Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Goddess Girls #3 Aphrodite the Beauty by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams

Aphrodite is the Goddess Girl at Mount Olympus Academy most interested in love and beauty. She's always up on the latest styles of chitons, and her makeup makes her stunningly beautiful. She also always garners the most attention from the Godboys on campus, and that is beginning to make her annoyed. It's like they only appreciate her for her looks, not everything about her. If she suddenly turned ugly one day, would they cease to notice or care about her?

But when she decides to give her fellow Goddess Girl, Athena, a makeover, she isn't prepared for the results. Suddenly, all the Godboys are fighting over Athena and totally ignoring Aphrodite! And Aphrodite doesn't like how that feels at all! Only one of the Godboys seems to pay attention to her, Hephaestus, the God Boy of Smithcrafting and Metal working. But he doesn't count, because he's lame and can only get around with a cane.

Angry at herself, and jealous of Athena, Aphrodite leaves the party early, only to find a petition from one of her mortal worshippers wafting its way to her. A boy named Hippomenes is in love with a girl named Atalanta, and she has vowed to only marry a man who can beat her in a footrace. While he is fast, he isn't as fast as Atalanta, and if he loses the race, he'll be killed by her father. Atalanta has asked him not to race against her, but he loves her and wants to win her, and he asks Aphrodite for her help. She tells him she will aid him, and realizes that Atalanta loves Hippomenes as well, but realizes she will win the contest.

Returning to Olympus Academy, Aphrodite once again meets Hephaestus, and admires his cane, which is highly decorated. He tells her he made it himself, and when they get to school, she excuses herself to try and think up ways to help Hippomenes. But Artemis tells her about the end of the party, and then Athena shows up to invite her to the mall. She asks Aphrodite for help with buying lipstick and that silver eyeshadow. Aphrodite is glad to help when Athena says she felt beautiful at the party, and she liked it.

But when Ares decides to try and make the moves on Athena, Aphrodite is nearby, and spies on the two. When she shows up after Athena sends him off for calling her "Theeny", Athena thinks Aphrodite was spying on her and set the whole thing up. Can Aphrodite make up with Athena and find a way to help Hippomenes win Atalanta, or will Aphrodite end up minus a friend, and a worshipper?

Another rather amusing book. This one has less spoofed pop-culture references, but at least the myth of Atalanta is more intact than the other myths in other books. Aphrodite comes off as looking quite close to how she does in the original Greek Myths, somewhat shallow and unable to see that she is treating Hephaestus the same way she is treated by the God-Boys she is coming to feel are too interested in only her looks, leaving them shallow.

But the best part is that she eventually does realize it, and while the story of Hephaestus and Aphrodite has a much happier ending in this book than it does in the original myths, I did like how they worked together to help Hippomenes. He even gets a Goddess Girl who is interested in him for himself.

While reading this series still causes me to cringe a bit, it's eminently readable and will likely attract readers too young or too female to be interested in Percy Jackson or Rick Riordan's other series. Recommended, but barely.

Goddess Girls #2 Persephone the Phony by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams

Persephone's mother is one of those people who believe that her daughter would be happier with lots of friends, so she advises Persephone to "go along to get along", even if it's not what she really wants to do, and to agree with her friends and other people to get them to like her. But following her mother's advice isn't making Persephone happy. It makes her feel like she doesn't matter, nor does what she likes or what she wants to do. Because she loves her mother, she follows her advice, even though it makes her feel sad inside.

Worse, the other students can tell she isn't really enthusiastic about espousing their ideas, and they feel that there is something wrong with her, which makes them draw away, leaving Persephone to label herself a phony, and know, in her heart of hearts, that it's true.

She feels especially bad when she drops her ball of yarn and follows it down to a cemetery, where she meets the Godboy known as Hades. She likes Hades, but he can tell when she's lying to make him feel good, and calls her out on her untruths. And even though Hades is from the Underworld, which her mother is always telling her is a horrid place where horrible people hang out, she finds herself liking him a lot. But she knows her mother wouldn't understand her relationship with Hades, or the places that they find peaceful to hang out. And it seems neither do her friends, who band together to "protect" Persephone from the Godboy she is coming to care for.

But when her mother flatly forbids her to see Hades, Persephone is enraged and decides to run away to be with Hades. But since she doesn't know the way, she has to disguise herself as a human to cross the River Styx and make it to his home. And once there, she must make her way through the dangers of the underworld to Hades side. But will he be happy to see her, and will he allow her to stay? What will be the fallout of her running off to see him? Will her mother ever be able to trust her again? And is there any hope for Persephone and Hades?

