Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Cloud Pavilion by Laura Joh Rowland

Sano Ichiru started out as a Ronin who had to find the killers of a man and woman which appeared to be a murder-suicide. In doing so, he came to the notice and attention of the Shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, and he became the Investigator of people, persons and places, or "Sosakan-sama". In that capacity, he tracked down many evildoers and caught them, bringing them to justice. In addition, he got married to a samurai's daughter named Reiko, who is now his wife and mother to his three children. Not only has Sano come far, but he is one of two Chamberlains in Japan, the closest advisors to the Emperor.

But he's not alone in this, for the other chamberlain is his former rival and foe, Yanagisawa. Yanagisawa is coming back from the bottom, when he was banished from the country by the Shogun. But ever since his return from exile, he's been almost friendly with Sano, and seems to hold no grudges on him for their long and contentious history. But even so, Sano doesn't really trust him, and suspects that Yanagisawa is working some sort of plot in secret to bring Sano down.

And it's true that he is, but it's not any kind of armed rebellion like his son Yoritomo wants. Yanagisawa already tried the path of armed rebellion and was brutally slapped down for it. It was the main reason for his exile. But when his son, Yoritomo, tells his father that he is a coward for not seeking immediate revenge on Sano, it sits very wrongly with Yanagisawa. Rebellion was the wrong way, he tells his son- he has a different plan to unseat Sano.

Meanwhile, Sano has been approached by General Kumazawa, a relative of his mother's, who needs Sano's assistance with finding his daughter, Chiyo, who he thinks has been kidnapped. Sano isn't feeling very charitable towards his mother's family, who banished her when she had the temerity to fall in love with the wrong man. With nowhere else to go, she married a masterless Ronin who started his own school teaching swordsmanship, and together they had Sano. But Sano only found out what happened to his mother recently, and he still feels upset towards his maternal relations.

And yet, he cannot leave an innocent young woman to die, or refuse to find her kidnappers and killers, if she has been killed- it simply isn't in him to do that, even for someone who he despises, and so he and his troops go in search of Chiyo near the temple where she disappeared. Luckily, and despite his uncle's interference, he manages to find Chiyo and return her to her family house still alive, but she has been raped and violated, something that means that her husband will cast her off as soon as he finds out when he discovers she has been raped. But not only does he divorce her, he also takes her children away from her, leaving her hopeless and depressed.

But in the course of the investigation, Sano's friend and colleague Hirata discovers that Chiyo is not the only woman who had this happen to her. And elderly Buddhist nun named Tengu-in was snatched from near a temple when she sought to chaperone some young nuns, and Fumiko, the 12-year old daughter of a Yakuza named Jirocho were also kidnapped and volated. Sano and Hirata visit the women, but can gain no information- Tengu-in has been praying nonstop since her attack and will not rouse to speak to anyone, and Jirocho has thrown Fumiko out of his house for the same reason that Chiyo's husband renounced her- because she is no longer pure.

All Chiyo remembers is the sound of rain and of being violated by a man who was masked like the Clouds amidst a cloud pavillion. Reiko visits her, hoping that a purely female touch may help and gets a few more bits of information, then tracks down Fumiko and questions her as well, to receive the same sort of tale. All she can remember of note is that the man who violated her had a mole on his penis.

Sano is able to find out two men, Ox-cart handlers, who were seen in the neighborhood at the time of the incidents, and tracks them down in the city, but neither one will admit to kidnapping or violating the women. Sano doesn't have enough evidence to convict them, so he decides to let them go... for now. But the policemen he details to tail them lose them in the midst of Tokyo, and he is forced to track down one of their employers, and the three men he hired them out to do... odd jobs for them.

With these three names, Sano and Hirata track down the owners of the names. One, Ogita, is a powerful and wealthy merchant. another, Nanbu, is the Shogun's dogcatcher, charged with keeping the city of Tokyo from being overrun and terrorized by stray and feral gogs. The last, Joju, is a priest who makes his living as an exorcist. But all deny that they are to blame for the rapes, and there isn't enough evidence to charge any of them.

As Sano investigates the crimes, he must also deal with the actions of his eldest son, Masahiro, who has every intention of following in his father's footsteps and becoming a detective. He decides to start his career by following Yanagisawa tp a meeting with three young women. There, he is discovered by the Shogun's chief spy, Toda Ikkyu, who is following Yanagisawa for Sano. Toda returns him to his family, and Sano and Reiko are very upset with him, and detail their retainers to keep Masahiro at home. But when circumstances lead to Masahiro getting out of his house by pure chance, he can't help but follow Yanagisawa again. Only, when the Shogun's wife disappears from her home, can Sano figure out who has taken her and finally solve the case of the kidnapped and violated women or will he lose his position as a result of the Shogun's pique? What is Yanagisawa's cunning plan to bring down Sano, and can Sano act in time to prevent it?

I love this series, though in some aspects I am not sure how completely accurate it is with regards to the Tokyo police in the time of the 1600s or so. Some of the things that happen with regards to the police and Sano seem almost modern (undercover police officers as opposed to spies- even though spies do exist and are used), while others, like Ninja, are completely missing from the books in this series that I have read.

After having read so many of these books, the reader begins to think like Sano. Yanagisawa being nice to him just doesn't seem right. and indeed, he turns out to be very much right. We get to see more of the twistedness of Yanagisawa, who is willing to sell his favorite son into a loveless marriage merely to be able to put him on the throne of Japan and further persecute Sano. And actually, Yanagisawa is based on a real-life advisor to Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, but needless to say, both his life and that of the emperor are heavily fictionized for the series.

And yet the series is truly excellent. Each book brings us more information about both Japan and the people who live in it. Here we get to see more of the underworld of the Japanese. And even though I characterize Jirocho as a Yakuza, he doesn't actually get labelled as such in the story. It's more of an understanding based on the words of his followers, and the tradition of yubitsume, or cutting off the fingers or joints of fingers in penance for doing wrong, a Yakuza tradition.. But the novel isn't focused around Yakuza, just that one of the characters is.

In any case, this is another fascinating mystery for Sano to solve, and is setting up conflicts to come, both with Sano, who has now lost his high position and returned to being Sosakan-Sama at the end, and with Hirata, who is being stalked by a foe with strong mystical and mental powers. Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Sorceress of Karres by Eric Flint and Dave Freer

Captain Pausert has been on a constant ride ever since he helped two young Witches of Karres. First it was against the Worm World, and the Nanite Plague, but now a new mission has come up needing his attention. The Chaladoor region of space has just had something strange and unexpected show up there. A series of ships that don't look anything like any other ship ever made, which are attacking any ships that venture into a set area of Chaladoor space, and destroying any intruders.

Pausert's Uncle, Threbus, is hoping that since Pausert's ship is equipped with the Sheewash drive, which folds space around the ship and enables it to move faster than any other drive ever made, will enable him and his ship to escape these strange attackers and bring a report on just who and what they are back to Karres, to determine if they are a threat to anyone and why these ships are chasing anyone out of that section of Chaladoor space.

The Leewit will be accompanying him on this trip, but her elder sister, Goth, will not. Goth is being sent on a special mission that must be conducted in the utmost secrecy, but when her mission is done, she will rejoin Pausert and the Leewit through the Egger Route. Meanwhile, Pausert gets a small chance to rest and reconnect with Maleen, Goth and the Leewit's elder sister, whom he also rescued long ago. Now, she is married and expecting a daughter, for whom she has chosen the name Vala. This gives Pausert a start, for he once knew a red-haired girl long ago named Vala, back when he was young, and he cared for her a lot. Goth is a little jealous when she hears this, because she has designs on marrying Pausert when she is old enough, but she is able to overcome her jealousy fairly quickly.

However, when she is pulled aside and given her own mission, it is to travel back in time and go to Nikkeldepain, Pausert's own planet, and look into an event that she must prevent, dealing with Captain Pausert when he was just a teenager, something that if she doesn't prevent it, might cause a great and horrible change in the history of the galaxy and great calamity. To disguise her, they dye her red hair an even deeper shade of red and curl it, then send her back in time and space to Nikkeldepain.

