Category Archives: Reading

A queen and a winged wonder: books read

THE TRUE QUEEN: A Sorcerer to the Crown Novel by Zen Cho is an excellent follow-up to Sorcerer to the Crown, surprisingly going in different directions. Amnesiac twins in Malaysia, one magical and one not, discover one of them is being eaten away by a curse; they flee through the spirit world to England to hunt the cause, only for the magical sister to disappear in transit. Her sister Muna arrives at Prunella Wythe’s academy for female wizards (a new and still controversial development) where she has to find a way to bring her sister back while getting caught up in the “magiciennes” conflicts both small (arranged marriage!) and large (war with the queen of Faerie). Everything worked and it had none of the problems that bothered me about the first novel.

THE HAWKMAN COMPANION by Doug Zawisza is one of the worst-edited TwoMorrows books I’ve read (“inspired by the tenants on which America was built,” for instance ) and occasional streaks of pretension, but it’s still an excellent guide to Hawkman’s history and how badly mangled it’s become over the past three decades (repeated reboots and twists warping the Silver Age Earth-One Winged Wonder’s backstory beyond belief). It’s also a good look at the problems of editorial mismanagement: Tony Isabella’s successful Hawkman reboot in the early 1980s tanked after his new editor told him to wrap up the planned multi-year arc in a couple of issues while William Messner-Loebs’ run suffered from editorial trying to rip off Image’s style (by which logic nineteen pages of action and one page of thought was too slow-paced). It’s also curious that while most of the interviewees are fond of the Silver Age Hawkman and Hawkgirl (married cops from the planet Thanagar) and the fact they were such a great couple, the Golden Age reincarnated Egyptian prince has been the only Hawkman since the 1990s, and the Hawks haven’t been married since the mid-1980s. I doubt things have improved with whatever version of Hawkman is operating in the New 52. Despite the editing flaws, a thorough job, as I expect from TwoMorrows.

#SFWApro. Cover by Murphy Anderson, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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“The Amazing Amazon as you’ve seen her before!”

That’s how Trina Robbins and Kurt Busiek described their four-issue mini, The Legend of Wonder Woman which came out immediately following the end of WW’s series in 1986. Despite the “never” on the cover, this was a deliberate call back to the Golden Age Wonder Woman: her villains, the style of art (Robbins, who co-plotted, does a great H.G. Peters). And what Robbins describes as the key to her appeal to girls back then: “a superior female character who had … trips to fantastic lost kingdoms and meetings with beautiful (and often evil) queens and empresses.”

At the same time, it has a lot of the visuals associated with the modern Wonder Woman (i.e., the one who starred in the book from the Silver Age through 1986) such as her chest emblem being a modified WW rather than an American eagle.

As Busiek put it in one of the text pages, the post-Crisis universe erased both the Earth-One and Earth-Two Wonder Women from continuity, so they were free for those four issues to ignore the little details.

The story starts after Diana’s death in Crisis on Infinite Earths (following the original proposal to make her a statue; apparently turning her back into clay was a last-minute switch). With the Amazons dispirited, Hippolyta (the blonde Earth-One version) uses the time-scanning magic sphere to recall one of Wonder Woman’s adventures. Atomia, the tyrant of a subatomic universe, appears and attacks Paradise Island and the world with her nuclear based powers and warriors. The Amazons and Steve Trevor are kidnapped and turned into slaves in the process. Caught up in all this is Suzie, a pre-teen girl Wonder Woman wound up babysitting. Suzie is a restless, spoiled child who’s torn between Atomia, who lets her do whatever she wands and then some, and Wonder Woman. Ultimately, of course, she chooses the side of good (it’s nicer!) and helps WW and Steve win.

After telling the tale, Hippolyta discovers not only are the Amazons not inspired, they’re confused: there’s never been a child on Paradise Island. Athena? reveals she’s been holding off the reality-altering effects of the Crisis but now they’re sweeping in. The Amazons are erased, but Athena promises something awesome will rise …

I didn’t care much for the story when I first read it, but I liked it a lot more this time, possibly because I’ve grown fonder of the Golden Age Wonder Woman in the years since first reading. This may explain why I found myself thinking “for a Golden Age tribute, shouldn’t there be more bondage?” Though we did get the cover of #3. The tribute still didn’t match the level of the last few years of the regular comic, but I did enjoy it, and it does catch a lot of the Golden Age feel. Suzie was Busiek’s creation but became Robbins’ surrogate, the girl having the adventures with Princess Diana Robbins would have loved to experience at that age.

