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Friday, 27 July 2018

On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony

Piers Anthony is one of those genre writers that I had heard of when getting into Fantasy and Science-Fiction, but I hadn't really had the chance or inclination to pick up any of his series, as much because it's difficult to know where to start with such a prolific author. But as On a Pale Horse appeared in, you guessed it, a bundle that I had picked up, it seemed the perfect place to start. Besides, who doesn't like a good Grim Reaper story?

On a Pale Horse follows Zane, a man who, after a spectacularly bad day topping off a life of guilt and failure, decides to kill himself. When he goes to pull the trigger, he is confronted by the Grim Reaper. In a moment of horrified panic and a sudden renewed desire to live, he turns the gun on Death, and kills him. Moments later, he meets the anthropomorphic manifestation of Fate and is told that he must take over the position of Grim Reaper, and gather the souls of those whose destination in the afterlife is uncertain. On top of trying to figure out his new powers and responsibilities on the job, he finds that his appointment may be tied into a vast conspiracy by Satan.
I love a good pantheon, and On a Pale Horse looks to be the start of a pretty good one. It was kind of an intriguing set-up, combining your traditional Abrahamaic God vs Satan narrative with five semi-immortal figures acting as manifestations of themes with particular importance in human society: Death, Time, Fate, War and Nature. As God and Satan are prohibited from interfering directly with life on Earth, the Incarnations are there to ensure that both of them stick to the rules of engagement. While the interactions between the Incarnations was somewhat limited, it was great to see the duplicity and scheming that was already present. The problem that I've seen with a lot of pantheons is that the deities within tend to fall into either good or evil camps and then their characters are more or less defined by their moral compass and not by their personal sphere of influence or any other personal nuance.
While on the subject of the world-building, the mortal world is also pretty nicely fleshed out. It tries to combine high magic and high science, which does work for the most part, although I personally preferred the fantasy aspects if only because it fit the theological theme more. There is only one part where the science-fiction stuff is particularly egregious towards the end of the book, but all things considered it isn't too big an issue.
I already know that I have the second book in the series queued up to read further down the line, and I'm looking forward to revisiting the world. I would be remiss though if I didn't mention an aspect of the writing that I found both distracting and uncomfortable. There was an awful lot of male gaze stuff, and it didn't really seem necessary. Sure, you can say that a female character is pretty within her character description, that's fine. The problem comes up when the narration regularly brings up female characters' plentiful bosoms and shapely legs. Hell, there's an entire section where the main character watches the magical equivalent of American Football with female teams. Sure it hits all the typical sports tropes, but adds comments about how the protective padding emphasises their feminine qualities, a section where a spell makes it look like a player is naked and some of the most stereotypical cat-fighting that I've seen in a long time. It's positively masturbatory and could have been cut quite easily. Admittedly, Zane does conduct himself in a gentlemanly manner, but even that becomes irritating with his tendency to assume that "female = purity". It's a shame considering that the world and the plot are really engaging. While I'm content to continue the series, I am sorely hoping that this was more an issue in the choice of main character, rather than something that is an author trait. I could see it souring my experience of what looks to be an intriguing series.

The world and plot are well-fleshed out, with some really interesting social sparring between the immortal characters. I would have rated this higher, but my enjoyment was spoiled somewhat by the egregious and unnecessary focus on cringe-worthy male gaze sections. I can only hope that it doesn't come up in the second book. 4/5

Next review: True Grit by Charles Portis

Signing off,

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Batman & the Justice League Preview Edition by Shiori Teshirogi

It's weird when you see characters that you're used to seeing in a typical American comic style portrayed as manga characters. Especially when it's Batman. The dissonance would normally be enough to dissuade me from picking up Batman & the Justice League, but since I got the preview edition in a bundle that was bought for me, I felt like I should give it a chance. Keep in mind that this volume only covers the first two chapters, so if there's anything else that comes up in the regular first volume, then I cannot comment.

