The front cover and title pretty much sum up this one to be fair. Rat Queens is a tongue-in-cheek Dungeons and Dragons tale, which was exactly why I was attracted to it. This type of story is hardly unique, but then I wasn’t looking for something to blow me away, but rather just a good read. And Rat Queens certainly delivers and then some!

It’s not quite true to say that Rat Queens isn’t entirely unique as it does have a USP: all it’s members are female. I cringe slightly when I say that as it will no doubt raise a groan. I probably won’t help to sell Rat Queens by saying some of the reviews on the back state ‘Comics for Girls’ and ‘Sex and the City meets Dungeons and Dragons’. These comments don’t do Rat Queens any justice however. 

You see I just don’t buy that Rat Queens is just a comic for girls, or even necessarily ‘girl friendly’ if such a patronising thing exists. Sure, all the members of this group are female and, to be fair, the interplay between the characters are subtly different to reflect that fact, however for all intents and purposes I don’t really see this comic be much different if all the cast were male. 

So now that we have cleared that up, who are the Rat Queens? Well firstly we have Hannah the Elven Mage. She’s the leader of the crew, mainly because she is the most headstrong and ill-tempered and I suspect the rest of the gang go along with her for a slightly easier ride. She’s also got a past with the towns’ sheriff Sawyer. Next we have Dee a human. She is a quiet member of the group but often the most clear-headed. Raised by cultists of a Cthulhu God, she has renounced the faith and become an atheist. She still receives gifts from her ex-God including the ability to heal.

Violet is a dwarf and is very solid and dependable. She is the only real fighter of the group (in terms of charging in with sword and axe). Like all good dwarves she is concerned with honour, which does beg the question of how she ended up in this motley crew! Finally we come to Betty, the Smidgen Thief. Despite her expert sneaking skills, she also has a stout heart. Completely ditzy, must of her thoughts turn towards eating, partying and having sex. She is definitely the feel good member of the crew and my favourite.

As for the storyline, well it’s fairly simple. The Rat Queens and other mercenary groups have been keeping the town safe from the monsters outside for years. The problem is the townsfolk begin to complain that bored mercenaries are almost as bad as what they are trying to rid the town of. The Sheriff sends the mercenary groups off on quests to keep the occupied, but it soon becomes apparent that these quests are traps set to dispose of them. Can the Rat Queens escape their fate and find out who is behind them?

This tale is a thoroughly good read and extremely light-hearted. The real selling point though is the dynamics within the group and how they bounce off each other. Very funny and highly recommended.

Outside In

Posted: May 3, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books
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Sigh. What a let down. After a superb first book (Inside Out) which showed Ms. Snyder at her best, Outside In represents her worst. Whereas Inside Out was a fine example of how young adult literature should be written (introducing complex ideas to a young audience in an unpatronising way) Outside In represents what is fast becoming a worrying trend in the (one-dimensional storytelling with very juvenile slushy romance thrown in).

To be fair the whole Inside Out/Outside In concept is actually pretty neat. The first instalment dealt with the idea of finding Out and did so very will by introducing ideas of structures of society with the finale being revolution. Again, considering the nature of In, it was very natural to deal with the idea of Outsiders trying to get In with the backdrop of post revolution.

I actually quite liked some of the questions posed by the author around the building of a society post revolution, although I found that Trella’s insistence at not being involved to be a little inorganic and primarily driven at advancing other plot devices. This really illustrates the difference between the two books; the first instalment used the deeper messages to drive the plot, whereas in the second instalment it felt more like a clunky aside. Even worse, these questions almost felt like the author found the context difficult to work around and so, although interesting to read, a large amount of the book was taken up explaining what happened after the first instalment without really advancing any story line.

The problem is that when the story did get moving it had to get moving very quickly. This led to the feeling that the author needed to rush you from A to B as quickly as possible in order to ensure that it all gets told. I’ve had this feeling before from authors I’ve previously liked (e.g. Trudi Canavan). It’s hard to explain, but in order to get various set events told in a short amount of time the author ends up subconsciously (I’m assuming) taking a step back and focuses on ensuring that all the right characters are in the right place at the right time. The offshoot of that is I can’t help feeling that the quality gets severely compromised. There is not enough time to consider each characters’ needs and motivations and unfortunately the end up becoming a little bit one-dimensional. Often whole groups of people end up being moved together just fulfil the plot movement. This lack of detail is ever more evident when you are used to an author who insidiously deals with the detail in other books and, in this case, even in the same series.

