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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.