Goth arrives near Pausert in the botanical gardens where his mother works. His mother should own the botanical gardens, as they once belonged to her brother, Threbus. But when he disappeared somewhere in space, Nikkeldepain, who is a planet of Bureacracy gone amok, wouldn't release his estate to her without his actual body. Nor can it release his holdings without her paying off Threbus's debts, which she can't do without the holdings, leaving both Pausert and his mother in a neat catch-22. As a result, they are always teetering on the edge of poverty, and boys in his class at school bully him and beat him up.

But even as Goth works to help Pausert deal with his bullies, someone else is out looking for him, with more sinister designs on him and his mother. Because Threbus left behind some old artifacts, when he disappeared, and a famous archaeologist, Mebeckey, is desperate to obtain them. But not in the normal way, no. He means to get them by theft and kidnapping, believing that one of the artifacts, is a treasure map of an alien cache.

With him is a hairless woman who speaks almost mechanically, and seems to have no problem with killing Pausert or anyone else who gets in her way. But even as Goth finds the artifact they were seeking and makes plans to hide it, the archaeologist and his hired goons are on her, and she has to run while looking for a place to stash the artifact so well that it won't be found. But can she find a place before the villains find her? And will she resist the urge to go further than a mere kiss with Pausert, especially since it's under her assumed name of Vala?

Meanwhile, back in the present, Pausert rescues a lone man from a planet where he was abandoned by his crew, and it turns out to be the man with the same name as the Archaeologist who was bent on stealing the artifact from his home long ago. But Mebeckey is not the man from Nikkeldepain. Instead, he claims that his first mate may have taken the name when Mebeckey was stranded here 20 years ago.

But there is something strange about this Mebeckey as well- he's prying into everywhere on the ship, picking locks not at all well, and leaving traces that he's been there, especially at the weapons locker. But before Pausert has time to do more than remonstrate with the man, the strange ships are back chasing them again, and this time, they aren't giving up. Mebeckey says he recognizes the ships. They are a design of one of the first races in this part of the galaxy, thought long extinct.

But when Pausert's ship is damaged, he is forced to make landfall on a planet owned by a race of cannibals. The planet is poor in certain minerals needed for them to survive, but while they could get these from animals, the cannibals believe that eating such poor prey would make them prey as well. So they capture and eat humans, which they feed on plant matter. Pausert, the Leewit and the others are captured and imprisoned, but manage to escape, whereupon they find that Mebeckey has been host to an alien plant.

This plant is an alien lifeform that takes over whoever it is attached to, but it cannot reproduce without the bodies of one of the first races, although other races can be carriers. And the woman who was with Mebeckey on his expedition is the current host, and it seems that she is the same woman who tried to kill Pausert when he was a teenager. Now, she controls the largest criminal gang in the galaxy, and is still after Pausert, in order to get the map she sought long ago. But when she captures Pausert and infects him, Goth and the Leewit are going to have to get him back and cure him. but how can they when they don't even know for sure what the plant is vulnerable to? And when the plant-creature invades the planet of the Cannibals while they are there, they will have to find a way to assume leadership of the Cannibals to get them to fight the hordes of plant-infested goons. But how can two girls find a way to do that? Is there any hope for Pausert and the two Karres witches?

I've never read the original book, The Witches of Karres, but have enjoyed these new adventures by two entirely different authors. The stories are sharp and interesting, and well-plotted. And despite the many characters introduced, you never get confused over who is who and what is happening. Most of the concepts are well-explained, with the exception of things like the sheewash drive and how it works, but then, I don't think the characters know exactly how that works, only that it does.

Tension is well-maintained in both threads of the narrative, with the threads switching off over the course of the story, so that while one plot may be going slowly, the other is advancing swiftly, with lots of things happening. I also liked the interactions between the characters, especially between Goth/Vala and young Pausert. Seeing him as a teenager made Goth better able to connect with him, and she got a much better understanding of the man she loves, and who certainly has a great deal of affection for her, even if she's too young for him to do anything about it yet. As an adult, he does seem to love her, but the authors never squicked me out by making him hunger to do anything physical about it, which was a relief.

I love this series, and these characters. In fact, I may have to seek out the original book to see how it differs from the new volumes. You will definitely find yourself enjoying these books and the story. Very well done, and Highly recommended.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Suite 606 by J.D. Robb, Mary Blayney, Ruth Ryan Blangan and Mary Kay McComas

These four stories take place in a Suite 606, which is different in each story. Whether the location is central to the story or incidental, that is the only thing that the collection requires.

First, J.D. Robb gives us "Ritual in Death"- Eve Dallas is attending a party with her husband, Roarke, when they are interrupted by a naked, blood-smeared man collapsing. Quick investigation shows that the man came from the adjoining Suite 606, and that the body of an equally nude, murdered woman is inside. While it's probable that the man is the murderer, when he finally comes to, he says he can't remember a thing about what went down in the suite. He's genuinely confused, and only has foggy memories of what happened.

But Eve doesn't believe he is entirely guilty- especially when the security tapes of what went down in the apartment are wiped, and the security chief of the hotel has similar foggy memories of the night, and shares a killer headache with the possible perp. The missing tapes scream cover-up and conspiracy to Eve, but can she figure out who actually killed the woman and why the real murderers wanted her dead? With the ritual-esque evidence left behind, who wanted the man to be blamed for the murder?

"Love Endures" by Mary Blayney gives us Summer Cassidy, a widow whose husband is still hanging around in Suite 606. Dead after a life of too much deception, drinking and gambling. His soul straddles the line between heaven and hell, and he wants Summer's help to ensure that he ends up in heaven, not Hell.

Summer, though, doesn't feel very inclined to help him, and the presence of her husband's best friend, who she was once in love with and engaged to, doesn't make her job easier. Her husband told her that his friend had only gotten close to her because of a bet between the two of them, which made her break it off and eventually marry the man who became her husband. But when he must reveal the lie he told her to be redeemed, can she find it in her heart to forgive her husband, and herself for falling for his lie?

"Cold Case" by Ruth Langan tells the story of a big-city detective who has grown too damaged to deal with his job investigating murders. He decides to move to a small town in the middle of nowhere to get away from the memories in his head. But when he's involved in an accident on a small, snowy back road, he's rescued by a young woman withering under the thumb of her abusive step father while trying to protect her artistically gifted sister from her stepfather.

The stepfather isn't happy to have another male in the house, and he tells, Sam, the cop, to move on in the morning. But by the morning, the storm that brought down Sam's car is still around, so Sam must stay instead of going into town. His attraction to the woman who found him, Mary Catherine, brings him the mystery of what happened to her mother, who her stepfather says ran off with a drifter who came there to work. But as the storm grows worse, and the stepfather meaner and crueller, can Sam find the truth about what happened to Mary Catherine's mother, and save her daughters from the same fate?

"Wayward Wizard" by Mary Kay McComas tells the tale of Marie Barnett, a divorcee raising a son, Hugh, that seems to hate her. But when she takes him to the Museum, he touches an ancient Egyptian Pendant and vanishes. Touching it, she follows him into the past, she meets a magician named Nester Baraka of Viator, who has bonded with her son in the time it has taken her to follow him- a few minutes on her part, and days on his.

Nester tells her that he can get her home, but to do so, he must retrieve the gem that sent her and her son Hugh into the future, because without it, his time travelling isn't very accurate, and he needs the stone to be able to travel with complete accuracy- it's one of two, but one isn't complete without the other. Marie, a history teacher, agrees to help him as they travel home, but soon finds herself attracted to Nestor. Can she stand looking forward to finding the second stone when it means Nestor will eventually have to leave her? And will her son forgive her if she lets him go?

This was a somewhat uneven concept to hang a story collection on. Nestor, Marie and Hugh end up showing up in all the other stories, but the "Suite 606" can range from a very important part of the story (like the first two stories, where most of the action occurs there) to the last two, where the suite only plays a tiny part in the story (a very tiny part). Each of the stories by themselves is wonderful, but as a framing device, the suite 606 concept wasn't exactly stellar. It's like saying, "A story happens- and rooms are involved!"

That being said, my favorite story here is the one by J. D. Robb. Even witthout the suite concept, the story really crackled with excitement and mystery. My second favorite was "Cold Case" because of how involved in both the story and the characters I got. The story sucked me in fast and good. But truth be told, there isn't a bad story in the bunch. All of them are wonderful and engaging to read, bar none.

I'd recommend this book very highly. while the stories in the book may not flow together into a cohesive whole or even have much to do with the title of the book, the stories are the best part of the book and well worth picking up. Highly recommended.

Naoki Urasawa's 20th Century Boys, Volume 1

Kenji works in a convenience store now, but when he was young, he spent his time dreaming of a grand and successful future along with his friends Yoshitsune, Mon-chan, Maruo, Otcho and Donkey. When they were young, they were kings of the street, as long as Yanbo and Mabo weren't around- the most evil, cruel twins in history.

One summer, Kenji and his friends made a clubhouse in an overgrown field of grasses, tying them together to make an area inside where they could meet, read comics, and just be themselves. And that summer, they became something more- in an effort to make their own time capsule, they put in their most treasured possessions, along with a flag Kenji made to represent them. They buried it in the field and later lost their clubhouse when the field was reaped.

Now, years later, some of the gang have grown apart, and Kenji, who used to dream of going to the moon, is stuck working in his family's convenience store and raising his sister's out of wedlock daughter while his sister is gone. But news of the death of a professor comes when the Police come to question him. Kenji delivered Liquor to the Professor, and now the whole family is missing, and the liquor bottles were left in the alley behind their home. When Kenji goes to pick them up, he sees a drawing on the wall that shocks him, because that is the image his gang used to represent themselves.

He asks the others he used to hang out with about the symbol at the wedding of their friend Keroyon, but nobody but him seems to remember it, or remember it beyond very vaguely, but it troubles him. Who else would know about their Headquarters, and who knew enough about them to remember their flag, which they buried in the time capsule and apparently promptly forgot about?

Worse than that for Kenji is that the symbol keeps turning up at the murders of people. Sometimes people that he knew- like Monkey, who went on to become a science teacher- and sometimes just prominent people. And it is the symbol of a new movement dedicated to empowerment- and is headed by a shadowy figure known as "Friend". Who is this man, and how could he know so much about the activities of Kenji and his friends so long ago? And what do he and his organization *really* want?

This manga isn't one of the usual fantasy or historical fantasy manga- it's more a science-fiction horror manga mingled with slice of life about growing up in Japan in the late 1960's, early 1970's. The mystery and possible horror builds slowly, but it is certainly set up effectively. By flipping back and forth from modern day to the past and then back, the sense of mystery builds slowly, and the glimpses we get of the friend, whose face is always in shadow, are chilling.

Because of the slow build, the story does seem to meander, especially in the past, but each trip into the past provides backstory for the present day, from who Monkey was to the genesis of the image that so haunts Kenji when it keeps showing up at the site of a murder. All that may happen during this book is that Kenji enlists his old friends in discovering who might be using their old symbol, but no one but him is so very invested in solving the mystery.

This is an interesting and disturbing book that sets up an effective mystery from the very first page. The drudgery of Kenji's current life is contrasted strongly with the hope he had when he was young, and points out the uncertainty of who the modern-day "Friend" could be lingers long after you close the book. I will be interested in seeing where this book is going. Recommended.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

X-Men: Manifest Destiny by Various

When the X-Men up and moved Digs to San Francisco, Logan was stuck moving all his stuff. But in among the things in his room, he discovered an old souvenir of his former time in SF. a special knife/spear point that symbolized the leadership of the Black Dragon Tong in the city.

But when he travels to Chinatown to try and take it back, he remembers how he acquired it in the first place. After World War II, he was passing through when he intervened to save Chinatown from the Black Dragon Tong, a set of thugs who ran the place like it was their own private fiefdom. Back then, Logan killed the leader of the tong and took the spear-shaped knife. But unknown to him at the time, his taking the knife meant that he was the new leader of the Tong, and the locals needed the Tong to run Chinatown correctly. When Logan abdicated the responsibility by leaving, the shopkeeper's daughter took over the position and warned Logan never to come back.

But now that he's returned, it sets off another battle to control Chinatown, and now he's fighting the girl he once saved, who is still head of the Black Dragon Tong, and she's recruited plenty of muscle to make sure that he dies. This time, Logan might need some help, but will the Martial Arts Schools band together to help Logan take over? Or will the girl he rescued have her revenge after all?

Then, Nightcrawler is invited back to Winzeldorf, Germany, the town from which he was rescued from a torch-wielding mob by Charles Xavier so long ago. It seems they have started a Nightcrawler Museum, and want him to go see it. He finds the museum is run by a woman who calls himself her greatest fan, Mara Keller. But the real reason why he's been asked to come is because of a monster in the woods they want him to kill, but Kurt finds that the "monster" is just a boy cursed by a gypsy to look that way, and tries to save him. But can he overcome the prejudice of the villagers a second time, and face off with Mephisto?

And when Bobby Drake's powers go out of control, he finds out Mystique has been impersonating his girlfriend. Nor will she let him rest. She keeps telling him that this will kill or cure him, but why is she tormenting him- what does it mean, and why does she keep coming back to hurt him again and again?

Boom-boom has problems of her own when she runs into a costumed criminal called Nuwa, and has to deal with the villain who seems more powerful than her. But is she really?

Again, Nightcrawler has to deal with missing Kitty. But can he beat out his problem by fighting it away in the Danger Room, or will it take a different kind of Therapy?

And finally, costumed villain Avalanche has given up villainy and become a bartenderat his own place, called "Nick's". But can he ever outrun the scrutiny of the X-Men?

With all the X-Men comics out there, you are bound to run into some clunkers eventually. These are all stand-alone stories, supposedly taking place just before or after the X-Men moved from Westchester. New York to San Francisco California. The problem with the stories is their very unevenness. The Wolverine story is like the quote from King Lear "Full of Sound and Fury, signifying nothing"- it's a tangled mess that I had a hard time following. I liked the first Nightcrawler story the best, but basically it points out that Nightcrawler is happy with the life choices he's made ever since being rescued by Professor X.

The Iceman story is a twisted romance between Bobby Drake and Mystique, aka Raven Darkholme. She loves him, but the upshot is that she hurts and ends up destroying the lives of the people she loves out of he own twisted motives. And the rest of the stories are just filler: Boom Boom loves shopping and hates people who are more popular than her, Nightcrawler misses Kitty and feels unhappy he couldn't save her- and the X-men are shaking down old villains and making sure they won't return to their old ways.

Nothing in these stories is very interesting or is something you are going to want to have hanging around in graphic novel format. I found the art clunky and ugly in most of the stories, and some of the characters in the Wolverine story looked more interesting than he was! That's a big sign of a story fail right there. Avoid this one. Buy it only in the interests of completism, but there are lots better graphic novels to spend your money on. Not recommended.

Ghoulish Goodies: A Frightful Cookbook by Sharon Bowers

Hallowe'en brings to mind children trick or treating for goodies. But nothing says those goodies have to be store-bought. As children we eschew the homemade goodies for the store-bought candy, but the truth we learn as adults is that it's often the homemade candy that's the best, not the store-bought stuff.

Or perhaps you want to throw a Hallowwen party with really stand-out goodies, from candy to cookies, cakes, pies and even "real" food like Pizza, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, shepherd's pie and colcannon- with the recipies in this book, you can do all that.

Or if you just want to make the best party eats ever, for either a children's halloween party, or an adult one, there is plenty here to do that that will make your party the talk of the school- or the neighborhood! With goodies like "Witches Knuckles", "Swamp Monster Toes", "Creature Feature Cupcakes", "i'Scream Cake", "Ghostly Cake" and my personal favorite, the "Whistling Past the Graveyard Cake".

With a wide selection, you can feed your family any sort of food on Hallowe'en, even "Cup O'Worms", and "Ghoul-aide with Fly on my Ice", or "Screaming Red Punch with a Hand". More than just odd-looking these also taste incredibly delicious, and many are simply spectacular. Combine this book with the Star Trek Cookbook by Neelix, and you'll have the recipie for a truly ghoulish and spectacular party.

I loved this book. So much of it is wonderful, eye-catching and delicious. The pictures are truly evocative. My favorite of all the cupcakes are the "Creature Feature Cupcakes" that show a tentacled green alien with an eye seemingly emerging from the top of a cupcake- beautiful and scary all at the same time.

