Category Archives: Comics

A poisoner, a dragon, a witch: books read

THE POISONER: The Life and Times of Victorian England’s Most Notorious Doctor by Stephen Bates recounts the story of the once infamous William Palmer, a Victorian medic put on trial for poisoning his best friend with strychnine and suspected of dozens more cases. Although Arthur Conan Doyle name-drops Palmer as a brilliant doctor and criminal in The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Bates shows that he was neither — more a desperate man, under water on his gambling debts, who resorted to poisoning a friend (and possibly a couple more people) to get money. Part of the public’s morbid fascination with the story was the use of strychnine, a new and hard to trace poison (up until the early 20th century, poison was close to undetectable), partly that Palmer was precisely the kind of dignified middle-class chap who ought to be above such behavior (as Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead discusses). Its cultural impact aside, like the shooting of Stanford White this former Crime of the Century isn’t that startling by today’s standards; Bates does a good job making it interesting even so, but the trial really bogs down in detail (as usual, I don’t blame him for getting into more detail than I was interested in).

I had the same reaction to the third volume of SAVAGE DRAGON ARCHIVES as I did to Savage Dragon: A New Beginning, that auteur Erik Larsen’s way too fond of recycling Jack Kirby to no purpose. This wastes a lot of space on New Gods/Thor-style deities engaging in Kirby-style conflicts and it all felt canned, with none of the passion Kirby showed for that kind of storytelling. On top of which, the sheer number of dramatic moments — Dragon’s dead! No, he’s alive in a new body! Now his Great Love is dead! Now someone else he loves is dead! OMG, he has a son! — and the lengthy exposition about past continuity made the whole thing feel like a parody, except parodies are actually funny (and if Larsen was trying for ironic meta-commentary, Astro City does that a lot better)

IT TAKES A WITCH: A Wishcraft Mystery by Heather Blake didn’t work for me at all, but I guess that’s not surprising: I’m not particularly a cozy mystery fan and I’m not a fan of complicated magic systems. And this book is full of multiple magical paths, each with its own elaborate rules (it feels very much like D&D specialists or subclasses); the protagonist is a “wishcrafter” who can grant wishes but only if they meet a variety of rules (no killing people, the wish must be sincere, you can’t grant another mage’s wishes — and you can’t tell anyone you’re a witch or you lose your powers). The first couple of chapters are very info-dumpy and the protagonist’s attraction to a studly cop felt canned (I will discuss this more in a later post). That said, this has become a successful cozy series so obviously a lot of people who are not me like it.

Finally, if anyone wants to click over to Atomic Junkshop, I reviewed the Joker’s 1975 solo series, recently TPB-ed as JOKER: Clown Prince of Crime.

#SFWApro. Top cover by Erik Larsen, bottom by Dick Giordano.

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John le Carré and Jack Cole: authors read

After the mess of Mission Song, John le Carré returns to form with A MOST WANTED MAN. Issa, the title character, is a Chechen refugee and alleged terrorist who shows up in Germany with a vague hope of starting his life over. Because his corrupt Russian father has ties to British-born German banker Tommy Brue (Tommy’s father handled the guy’s money laundering), Issa’s refugee-rights lawyer Annabelle believes she can talk Tommy into helping Issa. All three of them become the subjects of British and German intelligence efforts, with an eye to using Issa as bait in a scheme to turn a prominent terrorist funder.

Part of what makes it work is that instead of the stock thriller plot that took over Absolute Friends, everything that’s going down seems perfectly plausible: people get deported or their lives ruined simply because they try to help out someone they couldn’t have known is a terrorist, or suspected as a terrorist. Is Issa guitly? It seems unlikely at first but the concluding scenes make it seem possible … maybe. That’s still enough to bring others to disaster. The book is well written and while it does use some stock le Carré tropes (Brue’s ne’er do well father, his failed marriage), they don’t bog the book down. The only real problem is the ending, which feels very ex machina (technically it’s set up earlier, but it still feels forced).

