Saturday, October 25, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #296: Hawk by Steven Brust

For longtime fans of this series, I'll start with the headline: after about a decade and four books, Brust finally moves the main story forward in this book. Vlad Taltos has returned to Adrilankha once again, and this time it might just stick.

The rest of you might want some background. There are many resources online -- and I've covered the last four books in some depth: Dzur, Jhegaala, Iorich, and Tiassa -- but the important points can be covered quickly. The Vlad Taltos novels appear to be sword & sorcery, first-person caper novels set in a fantasy world where humans are a minority and tall, magic-using, long-lived Dragareans (whom humans call "elfs") are dominant and whose empire has a complex clan-based social structure and a millennia-long history. Vlad himself is a human who by this point in the series has attained and lost a high position in the Dragarean House of the Jhereg (organized crime), gotten an Imperial title, become reasonably adept at human witchcraft (quite different from Dragerean sorcery), made close friends with many of the most powerful and dangerous Dragareans alive, and been on the run for nearly a decade from his ex-friends in the Jhereg. Underlying that surface is a deeper story Brust will probably never tell completely: this all takes place millions of years in the future, Dragareans are a genetically modified successor race to humanity, much of the sorcery may have a mildly SFnal explanation, and these stories (with a few minor exceptions) have been narrated directly by Vlad to a mysterious figure from beyond his world who is taping them for unknown purposes.

The subtext mostly stays subtext -- except in the most pyrotechnic book of the series, 2001's Issola -- but that does mean that the Vlad books look very much like secondary-world fantasy, and can be read as secondary-world fantasy, but the quack of this particular duck is in a subtly different tone. And it speaks to the kind of writer Brust is: sneaky, wry, laconic, driven by dialogue and by a drive for narrative novelty, unwilling or unable to repeat himself directly but perfectly happy to ring changes on the same situation. (Much as every other recent book has seen Vlad return to the Dragarean capital of Adrilankha: Dzur, Iorich, and now Hawk.)

Hawk is the story of how Vlad finally decides to get out from under the kill-order from the Jhereg; they've had a very high bounty on his head and a mandate to use soul-killing weapons since the events of Phoenix, where he gave up a member of their ruling Council to the authorities to save his ex-wife. (As in most organized crime groups, the one unforgivable sin is to use the law to win your battles.) That plan is baroque and complex, and, as we should expect from Brust, Vlad will tell us about the people who helped him put the plan together and the various items he needs for the plan, but not what the plan itself is until the moment he puts it into action.

So Hawk is much like Dzur and Iorich on the surface: another book about Vlad wandering around Adrilankha, talking to people and assembling his plan. This time, though, the assassination attempts are more frequent, somewhat sloppier, and are starting to rely on overwhelming force and ubiquitous coverage -- the old Jhereg tradition of setting one supremely skilled professional on a job hasn't worked in Vlad's case, so now they're trying other tactics. And those tactics are coming very close to working; if Vlad didn't have the massive magical advantages he does -- primarily a Great Weapon and a talisman that makes him immune to magical detection -- this would be a very short book.

The joys of a Vlad Taltos book are twofold: first, Brust just tells a captivating story on the surface, propelled by Vlad's instantly engaging voice and the quirks of his setting. The deeper joys are those of the serious fan, who is alert for the appearance of Devera in each book and keeping mental checklists about the background details of the series -- those require both much closer attention to Brust's word choices and offhand details and a deep knowledge and love for the series as a whole. I'm personally not quite at the right level to fully appreciate that deeper level -- only Brust and a few fanatical devotees really recognize all of the important hints -- but I'm at least halfway there, and it's a sliding scale: each sneaky reference caught is a pleasure, even if only a few are caught.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Friday, October 24, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #295: No Matter How I Look at It, It's You Guys' Fault I'm Not Popular!, Vol. 5 by Nico Tanigawa

I might not have anything more to say about Tomoko Kuroki. She's a wonderful, glorious character -- deeply conflicted as a misanthrope who wants people to like her and a girl who wants a boyfriend despite the fact that she's so socially anxious she can't talk to anyone -- but I've already written about the first four books of this series, and said there the things I might say here.

