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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Dublin Dead. Gerard O'Donovan. Sphere (2011)

Very entertaining Irish crime story with very smart plot mechanics and an engaging cast. A request from the Spanish police regarding a murder victim starts Detective Inspector Mike Mulcahy on an investigation leads to unexpected places. Journalist Siobhan Fallon, recovering from a horrifying attack, is covering the funeral of a suicide when she picks up the threads of another story regarding a missing woman. Both Mulchay and Fallon pursue their investigations separately and find that they may have unexpected and very dangerous connections. The reveals are very cleverly staged, the action is tense and satisfying and the climax is gripping and very satisfying.
Along side the very well thought out plot mechanics Gerard O'Donovan makes a number of very smart choices in the book, all of which pay off. The first is that Mike Mulcahy has no serious personality defect nor any dominant flaw that both drives him and is the source of his effectiveness at his job. He is a committed, professional police officer who works really hard with his team to push forward with his investigation. While he does stretch his bureaucratic constraints to a satisfying maximum he does so for an entirely credible reason. Also his boss is competent, generally supportive and smart, pretty much what someone who becomes a senior professional officer would probably be.
Siobhan Fallon is a very well realised recovering victim of an enormous trauma who is trying to restore her life and finds that work is the best way to that. It gives her investigation a personal edge and urgency which allows her to pursue the story past the point where it has become dangerous and not seem to be driven by plot requirements. Her search for a missing woman is a search for her missing self, made clear with a light touch that gives a necessary urgency without poking the reader in the eye.
Gerard O'Donovan uses the plot a chance to have a sharp look at the greed that tumbled Ireland in political and economic austerity, the clever knot at the heart of the book is woven from huge, criminal  greed, the lesser versions also get a look in. This sharply realised context provides a great platform for the action. Top notch crime fiction.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Rounding The Mark. Andrea Camilleri. Stephen Sartarelli (Translator) Picador (2006)

Wonderfully engaging Sicilian crime story that is drenched in atmosphere and with superb plot mechanics. Inspector Salvo Montalbano takes a swim to shake off the depressing feelings that have been plaguing him. He bumps into a dead body and bring it ashore. The body proves to be a murder victim, the identification is very difficult and the only likely possibility was already dead before the likely murder date for the watery body. Montalbano assists at the processing of a  boatload of illegal immigrants and helps return one to his mother. A short while later the immigrant boy is the victim of a traffic accident and the misgivings that Montalbano had at the time return in full force. The quiet investigation he launches leads to some very brutal criminals and some unexpected revelations. The reveals are superbly stages, the plot mechanics cunning constructed and the conclusion satisfying.
Andrea Camilleri has managed the very difficult feat of delivering a wholly satisfying crime story that is also a biting commentary on politics and society in Italy and Sicily. The story carries off both with wit and grace thanks to the glorious Salvo Montalbano, a man who is utterly a professional policeman and a man with a open heart. Montalbano as vivid and forceful as the Sicilian context he works in. The countryside and the atmosphere of Sicily pervade the book, they ground it wholly and give the actions of the cast force and weight.
The action is delivered with a light touch and Montalbano is never dour or grim, he is too busy enjoying his friends and relishing his food for that. This lightness cleverly hides the chilly darkness of the plot that slowly comes into view and as Montalbano's anger develops in response to it the reader is drawn into the human scale of the brutality. This is the strength of the story, the crimes have a ordinary scale, carried out by humans who have no care for others only for greed. The victims are remembered by Montalbano and they are contrasted with the society and systems that failed them. The anger is controlled by Montalbo's professionalism. Andrea Camilleri can see and enjoy the splendor and generosity of Sicily without ever forgetting the dark veins that run close to the surface. The balance he achieves makes this outstanding book a serious pleasure.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Golem. Chris Kent (Writer & Artist). Graphite Fiction (2013)

 Very striking art and a quiet, strong story combine to deliver an intriguing comic. In 18987 Alfred Larchmont, a stage magician at a small theatre has a family and debts that are pressing strongly on him. He receives a message that he has been left conjuring equipment by a fellow magician. Alfred is set up by the theatre manager and two other performers and finds himself being blackmailed by them after his act goes horribly wrong. At the end of his tether Alfred remembers the gift and investigates it, finding a mysterious mannequin in the chest. This mannequin proves to be the Golem, a clay figure brought to life by magic, Alfred hopes that the Golem will prove to be a new act that will rescue him. The story moves quietly and forcefully as Alfred Larchmont and the Golem fight back against those who betrayed him.
Chris Kent has made a very dramatic artistic choice in this book, the art is done entirely in grey pencil, it looks a little like woodcuts at times. It is not at all fluid or naturalistic, it is explicitly flat and overwhelming. The backgrounds of the panels are filled in by pencil cross hatching, the figures are presented at odd angles, faces loom from the panels. The 9 panel grid is used throughout the story very effectively, sometimes the panels are used as parts of a bigger picture, sometimes a full pages other times two panels.
In the face of such loud art the story has a chance of being submerged, in particular as the tone of the story is consistently low key. Chris Kent had made equally bold choices with his story that allow it match with the art and  meet it on equal terms. The story is rather abrupt, with a grim slightly surreal quality  that artfully recalls the stories of Kafka without ever shouting the comparisons. The story is delivered without a context, it operates solely on its own terms and its own logic. It is this that allows the story meet the art and not be overwhelmed by it, the story is as abrupt as the art, the unsettling atmosphere needs a unsettling style to bring it out so that The Golem can work. A creature of magic, it would unbalance a more conventional means of telling the story and become the centre of the story rather than the human cast.
The motives of the cast in their actions against Alfred Larchmont seem out of proportion to what they want to achieve, they should undermine the story and any hint of realism would ensure that they do so, there would need to a more convincing set up. The art lets Chris Kent get away with very abrupt storytelling and the abrupt story telling gives the art a focus and intent it needs.
A very individual artistic imagination is at work in The Golem, Chris Kent has taken considerable risks and they have strongly paid off, memorable and unexpected, a pleasure.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Chris Kent. The Golem  can be bought at Forbidden Planet, Glasgow and Edinburgh and directly from the website,

The Stone Cutter. Camilla Lackberg, Steven T. Murray (Translator). HarperCollins (2010)

A gripping Swedish crime story that traces the impact of selfishness of every degree on a varied and engaging cast. In the small town of  Fjallbacka the body a young girl is pulled from sea by a fisherman,the postmortem reveals that it was murder not an accidental death. Detective Patrik Hedstrom leads the investigation which leads to to the girl's family, neighbors and closer to home. The plot mechanics are superb, the reveals are wonderfully staged and the final reckoning is as cold and dark as an night in the Arctic.
Camilla Lackberg has a wonderfully confident control of the story, using an extended cast and a long flashback that curl around each other until they finally touch with a savage understanding of how the past has driven the present. The cast are really well drawn, the smallest walk on part is given the same care and attention as the major player. Patrik Hedstron, a new father coping with the the complete upheaval of his life and trying to understand the new landscape he is in with his partner Erica while managing the investigation. Erica is trying to come to terms with being a mother and what it means to and for her, her friend Charlotte is the mother of the murdered child and has serious domestic problems of her own.
As the lives of the cast come under increased scrutiny and pressure they respond in very credible ways and begin to question long term choices and to re-assess their lives. Those who are capable of emotional movement are given the time and space to make new choices. Those who are set in selfishness get to follow their choices down to the bitter bleak ends they have made for themselves. Looming over the rest of the cast is an astonishing portrait of  monumental, poisonous selfishness that methodically distorts and consumes every other life that she is involved with.
The rest of the cast are measured against this character as she moved through the past and slowly into the present, her actions slowly setting the context for the events in the present. Camilla  Lackberg makes an intriguing choice with this character in comparison to the rest of the cast. She is an unbridled monster who sows destruction everywhere she goes, yet she carries the slightest of the consequences handed out to the others. The rest of the cast of fallible, weak and inherently selfish characters all suffer much greater consequences for their actions that she does. The sheer depth of her greed for self leaves no room for any sense of error or transgression, the rest of the cast have inklings, however vague, of the wrongs that have done. This gives their punishment a sharp edge that can actually cut into them.
A nice line of sharp humour keep the book from being unreadablely bleak and the way that the invincible self-regard of one of the cast is actually rewarded is a clever counterpoint to the main threads of the story. The translation by Steven T. Murray is transparent, this is clearly an Swedish story and cultural context, it reads in English without any distance, the reader is pulled directly in the lives and context of the cast.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Doom Patrol Archives. Volume 3. Arnold Drake (Writer), Bruno Premiani (Art), Bob Brown ( Cover art). DC Comics (2006)