THE PLASTIC MAN ARCHIVES, Vol. 3, continues Jack Cole’s delightful Golden Age run on the stretchable superhero with the same mix of horror and comedy stories found in Vol. 2, all marked by Cole’s loonie visual style. The Gay Nineties Nightmare may be my favorite in this volume: hunting a wanted fugitive, Plas and Woozy discover he’s fled to a town that cut off contact with the rest of the United States after it was left out in the 1900 census. As a result, it’s still frozen in the 1890s (“Gay Nineties” nostalgia had a surge of popularity in the 1940s). Other stories involve body-swappers, bad girls, cities gone mad and other goofiness. A pleasure to reread this one.

#SFWApro. Cover by Jack Cole, all rights remain with current holder.

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Milk, Amazons, videogames and more: books and graphic novels

DC/YOUNG ANIMAL: Milk Wars by multiple writers and artists was a crossover event between Gerard Way’s Young Animals imprint and the mainstream DC universe. A sinister corporation is purging Earth’s reality, turning Superman into a milkman, Batman into an affable preacher and Wonder Woman into Wonder Mom; can the Doom Patrol, Mother Panic and other imprint characters save the day? This was fun but as the one section drawing on a character I didn’t know fell flat (Shade, the Changing Woman, thanks for asking), I’m not sure it would work for anyone who doesn’t know them. And the meta-commentary about how corporate culture blands out original ideas didn’t entirely work — you can make the case for Wonder Woman, but Batman’s been getting darker and crazier year after year, not blander and nicer.

WONDER WOMAN: Amazons Attacked by James Robinson and Stephen Segovia was better than Robinson’s first WW TPB, but it’s still a long way from being enjoyable, let alone good. The plot has Jason and Diana adjusting to their new relationship while Grail and Darkseid make their bid to take over Earth. But Jason, Grail and the New 52 Darkseid are all dull and the story didn’t do anything to improve things.

LEVEL UP by Gene Luen Yuang and Thien Pham is an oddball story about a Chinese-American kid, Dennis, whose nose-to-the-grindstone approach to life (how else can he fulfill his parents’ dream of becoming a doctor) falters when he discovers video games; then four angels appear to keep nudging him along the path of absolute dedication. As one reader said, Yuang comes off as embracing the cliche that nobody who plays videogames can hold down a normal job; that aside, this isn’t entirely successful but I did find it entertaining.

THE BATMAN FILMOGRAPHY Second Edition by Mark S. Reinhart is a detailed look at the plots, production values and backstage conflicts of all the Batman movies from the 1943 Batman serial through Dark Knight Rises, as well as covering the comics, TV series, direct-to-video films and Bats’ appearances in Superman’s radio show (my friend Ross helped Reinhart with that). I skimmed a lot of this because I don’t need a detailed break down of the film plots, but Reinhart still does an excellent job detailing the creative decisions that blessed or broke the franchise (Tim Burton getting a free hand to make Batman Returns led to a much darker, grosser film than Warner Brothers wanted, for instance).

DELINQUENT DAUGHTERS: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920 by Mary E. Odem covers some of the same material as Trials of Nina McCall and Bad Girls but does it better. At the end of the 19th century, women reformers began pushing to raise the age of consent, which was ten in most states, to sixteen or eighteen to protect girls from predators (one fear men expressed at the time was that underage girls would seduce them, then cry rape to blackmail them. The more things change …). Odem then looks at how this played out in the legal system (more inclined to slap guys on the wrist and punish the women), parents (many of whom saw the new laws as a way to restrain their daughters’ independence), across class lines (middle-class reformers equated working class working moms, let alone working daughters, with Bad Parenting) and the girls themselves (neither as innocent as the reformers thought or the cheap tramps the legal system imagined). A good book that catches the ambiguity and complexity of how this stuff worked out in practice.

#SFWApro. Cover by Pham, all rights remain with current holder.

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Young Animals, Aquaman, and writing about comics: books

Some entries from Gerard Way’s Young Animals imprint:

MOTHER PANIC: A Work in Progress by Jody Houser, Tommy Lee Edwards and Shawn Crystal is light-years removed from Houser’s upbeat Faith; Violet Paige is a celebutante (the genesis of this book was way wondering what a Bruce Wayne ID conceived in today’s world would look like) with a tragic, violent past, recently returned to Gotham City to get revenge on the organization that trained and remade her as an assassin. There’s a lot of interesting elements, but there’s way too much flashbacking (this felt a lot like Arrow in its use of them), and the flashbacks don’t really cohere (a problem when these are the events motivating the action).

