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Books To Look For
Alex + Ada, by Jonathan Luna & Sarah Vaughn, Image Comics, 2013-2014, $2.99 per issue.
Starlight, by Mark Millar & Goran Parlov, Image Comics, 2014, $2.99 per issue.
Pretty Deadly, by Kelly Sue DeConnick & Emma Ríos, Image Comics, 2013-2014, $3.50 per issue.
Older readers might be forgiven for not wanting to try them. They hear the words "comic books" and can only think of the spandex-clad superheroes of their youth. The endless parade of blockbuster movies based on these same characters doesn't help change anybody's mind.
Personally, my primary interest is Story, and I don't really care about the delivery system. So long as nothing gets in the way of the narrative, I'm happy. I'll gladly read pulp magazines, hardcover books, advance galleys, mass markets, ebooks…and comics. Because I know that if you turn your back on the latter, you miss out on some great storytelling that isn't available in other formats.
Now, it helps if you like art—particularly narrative art. The downside is that it doesn't quite allow our imaginations to flourish the way they can with a prose book. The upside is that we're offered visuals we couldn't necessarily imagine for ourselves. I particularly like an artist capable of a full range of character expression and a good panel-to-panel flow, but I'm also happy with the artists who detail such an intricate world that once the story's done, I feel compelled to go back and admire the individual panels.
But we're talking about Story here, and I'd like to present you with three current titles that are vastly different from each other—visually as well as storywise. I don't pay much attention to publishers when I'm reading comics, so I was a little surprised to find out that they're all from Image Comics. This doesn't mean they're the only company doing good comics, I should add. They just happened to be the titles I decided to cover this time out.
Alex + Ada plays with a much-beloved theme of the sf field: the question of whether or not an android or computer system is capable of true cognitive and emotional abilities. In other words, can they generate feelings or an ability to think that hasn't been programmed into them?
A good example is the recent film Her, set in a near future where a man falls in love with a computer operating system. He's not alone. Many other—usually lonely—people are falling in love with their systems, or becoming friends with them. I'm not sure I buy the director's view of the future as this hipster society with bad pants and retro furniture, but the emotional thrust of the piece was great, as well as its non-Hollywood ending.
In Alex + Ada, Alex has recently been dumped by his girlfriend, and his rich grandmother buys him Ada, a beautiful robot that appears so real one would think it was human. It's not, of course, and Alex wants nothing to do with it. But curiosity gets the better of him and he turns it on.
What follows (up to issue #6 which is the last one to come out before I write this) is a fascinating journey into what makes us human. Spirit/soul can't be measured by scientific methods, but regardless of one's religious beliefs, it's hard to accept that there isn't something in us that makes us greater than the sum of our parts. Alex begins to discover the truth of this as he makes his way to obscure forums in the darker parts of the net. There he learns that there are ways to bypass the software that keeps an android like Ada from evolving.
I don't have to tell you what happens next. The basic plot is something we've seen before from any number of sf writers. But Alex + Ada still feels fresh. Much of this is due to the creators.
Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn tell the story with Luna also providing the art. The latter is a little stiffer than I like. It has a very computer-generated look to it, but at the same time that particular artistic style adds to the veracity of the near-future setting, and I've found myself liking it more and more as the series continues.
By the time this comes out there will probably be a trade paperback available covering the first five-issue story arc.
Starlight, by writer Mark Millar and artist Goran Parlov, has a more traditional comic book look to it—that is, if you read a lot of European titles. Unlike the art in Alex + Ada where there doesn't appear to be any inking in the art, Parlov proves to be a master of delicate linework.
The story should appeal to those who remember Edgar Rice Burroughs's John Carter of Mars book, or if you need a comic reference, Adam Strange from DC Comics. The way it goes is, through some mystical means, an earthman ends up on another planet that's under the thumb of a tyrant, saves the world, and returns home.
Or at least that's how it plays out for Duke McQueen in Starlight. He doesn't marry the princess the way both Carter and Strange do. Instead, he returns to Earth, where no one believes him, and carries on with his life.
McQueen is able to do so without too much regret because he marries the love of his life, Joanne. They raise a family, the two boys grow up and move out, and the married couple is left to enjoy the twilight of their years. Except when our story opens, we're attending Joanne's funeral. After twenty-eight years of marriage, McQueen doesn't quite know what to do with himself once she's gone. Still, he carries on as best he can, this time going through the motions of living his life, instead of actually living it.
The narrative goes back and forth between the present with McQueen living as a widower, and his memories of Tantalus, that other world where he found himself years ago.
Then on a stormy night, a spaceship appears in McQueen's backyard with a pilot who appears to be a twelve-year-old boy. The boy tells McQueen that he's needed back on Tantalus, because in his absence, everything has gone to hell. The problem is that today, McQueen isn't a young man in the prime of his life as when he first went to that other world. He's an old man.