Tomoko is back in No Matter How I Look at It, It's You Guys' Fault I'm Not Popular!, Vol. 5, which sees her begin her second high school year with the additional burden of her younger brother Kuroki joining her there as a first-year. (As always, No Matter is by a team of two manga-ka that work under the single name "Nico Tanagawa.") She's still not socially adept in any way, and still obsessed with sex in the least useful ways, but she understands herself better by this point, which makes the stories less immediately lacerating.

Tomoko spends her time alone -- no matter how many people are around her -- partially because she prefers that, and partially because she's just no good at interacting with others. (Real life is sadly different from her beloved dating sims: there's no one right answer to unlock the next level, and real people frustratingly refuse to follow any scripts.) But she's setting less lofty goals in these stories -- using a point system to force herself to talk to people, bringing her grades back up to average to avoid cram school, making a funny introduction to the class at the beginning of the year -- and more or less hitting those goals, which is a big win for her.

Of course, she's also trying to get "ahead" of other girls in her class by image-searching for "d*cks" -- during class, no less -- and accidentally impersonating a flasher at a local park, so don't expect things to go smoothly for her. She's as awkward and introverted as ever, and even her reasonable, sensible plans are not massive successes.

But there is hope for Tomoko: she seems more satisfied with herself and more centered by this point, without the naked yearning of the first couple of volumes. It's a hard road, but it's just possible that our little Tomoko is growing up. And I'm happy to continue to check in with her as she does, hoping that she will someday get that boyfriend and happy life...even if I'm sure she'll never be "popular."

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #294: Lost Dogs by Jeff Lemire

I don't mean to be a snob, but sometimes I wonder if I fall into snobbery without thinking. For example, I know that Jeff Lemire is quite busy these days writing some superhero comics or other -- see, doesn't that sound condescending? but, really, I don't even know which of the Big Two he's writing for, let alone what characters he's handling, so I'm just being vague for lack of knowledge -- but I've never read any of that stuff. So the Jeff Lemire in my head is the one from his solo books, the writer/artist whose work is steeped in tragedy and whose male characters regularly have noses that exert their own gravitational pulls.

That's the "Jeff Lemire" I think of; the antecedent to anything I write about the books of his I read. But at least some of you are probably more familiar with his work on -- rushes off to another browser window to google it -- Animal Man, Justice League, or Green Arrow. So I want to apologize to you folks: I don't know anything about that Jeff Lemire. I suspect he's got the same tendencies, though they probably have to be sublimated when he's writing superhero punch-'em-ups. And my sweeping generalizations might not jibe with your memories of "Rotworld."

With that out of the way...I finally got back to Lemire's first book, Lost Dogs, recently. It won him the Xeric Award, it was his first completed long story, and it set the tone for his solo work to follow: it's dark, both in the art and in the story. Darker than that, even -- darker than you're thinking, darker than you expect. This is a young man's story, steeped in ink and gloom and fatalism and death.

The fella on the cover never gets a name, but he's our hero: a big palooka who lives out in the sticks with his wife and daughter, running a farm, around a hundred years ago. One day, they come to the city, for a reason Lemire doesn't explain, and bad things start to happen. Bad things continue to happen throughout this shortish book: there's no happy endings for anyone here, and no happy middles, either. (The beginning was happy, of course, before our family took that journey to the city.)

Lemire's style was looser and inkier here than he got later: these pages are almost dripping black, with thick-lined grotesque figures lurching out of the general darkness of the backgrounds and the only contrasting color the red slashes of the stripes on the hero's shirt. As I said before, the story is equally dark: everything goes wrong for that hero, first quickly and entirely, and then in repeated new and unpleasant ways as the book goes on. Lemire got subtler later and learned more tricks, but that just means Lost Dogs is closer to pure Lemire: stabs of ink, each representing a new pain.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #293: Barakamon, Vol. 1 by Satsuki Yoshino

