Review: Phonogram, Volume 1: Rue Britannia

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Phonogram, Volume 1: Rue Britannia
Phonogram, Volume 1: Rue Britannia by Kieron Gillen

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I almost didn’t finish this book. It’s not that there aren’t interesting exchanges, unexpected turns and imaginative presentation. It’s because the story is slathered in pretentious, obnoxious, absurd, smug drivel. I didn’t want to hang out with these people long enough to figure out how their world worked and their place in it… and its not a long book. As others mention you do need an encyclopedic knowledge of some pretty terrible bands, but that doesn’t necessarily bother me. If this was likable, clever and charming I would have enjoyed looking up all the bands and considered it a bonus. If Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life had buried itself in real Canadian post-punk (or whatever Sex Bob-Omb is) it still would have been brilliant and engaging. This isn’t.

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Review: Outcast, Vol. 1: A Darkness Surrounds Him

Outcast, Vol. 1: A Darkness Surrounds HimOutcast, Vol. 1: A Darkness Surrounds Him by Robert Kirkman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The owner at one of my local comic book shops recommended this collected trade to me, so I picked it up with no real idea about the plot. The book opens on a creepy domestic scene which involves self-cannibalism, then settles in for a slow burn investigation. The story is full of tension. People are acting wrong and no one seems to no the cause. A distrustful quiet fills the panels. The tone is very cinematic, both in color palette which is primarily blues and oranges like a perpetual dusk, and in the composition of the panels. The establishing scenes are rich with foreground and background detail. Not distracting, but filling in the mundane – making it real. There are nearly as many panels of people listening as speaking, and inset frames of small details and shifts of attention; a bloodied knuckle, turning a key, cleaning a razor or a quick glance. The illustration is beautiful, and the inhuman contortions and obvious tension in the hands and faces of the afflicted are unnervingly wrought. I have rarely seen male characters rendered with this much subtlety, although some of the characters were difficult at times to differentiate out of context

The story has a psychological thriller pacing but is taking its time establishing the greater forces at play. We meet a handful of complex characters and relationships but in the first trade the larger investigation is just taking shape. We follow Reverend Anderson who believes the violence is a result of demonic possession. He employs the assistance of Kyle who has been both the victim and inflicter of domestic violence in circumstances which indicate demonic involvement as well. He is generally withdrawn and mistrusted by others, but may hold the key to understanding or potentially confronting what is preying on the community. Even with a few pseudo-exorcisms depicted, volume one is merely a setup and is dominated by questions, but I am intrigued enough to add volume two to my “to read” list and see where Robert Kirkman plans to go with this.

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Review: Skin Deep

Skin Deep
Skin Deep by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Stephan Leeds does not have multiple personality disorder, he is schizophrenic and sees 47 different imaginary people, each with a specialized skill or ability. He and his 47 aspects are genius consultants for hire and together they are Legion. The premise is absurd and amazing, and like last time the premise outshines the actual investigation but continues to be a marvelous sandbox for storytelling. The rules regarding his projections have continued to evolve and some new twists have added in. I love the diverse character(s) of Legion and find these serialized novellas to be a prefect size for these adventures. Brandon Sanderson is known for his creative magical systems and the mind(s) of Stephen Leeds has a magic all its own.

The first in the series was also a favorite and made my Best of 2014 list.
You can peruse my fanboy review here.

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Review: Cryptic Coloration

Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations
Cryptic Coloration by Elizabeth Bear

