Comic Book Review: God Is Dead Volume One

Sunday, 17 August 2014

God Is Dead #1–6
Created by Jonathan Hickman
Written by Jonathan Hickman and Mike Costa
Art by Di Amorim
Colours by Juanmar
Letters by Kurt Hathaway
Published by Avatar Press

In April and May 2015, a range of disasters strike around the global: a volcanic eruption, a massive temperature drop, massive rainfall, incredible sandstorms, a huge seismic event. The death toll is in the millions. Then Zeus turns up in St Peter’s Basilica … Hickman is the modern master of high-concept comic books, and this one is another: the gods of myth have returned to Earth, and this is what happens next.

In Valhalla, Odin holds a summit for other gods to discuss what to do with Earth: with Loki and Thor, there is Horus, Anubis and Bast from the Egyptian gods; Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma from the Hindu gods; Zeus, Ares and Aphrodite from the Greek pantheon; Quetzalcoatl, Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca from the Mexican deities. And they want it all back to the way it was: worship, obedience, everything.

On Earth, things have changed since the divine made its presence known. Mexico City has a religious uprising and a return to human sacrifice. The former republic of Texas becomes New Azcapotzalco, which is bombed by the head of the remaining US army in the Raven Rock Mountain Complex, but which doesn’t kill the god there. The Norsemen have taken the northern hemisphere; America is squeezed between them and the Nahuatl front. Europe is under Greek influence and the Hindu awakening. The African continent is under ‘the purifying light of Ra’. The only people who seem to be doing anything about it are ‘the Collective’ – a group of the smartest minds on the east coast of America. Dr Sebastian Reed of MIT, Thomas Mims (the Einstein-alike), Airic Johsson (young, glasses), Dr Henry Rhodes (the Stephen Hawking-alike), along with Gaby, whose family runs a security consultancy agency (who is ludicrously dressed in a boob tube with an X on it, a short skirt, boots, fishnet sleeves from wrist to bicep, and a choker – but hey, at least she knows how to use guns, so that’s all right). They are trying to work out how to kill a god (and asking questions: Are gods alive in the strictest sense? Are they physically real? Are they stories?) – so first, they need to capture a god and exam it.

In this endeavour, they are helped by the gods themselves – because having the world wasn’t enough, so they start killing the others (Odin the Viking king is the main culprit in this regards). With samples of blood, bone marrow and brain cells of actual gods, the Collective decide that the only way to kill a god is to create their own …

This is a strange concoction: it is a very strong conceit for a story (all the pantheons of gods exist and have returned to this plane of existence, and all that it entails) that has lots of intriguing angles to explore. However, it doesn’t seem to completely examine it in full – why are there only three of each pantheon (apart from the connection of the trinity in Catholicism) when showing the deities fighting? Where are all the rest of gods? What about the other pantheons? The story only examines polytheistic religions – the monotheistic religions are noticeably absent, unless the comic book’s title is specifically referring to the death of the Judeo-Christian god (and fortunately avoid any mention of Islam) – which I hope is explored later in the story, because it is a noticeable absence in the narrative.

We are told that the book is written by Hickman and Costa, but it feels more like it’s plotted by Hickman and written by Costa because the dialogue doesn’t have the sharpness of Hickman’s previous work (one line is, ‘Trusted a fart once, Gaby. Shit all over myself’, which is embarrassing). There are also mistakes: on the second page, there is a typo (‘centigrate’ instead of ‘centigrade’) and in same narrative box, it has ‘May 2’ whereas the rest of the page has ordinals. The whole product doesn’t have the exactness of Hickman, which takes away from the fascinating narrative hook. The artwork by Amorim has a similar lack of polish – the artwork is competent and solid, but the style is unexciting and the storytelling is straightforward. This is a book with a great idea and I want to know what happens in it, because these first six issues only hint at the scope of the ramifications, but it could have done with an upgrade in the writing and art departments.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

Comic Book Review: Death Sentence Vol. 1

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Death Sentence #1–6
Script and covers by Montynero
Art and colours by Mike Dowling
Letters by Comicraft’s Jimmy Betancourt
Edited by Andrew James
Published by Titan Comics

One of the delights about being given comic books to review is discovering something really good by creators whose work I’ve never seen. Death Sentence is a perfect example: I didn’t know who Montynero or Dowling were before this book, but I will look out for their work again based on the quality of this collection. Death Sentence is a rattling adventure full of violence, humour, sex, death and creativity, and it marks out the two creative talents behind it as people to watch.

Death Sentence has a great premise to kick things off: the G+ virus is a disease with no cure – once it starts showing symptoms, patients will die in six months; however, during that time, they will feel fantastic, as the virus overclocks their body’s systems, making them stronger, brighter, faster, as well as inducing a rush of creativity and libido … and the development of super powers. So, what would you do if you were a super-powered individual with six months to live?

The story is about three different protagonists: Verity, a frustrated artist with something of a moral centre; Weasel, a famous young rock star who hasn’t created any music since his band split up, and who is a bit of dick; and Monty, a comedian, actor, bon vivant (think Russell Brand), who has done it all but needs to do more. We meet them as they discover they have the disease and see what happens to them because of it: Verity, after accidentally blowing up and killing four members of the Department of National Security, is captured and taken to a government facility (an underground lair in a hollow volcano) where they hope to find a cure; Weasel develops ‘phasing’ powers and accidentally kills a groupie before he is apprehended by the same government team; Monty develops telepathic suggestion powers, which give him grand ideas of what he can do with his life and increase his standing in the world. As you can guess, the narrative sees them all coming together for an explosive denouement.

Montynero has written a thrilling tale that is original despite elements that echo things gone before (there’s a Zenith vibe, particularly the first book; there are echoes of the first book of Miracleman, especially the fight scenes in London; even hints of Watchmen). It’s a story set in the present day – the references are current – and it addresses issues to do with the modern ideas of fame, ennui, self-involvement and the interaction with fans and people. But it is also about creativity and the urge to create, something very close to Montynero’s heart, and why we want to do these things. This is impressive for a superhero adventure with fighting and chases and guns, which switches from something small to something much larger in the space of an issue.

Another thing about the book is that it is genuinely funny in places – the dialogue has a refreshing charm, an elegant turn of phrase, some actual jokes, and amusing banter; reading the later sections of the story, it’s almost a deliberate choice to compensate for the grimmer stuff to come. My favourite was the visual gag about the nun looking for the missing crucifix – read the book to see what I mean. It also has a raw edge to it – the language is extremely colourful, but in an elegant way – which gives the story vibrancy and immediacy; the rawness is also found in the sex and violence – it isn’t graphic for titillation, but the violence is extreme and intense, specifically to drive home the ramifications and the reality of the situation for the sake of the story, and the sex that occurs through the book is part of the natural world in which our characters live and interact.

What is also amazing about the book is that Dowling was relatively inexperienced when he drew it (he’d been drawing Rex Royd, Frankie Boyle’s comic strip in Clint) and yet displays such great artistic skill here. There are elements of Duncan Fegredo and Michael Lark in his style, but his storytelling is really strong and his sense of character and place is terrific. Montynero came up with the character designs (he is responsible for the covers) but Dowling takes the slightly over-glossy style and makes it live and breathe in the interior pages, taking what look like almost hipster superhero costumes and making them work. He is an artist who can make people talking look interesting, which is a sign of a good artist, and then easily move into large-scale action that doesn’t lose the sense of narrative. He also depicts the extreme violence with skill, making you feel the visceral nature of it. He is a talent to watch.

The collection includes the covers and variant covers, plus a fascinating chapter-by-chapter commentary by Montynero and Dowling about the creation of the book, where they discuss their process and their interactions during the writing and drawing of the book, giving an interesting insight to the creative process. Death Sentence is a complete story in six issues, so you don’t feel cheated that the collection calls it ‘Volume 1’ on the spine, but it indicates that these two have more stories to tell in this world. I will be lined up to read them when they arrive because their first instalment was such a cracking success. Highly recommended.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

Book Review – Dead Man’s Hand: An Anthology of the Weird West

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Edited by John Joseph Adams
Published by Titan Books

This anthology of twenty-three stories has tales that mix the Old West with fantastical elements; each one has the name, author and the location/year (such as East Texas, 1880, or Colorado Territory, 1868). As is usual with anthologies, the selection is wide and the quality varies, but the overall level is high and the diversity of material is very interesting.

Appropriately, the first story is The Red-Headed Dead (a Reverend Jebediah Mercer tale) by Joe R Lansdale (who the editor claims helped define the genre with the Rev. Mercer novel, Dead In The West, back in 1986), in which Rev. Mercer (who believes that God sends him to do this work) comes across a creature who had been contained by an iron bar with Latin writing on, a creature that is a progeny of Judas …

The Old Man And His Gold Gun From Space by Ben H Winters is about two unsuccessful prospectors who receive a visit from an old man who claims he is from the dark side of Neptune and has a proposition for them, and a gun that finds gold – an intriguing tale with a nice twist. Hellfire On The High Frontier by David Farland concerns Morgan Grey and the mission given him by The Stranger, to find and kill a clockwork gambler, a former soldier called Hellfire, who is killing people every four months. Clockworks are hard to kill, deadly accurate, and Hellfire is a Sharp model, the top of the line, leading to a trip on an airship to High Frontier – a magical place, nestled in the clouds, only reachable at sunset, a city of silver spires and coloured glass windows – and a strangely wistful story.

