February 18, 2018

Review: Black Panther: World of Wakanda

Black Panther: World of Wakanda Black Panther: World of Wakanda by Roxane Gay
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a prequel to Ta-Nehisi Coates' run on Black Panther, expanding the backstory of two ex-Dora Milaje, Ayo and Aneka. I was a bit iffy about Coates' first collected volume, A Nation Under Our Feet; Coates is a fine non-fiction writer, but he clearly had a lot to learn about writing fiction and writing comics.

Thankfully, Roxane Gay doesn't have this problem. The reader sees right away that she knows how to create characters and tell a story. The love story of Ayo and Aneka is interwoven with the larger politics of Wakanda, and while King T'Challa is pretty much absent here, he casts a huge shadow over the entire storyline. (The only reason I haven't rated this higher is that the story jumps around quite a bit timewise, and several important story beats depend on events taking place in other comics. Damn crossovers. I hate them.) We see some of the inner workings of the Dora Milaje, the female bodyguards and guardians of Wakandan royalty, and it's fascinating.

Ayo/Aneka comprise the first four issues of this collection. No. #5 is the backstory of Zenzi, another Coates villain. This little story is very short and a bit trite--it could have used some more fleshing out. Perhaps by getting rid of the odd and superfluous final issue, the tale of someone in New York called the White Tiger (a sort of anti-Black Panther? at least that's how he comes across). I didn't really know who Kevin "Kasper" Cole was, and cared for him even less.

Unfortunately, this entire series has been cancelled, so we won't be getting any more World of Wakanda. This is too bad. If Roxane Gay could've had the chance to continue, I think she might have turned out something really good.

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Review: Cosmic Powers: The Saga Anthology of Far-Away Galaxies

Cosmic Powers: The Saga Anthology of Far-Away Galaxies Cosmic Powers: The Saga Anthology of Far-Away Galaxies by John Joseph Adams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

John Joseph Adams pretty much has the golden touch as an editor. I own several of his anthologies, and they've consistently been among the better SFF collections out there. This book definitely follows in that tradition. Some of these stories are outrageously over-the-top (in keeping with the bright, eye-watering cover art), but that is part of the theme, and the charm, of this book.

The standout story in this anthology, so far, seems to be "Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance," Tobias S. Buckell's far-future, sprawling space opera that is at the same time an intense character study. Seanan McGuire contributes a story with equal parts humor and hard science (hers takes place inside a Dyson sphere), and Aliette de Bodard's tale of war and the price civilians pay is heartbreaking. My second favorite story is probably "Warped Passages," Kameron Hurley's excellent prequel/origin story to her fantastic space opera The Stars Are Legion. (If you're going to read new-to-you authors based on this collection, start with Buckell and Hurley.) But there's something for everyone here, and while I liked some stories less than others, there's not a stinker in the bunch.

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February 17, 2018

Review: Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler

Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler by Alexandra Pierce
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book drives home, once again, what a tremendous loss Octavia E. Butler's death was. Much has been made about how her "Parable" books predicted, in many respects, the rise of our execrable President. I wish Octavia was here to commiserate with the rest of us about his election, and write thoughtful, heartfelt essays about what to do next and how to go on...but the writers in this collection seem eminently capable of picking up her torch and carrying it.

Some of the essays here brings the reader to tears, with so many people of color talking about what Octavia Butler, an African-American woman writing powerful, feminist science fiction, means to them. Essay after essay, relating how a young person of color saw no one who looked like him or her in any of the SF they read...until they picked up Kindred, or Wild Seed. Some of the most affecting pieces are in Section Four, "I Am an Octavia E. Butler Scholar," which are essays from people of color who won the scholarship to Clarion (the famed writing workshop where Butler got her start) established in Butler's name. This book is sad, but it is also a joy to read, and I hope it finds a wider audience.

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February 10, 2018

Review: Black Bolt, Vol. 1: Hard Time

Black Bolt, Vol. 1: Hard Time Black Bolt, Vol. 1: Hard Time by Saladin Ahmed
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I know very little about Blackagar Boltagon and the Inhumans, and this volume was not intended to rectify that. Having been torn away from his everyday surroundings and cast into a galactic prison by his traitorous older brother Maximus (who has apparently been impersonating Black Bolt at home), the King of the Inhumans is utterly alone, trying to find his way out of said prison. The story here is what he discovers about himself in the process, leavened by the tragic story of his fellow prisoners, Crusher Creel in particular.

The lack of background and context to this story is the reason I didn't rate it higher, although Black Bolt did grow on me. Two of his fellow prisoners, Raava (who talks about herself in third person) and the multi-eyed girl Blinky, were interesting. The art, by Christian Ward, is not subtle at all--it's bright and explosive. And one of my faves, the dimension-hopping dog Lockjaw, makes an appearance. This volume was not top-tier, but it has enough pluses for me to keep checking the series out.

