post, it’s a transcription of an old Native American tale, passed down through generations to Wallis as part of her inheritance.  The nomadic tribe in the story is having a difficult time surviving, and abandons two older women to remove their drain on the community resources.  The two remember an old camping ground that was good to the tribe, and travel their on their own, establishing a good home.  The tribe itself finds no good luck without the two, and some regret abandoning them.  Eventually they track down the women, who finally accept their apologies.  As a moral, the tribe never again abandoned the resources represented by the memories of its elders.

With this as the inspiration, it’s no surprise that Moon’s heroine is seventy years old as the book opens, which makes this a very unusual novel for the genre.  Oh sure, you might have nonhumans with longer lifespans and so seventy is young for them, but in this case seventy means about what it would for us here.

Ofelia Falfurrias lives with her son and daughter-in-law in a small colony on an alien world.  The colony is failing, with a birthrate lower than preferred and two major floods in forty years not helping the problem.  She’s one of the few original colonists remaining, and Bartolomeo and Rosara think she’s going senile, for preferring the great outdoors to artificial environments.  So when the colonists are told by the company they all work for (exporting exotic woods) that the colony is being abandoned, Ofelia makes a secret plan for herself.

She is going to remain behind.

It’s not like the Company really wants her to go – she’s old, retired, and they fully intend on charging Barto and Rosara a fee for transporting her.  But Ofelia would rather stay alone in a place she loves than uproot herself again to live where she’ll have to conform to others’ wishes and standards.

That might have been the end of the story…until the day she heard human voices over the satellite communication systems, preparing to land elsewhere on the planet.  And then heard them die at the hands of the heretofore unknown natives.

It’s a story of first contact, but not in a fashion I’m familiar with.  There was a colony on the planet for forty years before contact was made, the main character is seventy years old, etc.  There’s your standard content, sure, but I’m pleased by how many different concepts Moon introduces.  It’s a good, solid story, that doesn’t even need an endorsement from ane McCaffrey to sell it.  I’d picked it up with the notion that a Remnant Population might be after a plague of some sort, but what I got is far better.

As a sample of Moon’s solo full-length work, it’s more than equal to what I asked, which was reason to continue seeking her out.

Local Celebrity

Do you know SUE?  I know SUE.  I remember all the waves SUE made and have seen SUE multiple times.  But, given the countries that often show up on this blog’s stats, it may be that you do not actually know SUE.  For me, SUE is local and everyone knows. But what does that mean for people not in Chicagoland?

If you haven’t figured it out, I’m referring to the most complete tyrannosaurus rex skeleton discovered to date, nicknamed SUE after the woman who discovered it.  It’s owned by the Field Musuem in Chicago and, until fairly recently, was on display in the main atrium.  That would be the center of the museum, where admissions are and everything.  You pretty much need to go through the atrium to go anywhere, so SUE was very prominent.  They moved the skeleton recently to make room for something bigger – the titanosaur.  But we’re not talking about that today.

Now, I’ve always liked dinosaurs.  Not in a “I want to grow up to be a paleontologist” kind of way, more like “that one character in Anne McCaffrey’s Dinosaur Planet who liked them as a hobby and thus was able to recognize them for what they were.”  So when I was browsing the Newberry Library’s sale and saw Hunt for the Past: My Life as an Explorer by Sue Hendrickson, I figured it was more than worth a dollar to indulge my childhood self.  It’s a skinnier book than Jane Goodall’s My Life with the Chimpanzees, so it wouldn’t take long to get through once I finally sat down to read it.

The book really isn’t about SUE the T-Rex but about Sue Hendrickson.  Normally that might be a disappointment, but the woman has led a fascinating life.  She went from a suburban kid in northwest Indiana (still Chicagoland) to living on a boat in the Pacific for two years, to diving for a living in Florida (selling fish) to marine archaeology, to paleontology, and still working today.  It’s just…crazy.  A life so very different from my own and I am just agog at all the amazing opportunities she’s had.

Of course, when you consider the fact that Hendrickson was born in 1940, that the T-Rex discovery was back in 1992…it was a very different world then.  Opportunity really was everywhere, if you were brave enough to grasp it.  Very different from today’s world in many respects where they try harder than ever to shove us through a system that’s designed to make a percentage of us fail…but enough of a soapbox.

It’s a cursory autobiography meant for children, clearly indicated by the short length and large font.  Probably kids who are just getting into chapter books, first and second grade.  That’s not a bad thing and frankly, it still gets across the pertinent information.  Did Hendrickson likely have days or weeks or years when she felt like a failure?  Probably.  But this isn’t about her as a person, it’s about the things she’s done and found.  It’s not a novel but a recitation of facts.  Given the short length, I have no issues with this.

I honestly didn’t think I’d keep this book when I bought it.  I grabbed it because it was just interesting enough to spend a dollar to read it, but I fully expected it to go straight into my “to sell” pile afterwards.  Instead, I’ll hang on to this.  It may not be all about dinosaurs like I thought, but it’s still interesting and worthwhile.  SUE the T-Rex has been a big deal in the area ever since the Field Museum bought it, then again when it was unveiled, and finally when it was moving locations within the museum.  Oh, and SUE has a twitter.  Yes, I’m absolutely serious.  You can find it @SUEtheTrex, though the name is actually [t-rex emoji] Catalog No. FMNH PR 2081 [t-rex emoji].  (Can you tell I don’t do twitter?)  I especially like the description: “Legendary Fossil. Apex Predator. National Treasure. New Suite Getter. All Caps Name Haver. “They/Them” Pronoun User. LARGE M U R D E R B I R D.”  As you can see, I’ve made the effort to suit SUE’s preferences concerning gender pronouns.  Hendrickson had a tendency to project her own opinions and while I can understand that, it’s best to do what the Large Murderbird wants.