But it's not just sweets at which this book excels- the "Glaring Eye Meatloaf" with boiled eggs hidden inside will be a hit with kids everywhere, and the Candy-Corn Pizza is both simple and easy to make. The best part of it all is how easy it is to make.

I heartily recommend this book for those who want their Hallowe'en parties to be simply spectacular, or just to wow your kids and their friends. The end of the book even includes recipies to make with leftover Hallowe'en candy (as if!). Highly Recommended.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Divine Misdemeanors by Laurell K. Hamilton

Meredith Nic Essus was once in line for the throne of Faerie, that of the Dark Fey. But after being assaulted by her Uncle Taranis, the King of the Light Fey, she was offered his throne as well, but the whole experience soured her on ever taking the throne. Offered the choice between the throne or the life of her lover, Frost, one of the fathers of her children, she chose Frost and turned her back on the succession forever.

Now, she lives in Southern California, with her guards and her lovers around her, but when a group of Demi-Fey are murdered and arranged into something out of a human fairytale book, the Police call her in to consult. She is able to tell them that the demi-fey would have had to have been drugged, because they are too fast and too strong for a human to kill more than one before the rest fled or retaliated.

She also discovers that one Fey witnessed the killing, and fled the scene. She has taken shelter in a coffee shop run by a brownie, and Meredith and her guards travel there to help the police talk to her. The Faerie is a demi-fey named Bittersweet, and she is extremely upset and doesn't want to talk to the merely human police, so Merry sits with her and shares some tea and cakes.

Questioning Bittersweet drives her into a rage of fear and hatred against the humans who killed the Demi-Fey and isn't that far from unleashing itself on the human police as well. But then Gilda, the Fairy Godmother, arrives and she calms Bittersweet down. Gilda used to be human, a wardrobe mistress, but somehow gained fey powers. She sees herself as a rival for the affections of the fey of Los Angeles with Meredith, or vice-versa, and basically banishes Meredith from the room.

Meredith, who honestly doesn't care about holding the loyalty of any Fae but her own people, leaves, but needs to sit down for a while, so she goes to a nearby Fae-run deli/cafe. As she sits and talks with the proprietor, the Paparazzi following her manage to break the window by leaning on it, nearly injuring Merry and the rest of the Fae there.

Retreating back to the beach house for the trip to the beach she wanted to take before she was called to the scene of the Demi-Fey's death, Merry deals with the injured feelings of some of her guards by proving to them she doesn't want to be their only lovers... by having sex with them. Because Queen Andais wouldn't let her guards take other lovers until she had slept with them at least once, and by doing this, Marry will reassure them in a way that all her words can't. She also ends up sleeping with Barinthus, another of her guards, and returns to him more of his powers over the sea. But when he has them, he displays a rather nasty attitude towards humans that shows she may have made a mistake in sleeping with him.

However, when another Fae death arranged to look like a scene from a human "fairy tale" book is discovered, Merry won't stop until she discovers who is killing these "lesser" fae and why. And is the killer a human using magic, or another fae with some kind of axe to grind? Could Gilda somehow be behind these killings, or is it someone else?

I usually like the Meredith Gentry stories, but this one was distinctly sub-par. Descriptions of characters are repeated over and over, and we hardly ever see any of Merry's baby fathers- not even Frost, who she supposedly gave up Queenship for. When Frost and Doyle do appear, they are limited to mostly rote responses that reveal nothing new about their characters. And we are again treated to Merry's magic enhancing orgasm, which gifts Barinthus with enough power to be an asshole, and another guard with his own sithen.

Another disappointment was the number of misspellings and general lack of editing that just disgusted me. Whenever authors think they are big enough and popular enough with readers to get away with no editing of their work, it goes to crap. It happened to J.K. Rowling (Don't even get me started on Deathly Hallows and the saga of three people arguing endlessly in a magical tent) and its definitely happening with Ms. Hamilton. Whoever edited this book deserves beating with a cat o'nine tails. And for a book that supposedly is supposed to be about Merry and company returning to being detectives, damn little detecting goes on- the name of the killer is revealed to Merry by an associate of the killers. So, no detection there.

This book feels overwritten, under-edited and just a mess. It's not much fun to read. With the subtraction of the political stuff that went on with Merry possibly in line to succeed to one throne of Faerie, a great deal of tension is subtracted with nothing interesting to replace it. And sex is great, but this is just pointless sex that adds zip to the story, Laurell K. Hamilton can do much, much better. This is not better. It's not even much good. Not recommended.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Batman: Private Casebook by Paul Dini, Dustin Nguyen and Derek Fridolfs

This graphic novel collects six stories about vengeance from Batman's own Rogues gallery, from Ra's Al Ghul to the Mad Hatter, Riddler, Scarface and Catwoman. And even... Zatanna?

"Resurrection of Ra's Al Ghul- Epilogue has the reborn Ra's coming to Gotham to live, and since Ra's can't have Batman as a neighbor, he declares war against him for control of Gotham- something that Batman has no problem with. But Batman aims to win, and how do you get rid of an immortal demon, anyway?

"The Wonderland Gang" has the Mad Hatter breaking out of Prison and recruiting a new gang based on Wonderland Characters while stealing Wonderland-themed items. But when the gang starts doing regular crimes like robbing the jewelry exchange, Batman has to wonder who is really behind the crime spree, and bring him or them to justice.

"The Suit of Sorrows" begins when Talia Al Ghul gives Batman an old suit of chainmail armor as a Gift. It is supposed to make its wearer stronger and swifter, and it certainly helps Batman when he goes after Gotham Jack, a snappily-dressed robber. But when it brings out a vein of cruelty in him, Batman must investigate the truth of the suit and where it comes from before it leads him into being just as bad as the criminals he fights. But will the truth so easily yield to investigation?

"Opening Night" Teams Batman with his fellow Jusice-Leaguer Zatanna. When Zatanna is hired by Johnny Sabatino to headline at his club for a single night, Batman comes along to keep an eye on her. Somebody has a vested interest in taking down Sabatino and ruining his club. But who is it?

"Curtains" continues the story of Scarface and his new Ventriloquist, who is the daughter of a prominent crime family. Peyton Reilly has been dealt a raw deal by life, and Scarface is her only friend. But can he save her when her ex-husband decides to get some payback?

"The Riddle Unanswered" has Batman facing off with Edward Nygma, the Riddler, who has gone straight to become a detective in Gotham himself, to be the first to uncover a serial killer who is taking out a seemingly endless string of unrelated victims. Who is the killer, and who will get to him first? Batman, or the Riddler?

"Kcirt Ro Taert" tells a story of Zatanna and a group of druggies who thought it would be terribly amusing to fill the candy they gave to kids with hallucinogenic drugs. Told by Scarecrow, is this just a story aimed to scare, or truth? And which would scare you more?

This was an interesting set of stories. It seems that Batman's foes are changing. Many of his past Rogues have gone straight, or aren't really responsible for the crimes he's investigating in these stories, and those who haven't gone straight have changed- Scarface has a new Ventriloquist after the old one died, and the Mad Hatter isn't really responsible for the Crime Spree supposedly taking place in his name.

But these are very effective stories- most of them are mysteries that Batman has to investigate to solve, although even that doesn't always work for him. These stories are very dark, strip-mining the lower emotions for their shocks and thrills, but even as they do, the stories rarely linger there. These stories are all pretty much self-contained within an issue or two- no long story arcs here, but we don't get quite so much Angsty!Batman or Vengeful!Batman. These stories are actually, dare I say it, fun to read.

An excellent collection of short stories that are a fun, enjoyable read and an antidote to the usually dreary long epic storylines that Batman and his team have been involved in lately. With a vanishingly short appearance by Catwoman, and a rather longer one by Zatanna, there's lots to love here. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Gotham Central: Book Two- Jokers and Madmen by Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, and Michael Lark

What would it be like to be a Policeman in Gotham City, the home of Batman? To have to deal with the same costumed crooks and criminals that Batman deals with on a daily basis? To know that no matter how good you are or how well you do your job, that Batman will get the glory and you get to do the work in the aftermath? That's the central Theme of Gotham Central, which looks at the lives of Gotham's Policemen and women struggling to keep the city safe.