Despite DC playing up Jodi Picoult as one of the first women to write Wonder Woman, women have been scripting her since 1945: William Marston’s secretary Joye Murchison, Dani Thomas co-writing with her husband Roy and Mindi Newell write before Wonder Woman ended (I believe there may have been some other uncredited female writers over the years). That’s still a small list but “one of the few” would have been a more accurate phrasing.

Following the finish of Legends of Wonder Woman came the George Perez-helmed reboot. I’ll be back in a few weeks when I review the initial six-issue arc.

#SFWApro. Covers by Trina Robbins, all rights remain with current holder.

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Once again, science links and science-fiction comics covers

Trump thinks Google is working for the Chinese government, based on the ironclad evidence of a discussion on Fox News.

An astronomer faked a video claiming a government cover-up of our imminent destruction by a rogue planet. People believed it.

With antibiotics losing their punch, are bacteria-targeting viruses a viable alternative?

I don’t want to contradict an obvious expert but I don’t believe country music actually changes listeners DNA.

Does the Superhuman email client software have a dark side?

 

Holy shit, tardigrades have landed on the moon?

What happens when a tectonic plate dies?

 

Baking bread with 4,500 year old yeast. I soooo want to do this now.

Changes in singing styles are why stars such as Adele keep losing their voice.

Debates in the medical world over whether the New England Journal of Medicine is on the wrong track.

Can genetic engineering save the American chestnut tree?

Has Sweden perfected recycling?

#SFWApro. Covers top to bottom by Bob Brown, Dick Dillin, Bob Brown, Lou Cameron, Ruben Moreira and Brown again, all rights to images remain with current holders.

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Egypt, France and the Solar System: books read

THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 by P. Djeli Clark shows why libraries are wonderful: at $15 for a paperback novella, I’d never have bought it for myself, and so I’d have missed a first-rate story.

The setting is 20th century Egypt in an alternate history triggered when an Islamic mystic opened a gateway and let magic and the djinn back into the world. While Egypt isn’t the only nation affected, Cairo was ground zero, giving Egypt a head start; the nation threw off Western imperialism and is now one of the world’s great powers.The protagonists are detectives working for the government body dealing with supernatural threats; when one of the city’s elevated tram cars becomes possessed, they have to figure out by what, and how to get rid of it. Which proves, of course, more complicated than expected.

Clark has a great setting with lots of convincing detail (at least to someone who doesn’t know Egypt well) and he tells a good story. As he apparently has other novellas out, I look forward to when they all come out in an anthology down the road (it’ll be a lot more cost-effective to buy this one then).

ELEANOR AND THE EGRET: Taking Flight by John Layman and Sam Kieth is a really oddball France-set graphic novel. Eleanor is an artist, mysteriously blocked in her painting, working with a talking egret to steal paintings by the celebrated Anastasia Rue. Which the egret then feeds on. Det. Belanger is the cop on the case, trying to figure out the who and the why behind the thefts and finding himself quite charmed by this young lady, Eleanor, that he’s met. Rue, however, is not at all delighted … Goofy and charming, I really liked this one (a lot more than Layman’s Chew).

Rereading NORTHWEST SMITH by C.L. Moore was a frustrating experience, and not just because it omits Moore’s crossover between space mercenary Smith and her sword-and-sorcery warrior Jirel (my Jirel of Joiry collection doesn’t have it either). The stories are solidly in that pulp style I love so much, but read collectively, they’re too much alike — almost half of them follow the structure of the first, Shambleau, in having Smith deal with some exotically alien Bad Girl who wants to suck out his soul.  Smith himself is surprisingly ineffective as a protagonist; while Moore reminds us he’s tough, he’s usually helpless in the grip of paranormal forces so someone else, such as his sidekick Yarol, has to save the day. He’s also a lot nastier than I remember — he grumbles a lot about working for slavers in one story, but money’s tight so he goes ahead and does it. The stories still work, but in hindsight I’d have enjoyed them better if I’d slowed down the reading to maybe one story every couple of days, interspersed with other things.