The Hell-bound Stagecoach by Mike Resnick is about four passengers on a stagecoach who all realise that they are dead, but force the driver (who calls himself Scratch, and has horns on his head) to alter their fate. Stingers And Strangers by Seanan McGuire see Jonathan Healy, a college professor type, and Frances Brom, who looks like a farmhand, dealing with Apraxis wasps (the size of a show with human intelligence), who steal the memories of the hosts they kill and infect, and there is a swarm in Colorado, which can only mean that there is something even nastier out there scaring the wasps, in a world with Aeslin mice (who can talk) and dragon princesses ...

Bookkeeper, Narrator, Gunslinger by Charles Yu is a story with an ambiguous ending about a narrator who seems to be an amazing gunslinger without any of the requisite skills. It does have a great line in it: ‘Can I say de facto in this kind of story?’ Holy Jingle (A Mad Amos Malone Tale) by Alan Dean Foster is about the worldly, travelled, well read and scruffy Amos Malone and his decision to help someone based on a Chinese prostitute keeping someone captive who can only say ‘Holy Jingle’, which is a very interesting tale and I can see why Foster has written so many stories about the character.

The Man With No Heart by Beth Revis involves Ray Malcolm and his search for meaning, which leads to mechanical spiders and Big Canyon and the birthplace of the four worlds … Wrecking Party by Alastair Reynolds is an interesting twist on the perils of technology, which starts with a man wrecking a horseless carriage, links to wrecking parties (exhibitions of trains being wrecked for money) and ‘machine intelligences’. Hell From The East by Hugh Howey is an odd tale about a soldier going mad and the investigation into what looks like an Arapaho sun hut.

Second Hand (A Card Sharp Story) by Rajan Khana is a nice little tale with an interesting premise for the magical power of playing cards – people who are Card Sharps because of the power of the Deck and the Cards and the magic that can be done with them (defensive/offensive power, healing, heightening senses). Alvin And The Apple Tree (A Tale Of Alvin Maker) by Orson Scott Card is the weirdest (and not in a good way) of the bunch, about Christian people feeling guilty all the time due to a man calling himself John Appleseed creating apples that makes them that way. Madam Damnable’s Sewing Circle by Elizabeth Bear is a strange story which feels like the first chapter in a book – there’s no real ending or point, and there’s only a hint of steampunk to suggest ‘Weird West’.

Strong Medicine by Tad Williams was one of my favourites, involving a character called Custos protecting the town of Medicine Dance on Midsummer’s Day every 39 years due to the fact that it sits ‘very lightly in time’ – the last time the trouble happened, it brought snow and mammoths and dire wolves. This time, the mesa is replaced with an ocean and then the dinosaurs arrive … Red Dreams by Jonathan Maberry is about McCall, the only survivor of a massacre of 16 of his men and 34 Cheyenne, who then sees the ghost of Walking Bear, the man he’d been hunting and had just killed. An interesting meditation on death and the afterlife.

Bamboozled by Kelley Armstrong was another of my favourites, about Lilly and Nate who lead a group that plays a scam in towns to lure in a mark to rob. However, this is a cover for Lily and Nate’s other work: bounty on demons, witches, vampires, werewolves … Bamboozled was a good story, good characters, with turns well hidden, and I would read more adventures of Lilly and Nate, supernatural bounty hunters. Another story that I enjoyed so much that I would read more of was Sundown by Tobias S Buckell, about Willie Kennard, a ‘negro marshal’, and Frederick Douglas (a black abolitionist), appointed marshal by President Hayes to investigate the disappearance of an army airship sent to Alaska, last seen at a crater, full of space creatures that Kennard had been tracking and who are now coming to America and must be stopped …

La Madre Del Oro by Jeffrey Ford is a slender tale with little substance about a posse in New Mexico going out to apprehend George Slattern, aka Bastard George, for murder and cannibalism, heading into blisteringly hot Trail of Death where the posse ends up in the goldmine of the title and things go bad. What I Assume You Shall Assume by Ken Liu is about Amos Tuner and his horse Mustard trailing through a forest and Yun, a Hakka girl from Taiping but now a gold miner with a legal claim to a mine, but who has been attacked and now has to defend herself with her ability to work magic of words on paper, with the help of Amos.