The series is only two issues in as I write this, but it looks to be a winner. Mark Millar is one of the better writers in the comics field, and he always delivers a story high on character, innovation, and plot momentum. And Starlight is no exception.
You don't have to have any familiarity with the various books to which this appears to be a response. Just like you don't have to have read the colored fairy collections to appreciate Andrew Lang's My Own Fairy Book. But if you have, it's fun seeing this take on what happens after those original stories ended.
If Alex + Ada is sf, and Starlight is space opera, Pretty Deadly is our fantasy entry in these three titles. A quick description for it is that this is what we might have gotten if Lord Dunsany or Clark Ashton Smith had collaborated with Zane Grey for a novel.
It's set in an old West that's as peculiar and downright strange as you could imagine—and then it goes a little further still. The art suits the story: visually stimulating, pregnant with meaning. It's not a story meant for readers who like a clear, linear tale. Rather, it appears to be aimed at those who love the taste of words and phrases and imaginations run wild.
In the third issue, the writer Kelly Sue DeConnick runs a great Sergio Leone quotation: "The important thing is to make a different world, a world that is not now. A real world, a genuine world, but one that allows myth to live. The myth is everything."
Then she goes on to tell us how she and artist Emma Ríos had fully intended Pretty Deadly to be a "homage to the Spaghetti Western—'very Leone,' we said. Somewhere along the way the book began to change, somewhere the dead bunny spoke, the rivers of blood rose, people turned up with animal skulls and the magic made its presence known."
They worried that they had gone too far from their initial intent until a friend showed them that Leone quote and they realized that what they were doing hadn't drifted away from that intent, but had in fact brought the story closer.
Pretty Deadly is a pure North American fantasy with its roots in the Old West. But it has cosmic aspirations and ramifications, giving us a dense, fascinating story that begs for multiple rereads. There's so much depth and nuance that something new can be found each time.
And I haven't even touched on the art. In page after page, Ríos delivers images that are surprising and fresh, creating a new visual mythology that perfectly complements DeConnick's story. Neither of them shies away from the brutality of the times, but the violence isn't glorified and they also give us moments of pure whimsy.
I imagine the first five-issue arc should be available as a trade paperback soon, probably by the time you read this.
So there you have three new titles, and that's only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to some of the innovation available in the current crop of comics. You could also try Fatale (horror), Velvet (classic British spy updated to a contemporary setting), A Voice in the Dark (horror), Saga (sf), Coffin Hill (horror), The Witcher (dark fantasy), or pretty much anything by J. Michael Straczynski and Brian Michael Bendis. Even their superhero comics are unpredictable and entertaining.
Talus and the Frozen King, by Graham Edwards, Solaris, 2014, $7.99.
Imagine Robert E. Howard channeling Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and you'll get an idea of Graham Edwards's voice in Talus and the Frozen King.
His wandering bard Talus is the one who wears the Sherlock Holmes cloak. Like Holmes, Talus is opinionated, a keen observer, and quick with deductions, and he talks more than those around him would like. He remains a mysterious figure throughout, which leaves his Watson, Bran—erstwhile fisherman, now traveling companion—to be our more likeable point of view character.
Bran also comes with a tragic backstory that includes the loss of his wife, as well as his hand, on the same stormy night when he first met Talus.
The pair are wandering north in a world much like Howard's Hyborian Age, in particular the frozen north where Howard's best-known character, Conan, originated, the land of Cimmeria.
When the book opens, Talus and Bran arrive at the island community of Creyak on the very night that the islanders' king has been murdered, setting into motion what is basically a locked-room mystery, albeit one with an original setting and characters. Edwards plays fair in all counts: the unfolding of the mystery, the process Talus uses to figure things out, and not "modernizing" anything. People only know what they should know in this Neolithic period. In fact, Talus even has to explain the whole concept of motive to the king's orphaned sons.
There's a good reason the book's tagline is "Introducing the World's First Detective."
While there's definitely the spirit of Holmes and Watson present, a better heroic fantasy touchstone might be Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in one of their adventures away from the large city of Lankhmar.
I found the novelty of the concept, and the execution thereof, a treat, but if this is the start of a series, I'm not sure there's enough in either setting or characters to maintain my interest in further books. Talus and the Frozen King ends with Talus and Bran heading further north—to more desolate landscapes, and one assumes, more insular communities—and I fear the next outing won't feel as fresh as this one did.
Stories About Stories: Fantasy & the Remaking of Myth, by Brian Attebery, Oxford University Press, 2014, $29.95.
The Purpose of Fantasy, by Philip Martin, Crispin Books, 2014, $14.95.
