Books: The Red Knight

In Brief:  Miles Cameron’s The Red Knight blends traditional fantasy elements with strong historical fiction writing to great effect.  The title character leads his band of mercenary knights into the frontier to protect a vital outpost against the chaotic forces of the Wild.  As the forces of the Kingdom of Alban gather to confront the Wild, we meet a number of other interesting characters, Cameron’s system of magic, and a complex-without-being-excessive setting that includes complex politics, medieval economics, and philosophical-religious overtones.

Pros:  The sense of historical realism, even within this fictional setting rife with magic, wyverns, daemons, places this book in rare company.  Once you grow accustomed to Cameron’s method of switching between the main characters – not always to their p.o.v, but always focused on them – the method works extremely well.  Excellent characterization, pacing of the action and the world-building, and a very intriguing setting and magic system.

Cons:  None, really.  This is a very, very good book.  Maybe if you’re not into a Medieval Europe-style setting…  Maybe if you don’t find historical detail woven into a fantasy world fascinating…

Review:  Miles Cameron has a degree in Medieval History and an obvious love for historical reenactment.  He also has had a fine career writing historical fiction (as Christian Cameron), is an old school D&D guy, and likes to camp in the deep woods.  With swords.  This is my guy.  Of course, I didn’t know any of this before picking up The Red Knight; I’d just viewed a recommendation lauding the book for its blend of historical authenticity with fantasy elements.  It turns out, Cameron has written a number of historical fiction books and stories (as Christian Cameron), and his knowledge and familiarity with everything from armor to fortifications to the philosophical foundations of Christianity sets this novel apart.

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Review: Superior Spider-man

In Brief:  Superior Spider-man, written by Dan Slott and illustrated by Ryan Stegman, takes Spidey in new directions with a bold narrative twist.  Volume 1, ‘My Own Worst Enemy’, and Volume 2, ‘A Troubled Mind’, collect the first 10 issues of this ongoing series.  Books like this one continue to show that Marvel  is more than a marketing arm – they still produce great comics stories.

Pros:  Slott picks up from the historic events Amazing Spider-Man #700 and continue with strong storytelling involving major changes to Spider-man and his world.  It’s a much different kind of story, but that makes it no less effective.  Stegman’s panel work and ability with the action and staging are first rate.

Cons:  Well, this is a major shift.  It certainly has the potential to put long-time Spider-man fans, especially if you haven’t been keeping up with the comic books.  You just have to give it a chance.

SPOILERS —-  SPOILERS  —- SPOILERS

Do we still do spoilers?  Anyway…

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Re-reading Gatsby

Sometimes it can be enlightening to revisit a book.  Your tastes and preferences certainly change with more experience.  You can develop more patience for  some aspects of a story or text even as you solidify definite likes and dislikes.

And so every once in awhile I’ll re-read a classic or a favorite from my youth.  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby qualifies as the former more than the latter.  I remember plowing through this book in high school, being vaguely impatient with the pacing and more than a little annoyed with the main characters.  Unsympathetic, selfish and rich and not all that interesting.  Even Gatsby himself, man of mystery seemed pretty boring in his single-mindedness…  In truth, I likely scanned the last third of the book in my younger days – just get through it enough to know the material for the test.  And if it seemed more like a history lesson back then than a study of literature, well, that’s education for you. Continue reading

Quick Recs – Sci-fi and Comics

A couple of quick recommendations for readers of science fiction and comic books on a cold February’s day…

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, his first book,  is a military-themed Heinlein-ian story with heart and humor.  The basic premise:  when earth-dwellers reach the age of 75, they have the option go sever all ties with their home and enlist in the Colonial Defense Forces to help protect and advance humanity’s outposts in interstellar space.  Not much is known about what happens when you enlist on Earth, but most agree it involves a significant physical modifications.  You also get the opportunity to settle in one of the colonies once your enlistment is up.

John Perry, a widower from Ohio, signs up, and we follow him on his journey.  Scalzi does a fine job of narrating from the perspective of a man whose lived a full life, confronted by some pretty fantastic dangers and situations.

This is the third book I’ve read in recent years by Scalzi.  The last one, Redshirtscomes with our highest recommendations, and I’m looking forward to picking up his most recent offering, The Human Division, soon.

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You gotta read this, Dad…

This is what my 2nd grade son told me this past weekend.  He handed me a comic book, a trade paperback we’d actually picked up for the kids 2-3 years earlier.  The book:  Sidekicks by Dan Santat.  The boy must have found it on his shelf somewhere, and he probably checked with his sister to get her opinion.  Then the read, then him placing it in my hands and telling me to get to it.

Considering where he was with his reading this time last year – doing it but having to be prodded and cajoled – we are pretty excited.  For a book family like ours, getting our first you gotta read this is almost like that first music recital or first base hit.