The Devil’s Jack (A Story Of The Devil’s West) by Laura Anne Gilman is a strange tale about a man who is bound to the devil but trying to avoid him, helping out a town disrupted by a magician and demons who live nearby, but told in a slightly elliptical way. A more straightforward and rip-roaring adventure is The Golden Age by Walter Jon Williams, which is romp that seems to be about the beginnings of pulp heroes and villains in the west, with a former English sailor leading a gang of criminals stealing gold from miners being stopped by a costumed vigilante (who calls himself the Condor), so he becomes a pirate on a steamboat on the Delta and calls himself the Commodore, which seems to be the start of other colourful characters appearing on the scene: the Haunt, the Highwayman, the Sagamore [an Indian], the Masked Hidalgo [Mexican], Shanghai Susie [Chinese], Aero Lad, the Mad Emperor. But things turn dark after a while with the arrival of Professor Mitternacht, killing a third of San Francisco and claiming it for the Austrian Empire

My absolute favourite story in the book was Neversleeps by Fred Van Lente, which is set 120 years after ‘The Awakening’: the world of spirits and spells returned to the world after the Age of Reason, and the world is completely different. Trains are pulled by dragons, the most wanted Science Criminal by the Bureau of Animist Affairs is Nicola Tesla, great grandniece of Nikola Tesla, who was burned at the stake for not recanting Science, unlike Edison, who did recant to save his own life and then went onto found White City, which is run by atomists to create things that can fight back against the scriveners and diviners and necromancers of the governments who want to stay in power, such as the Chrysalis Clockwork, a special suit that is immune to magic, currently in the possession of Simon Leslie, a former Pinkerton agent (nicknamed the Neversleeps), who is trying to save Nicola Tesla. It’s a cracking, well-told adventure, with lots of great details and a fantastic alternate universe, and it’s only the start of the rebellion of science against magic: more now, please.

Neversleeps would have been the best way to finish the anthology, but there is a very short epilogue, Dead Man’s Hand by Christie Yant, which is four variations of the Bill Hickock story about his death, which is about the association with the hand of cards he had when he was killed becoming called Dead Man’s Hand. I enjoyed this collection – the combination of western ideals with magical/supernatural/fantastical is a potent one that brings about some very interesting results. There are some duffers in the mix, but that’s inevitable; however, when there are stories that leave you wanting more, you can consider that a success.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

Comic Book Review – Dragons: Riders Of Berk Volume One Dragon Down

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Script: Simon Furman
Pencils: Iwan Nazif
Inks: Iwan Nazif (with Bambos Georgiou)
Colours: Nestor Pereyra & Digikore
Letters: David Manley-Leach
Publishers: Titan Comics

[Apologies for the absence in posting: I’ve been moving house, which I think it’s a legitimate excuse. At least it means that this connects this review with the arrival of How To Train Your Dragon 2 in cinemas.]

It is spring in the Viking village of Berk, and our heroes (Hiccup, Astrid, Snotlout, Fishlegs, Tuffnut and Ruffnut) are flying on their dragons, who are feeling full of energy. Some have more energy than others: Snotlout’s Hoofkfang is overheating and shedding scales that are setting the village on fire, so Hookfang has to be isolated from the village and the other dragons. However, he disappears and, after a search party organised by Hiccup goes wrong, Hiccup decides to take Toothless out in the storm to find Hookfang, unaware that Alvin the Treacherous, leader of the Outcast Tribe, is hunting Hiccup in order to acquire his dragon-training skills …

The film, How To Train Your Dragon, is one of the best non-Pixar CGI movies of recent times, and Toothless is one of the great animated animal characters of all time. This book is based on the computer-animated television series, which acts as a bridge between the first film and the sequel. I have never watched the television show, so it was a surprise to learn about Alvin the Treacherous and the Outcast Tribe – apparently, he was the main villain for the first season; it seems a very traditional villainous character to insert conflict into the story when the film was so unconcerned with such obvious concepts. I haven’t seen the sequel yet, but I hope that Alvin isn’t part of the story because I don’t particularly care for the character.

