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

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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

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

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

The Quantum Magician – Look, I Really Tried

the-quantum-magician-9781781085707_hrSeriously, I did (see title). I really, really wanted to like The Quantum Magician, by Derek Künsken. The book has a fantastic premise, a cool world, awe inspiring physics, and a story that I was genuinely invested in. Unfortunately, in addition to all of this it has one of the most unlikable protagonists I have read in recent years. I can tell that he was supposed to be unlikable, he’s a rogue with loose morals, but you succeeded a little too well Künsken. Our lead, Belisarius (or Bel), cruises into the unlikable zone with relative ease in the first 50 pages – but then just keeps on trucking into utter bastard in the next 100. Disclaimer, I only got about 50% of the way through this book before I put it down – but I feel informed enough to extrapolate my feelings from the first half. If another reviewer out there has read the full book, which would be hard as I only received it as an ARC from the lovely people at Solaris in exchange for a honest review (sorry guys), and thinks the second half is god’s gift to literature – I will happily read the second half and amend this review. However, until then I am sticking to my guns and using them to blow this novel out of the sky.

We start on a high note. The premise of The Quantum Magician is a cool one: in a world ruled by massive federations of planets, a rogue world wants to smuggle an advanced fleet of warships across contended space to wage a war of independence. In order to do this, they have hired our protagonist, Belisarius – the quantum magician, who is known to perform miracles when it comes to retrieving or moving materials. Belisarius is indeed an incredible con-man/thief, but he is accustomed to stealing/moving things slightly smaller than a fleet of spaceships. There is a fun hint of mystery in the story, as initially it is very unclear as to why this rogue group even wants to move these warships. They seem wildly outdated, underpowered, and seem to have a very strange and confusing design. Thus, for our protagonist, this job represents both a mystery to unravel (why they want to move the ships) and potentially his greatest accomplishment – a crime to go down in legend. To pull this feat off, Belisarius will use a plethora of tricks and cons that revolve around quantum physics – which he does a good job explaining. Unfortunately, he does it with a smarmy and condescending attitude that makes it hard to take his commentary seriously.

I was originally attracted to Bel. You learn early on that he is a genetically engineered human who can manually enhance his brain to view quantum states. It sounded fairly similar to someone with high functioning autism, and I was looking forward to a story from that perspective. The problem with Bel is that, while he has the skills of an incredible con-man, he has the charisma of a sack of mud and the arrogance of an American hedge fund manager just prior to 2008. When he enhances his brain, he essentially redirects processing power from other parts of his intelligence into specific areas. As a result, he can momentarily become the greatest physicist in the universe in exchange for being absolute garbage at everything else – such as human interaction. Künsken demonstrates this effect through tons of moments in the book where Bel solves an extremely complicated problem, but comes off like an unlikable jackass. The issue with this is it essentially soured all the emotional payoff in the book. Every single time that Bel did something cool that won my affection, he immediately said something cringe worthy that curb stomped my budding love. This lessens the various climaxes throughout the book and made me slowly come to resent Bel.

Bel’s lack of social graces are a seriously problematic design choice for me, and it made it hard to recommend The Quantum Magician. However, if you aren’t bothered by his holier-than-thou attitude there is a lot here to still like. The science is realistic, cool, and explained in a way that anyone can understand it – which takes real talent. The world piqued my curiosity, and who doesn’t want to read a story about smuggling a fleet of warships? Apparently me, when it is told from the POV of a complete dick.

Rating: The Quantum Magician – 4.0/10
-Andrew

Exit Strategy – A Temporary End To A Story That Shouldn’t Stop

91itaaw8fvlI feel a bit weird having devoted three whole posts to a series of novella (first two can be found here and here), but Martha Wells is worth it. The Murderbot Diaries, of which All Systems Red just (deservedly) won the Hugo for best novella, comes to a close this year with Wells’ final installment, Exit Strategy. However, for those of us understandably obsessed with the four novella series – there has recently been an announcement that Wells will be continuing the series in a full length book. This is good news for two reasons: 1) I want more Murderbot, 2) the novella format was starting to wear a little thin.

Exit Strategy is another great addition to the four-part series, but I would hazard to say that it is the weakest of the group. All the things you love about the series, its great characters and exciting world, are still there – but the book didn’t quite blow my mind as much as its predecessors. The beauty in the Murderbot novellas is Wells’ ability to tell a tight, exciting, and poignant story – with the emotional impact of a full length novel – while cramming it into a byte sized piece. Exit Strategy feels like it falls short in this regard because it is left with the impossible task of wrapping up the greater storyline, while also telling its own story. Exit Strategy manages to do both these things, but at the cost of pacing and space. The first third of the short story feels like it’s just set up, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for action and character development. This is the first of the four shorts that I felt would have been better as a full novel, so I am excited that Wells is transitioning the series to that space.

Otherwise, Exit Strategy is still fantastic. Murderbot is still hilarious and relatable, and there is some serious cathartic release when they finally put the hurt on the antagonists that have been making Murderbot’s existence terrible for three previous books. The humor in particular is probably the best in the series and had me laughing aloud at multiple points. There unfortunately isn’t a new AI foil for Murderbot, unlike in Artificial Condition and Rogue Protocol (again, probably due to a lack of space). This is a shame, because Art and Miki were incredible and really helped bring Murderbot’s character development into the forefront of the story. Then again, since this is technically the end of the series I get why additional character development wasn’t a focus. Plus, Murderbot is pretty fantastic as they are now and I don’t know what direction they could go in to be a better person/robot.

In conclusion, Exit Strategy is still pretty phenomenal despite not quite reaching the heights of its predecessors. I still wonder why I have written about 5 pages of detailed review when a simple “seriously, go read this” would have done just as well. I can’t think of a better, or safer recommendation than The Murderbot Diaries – it is a story you can’t help but love. Be sure to grab Exit Strategy the moment it comes out, and then join me in endless speculation as we wait for the full length novel.

Rating:
Exit Strategy – 8.0/10
The Murderbot Diaries – 9.0/10
-Andrew