The fish-out-of-water story has a long history, and nearly as long a list of requirements: the "fish" must be brusque, bordering on unpleasant, at the beginning of the story. He must be coming to somewhere rural and out-of-the-way, and coming from the biggest city plausible. The locals will be helpful, and possibly friendly, and definitely honest to a fault. The joys of the natural world will be praised at great length. There will be at least one outrageous local character whom our fish and the audience at first can't stand. And the fish will be confused and out of place for quite a while, as the lurking suspicion that this is a better place than his city builds and builds. All these things can be extended nearly indefinitely if the aim is to make the story a long-running serial, as well -- there will always be new odd habits of the locals, and quirky seasonal festivals, and even locals who the fish has amazingly not met yet.

(Fish-out-of-water stories about young women inevitably turn into romantic comedies, as the female fish meets a gorgeous infuriating local man who has Hidden Depths and struggles against her plot-required love for him. There's also the somewhat rarer reverse fish-out-of-water, the hick story, in which a rural native travels to that Big Bad City. Those must always end with the fish fleeing back to the peace and purity of the rural landscape; an axiom of these stories is that places with a lot of landscape and only a few people are superior morally to places with a lot of people and only a little landscape.)

Satsuki Yoshino's Barakamon, Vol. 1 is a story right down the middle of that tradition. showing that it's not the cultural tradition of any one country. Japan has rustic salt-of-the-earth yokels as much as America does, and the lessons they have to teach stuck-up cityfolk are very similar. In this particular story, our fish is Seishuu Handa, a driven young calligrapher rusticating after an unpleasant encounter with a critic.

Seishuu doesn't want to believe the critic -- that his work is cold and technically correct, but has no heart -- but those are always the exact flaws of the fish: a lack of connection to the world, being alone rather than part of the community, technical proficiency at something generally respected and well-paid but a gaping lack of soul. And so the people of Nanatsutake Village, in the far west of Japan's Gotou archipelago, have that soul in spades, because they live in a natural place in tune with the real world.

The primary vector of Nanatsutake's wonderfulness is the deeply annoying and hyperactive young girl Naru, who had been using the house Seishuu is now renting as her "base" (along with several of the other young people of the village). Naru is the kind of character who is beloved in fiction but who would quickly make one homicidal in real life: clinging and loud and demanding and overwhelming and aggressively cute at all times. She latches onto Seishuu, and it's clear she'll never let him go.

This is early days for Barakamon, so the stories here mostly settle Seishuu in the village and introduce a few characters, like Naru, the local "chief," and two tween girls. As the book goes on, there's more local color, like a competition on a beach to gather packets of mochi or a fishing expedition -- we can expect that future books will have a lot more of this. There's no Maggie O'Connell character yet, but I would be greatly surprised if one didn't show up by volume four.

Many people will like this story better than I did; I am allergic to manic pixies, particularly when they're grade-schoolers. Yoshino makes this story energetic and bouncy, despite Seishuu's moroseness and sedentary occupation, which isn't easy. It also all looks very pretty, and the characters are drawn crisply and with verve. Anyone who likes fish-out-of-water stories at least some of the time should enjoy Barakamon, though you do need to be able to take Naru in large doses.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #292: Cinderella: Fables Are Forever by Roberson & McManus

Sometimes parallels can trip you up: you want to do a story just like that other one you like, but the materials you have at hand don't really match up. So you shove them over and force them into the pattern you want, even if that doesn't entirely work. It can still be entertaining, but there's a creakiness and instability there that you didn't need to introduce.

The second spin-off Fables miniseries about Cinderella (superspy!) is a bit like that: it's a Cold War story, in large part because that's what we expect from our superspy stories. But the main conflict of the early Fables stories -- the ongoing battle with The Adversary across a thousand fable worlds -- wasn't really on that model: The Adversary was overwhelmingly more powerful, and the Fabletown crew a small, beleaguered band trying to hide, stay alive, and win through asymmetric warfare. The Cold War, on the other hand, was a battle of equals, through proxies and cutouts, and the myth was that there was a nobility and a camaraderie between the agents trying to kill each other.