Because my frame of reference is the only the film, I couldn’t quite get into this book – I don’t know if it aligns more with the television series, but the feel of the narrative skews more towards a story that could be completed in 22 minutes of animation, with straightforward A and B plots, and missing the colour and characterisation of the film. Furman captures the voices of the main characters, particularly Hiccup, but the story doesn’t have the same magic as the movie (although that would be an impressive achievement considering the quality of the original film). The art has a cartoony vibe – Nazif is good with the likenesses in this pencil version, although it’s lacking in pizzazz and occasionally displays some confusion in panels, such as switching the orientation of the twins on their dragon from one panel to the next. The art was always going to come off poorly compared with the precision of CGI artwork (as displayed on the cover), so I thought that the artwork would take advantage of its comic-book basis; the first page has Gobber working at the smith across from a woman selling fish while kids run through the path between them, and for a moment it feels like a homage to a certain small Gaulish village holding out against Roman occupation … However, this is the closest it gets to an Asterix style, which is a shame, because it could have provided a nice tone for this book.

This is a slender volume – 48 pages of story – with a tale that aims towards the younger market, particularly the viewers of the television show. It doesn’t have the magic of the film but it does provide a solid dose of Toothless, Hiccup and the village of Berk.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

Notes On A Film – X-Men: Days Of Future Past

Monday, 23 June 2014

(I saw this film on opening weekend, so this is very late but real life has intruded: we are in the process of trying to buy and sell a house, so at least I have a decent excuse.)

I still feel I have to pinch myself sometimes – I’ve been a comic book fan for a while now, but despite The Avengers being one of the most profitable films of recent history, I find it incredible that we’ve got really good films being made that are based on superhero comic books from my youth. Case in point: this film uses two issues of The Uncanny X-Men from 1981 (written by Chris Claremont and drawn by John Byrne, it’s one of those times that ‘classic’ actually applies) as the basis for an exciting, thrilling, emotional sci-fi action film that is as satisfying as the best blockbusters out there (with three Academy Award winners and four nominees in the cast). What a world we live in …

I didn’t read the storyline back then; it took me a while to get my hands on it: I was expecting it to be reprinted in Classic X-Men (which was reproducing the stories from Giant-Size X-Men #1 onwards, in addition to new material written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by John Bolton), only for the series to jump issues #141 and #142 and continue as if Days Of Future Past hadn’t happened. I finally picked up a reprint that collected the two issues, and was able to read the story that has defined and influenced almost the entirety of the X-Men line of comic books ever since. I never thought it would be turned into a film. Shows you what I know …

The film uses the central idea of the books: the future is bleak for mutants, kept in concentration camps guarded by Sentinels, so the X-Men decide to go back to the past and stop the inciting incident that would lead to this ‘darkest timeline’. Instead of the assassination of Senator Robert Kelly (well, he’d already been used in The X-Men), the film comes up with the murder of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), creator of the Sentinels, by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) in 1973, which led to the full-scale development of the Sentinel programme. Instead of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) swapping her psyche with her younger self, the film uses Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) – this makes sense on a star level, because Jackman is the bigger (biggest?) name and doesn’t have to be played by another actor in the different time period, but also on a story level with the explanation that Logan’s healing ability is the only way to survive the process.

The future part is set up well: the bleak concentration camps, the looming Sentinels, some future X-Men (Pryde, Iceman, Warpath, Blink, Sunspot, Colossus) being killed by Sentinels before discovering Pryde has worked out how to phase her consciousness a few days back in the past and warn her group. They meet up with Prof. Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen), Storm (Halle Berry) and Wolverine to explain this; this leads to the plan to send Wolverine’s consciousness to the distant past, enlist the aid of the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to prevent Mystique from accomplishing her mission. (I’ve read some reviewers write that the film’s plot is too complicated – how complicated is that? If you can’t understand something as simple as that, you shouldn’t be reviewing films in the national press.)

Obviously, things aren’t straightforward: Xavier, after the events of X-Men: First Class, is drinking heavily and using a serum created by Beast (Nicholas Hoult) that allows him to walk but removes his telepathy; Magneto is in a non-metallic prison cell beneath the Pentagon for his alleged role in the assassination of President Kennedy; and Wolverine is not the best diplomat. Wolverine must convince Xavier and break Magneto out, which will require the help of Peter Maximoff, a mutant super speedster. Then, things get complicated in 1973, while the future X-Men have to hold off a Sentinel attack to give Wolverine in 1973 enough time to succeed and eradicate the dystopian future …

I really enjoyed this film – it’s a welcome return to the quality levels set by X-Men 2, after the disappointments of the third X-Men film (about which we do not speak), the two Wolverine films and X-Men: First Class. It’s also a really good adaptation of the source material, capturing the essence of the tale while standing on its own as a film. This is particularly difficult to do because it has to bring together two sets of X-Men and contend with the hideous mess that is the X-Men movie chronology. Not only does the film succeed, but it also effectively solves the Gordian knot that is the movie timeline with an Alexandrian slice so that the films you didn’t like now don’t exist. Admittedly, it has to sidestep important plot points – Why is Xavier still alive? Where did Kitty Pryde’s time travel powers come from? – in order to get the ball rolling, but it’s easy to forgive when it’s all so enjoyable.

