Review: Ms. Marvel Vol 1: No Normal

 Ms. Marvel Vol 1: No NormalComics are one of those things I’ve fallen out of love with.  I used to be an avid collector and have a few long boxes full of comics  to prove it but I wasn’t very good at keeping up with them. I know they come out monthly but somehow I tend to get behind.

And the other thing is I find it hard to be a causal comic reader.  It feels like you have to keep up with not just one comic but ten to know what’s going on (though this might be a spillover from my X-Men days). I tried to get back into comics when DC relaunched The New 52 but failed and still have Mieville’s Dial H to finish.

So I really thought my comic days were done. But  if you hear enough people talk about something you get curious to find out what all the fuss is about and that is how I came to buy a copy of Ms. Marvel: No Normal (collecting #1-5 plus additional material) in New York in November last year (I did say I had trouble keeping up). If it makes any difference I was only one or two comics in when I bought Generation Why (the next collected edition).

G. Willow Wilson introduces us to Kamala Khan – an ordinary girl from Jersey City – who is empowered by extraordinary gifts. For Kamala Khan being 15, a Muslim girl and a a superhero definitely makes her life complicated and Wilson acknowledges that and explores life for a muslim teenage girl at the same time as exploring her new role as a community hero. I think that’s a hard thing to pull off but Wilson makes it smooth and it works well.

Wilson keeps a sense of fun both with the powers and the character even as Kamala struggles against her parents expectations and the limitations they place on her.

Adrian Alphona’s art is fun and the characters expressions encapsulate the script. They make a great team.

If I don’t pick up another series anytime soon I’m still happy that there the buzz out there has made me read this one.  Wilson has done something important without making it a ‘message’ book. It’s just a tale, and you can see and experience different lifestyles and ways of living without having to ‘learn’ about them as a life lesson.

Review: The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham (1929)

image002Imagine you are invited to a party at a country mansion only to find yourself the following day as a prisoner. Well, that’s what happens to Dr George Abbershaw and a group of London’s brightest young things when they accept an invitation to a party at Black Dudley. During a parlour game someone is murdered and things from there on in turn a little dark.

This novel is the first introduction of Albert Campion, though he only appears as a supporting character. But this appearance did lead on appearances in  another eighteen novels and twenty short stories.  It’s interesting that throughout  Dr George Abbershaw is the main focus. You can see, I think, where Allingham is trying to make him a detective but it is Campion who really does steal to the show.

His appearances have energy and charm whereas Abbershaw is a little more sedate and traditional. Speaking of sedate and traditional I thought that Allingham was going for a cosy country house murder but she goes darker. She unmasks a plot that puts that everyone in danger, and if it has been written now, it would have been bloody but Allingham managers to keep the restraint but keep the danger. I was actually surprised now dark she does go. I do wonder what the audience of the time would have made of The Crime at Black Dudley if she had crossed the line?

As introductions go Allingham makes you want to know more about the mysterious Albert Campion, as well as solve the mystery he finds himself tangled in. It’s quite a fun tale with twists and surprises that keep you reading. It is nice to see a darker classic crime tale and I’m now curious to see what Allingham does with Campion in The Mystery Mile.

Review: Thief’s Magic by Trudi Canavan (2015)

9780356501123-2Reading a popular author always sets expectations. Mostly the one that my unconscious sets for me is, ‘please let this book/author be good.’ Notice I said ‘good’ not ‘outstanding’. Don’t get me wrong I want to read something that’ll blow me away but I don’t mind reading a work that keeps me moving along with the characters and makes me feel at the end that I’ve spend my time in a pleasurable way.  I could have said memorable but I’ve read lots of books that I can no longer remember in detail.

Thief’s Magic is my first Trudi Canavan novel so I had no expectations above ‘please be good’.  I don’t know how she’s told her previous tales so I have no experience to compare this against. Thief’s Magic has a great start, a good ending and a middle which feels like it’s going from A to Z using an faulty sat nav.

It’s an ambitious tale to be sure. We swap between two characters and two worlds. Both have different but intersecting takes on magic.  In one world we follow Tyren, a student of archeology, who finds a sentient book called Vella, and watch as he struggles to keep her safe. In the other we meet Rielle who has been taught that the use of magic is to steal from the Angels.

Through a series of events each becomes an outsider to their respective societies, which brings me my big issue with the narratives. It often feels like Canavan is kicking the plot along the road or trying to fill time before we get to the end.