#SFWApro. Cover by Stephen Martiniere, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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Brainwashing for charity: Doc Savage’s Crime College

People who know very little about Doc Savage still know about the “crime college.” It even turns up in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, wherein someone remembers Doc planning to lock all the criminals on Earth away on a desert island where he would use brain surgery to turn them into decent citizens (this is an inaccurate recollection). The crime college was where Doc performed those operations, though only crooks who crossed his path — he never went out and tried to actively wipe out crime. A lot of modern takes ignore the whole thing rather than deal with the implications (Marvel’s Bronze Age color and B&W series) while others mention it but just to show that it’s not such a cool idea. (meanwhile the Shadow goes right on gunning crooks down and nobody questions that — but I digress)

The concept of the college didn’t start out full-blown. In Doc’s second adventure Land of Terror, we learn Doc doesn’t turn crooks he captures over to the cops. Insted, he sends them to a private mental hospital where they receive years of intensive psychotherapy to turn them into honest citizens. Two novels later, The Polar Treasure refers to the hospital performing brain operations that wipe out their memories. The inconsistency isn’t based on Doc switching methods, as The Purple Dragon shows he’s been erasing memories since 1929.

Philip José Farmer suggests in his Doc Savage bio that Doc simply lied to Lester Dent, then decided readers would be okay with it (the hook for Farmer’s bio being that Dent’s stories were fictionalized versions of true events). As I don’t subscribe to that theory, even though it’s fun, I don’t have an explanation. It’s an inconsistency, but not a huge one; I can live with it. I am curious why Dent decided on the switch; perhaps cutting-edge brain surgery fit his concept for Doc better than a relatively realistic method did.

The Annihilist claims it’s not brain surgery but glandular surgery. There’s a particular gland that influences our sense of right or wrong; in criminals it’s out of whack, but Doc uses a combination of drugs and surgery to reset it to “moral” as well as wiping their memories. The bad guys are interested in getting the secret, then using it to turn bankers and others into sociopaths who’ll happily collaborate in crime.

This is much less convincing pseudoscience than brain surgery. It’s also the only time the novels mention this mysterious gland rather than reformation through surgery alone. I’m guessing Dent, like many series authors, got an idea that didn’t work with regular continuity, so he bent it for one story (and it is a heck of a story). I considered whether maybe it’s just a mistake and the crooks don’t really understand the surgical work, but Doc confirms that the crime gland exists and so does the treatment to turn people evil.

It’s possible enough people learn about the crime college in this book that the story spreads. That would explain how the crooks in Purple Dragon and The Flying Goblin know about it, though not their knowledge of who’s locked up there and where some of them have begun their new lives. The criminals in The Talking Devil know enough about the college to stir up rumors about Doc performing some kind of monstrous experiments on unwilling patients. What Doc is doing there is blatantly illegal (kidnapping, among other things) and unethical (medical ethics do not allow brain surgery without informed consent)but apparently the stories about the college never became substantial enough anyone in authority wanted to push the issue.

Most of the graduates, from what we see of them, go on to get good working-class jobs. After WW II breaks out, though, Doc starts placing some of them around the world as a spy network (established in Three Wild Men). As the war progresses and adventures become increasingly mundane, the college just fades away, like many of Doc’s more fantastic aspects.

But the memory of it obviously lingered on with fans.

#SFWApro. Covers by Bob Larkin (top) and James Bama, all rights remain with current

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Paperback covers for Tuesday

First, by Bob Maguire

Next a great action cover by Robert Sidney Bowen.A somewhat psychedelic one by Ron Turner.This one by a Stanley Zuckerberg makes me curious about the book, though I’m not sure why.One by Earl Bergey. Nothing says Golden Age of SF like being held at gunpoint by a nightclub dancer in space.And here’s another nightclub dancer, art uncredited.And to finish up, one by Powers.#SFWApro. Rights to all images remain with current holder.

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From Armistice Day to Bitch Planet, here’s this week’s reading

PEACE AT LAST: A Portrait of Armistice Day, 11 November 1918 by Guy Cuthbertson follows the day from the early morning as hostilities wound down (though some people on the front still died) to the 11 AM armistice proclamation through the varied reactions including prayer, joy, grief for the loss, relief at going home, worries about life on the home front, dismay at the thought of becoming a civilian again, and excitement at such trivial things as church bells ringing and cities lighting up at night (both banned during the war to avoid giving Zeppelins targets). The jubilation the War to End All Wars had actually ended produced countless spontaneous parades and celebrations like the one below on South Michigan Avenue in Chicago, even as some church and government leaders fretted the day should be more solemn (they got their wish: a few years later, Armistice Day would become a much more brooding event). A little monotonous at times (one celebration, followed by another, followed by another) but more than interesting enough to be worth the reading. And lord, it’s depressing to realize we’ll never see anything like this again — I think our culture’s just accepted perpetual war or imminent war is the way of things.