The film achieves this with some excellent action pieces, particularly the Quicksilver set-piece during the Magneto breakout – you can ignore the fact that he’s listening to his anachronistic Walkman while running at superspeed and therefore can’t hear anything because it’s such an exhilarating display of his powers, done with wit and pizzazz and a fantastic visual flair. Of course, it means that they have to remove Quicksilver from the story immediately after or he’d be able to solve all problems in the rest of the movie, but the humour (a perfectly judged clip from the original series Star Trek about time travel) and characterisation cover this up (even if they did the same joke as in Shanghai Noon, having someone say the James Brown lyric ‘I don’t know karate. But I know crazy’).

The action is good but it’s not all action – there is a lot of talk in the middle section – but that’s because the filmmakers remember that it’s about the characters first, and that the action defines the characters when it does come. Singer has created a film that has clarity, levity, energy, and understanding of the characters and the concept – it’s not just about what’s cool (although there is lots of cool stuff in it), it’s about making things work in the dynamics of a story with people who are engaging. Some people get to engage more than others – Stewart, McKellen, Berry, Page effectively have extended cameos (talking of which, a big geek smile jumped to my face when Chris Claremont and Len Wein briefly turned up as congressmen) – and the film is mainly about the young Xavier and Magneto, with some emphasis on Lawrence’s Mystique, so it’s mostly McAvoy and Fassbender who get the focus, but they’re both great actors so that’s not too much of a problem. McAvoy is good as a good man trying not to care; Fassbender excels as an imperious Magneto; Jackman is extremely comfortable as Logan, holding it all together. Dinklage isn’t given enough to do, which is a shame, but at least he got some scenes in the film.

The film works nicely as finale – there is closure and some happiness for mutants, something you don’t expect if you’ve spent a long time reading comic books, even though you know that this can never be the end for the franchise. I loved the coda, with unexpected cameos, in much the same way that I loved the ending given to the character of Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises – it indicated a genuine love for the X-Men and the characters in the team. As a long-time X-Men fan, I walked out of the cinema a very happy man.

Rating: DAVE

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

Book Review: Hot Lead, Cold Iron

Monday, 26 May 2014

Written by Ari Marmell
Published by Titan Books

This is the first story in a new series of urban fantasy about Mick Oberon; we first meet him getting beaten up by the hired muscle of a crooked committeeman of Chicago’s 34th Ward. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter too much because he heals fast and he has a wand: a Luchitaine & Goodfellow Model 1592, polished whitewood that the seller swore had a sliver of the raft that carried King Arthur to Avalon. Using magic (temporarily blinding the hired muscle, forcing luck to help him out, exerting his willpower on other people, all through the wand), he manages to accomplish his task (stealing some incriminating photos from the committeeman and serving him with a subpoena to testify) and extricate himself from any trouble.

This is all in a day’s work for Mick Oberon, private investigator in 1930s Chicago, and a former prince of the Fae (the aes sidhe, ‘the People of the Mounds’) – he is ‘among the last of the Tuatha Dé Danann, lords of the Emerald Isle, conquerors of the Firbolgs’ and has lived among mortals for many centuries (he’s seen woad-painted Celts, war-painted Indians, Vikings on longships, knights on horseback, French revolutionaries, Spanish conquistadors) when he walked away from the Seelie Court and his heritage. His hearing and sense smell is better than ours, he can detect auras, mortals cannot see the exact details of his facial features in the same way (although they can’t make out his pointed ears), he is stronger and faster and take more punishment than a human, and can understand all spoken human languages if he hears a few sentences of it. He has learned to blend in – he pretends to fidget, he remembers to blink, he speaks with the current slang no matter how ungrammatical it is – and lives in an office with no iron (the only thing that can hurt him) and no electrical or mechanical stuff: the reason why the Fae retired permanently to the Otherworld was the development of technology, which is anathema to their very being (Mick has difficulty using the elevated train, making his entire skin itch and his brain shudder, and he can barely cope with cars).