Okay, I am slowly starting to warm to this series. Yes, there is something very cringe-worthy about most of the Greek Gods and Goddesses being teenagers when Zeus is an adult (and so is Demeter, and the authors are ignoring that most of the Greek Gods are brothers and sisters, including Demeter, Persephone's mother who supposedly has a crush on Zeus), but the stories themselves are engaging and light and make fun of modern society something like the Harry Potter books do (with things like "Breadstyx" and "nectaroni and cheese".

This is definitely a "Greek Myths Lite" that might offend readers who know the real deal, but I hope that reading these books make readers want to read the original myths that much more. It's likely to appeal to kids who enjoyed the Percy Jackson books, but in a much lighter, fluffier vein. So far it seems to be focussing on the female goddesses, sort of a "Percy Jackson for younger girls". Kids already into the myths might be offended, but others might find it just the thing for them.

This series is kind of a mixed bag. It's written with humor, but at the same time, the way the original myths are rendered (you might say "rent") makes readers who know the originals cringe. As a light introduction to the myths it's only okay, but some readers won't mind at all. Other writers have really done it better, so recommended only slightly for the humor value.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Close Contact by Katherine Allred

Echo Adams is a GEP, or 'Genetically Engineered Person", which means that her genetics were assembled in a lab as opposed to formed normally at conception. Echo has been trained to be a diplomat, hosting bigwigs at fancy parties. However, when they became aware that she was a GEP of Dr. Simon Gertz, a rogue geneticist who had designed all his GEPs to be "special", often outside the limits of what was thought of as human potential, her bosses quickly shunted her over to the Bureau for Alien Affairs.

The BAA wanted Echo as an agent, and discovered that she was needed for a very special project. An Alien Intelligence who lives inside of quartz crystals known as the Limantti lost a hived-off daughter crystal called the Sumantti, which was lost somewhere in the galaxy. Echo, who is trying to find a quartz crystal which will give a clue as to her mental abilities, even though they have never manifested before, keeps hearing a loud and annoying buzzing, which turns out to be a black quartz teardrop that she must have as soon as she sees it. Because of her attraction to the crystal, it seems she is the one who is fated to carry out the mission to find the Sumantti.

Echo is assigned a ship with an A.I. named Lilith, who she finds stuffy and annoying, and is adopted by a little dragon lizard who tags along with her everywhere she goes- something Echo also finds annoying, but she adapts. Figuring that her psychic powers, whatever they are, will lead her to the Sumantti, she scrutinizes the area where it disappeared, and settles on the planet of Madrea as the place where she will go to look for the Sumantti.

But there's a problem- Madrea is full of Technophobes who want nothing to do with the Federation or her people or technology. So they have cut themselves off from the Federation, making it illegal to even land on the planet. Echo is less than impressed with the clothing of the natives, except for those of a nomadic people named the Bashalde. Echo decides to disguise herself as one while she is on Madrea and finds that there is another Federation spy on the planet who is disguised as the owner of a bar. She will be "working" for him when she is on the planet.

Echo is also intrigued by a video of the Commander of the King's Army, Reynard Du'Marr, who Echo finds herself wanting to eat up- after she licks him all over. But needless to say, Lilith warns her away from even getting near Reynard, and Echo, despite agreeing with Lilith (under protest), still can't manage to put him out of her mind.

When she's dropped on Madrea, she must hike a whole day in her clothes to the city, and thanks to a misunderstanding and a scuffle with the city guards, she must take shelter in an inn room, where Reynard just happens to be taking a bath, giving her quite a splendid eyeful. Knowing she can't trust him to not turn her in if she tells the truth, Echo blurts out her carefully prepared cover story, which he somewhat accepts, but he decides to keep an eye on her even after her protector (the other agent) shows up to escort her back to the Inn. On the way, he says he hopes to see her dance at the Inn, along with the other performers, and she agrees.

Afterwards, she settles into her job as a server, decrying the inefficiency of the tavern, which she manages to vastly improve on, not only reorganizing the kitchen so that the cook isn't run off her feet, but also the liquor storage. But something strange is going on on-planet. Even though the planet is supposed to be off-limits to the Federation, the King appears to be trading with Federation smugglers, and he, or someone in the Palace is dealing in young girls. As Echo's psychic powers start to unlock, she realizes that the King's brother is just as twisted in mind as he is in the body, and that someone is using those girls to try to unlock the power of the Sumantti- which can only be wielded by a woman. However, the woman must be specially prepared, otherwise they die horribly, and needless to say, none of the girls has this preparation.