"Daydreams and Believers" shows us the cops who work in Gotham Central through the eyes of Stacey, the receptionist and secretary to the cops, who, because she isn't a city employee, is the only one who can turn on the Bat-Signal, and who, we learn, also happens to be in love with Batman.

"Soft Targets" shows us how the life of the Gotham Cops are affected when Joker starts one of his rampages in Gotham. He starts out by murdering the mayor in front of the police commissioner, using a sniper rifle from across the street, and soon after the cops begin investigating that crime, the Superintendent of Schools is shot, again with a sniper rifle, on a school playground, and during the course of the investigation, someone starts shooting at the cops. When they storm the room where the shots came from, they discover a laptop computer accessing a page called "Batty for Mayor", with a picture of Batman and according to the bottom of the page, paid for by "The Joke's on You" committee. As the murders continue across Gotham, they call in Batman with the Bat-Signal shortly before Joker shoots it out and opens fire on everyone on top of the building, but Batman shields them and gets them inside.

As the Gotham P.D. tracks down Joker's known associates and the gun used to shoot and kill the owner of the apartment where the shooter shot the Schools Superintendent, but even when the cops arrest the Joker, he still has another trick up his sleeve- one that could lead to many more cops getting killed.

"Life is Full of Disappointments" sees the second shift getting a new commander, and one of the cops is angry that he didn't get the promotion- they brought in someone from the outside. And it's the same day that they buried some of their own- the cops killed in the Joker case. Detectives Crowe and Sgt. Davies are assigned to the case of a dead girl found in a dumpster, but even though she is apparently killed by a cabdriver, it turns out she was poisoned by some very strange pharmaceuticals- and she used to work at a Pharmaceutical company. But can the P.D. discover who was really behind her death?

"Unresolved" Brings back Harvey Bullock, a former GPD officer let go from his job because of Brutality. When a crazed shooting suspect references a decades-old crime. the investigating detectives find that Harvey Bullock was the investigating officer on that case and go speak to him. Apparently, some members of a baseball team went crazy and attacked the others. Bullock suspected that the Penguin was to blame but couldn't prove it, and hates the Penguin to this day. Now that the case has been revived, and Bullock is no longer on the force, he feels free to act on his suspicions. But was the Penguin really behind the case, or was it another of Batman's Rogues Gallery?

I liked this graphic novel. It's thick, it's weighty. and you get an amazing amount of story for your money. And these are pretty interesting and deep stories. Unlike Metropolis, where the cops know that Superman is on their side all the time, Gotham P.D, has no such assurances, and are suspicious of Batman's motives. I know many people have compared Gotham to New York city, and Metropolis to some other city, but to me, they are both New York City- Metropolis is the better parts of the city, and all the best parts of its inhabitants, while Gotham is the worst parts of the city, and the people there are the dark side of New Yorkers- the Shadow side, if you will.

And Gotham's cops can take on the normal criminals of their city fairly well, even if they weren't overworked and underpaid for their time and effort, but for the most part, they aren't able to deal with the Super-powered criminals or Batman's Rogues Gallery. And they hate Batman that he has to exist in their city, and protect the people they can't. Despite that, the cops of Gotham PD are likeable, and run the gamut in terms of type. Here, we get to see the true face of the normally nameless cops and policemen that are usually faceless in most Batman stories, which is a welcome change, even if during a typical story involving one of Batman's foes, you are aware that Batman is also conducting an investigation behind the scenes of the story you are reading.

I liked the book, and I loved the stories, which i felt really captured what it would be like to be a cop in a city where there was a costumed crusader working behind the scenes, one whom the cops both feared and resented in equal measures. They may need him from time to time, but they never really welcome him with open arms. I highly recommend this book, and others in this same series. It's just too good to miss.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

In the President's Secret Service by Ronald Kessler

Every day the Secret Service protects the President, keeping him away from enemies that might want to try to kill him or cause him and his family harm. But who are they, where do they come from, and what do they say the Presidents are really like when they are away from the public?

Speaking with actual Secret Service Agents, Ronald Kessler spills the beans about what goes on behind the scenes in the secret service, from the true characters of the Presidents as seen by their agents, to the surprising ways the Secret Service has protected the President, both from threats, and from their own wives.

Not only does the Secret Service protect the President, but also the Presidential candidates on the campaign trail. This is good, because it gets the candidates used to being protected by the Secret service, heading up to the time when one of them will actually become President, and have the Secret Service guarding him 24/7. The same goes for the Vice Presidents and their family.

This book is packed with lots of interesting information, from the secret service code names of the Presidents and their first ladies. The President and First Lady's code names start with the same letter. President Obama, for instance, is Renegade and his wife, Michelle is Renaissance. This even extends to their children, Sasha and Malia are code named Radiance and Rosebud.

Sometimes, the names are descriptive- Lynn Cheney, an author, asked for the Codename Author, and her husband, an avid fisherman, took the name Angler. Sarah Palin got Denali and her husband Todd, Driller. George W. Bush had "Tumbler", but asked to be "Trailblazer" instead.

But in addition to the fluff, there is a lot of more interesting information. For one, that the Secret Service is understaffed, and has a problem retaining agents- because the bosses in the Secret Service are unexpectedly severe about when and where the agents work- and worse, it's run like a fiefdom, so if an agent has friends or contacts in the upper echelons, he or she is golden and gets what they want. If not, they are SOL.

Because of this problem, which no one in the Secret Service wants to admit to, the quality of the Secret Service agents have declined- not precipitously, but there is a definite lack of superior agents in the service. They still have good agents, but unless something is done, the security of the Presidents could suffer because of the Service not being willing to see what's wrong or able to do something about it.

This was an incredibly engaging book, giving us a look inside the Secret Service and the people who protect the President. I learned a number of interesting things- like how the Secret Seryice are treasury agents, originally created to track down counterfeiters- but their original part-time protection of Grover Cleveland eventually became a mission to protect the President, then Vice-President and finally not only the President and Vice-President, their wives and children, but also the Presidential candidates as well.

Some of the things I found amusing included the name "Denali" as the Secret Service codename for Sarah Palin. Is it just a coincidence that reordered, it spells "Denial"? And her husband's codename being "Driller" when her constant refrain was "Drill, baby, drill"? Also interesting is the stories of the Presidents as they were in real life. Carter, who would go to his office at 5 AM so he could tell people so- but then he'd nap once he got there! And it's not just Kennedy and Clinton who have had affairs in the White House- or used Secret Service agents to cover up their infidelities- LBJ was also sowing wild oats in the White House, and some members of Congress as well.

My biggest complaint about this book, is that there is very little of substance in it. It's like reading a supermarket tabloid, filled with gossip- we never get the agent's insights into how the President dealt with any matters of substance during their time in office. It's all gossip, and how much the agents didn't like Presidents or first families that treated them like excrement on the side of the road. They don't have to like you to protect you, but it does make it easier for them if you do. Also complaints about what was wrong with the Secret Service were scattered all over the book instead of being grouped in one place, and several sections were poorly written.

If you are looking for endless gossip about the Presidents, this is definitely the book to get. Some parts of it have been told before- like the history of the secret service and what they do. As Treasury agents, they investigate financial crimes, but this book is strictly about their protection aspect. The gossip will definitely keep your attention, but it's very shallow and seems strangely biased towards the Republican Presidents (yet the Reagans were apparently quite a piece of work). Recommended, just don't expect to get anything very deep out of it.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Bloody Kiss Volume 2 by Kazuko Furumiya

Kiyo Katsuragi has been claimed as a blood bride by Kuroboshi, a vampire Prince. He and his mentor, Alshu, have been living in the same house that was once owned by Kiyo's grandmother, which she left to Kiyo. Now, not only does Kiyo have charge of the house, but also her grandmother's two guests.

Kuroboshi wants blood. Having taken Kiyo as his blood bride, he can only drink blood from her, and without blood, he is weak and lethargic. If Kiyo gets some of her blood, he can do many amazing and magical things with it, by Kiyo resists the idea of being his permanent bride. Alshu persuades Kuroboshi that if they begin going to Kiyo's school, she may get used to the idea, and so Kuroboshi enrolls, while Alshu becomes part of the faculty. Kiyo feels this only causes more worry for her- because if the students should get wind of the idea that Kuroboshi and Alshu are vampires, her life would become much more difficult.