Fantasy has always had close ties with fairy tales, folklore, and mythology. Some works use those connections far more successfully than others, to be sure, and in many the relationship between the two is buried deep, but the links are there if one takes the time to look.
The job of the reader isn't to worry about that. The reader doesn't have a job when it comes to books. They come to a book for a story and are kept enthralled by the characters, the plot, and the prose—preferably, all three. If they're reading fantasy, they also come for the mythic resonance and a sense of wonder, but they're not necessarily interested in the roots of the story.
But there are those of us interested in the stories behind the stories. We love to see how the authors mine the rich veins of mythic matter, and how they reinvent that material for their own narratives.
If you're one of those folks, I highly recommend Brian Attebery's new book. It's a scholarly work, but it reads with bright clarity as he takes us back and forth between fantasy and myth, showing not only the connections, but also how the best of fantasy is a roadmap that can return the reader to its source material.
And if you need any more incentive, it also sports a lovely Charles Vess cover.
Philip Martin's The Purpose of Fantasy sports a subtitle that's a real mouthful—"A Reader's Guide to Twelve Selected Books with Good Values & Spiritual Depth"—but it certainly does its job, since that pretty much sums up what the book is about.
I have to admit I approached Martin's argument with a little trepidation, as I've learned over the years that other people's ideas of "Good Values & Spiritual Depth" don't always jibe with my own. But I was pleasantly surprised to find him open-minded rather than dogmatic and pushing his own spiritual agenda.
Martin has a much more conversational prose style than Attebery, and he's perhaps a little more defensive (many would say justifiably so). Where Attebery assumes that anyone reading his book understands the worth of fantasy and myth, Martin opens his with a discussion of how these sorts of stories are marginalized and spends a little while refuting the idea before carrying on with his main premise.
Most of the books under discussion were originally published as children's books, or Young Adult, such as The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame and Ursula K. Le Guin's Gifts. Sometimes Martin chooses a less well-known book by an author, so we get Michael Ende's Momo rather than his The Never Ending Story, and The Rope Trick by Lloyd Alexander instead of one from his Chronicles of Prydain series. Next to the Grahame classic, which was published in 1913, the oldest book discussed is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1943); the most current is Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013).
Like its subtitle, the book does its job well. You might argue about the inclusion or exclusion of certain titles, but Martin doesn't get sappy, and his thoughts on the books will probably make you want to read those that you haven't already read. I found a few myself—some by writers I thought I knew well—and plan to add them to my own reading list.
The only thing I didn't like about the book was the set of questions at the end of each entry, but perhaps they'll be appreciated by book clubs that might take on one of the twelve classics Martin discusses here.
Timestorm, by Julie Cross, Thomas Dunne Books, 2014, $18.99.
I've covered the previous books in this time travel trilogy in an earlier column (Jul/Aug 2013). Briefly put, I adored the first book and thought the ending to be particularly poignant. The second book was a huge disappointment for me. It had nothing to do with Julie Cross's writing. Rather it was the fact that she continued a story that I—foolishly, in this age of endless series books—had thought had ended in Tempest, the first novel.
My bad, really, but it did send me into the second book Vortex with a negative feeling that wasn't allayed as I read, because the further into the story I got, the more Cross negated what I'd liked so much about the first book. What had been a character-driven story, lifted above the ordinary by the sacrifice the main character makes at the end, turned into a confusing and rather typical book about time travel agencies with differing ideologies.
In other words, something fine and fresh became something we've seen a hundred times before—or at least we in the sf&f field have.
Sometimes the fact that an author has obviously no sense of history of the field makes their books refreshing reads, since they have to reinvent everything for themselves and aren't bogged down by the tropes and archetypes that longtime readers and writers know. This can have wonderful results.
But sometimes it just feels old. As it did for me with Vortex.
(I should state here, for the record, that I have no idea how familiar Julie Cross is with our field, but a quick look at her other books shows that this series is the only sf she's written.)
That being the case, you might be asking, why did I read this third, and supposedly, final book?
Good question. It's one I asked myself as I cracked it open. Part of it was curiosity. Part of it was that I wasn't coming to it with the same expectations I had with the second book. But mostly it was that for all my complaints about that second book, Cross is a fine writer in terms of character and prose style and her ability to move the plot forward.
Timestorm doesn't reach the emotional heights of the first novel, but it is a satisfying companion to the second novel. It's true that we've seen variations on its plot for decades in the field, but Cross's execution is good, and if you haven't read this sort of time travel cops story before, I've no doubt you'll enjoy what she's done here.
Otherwise, when it comes to these three books, I highly recommend you read Tempest—it really is a terrific novel—and pretend it's a standalone. Just don't be tempted to read further in the series.
Material to be considered for review in this column should be sent to Charles de Lint, P.O. Box 9480, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1G 3V2.
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Copyright © 1998–2020 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide