I Kill Giants – SLAY

51x4aytcuql-_sx321_bo1204203200_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

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The Books of Magic – Gaiman’s Graphic Sorcery

51mirbkrqgl-_sx343_bo1204203200_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

The Road – Worth the Trek

71ij1hc2a3lTo 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

A Darker Shade Of Magic – The Brighter Side Of Just Okay

51s-zq92brl-_sx331_bo1204203200_V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic collects all the building blocks of a great fantasy novel, but mostly leaves them on a shaky foundation. At times, the pieces come together, teasing the reader with apparitions of a grand storytelling fortress built on strong characters and expert world-building. Instead, I left the book wondering whether a structure comprising those fantasy building blocks would stand long enough to entice me into the sequel.

The book kicks things off with ample promise, backed by vivid characterization and sharp descriptions of the world. Kell, one of two protagonists, is also one of two remaining Antari, a magician able to travel between Londons (more on that soon). Lila, our second protagonist, is a pickpocket who’s down on her luck and thirsty for adventure. Kell and Lila are thrown into a haphazard journey through various Londons after Kell is attacked by mysterious beings and the two encounter a very suspicious magical object that oozes evil. The story pits royalty against royalty, brother against brother, and, at times, Kell against Lila. None of the main plot points sounds particularly original on paper—a powerful wizard/last of a dying breed, a thief who wonders if there’s a better life out there, and a suspicious/probably evil magical object—but the characters are built with a steady, well-written hand that exudes charm. Schwab wastes no effort in engaging the reader and encouraging investment in the story’s characters.

London plays host to the narrative, but it’s not just one London. Three iterations of the glorious city feature prominently—Grey, Red, and White London—while the fourth (Black London) has fallen, with only charred remnants in its wake. Grey London is “our” London, or “normal” London, if you will, and knows nothing of the others save for the occasional whisper. Red and White exist in separate worlds completely but share awareness of the other Londons. As mentioned Earlier, Kell is one of two remaining magicians who can travel between Londons at will.

While the premise proves interesting, the narrative is hindered by sheer scope. The story traverses the three existing Londons much like Kell can, introducing new characters, more information on how magic works in each, and some history. This becomes a problem, though, because the plot is spread so thin across these various locales and characters that nothing feels deeply explored or explained. For example: magic is used throughout by many characters, but never is there a definitive answer to how exactly it works or where it comes from. Typically, I’m not a stickler for rules surrounding magic in fantasy worlds. But when various characters use magic to different degrees and different results, it’s easy for the reader to feel uninitiated. Similar plot points feel needlessly stretched to fit this structure—about 150 pages in, I asked myself out loud “Has anything even happened yet?” With so much time spent describing what the world is and now how it works, I left wanting more.

Even if I set aside its meandering nature, the plot still feels thin. So much of the story dedicates its time to describing the characters and making them as believable as possible within this larger-than-life world. When enormous effort is expended creating who have nothing substantial to do, it’s a losing scenario. The prime example here is when Kell and Lila meet and begin their tenuous partnership. Any page that include the two of them spends 80 percent of its time letting them banter needlessly. It’s as if Schwab wants so badly to convince us that her characters have a fun, bickering-married-couple vibe, that she forgets to give them purpose.

Due to the issues above, I was left thinking about the plot in a weird, unnerving way. I understood and fairly accurately remember the main plot points even a week after finishing the book, but I haven’t the slightest idea in which order they occurred. Every major story beat blends in with the others, creating a sloppy amalgamation of plot devices that don’t actually matter. On that note, the novel’s latter half builds to a conclusion that, if you ask me, made little sense and was largely unearned. Very few of the revelations made much sense, and my “Oh, that’s the villain” realization ended in a disappointed question mark for me, rather than a shocked exclamation point paired with a gasp. In other words, I spent much of my time wondering who, of this glorious cast of characters, was the real bad guy, and the reveal proved disappointing. When a beautifully written cast falls this flat during such a reveal, your book has problems.

Where Darker Shade finds its footing, it shines. In particular, Schwab’s investment in her characters is brightly apparent from the very outset. Even small, nameless side characters get careful treatment, and the result is an astounding array of thieves, magicians, magicless humans on the hunt for just a quick taste of something supernatural, believable bar owners, shitty landlords, and brutal dictators. Everyone is given their due, and the cast of characters benefits greatly from Schwab’s deft writing.

The same, fortunately, is true of the settings. Though they create numerous problems within the narrative, Red, White, and Grey London each feel unique in their own way. Grey London is charmingly familiar, with hints of magic seeping in through Schwab’s descriptions of its residents. White London syphons the life out of its inhabitants, and the writing reflects that—I felt drained of energy after page-long journeys through the brutally masochistic world. Red London glows with magic and benevolence, highlighted by Kell’s obvious love for home. Even Black London, which we never see outright, boasts and exotic allure, like Hades’ underworld in Greek myth. It’s tangible and close, but we may never truly understand it.

Darker Shade is by no means a bad book. But it could be much better. It suffers from issues that plague many fantasy outings, and it overstays its welcome. Despite the length, the ending felt unearned and underexplained. Suffice it to say that, as a first outing in a new, intrepid magical world, A Darker Shade of Magic rests far from perfect status. Instead, it’s a middle-of-the-road tale bolstered by downright fantastic and memorable character work. Kell and Delilah are fitting hosts to the various Londons within, and the supporting cast equally intrigues. Despite my gripes and sometimes-harsh criticisms, I’m captivated enough to continue the series in hopes that the second installment will right the wrongs of the first.

Rating: A Darker Shade of Magic – 5.5/10
-Cole