I honestly don’t know which it is but ultimately it doesn’t feel smooth. It is trying to do something different so it needs some analyse, as far as I can without spoilers, because there is a veil in the story, which gets lifted at the end, and does make it worth reading.

The real issue is that the two interweaving stories are different paces. One is focused on an adventure and one is focused on the impact of a new relationship: so one is high-paced and one is slow. Both stories contain elements of adventure and romance and I don’t have a problem with the romance. It’s nice to see that. It works and make sense.

The trouble is when you get to the end and know what was planned you may have a different view of the middle. If each story had been released on their own it wouldn’t have worked either. Canavan has set up an opposition which will make for a interesting collision if, though more likely when, they collide.

But to get them to the end they have to be in certain places and it feels that the journeys are a little forced. And going from ‘fast’ to ‘slow’ and back again shows up the limitations of both narratives and the way in which they’re told.

Overall, it’s a good experiment which doesn’t quite work. But the plusses are the application of theories around the source and use of magic does  show that Canavan has a clever imagination. It also has  characters whose stories you care about. Maybe if it wasn’t a trilogy this part would have been tighter though I don’t know what you’d cut or what you’d add that could possibly replace what you be removed. Guess I’ll know after reading Angel of Storms, which is out in November, what Canavan has planned for Tyren and Rielle

Review: The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs (2014)

The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs

The quote on the back of The Incorruptibles is  from Patrick Rothfuss and goes likes this:

‘One part ancient Rome, two parts wild west, one part Faust. A pinch of Tolkien, of Lovecraft, of Dante. This is a strange alchemy, a recipe I’ve never seen before. I wish more books were as fresh and brave as this.’

There is no blurb. To be honest I’d buy it just from reading just that. Go on. There isn’t really any need for me to say any more. It does what it says and does it well. Oh, You want more? OK, but I really don’t see why you’re not sold already.

Westerns with (or without) a twist seem to be in the air at the moment. At least  with releases like Nunslinger, Your Brother’s Blood and  The Incorruptibles it feels that an area of the genre that is up for exploration a little more.

Though as you’ve seen Jacob Horner is taking his vision to the extreme. It feels like a ‘what if the Roman Empire had been mixed in with the Wild West but the Empire also powered their guns, and transport by devils and hellfire?’

As a premise it does allow Jacob Horner to play some genre conventions. It is still definitely a western. It has gunfighters, and Sherifs and a frontier.  The opening scene explains that our narrator and his working partner Fisk, are escorting a hellfire steamboat, Conelian, down the river. The boat contains a Senator and his children, two of whom are ghastly and two of them are decent enough considering their status and upbringing. But all of them, in terms of status, are  placed high above our protagonists.

Jacob Horner is having fun with the setting and its confines. He’s also playing with the idea of religion.  And that’s where it goes a little deeper and makes it more than a ‘pulp’ read. Don’t get me wrong, as I’ve said, it packs in the fun and adventure but at the same time it tries to explore the morality of the situation. No one is really ‘pure’ so all the characters are interesting, even the less savoury ones .

There are some inhuman characters, apart from the demons, which fill in as the ‘enemy’ but even there something doesn’t quite add up. That is something which I hope the next book, Foreign Devils,  will poke at a little more.

To echo Rothfuss: This  fresh, fun and packed with a new mix of old ideas. Definitely read it if you like the sound of a gun-carrying adventure in a crazy world.

Audiobook Review: The Dark Defiles by Richard Morgan (2014)

thedarkdefiles

The Dark Defiles is final book of the A Land Fit For Heroes trilogy. It’s also the longest. The audiobook comes in at an impressive twenty-four hours. That’s a lot of story-time though in pages it comes in at 560, so not a doorstopper of a book, but it does allow Morgan space to explore the consequences of the first two books (The Steel Remains and The Cold Commands). The problem for this reviewer is that I can’t talk about most of it without ruining the efforts that Morgan has gone through to create a series of ‘oo’, ‘ah’, ‘fuck’ and ‘hell yes’ moments.

What I can say is that as an ending to an unconventional tale of heroism Morgan manages to keep control and place the reader in the right place but not until right at the end. Ringil Eskiath, Egar the Dragonbane, and kir-Archeth Indamaninarma are definitely back to finish their respective fates.

The narrative is that Archeth has to recover a fallen Helmesman who delivers a warning which sets the trio on a state-sponsored, though mostly privately-financed, mission on the seas far away from home and from there nothing goes quite to plan.

