Monday, December 05, 2016

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 12/3

This is one of those weeks when the wonderful folks at Yen Press (Hi, Ellen!) have sent me boxes and boxes of manga goodies, and so I have a long list of books to get through. So I'll try to do it quickly, since I need to run off with the family to get a Christmas tree in just over an hour. (It's 8:09 AM on Sunday as I type this.)

As always:
  • these books came in my mail, somewhat unexpectedly
  • I haven't read them
  • I hope you will find something to love
  • And so here's what seems interesting
I'll start off, as usual, with the non-Yen books -- first up is a new novella from Bruce Sterling, Pirate Utopia. Chairman Bruce hasn't been as active in fiction this last decade -- with The Caryatids in 2009, something I never heard of before named Love Is Strange in 2012, and now this book -- but I hope this signals that he's back; we could use the old Sterling from the '80s and '90s to make sense of our new world. Pirate Utopia comes to us from Tachyon, and is some kind of oddball historical SF, possibly steampunk -- it's set right after WW I, in the new futurist-dominated nation of Carnaro (which I keep reading as "Camaro"), and seems to be about their power struggles as they try to build a new nation with the aid of American visitors H.P. Lovecraft and Houdini.

And from Pyr in trade paperback: Judgment at Verdant Court, the third in the "World of Prime" epic fantasy series by M.C. Planck. (Insert joke about length of this book being the "Planck distance" here.) This series is about a mechanical engineer turned into priest of a war god -- I think he's a local engineer, rather than the more typical contemporary-guy-who-walked-around-the-horses. And I gather by this point in the series, he has a truly impressive prophet-of-God beard, looking at the cover.

Everything else if from Yen Press, as previously mentioned, and is rolling out to stores and electron-vending establishments this month. I'll present them in basically alphabetical order by format.

I cannot say definitively that Akame ga KILL! Zero, Vol. 4 is full of fan-service, does come sealed in plastic and features a limber young woman doing the standing splits on the cover. So I can take a guess. This come to us from Takahiro and Kei Toru, and continues the prequel series to the main Akame ga KILL! storyline.

Aoharu Machinegun, Vol. 2 is by an entity credited as NAOE [1]. It's about a team in some kind of firearms-based competition -- it seems to be real-world rather than virtual, and regular semi-auto guns rather than the highly-engineered single-shot competition rifles I'd expect, which may mean they're shooting at each other. But the back cover is vague, and there's no list of characters, so all I can say is: competition with guns. And we're still in the training-montage portion of the story.

Starting a new series from Kafka Asagiri and Sango Harukawa: Bungo Stray Dogs, Vol. 1. Our hero is a boy kicked out of an orphanage for no obvious reason -- something about budget cutbacks, or maybe they just don't like him -- and is about to starve to death on the streets when he runs into one of the agents of a fabled "armed detective agency" that takes on supernatural cases that no one else can handle. So of course he's dragged into their next case.

Another new series, from Pandora Hearts creator Jun Mochizuki: The Case Study of Vanitas, Vol. 1. The title character is a semi-crazy vampire doctor in Paris -- both a doctor and a vampire, unlike Doctor Worm -- who is trying to save the peace between humans and vampires from some upheaval or other. There's also a young man caught up in his schemes, since every manga needs the average guy to act as a viewpoint.

Diving into the oddball long titles category, there's a new volume in Wataru Watri (original story), Naomichi Io (art) and Ponkan➇'s (character design) series, My Youth Romantic Comedy Is Wrong, As I Expected, Vol. 3. This is another one of those normal-buy-forced-to-be-in-a-weird-club-at-school stories, which the Japanese have turned into a solid subgenre for their own reasons.

And then there's the manga adaptation Overlord, Vol. 3, which comes from Kugane Maruyama's original light novel and has been turned into comics by Hugin Miyama. This is a I'm-trapped-in-this-videogame story, but our hero is trapped as a super-powerful Dark Lord type for added spice. It looks like this is mostly a story about fighting, in which the characters loudly announce each move as they do it.

From here on it's still Yen, but mostly light novels -- be warned! You may have to read more words!

Accel World, Vol. 8: The Binary Stars of Destiny is by the prolific Reki Kawahara, with illustrations by Hima. This is about people who aren't trapped in a big online game, but spend most of their time there anyway, just like many of us in the real world. Apparently, though, you can be permanently polluted by evil online -- I think Jimmy Swaggart warned us of that -- and our hero is fighting to save his friend from that in this volume.