Cinderella: Fables Are Forever introduces a secondary conflict that I don't remember seeing anywhere else in the many other Fables books: there's a "Shadow Fabletown" behind the Iron Curtain, and its inhabitants are spying on our beloved Fables (and vice versa) because...well, there's no actual reason, except that the plot requires it to set up that Cold War schema. The two Fabletowns aren't in conflict for resources or power or even new refugees; they're both secret enclaves, with more in common than to divide them. So writer Chris Roberson quickly skates over the source of their conflict, presenting Shadow Fabletown as a mystery in 1983 and then quickly getting the fighting started so that, presumably, no one will wonder why they're fighting.

That's all background, though -- it's fairly intrusive background, since it allows Roberson to tell a globe-hopping story both in the modern day and the early 1980s, but still primarily setting -- for a story about Cindy and her great rival, the opposite number that we never heard about before now. That opposite, of course, is also a female fable, equally adept at globe-trotting spycraft, equally attractive, equally well-known to the mundane world -- codenamed Silver Slipper, which gives away her secret identity to anyone who can tell books from movies.

So Cindy battles Silver Slipper, in the early '80s for not-entirely-clear spycraft reasons and then around 2010 because SS is back and seeking revenge. The two plots intertwine well, and there's a lot of action in both timelines, ably scripted by Roberson and drawn by Shawn McManus (whom I've neglected to mention until now: he does great work here, though his faces still have a slight tendency to be unexpectedly large and big-eyed). It's a good adventure story set in the Fables world -- but it just seems to start from a bit of worldbuilding that doesn't exactly line up with what we already known about this world.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Monday, October 20, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #291: I Was the Cat by Tobin & Dewey

It's entirely possible to enjoy an entire work of art without understanding it, or figuring out why it exists at all. A reader could reach the final page of a book, with a lady-or-the-tiger ending, and realize that maybe it isn't even supposed to be a lady-or-the-tiger ending, that maybe that reader didn't get the point at all.

(On the other hand, it's also possible that a book is severely flawed and doesn't entirely make sense. But that's what we always assume first, so let's go the other direction this time.)

With that caveat out of the way, here's I Was the Cat, a new graphic novel written by Paul Tobin (of the similarly elliptical Gingerbread Girl and the more straightforward Bandette Presto!, both of those with his wife Colleen Coover) and drawn by Benjamin Dewey (whose work I'm not familiar with). It's smart and professional but has some elements that don't entirely work for me.

In London, American freelance journalist Allison Breaking is trying to eke out a living through some mixture of her blog Breaking News (which we never see at all, nor do we see her ever working on it) and ghostwriting books. London is an expensive city, but Allison is crashing with her friend Reggie, which certainly must keep the costs down. Don't worry: this is all asserted, and has nothing at all to do with the plot of I Was the Cat; Allison's supposed journalistic nosiness is in deep abeyance for most of the book.

Allison has been contacted by a mysterious person named Burma to ghostwrite his memoirs -- but it turns out that Burma is actually the world's only talking cat! Tobin resolutely refuses to descend into teleology; we never find out why Burma can talk or how he came to be. (There are also hints of "others" that go nowhere.) Burma is several thousand years old, which is also asserted rather than explained, and he can change his look and form somehow to become pretty much any cat he wants. Burma is rich and powerful and has spent most of his life in the Pinky-and-the-Brain-esque pursuit of Taking Over the World! Though he says he's had no luck so far, and has lost eight of his lives along the way.

That takes up the first twenty or so pages: after that, I Was the Cat intertwines three plot threads. First, Allison and Reggie sit and listen intently to Burma's stories, though Allison doesn't seem to be making much effort to take notes or organize anything. Second, there are the flashbacks to Burma's earlier lives, which of course are spent among the variously famous and powerful and mostly end badly. Lastly, there are some shadowy activities orchestrated by Burma in the modern day, meant to raise our suspicions about his real intentions.

So this is a deeply odd graphic novel: it's the realistically depicted story of a cat talking about his failed schemes to conquer the world to a pair of appreciative pretty girls, while his latest plot rumbles on in the background. It almost seems like a shaggy dog story without the punchline, as if it were all leading up to a specific moment that gets left out. Note: none of this is funny; it's all played completely straight, with tension and various hard men with weaponry sneaking around doing dirty deeds.