Apparently I never reviewed DOOM PATROL: Brick by Brick by Way and Nick Derrington, the first revival of the great Silver Age team to incorporate Grant Morrison’s bizarre 1980s take on the team rather than just recycle the original version. Split personality metahuman Crazy Jane meets the therapist from Hell. EMT tech Casey learns she has a secret origin. Robotman and Negative Man get the band back together. If disorganized at times, it’s also wildly imaginative, reminiscent of Way’s Umbrella Academy. The follow-up volume, Nada (by Way and several artists) is more hit-and-miss, with some great cosmic concepts but some of the dialogue feels too much like a Morrison imitation. However I did like the return of Morrison’s Mr. Nobody as a deranged nihilist, leading not the Brotherhood of Dada but the Brotherhood of Nada!

Getting back to the main DC Universe, we have AQUAMAN: Underworld by Dan Abnett and Phillippe Briones, the penultimate volume in Abnett’s initial arc for the sea king (I already read the follow-up). Supposedly dead, Aquaman lurks in the shadows of Atlantis, helping the downtrodden against tyrant Corum Rath; can the mutant Dolphin convince him to lead a revolution? This was quite good.

In the Golden Age years before MLJ Comics hit gold with Archie Andrews and became Archie Comics, it had a stable of B to D list superheroes, most famously the Shield (the first star-spangled superhero) and the Black Hood. The Fly led off a modest superhero revival in the Silver Age, which eventually turned ultra-campy and attempted to revive pretty much every hero they’d ever used (as in Paul Reinman’s cover above). It tanked, but they’ve been revived again and again in the decades since. THE MLJ COMPANION by Rik Offenberger, Paul Castiglia and John B. Cooke does an impressive job looking at the originals, the various revivals and why they kept failing. DC, for example, tried turning them into the !mpact kid-friendly line in hopes of getting them out of comics stores and into drug stores; the new marketing director hated the idea and refused to cooperate. Another revival plan, Spectrum, fell apart when Archie blinked at doing a horror-tinged line (the Fly’s powers come with a fatal curse so a new person would have to replace the old Fly every issue).

Even though I’m not a fan (except for the recent, unsuccessful New Crusaders revival) the very fact they’ve been revived so often makes them intriguing enough I picked this up (from Roy Thomas’ Twomorrow line of comic-book histories) and I was fascinated. If you have any interest in the characters at all, this is definitely worth getting. Otherwise, I imagine not.

#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder.

 

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Real science links and DC Weird Science covers

As I’m getting reorganized after Mysticon a simple links and  images post:

Hand transplant surgeons say they’re so routine now that they should be covered by insurance. Not everyone agrees.

A biologist discusses his feelings after an AI outperformed him. Another researcher says scientists using AI for data analysis are doing it wrong.

How much of the Internet is fake?

Flying cop cars!

A scientist offers revolutionary evidence that heart cells can regenerate. Years later, the results turn out to be bogus. The unsettling thing for me is that even though good science requires replicating results, repeated failures by other labs to confirm the findings didn’t seem to matter (one doctor dismissed the researchers as simply not being good enough to make regeneration work).

And despite the FBI’s claims, the science behind its photo analysis evidence looks dubious too.

#SFWApro. Covers (top to bottom) by Gil Kane, Ruben Moreira, Murphy Anderson and Anderson again, then Ruben Moreira. All rights to images remain with current holder.

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Bad girls, a future Earth, a nuclear hero and witches: books read

BAD GIRLS: Young Women, Sex and Rebellion Before the Sixties by Amanda H. Littauer is the flip side to Trials of Nina McCall, looking at the kind of sexually active women the American Plan longed to lock up somewhere. Littauer’s selection includes “victory girls” who partied with soldiers during WW II, lesbians, prostitutes, kids going steady (which teens rationalized made it OK to have sex) and women discussed in and responding to the Kinsey Report on female sexual activity. Informative, but Littauer’s style is stiff even for a university press book, and I can’t help feeling there’s something missing, though I’m not sure what.