Yuu Miyazaki brings us The Asterisk War, Vol. 2: Awakening of Silver Beauty, with illustrations by okiura. This one is about a school that trains people to duel, because of all of the jobs in the duel sector available to graduates.

Then there's Ryohgo Narita's Baccano!: 1931 The Grand Punk Railroad: Express, Vol. 3, which has an extra colon in its subtitle for no obvious reason. (Unless there will be a Baccano!: The 1931 Grand Punk Railroad: Local coming along later, to be followed by Baccano!: The 1931 Grand Disco Railroad: Express and Baccano!: The 1932 Grand Punk Railroad: Express for maximum variety.) This is a story of '30s gangsters on a strain in America, with possibly less emphasis on historical realism and plausibility then you would think could be possible.

More secret societies protecting the world from mysterious hidden threats! Shiden Kanzaki (and illustrator Saki Ukai) are back with Black Bullet, Vol. 5: Rentaro Satomi, Fugitive. No points for guessing the main character's name, or the major plot event that happens to him in this book.

And we're back to manga briefly with the 4-koma series from Satoko Kiyuduki, Geijutsuka Art Design Class, Vol. 7, usually just referred to as "GA" unless you're trying to google the darn thing. The group of girls at an art college are coming up to graduation, but there's room for another hundred or so pages of jokes first.

Satoshi Wagahara's light novel series continues with The Devil Is a Part-Timer!, Vol. 6, with illustrations by the creature designated 029 (oniku). The devil is still working in a not-McDonald's in Tokyo, but it has now opened a coffee shop upstairs, which he sees as his stepping-stone to management and then TOTAL POWER!!!!!!! (I may be slightly exaggerating. Or maybe not.)

Natsuki Takaya's popular manga series in being reprinted in handsome double-sized volumes, and the latest is Fruits Basket Collector's Edition, Vol. 8. As I recall, this is one of those series with a family of supernatural folks who transform when various things happen in their vicinity -- the see butter, or trip over a rug, or sneeze, or maybe experience existential ennui.

Another light novel about kids at magic school, because we all know how popular that idea is: Tsutomu Sato's The Irregular at Magic High School. Vol. 3: Nine School Competition Arc 1 (with illustrations by Kama Ishida). I believe there is a competition here among nine schools, and that it's not done in this book. (You're welcome!)

Fatter than most light novels: Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon, Vol. 7, by Fujino Omori with illustrations by Suzuhito Yasuda. In this volume, our hero Bell comes out of the Dungeon and to the city of Oratorio's pleasure quarter, presumably to spend some of his hard-earned loot enjoying himself. (Why he has to go there when the entire rest of the cast seems to be attractive women who love him is a question I cannot answer here.) Sadly, it seems the pleasure quarter just gives him intrigue rather than reasonably-priced love.

And here's a new 4-koma manga series, Yui Hara's Kiniro Mosaic, Vol. 1. It seems to be about a girl who loves Japan so much, she moves there from England to go to high school. Which is...a thing that actually happens in the world? Maybe, I guess. Certainly a decent set-up for jokes.

Yet more light novels about gaming! Yuu Kamiya's No Game No Life, Vol. 5 is, I think, not about people trapped in a specific online game, but is about regular Earth-people transported to another world where everyone is obsessed by games. So entirely different. (And, yes, this is what the publisher's website has up right now for a book that I have in my hand. Oopsie.)

Back to people trapped in games with Reki Kawahara's Sword Art Online, Vol. 9: Alicization Beginning. In this one, the series hero wakes up amnesiac -- presumably in yet another game -- and starts to pursue the just-recovered memory of his childhood friend Alice. (I would not bet against this being yet another Japanese retelling of Alice in Wonderland.)

And last is a big fat manga volume with a particularly unpleasant-looking character on the cover: Wataru Watanake's Yowamuchi Pedal, Vol. 4. Our hero dreams of being a great cycling legend, but can he stand the training montages and backstabbing from supposed allies? (Well, he's the hero, so obviously he can.)

[1] Nanotech Assembly Organized for Extermination, perhaps?

Sunday, December 04, 2016

5,000 km per second by Manuele Fior

I wish I could just hand this book to you so you could go into it as ignorant as I was. I knew I'd read a good review or two of Manuele Fior's 5,000 km per second somewhere, and I knew it was translated. (I thought it was French, but it's actually from the Italian.) But that was about it. I'd picked it up a couple of times and poked through it before eventually buying it: what that mostly meant was I was impressed by the moody, color-coded art and thought it was some kind of domestic story.