Mad science, hyperbolic writing and ravishing art just about balance the rampant sexism in a beautifully presented collection of comics. The Doom Patrol , Rita Farr (Elati-Girl), Cliff Steele (Robotman), Larry Trainor (Negative Man), Niles Caulder (The Chief) along with two semi-attached members , Steve Dayton   (Mento) and Craig Logan (Beast Boy) are the World's Strangest Heroes.
The writing by Arnold Drake is full of wonderful ideas, operatic villains and and full tilt storytelling. He crams each short episode with ideas and explosive situations, two of my favorites are the killer rabbits and the way a dumper truck is used a giant sieve. The cast are bursting with loud, expressive life, they insult each other with elaborate detail and maintain a level of simmering tension and rage that is entirely consistent with the fact that they have all been so severely dislocated from their previous lives. They are free only in action as they bring their abilities to bear on a problem, peace does not suit them. The dialogue is a very effective mix of terrible puns, insults and decelerations, it is as entirely as unnatural as the Doom Patrol themselves and it suits them perfectly.  The narration is so hyperbolic that it should collapse on itself, instead the breathless urgency of it all captures the speed and sheer absurdity of the action. The exaggerated seriousness of the writing underscores the way the absurdity is taken utterly seriously, the cast are never mocked by the writing, they are given force and character by the excess.
The problem with the stories is serious also, the entirely natural and deeply ingrained sexism that very nearly renders the stories unreadable. Rita Farr is treated with a such an appalling paternalistic protectiveness that it pushes the reader right out of the story. What is obvious is that Arnold Drake greatly liked Rita Farr and gave her as much room to shine as it was possible to do while being constrained at every turn by the male cast responses to her.
What makes the difference and rescues the collection is the astounding art by Bruno Premiari that makes the nearly impossible task he is presented with look easy. He has to take a set of misfit heroes and utterly absurd situations and make them credible by humanising the cast so that the action is funny, serious and wholly comic book mad science all at the same time. Robotman may be the most expressive robot ever , his metal face is as readable as any human face yet essentially robotic, he captures the human wired up inside the metal frame. Beast Boy, whose transformation always leave him with his head of human, green hair, is full of energy and the sheer joy of the possibilities that are open to him. When he is the lonely teenager looking for acceptance within the Doom Patrol, he is also defensively angry and arrogant, his body language speaks as loudly as his voice.
The malice free sexism is an enormous drag on the collection, that the astonishing invention and the great team dynamic that propel the book graced with such joyous art just about rescue it is the greatest compliment I could pay it.

Deity. Steven Dunne. Headline Publishing Group (2012)

An engaging and enjoyable crime story with superb plot mechanics and an attractive cast. A body is found in a riven  in Derbyshire, an autopsy reveals that he victms lungs had been removed before the body was dumped. When a second body is found with missing internal organs detective Inspector Damen Brook has a considerable problem on his hands. The problems increase with the reported disappearance of a number of students from Derby College, all of whom appear to have vanished in the same way. When a film is released on the internet strongly suggesting that the students have committed suicide the investigation becomes considerably more complicated as the threads of a very nasty story start to twist together. The investigation is thoughtful and careful, the reveals are cunningly set up and the conclusion satisfyingly bitter.
Steven Dunne reveals the dark heart of his story slowly and cunningly, the two major plot threads slowly tie together as the investigation uncovers the sadistic depths that have been hidden in plain sight. The plot mechanics are not very original, the individual aspects have all been used frequently within the genre, they are used with such clever confidence that the the sharp edges that made them so attractive in the first place are revealed again.
The cast give the plot the freshness and urgency that it needs, they are wonderfully well drawn, a wide collection of people most of whom are behaving rather badly. They do so for very credible reasons, rooted in understandable human weakness and fear. The way that Steven Dunne shows how these weaknesses and fears can be exploited by a cold heart matched with a savage appetite gives the book force and depth. The victims are not just markers pointing the route of the investigation, they emerge as individuals in their own right whose death has weight and impact.
The crucial duel that emerges in the story between DI  Brooke and clever and vain owner of the cold heart is smart and gripping. Brooke is interesting, a professional and competent police officer with a severely dented past, he is still credibly functioning as part of a disciplined organisation. His troubles have driven him to greater understanding rather than bitterness and this makes him a more effective investigator.
Steven Dunne takes a considerable risk with the story by choosing to use one of the most well worn cliches in the genre by setting up a villain who chooses to draw attention to their actions as part of their process. With understated skill he then develops the villain so that the actions become credible and horribly meaningful. Smart crime writing like this is a serious pleasure.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Savant. Issue 1.Jim Alexander (Writer), Will Pickering (Art), Fin Cramb (Colours), Jim Campbell (Lettering) Planet Jimbot (2013)

Chief Wizard Update 03.02.217: Savant has been scheduled to appear in Dark Horse Presents 32-37 March to August 2017.  Dark Horse Presents is the flagship anthology book for Dark Horse Comics and the publishers have always been very particular about how to use the room in the book. It is a tremendous compliment to and recognition of the great work done by the creative team on Savant that they are getting to be included in the anthology. A very large number of new readers will have the pleasure of reading Savant. The team at Planet Jimbot make great comics, it is wonderful to see them getting the opportunity to present their work to a significant worldwide audience.

 First-rate, thoughtful and adventurous science fiction, Savant has a great idea, a well thought out set up which combine to kick the story off in an intriguing and engaging way. The story opens a dive into action before starting off on the main narrative, the pursuit of a war criminal on the planet Hubris. The small group of soldiers and Savant head on their mission across a ravaged planet and find that the trouble is far greater than they could have expected.
Jim Alexander is using a very familiar story framework, the desperate venture by a small, ill assorted, group heading into hostile territory who discover that their worst fears were insignificant compared to the true depth of the threat they face. The pleasure lies in how skillfully he uses this framework to bring his ideas to life and how well he uses the storytelling potential of the framework. Savant, the wild card in the group, has an unusual talent which Jim Alexander neatly reveals at a point where the story logic transforms what could have been an info dump into an necessary explanation for previous events. Savant is the hinge that turns the framework in a interesting direction without compromising it, she  puts the heart into the adventure that draws the reader in and offers the possibility of the happily unexpected.
Jim Alexander has taken a welcome risk in the story, the threat, when it emerges its total, there is no compromise possible and the odds are satisfactorily stacked against the team. To an extent this drains tension from a story as there is no room for escalation, it is already at 11, Jim Alexander is going to have to find a credible way to introduce tension back into the story that rises above the drawn out slaughter of the team. There are simply not enough of them to support a multi-issue story that would be worth reading. Given the the range of ideas already on display I have considerable hopes that a intriguing route lies ahead.
The art by Will Pickering is very good, the cast are well developed, they inhabit their context well, the body language is strong and the faces expressive. Will Pickering has a lovely range, intimate conversations, action, big & small and movement are all comfortable, the ideas are brought to life. At the same time I have a very strong preference for harder edged, more detailed art in science fiction. The greater the weight of the context, the more the story ideas can draw in the reader.
The colours by Fin Cramb have a significant challenge to survive, at one point Savant says "Colour is the language of the universe", this is a  provocative thing to say in a medium where colouring is essential yet should be not attention seeking. The muted low key colours used are effective, they have a melancholy undertone which is exactly what Savant should have. The contrast with the colours of the enemy is strong and effective.
Any first issue has a difficult task, balancing story set up with enough forward momentum to draw in and involve the reader. Savant does it very well, a very engaging and enjoyable read, it leaves the reader happily wondering what will be next.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent to me by Jim Alexander. Contact Planet Jimbot directly at:

Stop Dead. Leigh Russell. No Exit Press (2013)

An engaging and enjoyable crime story, with a wide ranging cast and thoughtful plot mechanics. A businessman is found murdered and his wife and her lover are the natural suspects. When the victim's business partner is killed in the same way, followed by another murder the case becomes more complicated. The set up is well done, the investigation is thoughtful, the threads of the situation are carefully picked up and the reveals cleverly staged as the deep and bloody roots of the crimes start to become exposed.
One of the striking and enjoyable aspects to this story is the way that Leigh Russell uses minor cast members to introduce the murders and then lets the major cast players take over. She invests enough time and detail in the the walk on parts that the situation they find themselves in feels as disruptive and horrifying as it should, they respond in interesting and credible ways to the shock they receive and this solves a problem in a police procedural. How do you convey the shock of  a murderous assault or finding a murder victim if the cast encounter them as part of their professional lives? Having civilians, who have been given an opportunity to register with the reader first, be the finders gives the scope of the event more weight and depth. The professionals take over and move the case on, the impact of the event has already been established.
The lead investigator Detective Inspector Geraldine Steel, newly transferred to London from Kent, is an attractive lead character. Capable and competent, she leads the investigation with professional care while suffering from a credible dislocation from her transfer.
The supporting cast are well developed with one interesting exception. One of the cast is given a set up that does not play out, it feels like a road not taken. It does not harm the story,  it is a major enough set up that the absence of any follow through is curious. The significant sub plot involving the wife of the first victim and her lover is very nicely done, the stress of the events and the impact of the investigation is well developed. It gives more force to the whole story by capturing the fallout from the events that they find themselves caught up in and reacting to.
The plot is clever, it unfolds carefully and the shifts and twists that never give a sense of being forced in to solve a narrative problem. They emerge naturally and the pacing means that they are very well set. The tone is low key and restrained, this allows the action to stand out when it needs to. Leigh Russell has a gift for quick and effective charachterisation and smart plots, good fun.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Orbital Volume 4: Ravages. Sylvain Runberg (Writer), Serge Pelle (Art), Jerome Saincantin (Translation). Cinebook (2011)

