Batman: Haunted Knight – The Hero We Deserve

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Happy Halloween everyone, enjoy a special post!

Batman: Haunted Knight collects three Halloween tales by writer Jeph Loeb and illustrator Tim Sale. Famous for The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, the pair should be considered among the most trusted minds to weave a fantastic Batman story. Each of the brief stories in Haunted Knight glows with Loeb and Sale’s unbridled joint creativity, setting the stage for the two aforementioned novels that would become their masterpieces.

Fears, Madness, and Ghosts comprise the collection, each exploring in varying detail a particular aspect of Batman’s psyche. Originally, the stories ran separately as Halloween specials before becoming a seminal collection of one-off caped crusader escapades. The specials stand quite sturdily when evaluated alone, but they thrive when collected. Three dark Batman vignettes showcasing his skill alongside his flaws? Sign me up.

Fears launches the trilogy and establishes Gotham as a city overrun by fear, with Scarecrow dead center. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne, who struggles to balance his…knight life with his more human side, falls for a mysterious woman with an unclear past.

The Bruce/Bats dichotomy is well-trodden ground, but Loeb and Sale handle it deftly without missing a beat. Bruce’s troubles are reflected by Batman’s woes, and Scarecrow knows how to exploit those issues with deadly accuracy. In my admittedly limited experience with Scarecrow in Batman comics, this story stands as one of the best portrayals of the villain I’ve ever read. There’s nobody better suited to bring out the dark corners of Bruce Wayne’s mind. Where The Joker forces Batman to wrestle with chaos for its own sake, Scarecrow smartly plays to Batman’s biggest weakness: his undeniable humanity.

Fears, by a sizeable stretch, wins the gold medal out of these three tales, punctuated by a percussive and smirk-inducing conclusion that just begs to be adapted to the big screen.

Madness drops Bats into a thorough exploration of his relationship with his late mother, mirrored in the present day by Mad Hatter’s kidnapping of Barbara Gordon and her relationship with Batman mainstay Jim Gordon. I’ve always thought Mad Hatter faltered as a villain, if only because his deranged mind does nothing to compensate for his tiny stature. Here, he makes up for his shortcomings with ample firepower and Barbara, a critical hostage. Even with the added leverage, Mad Hatter still reads like a cheap caricature rather than a full-fledged villain. Instead, Batman’s own inner turmoil, heralded by memories of his mother, plays the real starring villain role. Sure, it’s a tad highfalutin, but the story ends up better off for it.

Ghosts brings the collection to a lukewarm end. Easily the worst of the three, but not necessarily bad, Ghosts reads more like an excuse to retell A Christmas Carol through the Batman lens than a story that deserves to be told. After an altercation with Penguin, Bruce is visited by the ghost of his father followed by three other ghosts who represent past, present, and future.

A few villainous staples appear throughout the tale as titular ghosts, but the narrative moves so quickly that no worthwhile conflict emerges. By the end, I had written Ghosts off as a semi-charming recreation of a classic tale using the iconic stable of Batman characters. It’s worth the read, but any deeper meaning eludes this one. And, at the end of the day, that’s just fine.

Batman: Haunted Knight captures the spark of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale effortlessly, setting the stage for their continued collaboration and cementing them as trustworthy Batman storytellers. The three collected tales vary in terms of quality, ranging from passable to amazing, generally settling toward the latter.

Rating: Batman: Haunted Knight – 7.5/10
-Cole

Bridge of Birds – Can’t See The Flock For The Fowls

15177The pun in my title would work a lot better if this book had been bad, but alas, it was amazing. Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart, is an underappreciated fantasy gem from the 80’s that I feel more people should know about. On the surface, it is a simple and elegant alternative history story set inChina, describing the journey of Master Li and Number Ten Ox in dealing with a mysterious disease. The book is told in style reminiscent of a traditional fable and jumps between many small stories with clear morals that seem loosely connected. However, under the seemingly shallow exterior of this tale lies a deep and complex story that is just waiting to be discovered.

As mentioned, the plot of Bridge of Birds is ostensibly a simple one: the young Number Ten Ox lives in a small village that falls victim to a plague. In order to heal this malady, Ox goes to a nearby city to find a wise man. There, he locates the venerable Master Li who agrees to assist him. They identify a potential cure to the plague, a rare root of power, and go on a multi-stage quest to find it. Simple, clean, clear – that is how the plot of Bridge of Birds portrays itself. It is a lie. There is a lot going on in this book, much of it below the surface. There are three or four stories beautifully intertwined in the book, and the deeper you go, the more you will realize that the book has a lot more going on than simple morals. It is a cleverly crafted, and intensely planned, novel that will lure you in with its great humor and fun antics, and pull the rug out from under you.

Speaking of humor, the book is hilarious. Not in the typical laugh-out-loud way, but in a more contextual hilarity sort of way. Each chapter functions as a small tale where the Ox learns a valuable lesson; and the themes rotate between wisdom, hilarity, and melancholy. The full cast of the book is massive for its size, with each chapter often introducing new characters that sometimes only stick around until the end of that section. While many of these characters are fairly shallow and one dimensional, a number of the cast (in particular Li and Ox) feel both like they have a nice depth to them and like they go through some good character arcs.

If you are a long time reader of the site you will know that I am a huge sucker for powerful narrative techniques, and Bridge of Birds delivers on this in spades. I am not Chinese, but I got the distinct impression that Barry Hughart had a good understanding of the country’s lore and storytelling styles – as the book feels like it was lifted straight out of Chinese fable. Hughart uses this narrative style to make the book feel welcoming and warm to all ages, even when there are some truly gruesome and violent scenes. I initially thought that this would be a great book to read to my someday children until I saw what the upbeat tone hid under the surface. The style serves to make the story feel more emotionally impactful and deep, and I can’t think of a better way to describe the narrative effect than a quote from the book itself: “Fable has strong shoulders that carry far more truth than fact can”.

The prose and writing are also top-notch. There were numerous times that Hughart’s descriptives, of both positive and negative experiences, elicited a physical response from me due to their evocative nature. Hughart has crafted a book that is endlessly quotable, with many lines burning themselves into my memory out of pure brilliance. Which brings me to what I would consider Bridge of Bird’s strongest attribute – it is incredibly memorable. For such a small book, it holds an impressive emotional weight. I can still remember almost every chapter clearly after finishing it, and I already want to reread it to see what I missed. Everything in the book had a profound way of coming together in the end, and I bet I missed a ton of small hints and nods as I bumbled my way through the tale.

Bridge of Birds is a masterpiece and one of the best fantasy books I have ever read. This small book was a part of our yearly book club and now has the esteemed honor of being our highest rated book – ever. Every one of us who picked it up was moved by its words and clever philosophies, and I would be willing to bet money that the effect is not localized to us. If you haven’t had the chance to read this incredible book, I implore you to do so at your earliest convenience. For I may have a small flaw in my character, but my recommendation for this book is certainly not a part of it.

Rating: Bridge of Birds – 10/10
-Andrew

Winter Tide – Cooler than the Other Side of the Salt Water

a1zmg0rj1slWinter Tide, by Ruthanna Emrys, is a book I’ve been meaning to read for quite some time. Essentially a subversive take on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, the book is told from the perspective of one of his “monsters”, and I’d always been intrigued by the description. Now that I’ve wrapped up this story, I’m incredibly disappointed in myself for having waited so long to try it out. It certainly wasn’t the story I was expecting when I initially started reading, but the story I got is one of the absolute best I’ve read this year, and it’s a tale that I imagine will stick with me in the coming months.

I guess it was the fact that it takes place in a world where Lovecraft’s stories are canon (of a sort) that led me to erroneously believe that this would be a horror story when I started it. The fact that it was being told from the perspective of Aphra Marsh, originally an Innsmouth resident and one of the last two living and unchanged Deep Ones (along with her brother Caleb), made it more likely to draw the curtains and reveal the “horror” for what it really was, but I still thought that something so grounded in tales that left me quaking would…well, leave me quaking again. I was wrong about that, as this book sets out to chill the reader in other ways, more mundane and yet more deeply disturbing for that very mundanity.

Readers of Lovecraft, by this point, must make their forays into his work with eyes open and with the understanding that the man behind the words was a monster in his own right. Deeply xenophobic, racist, and misogynistic, even for the woeful standards of his time, Lovecraft channeled his fears of the other and anger at those who “wouldn’t mind their place” into works of seething atmospheric dread and unknowable terrors. It is impossible to extricate the man and his abhorrent beliefs from the monsters and stories he wrote into existence, as it was those very beliefs that gave him such an insight into the dark and dreadful recesses of humanity. I think this is why we see so many novels that make an attempt to “reclaim” or “rewrite” his works, twisting them on their head and showing him for what he was.

It is no accident, then, that Winter Tide is as sincere a refutation of those mores and ideas as I’ve found to date. The decision to accept that the old stories are canon, but canon as set down by men like Lovecraft himself, and show those stories and ideas for how twisted and wrong they are is incredibly powerful. Emrys draws parallels between the treatment of the Innsmouth folk in internment camps and the treatment of other indigenous peoples as a way of showing that rather than horrific monsters to be feared, the Men of the Water are simply that – human. When you consider how the United States government treated the native peoples of the Americas, and how they were viewed by the common populace as barbaric monsters at the time, it is easy to see in subsequent reads of the original tale The Shadow Over Innsmouth how the perceptions of the “hero” of the story could be twisted by a lack of understanding, or a lack of desire to understand.

It’s not just the big ideas that Emrys refutes, either. Everything in the novel, down to the occasional use of overwrought prose to make a call back to Lovecraft’s less than stellar narrative voice (using the word vertiginous rather than dizzying, as one example of many) was planned and executed fantastically. The specific use of Asenath Waite from The Thing on the Doorstep is another example of her twisting of Lovecraft’s original less-than-savory intent, as is the choice to change the spelling of the name of one of the elder gods from Shub-Niggurath to Shub-Nigarath. It’s a small thing but changes the way the name is said internally from one that was clearly using a racial epithet to make something feel dark and dangerous, to one that simply sounds strange and distant.

That being said, all the best intentions and refutations of humanity’s darker nature in the world won’t help a book if the story and writing are off, of course, but Emrys shines here as well. I said earlier in this review that the story I received is not the one I expected, and the story I got was stellar. An adventurous mystery romp through the Miskatonic Bay region with a diverse and interesting cast of characters was a really pleasant surprise once I realized that was what I was reading. Each of the characters is developed well and written superbly, and every story beat and emotional reveal was handled deftly and sympathetically. My only complaint is that the main driving force of the mystery takes a hard detour and turns out to be something of a mcguffin, but the real mystery and plot that replaces it was far more interesting in the end, and as such I have a hard time faulting the book for it.

Winter Tide was fantastic, fun, meaningful, painful, and expansive. I loved the full cast of protagonists and loved rooting against the entire cast of antagonists, though in the end there aren’t really any “bad guys” per se, simply people with different ideas on how things should be done and not enough information on why things shouldn’t be done that way. Ruthanna Emrys has a fantastic voice as an author and I cannot wait to start the second book in the series, Deep Roots, released in June of this year.

Rating: Winter Tide – 9.5/10
-Will

I Kill Giants – SLAY

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Four times, on four separate trips, I meandered through the aisles of bookstores, I Kill Giants, by Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura, atop my stack of “possible buys,” and four times I walked out of the store without it, opting instead for something more “reasonable” from my to-read list—namely, sequels to books I’d recently enjoyed.

On the fifth trip, perhaps because my fiancée wasn’t present to limit my purchase to two paperbacks, I left the store with Joe Kelly’s seminal story in-hand. Upon finishing The Road (review here), I yearned for a more digestible tale, and a standalone graphic novel fit the bill. Now, I only wish I’d read it sooner.

Protagonist Barbara Thorson sports bunny ears to her fifth-grade classes, often buries her nose in a book at the worst possible time, and picks fights with the school bully. She explodes off the page with gusto, thanks in large part to Ken Niimura’s artistic expertise. Author Joe Kelly quickly and easily establishes her as a misfit—she’s wildly absorbed in fantasy worlds, and typically veers off into her psyche without paying much attention to her real-life surroundings. “I kill giants,” she says to her mocking classmates. “Hey, that’s the title of the book!” I say as I read the line.

Barbara’s story builds in a modular fashion, and the details—small at first, in-your-face by the end—hint at a deep trauma. She becomes so violent and vitriolic that she lashes out at her newest (and, presumably only) friend, Sophia. Her home life, tenuously managed by her older sister, brings out the darkest sides of everyone involved.

Diving deeper nears spoiler territory, but one key message emerges from each sector of Barbara’s life: she must kill one particular giant to deal with her mental turmoil. It may be metaphorical to an outsider, but to Barbara, it’s very real.

It’s hard for me to separate I Kill Giants from similar meaningful experiences in my life, and I think that connection vastly inflates my appreciation of the story, both in terms of how it’s presented, through the eyes of someone trying to cope, and in terms of how effortlessly each idea jumps off the page. My reading of Kelly’s beautiful story sparked memories of my own hardships, making the book just that much more impactful. That certainly won’t be the case for everyone, but I firmly believe that most readers will find something to enjoy here.

Kelly dances through heavy themes gracefully, delving into realms of self-harm, grief, death, and violence with a grace that rivals similar genre pieces. While reading I Kill Giants, I was often reminded of similar passages in Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls. The two books seem inevitably intertwined, if only because of their steady treatment of difficult topics.

Kelly’s characterization matches his thematic prowess, at times surpassing it. Every character feels real and unique. More importantly, I sympathized with each of them on some level. Barbara’s sour attitude, despite its obvious cause, makes her unlikable in many ways, so finding solace in secondary or even tertiary characters comes easily, backed by Kelly’s steady hand and Niimura’s deft brushstrokes.

On that note, though, it is a bit hard to justify Barbara’s outright violence, especially during the story’s first third. Everything makes sense when the book’s big “mystery” is revealed; however, Barbara’s actions are rude and dangerous, and she rarely encounters any punishment. By the end, this all makes some sense based on the life events that drive Barbara into a dark place, but when the rest of the novel so effortlessly ebbs and flows within the boundaries of what is right, wrong, and just okay, this feels like a big miss. For example, hitting a guidance counselor in the face would elicit some sort of repercussion, so when Barabara does it and it’s cast off as grief or depression with zero reaction, it’s a narrative issue.

I Kill Giants moves at a perfect pace, weaving and bobbing through a blinding array of concepts without ever missing a beat, but also taking ample time to grapple with important thoughts. Every off-the-cuff line of dialogue, every inch of every panel, and every punctuation mark serves a purpose. Nothing feels out of place, and the narrative velocity of Joe Kelly’s writing stays consistent throughout. It’s a rare accomplishment, particularly considering how easily a graphic novel can race to tie up loose ends or linger on one thought for too long. I Kill Giants finds the balance and flaunts it.

Minus a few disjointed narrative moments, I Kill Giants is a masterwork of graphic fiction that navigates tumultuous topics with ease and serves as a testament to fantastic storytelling.

Rating: I Kill Giants – 9.0/10
-Cole

The Books of Magic – Gaiman’s Graphic Sorcery

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Neil Gaiman’s The Books of Magic lives up to its name. Combining Gaiman’s distinct charm with illustrations by John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess, and Paul Johnson, Magic stands as a narrative wonder among the pantheon of amazing graphic novels. In fact, published in 1993, it may have built the foundation on which some of the medium’s best work stands.

I encountered The Books of Magic after a lengthy discussion with a friend about the Harry Potter series during which he called out certain similarities between the stories. I usually wouldn’t mention this in my review, but it seems this is a common question among Potterheads looking to dive into Gaiman’s graphic novel. Perhaps significantly, The Books of Magic predates the first Harry Potter book by about five years, and there are a few notable similarities. Tim Hunter, the graphic novel’s protagonist, has dark hair and glasses. Early on, he’s given an owl by an older magician. Both of these facts become apparent right from the start, but the parallels pretty much end there.

Following a quick and mysterious intro that establishes Timothy’s potential to be an immensely powerful wizard, he’s whisked into a crazy adventure by four magicians who all wear trench coats. He explores the past, the present, the future, and Fairyland, each time with a separate mage companion. The entire plot is staged as a sort of “magical preview,” and when he’s through with the journey, Tim must decide whether he wants to pursue magic further. Boiled down to its bare bones, the story is essentially Timothy watching a trailer for a fascinating, real-life movie, then must decide whether to watch the feature film.

The plot, paired with brilliant illustrative work and Todd Klein’s diverse lettering, make The Books of Magic a feast for the eyes and mind. Tim’s journeys through time and reality are beautifully imaginative, and they leap off the page with the help of Gaiman’s typical (but still somehow unbelievable) panache. The past, present, and future as they relate to magic are fascinating “locales” worthy of the pages-long explorations they receive. Fairyland, though, plays the starring role. An amalgamation of countless worlds including Hell, the dream world (inhabited by Gaiman’s Sandman, who makes a cameo), and many others, Fairyland and its whimsical reality-bending branches shine through in text and drawing alike, culminating in a downright gorgeous romp through Gaiman’s fantasy-genius imagination.

The story and setting are bolstered by a quirky cast of characters, many of whom have appeared in other DC series. In the visual medium, the lack of physical space for text places much of the characterization burden on the artist, and each illustrator in The Books of Magic showcases talents that well surpassed even my highest expectations. They treat every illustration with such care that I often found myself lingering on the artwork for minutes at a time, absorbing the detail admiring the artistic skill on display.

The Books of Magic builds to an explosive and, I have to say it—magical—ending that mostly pays off. Tim’s journey comes to a meaningful and sensible conclusion, but it does lean heavily on a loophole that felt either cheap or unearned—I honestly can’t decide between the two. Still, it did little to detract from the fantastic story that preceded it. In some ways, the story feels like a prequel to a much longer saga, and that’s partly true. While Gaiman’s novel stands alone, it did continue under new penmanship years later. I left The Books of Magic so enamored that I bought the continuation, and I can’t wait to dive in.

Rating: The Books of Magic – 8.5/10
-Cole

Ravencry – Cawing Back For More

36666672Last year, when I finished reading Blackwing, by Ed McDonald, I was unsure if I would be back for more. My review of the McDonald’s debut can be found here, but the short version is: good writing and interesting world, but a super boring protagonist. However, after sitting on the book for a few months I found myself still invested in the plot and curious to see what would happen next. So, I decided to pick up the second book in the Raven’s Mark series, Ravencry, and see if it stepped it up or dropped the ball.

The plot of this series is hilariously complicated, and you can find a much more in-depth run down in my review of book one (which is linked in the first paragraph). However, the short version is McDonald’s books take place in a post apocalyptic wasteland where two sets of gods wage war. Our protagonist, Ryhalt Galharrow, is a captain in the special forces (the Blackwings) of one of the supposedly less garbage gods (Crowfoot), and works as a combination detective/warden/bounty hunter. His general job is to investigate and track down anomalies that his patron is worried about. The plot of Ravencry is essentially that the events of book one have shaken the populace’s faith in the ruling class, and the common people have started to form cults and riot. While this is happening, a powerful artifact is stolen from Crowfoot’s personal vault. Ryhalt needs to find this artifact before it starts causing trouble, while dealing with the fact that the city he inhabits is in upheaval.

As I have said both in my previous review and the first paragraph, McDonald’s world is pretty fantastic to explore. A large part of the world revolves around a slice of land that separates the two warring gods: a horrific wasteland called the Misery. There is a dualism to the Misery; it is filled with untold horrors, but it is also constantly explored and mapped in order to maintain the boundary against the rival deities. This forced exploration provides a powerful natural narrative vehicle by which to show the reader all sorts of cool and terrifying things. You also find yourself buying in to the idea that the Misery is this awful place due to reactions of all the trackers who have gone in to map it. In Ravencry, the world continues its patterns of excellence. McDonald expands the scope of his world building. The first books primarily focuses on a single city and the Misery, while the second does a better job of selling these two massive countries at war.

However, while Ravencry still has the strengths of its predecessor, my real question was did it shore up my big issue with book one – the characters, specifically Ryhart. The answer to this is …somewhat. The support cast in Blackwing was decent, but I would argue that Ravencry‘s is slightly better. The supporting characters are a mix of new and old, and McDonald feels like he takes a lot more time to introduce, and flesh out, all the people you meet. I definitely felt like I understood the identities and motivations of characters in Ravencry, whereas many of the cast felt like one dimensional beings provided to enable Ryhart in the first book. Ryhart himself is definitely better, but I still think he has a little ways to go. I previously had two issues with Ryhart; he didn’t seem “special” enough to be the protagonist of book one, and I just didn’t like his personality. Ravencry does a great job fixing the first issue, but doesn’t fully fix the second. In the first book, Ryhart just seemed weirdly untalented for how much faith people placed into him. His principle skill just seemed to be that he happened to be standing in the right place at the right time, which didn’t really give him a lot of agency. In the second book, he feels much more like a knowledgeable detective who is deadly in a fight. I had a much stronger understanding why other cast members might look to him for leadership and why he felt important to the story. As to the second issue, I had a hard time explaining my problem with Ryhart’s personality in my review of book one, but I think I finally understand how to state it better with the second installment. As I mentioned before, one of the huge strengths of this series is the world building, and how the character’s reactions and identities really sell this post apocalyptic wasteland. This is almost universally true except for Ryhart himself, who feels like he doesn’t react to his surroundings as he should. Most of the character’s live life knowing that the Misery could murder them in a blink, and this is reflected in their bleak nature and lack of long term planning. On the other hand, Ryhalt feels like he has plot armor, and knows it, as choices and feelings he has don’t mess with what I would expect. This creates cognitive dissonance for me and makes it occasionally hard to believe him as a character. However, Ryhart is definitely better overall in almost every respect in Ravencry.

At the end of the day, I think Ravencry is an improvement on almost every metric compared its excellent predecessor. I harped on Ryhart a lot, but it really is a small blemish in an otherwise great read. While I was on the fence about the series after book one, Ravencry has cemented my loyalty to the Raven’s Mark series, and I eagerly await the next installment. It you are looking for a dystopian/horror fantasy that has an impressive ambiance, complicated but engrossing plot, and relatable cast – check out Blackwing and Ravencry.

Rating: Ravencry – 9.0/10
-Andrew

The Road – Worth the Trek

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To a reader like me, who voraciously consumes spoon-fed, tried-and-true Sci-Fi tropes without scoffing, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road teeters on the edge of greatness for a majority of the fittingly winding narrative. It withholds details that, to any other book, would be crucial. It chooses moments of solemn tranquility over epic conflict. It dives deep into the psychology of a father and son walking across a gutted landscape instead of pitting them against hordes of zombies or quasi-undead humans. As I read the novel, I’d lean into this gentle back-and-forth between greatness and insignificance. By the end, I landed gingerly on the side of quality, pushed along by gusts of heart-wrenching story beats and lyrical but grounded poetic prose. And the more I ponder it, the more I feel that The Road is a fantastic book, though it will inevitably polarize readers.

McCarthy’s “masterpiece,” as the back cover dubs it, follows a boy and his father as they traverse a burnt and barren America in the wake of a devastating apocalypse. Save for a few hints and memories, no concrete explanation of the apocalyptic event emerges. Instead, McCarthy treats readers to a harrowing tale of two people trying to survive. The boy and his father are never named. In fact, only one character in the entire book gives a name, and even then it isn’t clear whether he is telling the truth. To divulge any more plot details would lead us dangerously near spoiler territory, so I’ll leave it at this: the boy and father venture through this destroyed world in an attempt to find safety or refuge, and they must make snap decisions that could lead to a better life or a painful death.

Despite their namelessness, our two protagonists are remarkably defined. The boy is curious about the world and eager to help others thrive whenever he is given a chance. The father’s memories of the old world jade him to the new one, and he’s driven only by his desire to keep the boy alive. McCarthy varies his descriptions of their journey and their world so skillfully that the reader sees everything through the boy’s eyes and his father’s in near simultaneity.

Some descriptions of the world and depictions of the conversations between the protagonists are so fittingly drab that readers could be quick to denounce McCarthy’s writing as dull or uninspired. Instead of casting it off as such, I asked myself: In a post-apocalyptic setting, how much brilliance can be allowed to emerge? When a ravaged landscape strips bare all of its inhabitants leaving only dust and the will to survive, is there room left for actual human emotion? How can the eyes of this man and his child, so tinted by destruction, see beauty in the world at every turn?

McCarthy’s prose walks these lines and tackles these questions with remarkable poise. At times, the dialogue ignites into radiant descriptions of the world before the catastrophe or vividly dark passages about the spoiled earth. In other sections, the story finds the lowest common conversational denominator, effortlessly and tangibly indicating the need for survival above all else. “Okay.” The boy says. “Okay.” The dad says. It may be less than they need, but it’s the most they can manage.

In my research about The Road, I noticed a majority of reviewers mention McCarthy’s choice to use only the occasional punctuation. Some wax romantic about his brilliant use of poetic license. Others remark that it’s unnecessarily obtuse. In my mind, they’re not mutually exclusive. Sure, only using periods with the occasional comma and never once using quotation marks can symbolize the starving nature of the characters at hand. But there are other ways to approach that goal. Personal preference will reign supreme here, deterring some while attracting others.

The entire story of The Road culminates into a gloriously tragic and satisfying end, flavored by slight hints of ambiguity. It’s poignant and true to the many pages and words that comprise the bulk of the novel. True to the title, the ending sees our characters at an intersection with a crucial decision to make. Given the skill with which McCarthy teaches the reader about his characters, I felt equipped to guess what might happen next. And while that may not be satisfying for all, it certainly was for me.

The Road is a genuinely astonishing tale marred only by the inevitability of personal stylistic preference. If you don’t mind occasionally dense prose or doing some of the world-building on your own without hand-holding, this touching journey deserves a slot on your to-read shelf.

Rating: The Road: 9.0/10
-Cole

Coldbrook – Something Something Lukewarm, Something Something Bad Pun

81jyozjppulFor those of you who have been reading the blog for…more than 1.5 years (wow it’s been awhile now huh?), you may remember a short recommendation list I made for the zombie fiction genre. In the opening blurb that isn’t nearly as pithy or interesting as I thought at the time, I mention that books about zombies are a weak spot for me. I can, without exception, find something to like in any zombie book I read. Some might say it’s a character flaw and they’d probably be right. Back to the matter at hand I realized that it’d been awhile since I’d read a new zombie book, and while on holiday with some of the QTL crew at PAX I picked up Coldbrook by Tim Lebbon.

With an opening paragraph like that, I bet you’re expecting me to say that this was the exception and Coldbrook is the only zombie book I’ve ever read that I couldn’t enjoy. You’d be absolutely wrong, I was just stumped on how to lead into this review, so the joke is on you.

Coldbrook is the story of a zombie plague brought about by a scientific experiment that opens a gateway between different versions of earth. This isn’t a spoiler, it’s literally in the back blurb. Coldbrook is, shockingly, the name of the science installation where this experiment takes place. We open with the experiment just having succeeded and things quickly go wrong from there. I want to focus on that word ‘quickly’, as that is a recurring theme in the book. The zombies run quickly, the virus spreads quickly, the plot moves quickly. It’s all very edge of your seat for the majority of the novel’s running time. This has its pros and cons. I absolutely tore through the book, finishing it in about a day and a half, and there really wasn’t a place where I felt comfortable with stopping, as the action was split rather well between the various povs.

Unfortunately, for a zombie book that seems marketed more as a horror book than an action book, the pace hinders what could have been some real scares. This is unfortunate, as Lebbon has a lot of talent for situational writing. Individual moments and scenes in Coldbrook rank up there in terms of scary zombie stories for me, and I think that with a little more room to work with, maybe over the course of a two or three book series, Coldbrook could have elevated the tension and risen to the heights of true horror.

I am not as big a fan of his characters, unfortunately. Another issue brought about by the amount of story Lebbon attempts to tell in a standalone novel is that the wide variety of characters don’t really ever get time to distinguish themselves as individuals. Instead most are reduced to broad strokes descriptions and individual unique traits that are leaned on in lieu of deeper characterization. The welsh scientist references wales and whiskey basically nonstop, the family man having an affair literally will not stop talking about how much disappointment he sees in his wife’s eyes, and so on. Please note that the characters aren’t bad, and I would have loved to spend more time getting to know them, which is the real shame.

Outside of the outbreak’s source being an alternate dimension, all the standard zombie fiction fare is here: airport shenanigans, school bus fiascos, gory cannibalism, all the fun stuff. The zombies themselves are pretty by the numbers, with their one distinct aspect being that instead of moaning, they make a quiet “hoot” sound. This doesn’t really change a lot other than the characters talking about how they didn’t think zombies would make that sound, which got a little meta for me, but in the end I do prefer characters that are self aware over characters that have somehow never heard of zombies and are absolutely dumbstruck by everything to do with them.

I don’t know that Coldbrook will make my shortlist of zombie book recommendations for the wider public, but if you enjoy zombies a lot already I think it’s a unique enough take on the genre to check out. The issues I had with the book are extremely common in the genre, and present in a much lighter degree here than in most similar stories. If you’re looking for a solid zombie apocalypse story with a little unique flair, the zombie guy at The Quill To Live recommends Coldbrook by Tim Lebbon.

Rating: Coldbrook – 6.5/10
-Will

Record Of A Spaceborn Few – A Masterpiece Of Storytelling

y648No witty title today, just a post about a series that you should be reading. I have talked about Becky Chambers, and her incredible novels, before – but in essence she writes sci-fi slice of life novels. They are quiet, contemplative, and slow stories about people who make their lives in space. The problems that they encounter are rarely the world ending threats you expect in your typical sci-fi novel, and often are more about the pursuit of happiness. When I started reading these novels, I thought the premise was a cool idea but I was unsure how much I would enjoy the execution. Now I sit here wondering if it is too early to declare Record of a Spaceborn Few, book three in The Wayfarers, my best book of 2018.

Note: You don’t have to read these books in order, as they are all technically standalone, but there is enough crossover that I recommend you read them in publication order.

Record follows the story of the human exodus fleet. In Chamber’s universe, a long time ago, Earth began to show signs of environmental decay and collapse. In response to this, a large group of people got together and built a massive self-sustaining fleet to leave our planetary home and sail into the stars for better opportunities. The fleet eventually made contact with other alien races, humanity found new homes, and the exodus fleet completed its purpose. Except, not everyone left the fleet. In fact, a huge contingent of people decided to stay on the armada of ships as they permanently orbit a star gifted to them by another civilization. This story follows the lives of those who chose to remain on the exodus fleet, and the very personal difficulties that they struggle with as they try to find meaning in their own lives within the fleet. The story itself is both somber and uplifting. The book begins with a horrible accident – one of the exodus ships suffers a malfunction and ruptures, killing almost everyone aboard. The rest of the book is fueled by this event as the characters react to their own mortality.

The first two books in this series told beautiful personal stories, but neither of them were on the same level as Record. For starters there are a ton of POVs in Record:

  • Isobel – An older archivist who chronicles the history of the exodus fleet. Through her eyes we see how important the “world” of the fleet has been, and what it means as a symbol of humanity
  • The Alien Gol – I will butcher the spelling of Gol’s full name, but she is essentially a jellyfish like alien that has come to the exodus fleet to learn about it as a sociologist/anthropologist. Through Gol we see what the exodus fleet represents to non-humans
  • Kip – a teenage boy bored with his assigned lot in the Fleet. He has spent his entire life in the fleet and finds its technological shortcomings frustrating. He feels trapped in a decaying lifestyle that his elders have forced on him and doesn’t see the point in spending his entire life on the upkeep of useless ships that he hates. Through Kip we hear the arguments against the fleet and the arguments for leaving it
  • Sawyer – an outsider to the fleet who is trying to immigrate from his previously difficult life. Sawyer is Kip’s foil (and vice-versa) as he represents the universal difficulties that the fleet shields humanity from
  • Eyas – a fleet composter and burial expert. Eyas is a younger character who holds a job of much reverence in the fleet. Through her we experience and come to understand a lot of the culture and values of the fleet
  • Tessa – an engineer with two children. Her POV is a little hard to summarize in a paragraph, as it is very fluid and changes a lot throughout the course of the novel. However, I will say she gives you a lot of insight as a parent and helps you think about what the fleet might mean to future generations

All of these characters represent different opinions and beliefs that exist inside the exodus fleet, and each spend the novel arguing for their point of view. Chambers did an incredible job balancing their arguments so that everyone and no one seems right, giving you a ton to think about. On top of this, Chambers’ ability to personify the different characters is truly incredible. Kip’s POV as a teenage boy feels believable and relatable to my own experiences (when I was that age), while I felt I really understood the plight of a parent thinking about their children when I was inside Tessa’s head. Each character feels realistic, relatable, and lovable – and I adored each of them.

I have nothing but good things to say about Record of a Spaceborn Few. Becky Chambers has created a masterpiece of storytelling that I could read a hundred times and never stop enjoying. This sweet and somber story pulls you in and doesn’t let you go until the last tearful page. Record made me think a lot about my own life, and the things I take for granted. I feel like reading this book made me a better, more thoughtful, person – and what more can you ask from a story?

Rating: Record of a Spaceborn Few – 10/10
-Andrew