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Friday, 22 September 2017

Fashion Beast by Alan Moore, Malcolm McLaren, Antony Johnston & Facundo Percio

It's been quite a while since my last comic, so I fancied something that was a little bit out of left field. In this case, that meant Fashion Beast, mainly because the artwork looked absolutely gorgeous, but also because I have a pretty good record with Alan Moore's work so far and I was interested to see how one of his lesser known works held up against the hard-hitters that I'd read, like Watchmen or V for Vendetta.


Fashion Beast follows Doll Seguin, an androgynous coat checker barely scraping by at a popular club, decides to take a chance auditioning as a "mannequin" for a world-famous, reclusive fashion designer after losing her job. Making an unexpected impression on the mysterious patron of the House of Celestine, she is initially delighted by the world of glamour that she now inhabits, miles away from anything she could have imagined in the nuclear winter outside. But she soon finds that all is not well, and that the secrets that inspire its head designer to create beautiful clothing could be the very things that tear the fashion House to the ground.
My first reaction to Fashion Beast upon finishing it was a deep breath, because it's quite a lot to digest over a lunch break. Having thought it over a bit, I find myself puzzling over it. In some ways, I like it and my initial reaction still applies as it tackles a lot of big ideas, like beauty and celebrity culture, the corruption of the creative process, gender identity, the class divide, and mental illness. It mentions on the blurb that Fashion Beast came out of an unproduced film script for a modern retelling of Beauty and the Beast, which would explain how it ends up feeling almost mythic in proportions, despite the comparatively small scale of the plot.
But then you look at some of the individual components and it starts to fall apart a bit. The characters, while vivid, are not for the most part written with much in the way of depth. This can make some of the emotional highs and lows come across a bit flat, as there hasn't been enough character build-up to warrant the change. The same could be said about the setting, which has an intriguing premise that isn't built on enough. Throughout the comic, you get glimpses of the outside world through radio segments warning about an impending nuclear winter, but it never seems to actually feel all that imminent. In the sections where the action is cooped up within the fashion house that makes sense, but even in the sections out in the poorest areas of the surrounding city it doesn't feel any more immediate. If anything, all the talk about a nuclear winter does it make it really obvious that Fashion Beast's story was written in the 1980s with the cold war still firmly in place.
The artwork is pretty much perfect though. It manages to combine the glamour of high fashion with the griminess of the surrounding post-nuclear world and somehow manages to make it all look weird and utterly gorgeous. I might have to look out for more of Percio's work if this is anything to go by.

Fashion Beast is a bit of a strange one. If you read it as a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, then it does work with that kind of fairy tale/mythic tone. If you look at it with more of a critical eye for depth of character and setting, then it may well disappoint you. Probably not Alan Moore's best, but the potential is definitely there, and I would love to see an expanded version of this if that's ever considered. 3.5/5

Next review: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Signing off,
Nisa.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Death Masks by Jim Butcher

As some of you may have noticed, I have something of a tendency to group my Discworld and Dresden Files reads together. In this case, I am following Reaper Man with Death Masks, which felt kind of thematically appropriate somehow. And honestly, I was looking forward to the next Dresden Files so much after the series had its ante upped during Summer Knight that I couldn't have resisted for long.


By the time Death Masks starts, the war with the Red Court of Vampires has been going on for a couple of years, with progress on either side more or less grinding to a halt. With this in mind, Dresden is approached by Count Ortega, who puts forward the following offer: agree to a fair one-on-one fight with him and potentially end the war for good, or he'll send hired guns after Harry's friends and former clients. On top of that, he is hired to find the Shroud of Turin after it has been stolen. While what seems like a comparatively mundane case soon proves to be anything but when demonic beings known as the Denarians show up, with Michael and his fellow Knights of the Cross determined to keep Harry out of harm's way.
I don't really know how Butcher intends to top Death Masks, because I loved this from start to finish. First, the reader is introduced to new characters that I can't wait to see more of. There's Butters, the night-shift mortician blaring out polka, who is surprisingly calm about the fact that the supernatural is real now. There is Ivy, a little girl who contains the entirety of written knowledge but still insists on sticking to an appropriate bedtime. And, my favourite, there is Sanya, the newest Knight of the Cross, one of God's chosen few, who still maintains a position as an agnostic and has little time for the old fashioned trappings of the Order.
Second, it develops some of the existing side cast nicely. Michael doesn't come across nearly as sanctimoniously as he does in Grave Peril, as he is balanced out by the other Knights of the Cross. Susan, while still far from my favourite character, doesn't feel like dead weight anymore; turns out she just needed to be turned into the undead to contribute something to the series beyond a target for Harry's emotional pining. And, be still my beating heart, I get to see more Johnny Marcone being more than capable of standing toe-to-toe with supernatural foes, as well as an unexpected emotional side.
Third, it introduces some great villains in the Denarians. They are seriously scary already, and I doubt that I've seen even a fraction of what they're capable of. The idea of an entity that takes over people through their own temptation is really unnerving, as is the fact that they're at such an obviously higher power scale than anyone Harry's had to fight before, with the exception of the Fae. Count Ortega is also an interesting villain, but he does kind of pale in comparison to the Denarians.