Oberon (not his real name – he took the name of the King, his third cousin on his mother’s side) works as a PI but doesn’t take money for the jobs – he doesn’t need it, because the only thing he consumes is milk (preferably warm) and he lives rent-free after he helped out his landlord; instead he takes ‘unusual’ items in lieu of payment. He also has some principles, which is why he turns down a job for The Outfit. However, when he has to find $300 to help his landlord save his building, he doesn’t have a choice – he has to seek out the man who came to his office, Archie ‘Echoes’ Caristo, a torpedo for Fino ‘The Shark’ Ottati, a capo who runs a local crew for The Outfit. He finds Echoes at the Lexington Hotel, where Al Capone used to live until he was sent to prison the previous year, but discovers that the meeting isn’t with The Shark – it’s with his wife, Bianca, who needs Oberon to find her daughter. The only problem: she’s been missing for 16 years because the girl they’ve raised is actually a changeling.

Mick needs to hunt down leads connected to Otherworld while avoiding it, so seeks out Four-Leaf Franky (who is mixed race, mostly aes sidhe, but also related to an old blood line of leprechauns [what is it with American writers and leprechauns?]), but when Franky doesn’t know anything about it – a changeling swap is pretty public in Otherworld – Mick works out that it must be a secret changeling. Therefore, Mick has to see Mrs Ottati for more information; he does so at her home, where he discovers that there are wards against Fae all over the house, created by Fino Ottati’s mother, Donna Orsola Maldera, who is also a witch (a Benandanti, a former fertility sect in 16th-century Italy that developed witchcraft as Catholics to fight evil spirits, although they were mostly eradicated by the Inquisition). It turns out that the Shark is in a feud with the Uptown Boys (bad things happen to the Shark’s enemies), but it’s not a feud that goes back 16 years, so Mick doesn’t discover any new leads, although he does meet the changeling, who is definitely Fae, who is suffering from being kept in the house with wards against Fae.

With no other recourse, Mick has to go to Elphame (the Otherworld version of Chicago – no sun or moon, impossibly beautiful, natural, more intense, where you are more ‘you’); he needs to go to the city, which is a reflection of our cities: the Fae are mimics, so the city looks like cities of the era but with Fae touches to the skyscrapers and the trains; the Fae dress in modern clothes, but with other accessories, and all armed with swords and daggers as well as magical revolvers and Tommy guns and wands. Most of the ‘civilised’ Fae are split into two factions: Seelie Court and Unseelie Court. The Seelie Court is the one associated with what we think of concerning the Fae, and titles have changed to reflect the modernisations (kings and queens are Judges and Chiefs; dukes and earls and barons are now aldermen and lawyers and captains); the Unseelie Court are the nasty side of the Fae (goblins, trolls, mari-morgan, redcaps, dullahan [headless riders on headless horses]), and take after the gangsters of our world, calling themselves the Unfit (Unseelie Outfit).

While Mick is in the city, staying at the hotel where he used to be house detective before he left for the mortal world (the Fae believe he was exiled from the Court and had his title stripped due to some sort of crime he committed; this is untrue, but he allowed the rumours to spread), Mick is attacked by a low-level torpedo. With evidence that the Seelie Court might be involved with the Ottati changeling and the attempted hit, Mick gets a meeting with Eudeagh, queen of Chicago’s Unseelie Court, Boss of Bosses of local Unseelie, which leads to him getting into a bargain with her and knowledge that will help him locate the missing daughter – who is back in ‘real’ Chicago – and try to solve everything …

The world that Marmell has created for his characters is rich and full of potential. This book has to do a lot of world-building to set things up, but he does it well, helped by the wealth of background to use. He talks about how Fae are the same, it’s just humans who differentiate: the tylwyth teg in Wales, the aes sidhe in Ireland, the elves in England, the Norse ljósálfar; they’re all the same but with different legends. This world is full of lots of different Fae: goblins, boggards, clurichans, spriggans, ghillie dhu, bean righe, gancanagh, leanan sidhe, brounies, coblynau, dvergr, pixies (and there is mention of ghosts, vampires, griffons, demons, dragons and basilisks); however, in Elphame there are more humans than Fae, people who got lost or stumbled into the wrong place or who made bad bargains. If you are human and eat the food or drink liquids or accept a gift, you never leave because you feel great and never age – the happiest slaves ever.

Mick Oberon is a great character with a classic private investigator’s sense of honour and doing the right thing, with the added advantage of being Fae; he’s got a sense of humour as well, and Marmell’s prose style is very enjoyable – the use of gangster lingo of the time never descends into parody and feels authentic at all times. The story is riveting, a page-turner that keeps you engaged as well as setting up this new urban fantasy with the scope for so many stories. Hot Lead, Cold Iron is a very good book and I can’t wait for the next story in the series.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

Book Review: India Black

Monday, 5 May 2014

The first Madam of Espionage mystery, written by Carol K Carr
Published by Titan Books

Carol Carr is a former lawyer who decided to indulge her passion for history into writing, which led to this book. You know where you are from the preface: ‘My name is India Black. I am a whore.’ It is 1876. India Black runs a brothel on St Alban’s Street in London called the Lotus House (a deliberate reference to The Lotus-Eaters poem by Tennyson, because she caters for gentlemen – it’s more like a gentlemen’s club than a house of ill repute). She used to be a whore but prefers the independence and freedom of being a madam who owns her establishment.

At this juncture in history, Queen Victoria rules the British Empire, and there is sabre-rattling from the Russians, backing the Serbs against the Ottoman Empire. Prime minister Benjamin Disraeli (or ‘Dizzy, the novelist’ as India Black refers to him) is rattling back while having to contend with former prime minister William Gladstone writing evangelical tracts against the ‘Mussulman’ Turks and supporting the nominally Christian Russians.

India Black’s life is changed when a regular client, nicknamed Bowser and who worked in the War Office, dies in the Lotus House. She enlists the aid of a reliable urchin called Vincent (a14-year-old boy who lives on the streets but knows how to get things done) to remove the body; however, a dark and mysterious man arrives, who knows all about Bowser (actually Sir Archibald Latham) and wants to help move the corpse but want’s Bowser’s case. But the case is gone, as is the ‘bint’ Arabella who was with him at the time of his death.

India Black is brusquely fetched to a meeting with the prime minister and French, the mysterious stranger, where she is told that the case had important documents in them about the number of soldiers in the British army – due to the massacres of Christians in the Ottoman Empire, European countries want to attack Constantinople and the Russians want to join in, but Disraeli fears that the Russians will take Constantinople and then move on to Egypt and block the Suez Canal to India (the country, not the heroine of our tale) and the source of the wealth of the British Empire. Disraeli can’t fight a war with the Russians but Gladstone’s troublemaking might force him to an untenable position. If the Russians get their hands on the information in the case, then they will invade Constantinople knowing that the British can do nothing about it. So India Black is coerced into getting it back – she is to accompany French to the gala ball at the Russian embassy and use her ‘feminine charms’ on Count Vladimir Maksimovich Yuspov, the head of military intelligence for Tsar Alexander II, to retrieve the case, which is currently in the possession of his most trusted agent, Major Vasily Kristoforovich Ivanov. Of course, things don’t go as planned and India Black gets involved further in escapades with French to retrieve the documents, including incidents at Claridge’s hotel, a chase to Dover and a trip across the English Channel …

The story is told as a first-person narrative (which means that any sense of real danger to the lead character is moot) and there is a nice use of a Victorian style and vocabulary (décolletage, prebenderies, glissading, 'mandrake' as a Victorian term for homosexual), as well as a nice sense of humour (when writing about her bints, India Black says, ‘Next they’ll be unionizing. It was becoming increasingly difficult for an employer to exploit the workers in this country. I’d have to write to my MP soon.’) and a knowing wink (there is a nod to Inspector Morse in the mystery of French’s Christian name: ‘Endeavour, perhaps?’).

However, there is an anachronistic shadow in some places that throws the reader out of the book, such as using the term ‘the dog’s bollocks’, which wasn’t invented until much later. There is the unexplained contrast between a woman who spent ‘a lifetime of fending for myself in the streets of London’ as a prostitute and the huge breadth of knowledge she displays (in addition to the Tennyson reference, there is quoting from Shakespeare and Sam Johnson, a reference to Trollope, plus the geopolitics of the era), which might be a mystery for future novels but comes across as confounding in this book. There is also a lawyer-like tendency to over-explain every aspect of the story, to reiterate why the missing documents were so important to the various people and nations, which becomes quite wearisome; this is brought into amusing contrast with the phrase, ‘I won’t bore you with the details’, used at least three times to omit some parts of the story but is exactly what the narrator has been doing throughout the book. The worst crime is the fact that the entire reason for the adventure is completely pointless – I don’t usually spoil books but I feel compelled in this instance, because our protagonists do not stop the information in the documents from getting to Russia, but it has absolutely no effect on the outcome of history at all, making the entire adventure a waste of time in my opinion. This book might be for those who enjoy a breezily paced historical adventure, but it’s not to my tastes, I’m afraid.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.