If you want, you can stop there. This is one of the best graphic novels I've read this year -- maybe for much longer than that; I have to think about it -- and you don't need to know any more than that. It's a story about people in the real world, and their interactions through time. A love story, maybe. A people story, definitely. And the world needs more emotionally smart people stories like this: there are never enough.

If you want more, here's what I can tell you: we begin in Italy. A teenage girl, Lucia, is moving into an apartment with her mother, after the father went away. Two local boys, maybe a year or two older, are lurking around, and catch sight of her --they're Nicola and Piero. That scene is mostly yellows and greens. A few pages later, there's another scene, in blues, set in Norway, and one of those three is now studying there, a few years later.

5,000 km per second continues on like that, jumping into different scenes in different times, circling around the lives of Piero and Lucia and Nicola, with a palette suitable for each time and place and mood. Each moment is true, every character is real.

This isn't a story about easy answers or romantic gestures or big emotional moments: if your idea of a love story is a Hollywood movie, you will be hugely disappointed by Fior's much truer, much more mixed story. But he tells this story beautifully and lovingly, through body language and dialogue -- even more of the former than the latter; just look at the cover to get a sense of that -- and it's a stunning, deep experience. This is another book to put on the short shelf of comics to hand to people who think comics are junk: it's deep, and meaningful, and lovely, and bittersweet in the best way.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Garden of the Flesh by Gilbert Hernandez

OK. Even for a creator who does weird comics practically every year, Garden of the Flesh is particularly weird. Here Gilbert Hernandez retells a big chunk of the first book of the Christian Bible as a series of fuck-fest vignettes starting with Adam and Eve naked and humping in that 'ol garden called Eden. And he does it in a relentless two wide panels for each of his small-format pages, with (deliberately?) stiffly posed figures and lots of unrealistically spurting fluids.

Yes, Biblical sex comics in a deliberately crude style. Was Hernandez inspired by Crumb's The Book of Genesis, Illustrated from a few years ago, or did this Adam-and-Eve stroke book come from some other wellspring? Is this some kind of reverse Jack Chick tract? Hernandez has always come across in his interviews as more instinctual than calculating, so there may not be any single reason why, no matter how much we search for one.

More importantly: is the fact the the sex here is all very bland and hetero some kind of clue? Is Hernandez mellowing in his middle age from the pan-sexual Birdland of his youth, or is Garden of the Flesh's relentless focus on sex as one-man, one-woman, two or three acceptable positions and some gratuitous oral a commentary on Biblical literalists? (Or on fundamentalists?)

It has to be said that Garden of the Flesh is a not particularly sexy sex comic, and I have to assume that Hernandez knows this. He's done sex comics before; he can move the bodies around to make them more appealing. So, if he doesn't do so here, it must be on purpose.

I find it hard to recommend Garden of the Flesh. Compared to most of Hernandez's work, it's stiff and mannered and dull and flat, and I can't give you an coherent reason why it is. I think this one is just for completists: either of Hernandez or sex comics.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Hellboy in Hell, Vol. 2: The Death Card by Mike Mignola

Hellboy was dead: to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that. But in Mike Mignola's fictional universe, being dead just means that you're not here anymore. You can still go somewhere else, if there's somewhere that will take you. Hellboy could always go home. [1] And so he did: Hellboy in Hell, Vol. 2: The Death Card collects the back half of what creator Mike Mignola originally thought was going to be a substantially longer story.

But it turned out that Hellboy's story was already over: his story took place on Earth. Sure, things happen in this book. Hellboy even spends some quality time punching various monstrous entities with that big right hand of his, which is the sine qua non of any Hellboy story. There are murky scenes in creepy landscapes, and hellish creatures and doomed souls talking eruditely or crudely about their fates and threatening violence to each other. There are flashes of brilliance and wonder, as in all Hellboy stories. But none of it means anything. Mignola has an afterword in this book where he writes about how this story moved more quickly, and ended more abruptly than he expected -- if you read closely, you can see how it went from "open-ended" to twice the current length to barely this. He claims killing Satan was the big change-point, but my theory is that he was already done with Hellboy and just didn't know it. Hellboy's story, again, was on Earth.