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February 4, 2018

Review: Arabella and the Battle of Venus

Arabella and the Battle of Venus Arabella and the Battle of Venus by David D. Levine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Last year, the first book in this series, Arabella of Mars, won the Andre Norton Award for Best Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy. This book continues that story, set in the same swashbuckling, throwback world, to the time of Jules Verne-esque SF when no one knew that Venus wasn't actually a swampy jungle planet.

Real science is obviously out the door here, but Levine's universe is well-thought-out and cleverly weaves in some historical figures circa 1815, namely Napoleon Bonaparte and Lord Nelson. (This time frame and people seems to provide some rich inspiration--Naomi Novik's Temeraire series mines much of the same territory, if confined to planet Earth.) Arabella Ashby's fiance, Captain Prakash Singh of the Honorable Mars Company airship Diana, has been captured on Venus by Napoleon's troops, and Arabella hires another airship to take her to Venus, with the intent of bribing sufficient people to secure Captain Singh's release.

Of course, this does not go well. At all. This storyline is a lot darker than the previous book, and our characters are really up against it. The pacing is very good, and the plot ticks away nicely until the last third of the book, when everything explodes. Levine writes some of the best action sequences I have read in a long time--the Diana's escape from Venus had me on the edge of my seat, and the final battle between the English and French fleets was just mesmerizing. There are prices to be paid in stories like these, and in this case, Arabella is the one that pays--she loses a foot in the battle. If this is handled right, it will (hopefully) mean interesting things for her characterization in the next book.

This time period is rife with other issues as well--sexism, colonialism, slavery, et cetera, that I did feel weren't really touched upon. In this particular storyline, there wasn't really room for it, but it is something that I think needs to be broached. Perhaps that will be tackled in the next book. In the meantime, this is an old-fashioned, rip-roaring adventure, and highly recommended.

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January 31, 2018

Review: Ladycastle

Ladycastle Ladycastle by Delilah S. Dawson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was...okay. I'm afraid I don't have much to say about it, because it was strictly middle-of-the-road: adequate characters, generic worldbuilding, relatively unsophisticated art. I know it's supposed to be a reversal of fairy-tale tropes, with "King Mancastle" being all macho and stupid and getting his ass handed to him, and the left-behind women stepping up to run the place and dubbing it "Ladycastle," but it wasn't deep enough to qualify as an interesting twist, at least for me. The most interesting characters were actually the Harpies from Chapter Three, and the wheelchair-bound librarian Yanni. I think this was supposed to be a closed-loop limited series, but if the next chapter could focus on Yanni, that might be worth picking up.

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January 30, 2018

Review: Ms. Marvel, Vol. 8: Mecca

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 8: Mecca Ms. Marvel, Vol. 8: Mecca by G. Willow Wilson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Now this is more like it.

When I read Ms. Marvel Volume 7, I thought it simply did not meet the series' usual standard of excellence. I missed Kamala's interactions with her family, and thought the villain and storyline was just weak. I stated that I hoped the next volume would pick things up again.

Apparently G. Willow Wilson (or the Marvel gods) was listening, because this volume did just that.

This storyline, in addition to checking back in with Kamala's family (her brother in particular, who is expecting a baby with his new wife), is also reacquainting us with a character from Civil War II, her "friend-in-law" Kareem, AKA the Red Dagger. (Kareem also seems to be setting up as a love interest for Kamala.) But the meat of the story is the serious examination of superheroes and discrimination--in this case, by the reappearance of two villains from previous volumes: Becky St. Jude, or "Lockdown," and Chuck Worthy from Hydra. They are attempting to round up all "unregistered super powers" in Jersey City, including Kamala's brother, and this confrontation leads to a really interesting aside involving Lockdown's henchman Discord, who proves to be a kid named Josh who Kamala has known from elementary school. He explains how lost he felt, and we see how Lockdown manipulated this to recruit him by giving him a "purpose." Because Josh has revealed himself to Kamala, she does the same--taking off her mask and letting him see who Ms. Marvel is. I'm sure this will have repercussions, further down the line.

The second storyline, involving Laal Khanjeer or Red Dagger, is a more straightforward mission of derring-do, stopping a runaway train. But even it poses interesting questions of "superhero" worship, and the new "hero" in town, and how Kamala begins to realize she must take care of herself so she can help the people in her city. All in all, this is a most welcome return to form, and I'm glad the series is back on track.

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January 27, 2018

Review: Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society

Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society by Cordelia Fine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a pretty dense book, so be warned. There are copious pages of notes (50!!), and the author gets rather far into the weeds regarding her subject. But she articulates difficult and complex subjects well, with a wry and occasionally laugh-out-loud humor that makes the book much easier to digest. She's one of the best science writers I've read in a while, and I will definitely look up her other work.