Gotham City is no place for a tourist, but a Japanese boy by the name of Rui Aramiya finds himself drawn there after his parents disappeared in a power plant explosion there. Everyone keeps telling him that there's no way that they could have survived, but until he can see the proof for himself, he refuses to believe that. At the same time, Batman is once more in confrontation with the Joker, fresh from killing Jason Todd. But there is something strange afoot and he may need to bring in support from his colleagues in the Justice League.
I wanted to like Batman & the Justice League, but it just doesn't work on any level for me. This can be split largely into two points: the artwork and the plot.
While the artwork is good, it just doesn't work for Batman, and that frustrates me so much. The characters are expressive, everything is clear and easy to follow, but it's just the completely wrong tone. Batman and Commissioner Gordon shouldn't look like they walked out of a men's fashion catalogue mere minutes before their entrance in the manga. Worse than them though is the one glimpse that we get of Jason Todd, where he is so ludicrously baby-faced and innocent-looking that you have to remind yourself that this is the Robin introduced stealing the Batmobile's hub-caps.
I have a few issues with the plot. First is that it starts with ley lines, the least Batman-appropriate plot point that I could possibly think of. Second, while I appreciate that I've only read a couple of chapters, I don't think that Rui storyline fits tonally with whatever Batman and Joker are doing. With the Batman stuff, it was more-or-less typical cat and mouse game, while Rui is both wide-eyed idealist tourist and a ninja. I've technically seen Batman in stupider situations, but it's still weird seeing some random civilian pull out smoke bombs. If they were working together, I could probably understand how the plot could be pulled off, but the early events makes it clear that Rui is seen as a nuisance. So I'm not really sure how it will go from here, and to be honest I'm not especially interested.

Not objectively bad, but for me this didn't work on any level. While there is the possibility that a few more chapters may have changed my mind, I am certainly not interested enough to pick up more from what I have already read. 2/5

Next review: On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony

Signing off,

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Nightblade by Garrett Robinson

I have my sibling to thank for finding Nightblade, as they informed me about a giveaway that the author was having. It's taken me a little while to get to it, but I was looking forward to taking a look as the author seemed to be really keen on promoting diversity in his works. If there's a genre that should be more diverse but isn't, fantasy is right at the top of that list.

Nightblade follows Loren, a forester's daughter who dreams of escaping her cruel parents and becoming a thief of such calibre that legends are made of. She finds her opportunity when she meets a fugitive mage, Xain. Unfortunately, she finds that travelling with him has garnered a lot of unwanted attention, and she only has her wits and a mysterious dagger taken from her parents to protect herself with.
I had fun with Nightblade. It's not the best fantasy book that I've ever read, but it's a solid, fun read and that was honestly all I was after. The characters are interesting, if a little under-developed at the moment. Loren, the would-be thief, is an interesting mix of cynical and wide-eyed idealist, and there's a lot of righteous anger that I can see being really good to watch out for in future books. There is Annis, a merchant's daughter who is craftier than her sheltered life thus far would suggest. And there's Gem, the pickpocket who desperately wants to be a charming rogue. At the moment, there hasn't really been enough time to really develop them hugely, but I liked what I saw of it.
Similarly, there are a lot of plot points that have brought up a lot of questions, but there are very few answers as of yet. Why Xain is running from the King's Law, and what makes Loren's dagger so special are the primary questions that will hopefully be answered in the future. It's not a huge bother for me, as it's a first installment in a universe that looks to be ever expanding, and I'm more than happy to pick up more of the series, should I find it.

A decent fantasy romp. There's nothing too complicated here, but there's a lot of promise for future books, including a couple of pretty big questions currently unanswered. I'm also looking forward to seeing how the child/teenage characters develop, as it's a little on the threadbare side at the moment. Thoroughly enjoyable though. 3.5/5

Next review: Batman & the Justice League Preview Edition by Shiori Teshirogi

Signing off,

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Dead Beat by Jim Butcher

So I still have a few audiobooks to get to, but I didn't fancy jumping straight back into one after a very long listen with only a short, fluffy comic in between. So it made sense to go back to a series that is kind of guaranteed to make me enjoy myself. So Dresden Files it was. I didn't realise quite how long it had been since I last picked up the series until just now when I was looking through my blog archive. Definitely long overdue for a revisit.