Outside In wasn’t helped be the fact that the Outsiders came across as rather unfitting for a finale. I didn’t mind per se that they ended up as a rather faceless sadistic race bent on revenge (although I thought there were better alternatives to chose), but I couldn’t help but feel that the threat of them was more satisfying than the reality. Whether by design or because of the same narrative rushing phenomenon described above, the Outsiders did feel very one-dimensional mono-character individuals. A bad guy who just exists to be an adversary to the good guys is always unsatisfactory, even more so when the bad guy is actually a group of bad guys without any meaningful distinguishing features from the rest of the group. What are their motivations, how did they get that way etc. To be fair to Outside In these ideas are mentioned, however they feel more like a footnote rather than something properly explored.

And then there is the slushy romance stuff. Groan. I know that this is a young adult novel, but it seems that it has to be artificially inserted where it’s not needed. It’s a shame as although the romance was started in the first book, however overly-simplistically, it was always mentioned within the context of the story. In Outside In the romance stuff was dumped in for no other reason but to insert said scene. I suspect the publisher has a lot to do with this and publishers look at market sales and market sales at the moment tells them that teenage girls really just want slushy romances. So all young adult science fiction and fantasy have to have slushy romance in it. Thanks Twilight. 

Crikey, I can’t believe I’m on volume 9 of Fables already. Sons of Empire pretty much sums up a typical volume in the series really. Basically from a narrative perspective not a lot advances, but because you’re enjoying the ride you don’t really notice.

Let’s take the first four issues that collectively give this volume it’s name ‘Sons of Empire’ as an example. This storyline is almost entirely set in the Homelands and details a council of the leaders of the Empire. Led by the Snow Queen they plan an invasion of Fabletown, and then after a short break, consider the responses that Fabletown would make. It lets the writer and artists free to explore what a war would look like without actually breaking the status quo. Like I said, four issues and nothing actually happens.

That’s not quite true in this case as we are introduced to a couple of new characters on the Empire side (which was needed really). In particular we are introduced to Hansel, chief inquisitor of the Empire and only Fable from Fabletown to defect back to the Empire. We’re shown his history and zeal and his new appointment as ambassador to Fabletown along with his real mission. It was actually quite nice having a more extended period looking at things through the Empire’s perspective.

Punctuating this storyline are short flashes to Fabletown including the now obligatory catchup on how the wolf cubs are progressing. Although some may find these distracting, I quite like the light refreshment. Talking of which, in these four issues we are treated to a number of short stories. Entirely throwaway and pointless they remind you that there are other Fables out there other than the standard main characters.

We then have a single issue dealing with a very important Fable – Father Christmas! Clearly a Christmas issue, this is nether-the-less a really nice issue which brings what should have been an obvious character into the fold. As a stand alone issue this was pretty well done.

Almost finally we have a two-part issue entitle ‘Father and Son’. Snow decides it’s time to take the cubs to see their Grandpa in his remote kingdom and she’s insisting that Bigby comes with them. Bigby finally faces his father again which brings a good deal of heat and reveals a little bit more about both characters backgrounds. Again this doesn’t bring deal to the advancement of the overall storyline, but again it adds more flavour and depth to the characters involved.

And finally we come to a rather odd issue. It seems the writers asked the readers what questions they would like answering and then chose a few. Each is answered in no more than two or three pages. Again none of these are very important, but I think this is quite a nice touch for the regular readers.

So to go back to the original point we have not progressed very far in this volume. And yet, we have moved forward enough, however slowly, to keep the interest satisfied. In the meantime I continue to enjoy the ride.

Inside Out

Posted: April 21, 2014 in Book Reviews
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I was given this Young Adult duology for Christmas. Having read Ms. Snyder’s books before you’d think I’d know what to expect, although I have had vastly different experiences with her previous works. If this book was like her Study series then I was in for something good. However if it was anything like her Glass series…. Well the less said about that the better.

Actually Inside Out is rather good. It takes place in a rather small world; four levels each split into numerous sectors. The lower two levels are overpopulated and house all the menial jobs and lower-class citizen, where as the upper two levels house the more ‘civilised’ population. The uppers and lowers don’t mix apart from the population control police (Pop Cops). This group of people ensure the lowers toe the line.

Trella is a scrub, one of the lowers who clean all of the pipes. She’s a bit of a loner, who sets herself apart from the humdrum of lower life. However her only friend Cogon (a popular type) often gets drawn in by prophets (outcast uppers who spread propaganda) and this time he’s dragging Trella in. This prophet claims to know the location of a gateway to ‘outside’ which are saved on disks in a secret compartment in the upper levels. Trella’s reputation for Queen of the Pipes has made her an ideal candidate to retrieve these disks. 

Partly as a favour to her friend and partly for the thrill of going somewhere she’s not meant to Trella reluctantly agrees. Little does she know just how much trouble she’s getting herself into. The more trouble she gets into the more she discovers about the delicate status quo that governs their world; a delicate status quo that the uppers wish to maintain at all costs. 