FRAY: Book Two of the Unraveled Kingdom by Rowenna Miller hooked me with its set-up: it’s an alt.France in the years before the revolution, with protagonist Sophie a petite bourgeois struggling to navigate between her brother’s revolutionary activities and her fiance, a prince trying to push for more gradual reform. Unfortunately this didn’t work for me at all: the 100 pages I finished were competently written but despite the tense situation there’s no sense of tension in the storyline — in fact if I hadn’t read the back of the book, I wouldn’t have any idea what the storyline was. And the magic could easily have been cut without affecting the plot, and that’s always a negative with me. So I gave up on it.

JAILBAIT: The Politics of Statutory Rape Laws in the United States by Carolyn Cocca looks at the various pressure groups and political debates fighting around the topic in the 20th century and how they played out in legal changes in Georgia, New Jersey and California. While a lot of this is too dry for me, it’s interesting to see what the laws represent to various constituencies, such as a way to police teen sex, to protect adolescent girls from predators, to stop teen pregnancy, to protect young boys from male pedophiles (an easier justification for protecting boys than the possibility of female predators) and the similar mix of objections (girls will seduce men then cry rape; two kids the same age could be busted; if older boys face charges, will their girlfriends even report them?).

Most of the reviews of the current Immortal Hulk series paint it as a horror comic taking Jade-Jaws in new directions, IMMORTAL HULK: Hulk in Hell by Al Ewing and Joe Bennett felt like a throwback to Peter David’s run on the title. We have a dominant, destructive Hulk personality, Bruce’s deranged Dad serving as an agent of Hell, the netherworld rising (that doesn’t make it horror — superheroes deal with that crap on a regular basis) … But David’s run is one of the best Hulk eras, so the comparison doesn’t mean the book is flawed, just that it doesn’t appear to be breaking new ground. I’m okay with that, though the text ruminations on the nature of evil got old fast.

BITCH PLANET: President Bitch by Kelly Sue deConnick and Valentine De Landro has a less focused plotline than V1, Extraordinary Machine, nor does it really follow the plot threads. Instead we have the women prisoners’ schemes to survive entangled with a grieving father and a familiar face turning up in one of the cells, while back on Earth the revolution starts and the patriarchs prove perfectly capable of backstabbing each other. Good, but I think an extra volume in between the two focusing on the prisoners’ plight would have been good.

#SFWApro. Photo is public domain from the Chicago Daily News via Wikimedia Commons.

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Historical fantasy, gaming mysteries and graphic novels: this week’s reading

WHERE OBLIVION LIVES: A Los Nefilim Novel by T. Frohock is set in 1930s Spain and Germany (Franco and Hitler are rising to power in the background) where the Nefilim (half-angels acting as heaven’s agents on Earth) Diego finds himself tormented by a magical violin from one of his past lives. Attempting to stop the attack and prove himself to his brethren (he’s part-demon too, which makes him suspicious), he ventures into Germany, unaware that both an imprisoned fallen angel and a former Nefilim leader have plans for him.

I know T. Frohock from Mysticon, but I sincerely enjoyed it (thank goodness — as I’ve said before, I always worry I’ll read a friend’s book and hate it). It’s very low-key but it works here, has a gay protagonist and a solid story. There were times I wasn’t clear about the mythos (I didn’t realize until late in the book that Diego’s much older than a normal human), but nothing that got me lost (and better light exposition than too much). The details of the early 1930s setting worked well, too.

NEST OF THE MONARCH: A Dark Talents Novel by Kay Kenyon is set in 1936 as psi-spy Kim (a “spill,” meaning people blurt out secrets around her) goes undercover as a diplomat’s wife in Germany, where she learns the Nazis have a Big and Evil Plan involving a White Russian with a special ability they see as the key to taking over Europe bloodlessly. This was well executed with excellent period detail (vastly better than MJ-12, which employed  similar elements), but it didn’t click with me as much as Frohock’s did; possibly it was that it’s more spy thriller than SF, but it may just have been my mood.

While I”m not a cozy mystery fan, I looked at NO SAVING THROW: A Ten Again Mystery by Kristin McFarland because the gaming-store setting seemed more fun than the usual restaurants and yarn stores in the genre. The story of the store’s owner investigating a murder that took place during some LARPing, possibly by a deranged gamer, gets the gaming parts right (and the stereotypes of gamers that the cast have to deal with) but the mystery flopped for me. The owner’s decision to investigate on her own lacked a very good reason, and I really couldn’t see her cop best friend accepting this so casually.