EARTH’S LAST CITADEL by CL Moore and Henry Kuttner starts in 1943 as protagonist Alan helps a brilliant, crotchety scientist escape from the Nazis. As the Nazi agents (a former mob triggerman and an Karen, an adrenaline junkie who does spy work for the thrills) catch up with them, all four are trapped by an ET, then thaw out in the very, very distant future, after the ET’s race has xenoformed Earth to their liking, then died out. Exploring the strange title city, the quartet (fully aware that their political disagreements mean very little now) discover an Eloi like race, a malevolent telepath — oh, and one of the aliens may not have died after all …

This is exotic, imaginative and colorful, the kind of pulp stuff I love. However, while I enjoyed it, it’s kind of a mess; the plot changes direction so much I wonder if they were making it up as they went along and kept changing their minds (it was serialized, like a lot of SF stories at the time). Karen is an interesting character but she virtually vanishes, with more attention going to Alan’s Eloi love interest; nor do they do anything with the idea the scientist, while brilliant, would sooner party than work. by

Cary Bates redefined Charlton Comics’ Captain Atom (the prototype for Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen) in his 1980s series, turning him into a government agent posing as a superhero to infiltrate the metahuman community. Nobody who followed Bates did anything good with the character, and DC’s New 52 turned him into a Dr. Manhattan knockoff. Now comes THE FALL AND RISE OF CAPTAIN ATOM by Bates and Greg Weisman which allows Bates to reboot the character close to Bates 1980s version. In his last battle, Captain Atom apparently dies but actually gets thrown back to the past. When he returns (I’m simplifying a lot of plot here)  he presents himself as a new, improved legacy hero — but what about the family he left in the past? And can he really trust his military superiors? Nothing’s been done with it since, and I’m not sure how it works for anyone who doesn’t love the 1980s version, but I give it solid thumbs up.

Andre Norton’s WITCH WORLD was an insanely weird genre mash-up when I read it in the 1970s (about ten years after it appeared). Simon Tregarth begins as a veteran forced into a life of crime which is about to get him killed. A mysterious occultist offers him an escape via the Round Table’s Siege Perilous, which magically takes anyone who sits in it to the world they belong.

From that thriller opening (which I like enough I’m working on a variation of it) Simon arrives in Estcarp, a land ruled by a matriarchy of witches. Already surrounded by hostile nations, they’re now facing the threat of the sinister Kolder, who turn out to be a high-tech race as alien to the “witch world” (never called that, it’s just the world) as Simon.

It’s a good book with some interesting characters; I particularly like that Simon, while competent, isn’t a chosen one or a superman, he’s just a competent soldier. He doesn’t really do anything spectacular until the final section of the story. Given how many protagonists I see who are devastatingly bad-ass, this was refreshing.

#SFWApro. Top cover by Tim Hildebrandt, middle by Lawrence, bottom by Jack Gaughan

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Captain America and Promiscuous Women! Books read

CAPTAIN AMERICA: The Coming of … The Falcon by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Jim Steranko and Gene Colan runs from 1968 into ’69 and despite a couple of flaws, made for very good reason. We have Sharon “Agent 13” Carter, easily the most interesting of Marvel’s Silver Age love interests (if she and Cap have to die to complete the mission, so be it) and arcs involving the Fourth Sleeper (I through III showed up in an earlier story), the Red Skull (rather overused during this period) and obviously Sam Wilson becoming the Falcon (a bigger deal back when black faces in comics were a rare sight). It also has Jim Steranko’s short run as writer/artist, during which he introduced Madame Hydra (a good foe except for her I’m Sooo Ugly motivation), made Rick Jones into Cap’s new partner and resolved Cap having his secret identity known (which Brian Cronin covers here).

On the downside, some of Kirby’s last issues show the Lee/Kirby team running out of steam (not as badly as on Thor, though). And the arc that introduces Falcon involves the Skull using the Cosmic Cube and it almost verges on parody how he uses godlike power (for those who don’t know, it’s the equivalent of the Infinity Gauntlet) to toy with Cap and give him lots of time to escape. Still, it was overall excellent.

THE TRIALS OF NINA MCCALL: Sex, Surveillance and the Deacdes-Long Government Program to Imprison “Promiscuous” Women by Scott W. Stern looks at how the United States in WW I decided to fight the risk of soldiers catching debilitating STDs by cracking down on prostitutes and STD carriers around military bases; when it turned out many doughboys had caught the clap in their home towns, the “American Plan” as it was later called broadened all over the country.