A brilliant piece of romantic science fiction and a great conclusion to the story. The peace conference being in Kuala Lumpur , to mark the end of the Human - Sanjarr war, is being overshadowed by mysterious deaths and the presence of a nomadic group of aliens, the Rapakhun. Caleb, a human and his partner Mezoke, a Sanjarr are responsible for the security of the conference. Caleb is determined to push ahead with conference, Mezoke is increasingly reluctant. Caleb's superiors agree to support him, giving him full responsibility for any failures. The deaths grow and start to include attacks within the city. When the identity of the attacker is established it escalates rather than resolves the situation. Caleb and Mezoke take a desperate action to deal with the problem. The story continues to twist and turn, balancing galactic politics with local affairs and the grand sweep of space opera with small , effective , moments. The conclusion is unexpected and sharp, nicely playing against a readers expectations.
Sylvian Runberg solves the problems of romantic science fiction and space opera with disarming ease, making it all look easy and natural. The wide reaches of space, the romance of the starts and the pull of the future are all present, nicely enmeshed in entirely believable bureaucratic complications and institutional, racial and personal politics. Alien races and humans do not just mingle at elevated planetary levels, they are also co-workers drinking in a bar working to take advantage of an unexpected situation. This gives the story a great context and detailed weight against which the plot can take place. The plot is suitably grand, the threads are pulled from different planets and have to be countered with a great science fiction solution.
The two leads, Caleb and Mezoke work together under increasing pressure from their own private histories and still striving to be professional. The supporting cast, including the smaller walk-on parts are all given an opportunity to shine.
Serge Pelle's art is a consistent joy, it is detailed and creates a solid physical environment that enables the story to fly. From the mangrove swamps to space, the cast get to inhabit a environment which gives their actions context and force. The cast themselves are varied, and full of motion and life. The body language and the physical movements are assured and natural, they interact with each other and their context wonderfully.
Orbital is the real deal, science fiction that takes the unlimited budget of comics and uses it with care, craft and tremendous precision. Not to be missed.

Anothe Round of Stories by the Christmas Fire. Melisa Klimszewski (Editor). Kathryn Huges (Foreword) . Hesperus Press Limited (2008)

This glorious anthology of stories were all first published as a Christmas Special in 1853 by Household Words magazine edited by Charles Dickens. It was a commercial venture, a Christmas edition of short stories by well known authors was a popular move. The stories are not thematically linked to the season, they are stories intended to please the audience of the day.
The Schoolboy's Story by Charles Dickens manages to have a clear voice in the unnamed narrator, a sentimental framing around an extraordinary examination of the brutal and tribal psychology of schoolboys  all working together much as bitter dark chocolate still gives the lift of a sweet.
The Old Lady's Story by Eliza Lynn Linton crams a full length Gothic romance novel into a short story without sacrificing any of the essentials, which is am amazing accomplishment.
Over the Way's Story by George A. Sala is a wonderful mash up of Beauty and the Beast with A Christmas Carol that pulls off that unlikely pairing with wit and flair.
The Angel's Story by Adelaide Anne Procter is rather odd poem about the death of a child. Reading it outside of its native context of high child mortality and strong popular religious observance makes it a little horrifying rather than comforting which was the intent.
The Squire's Story by Elizabeth Gaskell has a get set up, sharp reveal and superbly and credibly nasty lead character. Nothing extra and nothing left out, astonishing craft in writing a short story.  
Uncle George's Story by Edmund Saul Dixon and W.H. Wills is a slight piece that is competently written but feels very dated and a little lackluster.
The Colonel's Story by Samuel Sydney manages a decent plot in a short space without proving a memorable cast or anything else to pull in a reader.
The Scholar's Story by Elizabeth Gaskell and Reverend William Gaskell is a romantic ballad about jealousy, obsession and murder and a good fun read.
Nobody's Story by Charles Dickens is a bitter and bleak piece about the Unknown Citizen, there is nothing sentimental about it, the language is old fashioned , the anger is right up to date.
This wonderful anthology is a tribute to the editorial skills of Charles Dickens as much as anything. That a group of stories written for a very specific context shine as brightly now , for the most part, as then points out his eye for talent and how to gather it together.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Ectoplasmic Man. Daniel Stashower. Titan Books (2009)

A very engaging and highly enjoyable Sherlock Holmes story with a great cast, a solid plot and strong grasp of the essentials. When Harry Houdini is performing in London and gives a private performance for the Prince of Wales he finds himself caught up in a nasty blackmail plot. Sherlock Holmes is drawn into the mystery and with a clever and determined opponent has a genuine problem on his hands. The story unfurls at a nice pace with clever reveals and set pieces that give the limelight to both Sherlock Holmes and Houdini as needed. The final unraveling is clever and ties the plots threads nicely together with flair and substance.
Daniel Stashower takes an unusual approach to writing a Sherlock Holmes story, it is a risky route and one that thanks to his skill and care pays off . A typical and very successful approach is to present Sherlock Holmes with an interesting opponent, this retains the basic dynamic of the Conan Doyle stories. Daniel Stashower takes a different route, he presents Holmes with an ally as energetic and competent in his field as as Holmes is in his. Even more interestingly he allows Watson's affection for Holmes to spill over into admiration and affection for Houdini.
This is delicate ground to tread upon, the Holmes-Watson bond is the beating heart of the Sherlock Holmes universe and it is a delicate mechanism. With quiet skill  Daniel Stashower shows that the same aspects that Watson is drawn to in Holmes are present in Houdini, mixed in a very different way, the core of the two men are similar. Admiration for an extraordinary talent and recognition of the relentlessness focused energy in both men draws Watson and both Holmes and Houdini recognise the tremendous compliment of Watson's friendship.
That this does not stop either of them from using his straightforward loyalty and friendship when required to achieve their aims and the way Watson responds is a key element in the book. By getting this framework spot on the beautifully crafted plot works a treat, it gives space to all the cast to come forward and be seen. The set pieces are cleverly staged, the coils of the plot draw in Houdini so that his presence becomes essential rather than window dressing. Smart and satisfying, a pleasure to read.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Amazing & Fantastic Tales Issue 2. Planet Jimbot . October 2013.

An engaging anthology that nicely mixes genres, prose stories and comics.
Kroom  written by Jim Alexander and art by Glen B Fleming opens the issue with a bang, literally, as a dimension traveling alien and a human companion land on a tower of clothes that hold memories of the previous owners. A sharp encounter with a hostile inhabitant is neatly resolved before the traveling continues. The episode is a sliver of an ongoing story, it has enough content packed into it to give it some grip with a reader, the ideas are well compressed and expressed. The colouring is slightly muted and the lines of the art are soft, leaving the level of detail low. For a compressed story I think harder lines and a bit more detail would work better to drive up the impact for the limited space.
The Last Posse written by Jim Alexander with illustrations by Scott Sackett the second part of a odd Western featuring Wyatt Earp, Belle Starr, Geronimo and the Cisco Kid finding themselves in a very hostile town. The story has a well developed hard edge that is very engaging as the pieces are being pulled together. A strong atmosphere and a convincing cast allow the mystery to grow up nicely.
Happy Slappy written by Jim Alexander  and art by Andrew Docherty is a smart joke that is well set up and delivered. The loose art is just right for the payoff.
Flat Champagne written by John McShane and art by Graeme MacLeod is superb, a science fiction story that captures a mood most unexpected in the genre, disappointment. Science fiction is usually either triumphant or pessimistic, the more delicate notes are not often heard. In this short story the low key realisation is wonderfully delivered.
Point Blank written by Jim Alexander and art by Scott Sackett is the longest comic in the issue. Two boys born on the same day at the same time have a mysterious connection that drives one but not the other. The set up is clever, the plot development is not unusual and the nicely bitter conclusion is both sharp and satisfying. The heavy lines of the art are effective, they give the cast weight and presence. There is a lot of text in each panel and the art needs to be strong to bear it without being squeezed out. In particular the faces of the cast look lived in which is important for the sense of the story to emerge properly.
The Roustabout  written by Lynsey May and Fin Cramb continues a atmospheric story set on an oil rig. In a very short space mood, action, context and a nice reveal are all delivered without haste or loss. A very smart piece of writing.
Any anthology has to find a balance both between the nature of the stories themselves and the substantial constraints of space and continuity over different issues. Amazing & Fantastic Tales manages the balance well, there is a scattering of genres that all sit well with each other and the overall tone of the book is maintained. It succeeds at what an anthology needs to done the most, provide enough to satisfy a reader with the issue and deliver enough hooks to raise an interest in the next developments.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent to me by Jim Alexander. All Planet Jimbot titles including Amazing & Fantastic Tales#2 are available from UKOnDisplay:  Alternatively contact Planet Jimbot direct on:

Monday, August 12, 2013

Savage Spring. Mons Kallentoft. Neil Smith (translation). Hodder 2013

Good plot mechanics are not enough to rescue the book from an un-engaging cast and a very intrusive writing style. A bomb blast in the Swedish town of Linkoping kills two small girls and gravely injuries their mother. The blast took place at an ATM and the first possibility is that the attack is a terrorist one. Detective Inspector Malin Fors has to deal with the intrusion of the very secretive Swedish Security Police into the investigation. The terrorist angle is supported by  unfolding events only later do other possibilities emerge. The investigation becomes smaller and considerably darker as it follows the appalling trail left by unfettered greed and poisonous vanity. Mailn Fors has a domestic crisis to deal with as the death of her mother allows a long held secret to come into the light.
The bare bones of the story are very good, the investigation is thoughtful and competent, the set-ups are well done and the reveals are, mostly, well executed. The significant problem that the book has is the way that Mons Kallentoft bludgeons the reader with a brutally intrusive style of writing that leaves no room for the reader to engage with the cast on their own terms. The reader is instructed and directed as to the correct response and the over wrought responses of the cast make the story very heavy going. This would be bearable if the cast had the strength to stand by themselves, unfortunately they do not, they are too busy being puppets for the all too visible author.
Malin Fors has the potential to be an interesting and engaging lead character, a single mother with an alcohol abuse problem that is under supervision, she is a committed and thoughtful investigator. She is also fantastically high maintenance for a reader, she is a  constant spin cycle of emotions and responses, which are thrust at the reader as proof of the fact that she is wonderful. The rest of the cast have a rather strange protective attitude to her, which does her no good. She is denied any real independence because the author appears to be so busy winding her up and watching her go.
The rest of the cast operate under the same difficult circumstances, including the ghosts of the murdered girls who appear as a pointless chorus to review the action. The supporting cast, outside the investigation, are operatic in the worst possible sense, burning with a shrill melodrama that robs them of the weight the plot offers them.
The plot is by far the best part of the story, it is tense, gripping and pitch black, it is a shame that it is thrown away by such a heavy handed execution.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Castlereagh. Enlightenment, War and Tyranny. John Bew. Quercus (2011)

A very engaging biography of a fascinating man who has the extraordinary ill luck to be vilified by by two great English poets in stunning memorable ways. The words of the poets, Byron and Shelly, captured a very vivid strain of popular comment about Robert Stewart, Lord Castlereagh, as a brutal reactionary and a lackluster, second rate political schemer. John Bew scrapes the mud off to take a more considered look at Castlereagh and to evaluate his very considerable achievements.
The most  important point about Castlereagh is that he was the right person in the right place at the right time, he had a willingness and capacity to do what had to be done for the horribly mundane reasons of  political and social necessity at the time regardless of the the current intellectual climate. Castlereagh was an Ulster Presbyterian, brought up in an Enlightenment tradition of political liberalism that was the bedrock support for the development of  self-governing Ireland. That he was vital to to the success of the Act of Union which removed the Irish Parliament was a breach with his original social and political community in Ireland that never healed. One of the most striking aspects to the change by Castlereagh and one of the defining characteristics of his life that Jhn Bew effectively brings out, is that the breach was not an intellectual bonfire or conversion by Castlereagh. It was much worse than that as far as his former colleagues were concerned, they would have been much more forgiving of a romantic conversion to another faith. Instead it was a  simple understanding that the current situation would not stand. A change was going to come and Castlereagh, as he was to do all his life, worked to bring it about peacefully rather than wait for an explosion.Castlereagh was to suffer all his life from a determination to adhere to the bruising details of reality and to push actions based on that rather than on the flavorsome ideals that his contemporaries enjoyed so much.
Following the demise of the Irish Parliament Castlereagh was elected to the House of Commons, this process in itself is a wonderful drama of politics and patronage, and became a member of Tory Party led by William Pitt. The Napoleonic wars were being fought and in England there was considerable support for Napoleon as the heir of the French Revolution and the idea (if not the substance) of Liberty. As Secretary of War, Castlereagh lead a determined political campaign to defeat Napoleon and to support British national interests. He was a vital support for Wellington and became one of the most influential people in Europe at the Congress of Vienna after Napoleon's  first defeat and exile.After the Battle of Waterloo the post-war economic depression and civil disturbances cemented his reputation as a blood stained reactionary. His eventual suicide was greeted with scarstic pleasure by his most determined, Irish, enemies.
Castlereagh's biggest problem was his greatest strength, he was a technocrat  who was significantly more concerned about the process than the city on the hill, he was a competent speaker at a time when ability with rhetoric was highly prized and most of all his greatest successes were what had not happened. The Irish Parliament did not implode under the weight of its own entitled, corrupt incompetence, Napoleon did not strangle Britain, Europe did not fall apart in a post-Napoleonic series of wars between Austria and Russia. It is very hard to get get credit for an invisible success.
One of the most interesting aspects to the book is also something invisible and that is the impact of the fact that Castlereagh was Irish and dominant in an English institution. Castlereagh was vilified to an extraordinary extent by his opponents even by the standards of the time and it would seem reasonable to trace some of the outrage to offended pride. Being lead by someone who would be considered a social, political and racial inferior was very likely a factor in the extremity of the response he provoked. John Bew never address the question in any sort of detail which is a loss to a very fine study. John Bew is a first rate writer, he brings the details of the time to life with care and clarity and in doing so reveals an extraordinary and ultimately, very attractive, man.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Think of the Children. Kerry Wilkinson. Pan Books (2013)

An enjoyable crime story, the plot is clever and well structured, the story telling does not quite engage the reader with the cast. A fatal car crash reveals the body of a missing child in the boot of the car and a map to to location where items from a much older and colder missing child case are found. The investigation uncovers a list of names of children and then another child goes missing and the investigation becomes a race against time. The story unfolds very well, the reveals are cleverly staged and the plot threads are very smartly handled. The resolution is satisfying bitter and complete.
The plot mechanics that drive the story are excellent, the various elements of the story overlap and interact in an effective way. The investigation is competent and the the flow of the action is thoughtful and considered. The problem with the book is the cast, in particular the lead character, Detective Sergent  Jessica Daniel. While it is a relief that she is not a maladjusted gargoyle with a substance abuse problem in continual conflict with her, remarkably stupid, superiors, she is also not engaging either. This is not for want of trying, DS Daniel is given plenty of time and scope to make her mark on the story and an effort is made to give her an extended life beyond her job as well as to be effective within it. She simply does not transfer well off the page to inhabit the reader's imagination, she remains too attached to the plot.
It is the supporting cast that performs the best, the range of civilians caught up in the events that are swirling around them. Kerry Wilkinson has a gift to bring a character to life in a short space and give then credible, scruffy presence and weight. It may be because they are involved in greater extremes of emotion or action that they glow more brightly than the central players. A effort may have been made to present them as more balanced and that has served to dampen them down a bit. If Kerry Wilkinson was a bit more theatrical with his cast the book would lift more.
The plot has a very nice slice of restrained melodrama in it, the central cast could have benefited from a little less restraint and a little more melodrama to match it.