If you’ve read the earlier two books then you’ll know that Ringil and Archeth make unconventional heroes. One is a deviant and outcast and the other is an immortal half-blood abandoned to life amongst the humans. Egar  is the nearest you’ll get to a traditional hero but he more the glue that binds Ringil and Archeth than a hero in his own right. Unlike in The Cold Commands he doesn’t gets his own thread here.

Fate is important as Morgan plays with the idea of perspective. The Grey Places,  where Ringil the Dark-Mage-in-the-making often visits, are timeless and adds a long view perspective which would be missing otherwise, another is (and this is a slight spoiler) that in their absence war is declared, like I said nothing goes to plan. So while we are following a quest of three people they are a nexus to which bigger events are rippling outwards from and reaching towards and spectacularly  colliding.

Morgan is intentionally setting out to take the model of Standard Epic Fantasy© and dismantling it before putting it back together again in his own way. By doing that it feels fresh but won’t alienate people who expect certain things from  Standard Epic Fantasy© like heroes and quests and swords.

Oh the swords, and another mild spoiler, there is another sword which isn’t the Ravensfriend. I like magical swords ever since I read about Elric and his soul-stealing sword the Stormbringer. Morgan definitely gives a nod to that concept on more than one occasion here

But it’s not completely without an injection of technology, as the Kiriath, Archeth’s people who abandoned her, it and the Helmsman to a fate without them. What the technology is ultimately useful for remains unclear but it does have its uses. For example, it resurrects one of the minor characters, making them creeping and disturbing from then on.

Thinking about it The Dark Defiles is an unsettling read. It has lots of disturbing moments, which aren’t in themselves shocking considering the grim nature of the world and the characters, but they culminate, and gain resonance – as mentioned the ripples go out as well as in and they colide at interesting times in interesting ways.

I’m going to restrain from a spoiler to illustrate the point but I was reading another story where one of the characters had said they’d never pick up a gun but at the end circumstances force them to hold and to fire such a weapon. But lets just say that circumstances (or fate) can lead you places you’d never willingly travel.

And that is the heart of A Land Fit For Heroes. You don’t know what you’ll do or where you’ll go until you’re forced into a corner and you have to make a choice. It is also about doing the unexpected when those choices are presented, about defying expectations and about being ‘human’.

I do have a few niggles, mostly with the use of time and how realistic that it is as a timeline for some events mentioned in recent history and the likelyhood for them to be actually  be ‘real’ given the timescales of other things but I can forgive that element of doubt as it’s a story about stories and the myths we create for ourselves. And I guess I’m using that as an excuse to brush those observations out of mind and out of sight.

The other things to mention are the pace and scale. In terms of pace as it is longer Morgan has given us an epic world-crossing tale and we follow characters across a map and even though it’s not a criticism it might help manage your expectations. The other is that it doesn’t build in scale. There are armies but there aren’t two armies on battefields screaming at each other. It’s much quieter than that, which is what I meant about leaving the reveal of the outcome until the very end. It’s frustratingly teasing, surprising and right.

Finally,  as I listened to the audiobook, I’d be remiss not to mention the acting skills of Simon Vance who again did a marvellous job of keeping all the characters sounding different, creepy, and alive.

The Dark Defiles is a masterful end to a rebuilding of the  Standard Epic Fantasy© Model during A Land Fit For Heroes though I’d give anything for an epilogue, even a little one.

Review: Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2015)

Signal to Noise

There are books that when you first hear about them excite and tease you, though if, like me, you’ve heard about them months before they come out that excitement can fade, mostly because other books get in the way, but some things do stay around with Signal to Noise it was the trio of music, and magic and Mexico which stuck, and that is a pretty good summary of its hook.

Meche is a fifteen year old girl who uses music to mask out the world around her. The love of music is inherited from her father but it’s with her two friends, Sabastian and Daniela, where her passion takes a more practical and disturbing turn when she discovers how to make music weave magic, and we’re witness to how magic doesn’t really make things better.

Moreno-Garcia goes back and forth between Mexico in a 2009 present and 1998 past as she shows us the lasting effect of the earlier events. She doesn’t linger too long in either and makes both interesting enough that you’re happy to get back to either time frame. She also uses the past to confuse and foreshadow present.

You see Meche’s journey as she burns through her friends and witness the breakdown of her relationship with her family at the same time as seeing that it’s unfinished business she may have tried to leave behind but can’t now avoid dealing with.

You know that’s where the first half of the tale ends up pretty quickly because that is how the present section starts but it’s what happens next and why that makes it more interesting.