In practice what that meant was that women who were prostitutes or suspected prostitutes or simply promiscuous (despite gender-neutral language, the plan in practice targeted women) could be sent to reformatories and forced to accept dangerous chemical treatments for the diseases they supposedly had, all without any trial or hearing. Some women escaped their jails, some set fire to them, and some like Nina McCall (not a prostitute, simply a young woman alleged to have slept with a soldier, and to have gonorrhea) went to court. Usually federal pressure squashed any hope of judicial support, but in Nina’s case she won release from the oppressive post-confinement supervision. The plan however continued on at the local level even after it died out as a federal project; the freedom to round up accused prostitutes as a public health menace without having to worry about a trial was manna from heaven to local cops (much like vagrancy laws).

It’s a good book, though flawed by Stern’s efforts to make Nina the central focus. After she wins her case, Stern continues to follow her life story in detail even though it has nothing to do with the plan, nor offers anything particularly unusual; the best he can do is suggest that Nina must have been worried her female friends or relatives could be caught up in the plan like she was. It doesn’t really fit. Nevertheless, this was worth reading.

#SFWApro. Top cover by Jack Kirby, lower by Steranko, all rights remain with current holders.

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The Sandman That Time Forgot

Probably everyone reading this knows, at least by repute, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

The Golden Age Sandman also has a certain rep simply by virtue of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon working on him. The earlier Golden Age version, when he wore a business suit and a gas mask, became retroactively memorable thanks to Matt Wagner’s Sandman Mystery Theatre.

The Bronze Age Sandman? Not so memorable. Or at least, not memorable in a good way.

This character debuted in 1974 in a one-shot by Simon and Kirby. “General Electric,” a Japanese WW II veteran with an electronic head, is secretly plotting against the U.S., using animatronic dolls he’s designed to kill, kill and kill again! A young orphan, Jed, who lives with his fisherman grandfather ,has one of the dolls, which puts him at risk. Fortunately the Sandman — apparently the Sandman of folklore, though they don’t spell it out — intervenes to stop General Electric, ultimately taking him down with his hypersonic magic whistle (think the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver amped up by about 50).

This goofiness is actually typical of Joe Simon’s storytelling in the Bronze Age. But for whatever reason (Kirby’s art? The famous Simon/Kirby team reunited? People who, like me, picked it up out of curiosity at anew superhero?) Sandman sold very well. So well that DC launched a series in 1975 (in those days it took a while to get sales figures). Michael Fleisher and Ernie Chan took over story and art but kept the tone as much like Simon and Kirby as possible (Kirby returned starting in #4). The Sandman, accompanied by the living nightmares Brute and Glob, battled various oddball threats intruding on people’s dreams, with Jed invariably dragged into peril at some point.

I bought the entire run, probably because I’d already bought #1 and I was obsessively completist in those days. I don’t remember really liking it, and rereading recently I don’t discern any hidden depths or charm. If my age had been single digits when it came out, I’d probably have loved it, so maybe that was the market they were shooting for. Judging by the letter columns, that wasn’t the readership they were getting and by the sixth and final issue, they’d acknowledged the magic whistle was too much of a deus ex machina; they were going to work harder on putting the Sandman in real peril.

At the same time, it looked like they didn’t want to shake things up too much. The last couple of issues had Jeb going to live with bullying, abusive relatives and their fat, selfish, bullying son. It definitely felt like they were still trying to appeal to a young audience. The final issue does have one funny moment, in which Dr. Spider warns the White House that he’s ready to use the Sandman’s whistle to blow up Washington; instead of terror, everyone just laughs him off as a crank.

#6 would have been the end of the Sandman. But then Roy Thomas worked General Electric and Sandman into his run on Wonder Woman. Up to that point there’d been no sign Sandman belonged in the DC Universe at all, but now he was part of it. WW #300 revealed he was actually Garrett Sandford, a psychologist tossed into the dream dimension to save the president from nightmares. Unable to return except briefly, he set up shop as the Sandman. In Thomas’ later series, Infinity, Inc., the son of the Golden Age Hawkman, Hector Hall, assumes the Sandman role and takes his wife Lyta (daughter of the Golden Age Wonder Woman) off to dwell with him in the “Dream Stream.”