I really have no complaints with Death Masks. The pre-existing characters have been well-developed, a terrifying new enemy is introduced and it sets up so many cool plot threads to expand on. My favourite Dresden Files so far, and I'm really excited to see where the series goes from here. 5/5

Next review: Fashion Beast by Alan Moore, Malcolm McLaren, Antony Johnston & Facundo Percio

Signing off,
Nisa.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett

I'd been really looking forward to my next Discworld installment, as Reaper Man is the next part of the Death series. And you're probably aware of how much I enjoyed the last time Death was centre-stage. The fact that my husband, the resident Discworld nerd, couldn't remember the plot was somewhat concerning though.


Having decided that Death has developed too much of a personality to properly perform his duty, a group of strange cosmic auditors announce that he is to be retired. With no work to do, and limited time on his hands, Death decides to venture out into the world and experience living before his successor arrives to take over. In the meantime, however, people are still dying, but with no Death to collect their souls, things start to take a bit of a strange turn elsewhere on the Disc.
I'm not sure how to feel about Reaper Man. On the one hand, it's Death, my second favourite character after Vetinari. On the other hand, it doesn't really feel much like a Death novel. For one thing, half the novel focuses on the efforts of Windle Poons and the other faculty members from the Unseen University. While I am quite fond of some of the faculty, *cough*Bursar*cough*, I thought that the wizard section was just generally weaker than the Death section, especially once it got to the weird sentient shopping centre thing at the end. But even then, the Death section is a surprisingly slow look at the rise of industrialisation in the farming industry. I just about works considering Death's proclivity for scythes, but when put together with the aforementioned sentient shopping centre, I get the feeling that the satire may have been a bit harder to work this time around.
Don't get me wrong, I still thoroughly enjoyed myself, but Reaper Man was kind of disappointing considering how well-written and conceived Mort was.

Another enjoyable read from the Discworld, but it seemed a bit confused. Death dealing with the rise of industrialised farming doesn't really mesh well with the Unseen University's battle with a sentient shopping centre. Of all things, why a shopping centre?! 3.5/5

Next review: Death Masks by Jim Butcher

Signing off,
Nisa.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

The Fires by Rene Steinke

The reason for me picking The Fires to read is going to sound really stupid and dull. For my birthday one year, I received a load of ebooks on a USB stick, some of which were some series that I had been very keen to get. But I'd also never transferred anything like that onto my tablet, so I picked a book at random to test out the process. That book was The Fires and since I never got round to removing it from said tablet, I figured that I might as well give it a whirl.


The Fires follows a young woman called Ella in the aftermath of her grandfather's suicide. She finds herself struggling with her grief, which is only compounded by her mother and grandmother's refusal to acknowledge that the cause of death was anything but natural causes. To try and cope, she tries to find her estranged aunt to pass on the news of his passing, and when that isn't enough to quiet her state of mind, she sets things on fire.
This is something of an odd novel. Its most obvious strength is the writing style, which is very lyrical and vivid. The problem arises because instead of accentuating intriguing characters and a dark, tormented family drama, it accentuates just how much the characters and plot lack in depth. With regards to character development, Steinke seems to have gone to the school of characterisation that dictates that the key to good characterisation involves mounting dysfunction on dysfunction like you're playing a particularly poor taste bingo game. Ella is a particularly egregious example. She sets fires, then she's an insomniac, then she has alcohol dependency issues from her attempts to medicate her insomnia, then she has body confidence issues stemming from burn scars from a childhood accident. And all of that is before you begin to touch the myriad of tedious micro-traumas that she has heaped on with her family members. What could be interesting character flaws individually becomes a featureless mass of depression. None of her flaws are aggravating, but neither can I really think of any positive qualities. She's not a racist, so there's that.
As for the plot, it seemed like it was going somewhere interesting, but then Steinke drops the biggest plot bombshell right in the middle. After that, nothing really tops that shock and the further revelations are a bit weak and predictable in comparison. If they'd been paced in a different order, then it would probably have worked out better, but as it is it's strong until the mid-point then an exercise in stretching out time and patience.