And then the ending just goes poof. I called it a lady-and-the-tiger ending, above, because I think Allison has a couple of choices. But that could just be me projecting: the book doesn't clearly give her any options, it just stops at a moment before the Big Moment.

I Am the Cat looks gorgeous and is full of cats for people who like such things. But it's also a very strange thing that doesn't entirely come into focus, and features the kind of London life that can only be depicted by two guys from Portland. I can't exactly recommend it, but it's definitely weird.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 10/18

Every week, I list here the books that came in my mail, because I feel guilty for getting free stuff and feel an obligation to tell whoever I can about those books. (I don't feel guilty enough to always be non-sarcastic about those books, though -- a man does have his limits.)

This week, that list is a null set, so I don't have any books to tell you about. This is mildly sad -- it's always better to get free stuff than not to -- but it also frees up some of my time on a Sunday for loafing or other activities, so it's nice on average.

I'll be back next week, when I'll probably have some books to write about. And, of course, Book-A-Day soldiers on: a post about yet another book will appear in about three and a half hours.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #290: Finder: Talisman by Carla Speed McNeil

Just as there are songs about how awesome music is, and movies all about the glamorous world of movie-making, there are books that celebrate book-reading -- not necessarily in the autobiographical mode, but usually about a young person growing up. They usually feature that young person fixating on one particular book, and nearly always also show said young person trying to create stories as well. (And there are bonus points for kids with big glasses.)

Finder: Talisman is a middle piece of a longer series of science fiction stories by Carla Speed McNeil -- all published under the umbrella Finder title; these days originally online -- but it also hews very closely to the standard books-are-awesome story. Of course, I agree that books are awesome, and, if you're reading this, you probably do, too.

I've seen Finder described as a far-future story, but I think that's by people who don't understand just how much future there will be. It's set on a planet named Earth with mostly normal biological humans, and I doubt it's more than four or five thousand years up the line at most. (For me, you don't hit far future until our sun has noticeably changed in size or demeanor.) There are urban types, who are organized into tight occupation-based clans -- much like medieval guilds, but just different enough to be future-y -- and the more salt-of-the-earth folks who inhabit the rest of the world. (There's at least one apocalypse -- slow or quick -- in the past, and the world population is far below our own. Technology is pretty much where we could be in ten years, give or take. Governance also seems to have mostly devolved to the clan level or disappeared entirely.) When I've seen this world described, it always seemed unpleasant, like all of those YA dystopias where all of the special snowflake sixteen-year-olds have to be brainwashed to fit into one of a set of three life-choices. But Talisman shows a world more complex and interesting than that, centered around a family who all seem to have made unusual choices and still function just fine in their society.

The main character -- the girl who discovers books -- is Marcella. She has two older sisters -- one of whom is male; one of the odd touches of culture which McNeil doesn't explain here -- a mother who does some sort of work that entails direct brain connection, and a screaming, insane, bed-bound father. (Psychiatry seems to be somewhat less advanced in this world than in ours.)

That's the world Marcella lives in, but the world she wants to live in is that one special book, given to her by her mother's occasional lover Jaeger (also the central character of the larger Finder series). But Jaeger is the kind of man who instinctively tells perfectly-formed stories to women to make them like him, so the story he read to her -- ostensibly from that book -- is not the story in that book. To get the story she wants, she'll have to make it herself.

Again, the story here will not surprise anyone: it's the standard fictionalized how-I-became-a-writer story, starting in early childhood and ending just before Marcella actually writes anything worthwhile. (Or, at least, I hope that's what she's about to write at the end.) McNeil tells that story cleanly and well, with a strong sense of Marcella's voice -- she narrates this book, in many more caption boxes than you're used to seeing in modern comics -- and lovely precise drawings that are particularly good with faces. The worldbuilding details in the background are more individual and interesting -- I'd like to see what kind of writer Marcella becomes, and how that fits into her society.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index