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman got rid of this pretender to the throne, revealing Glob and Brute were two of Morpheus’ creatures who’d run rogue and set up their own pocket dream universe. Sandford, then Hall, had just been dupes (I don’t remember why). Morpheus sent Hector’s soul into the afterlife, though he eventually returned to become Dr. Fate for a while. Lyta, despite being a good character, got much worse used: she gave birth to Daniel, who replaced Morpheus as the incarnation of Dream, and nobody found anything interesting to do with her after that.

General Electric appeared a couple of years back in DC’s Young Animals imprint so who knows? Maybe even the forgotten Sandman will put in an appearance some day. But I won’t feel bad if he doesn’t.

#SFWApro. Covers by Kirby, all rights to images remain with current holders.

 

 

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A black amazon, black Frankenstein and a light-skinned black guy: books

As far as I know, Leigh Brackett’s only series hero was Eric John Stark, raised as a feral child in the twilight zone of Mercury before adventuring across Mars. In BLACK AMAZON OF MARS, Stark honors a dying friend’s request to return an ancient talisman to a polar Martian city. Too bad that pins Stark between a barbarian warlord starting the march to conquest there (the title and cover spoil the reveal about who’s really behind “his” iron mask) and the sinister ice creatures lurking under the polar cap. The small press edition I have also includes the forgettable “A World Is Born” and the entertaining “Child of the Sun.”

VICTOR LAVALLE’S DESTROYER (by Lavalle, Dietrich Smith and Joana LaFuente) has one good plot thread (a female scientist resurrects her son, gunned down unjustly by cops) and several that were much less interesting, including a covert government agency and the original Creature on a rampage. The uninteresting outweighed the good stuff for me.

INCOGNEGRO: Renaissance by Matt Johnson and Warren Pleece is a prequel to Incognegro in which light-skinned Zane is a cub reporter during the Harlem Renaissance. When a black writer drowns in a bathtub at a mixed-race party, the police wash their hands of it; Zane reluctantly uses his light skin to pass as white and investigate in ways nobody else could. Really good.

#SFWApro. Cover is uncredited, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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Superheroes, teachers and a one-eyed preacher: books read

THE DOUBLE LIFE OF MIRANDA TURNER: If You Have Ghosts by George Kambadais and Jamie S. Rich introduces us to actor Miranda Turner AKA the Cat — except that was actually the identity of her sister Lindy (modeled on Harvey Comics’ Black Cat superhero, whose secret identity was Linda Turner) before she was murdered. Can Miranda take over the role without superpowers? And who was responsible for Lindy’s death? Unfortunately it doesn’t seem like we’ll get a volume two, as this was fun; however it works as a character arc (Miranda goes from reluctant hero to real hero) so if it has to stand alone, I can live with it.

HOLDING WONDER was Zenna Henderson’s follow-up collection to Anything Box, with a great many stories about teachers, whetherdealing with magical revenge (“The Believing Kind,”), telepathic students (“Sharing Time”), the apocalypse (“Three-Cornered and Secure.”) or murder (“You Know What, Teacher?” which is a straight suspense story). While it has more funny stories than the first collection, some of them are very dark; curiously, at least half the collection apparently wasn’t published before (so did she write them because the published ones weren’t long enough for a book, or what?).

THE BLACK KHAN: The Khorasan Archives Book Two by Ausma Zehanat Khan is competent, but it didn’t grab me at all. It might be my general lack of enthusiasm for epic fantasy, or that I expected more action and less intrigue and power struggles. Or just that, as editors say, it didn’t suit my needs at this time. Either way the story of various faction (including the Black Khan) intriguing over the looming threat of a religious zealot army and feuding over the mystical power known as the Claim didn’t work for me.

One thing Khan is really awful at (though I don’t think it’s why I didn’t like the book) is names. “The One Eyed Preacher” just doesn’t sound like a name (he’s the leader of the evil army) and calling his army The Talisman makes no sense (maybe it means something completely different in the book’s setting, but I’m reading it in our setting).

#SFWApro. Cover by George Kambadais, all rights remain with current holders.

 

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