Wolf Country# 1. Jim Alexander (Writer), Luke Cooper (Art), Jim Campbell (Letters). Planet Jimbot (2013)

A very smart, multi-genre mashup that neatly side steps the inherent cliches by drawing on a very powerful central idea to give the story considerable force and potential. A lone frontier settlement in hostile territory is the destination for a young man trying to escape his past, he is sent on a patrol on arrival and finds himself in trouble right away. The story moves back to the events that brought him to the settlement and burden of expectations he has brought with him to the settlement.
Jim Alexander has reached for a classic Western set up as the framework for the story, settlers versus hostile natives and the arrival of a potentially disruptive presence in a dangerously unstable situation.  He then adds a nice layer to it by making the settlers vampires and the the natives are werewolves. This is a great set up, there possibilities are wide open and the room to play with and against story ideas from both sources are huge. Without doing any damage to the two sources Jim Alexander takes out one element and adds another which gives the story a very considerable boost and makes its considerably more intriguing.
The element that he removes are humans, vampires and werewolves move to centre stage as this story is about a conflict between two fully developed societies, not between two  fringe elements of human society. This makes the focus of the conflict much more concentrated and reduces the need to explain vampires or werewolves. The story can plunge directly into the conflict without any need to position it in relation to human activity, this strips out a lot from the story and brings it right down to the essential elements. This strongly works with the western sources which always work best as straightforward conflicts set against an unforgiving landscape.
The second element is the one that really pushes the story and offers the greatest room for development and intrigue, the reasons that the vampires have built the settlement is religious, they are following the direction of their god. The werewolves see the vampire encroachment as sacrilege, there can be no compromise as the motives are beyond anything open to change or compromise. The absolute nature of the conflict is superbly explored in the story, Luke, a vampire is trapped by his past and trying to escape it but his past is public property and it casts a very wide net. Jim Alexander takes a very different road than might have been assumed, cleverly sidestepping reader assumptions that the set up creates and brings fresh, smart writing to comic.
Luke Cooper's art is striking and not entirely successful, the cast are distinctive and the facial expressions are first rate, the body language is too stiff. The cast do not move easily, they appear to posed in action states rather than moving through them. The backgrounds, which are a key element in a western are not given enough definition, there is not quite the sense of the harshness of the landscape that frames the conflict. The cast are too much to the forefront, a litle more setting them in a context would be nice.
When the story involves a close up for the cast, the art is first rate, they interact with each other naturally and  add depth to the story. Luke who could easily have been an angst driven teenage cypher or stereotype is given a both teenage look and a personality that shines from the art. A clever, engaging comic well worth reading.
Chief Wizard Note: This is is review copy I was very kindly sent by Jim Alexander. If anyone would like to buy Wolf Country#1 delivered to his or her door, please contact:

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Scorpion Volume 2: The Devil in the Vatican. Stephen Desberg (Writer), Enrico Marini (Artist), Jerome Saincantin (Translator) Cinebook Ltd (2009)

A wonderful swashbuckling adventure, this comic captures the spirit and the details of the genre with flair and the necessary light touch. The fearsome Cardinal Trebaldi is moving ever closer to his goal of becoming the next Pope, the most serious obstacle in his path is an outlaw known as the Scorpion. When the Scorpion makes his hatred very publicly known Trebaldi marshals his forces, warrior monks who are loyal only to him to track and kill the Scorpion. Leading the hunt is the gypsy Mejai who has been hired to find and deliver the Scorpion to the Cardinal's forces. At the same time the Scorpion is on his own quest to find the secret that Trebaldi is hiding. The story twists and turns with great action scenes and carefully set up flashbacks and reveals that mix up the plot nicely. When the action moves to Turkey with the beautiful and very dangerous Ansea Latal the Scorpion starts to edge closer to a very dangerous find and the pursuit by Trebaldi is never far behind.
There is a very difficult balance that has to be struck in this genre, a lighthearted approach to acrobatic heroics that never winks at the reader, that takes itself and the reader very seriously without ever loosing the glint of romance that gives it flavour. Stephen Desberg has all the right ingredients, the setting in Rome and the time frame, swords, wigs, tricorn hats and a world less traveled that offers adventure at the turn of the road. The plot is satisfying sweeping, a villain wants a powerful office and is happy to kill his way to getting there. A flawed hero stands between him and his prize, handsome and athletic he is every inch the leading man. The beautiful women are no puppets, they have energy and agendas of their own and need no permission from anyone to follow them. Nicely framing the close up action is a bigger plot that stretches across history and is revealed in carefully controlled amounts. The whole mix is potent and exhilariting.
The story is delivered with the astounding art of Enrico Marini who manages to provide a richly detailed context and a wonderful cast that feels right at home in it. The cast move with grace and force, there is a supple physicality about the art that is just what the story needs to push forward. This is a story that has action at its heart, it has to be bold and nimble, have an impact without every falling into outright brutality. All of this is done with page layouts that feel cinematic while having multiple panels, the angles and the cutting work to support the pace of the story. A thrilling pleasure to read.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Close to the Bone. Stuart MacBride. HarperCollins (2013)

Full tilt crime story awash with blood, brutal violence and pitch black humour all combined with a fantastic cast and great plot mechanics.A body is found chained to a stake, a burning type around its neck. The victim is revealed to been strangled and stabbed as well as burned. With Asian immigrants being savagely attacked and crippled and a gang war over drugs heating up Acting Detective Inspector Logan McRae is feeling the pressure in Aberdeen. With two missing teenagers, a new Detective Sergeant and a fraught and complicated relationship with the dying local crime boss matters do not get any less complicated. The plot threads are superbly brought together, the action is ferocious and the conclusion every bit as nasty as it should be.
The glory of the story are the astonishing cast, Stuart MacBride continues to make his series cast fresh, engaging and very funny in the face of the most appalling events.
By far the hardest task that Logan McRae has is to retain his status as the leading character in the story as he is surrounded by a large a wonderfully lively cast all jostling for the readers attention. Detective Chief Inspector Steel remains one of the best characters in contemporary crime fiction, as foul mouthed as ever, she is a stinging rebuke to all writers who trap their characters within the confines of their sexuality. DCI Steel is vigorously lesbian as well as being a disruptive force of nature and a very competent police officer. Her presence electrifies the story and the cast with her astonishing range of inventive, savage wit and sheer energy. At the same time even a small walk part on by a man, who inflicts a nearly unbearable punishment beating, is more than a convenient thug, the details given to him and the scene itself lift it up.
The weakest notes in the book are struck by the cast member who is suffering significant psychotic delusions, while this should give her more force the comparison between her delusions and the absurd and horrifying reality in the the city do not favour her. However wild she is, the cold blooded greed and persistent savagery of others in the cast overshadows her.
The plot mechanics are impeccable, the plot lines converge, separate and then collide with tremendous force and superb story logic. The cast never feel driven by the plot, it seems to ignite directly through their actions with and on each other. Not for the faint of heart and needing a very high tolerance for vividly described violence, the story never reads as if it could have been delivered any other way, fantastic.

Lethal Investments. K.O. Dahl,(Writer), Don Bartlett (Translator). Faber and Faber (2011)

A quiet and very engaging Norwegian murder mystery. Reidun Rosendal is found murdered in her apartment and the case appears to be a simple one with suspicion falling on the man she had spent the night with. Detectives Gunnarstranda and Frolich conduct the investigation with steady competence that leads to more questions. The investigation includes Software Partner's, where Reidun worked which has a mystery of its own, with another member of staff gone missing.The investigation becomes much more complicated when there is a second murder and the possible suspects become more numerous. The story unfolds very nicely, the plot threads combine cleverly and the final conclusion is satisfying and sharp. The reveals are cleverly staged and with a focus on the investigation rather than action, the action when it does come is delivered with great force and effectiveness.
This is a strightforward plice procedural and really stands or falls by both the charachter of the leads and the way they manage the investigation. K.O.Dahl sidesteps the frequent genre cliches and delivers both lead detectives who are competent and interesting without being unduly morose, dysfunctional or at odds with their organisation. Instead they are careful and given lives outside of their work that feel natural and revealing. Both are committed to their task and act carefully to complete the investigation in a way that would bring sustainable solution.
The supporting cast are given the time, space and energy to make an impression so that they can credibly complicate and muddy the investigation. In particular the Peeping Tom neighbor of Reidun is brought to vigorous, grubby life and manages to be deeply unsympathetic without every being annoying. The way that the narrative shifts the possibilities and motives for the murders is very well done, with the real dynamic of the story emerging in an engaging and unexpected way. There is no cheating in the book with abrupt plot shifts being forced on the reader to get to the desired conclusion, the pressure that drives the plot is woven very successfully into the fabric of the story.
One of the pleasures of the story is the recognition that murder is a significant act and this infuses the investigation with a force and depth that can be lost sometimes in the excitement of the hunt.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Orbital Volume 3: Nomads. Sylvain Runberg (Writer), Serge Pelle (Art), Jerome Saincantin (Translation) Cinebook (2011)