The boy really started enjoying and self-initiating his reading this past fall.  Think it was a mix of maturation and the competition of his school reading log (he always wants to be at the top for minutes read a month).  That and he was just starting to get enough words to make it more fun.  He was into Star Wars and Super Hero reference books.  He recently discovered the Beast Quest books and is onto the second series there.  He even read about Einstein recently for a school bio project. Like his big sister, he will read at bedtime until he gets tired (sometimes too long).

As far as the referral:  Sidekicks features a team of critters who happen to be the pets of aging hero, Captain Amazing.  When the Captain announces he needs to recruit a new sidekick, the pets start competing and training for the job.  Along the way they learn about their strengths and weaknesses, developing into a team.  It’s well written and drawn, with good underlying themes…  and jokes.

The boy is all about the jokes.  As I was reading the book on Sunday, he would come by the couch once in awhile and point to the page and laugh and read along with me.  Oh yeah, Dad, wait til you see what comes next…

Books: The Twilight Herald

In Brief: Tom Lloyd’s second in this series, The Twilight Herald, continues recounting the ascent of Isaak, a former wagon boy,  to Lord of the Farlan and chosen of the gods.  The book strives for a legendary tone, with powerful characters seeking artifacts, weapons, and bold military and strategic victories.

Pros:  Lloyd’s familiarity with many of the conventions of high/epic fantasy (along with, presumably, his editorial background) helps him avoid pitfalls and cliches.  The main characters, including Isaak, are strongly written and fairly approachable (no mean feat since some of them are super-heroic and/or immortal).

Cons:  The pacing seemed uneven at times, with a lot of slow building as the players make their way to Scree and the big showdown.  The insertion of certain bits of background history and prophecy seemed labored, almost ham-fisted at points.  This is a second book, and it has that feel of setting up for the next one.

Review:  The Twilight Herald picks up directly after the first book in Tom Lloyd’s fantasy series, The Strormcaller (reviewed here).  Lord Isaak has only just assumed the mantle of Duke of the Farlan, and he immediately faces a rebellion of some of his own banner men, as well as the political fallout from new alliances and the previous Farlan Lord’s death.  Isaak faces these challenges with measure of clumsy resolve, humility, and raw power.  Understandable, as he’s a young White-Eye still learning about his power and the nature of his bond to Nartis, God of Storms, and patron of the Farlan.

Meanwhile, in the City-State of Scree, Rojak, a mysterious servant of the shadow-god Azaer, has begun putting on very strange plays in the heart of the city.  Scree is on the verge of civil war, with the ruling White Council having been defeated elsewhere in the region, and the regent of Scree has begun employing mercenaries to assist with defenses.  Among these is Zhia Vukotic in disguise.  Zhia is a powerful vampire cursed with a soul and a conscience, who, like Isaak, carries a crystal skull (ancient artifact of power).  Also in Scree, the Abbot of a sacked monastery, who is hiding his own crystal skull from the former monk who burned the monastery and killed many of his brothers.  This rogue monk, we soon learn, serves Rojak now.

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Review: Aquaman – New 52

In Brief:  In the first two volumes of Aquaman from DC Comics’ New 52 line, the creative team of Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis, and Joe Prado relaunch and revitalize this familiar if not overly popular character.  In Volumes 1 and 2 (the first twelve issues of the series), Aquaman confronts a mysterious subterranean invasion, then his old foe, Black Manta, while learning new details about the fall of Atlantis.

Pros:  This is an A-team lineup from DC.  Johns, Reis, and Prado have produced a beautiful book, well plotted, with mystery and effective characterization.  Johns’ take on Aquaman is somewhat darker than you might expect, but it works well here.

Cons:  There is a certain formula to the Johns storytelling method, and he certainly doesn’t flip any scripts or pull any big surprises here (not that DC would let him).  Some of the fight sequences seemed off in their pacing and could have used more panels to convey the action.

Full Review:  As we understand it, the idea behind the New 52 was for DC to rebrand/relaunch the books and characters in their universe – everything from issue 1, with a lot of the previous continuity jettisoned to make way for new stories.  I previously picked up the Batman relaunch (and sadly did not review it here) and have the JLA relaunch in the queue.  Aquaman probably would not have made the cut if not for a referral from a friend willing to lend me the first two volumes.

The nice thing about the New 52 concept is it does provide a good jumping on point.  I don’t know much about Aquaman beyond the Justice League, but that doesn’t matter here.  Purists may grit their teeth at the loss or sweeping away of so much back-issue history, but taking these familiar heroes, rebooting them in their prime with some sense of their origins and pivotal moments does provide an effective hook for new readers.  Picking up a book about a character with whom I had no prior investment (as opposed to Batman or the X-Men) was also an interesting prospect, allowing me to read and assess a little more objectively.

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