In this book, she pretty definitively deconstructs the evo-psych nonsense regarding testosterone, its effect on the brain, and gender roles. There are of course differences between males and females, and male and female brains, but as we read, culture and society play far more of a role than hormones. This is illustrated in many species of animals, as well as humans. In the concluding chapter, she points out the real damage done, to both men and women, by clinging to rigid, outmoded and scientifically indefensible gender roles.

People have different reasons for wanting greater equality between the sexes. Some people want fewer women assaulted or killed by their partners. Some want to close the yawning gap in retirement savings that puts disproportionate numbers of women in poverty in their senior years. Some want greater sex equality in their organizations because of research suggesting beneficial effects for productivity and profit. Some people want mothers and fathers to share more equally in caring for children so that the next generation reaps the benefits of involved, caring fathers and happier parents. Some people want an easier journey for loved ones with identities, bodies, or both, that fall in-between the too-neat male versus female binary. Some want it to become easier for people to pursue and fulfill counterstereotypical ambitions. Others want to stem the leak of talented, highly educated, and expensively trained women lost in professional pipelines. Some want to see households headed by single mothers lifted out of hardship or poverty. Some want more equal political representation, so that girls' and women's interests are more equally served in government policy. Some people are also for sex equality because of a suite of benefits for men: from lessening of pressure to live up to demanding and sometimes dangerous hypermasculine norms, to an easing of the burden and stresses of being the primary breadwinner. Some hope it will bring a liberating expansion of the definition of male success into the parts of human existence beyond work, wealth, and sexual conquest. Some go even further, and hope that thinking of qualities, roles, and responsibilities as human, rather than as feminine or masculine, will transform the world of work, to the benefit of everyone.

When you think of it like that, it's clear that this subject is, or should be, of vital interest to everyone. It's in that spirit that I recommend this book. It takes time to get through, and leaves the reader with a lot to think about, but I believe it's worth it.

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January 21, 2018

Review: Monstress, Vol. 2: The Blood

Monstress, Vol. 2: The Blood Monstress, Vol. 2: The Blood by Marjorie M. Liu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first volume of this won the Hugo Award for Best Graphic Novel in 2017, and for good reason. This volume ups the stakes and expands the world and characters, and should be on any comics fan's must-read list.

Marjorie Liu has an extensive publishing history, including a favorite urban fantasy series of mine, Hunter Kiss. Those books were the ones that first impressed me with her skill at worldbuilding. The Monstress world is more shivery Lovecraftian fantasy than the science-fictional feel of Hunter Kiss, but the depth and complexity of both universes stand out.

In this volume, Maika Halfwolf goes on a quest to follow in her (possibly) dead mother's footsteps, in an attempt to find a solution to the devouring Old God living inside her. (These provide the nearest parallel to Lovecraft--they're all eyes and tentacles.) She is accompanied by Ren Mormoriam, the twin-tailed cat that is revealed to be a "nekomancer," a magic user who can talk to the dead, and the adorable fox girl Kippa. (In fact, Kippa is probably my favorite character of the bunch. She's brave, innocent, loyal, kind, and has a highly developed sense of right and wrong, unlike the cynical Ren and the admittedly effed-up Maika.) During their sea journey to a mysterious island visited by Maika's mother, we are introduced to fascinating new characters, including a tiger, an octopus and a shark. More of Maika's backstory is revealed, and in the way of such things, a few questions are answered but far more are asked.

Once again, Sana Takeda's art is outstanding. This is not a book to be flipped through quickly--there are so many small details in the panels that each page deserves some leisurely study. Takeda captures perfectly the combination of beauty and horror that underlies this story. Without a doubt, this is one of my favorite graphic novels from last year.

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January 20, 2018

Review: Into the Drowning Deep

Into the Drowning Deep Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book expands on the previous novella, "Rolling in the Deep," the story of the cruise ship Atargatis on the hunt for "mermaids," found adrift with all hands lost. I read that story three years ago and gave it only two stars because I didn't feel all its themes meshed.

I'm happy to report this book is much better.

At its heart, of course, this is still a horror novel, which means there is lots of blood, gore (and in this case, slime) and casualties. You know, or you should know, going into a horror novel, that many of the characters are going to die. A superior horror novel takes the time to invest in its characters, making them real people instead of faceless redshirts standing in line to be offed. Mira Grant does exactly this, and does it very well. All of the viewpoint characters presented in this book are given backgrounds and motivations, even if they're only present for one scene. Some people may object to this, saying it makes the book drag...but it's all part of her careful, necessary setup. When all hell finally does break loose, the reader (or at least this reader) cares whether these people live or die.

Another advantage this book has over the earlier novella is the room to explore the science. The science of the "mermaids" presented in this book is fascinating. It's well-researched and convincingly presented, at least to this layperson. The sheer love of science also shines through, when the necropsy of what turns out to be a sentient being is just as absorbing, and suspenseful, as what happens when the "mermaids" attack.

Up till now, my favorite Mira Grant book has been her excellent Feed. I think that might still be true, but this one is definitely nipping at its heels.

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