Wonderful adventure science fiction that mixes the politics of interglacial species co-existing with smart action. Caleb, a human and Mezoke, a Sandjarr, are agents and partners in an intergalactic organization that promotes and supports peace. Both are on Earth, in Malaysia to supervise security at a celebration to mark the end of the Human-Sandjarr wars. When a group of nomadic aliens disrupt a fishing fleet in in Malaysian waters a major diplomatic incident becomes possible. While Caleb and Mezoke resolve the situation sufficiently to allow the celebrations continue, tension remains and become very dangerous when the fishermen return to the aliens camping grounds and have a disaster. The situation becomes increasingly complicated as both Caleb's and Mezoke's past actions cast a shadow over the present. The reveals are very well staged, the plot is clever and sharp and the story end with enough hooks to pull the reader on to the next volume.
Comics are a natural platform for science fiction, with an unlimited effects budget they can bring the widest range of situations to life easily and effectively. What is harder is to balance the small scale of effective story telling, giving the reader something to care about along with the grand, widespread context that science fiction can provide. Sylvain Runberg manages the balance superbly, the mix between the cast, human and alien, and the scale of the context is great. One of the most effective things he does is to equalise the humans and aliens by occupation, the alien nomads, the Rapakhun are fishermen just like the humans they encounter, the context draws them together and pushes them apart at he same time.
In the organisation that Caleb and Mezoke work for, they are agents among a wide range of other agents and officers, this allows for the differences between the species to be less important than the organisational politics that surrounds them. The personal backgrounds of both Caleb and Mezoke are important and give them both room for conflict and difference which allows them to be  more fully realised characters too. The way that politics, personal, local, intergalactic all swirl throughout the story provide a very effective context that adds greatly to the story and drives the action.
Serge Pelle's art is a joy, it gives the detail that makes the future credible and a solid and effective physical location for the action as well as providing an expressive cast that communicate with gesture, expression, body language as well as words. The non-human cast are given subtly human expressions and attitudes that gives them room to be different and still readable and so contributing to the story. The world looks lived in, the colours are used to give it the sense of a working future where making a living is still vitally important.
High grade, thoughtful science fiction, a great pleasure.

A Plague on Both Your Houses. Susanna Gregory. Sphere (1996)

A very enjoyable medieval murder mystery, very smart plot mechanics and a thoroughly engaging cast. 1348 in Cambridge and the college of Michaelhouse is under pressure, the Master of the college has committed suicide under very disreputable circumstances. The new Master is a divisive figure and with a second murder in the college the rumours of plans by the University of Oxford to try and fatally undermine the much newer University at Cambridge tension is escalating. Caught up in the trouble is Matthew Bartholowmew, teacher of medicine at Michaelhouse and friend of the dead Master. Bartholomew is deeply unhappy with the official explanations for the deaths and investigates further, and finds that his life is coming under threat. When the Black Death arrives at Cambridge the situation becomes significantly more personal and more complicated. The reveals are very well staged, the plot is constructed with considerable care and attention to detail and the final unraveling is excellent.
A key question that any historical crime story has to answer is the relationship between the plot and the context. Could the story be easily removed from its context and placed in another without damaging it? In this case the context is vital to the success of the story, the motives are, happily , universal and well grounded in human behavior, the way that they play out are stitched nicely into the context.
Matthew Batholomew, trained in medicine by an Arab teacher in France has ideas that are far from mainstream medicine as it was practiced at the time , this bred suspicion balanced against a grudging acceptance that his patients had a better survival rate than others. This makes Batholomew somewhat of an outsider before the story starts and his investigation both uses this as an asset and allows it create problems for him. The impact of the Black Death on a society that naturally reached for a religious explanation for every natural event allied to the sheer impotence of medicine in the face of it is used with skill to complicate and cover the plot mechanics.
The cast are happily cranky, engaging and vigorous, the conflict between town and gown as well as between the various religious orders is well developed. The reveals nicely move suspicion about and the plot threads overlap and cross each other to keep the action moving. With multiple suspects, a slippery set of explanations that add to the possibilities and the devastating pressure of the Black Death  complicating everything this is a greatly enjoyable variation on the great tradition of English village murder stories.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Borderline Vol 4. Carlos Trillo (Writer), Eduardo Risso (Art). Dynamite Entertainment (2011)

The final volume of a bleak dystopian science fiction story. In the crumbling remains of the earth the sub-dregs sell body parts to survive or trade for drugs sold by the two competing powers, the Commune and the Council. Climate change started the social and political breakdown, the work of Open Heimmer who turned acid rain into a weapon and designed a weapon of mass destruction to complete the elimination of official enemies completed the process that brought about the existing brutal reality.
The stories in the volume are loosely linked as they follow the cast on the Moon where the Marshall controls both the Council and the Commune to Lisa, the deaf mute assassin of the Council and Wolf, the savage agent of the Council. Moving from the activities and nightmares of Lida and Wolf on a radioactive night when the barely living come out to dance in the polluted night to a brutal trip back in time by Wolf , who discovers that he has the time to cut a swathe through an unsuspecting city to his unexpected meeting with his daughter the stories flow in violence and rage.
Gradually the the final descent comes into view lead by a physic that whose Life Lisa saved and who launches a plan to take down down both the Council and the Commune. The conclusion is as dark, cold and bleak as the rest of the stories, as inevitable as it needs to be.
One of the problems with dystopian fiction is reader fatigue, unrelenting misery and profound pessimism are wearing, Carlos Trillo manages to move through this by both stripping the stories down to the barest details required to move the action forward and by the very careful use of a cutting humor that gives the reader a break. The cast are all vibrantly alive, the most brutal are never just one note shadows, they have interior as well as exterior lives. This creates a subtle and engaging emotional context for the action which Carlos Trillo uses to frequently astonishing effect. His consistent ability to find and contrast shades of black in the drams is amazing, no one is going to go quietly into the good or bad night.
Eduardo Risso matches the art to the story, it is extraordinary use of black and white, it provides the necessary details for the stripped down stories. The cast are expressive and individual, extreme in their portrayal  as they are in their actions. The two tone art never seems limited or restrictive, it creates consistently unexpected mood, space and shadow, the high contrast underlining the extremity of the circumstances. The sustained vision of the two creators across the four volumes is wonderful, the bitter conclusion fitting and satisfying.  A tightly focused and exhilarating work, it  never softens its premise nor the outcome, the energy of the storytelling and the art lift it above its own otherwise numbing despair.

Hidden Depths. Anne Cleeves. Pan Books (2007)

A very engaging and enjoyable crime story that builds an effective tension between a large cast and sharp plot mechanics. A young man is strangled and laid in in his bath with flowers floating on the water, clearly staged to be discovered. Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope leads the investigation into the murder and rapidly finds a possible connection to the earlier, accidental, death of a friend of the victim. When a second victim, arranged in the same way as the first, is found by a group of bird watchers, the case becomes considerably more complicated. The investigation disrupts and reveals the lives of the family of the first victim and the birdwatching group as unexpected connections emerge and the story shifts among the cast. The reveals are very well staged and the conclusion is deeply and bitterly rooted in the choices the characters have made.
Vera Stanhope is unexpected and forceful, Anne Cleeves presents her in an aggressively unflattering light, overweight and cranky she is interestingly unsympathetic. At no point is Vera ever presented as being as at a disadvantage for being a female in a male profession. she is simply an assertively competent police officer who has a deep relish for unraveling the mysteries and problems of a case. Equally unusually there is no conflict with a superior officer, in fact there is no sign of Vera's boss at all in the story. By leaving out two staples of the genre Anne Cleeves has given herself the room to have a female detective who is both cranky, focused and comfortable in her position and her skin. Vera is a very uncomfortable character, consistently abrasive and sharp, she is never implicitly or explicitly criticized for this by the author which makes her a significantly more credible police officer and most importantly allows her to be a catalyst for the rest of the cast.
It is not the murders themselves that drives the tensions with the rest of the cast, it is the vivid and awkward presence of Vera, poking and inquiring that upsets and discomforts the cast. The story gives equal prominence to three other members of the cast besides Vera and the way that they respond to the actual events and the momentum created by Vera's investigation is very enjoyable. Anne Cleeves slowly reveals the hidden depths of the title as the lives of the cast are slowly revealed and secret choices are dragged into the light and new choices made. The plot mechanics of the crimes emerge slowly through the interp-lay of the cast and Vera's ability to think clearly.
Anne Cleeves is a generous writer, the the cast are given an opportunity to be complicated a, unsure and deeply ambiguous until the willingness to sacrifice others is called for and the dark hidden depths are revealed in unexpected places.