But she's not the only one with reason to be angry. Another student, Fujiwara, doesn't want to share the spotlight with Kiyo and challenges Kiyo to a tennis match. If Kiyo loses, she must leave the school. But unbeknownst to Kiyo, Fujiwara is the daughter of the headmaster, and she plays to win. Does Kiyo even have a chance to beat the arrogant Fujiwara when Fujiwara is making sure that Kiyo can't get a fair or even break?

Then, a friend from Kiyo's past, the boy next door that she was best friends with, returns. Sou Mikami has been training as a monster hunter and evil killer, and both he and Kiyo have grown up a great deal since they parted. Now, he is expressing a romantic interest in Kiyo, and she, who has recently faced that she has romantic feelings for Kuroboshi, and now she must deal with someone who she thinks of as a friend wanting her as well. But when Sou finds out that Kuroboshi is romantically interested in Kiyo, will he be able to keep from killing the vampire, one of the creatures that Sou learned to hunt while he was away training? Can their be any hope of a happy ending when Suo seems to want Kuroboshi dead?

The backup story, Wishing on a Vampire concerns Miku Taira, who wants to be beautiful so desperately that she travels to a building that appears only at certain times to ask the man inside to make her beautiful. He agrees, for a price, some of her blood. She wants to be beautiful so that a boy who had agreed to go to the prom with her two years ago, would remember his promise and ask her.

But it seems that no one but the vampire wants her to succeed, and is she a shallow person to want the beauty only to find love with someone? As the time to the prom gets nearer and nearer, does she have the courage to ask the boy to dance with her, even though he's asked someone else to the prom? and will the vampire she's asked repudiate her for her shallow nature in asking for beauty?

I found this series, short as it is, to be a waste of my time. It's just another rehashed teen love manga of a girl falling for or being chased by an "unsuitable" boy. In this case, the unsuitability is his vampirism and constantly trying to get blood out of her. You know that they will eventually end up together- so every obstacle that turns up will eventually be overcome, even her old friend who views Kuroboshi as a threat to her. The real shock would have been if she ended up with Suo after all the conflict with Kuroboshi.

The art is nice, with nice, clean line art, but just... it's nothing I haven't seen before over and over and over again in manga. Just because the unsuitable boy who pines for you or who you fall in love with is a vampire, doesn't really bring anything different to the high school love story. Even less when the only sign of him being a vampire is drinking blood. He can still go out in the sunlight and attend day school with the girl he's bound to. It's like the whole "vampire" thing is just some strange code for a bad boy with dietary issues. For all his "vampireness" impinges on the thing, he might as well be a really strong vegan. Not convincing.

Given that I have seen all the tropes in this series elsewhere, and the whole "vampire quotient" is pretty much reduced to dietary needs, and there was nothing all that wonderful in the second volume made me feel cheated, but not too much because I wasn't expecting much, even when the first volume promised me that this one would be much better. In short, it's not. Just more re-hash, and another story like the first back-up story, where a girl relies on someone other than herself to try and get her dreams to come true. in neither case does the girl get what she thinks she wants, and she has to rethink her priorities to find a happy ending. Not recommended at all. Save your money. There is better stuff out there.

Dark Hunger by Christine Feehan

Riordan is a male Carpathian who has been imprisoned by Scientists who have poisoned his blood, making him unable to contact or call out to his family. Now, weak and chained to a wall, he hates himself for falling victim to those who would kill his family and his people.

Meanwhile, Juliette is outside with her sister, Jasmine. They plan a raid on the facility to free the women and children that the scientists have captured. While Juliette distracts the guard, Jasmine knocks him out with an injection, and as Jasmine drags him off into the jungle, Juliette enters the lab to free the women and children- and the animals. But as she telepathically tells the animals to get out, she catches sight of another cell, locked and with a warning sign on the outside. Of course, she must see what is inside.

Riordan pretends to have passed out as Juliette enters his cell. Thinking her one of his captors, he plans to drink her blood and use it to escape, but as soon as she gets close, he opens his eyes in shock. After many years, he can see in color, and feel emotions. He is shocked, but that doesn't stop him from biting Juliette, claiming her as his. He uses the power of her blood to destroy the lab completely. She begs him to stop, because her sister is still inside the lab. But he tells her the lab is deserted except for them.

And then they are soaring high in the air. She wonders who, and more importantly, what, he is. Only to find him still weak. Not trusting him, or any man, she plans to run, but her own bodily weakness prevents her. And she seems to be able to understand the thoughts in his head, as if they were her own. But how? He answers both questions by telling her that they are lifemates, destined to be together, and that he drained her a little too deeply. She is upset when she finds out that he drinks blood, but he tells her he doesn't have to kill when he feeds.

But their little conversation is interrupted by the attack of a vampire, and they must flee him. Riordan leaves her alone to make a false trail for the vampire to follow, then tells her what he is, a Carpathian. A race which resembles both humans and vampires, drinks blood to survive, and are the progenitors of vampires. Vampires are what Carpathians become if they live too long without their lifemate. Their vision goes to black, white and shades of gray, and their lighter emotions disappear over time.

If they succumb to despair or give in to hatred and bloodlust, and kill someone who they feed off of, they will become a vampire and be forever after twisted and hateful, unable to love. living only for drinking blood and killing. Now that Juliette and Riordan have found each other, he will never have to fear becoming a vampire.

But Juliette is also not human. She is a were-jaguar, and the male jaguars have betrayed their females, imprisoning them and forcing them to bear children over and over again. Juliette and her sisters have sworn to free the women and children, even if it means going against the males of their species. Because of the inbreeding, some jaguar females cannot shift, while others can only shift infrequently. Juliette and her sister Solange hve sworn not to take a mate. But she is falling for Riordan, as he has obviously fallen for her.

But can Riordan keep Juliette safe while taking on the vampires gunning for him, and then help her keep her people safe and alive from the threat of their own men? Or will something have to give? And if so what? If Juliette takes Riordan as her mate, will her sister be able to forgive Juliette for what she will see as a betrayal of their vows to remain unmated to a man? And can there be any kind of final happiness for two people so completely different from one another?

I'd read this book some years ago in the print version, but as a manga, this book isn't so bad. I do confess that the depiction of Riordan didn't exactly thrill me. The art style had him looking much too Bishonen for me. I had imagined him more rugged, wild and hairy-chested. This version of him looked like some J-Pop superstar right down to the Almond-shaped eyes. It wasn't exactly a bad depiction, but compared to the image in my head, it was nothing close, and I found that distracting me from the story.

Aside from that, the art is nice, with clean, elegant lines for both man and animals, and even in the midst of complex fights, it is easy to tell what is going on and what is happening. Even so, the story didn't feel as deep as a manga as it did as a book, and the story feels unfinished- at the end, Riordan and Juliette have found love and bonded, but her people are by no means safe, and Riordan knows that a vampire has corrupted the Jaguar males, but the story basically ends with Riordan agreeing to protect Juliette, her sisters Jasmine and Solange and their people, but due to the ongoing situation with the rest of the jaguar males, the story feels like it should go on- that it won't really be ended until the rest of Juliette's people are safe. And that's mainly because this wasn't a full-sized book, but a short story in a multi-story compilation, the original name of the book the story was in was "Hot-Blooded".

In the end, I'd have to say that aside from the shallowness and unfinished feeling of the story, this is quite a successful adaptation of the story. The art may not have meshed with what I felt the character of Riordan looked like, but it's not bad, and it was just my impression, so I can't really even say it was a detraction. Recommended.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Batman: The Cat and the Bat by Fabian Nicieza and Kevin Maguire

Barbara Gordon is trying to decipher one of Batman's notebooks when it is stolen right out of her library by Catwoman. Barbara changes into Batwoman to track down the thief, and the chase is on!

After an exchange of fisticuffs with Catwoman/Selina Kyle, Catwoman wins, but Batgirl isn't willinbg to let her go so easily. She tracks Catwoman to a meeting of the Gotham Hedonist Society, and they only agree to let her in if her body is completely uncovered. Barabara has never done anything like this, but she's not giving up, either, and after another altercation with Catwoman (who is meeting with a Russian named Stanislaus), she gets back the notebook and leaves with it.