COPPERHEAD by Jay Faerber and Scott Godlewski is a competent space western graphic novel about a female sheriff with a troubled record, starting over with her son in the eponymous mining town. She doesn’t like the local android population, her deputy resents not being made sheriff and the local rich guy thinks she’s going to be a problem; meanwhile she has to solve the murder of alien family. First in a series, this feels very much like a pilot episode establishing the series. Competently done, but not terribly compelling (admittedly my lack of interest in Westerns may factor in).

GHOSTBUSTERS: Mass Hysteria by Erik Burnham and Dan Schoening is twenty issues or so of a  Ghostbusters series from IDW, with the Ghostbusters and a junior team (created for the series) battle against the usual array of menaces, plus the looming threat of Gozer’s old adversary Tiamat rising in the background. Captures the spirit of the films very well (I don’t believe it’s drawing on the cartoons at all).

#SFWApro. Cover by Richard L. Aquan and multiple others, all rights remain with current holder.

 

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Some comic book covers for Friday

Not — the Four-Armed Men! Marie Severin improves on the original Kirby cover (this was a reprint)

My Greatest Adventure stories were mediocre, but I wish I knew why he built the super-cage, don’t you? Art by Ruben Moreira.

DC war comics did a lot of these unusual angles. Art by Jerry Grandenetti.

A funny animal cover by Sheldon Mayer.And a Kirby monster cover to wrap up with.#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holder.

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Is our writers learning? Magicians on two different worlds

Today I look at two books from recent reading that I liked, but I thought had serious flaws (of course both authors are way more successful than me, so perhaps you should my opinions of them with a grain of salt)

After Year of the Unicorn Andre Norton returned to Estcore for WARLOCK OF THE WITCH WORLD, focusing on Kemoc, the second of the Tregarth triplets. In the aftermath of Three Against the Witch World, Kaththea has found a boyfriend, the noble warrior Dinzil. Everything about Dinzil sets off Kemoc’s alarms, but everyone tells him he’s just jealous of his sister finding someone besides him and his brother. He tells himself that’s right … but then, during one military sortie, he winds up injured, poisoned and alone. And he learns that Dinzil is, indeed, a dangerously bad dude, offering Kaththea training in magic with an eye to luring her to the dark side. With the help of the mer-woman Orsya, Kemoc journeys to Dinzil’s dark tower, picking up a magic sword along the way. Unnervingly, a seer predicts there are three possible outcomes, all of which lead to Kemoc killing Kaththea. As she can’t tell him what events trigger those dooms, he’s completely frozen in deciding what to do next (a nice touch).

The sword, unfortunately, is the book’s big flaw. It’s like a really overpowered magical item in D&D; in addition to standard stuff (flaring in the presence of evil) it can dig through magical barriers, move by itself and at the climax, when Kemoc does kill his gone-to-the-dark-side sister by throwing the sword into her heart, it’s the sword that saves her, turning so she’s just knocked cold by the pommel. That’s the part that really bugged me because it felt like a complete cheat.

AN UNKINDNESS OF MAGICIANS by Kat Howard (of Cathedral of Myth and Bone) takes place during a power struggle between the great Houses of New York’s magical community (if Howard referenced any magic outside of NYC, I missed it). Sydney is the key player among several POV characters: recently released from the House of Shadow (which imprisons mage children as a battery of power other sorcerers can draw on), she’s the champion of one man hoping to found his own house; has a hidden agenda assigned her by Shadow; and an agenda of her own, to smash the nightmare House of Shadows once and for all.

The magic system is pretty simple: apparently you just will it and it happens. As the effects are weird and colorful, this doesn’t come off as Charmed-style magic as psi-power. The magic duels are over fast, with little suspense (Sydney’s very, very good) but that’s okay as the focus is more on character and political scheming: actually winning the duels is secondary.

Where the book disappointed me is that all the character conflicts, the political scheming and Sydney’s war on shadow wrap up with about a fifth of the book left to go. The plotline veers to the mysterious malfunctioning of magic (something set up early on), a battle with one evil, ambitious schemer and Sydney sacrificing her own power so that magic doesn’t disappear completely. It felt like none of this tied in to what the book was about — Sydney’s sacrifice and the need for it came completely out of left field.

I liked both books, but I could have liked them a lot more.

#SFWApro. Cover by Jack Gaughan, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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