Kull. The Cat and The Skull. David Lapham (Writer), Gabriel Guzman (Art), Garry Henderson (Colours), Richard Starkings (Letters). Dark Horse Books (2012)

Very engaging and enjoyable sword and sorcery story that very effectively uses the story framework of the Kull adventures. When a young woman, Delcardes, arrives at Kull's court with a member of an ancient race, a cat called Sartemes she creates a stir. For Kull the news that the cat can see the future makes Saremes a very valuable advisor. As he is trying to rule Valusia in spite of the rumbling opposition of a large section of the population who despise him as a barbarian usurper, any advantage is very welcome. At the same time the snake cult , lead by a wizard who claims a direct connection to the snake god, is reasserting itself as a dangerous force. The story unfolds at a great pace, the reveals are very well staged, the action is superb and the climax is a nice piece of door opening to new story possibilities.
The most enjoyable aspect to this story is the smart way David Lapham uses two of the basic threads of any Kull story, the precarious position he is in as the King of Valusia and the fact that Kull is a barbarian with the fierce uncluttered will to win that comes with being one. There is a delicate balance that needs to be established and maintained between the problems that Kull has coming from his position and the solutions coming from his being a barbarian.In the story the balance is struck very well with a excellent use of two critical supporting cast members that can pick up the weight of the formula without it being unduly mechanical. Kull's wife, Igraine, daughter of the king Kull killed to take the throne, was born to the court and understands the intrigue and need for cermony. Wholly civilised and Valusian she brings that aspect of the story with her with a natural grace and sharp insight. On the other side the Pict, Brule The Spear Slayer is an unfettered barbarian, a companion for Kull when spilling blood is the way forward. Between they two they create the room for Kull to fill both his roles without falling too far into one or the other. Kull has the opportunity to be a king and a barbarian as required in a very satisfactory ways and his encounter with one of his major enemies in a confrontation creates a great set of possibilities for future stories.
Gabriel Guzman's art is lush and detailed, moving effectively across the multiple scenes above water and under it. The action is fluid and forceful, matched by the acute body language and expressive faces that underscore the dangerous quiet of the court and the constant movements of plots around the throne. Garry Henderson's bold colours are perfect for the full tilt storytelling called for by the genre. They bring out the details of the art and decoration that give Valusian a strong physical presence. Richard Starkings' subtle letters are so unobtrusively full of craft that they are heard as much as read. A great read.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Warlord of Mars. Dejah Thoris Volume 2: Pirate Queen of Mars. Arvid Nenson (Writer), Carlos Rafael (Art), Carlos Lopez (Colours), Marshall Dillon (Letters). Dynamite Entertainmement (2012)

A very enjoyable story marred by a fantastically stupid consume for the leading character. In the rubble of the newly united  cites of Helium, a problem with the water supply is a disaster. Dejah Thoris  leads an expedition to the pumping station in the ice belt to see what the problem is. She finds that the pumping station crew have been locked up and then her craft is blown up. Pursuing the person who blew up her ship, Dejah is kidnapped by Phondari, a female pirate captain who is looking for something. When Phondrai's ship comes under attack  from an old enemy the situation becomes significantly more complicated and dangerous. The story moves at a fast pace, the action is loud and vivid, the reveals are very well staged and the conclusion is satisfying.
This story is everything that adventure science fiction should be, it uses ideas from the Edgar Rice Burroughs stories cleverly, there is not need to know the stories to enjoy the action, knowing them does add to the pleasure. Arvid Nelson uses ideas from pirate stories in a smart fashion, mixing them up with science fiction in a very enjoyable way without loosing or diluting the essential parts of either genre. Happily he realizes the outstanding value of a competent and committed villain who can drive the action forward in a natural and effective way. The mix of motives is very well done as the major players each bring something a little different to the adventure and the tension between allies and enemies is held tight and works very effectively.
Carlos Rafael's art is lovely, it is bold and dramatic when it needs to be, the splash pages are full of enjoyable detail and the action scenes are excellent. There is slight problem with Dejah Thoris' facial expressions, she appears to be somewhat surprised all the time. Of course it may be that she is simply embarrassed at the appalling costume she has been given, a thong and tear shaped nipple covers, in particular when worn under a cloak  with a fur trimmed hood in an ice cave would make anyone feel more than a bit surprised. Phondrai has the more standard female lack of costume, however even hers is still considerably better than Dejah's.
Carlos Lopez understands that bold, bright colours are the correct choice for a big bold science fiction adventure story. The colours add greatly to the story, they bring the world of Mars to life, and give sharp focus and depth to the art. Marshall Dillon's letters are a a quiet pleasure, they add to the character and his sound effects are great.
A very well thought out story, lovely art, and a great cast make the comic well worth reading wardrobe
malfunctions not withstanding.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The King's Bishop. Candace Robb. Mandrin Paperbacks. (1996)

A very enjoyable and engaging medieval murder mystery. King Edward III wants to have William of Wykeham confirmed as Bishop of Winchester as a step to making him Lord Chancellor. The current Lord Chancellor, John Thoresby sends Owen Archer on a mission to the the powerful Cistern abbots to get their support for the King's wishes. Owen includes a friend of his Ned Townley in the group to display his trust and loyalty to Ned who is under suspicion of murder. When a friar vanishes from Ned's group after quarreling with him and Ned vanishes in turn Owen Archer finds that he has a very complicated problem on his hands. The story unfolds steadily and tightly, the reveals are very well constructed and the final unraveling is true to the layers of the story.
One of the pleasures of the book is that the story is properly stitched into the fabric of the medieval context and the motives and actions of the cast feel natural to the setting. Candace Robb has a light and effective hand with the details that support the setting, they flow along the story very naturally and are provided as needed to make sure the cast and the action are understandable.
Owen Archer, the one-eyed former soldier and spy, is the leading character of the book, he does not dominate the story, there is a large, varied and very well drawn cast swirling around him. Owen Archer is not a fool, his integrity and loyalty to his family, friends and employer make him a generous counterpoint to the multiple agendas and interests that flow through the story. It is this happy mix of motives and the way that people in power act to gain or preserve their position gives the story great colour and grip. The cast dance around each other as they play games of power.
There is a very strong domestic element to the story as the relationship between Owen Archer, his wife and young daughter is given a lot of space to develop, indeed domestic and romantic relationships of all sorts are critical to the story. Owen Archer and his wife, Lucie, have a strong and vivid relationship, it brings the reader easily and pleasantly into the world they inhabit. Candace Robb has a keen eye for the personal element in all of the relationships in the book, power was very personal in the era as well as formal and there was always a multitude of fine lines to tread at a royal court.
A fine story with a cleverly thought out plot that gives its energetic cast plenty of room to move and a very satisfactory conclusion.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Homeland Directive. Robert Venditti (Writer), Mike Huddleston(Art), Sean Konot (Letters) Top Shelf Productions (2011)

Very gripping and enjoyable paranoid thriller that solves a serious plot problem really well. Dr Laura Regan is a researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and finds herself kidnapped after a speech in New York. She is the target of a lethal operation being organised by the Department of Homeland Security, thought neither she nor her kidnappers know why. Laura's has been snatched by three government employes of thee different agencies who suspect that there is a serious conspiracy afoot and that Laura is both a target and a key. They are proved to be correct and the conspiracy is cleverly constructed, the reveals are very well staged, the action is pointed and sharp with a well thought out context.
The Homeland Directive follows a fairly well trodden path of paranoid, political thrillers with a conspiracy being hatched in a dark corner of government to achieve a expedient objective. What matters is the way that the action is staged and how it is resolved and Robert Venditti delivers a smart story that sets up problems as cleverly as it resolves them. The most important problem is how do a number of fugitives hide from the coordinated efforts of the law enforcement and security services of the USA? How can a story make the David versus Goliath aspect work without making Goliath a bumbling idiot and thus drain the tension from the story? Robert Venditti has a very clever answer, three of the fugitives used to work for Goliath and know how to hide and how to assess the stages of the hunt, this gives credibility to the way they stay free long enough to penetrate the conspiracy. In addition the mechanics of the plan are unexpected and also allow for a equally unexpected route to fight it.
In addition to very well thought out plot mechanics the cast are varied, fallible, responding to stress and the knowledge that they are ultimately only delaying the inevitable confrontation rather than escaping it with believable and individual reactions. The only slightly off note is provided by a pursuer who is marginally more of a plot necessity than a character, this is not surprising as he has a vital if narrow function. Otherwise the cast overall are everything they should be.
Mike Huddleston's very distinctive art is a great asset in keeping the book off the beaten track of political thrillers. The art styles varies considerably throughout the story depending on the cast, location and plot requirements. The apparently random use of colours breaks up the story without ever interrupting it. The art is frequently spare and scratch for the cast with different page backgrounds helping change context and tone. Rober Venditti and Mike Huddleston take the classic and necessary ingredients of a political thriller and shake them up into a great story that follows the rules of the genre while making it fresh and unexpected.