Trella, someone who is unaccustomed to friendship, suddenly finds that she has to rely on a variety of people, both uppers and lowers, in order to hunt for the only thing that might save her; the location of the gateway to ‘Outside’. However her discoveries may not only bring mystical answers, but also the downfall of the world as she knows it.

The eventual discovery of what ‘Outside’ is is of course a focal point driving this book. I’m sure sharper readers may ‘guess’ before the end of the book. I didn’t (I’ve never been that sharp though!) and I found the eventual reveal to be somewhat satisfactory. The nature of ‘Outside’ suddenly forces you to re-examine the whole society ‘Inside’ in a very pleasing way.

What I enjoyed most about this book is the way Ms. Snyder exposes the reader to some much deeper issues. Class, propaganda, rudimentary religion and a very Orwellian society is all touched upon in varying degrees. I accept these ideas all have been tackled with a light touch, however I think that is to be applauded in a Young Adult setting.

My only reservation is that I wish this was a stand-alone book. Science Fiction novels by old greats such as Asimov and Dick were often stand-alone. A story painted a very particular picture. A world is created to tell a cautionary tale or to learn new morals. That world is then put down for a new tale and a new world. I feel that Inside Out would benefit from that philosophy. As a reader of course I want more. I understand therefore that the market dictates a sequel. It’s just a shame that nowadays nobody is brave enough to leave people wanting more. 

That being said I look forward to the sequel. There is certainly more legs in this story and more ideas to explore. I hope it is as good as this novel.

Fables – Volume 8: Wolves

Posted: March 17, 2014 in Books
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Volume 8 is a funny old issue really. It has a bit of good, followed by a whole heap of bleugh, followed by a bit of good with some extras thrown in at the end.

Let’s start with the first bit of good. The first two issues follow Mowgli as he tracks down Bigby. Mowgli is a good character that we haven’t had the chance to follow to closely up till now. Ok the story doesn’t have too much substance (you just felt that the author decided it was time to bring Bigby back home again) but it was a pleasant ride anyway. We’re also treated to the odd scene from the farm. Although this breaks the rhythm of the story, it’s still nice to see the wolf cubs growing up.

Then we turn to the focus of the book; a single issue (although being issue 50 it was a double length feature) which brings a lot of loose ends together. This sounds exciting, but it ends up being more of a whimper. It starts off ok. Bigby is back in town and Charming offers a solution to the whole ‘Bigby can’t go the Farm and his kids can’t go to Fabletown’ dilemma if only Bigby would only go on a secret mission to hit the Adversary where it hurts. So he does. This whole bit of the special issue isn’t bad, although it feels a little rushed. It would have been nice if was the same kind of length as Boy Blue’s mission. This is also a rather bizarre rant about the Israel situation which, to be honest, feels right out of place in Fables. It was like the author wanted to get it off his chest, however this was certainly not the right medium for it.

The second part of this issue is where the story falls really flat. Bigby returns, he’s granted the old Valley of the Big Sleepers where he can reside with his kids as it’s not technically not the Farm. Of course this brings a lot of reunions with Bigby, the kids, Snow White, the missing cub that all ends up being a bit slushy and contrived. I know it’s a special issue, but it feels a bit tired as if the author just wanted to get it over with. And it gets worse from there. We are then treated to the big Fairytale ending as Bigby and Snow get together and married. Yes, we all knew it would happen and to be fair I was holding out for it too. However, it just happened. I thought we’d have much more trials and tribulations before we’d get to that point. Also, it all just happened to be a series of stills, which made it really hard to get any kind of real emotional attachment to it. If you’re a romantic, you’d feel a bit robbed to be honest. Sure it was a bit Fairytale moment, but it was all just so old-fashioned. It felt like a 1950’s black and white movie ending and as such came across as being extremely misogynistic. In that sense it left a little bitter taste in my mouth as you don’t like seeing a strong female character swooning and surrendering to the male lead. Badly done.

The final issue follows Cinderella in one of her missions. It’s not a particularly special tale, but it does provide some slight intrigue that acts as a bit of relief after the last issue. It also brings in another dimension as Cinderella is principally involved in signing a treaty with the Giants in strategically important Cloud Kingdoms. 

And that’s kind of it. I felt a little deflated after this volume. Actually it’s kind of a problem Fables has in general really. There is a lot of slow build up and world building, however when some issues need resolving (I.e. Bigby and Snow, who the Adversary is etc.) the reveal tends to be slightly anti-climatic. Luckily, I enjoy the journey.

A little aside, there are some ‘special features’ in this volume. To be honest there are the only thing bulking out this rather streamlined volume. Firstly there are maps of Fabletown and The Farm. Don’t get too excited though as they are quite basic and it is pretty much how you would have imagined it. Finally there is the script for 50th issue. I got a page in before getting bored, but hey, you may like it.