Many creators write past the ending. Novelists, these days, have the luxury of noticing that before publication and trimming the story down. Comics, though...comics has a long tradition of ignoring or disregarding endings, for that eternal moment of Now and a new issue every Wednesday. And I think that mindset led to Hellboy in Hell. Twenty years from now -- assuming Mignola doesn't find some more things for Hellboy to do, later in fictional time than his sojourn in Hell -- this story will be seen as a vestigial appendage to the main Hellboy story, or at best a coda summing up some themes and presenting them in a different way.

Now, it's still about a hundred and fifty (unnumbered) pages of Mignola Hellboy comics, so it's a very nice thing. But it's a very nice faintly unnecessary thing, for those who are picky about such matters.

[1] I'll also note, in passing, that Our Hero notes during this book that it's kinda silly to be called "Hellboy" when he's actually in Hell, showing that Mignola can lampshade with the best of them.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Mighty Jack by Ben Hatke

You got a kid named Jack. You got some beans. But it don't go the way you expect, see?

(Will he write the whole review in a bad '30s gangster patois? Let's hope not!)

Ben Hatke's new graphic novel Mighty Jack is indeed a partial retelling of a certain well-known folktale -- though this book ends with Jack and his companions heading off to parts unknown in a bean-related way, so it is not the entire story. And, other than the kid being named Jack and the bean-centricity, so far this is pretty divergent from the folktale.

OK, Jack does trade the family car for a box of magic beans at a flea market -- but that's only because his autistic sister Maddy tells him to...even though she never talks. And he plants the various packets of beans outside their house -- but, again, only because Maddy is awake before him the next morning, turning over the soil and wordlessly insisting on doing so. Jack is the sensible one, trying to be as grown up as a kid (of ten or so, I think) can be. The two of them are mostly on their own this summer; their single mother is working two jobs to barely make ends meet, so it's just Jack and Maddy.

Well...and, before long, Lilly. Lilly, the home-schooled maker-kid who Jack keeps seeing out in her front yard doing sword-practice with a dummy. Lilly, who is strong and tough and brave and has a lot of gear that will be really helpful. (For the younger readers Mighty Jack is aimed at, Lilly will just be cool. For people my age, she will be a reminder of all of those otherwise-bland protagonists with suspiciously-useful skills in classic SF -- the kind of guys who get accidentally thrown into 40 AD but luckily are master fencers and experts on the chemical composition of gunpowder.) Lilly quickly realizes something weird and cool is going on at Jack's house, and latches on to it -- not that Jack can't use her help, since he very much can.

Some of the beans grow mischievous plants, and some grow helpful ones -- but all are weird, grow overnight, and seem to have intelligence. And, before long, the three kids learn that "mischievous" is only the half of it.

Eventually there's a large manifestation, and a rampage of destruction, and the use of the one seed packet that should have stayed unused. A path is opened to somewhere else -- and paths are there to be taken.

There will be at least one more book; Jack and Lilly and Maddy have only just gone down that path as the book ends, and we have no idea what lies ahead for them. (Giants, maybe?) So Mighty Jack does not end so much as pause: this may be a problem for some readers. Perhaps particularly smaller ones, who are often not as good at waiting.

But the reason they won't want to wait is that Mighty Jack is n engrossing, colorful, energetic romp from the creator of the Zita the Spacegirl books. Hatke is good at hooking this audience...and, maybe, good at hooking people substantially older than that audience, too. Mighty Jack is the kind of book you buy if you have a kid aged somewhere from five to thirteen (depending on the kid) and then read it yourself first, because it's that good. And if you don't have a kid in that range -- I know I don't, anymore -- you can always just read it yourself first even if there's no one to read it "next."

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks

In a country that is not China -- but, if it were actually in our world, might be -- there is an important city that has been fought over by three great nations for hundreds of years, with control going back and forth repeatedly. Each of those nations has its own name for the city, but the inhabitants prefer not to give it a name -- since that will only change with the next conquest.

(This is a book aimed for teen readers, or perhaps set in a world slightly more rational than ours, so the inhabitants of that city can have a policy to stand aside and let the three nations fight it out each time. In this world, that means that they survive and continue their lives under different rulers, not that they are sacked and raped and murdered with each change of overlord.)

Faith Erin Hicks tells a story in that city: The Nameless City. That story doesn't end here; there will be at least one more volume. (And what writer can resist a trilogy? Or an expanded trilogy? We'll have to see if Hicks can resist, or wants to.) But the action of this book ends by its last page; this is not a cliff-hanger.