My Rating 2 of 5 stars

We are introduced to Junior Professor Matthew Szczegielniak through the observations of three of his freshman, female students as he is playing a pick-up basketball game in New York City. He is covered in tattoos and piercings with a short blond ponytail and sculpted physique. The hastily sketched girls are entranced by his mysterious beauty and set aside all scholastic ambition to tail him and learn the secrets of his extra-curricular life. When he bolts from his office hours and directly towards a scene of an apparent suicide we discover he has some magical ability and is potentially a regional warden of New York in a group called the Prometheans and has allies within the police force. I often enjoy being thrown into a story in medias res, but eventually I have an expectation that answers are coming. Through all the colorful language and descriptive physicality I never got a sense who these people were, how the world worked or a functional understanding of the magical system employed. I am new to Elizabeth Bear’s work, but her name has been on my “to read” list for some time. Perhaps these characters and settings are part of a larger narrative from her full length novels, but here I never found my footing or a reason to care for the characters. The magical menace was revealed to be the exact creature Matthew anticipated upon his initial analysis of the crime scene. Despite this we never get a full picture why it could only be this creature and only get scraps of physical description, origin and capabilities as the conclusion is in sight. We either were with Matthew who felt no need to speak about his knowledge aloud or with his stumbling students would were too removed from the scene to ask necessary questions to educate the reader. Ultimately this was very frustrating because it seems clear that Elizabeth Bear knows the world and creatures but never gave us a view point to understand it.

Cryptic Coloration is included in the anthology Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations edited by Paula Guran.

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Best of: Fantasy 2014

As I described in my introduction this Best of list reflects my favorite Fantasy Novels I read in 2014. It is less an awards kinda thing, and more a distillation of my year of reading and a short list of recommendations. Here’s a link to all of my Best of 2014 lists.

Mistborn: The Final EmpireBrandon Sanderson – Mistborn: The Final Empire
Huge complex introduction to a great epic fantasy series which never feels like heavy lifting. Sanderson manages to provide history, culture and magical exposition seamlessly throughout so you never feel overwhelmed.

Skin GameJim Butcher – Skin Game
The Dresden Files prove the axiom: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Each volume is strong and confident, but it isn’t until you step back and look at the series at a whole that you become staggered by the weight of the accomplishment. Dresden’s arc is nothing short of stunning, and Butcher seems to prove again and again how deep this sandbox is. This time we get a top notch, dirty dozen, heist adventure in this fun chapter of a brilliant ongoing series.

Sandman SlimRichard Kadrey – Sandman Slim
Sandman Slim is a Gritty, violent, funny and outstanding anti-hero urban fantasy series. Starting as a basic revenge story and building into epic apocalyptic battle of gods and demons this series has it all. While the template might seem to tread familiar ground, the banter and swagger is uniquely Kadrey’s and he delivers.

Just One Damned Thing After AnotherJodi Taylor – Just One Damned Thing After Another
Time travel fantasy with wry humor and strong female protagonist who would be the match of any other of urban fantasy’s rogues gallery. Max is a great character who seems often clueless but never out of her depth. This has to be one of my favorite narrator voices (both written and as performed in the audiobook) and as an adventure series it is a romp.

My Life as a White Trash Zombie
Diana Rowland – My Life as a White Trash Zombie
The audiobook version is a must listen. Allison McLemore’s interpretation of the marvelous Angel Crawford is perfection, and I honestly don’t know if I can separate the character from the performance, or want to. I love a good paranormal detective story and Diana Rowland has provided an unique voice and perspective into the genre.

Honorable Mentions:
Brian K. Vaughan – Saga, Volume 3, A weird space opera with the most honest characters and gorgeous artwork you are apt to find, Saga is the best graphic novel series running.
Richard Adams – Watership Down, A classic folk tale with empathy and charm.

Review: The Devil You Know

The Devil You Know
The Devil You Know by Mike Carey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mike Carey’s The Devil You Know will feel familiar to fans of The Dresden Files but works with a subtler magical system and is more focused on the detective work. Felix “Fix” Castor is a necromancer in modern London who works as an independent exorcist. He starts, in a typical fashion, as a sullen loner who is not exactly honorable, but lives by a personal code. His talent with ghosts is to enchant them with music, preferably from his tin whistle which he carries as his only weapon. He plays a song which describes the spirit in detail. The song reflects the emotional truth of the ghost and its binding to the Earth. He envelops and intertwines with the spirit until they become one with the song, and when he stops the ghost is gone. This is the conflict in Fix, his focus is fine-tuned to the specifics. This is how an exorcist becomes a detective, by describing the ghost he becomes intimately aware of the spirit, including how this person came to die and the nature of its haunting; he is decidedly not focusing on his role in the transaction and the bigger picture. Fix is an atheist and believes in the aspects of the supernatural that he has experienced. There are ghosts which can be bound and unbound from this plane, but he does not investigate the larger magical framework. If there are ghosts, is there a soul? There are demons, is there a god – a devil? When he banishes them, where do they go – Is there a heaven or hell? I think these questions are probably the overall arc of the series, but at this point Felix Castor will not see the forest for the trees.

In tone the language is sharp and witty. Mike Carey is very aware of the expectations of the reader and toys with them – commenting on obvious jokes, acknowledging cultural references. But where the tone is light, the subject is quite dark. I can read about all forms of paranormal violence without effect but I am sensitive to human cruelty, and most of the violence is all too human and involves human trafficking and torture. I’m sure this is a conversation more fit for a therapist’s couch, but if a demon had been responsible for the same acts I probably wouldn’t have batted an eye. I am a big fan of detective stories and the case is thoughtfully laid out with many of the clues and loose threads woven throughout so that a careful reader can actively engage in the mystery. That aspect, along with the voice of the protagonist, definitely have be on board for a second book in the series, but the nature of the human crimes might be too much for me if the investigations don’t take a turn toward the larger supernatural questions this story raised.

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Review: Love Hurts

Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations
Love Hurts by Jim Butcher

My Rating 5 of 5 stars

Jim Butcher is one of my favorite authors and his character Harry Dresden is one of the truly great characters in genre fiction. Due to my familiarity it is difficult to objectively review this short story. At just 22 pages Jim is able to artfully introduce Harry Desden, Consulting Wizard Detective, and Sargent Karrin Murphy, Chicago Special Investigations officer. As their investigation begins Harry reaches out to all of his usual contacts and haunts. In so doing Jim Butcher is able to provide a network of characters, places and methods. Although this is written following the 14th book in the Dresden Files, Butcher can effortlessly acclimate the reader to his world and characters. Through Harry and Karrin’s interactions we see their comfort, respect and affection. This is a sweet story with a self-contained mystery which provides a little tease to the longtime fans who may have wished to see the pair in the more intimate light that this road trip story provides. This is a fun story for new and longtime fans alike.

Love Hurts is included in the anthology Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations edited by Paula Guran, and is also collected in Jim Butcher’s Side Jobs.

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Review: Mitosis

Mitosis
Mitosis by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mitosis picks up a few months after the events of Brandon Sanderson’s urban fantasy, superhero novel Steelheart and is considered volume #1.5 in the Reckoners series. At only 35 pages it feels more like a #1.1, and while technically a complete story, would be difficult to connect with without deeper knowledge of the Reckoners universe. Our protagonist, David, again provides our point of view. We get hints and peeks into his history and personality, and all his awful analogies which remain his most endearing foible. The world of Reckoners is very soft SciFi which isn’t surprising with Sanderson’s fantasy background, but in a genre where truer SciFi is often found. If you can approach it as Urban Fantasy I think you will enjoy Mitosis enough to tide you over until Firefight is released on January 6th, 2015.

You can download the audiobook version for free on Audible.com

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Review: The Key

Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations
The Key by Ilsa J. Bick

My Rating 3 of 5 stars

The Key breaks many conventions of the Urban Fantasy genre. Paranormal detective is certainly the most successful subgenre , but typically it is the detective who embodies the supernatural element. In Ilsa Bick’s short story, Detective Saunders is just a good cop and a detective with an open mind. In another deviation, rather than vampires, werewolves and wizards, Bick pulls from the Judaic tradition for her mysticism. The result is a grounded crime story with a fresh feel and ancient pedigree.

The Key is included in the anthology Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations edited by Paula Guran.

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