And Echo, frankly, doesn't want anyone to die. But to accomplish her mission, she is going to have to trust Reynard Du'Marr, and get him to trust her. But can they keep their hands off each other long enough to have an honest conversation? And can she deal with going away and never seeing him again after the mission is over? Can a self-proclaimed "party girl" ever be the sort of person suited to going undercover and doing spy-type stuff for the Federation? And if not, what kind of job *is* she suited for?

This book is a sequel, but you don't need to have read the first book in order to enjoy it. This book is a romance, but based on the cover, you don't need to be forgiven for thinking it's Sci-Fi. In fact, that's what I thought when I picked it up. But most of the book really focusses on the relationships between Echo and the other characters, especially Reynard, and not as much on the alien intelligence of the Sumantti or what is going on with it.

Make no mistake, it's in there, in small chunks, but much of the story takes a backseat to the romance and feelings of the two main characters. For a romance novel, you would certainly expect this. And if I had gotten it from the romance section in the bookstore, I'd be expecting the Romance. Instead, I picked this up from the library and was rather floored to be expecting Science Fictiony type shenanigans, and getting Romancy Shenanigans instead. It was rather jarring, but being a fan of romances as well, I quickly adapted.

This is a solid Romance novel and does the whole romantic tension between the protagonists very well. I liked Echo and her attitude, but I realize that not everyone is going to view her quite so charitably. Her comic chagrin about finding out her true talents could easily be taken to be whining, and she hardly seems to take things seriously. So her personality is one that, if you know some angsting by the heroine annoys you, you may not want to read this book. On the other hand, if her borderline whining is something you can take, you can't go wrong reading this novel, which is fun and witty at times. Recommended.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Amazing Spider-Man Presents: Jackpot by Marc Guggenheim and Adriana Melo

Sarah Ehret never asked to be given superhuman powers, but she ended up with them anyway. For a short time, she was a superhuman vigilante, then gave it up, and gave her costume to a friend, who wished to take her place. But her friend, Alana, had no powers and was overwhelmed and killed by enemies Sarah had made on her brief rampage, sending Sarah into a tailspin.

But now Sarah is back, with advice and help from Spiderman, and is back to shaking up the criminal underworld, starting with the super-criminal, Boomerang. She knocks him down, but she knows when she is outclassed, and after a short fight with him and a couple of goons, she makes like a leaf and blows the joint... but not without a piece of biological evidence she found in a crate near the firefight.

After that, she goes home, where her husband finds her in her costume, trying to hide in the shower, but he's turned on, and it all turns out well for her.

At work, she discovers that the thing in the vial she recovered was an eccrine gland, or sweat gland, which confuses both her and the colleague she had identify it. She also thinks back to the origin of her powers, how she came into contact with a compound that was being developed to fight Parkinsons. She was pregnant at the time, and spent the last four months of her pregnancy in a coma. But when she woke up and had her child, she also got super-strength out of the deal.

Unfortunately for Sarah, the eccrine gland was part of a shipment of a drug named Ebony that was intended for a crime-lord called The Rose, and thanks to her fingerprints being on the grappling hook she embedded in Boomerang's chest, he now knows who she is, and all about her family.

Sarah goes all over town, working alone or with Spiderman, trying to find out about the eccrine gland. But no one seems to know anything, and all she does find is a new street drug called "Ebony".

Meanwhile, Sarah takes the eccrine gland to Reed Richards, who tells her that he's seen one of these before. Daredevil brought it in, but it had been compromised by being "cooked" by a villain called Owl. Owl wanted to try to turn the eccrine gland into a super-drug, which is possible because it came from a villain called the Corrupter, whose sweat exudes psychoactive compounds.

But Sarah doesn't realize that the Rose is onto her, and her relentless questioning of underworld mooks is making her a target. When Boomerang comes to the door during dinner and cuts her husband down. Sarah is devastated and after beating up Boomerang with one of his own boomerangs, she takes shelter with Reed Richards and his wife. But Sarah wants revenge on the people who killed her husband, but how far will she go to get it?

I liked this graphic novel. Jackpot is a completely new character, one who is still getting used to the life of a superhero. And while she may end being angsty!heroine because of her husband's death, by the end of the book, we see that she may heal from even that.

I did have to wonder about her daughter. Given that she was pregnant when she got her powers, and that the mother and fetus share blood during pregnancy, it seems almost certain that her daughter will also exhibit powers. But whether they will be the same or different than those of her mother, and how early she will get them- well, there's the rub. She might get them at puberty, or she might even develop them earlier, depending on what happens to her. We'll surely see soon.

I found this an interesting and refreshing book. Jackpot seems to be a low-level hero, but not everyone can be Captain America or Wolverine. I liked reading her struggles with superheroism and hazards of the job, and I definitely wanted to see more of her. Recommended.