As an adult you can’t help thinking back to your earlier self and seeing how you laid tracks to the present and wondering if you could change things what would you change? But Meche has no such regrets. Though there is a scene with her grandmother, that we see as an audience, which if Meche had witnessed would, I think, fill her with a lot of remorse.

Even though this story is full of teenage anxieties and issues I’m reluctant to label it as YA because of the effect it had on this adult reader. The power of using those formative events is that emotion is simpler and more intense, which works in its favour, though this could be seen as simplistic if you’re expecting a more nauanced exploration.

Brought together because they’re unhip gives an awkwardness and a camaraderie to Meche, Sebastian and Daniela but it’s more than that because Meche is a leader and Sebastian has a unacknowledged crush on Meche and with Meche confused by her own feelings then Daniela playing go between the two. It’s teenageness in a microcosm.

As for the music, I’d be surpised if Moreno-Gracia hasn’t got her own passion there. The various melodies resonate as you read and the author makes the point that what is obvious isn’t always the most effective.

Back to the magic. Does it make things better? Not really.

At the heart this novel are dysfunctional relationships; with Meche at 15 and 36 dealing with the effect of her father and how she is and was with her friends plus it illustrates effectively how we do, but mostly don’t, change.

Signal to Noise is a great debut that uses music and magic to bring something a little different to the exploration and struggles of teenage years.

Review: The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing by Tarquin Hall

The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing is the second published case of the Indian detective Vish Puri.

Early one Delhi morning a 20-foot vision of the Goddess Kali appears to a morning session of the therapeutic Laughing Club who then proceeds to strike one of their members dead before vanishing into thin air.

There is much to love about Hall’s quirky detective. The most immediate is the pet names he gives to his employees. He names them with wry mix of the jobs they do for him and their personality traits. For example, we have Hanbrake (his driver), Facecream (who works undercover), and Tubelight (as he spends most of his time in the dark).

But the cast doesn’t end there. It is truly a family affair with Puri’s mother getting herself involved in her own mystery and this time drags along Puri’s wife. There is a warmer feeling to this series because of the lively secondary characters which you don’t find in most detective novels.

Hall gives insight into Indian culture and beliefs as Puri sets out to disprove that a Goddess can actually manifested but this brings him into conflict with a Guru who has the ear of the Prime Minister. And Puri has then has another disturbing mystery to solve.

It’s fast-paced and it’s pleasurable watching Puri’s clue-hunting, bartering and sleuthing as he talks to all aspects of Indian society to get to the bottom of what actually happen.

Hall seems to be having fun not only with Puri’s quirky, but extremely effective, ways but also complicating his life with his Mother and Wife sticking their noses around the place in the hunt of clues of their own.

The cover quotes a reviewer calling, ‘Puri the Indian Poirot’ and but it’s not Poirot dropped into India it’s more a what if Porit was Indian, though Puri himself is always reference Holmes, though not always in a endearing way.

It has everything I love in a modern ‘cosy crime’ novel. A quirky cast of characters, mysteries which are actually mysterious and an investigation with entertaining twists and turns.

It’s really hard not to enjoy this book and I can’t wait to read The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken.

Review: The Three by Sarah Lotz

thethreesarahlotz.jpgI finished reading The Three the same day as the horrendous air-crash in Germany, and seeing the events unfold on TV. Because of the intensity of Sarah Lotz’s horror thriller I had emotional connection to the unfolding news I would never have expected. The Three is as much an exploration of effects of a life changing event as it is a creepy, twisting mystery.

The first thing you notice is the structure. Lotz has put a fictionalised real-life non-fiction book, Black Thursday: From Crash to Conspiracy, inside her novel with only two framing chapters to let you know it’s a fiction.

It starts with four plane crashes with three of those flights having a sole surviving child collectively called The Three by the media. The opening ‘framing’ chapter provides us with a warning that fuels the events rest of novel. Then we are introduced to the ‘author’ before starting on the mix of interviews, transcripts and extracts which make up the rest of the book.

What’s immediately clear is that Lotz has a talent for not only characterisation but voice. Each segment has its own feel and style. There is a tangible change in tone as we swap back and fore between the different ‘evidence’ which make up The Three.

Lotz weaves four main narratives. Three following the journey of those closet to the surviving children as their families find out that they are not quite the same about the children they were before. They act out of character. The fourth deals with a message recorded by Pamela May Donald and the person who hears it.

That’s a thread that’s better left to be experienced though it does involve the theme of religion and how power and religion aren’t always too far away from each other. I’m mentioning it as this thread has an implication which in the end Lotz underplays.