I.R.$. Volume 3: Silicia, Inc. Stephen Desberg (Writer), Bernard Vrancken (Artist), Luke Spear (Translation), Imadjinn (Letters). Cinebook (Ltd. (2009)

An enjoyable and engaging crime story. Larry B. Max is an investigator for the IRS who finds a link in a public corruption  case he is pursuing with the death of a ex-president of an unnamed Asian country in France. The link starts with an ex-US Army officer and leads to a bank in Aruba, it also leads a very competent assassin to track Larry in parallel. The reveals are cleverly staged, the lines of the plot are drawn together well and the set up for the second half of the story well established.
Larry B. Max and the assassin are well matched, both excellent at their jobs and both very committed to doing them. The slightly unusual angle taken by Stephen Desberg to use the IRS as the agency and be following money trails pays off. It gives a nice sense of the pervasive nature of money laundering and gives Larry Max's action hero moments a nice, slightly unexpected twist. Larry is given a interesting personal life, which proves to be a useful route for an enemy to attack him. The assassin is mostly a cipher, simply ruthless and very competent, she is properly shadowy as she needs to be. 
One of the nice aspects to the story is the way the extra details are werapped around a very simple story and give it a greater depth and context. The US Senate hearings into ex-President Neruda Sumadayo's relations with the US and how that may have spilled out further into an Iran-Contra situation is nicely proposed.
Bernard Vracken's art is clean and forceful,  the panel lays out are varied and allow the different parts of the story to cross over each other without any confusion. The cast are given room to act and do so with vigor, the body language is expresive, the action is explosive or quiet exactly as required.
This is a low key story that works with quiet details that steadily move the story forward, packing more of a punch than it looks.

B.P.R.D. The Devil's Engine & The Long Death. Mike Mignola, John Arcudi (Writers), Tyler Crook, James Harren (Art), Dave Stewart (Colours), Clem Robins (Letters). Dark Horse Books (2012)

This book has two long stories, The Devil's Engine which is enjoyable and The Long Death which is excellent. In the Devil's Engine a B.P.R.D Agent, Andrew Devon and a physic crust punk, Fenix are taking a train back to Denver. Fenix had shot Abe Sapien in a previous episode and was turning her self into the B.P.R.D., Agent Devon had witnessed the shooting and done nothing to prevent it and this event forms an uneasy knot between them. Fenix has a premonition about danger on the train which turns out be to accurate and herself and Devon face a long journey back to Denver when they encounter some very large and very, very hungry monsters. The action is well staged and the interaction between the cast in nicely judged. The climax is smart and effective. In the Long Death Johann Kraus leads a team to investigate an incident in the Northwest woods. Johann has an agenda he does not share with the rest of the team which leads to significant trouble and then to a superbly staged double confrontation and conclusion.
What marks the difference between the two stories is the strong sense that the second story matters, it has deep roots in the continuity of the B.P.R.D series, it tackles a trailing plot line in a powerful and effective fashion. Even as doors are closed more are opened, the cast behave in unheroic but very characteristic  ways, make terrible mistakes and struggle credibly to deal with the extraordinary events that surround them. On the other hand in the Devil's Train the neither Fenix nor Devon have the same depth of time in the continuity, they take a starring role very late in the series without their being sufficient evidence anywhere why the reader should care. It is highly unlikely that any reader is coming to this volume cold, the extensive cast have been around for quite a while and the rather abrupt positioning of two relative unknowns center stage is odd. The second thread in the story is a door opening exercise typical of the series, it looses some impact because it is not surrounded by a story that could lend it more significance or tension.
The art by Tyler Crook on The Devil's Engine is superb, Devon and Fenix are given the chance to move through a lot of different situations and emotions and be believable in them all. The deeply nasty monsters are creepy and and never look as thought they have been forced into the surroundings. The action is vivid as are the reactions.
James Harren's art on The Long Death is outstanding moving from a gripping opening to two extended fight scenes which are messy, brutal beat downs , which considering who is involved is exactly what they should be. The snowy Northwest woods forms a great back drop, it never overshadows the cast it just puts them in perspective as the monsters circle about them. With a larger cast there is a opportunity for small slivers of interplay that are one of the joys of the series as minor characters get to make a mark.
Dave Stewart colours both stories with his usual level of astounding craft and subtle brilliance, in particular the second , mostly silent fight in the Long Death, the colours make the action flow  and give the details the order they should have. Clem Robins uses letters with understated care and energy to give the cast deeper tone and provides sound effects that anchor the moment.
The Devil's Engine is a good story, The Long Death makes this a comic worth getting.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Athos in America. Jason (Writer & Art), Hubert (Colours), Kim Thompson (Tanslation). Fantagraphics Books (2011)

A mixed collection of stories , crime, science fiction, horror and apparent autobiography and drama, some of which work more effectively than others.
The art and layout of the stories is very distinctive, a four panel grid is used for every page and all of the cast are animal  or bird headed humaniods. The effect of the page layouts is to give equal significance to each panel, the normal ways that panels are used to suggest the passage of time or to give a additional dramatic context to the story are missing here, the content of the panel has to carry all the weight of the story and intent. Due to this the more successful stories have very strong plots that give the content the force needed to make the most of the restrictions Jason imposes on himself.
A Cat from Heaven, a story that features the messy  breakdown of a relationship and its aftermath of a comics creator called Jason who is identified in the story as the creator of several of Jason's own books is not served well by the storytelling process. It is too slow and even, it does not give greater emphasis where it is need to give the story a lift or give the conclusion some weight. The flatness imposed is not lifted enough by the content. The same applies to the title story, Athos in America where Athos, from the Three Musketeers has a conversation in a bar. The action has happened off screen and is being reported in the conversation, the layout does not give the room needed to involve the reader very much.
The other stories all have the virtue of clever, frequently very nasty plots, to drive the action and use the layout to lift the story.
The Smiling Horse is a very pared down story of the results of a kidnapping and it uses the enforced pace of the panels to superb effect, the inevitable gains weight and force as it creeps up to the conclusion.  On the other hand The Brain that Wouldn't Virginia Woolf , a horror love story mixes mad science and love with care and melancholy. The structure of the story is superb, nicely teasing the readers expectations.
Tom Waits on the Moon  does not quite work, the idea is clever and the structure is excellent, it just does not quite give the cast enough of a connection to make the finale come off as it should.
So Long, Mary Ann is a gem, hard edged and flinty it works on every level. A criminal escapes from prison and is going to seek out an old confederate to get his share of the loot. The story features a theatrically violent gangster and has a true noir spirit of damaged romance. The heightened content works because of the restraint of the art and layout , it packs a considerable punch.
A striking and enjoyable collection of stories.

Blacklung. Chris Wright (Writer & Artist). Fantagraphics Books (2012).

Interesting and ultimately unsuccessful pirate story. A teacher and a violent gangster find themselves kidnapped and taken on board a pirate ship where the gangster joins the crew and the teacher becomes a scribe for the captain. The captain is trying to commit as much evil as possible so that he is sure of joining his wife in hell while his crew, including a homicidal maniac, are along for the blood, cruelty and treasure. The story unfurls steadily and finally ends, some of the cast survive, some do not.
The structure of the story up to the point everyone is on board the ship is interesting and unexpected. The story of the gangster is told through the actions of others as friends and enemies talk about him and plot against him. It is an interesting way to introduce him, before he is a significant presence before he actually appears and so when he does he already has menace and weight. Unfortunately he is then quickly moved to a context where he is not the most dangerous person in the place, which is what he was being set up as, he cannot capitalise on the set up he was given.
The teacher on the other hand is the central character of his introduction, emotionally constipated and severely dutiful about his pupils, caring for them only as far as teaching them within the confines of the school and timetable are concerned he is deeply unsympathetic.
It would be possible to anticipate a story that followed a development of the characters of the teacher and the gangster as they are faced with the deliberate brutality and cruelty of the pirate ship, something that revealed more of who they are. Instead the story effectively comes to a halt on the ship and the balance of the book is a slow set of non-sequiters as the captain, the first mate, the homicidal maniac and others talk, maim, kill and die. The two main action set pieces are well staged but appear to be straining to mean more than just being action. It is not at all clear what the extra dimension might be as Chris Wright does not actually commit himself that far beyond the captain's mission to secure a route to hell. The story ends rather than concludes in any way.
The strikingly individual black and white art adds and subtracts from the book. Chris Wright has a very strong style, it is not at all naturalistic, the cast look a lot like hand made puppets rather than humans and while this makes the horrific violence easier to read it also distances the reader from the story. It is hard to engage with the cast, the physical cues that would normally come from body language and facial expressions are blurred by the artistic choices. At particularly at a critical point in the story where the captain is telling of what has lead to his choices the page design becomes difficult to read, if I had sufficient interest in the cast or story this would not have been a problem. As it was I was no longer willing to put in the effort to decode the pages and simply moved over them.
This is a comic that a reader will completely get or will not, I can recognise the talent in the writing and the art without every being engaged by it.