But not so fast... Catwoman has her own reasons for wanting the notebook, and she's not about to let it get away from her, and she tracks down Batwoman again, and they have another set-to in the midst of a junkyard. But when Batgirl accuses Selina of wanting the notebook for money, Selina responds, angrily, that she needs it to save someone's life.

So when someone starts shooting and nails Selina in the shoulder, Barbara knows that she is telling the truth. So when she realizes that Selina is fighting the Russian Mob to save a friend of hers, she and Catwoman must team up to save the girl, and keep the notebook from falling into the wrong hands- permanently. But can there ever be enough trust between Barbara and Selina to get them to view each other as anything but opponents? And will it be up to Batman to pull both their fat out of the fire when they get too far in?

I liked this book a lot. Okay, yeah, it's filled with fanservice, but mostly Barbara Gordon and Selina Kyle kick ass and take names. Any comic book with either one of them would be great. Together? Complete awesome sauce with a side of Great. They not only take on the Russian mob, but several of Batman's Rogues Gallery.

On the other hand, there is an incredible amount of Fanservice. Most women would probably say too much. Both characters end up with costumes shredded to hell and back, and both end up in a party where everything but their faces are on display. And I do mean... everything. (Carefully drawn to edit out anything really naughty or adult, of course! Even if it doesn't have the CCA label on it.)

It's not terribly bad, but while fanboys might like it for all the skin on display, I think most female fans are going to feel quite differently. The story is good, but the art shoots itself in the foot by ensuring that the story is barely memorable against all that skin. Not reommended.

Monday, January 11, 2010

X-Men: Wolverine and Gambit by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale

Five women have been killed in London, and Gambit has been called in to find out who the killer is, because one of the victims is a former friend of his. But when he goes to England to find the killer, he comes up against both C.I.D., and Wolverine.

Worse, Gambit finds Wolverine standing over a dead body with blood splattered over his claws and body. But when Gambit confronts him, Wolverine tells him he doesn't even remember why he came to London, or how he came to be in this position. Discovered by the C.I.D., they are forced to flee with the help of Martinique Jason of Interpol, who was sent by Nick Fury to help them, or so she says.

Wolverine asks how Nick Fury came to know of his plight, but she doesn't get a chance to answer. To get away from the cops as they cross London Bridge, Logan sends the car flying over the side. When they come to, they are in the sewers, and Martinique lies dead at their feet in a pool of blood.

Gambit lays into Wolverine, asking why he had to go and kill her, too. But Wolverine doesn't think he did, and he thinks someone is playing with them, and his senses. She seems dead... Gambit blows a hole in the sewer wall, and he and Wolverine try to get out. Only to come back to where they started, and Martinique's body is gone. Only the blood is still there.

Gambit can't believe his eyes when Martinique confronts them, claiming to be looking for revenge on the killer of the girls, but Wolverine slices her open before she can shoot them, revealing... that "Martinique" is actually a sophisticated android.

Meanwhile, someone watches Wolverine and Gambit from an underground lair, where we learn that Martinique is the daughter of Mastermind, and is working with Arcade to screw with both X-men. But why?

What does Arcade gain from such a plot, and why implicate Wolverine in murders taking place in London? As "Martinique" plays with their minds, manipulating them like tools and puppets, can Wolverine and Gambit find their way through a maze of lies to the truth of the matter?

This was a short mini-series, but very well done. Because of Wolverine's well-known memory problems, it was just possible that he could have killed the women and not known or remembered doing it. In the end, of course, no fan of Wolverine or the X-men would believe he was actually responsible, but the rest of the world would hold him accountable.

The story is engaging right off the bat, with Gambit talking to a Danger- Room version of Rogue, and possibly killing or hurting her after he goes back to being what he is, a thief. But that's just a small foretaste of what's to come. The ultimate reason for the killings is... sad, and we only find it out when "Martinique" goes into Arcade's mind to see how small and pathetic he really is. For the longest time, it looks like Arcade was injured by Wolverine, but that turns out not to be the case.

I didn't like the art very much. Gambit doesn't look very human here, his face, at times, seems like it's all sharp points and angles, and I'm not sure why it's Gambit's art that looks the worst, as opposed to all the other characters in the series. But, be that as it may, I did enjoy the story, and I think it is very well done. It plays out showing how much Wolverine must question what he knows, as so much of his history is just not there for him. A scenario such as this must be like a living hell for him. I enjoyed this story a lot, even if it is fairly short, and would recommend it to others. Highly recommended.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Black Casebook by Various, Introduction by Grant Morrison

The Black Casebook collects the stories that inspired Batman R.I.P.

In "A Partner for Batman"- when Robin is injured on a case and breaks his leg, he doesn't want to be laid up. And he's dismayed that Batman is going to train a Batman-type crime fighter. But soon everyone seems to be saying that this new man, known as "Wingman", is the perfect partner for Batman. But does Batman really have plans to replace Dick Grayson as Robin?

In "Batman- Indian Chief", Batman and Robin encounters an indian chief who fights the villainous Indian Black Elk as "Man of Bats", accompanied by his son, who dresses like Robin. But because Black Elk injured Great Eagle, thinking he was "Man of Bats", if Man of Bats appears, injured, Black Elk will know who he really is. Can Batman and Robin take the place of "Man of Bats" and help them with their dilemma?

"Batman of Many Nations" Brings together a group of men from other nations, each of whom have based their crime-fighting careers on the career and exploits of Batman, but each of them would love to visit him and learn how to do their jobs better. So when they get the chance to visit Gotham City and work with him tracking the mob boss "Knots" Cardine, will he be able to live up to their opinion of him, or will he fall down on the job?

"The First Batman" tells the story of Thomas Wayne. Bruce's father, and a doctor, who donned a bat costume to attend a ball, and got involved in fighting criminals under the command of Lew Moxon, a bank robber who Wayne helped put away for ten years. When he got out, he vowed revenge on Thomas Wayne, which meant Joe Chill was Moxon's hired gun. But can Batman uncover the truth and bring Moxon to justice?

"The Club of Heroes" has Batman reunited with the Batmen of Many Nations and Superman to form a heroes club. Each agrees to do as many heroic deeds as possible, and the one who does the most will become leader. Batman and Superman try to do deeds on the sly to let one of the other heroes lead. But when Metropolis is in trouble, a new hero arises to save the day- Lightning Man! And Superman is nowhere to be found. Can Batman discover the secret of the new hero's identity and find out what illness has overcome Superman?

"The Man Who Ended Batman's Career" has batman being hypnotized by a criminal doctor who makes him afraid of Bats! Batman becomes so averse to them that he cannot even stand to look at his own costume, and so must fight under an assumed identity- Starman! But when Starman is caught by the same Doctor, what is to prevent the Doctor from finding out his true identity by threatening him with a bat? Can Batman overcome his aversion to bats and save the day?

"Am I Really Batman" follows a bat-suited figure as he tries to convince people that he is really Batman after waking up in an insane Asylum in a padded cell. Everyone tells him he isn't really Batman, that he's just a crazy man who has himself convinced that he is Batman, but he's desperate to prove he's the real Batman. Who is he, and can he convince others that he's the real Batman?

"Batman- The Superman of Planet X" takes Batman to the planet of Zur-en-arrh, where the inhabitants have very advanced science but are extremely physically weak compared to earth humans. The Batman of that planet needs our Batman's help against alien invaders he cannot fight. But can Batman use the futuristic science and his own super-powered strength on that planet to drive the invaders away for good?

"Batman meets Bat-Mite" introduces a strange fan of Batman from another dimension who wants nothing more than to see Batman in action. He thinks it's fun to interfere to make Batman have to work harder to catch the crooks, and also have to come up with explanations for Bat-Mite's warping of reality to accomplish his goals. But what will it take for Batman to be able to make him go away permanently? Or can he?

"The Rainbow Creature" has Batman in South America, where he has helped the President of a small country defeat a dangerous rebel named Diaz. Diaz and his troops are in hiding, but when a strange rainbow beast, exhibiting very strange powers, appears, Batman must discover how to fight it before the rightful President can be overthrown!