Kaidu is a young man -- say twelve or thirteen, right at the age to begin seriously training for his manhood -- of the Dao nation, the latest conquerors of the city they call DanDao. He grew up with his mother in the homelands, but has been sent to train as a warrior in the city where his never-seen father is an advisor to the Dao general who conquered it thirty years ago and has ruled it since.

Rat is a girl of the streets of the Nameless City, a fearless orphan racing across rooftops, contemptuous of the Dao as her people have been contemptuous of each invader in turn. (So...there's never been any intermarriage among any of these four people, for hundreds of years of turn-and-turn-again conquest? That seems implausible. The people of this city should be utter mutts by this point -- and much stronger for it.)

Kaidu and Rat meet cute, and don't entirely hate each other. They each have no other friends, and so become something like friends when they're not being enemies. Because this is a book for younger people, you may guess that their story is positive and has something like a moral -- don't worry, it's a good moral. If you squint, it might even be a moral about the best government requiring the consent of the governed, rather than that the good overlords will make good decisions because they are good.

This isn't my favorite Hicks book -- there a lot of unexamined neo-feudalism here, and the world is just a hair more cartoonish than I'd prefer -- but it's vibrant and exciting and full of action and has two great characters at its center. Even better, the girl is the more accomplished and level-headed of the two, besides being better at physical derring-do. But, since it's supposed to be for people a third of my age, I can't fault it -- it's very good at doing what it sets out to do, and is a lot of fun as it goes along that path.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

This Census-Taker by China Mieville

I like to think I'm a thoughtful reader.  Not perfect, of course -- who is? -- but good at working out metaphors and allegories and fictional schemas of all kinds. If I can see that there's a shape moving under the surface of a book, I can usually make a decent guess at what kind of leviathan lurks down there. (This may not need to be said, but authors generally want to be understood: some things may be obscure or subtext, but they do expect that a lot of readers will figure them out nonetheless.)

There is something lurking behind China Mieville's short 2016 novel This Census-Taker. I would swear to that on whatever is worth swearing on. But I can't for the life of me quite figure out what that thing is.

So whatever I say about this book is at least half-wrong -- know that up front. Census-Taker is fabulistic, the story of a deliberately unnamed Boy in a clearly potent landscape. And I'm not going to be able to explain the implications of that landscape, or of the actions of the characters in this story. All I can do is tell you, if you decide to read This Census-Taker, to pay close attention and think about what everything might mean. You could be better at this than I am.

In an unnamed country, a decade or so after an unnamed war, a nine-year-old boy runs down the steep slope from his isolated house to the small town nestled around a bridge over a river between two equally sharp peaks. He says his father has killed his mother -- or perhaps the other way around. He is comforted, taken in, and preparations are quickly made to investigate.

Then the father appears. The mother is not dead, he insists: the boy heard an argument, their final breakup. The mother has left forever, gone away from this town where she grew up (but left once, admittedly), and will never be seen again. But she is definitely not dead, he insists again. Not at all, though he has no proof of this.

The boy is handed over to the father with apologies. The two return to that isolated house, where the father is even more demanding and cold than before, as if the boy has betrayed him. And the father kills animals, now and then -- quickly, and perhaps under a compulsion. The boy thinks the father has killed other people, but never sees it happen. We see this all, interspersed with memories of the time when the mother was still with them, in the way a boy's memories can be mixed and jumbled.

Many years later, the boy is a functionary of a larger political entity. The functionary is telling us this story of the boy's childhood -- well, we think the two are the same person, and they probably are. But This Census-Taker is twisty enough that you'll want to put a pin in that assumption, to mark it. (You may need many such pins before you're done reading.) One of the things our narrator tells us is how another functionary -- now his boss, or the boss of the person telling the story, if that makes a difference -- came to that isolated house, and what happened there.

Does it matter that the father is a foreigner, perhaps a refugee from that war in the past? There's no solid indication that he was a soldier, but it's not impossible. My essential problem in trying to encompass This Census-Taker is trying to figure out what is impossible. And that list is not long.

Mieville's voice is confident and controlling: he tells this story precisely the way he wants to, doling out moments and sentences that glisten like jewels -- but jewels just far enough away that their outlines are less than crystalline. I don't doubt that this is exactly the story he wanted it to be. And perhaps he intended this uneasy confusion, too.

I do recommend reading This Census-Taker: Mieville is one of our best writers, and his prose is a joy to grapple with, even if that grappling feels like a knife-fight in the dark for much of this book. Bring your A-game when you read This Census-Taker; that's my primary advice. You'll need all your wits about you for this one; I was clearly missing a few.