If there is one thing that can spur Harry into action, it's threatening the people he loves. So when Mavra, the Black Court vampire that he tried to kill in Blood Rites, confronts him with incriminating pictures of Murphy that she will send to the authorities unless Dresden gets her what she wants. And what Mavra wants is the Word of Kemmler, by midnight of Halloween. Unfortunately, it looks as though there are several necromancers, apprentices of the eponymous Kemmler, who also want it and are ready and willing to use the most extreme methods available to them to get it.
It's been a while since the bad guys were just other wizards, and not a vampire or Fae of some variety, which is surprisingly refreshing. But despite reverting back to mortal enemies, Butcher manages to bring in a little bit of everything else that has come before. And it makes you realise just how much has been established when little bits of everything is brought in to influence the turn of events. There is the influence of every one of the Vampire Courts, the Fae get involved as they are wont to do, Harry has issues with the Denarian coin that he tried to seal away in his basement, and many other little things that contribute to a surprisingly complex plot.
As always, the characters are the best part, even when working with a much smaller core cast. Sure, lots of characters turn up briefly, like my perennial favourite Johnny Marcone, but they tend to be one-scene wonders. The main cast can pretty much be narrowed down to Harry, Thomas and Butters. And I didn't know how much I would love the character development that they both get.
First there is Thomas. In previous books, he always came across as a feckless, rich playboy with hints of inner depths. Now that he's revealed himself as Harry's half-brother and been cut off from the vast funds that he was used to, he's had a chance to grow into himself a bit. It was really nice to see the parts where he and Harry get a chance to act like brothers: not necessarily always on the same page, but pushing each other to get better and look after themselves.
Second is Butters. When I first mentioned him in my reviews, I said that he was surprisingly calm about being confronted with evidence of the supernatural. Well, it turns out that there's a big difference about recognising a non-human cadaver for what it is, and having the corpse of a former colleague burst into your office and try to kidnap you. There is lots of screaming, hiding and unexpected bravery. He might well count as one of my series favourite characters now, and I can't wait to see him turn up again.

A really solid entry that manages to pull in elements from every book that has gone before it, and yet manages to not be a confused mess of supernatural mythos. Butters and Thomas get some great character development, elevating Butters in particular to joint favourite alongside Karrin Murphy and Johnny Marcone. Additionally, Harry makes some really big decisions that I think are just going to make the next entries in the series all the more tense. 4.5/5

Next review: Nightblade by Garrett Robinson

Signing off,

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

K-ON! Volume 1 by kakifly

After the long and draining read that was Blood Meridian, I was in the mood for something a lot lighter in tone. Enter the first volume of K-ON!, a series that comes highly recommended to me by my husband. Since I like what I've seen of the anime adaptation, and I needed something short, sweet and relatively harmless, it seemed like the perfect choice.