Maybe knowing there was a sequel, especially being aware of where it is to be set, subtly changed the way I read The Three. Not in a big way. I think I spotted the occasional reference to events in the sequel and I paused to ponder where the next book might go.

But I wonder if this had been a one-off book if Lotz would have risked making some elements bigger and bolder rather than leaving the lingering feeling she was holding something back?

This one ends cleverly so I really need to know how Sarah Lotz is going to tackle the next one, especially if it’s have the same format, and why is it called Day Four?

Audiobook Review: Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch

Foxglove_IconWhere do you go after the literally shocking ending of Broken Homes. PC Peter Grant, Britain’s only official apprentice Wizard, had been investigated events at architecturally curious high-rise estate called Skygarden before Ben Aaronovitch pulled a very large rabbit out the hat.

Well it seems that life, and crime, carry on. This time Peter is off to the Herefordshire countryside to see if anything supernatural is involved in the disappearance of two girls and his investigation starts with doing a routine elimination check on a wizard who has hung up his staff.

Aaronovitch keeps the format tightly woven in the police-procedural mode with Peter being the good copper he is and adhering to his training and the fundamentals of police work. One of the strengths of the series is that it reads like crime fiction with magic. To be honest I am surprised by how popular they are outside genre circles as magic and the supernatural play a major part of the plot. But through Peter’s eyes they always feel grounded and accessible.

Peter is also a good narrator of his own adventure though for me that narrative voice is synonymous with Kobna Holdbrook-Smith who reads the audio books and he is now my Peter. I mention this mostly as it took me a week to listen to the 10hrs and 45 minutes of audio. I can’t really multitask when listening to an audio book but luckily I had a a 5 hour round trip which topped up with snatches on my commute, and a bath or two to fed my addiction.

I really can’t say what one thing got me hooked. The setting reminds me of home. Getting away from London and into the countryside we’re introduced a wonderful cast of colourful characters. Ben drops some well waited hooks and teases with revelations about Nightingale, Beverly Brook and Molly. Plus Kobna as a wonderful way of saying latin phrases.

This is the first book in the series where Peter is kicked out of the nest of London and away from DCI Nightingale’s protective wing. Like the last book Aaronovitch keeps the plotting focused and narrow – and in a way simplex. You can summarise the who did what to whom and why quite easily at the end. It would it completely spoil your enjoyment if I did but it’s the investigation of the events which makes Foxglove Summer compelling. It’s who does what during an investigation, where the suspicions fall and how you keep a story hungry media fed without them getting a whiff of magic balanced that draws you in and keeps you on the hook.

I only have one small niggle and that’s the wizardly talents that PC Grant has. It’s hard with magic to keep it from being a deus ex machina to pull out and fix things. There is a a great one used here but not by Peter. He’s getting good at impelo to blow things up but I’m craving a little bit more variety in his bag of tricks.

I really can’t fault it. Foxglove Summer is a fun and well told police procedural which manages to keep the magic to investigable levels. Aaronovitch shows no signs he nor Peter is tiring, in fact, here he shows us that his apprentice wizarrd can coming out of his master’s shadow and shines I hope Nightingale keeps having a role as he’s so much fun to read and watch especially as he blows up a barn.

We leave with the story with new questions, which hopefully will result in teasing answers in the next book.

Highly recommended.

SFR: Jack Shade in the Forest of Souls by Rachel Pollack

Fantasy&ScienceFiction-201207_thumb[7]Rachel Pollack presents a shamanic noir 14,447 word novelette and introduces us to the Traveller and private eye Jack Shade, who also appears in a more recent tale ‘The Queen of Eyes’ and at least one more to come. He’s also in a short (short) story on Rachel’s website.

I was going to pick up her new book The Child Eater but I got sidetracked (temporally) by hearing about this in a recent interview.

In ‘Forest of Souls’  Jack is called from a card game by a man who posses his business card and Jack goes to investigate how he obtained it.

I love a good ‘urban detective’ and was curious how shamanic noir would turn out. I loved it. This case involves a visit to the forest of souls through a very curious entrance and a mystery that isn’t what it first seems. It is relatively short so it can be read in one sitting andJack Shade has lots of curiosity to explore in future stories.

I was a little surprised that Rachel Pollack would write a classic-feeling noir but I wasn’t surprised that she’d write it well or inject a lot of mysticism into it as I’ve read a lot of her thoughtful non-fiction (mostly tarot-related). I have high hopes for The Child Eater and Jack’s next case.