There's the basis of what could have been a really good novel in the mess that is The Fires, but it's just put together all wrong. The main character Ella is more an amalgamation of dysfunctions that probably aimed at making someone intriguing and tortured, but only leaves a confused impression of a person where her sole good quality is that she isn't a racist. The plot has a lot of revelations about Ella's family that are good on paper, but presented in the wrong order so that the tension leeches out almost immediately after the first big plot twist at the plot's mid-point. I wanted to care, but couldn't in the end. 2.5/5

Next review: Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,
Nisa.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky

It's been a little while since I settled down with a proper fantasy book, and considering that the blurb promised a threat of a huge invading army I was more than happy to take a look at it. When I actually got round to reading Empire in Black and Gold though, my husband took one look at the cover and said, "Oh yeah, I remember reading that. Wasn't a fan." With that rousing recommendation, I forged ahead anyway.


After witnessing the invasion of the city state of Myna, an artificer by the name of Stenwold Maker has appealed to his peers in his home city, the Collegium, in the hopes that his warnings will lead to a better defence against the armies of the Wasp Empire. It soon becomes clear that few take his warnings seriously though, so he must recruit agents from amongst his own students, in the hopes that they will be able to muster their own allies and defences. When the Wasps arrive in the Collegium under the pretence of allegiance, he knows that he has run out of time for preparation.
At its core, Empire in Black and Gold is a solid fantasy and an excellent foundation for the rest of what I have just found is quite a lengthy series at this point. A lot of its success can be attributed to some interesting world-building. While in other fantasy series you would encounter races of elves and dwarves alongside the regular, boring humans, Tchaikovsky has instead opted to go with multiple races of human, all of whom share traits with certain insects. For example, the aforementioned Stenwold Maker is a Beetle-kinden, which means that he's methodical and tenacious, while an ally of his, Tisamon, is a Mantis-kinden and thus very combat-oriented and deadly. An interesting concept which makes for some unusual sources of conflict, as certain races are gifted with machinery while others are gifted with more magical arts. On the other hand, it does create one of the biggest holes in the world-building that just doesn't make sense no matter how I look at it.
So, the reader finds out rather quickly, through the character of Totho, that halfbreeds are very taboo. Totho, as a half-Ant/half-Beetle hybrid, is treated with only the barest of courtesy by most of the cast, with no real prospects for a career and with some outright willing to beat the stuffing out of him because of his mixed heritage. It makes up a HUGE part of his character, and I would be interested to see how that pans out. Now, with the taboo surrounding halfbreeds being so ingrained in this society, you would naturally assume that mixed race relationships would be similarly looked down on. Nope. The only time it's addressed is when Totho expresses interest in a girl. One of the main leads, a Spider-kinden girl, expresses interest in one of her friends fairly early on, and the fact that he's Dragonfly-kinden doesn't seem to bother her. In fact it kind of acts as a bonus for her, as his race are comparatively rare where most of the plot is set and therefore exotic. I just don't understand how you can have Totho on one hand, a character who has been completely browbeaten on the sheer basis of who he is, and then have several budding romances between people of different races go more or less entirely uncommented on. I just don't understand how that can work, as one prejudice should naturally lead to the other. If mixed relations are okay, then there needs to be an in-universe reason why the offspring of those relations aren't okay, and we're never made privy to it. It is a comparatively small part of the world-building, but it just annoys me.

A solid fantasy with some intriguing world-building. I would be more than willing to continue the series and see how the politics and war stuff pans out. Unfortunately not all the world-building makes sense, with the attitude towards halfbreeds compared to the attitude towards mixed race relationships being the most obvious. Still worth a read though. 4/5

Next review: The Fires by Rene Steinke

Signing off,
Nisa.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

I'll admit, I wasn't actually intending to read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland when I first picked up my edition. Having tried and failed to read it when I was younger, I wasn't all that interested in the actual novel itself. But, as you can see from the below cover, this looked like it would be a manga adaptation, which I was interested in purely because I like that whole Wonderland aesthetic. When I got it home and out of the shrink-wrap, however, I found that rather than an adaptation, I had picked up an illustrated version of the original novels, which was a tad confusing considering it was a comic shop. Either way, it seemed a shame to waste a perfectly nice edition of a book, especially when the art looked so pretty.