K-ON! follows Yui Hirasawa in her first year of high school. When she's frightened into joining an extracurricular club for fear of becoming a NEET after high school, she joins the Pop Music club, assuming that it will be an easy ride. Unfortunately, her new club members assume that she can play the guitar, an instrument she has never touched in her life. But with determination, she and her new friends may be able to turn this failing club around.
I was after something gentle, and K-ON! certainly delivers on that. There isn't really much in the way of driven plot, but then that's pretty much a staple of the slice of life genre. What the genre sacrifices in plot and serious conflict, it makes up for in characters, and K-ON! definitely has that in abundance. So the core of the cast is made up of the four members of the Pop Music club. As mentioned above, there is Yui, the inexperienced main guitarist. She's sweet and energetic, but nowhere near the brightest bulb in the box. There's Mio Akiyama, the studious and painfully shy bassist, who more or less has to adopt the straight man role out of the group. Self-appointing herself the new club president, despite having none of the qualifications necessary for such a role, is Ritsu Tainaka, the audacious prankster on drums. And finally, my current favourite, Tsumugi Kotobuki, the wealthy keyboardist who is outwardly the perfect gentle lady, but is more than a little risque in her thoughts. There are also some secondary characters, but the one that stood out most for me was the teacher acting as their club adviser, Sawako Yamanaka. She only agrees to advise the club after they threaten to reveal her past as a member of the Pop Music club during its speed metal period, at which point you realise that her sweet, gentle nature is just a mask for someone mildly terrifying. It's a beautiful moment.
This volume covers the first year of the club, in which they mainly mess around and treat the clubhouse like a tea-room while Yui tries to get the hang of playing the guitar. It's cute so far, and I especially like what I've seen of them actually playing music, complete with comically terrible lyrics for their first original song. I'm a little sad that it does take a bit of a back-seat to your standard slice-of-life high school stuff, but I'm hoping that it will get a bit more music-focused as Yui and the others get more confident with their instruments.

Very cute and fluffy. Not a great deal of plot, but that's not really why I picked it up. Will definitely be picking up the next volumes in the future. 4.5/5

Next review: Dead Beat by Jim Butcher

Signing off,

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy

So Blood Meridian took me longer to get through that I was hoping. Evidently audiobooks are not something that I get on with. I've been looking to read some of Cormac McCarthy's ever since seeing the film adaptation of No Country for Old Men, cliche as that may be. It was such an odd film that I was curious to see how much of that was the Coen Brothers' direction and how much was from the original source material. But I got my hands on Blood Meridian first, so that will have to be my introduction to his works. 

Blood Meridian follows a runaway known as the Kid during his violent coming-of-age as a member of a group of scalp-hunters, headed by the infamous John Joel Glanton and the eerie and erudite Judge Holden. As part of the Glanton Gang, he is tasked with collecting the scalps of natives attacking settlements at the Mexico-USA border. 
Right, so something quick to start the review off: if violence is not your thing, then Blood Meridian is not for you, as it comes up startlingly often and usually in a great deal of detail. If I were to guess, I would say that the majority of the narrative can be filed into one of three things: an act of mass and/or out-of-proportion violence, travelling in some truly wonderful descriptions of the landscape, or sitting around the camp-fire listening to the Judge preach about the world. 
Weirdly enough though, I found that the violence wasn't all that shocking. I have read that many readers who have gotten through to the end experience desensitisation, but it probably says something about me that, while the violence is vivid and utterly brutal, I just had a weird sense of dissociation. There was something about the stark nature of the writing style and the bleak, lawless setting that meant that when the violence did come along, it just felt like a natural extension. It didn't feel as shocking to me as, for example, Chuck Palahniuk's violent scenes, which stick out because they're meant to be set in modern day and contrast with mundanity. 
The thing that really stuck out for me was the Judge's speeches, just because he's such a well-written Devil figure. He is an unusual figure in pretty much every way compared to the company that he keeps, from his huge stature and arresting lack of hair, to the eloquence with which he completely runs circles around his uneducated travelling companions, to the obvious enjoyment that he takes in the violence that he inflicts as opposed to killing from necessity or for money. In addition to his unusual features, he seems to get a lot more spotlight than the nominal protagonist, the Kid, which gives the reader a better idea of his nature, if not his true origins. For me, I couldn't shake the idea that he was meant to be Satan, considering some of his actions appear to have no physical explanation at times, which gave the whole book a weird kind of Biblical parable feel to it. It felt like if new chapters of the Old Testament were written, but God never interjects as a guide, leaving the world to descend further and further into evil in their absence. 

A fascinatingly grim book, Blood Meridian is definitely not for those who can't stomach violence. Personally I found the Judge's speeches to be the far more disturbing part of the narrative, but I can understand it would be a deciding factor. I had this as an audiobook, but I would be really interested in re-reading it as a print or e-book at some later date. 4/5 

Next review: K-ON! Volume 1 by kakifly 

Signing off,