Consider Phlebas

Posted: March 9, 2014 in Book Reviews
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ConsiderPhlebasIn an intergalactic war between the religiously fanatical tri-pedal insectoid Idirans and their philosophically opposed ‘anything goes’ humanoid Culture, a Mind goes missing. The Minds, created by, but also ideological principal part of the Culture, are sentient machines with a processing power that wouldn’t even register a human mind. Intellectually they are the thinking core of the Culture and now one is within reach of capture by the Idirans.

Despite the fact that the Idirans are convincingly winning, there is an unconscious thought that whether the Idirans obtain the Mind or not could decide the outcome of the war. With this in mind the book largely follows Horza, and the events leading up to and including the search for the Mind. Horza is a changer, humanoid shapeshifter. Despite being universally despised the Culture, most changers remain neutral in the war. Not Horza. Although he doesn’t agree with what the Idirans stand for, he fundamentally believes it is better to believe in something rather than nothing. As an Idiran spy we follow him infiltrate and slowly takeover a mercenary crew and lead them to search for the Mind. 

The world that Iain M Banks paints is about as good as you can get in Science Fiction. The idea of scale is always a sticking point for me in science fiction and fantasy. Not so in Consider Phlebas – not once do you question the immensity and complexity of space, culture (little c and big C!) and technology on display.

The characters are also excellent. Sure keeping track of all the characters on the mercenary ship was confusing at first, however as the crew thinned out we were left with some real gems. Each character was rounded, had their strengths and flaws, and really added to the group dynamic. If I was slightly critical I would have liked some of them to act on their own agendas a little more. The group at the end were a little too easily following Horza’s lead, even if some of them were grumbling while doing so.

As good as Consider Phlebas is, I have to admit I struggled with it. This is partly, I admit, because I have been picking this up and putting it back down for the last 6 months. This has really interrupted the flow of the book. However, part of the reason I have only approached this book in small segments is because it is slow moving. 

I’ve tried to look back and think of what the actual plot is in this book and I’ve realised that not that much actually happens. Events that do occur are detailed superbly, but seem to take a while to get through. To be fair this seems to be a blessing/curse of a lot of great Science Fiction books, however I think Consider Phlebas would have been better with a little more direct storyline. Instead in seemed to weave more around painting the world the Banks wanted to paint rather than getting to the story at hand. To be fair lots of stuff does happen, it’s just that it doesn’t really drive the plot.

In the end though, Banks’ world creation has done enough for me to want to progress to his second novel in the ‘Culture’ series.

It is really hard to know where to start in reviewing Prophet. Let’s start with an opening admission in that Prophet is not for me. However, I think it might well be my loss. I think this is where my adventure into Graphic Novels has hit something that exposes what a novice I am. Basically speaking I think Prophet pretty much goes over my head.

The story follows John Prophet who awakens from a stasis capsule under the ground. Clearly the timing is right and the capsule surfaces and John Prophet emerges to an Earth set in the far future. This Earth is now inhabited by a variety of aliens, all of which are very strange and… Well… Alien. We follow John Prophet as he infiltrates an organic city to meet a contact, get involved in local politics and eventually reach his destination all with the aid of only some very basic tools and some bio-implants. The ending of the first story (3 issues) reveals that he is just one John Prophet from many and that his awakening coincides with the awakening of many more John Prophets and a new Earth Empire is about to begin.

In the next couple of issues we are then introduced to several more John Prophet’s in different parts of the galaxy, with different missions. I’m not sure where this is all connected (or going to) but I’m sure if you persevere you’ll find out! The only really new piece of information you find out is he existence of an Earth Mother; a strange cyborg creation that can project itself as a small girl in white. We are also introduced to a story of a robot (obviously with some significance to future issues) who awakens and announces it is going to search for John Prophet.

To be fair the premise of Prophet has an awful lot of promise, it’s just that I found the script a little bit too abstract to connect to. This is not helped by a couple of things; firstly the artwork. It’s all a bit too… Well… Arty! It’s very organic and messy. Basically it has a kind of style I know my arty friends would LOVE. Not my cup of tea though. I like clean lines and an uncompromising image. 

Secondly is the narration. Now here I have conflicting views. The narration is done in a kind of 1950’s documentary style way (or a nature documentary style – I could see Attenborough doing this). For example, ‘a man emerges, finally awake from the long sleep of the hyber pod’. Now I kinda like that. It’s a bit quirky and it’s a bit different, which sort of sets it apart from the crowd. However, already disconnected by the script and the artwork the outside in narration only further removes you from the character.

My biggest problem, however, is that the whole feel of Prophet vaguely reminds me of Space Odyssey: 2001, especially that bit with he monkeys at the beginning. Now I just don’t get that film (and I’ve watched it several times to make sure). Again, I’m sure that just like Prophet it went completely over my head. Again, my loss. Perhaps you’re gain though? Either way I severely doubt that perseverance will make me see the light.