The reader follows Alice, a young girl who finds herself in another world after following a white rabbit dressed in a waistcoat down a rabbit hole. There she meets a series of strange characters and must navigate an assortment of situations in which logic appears to have disappeared entirely.
I went into Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass expecting to absolutely hate it. As I mentioned above, I couldn't get into it when I was younger, so I wasn't really expecting a huge deal. As it was, I was pleasantly surprised to find it thoroughly average. In a weird way, I think it is both too universally well-known and also too hopelessly old-fashioned to really speak to people in the way that they expect it will.
Firstly, the too well-known part. There isn't much of either book that the general public isn't familiar with in some fashion. Off the top of my head, the only parts that were unfamiliar to me were the Duchess' pig-baby and the giant puppy from Adventures in Wonderland and the battle between the lion and the unicorn from Through the Looking-Glass. As for the rest of it, it's all pretty familiar. Even some of the more minor parts have become part of everyday pop culture. "What's the difference between a raven and a writing desk?" has been so over-analysed that the riddle has gone from having no answer to too many. Hell, I remember being told "Time for bed the Walrus said" when it was getting too late, which is unintentionally sinister now that I think about it. It's so ubiquitous now that public consciousness of the property is probably influenced as much by modern reinterpretations as it is by the original.
This mention of modern reinterpretations leads me to my second point, which is the hopelessly old-fashioned part. You can kind of tell from some of the poetry that Carroll is playing on rhymes of the time, but it's hard to appreciate the cleverness of it when the original rhymes aren't well-known anymore. Without that context, the book has to rely on its plot, and if you have any concept of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland then you can already tell what the problem with that statement is. Without the contemporary context, the book is left to rely on events that only barely have continuity with one another and don't have any stakes to speak of. It feels like a story that a child would make up and honestly it just strikes me as bizarre that it would last so long in cultural memory.

I think the only thing that really surprised me coming out of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass is how little the books actually hold up. The rhymes that it plays with haven't survived the test of time, and it means that the reader is left with a plot that is disjointed at best. The writing itself is okay but there's not much content to work with. It only really works on an aesthetic level these days. 2.5/5

Next review: Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Signing off,
Nisa.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

If anyone out there has seen the film The Princess Bride, then you should know why I picked up the book version. It is one of my absolute favourite films and so damn quotable. So obviously when I saw the book on sale, I couldn't help but pick it up and partake in that bittersweet exercise of comparing the book and the movie. To do otherwise would be inconceivable.


As a small boy, William Goldman learned to love literature after his father read him the story of The Princess Bride by S. Morgenstern, an epic tale of swordplay, revenge and true love. When he tries to pass on this love to his son, however, he finds that his father may have trimmed the novel down to "the good parts", sparing him countless pages of tedious satire. As such, he decides to abridge the novel, presenting the novel to the reader as it was read to him, with copious abridging notes along the way.
There was probably a part of me that knew that this was coming, but The Princess Bride was better as a movie. While I was very much a fan of some of the additional details, like Inigo and Fezzik's back-stories, I found that the majority of these details worked more to bog the narrative down. Take the asides by Goldman as part of the abridging work. The ones that work the best are the ones that he keeps short, sweet and to the point. Because when they don't, the narrative can take a turn for the overly clever or, more often, self-satisfied and mean-spirited. Honestly, that's the most disappointing part. What should be interesting to a reader, expanding what we know about characters that you loved from the film version, is ruined because the things that were mere niggles in the film are now amplified. Buttercup's lack of common sense is now stupidity to the point that the reader is in danger of completely missing what Westley sees in her other than her beauty. Westley's controlling behaviour is likewise made uncomfortable with such lines as "Woman, you are the property of the Dread Pirate Roberts and you do what you're told!" pushing his character neatly over the line into the list of characters most likely to commit mariticide at some point after the story's end. At the end of the day though, the film was an uncannily faithful adaptation, all things considered, so fans of the film should still enjoy themselves.

If you loved the film version like I did, this is sort of a disappointment. The fundamentals are there, it's just that it becomes too clunky in places where the extra details only highlight the niggles in the more streamlined adaptation. Much as he berates the fictional S. Morgenstern for bogging the narrative down with too much detail for the sake of cleverness, Goldman finds himself falling into the same trap at times. I'd still happily recommend the book though, as the story is solid enough to endure the odd misstep. Just maybe accept that in this instance, the film is better than the book. 4/5

Next review: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

Signing off,
Nisa.