In "Robin Dies at Dawn", Batman finds himself on a strange alien planet where he witnesses Robin killed by a strange animated idol. But soon that is shown to be a hallucination showing the effects on lone astronauts in space. But when the dreams he had endanger Robin as Batman fights criminals in Gotham, how can he shrug off the effects of his hallucinations without endangering Robin's life in the here and now?

"The Bat-Man Creature" has Batman called to the scene where two animal-like men are robbing a bank. One is like a lion, one like a gorilla. The two men lose him, but when he tracks a bull-like man and a cat-like man back to their lair, the man who created the ray that turns animals into humans turns it on him, turning Batman into a Bat-Beast. Can Robin and Batwoman save Batman?

This was a seriously weird collection of stories, and the idea that all these stories had occurred within 15 years of Batman's career instead of within 60 years of Batman being published was what inspired "Batman, R.I.P.". i.e. what toll would those take on Batman's sanity and will?

Strangely, all Superheroes have these sorts of stories languishing in their closets, mostly from the 50's and 60's, when the stories got seriously weird. And make no mistake... these are well out there on the lunatic fringe. It seems strange that Batman is so well known, when in more modern stories, Batman has morphed into more a violent vigilante in the eyes of the world.

Well, for a group of stories that are almost totally unlike any Batman story you have probably read before or will again, this graphic novel fills that niche admirably. But a lot of the stories will have you scratching your head and saying "What were they thinking?" Recommended.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Batman: Year One- Two Face and Scarecrow by Bruce Jones, Marc Sable, Sean Murphy and Jesus Saiz

This book collects the origin stories of two of Batman's greatest Rogues Gallery inmates- Jonathan Crane, known as the Scarecrow, and Harvey Dent, better known as Two-Face.

Batman and Robin have been tracking a strange, masked killer, but all he ever seems to leave behind is bits of straw. However, when Batman comes to help Robin out, he is able to find a ticket for a costume shop. Batman and Robin track down the shop and find that the man paid cash. But he did sign a waiver... as "John Jones", an obvious pseudonym.

Meanwhile, as Batman and Robin are tracking him down, Jonathan Crane is taking his revenge on those in his life he feels wronged him, starting with his mentor, psychologist and Professor Pigeon. As he gets ready to take his revenge on the Professor, he shares his childhood with the older man, revealing how he was born to a woman on drugs and raised by his great Grandmother. His grandmother had advised her to kill the boy when he was born, but Great-Grandmother had a strong streak of Sadism in her, and she raised him as her toy, to use and abuse at will and whim.

But instead of the lessons she thought she was teaching him, he was absorbing lessons on how effective fear was, and how to use it against those who wronged him. Even as Batman tracks down Crane's childhood home, learning what Crane did to the woman who raised him, Crane decides to take on the rest of his family as well. His grandmother, who told his Great-Grandmother to destroy him when he was born, his father, who used and abandoned his mother, and then his mother herself. But can Batman halt this murderous progression, and even find a way to use Crane's own mixtures and gas against him? Or will the caped crusader and his partner succumb to the fiendish hallucinations brought on by the Scarecrow?

In the next story, Gotham has a problem. Too many of the cops on the force are crooked, and two people are interested in cleaning it up- Detective Jim Gordon, and District Attorney Harvey Dent. Working together, they put together a team of cops who are free- or mostly, of corruption.

But as Harvey Dent tries to wipe out the corruption in Gotham, and take on the Marroni Crime family, as well as the other Crime families, he's having more and more episodes of anger, fierce anger that he doesn't seem to be able to control. Most of it is directed at Mort Weisman, who does his best to protect the crime families, seeing as he is in all of their pockets.

About the time that Harvey starts seeing a psychologist for his anger issues, people start turning up dead in town, murdered by the so-called "Holiday Killer". Mort Weinstein implies that Harvey is the killer, and he begins to run for Dent's seat as D.A., going out of his way to keep the pressure on his opponent.

Dent shows signs of strain, even becoming angry at his friend Bruce Wayne, who doesn't seem to be defending him strongly enough, in Harvey's eyes. But when the mob blackmails someone to throw acid in Harvey's face, he finally snaps and begins dealing out the justice he knows they deserve. But can Harvey Dent be saved from his savage Alter-Ego, Two Face? Or is Harvey already too far gone to know or care that the people formerly his friends are trying to save him and bring him back to his old self? Or is Harvey forever gone, leaving only Two Face in his place?

Both of these stories were not only horrifying, but highly effective at leaving a creepy feeling behind. Scarecrow's past is horrifying, but he crossed the line when he chose to strike out at his tormentors and take his revenge on them- by using their own worst fears against them.

Harvey, on the other hand, let rage and pride color his life, and he didn't even try to get help for his temper until it was already way too late. Admittedly, the mobs helped him stay insane when they caused his psychiatrist, the only man who could help him, to commit suicide, but readers have to wonder how much it would have helped Harvey Dent.

These stories are haunting. I could sympathize with both characters, up to a point, but it was quite obvious that madness had taken its toll on them both, and once they viewed killing as a solution to their problems, they were too far gone to save. For evoking pathos and empathy with the characters, I give these stories high marks. Highly recommended.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Dragon Kiss by E. D. Baker

Audun is a northern dragon, with breath of ice. Audun has finally fallen in love, but not with another dragon. At least, not entirely. Audun has fallen in love with the very human Princess Millie, who is able to become a dragon, and it was in her dragon form that Audun fell in love with her.

She was there to learn how to control her temper, but she certainly didn't expect to fall in love, much less with a Dragon. But both families think it's a horrible idea. So to get permission to Marry Millie, Audun will need to convince the King of the Dragons that he is special enough to deserve to be allowed to take human form- and many of the councillors who serve the King don't think any dragon as young as Audun deserves the power or the privilege.

Luckily, Audun has someone on his side, his Grandmother, Song of the Glacier. Song thinks Audun is audacious, but there are some conditions. To sweeten the mood of the King, Audun is going to have to perform some missions to not only help the King, but all dragons.

First, he's sent to the desert of Aridia to obtain a special bird called a Dessica bird. But along the way, he stops to help some children who are lost in the desert. He takes them to their aunt's village and agrees to help them find their brother, Owen, who was carried off by a Roc.

Audun finds their brother Owen, distracts the parent Rocs and takes Owen to his family. Owen gives him some advice for finding a Dessica bird, and is able to capture a baby bird in its shell.

This he must take to the mermaid witch Nastia Nautica in exchange for a special flute. There, a group of sea snakes help him obtain the flute without giving Nastia the flute. He returns the baby to her mother in the desert and returns to the King.

The King and the Council are impressed with Audun, and it seems as if he is close to getting what he wants. But there is a young female dragon who wants him for her own, and a young female dragon who wants him as merely a companion. How can he leave behind those who know him best- the dragons, to marry a human? And what kind of human will he be when he changes? Even if he's able to stay true to Millie, will she forgive him for being gone so long, and can he get the agreement to have her family accept him, or is he in for a battle before he claims his bride?

I loved this book, which was a wonderful complement to the rest of the series. Though most of the book focusses on Audun as he goes around doing jobs for the Dragon King and Council. Partway through the book, he learns that he didn't really need to do those jobs- the council sent him to do them because they needed to be done and didn't have anyone else available.

But they served another end- to see what kind of human he would be when and if he changed into a human. But no worries. Based on the things he did and the way he tricked the bad people out of items they would have used to cause havoc, the Dragon Council knows he will be the best kind of human, strong and kind.

Baker skillfully weaves a second story into the trials of the first, where a wizard is attempting to aquire dragon parts. But for what end? Audun attempts to interfere in the wizard's business, but in the end, he returns to plague Audun at the exact worst time. Or is it?

I liked this novel especially, for it explored Audun's character in the guise of his adventure, so skillfully, you never realize what is happening until it is explained to you. Best of all,we get to see Audun's character in action, and know he'll be a good husband for Millie without being told this. It's just too bad that this seems to be the ending of Millie and Audun's story. I rather wish they'd had more adventures together, like Millie's mother and father, Emma and Eadric. Recommended.