Arkham Asylum: Madness by Sam Keith, Michelle Madsen and Dave Stewart

Everybody knows that once Batman is finished defeating his foes, they end up in Arkham Asylum, where they are housed until they escape and/or are set free to roam the streets again.

But what actually goes on in Arkham Asylum? Who works there and how do they live and work, being in such close contact with the criminally insane who sometimes spend their entire lives inside Arkham, plotting revenge or 'playing' with the guards, doctors and nurses who are trying to effect a cure.

Sabine Robbins is a nurse who works the day shift in Arkham Asylum. During the day, Arkham is safe- or relatively so. Even though they house both Killer Croc and the Joker, along with Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy and the entire Rogues Gallery of Batman, morning and the day are safe.

What keeps Sabine safe and sane is her son, Oswald, better known as Ozzie, who she keeps in mind when things at her job get especially bad. Also keeping her sane is her fellow nurse, Randy, who shares with her all the latest gossip and keeps her going, along with Eddie, the Caretaker who spends most of his time in the basement of the former mansion that was converted into an insane Asylum.

But when Randy is fired for an inappropriate relationship with one of the doctors, Sabine is going to have to pull a double shift- which will mean working at night. And Night in Arkham Asylum is very different from Daytime Arkham. Can Sabine, a young and untested nurse, deal with the personalities of the Joker, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn and a possible breakout by Killer Croc? And when Joker finds the picture of her son, can she find the courage to stand up to a crazy man who will take a bloody revenge on her family if she denies him what he wants?

As deaths and freakouts take over Arkham, only Sabine seems able to hold it together and keep working. But how will she take it when her family, and everything she lives for- comes under sttack. Will she fold, or stand tall?

Wow, this was an awesome graphic novel. Arkham Asylum is pretty creepy to begin with. Add a list of Batman's crazier foes, like Joker and Scarecrow, and you have a place that most people wouldn't want to stick around in for long. So how much courage does it take to go to work there when you're just a normal person, with no way of protecting yourself from the freaks and psychos who practically run the place?

It's a pretty bleak and depressing picture. Working with the insane is pretty depressing anyway, but to work with insane people who will kill or maim you and others and can't be controlled with medication- well that's many, many times more scary- and Sabine, young and innocent, seems unable to deal with people like the ones running wild in Arkham.

Ask yourself how you would deal with the situation Sabine finds herself in, and then look at how Sabine deals with it. Here's a hint- that not all heroes go out fighting crime by kicking ass or taking down supervillains. Sometimes you just have to fight it personally, one day at a time. An excellent book that is both dark and disturbing. Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Taint in the Blood by S.M. Stirling

Adrian Brézé is a wealthy, handsome man who lives the kind of life that most people can only dream about, with the best of clothing, food and furnishings whenever and wherever he wants them. And yet, he's most definitely not the perfect man. That's what his former lover, Ellen Tarnowski, would tell you. Adrian is secretive and won't share his secrets with Ellen, which is what has brought an end to their relationship and caused Ellen to steal his Porsche and drive it away. But as she careens down the mountain and nearly gets into an accident, she pauses to catch her breath and thinks she sees Adrian nearby, so she gets out to give him a piece of her mind.

Unfortunately for Ellen, it isn't Adrian, it's his sister, Adrienne, and she is not happy with her brother at all. For the Brézés are not human, but Shadowspawn, an offshoot of humanity who are responsible for humanity's tales of Gods, Monsters and Devils. Like most of her family, Adrienne thinks there are too many humans, and along with the rest of the Shadowspawn, is seeking to find a way to either eliminate them or trim their numbers down to an acceptable size. This has been made easier in recent years by the Shadowspawn controlling every government, keeping them at war as a means of Population control.

But wars have become too inefficient, and many Shadowspawn seek a better, more permanent solution. But not all of them feel this way, and Adrian is one of those. For years, he's fought against the Shadowspawn Council to try and derail their plans, but then he retired from the fight because he realized that it was unwinnable. Yes, they had killed a great number of Shadowspawn, but very few of the ones who really mattered, and he was tired of all his work coming to nothing every single time. But his sister, who supports the Council, has always hated him, and when she was a child she used to love taking his toys away, so, to goad him, she does the exact same thing with his ex-girlfriend, who she will torment and torture, and get addicted to her bite and enjoy a oneupsmanship victory over her twin, with the added frisson of showing everyone how weak he is.

But Adrian isn't about to let Ellen go that quickly, or that quietly, and while Adrienne has drunk Ellen's blood, Adrian holds a much deeper link to the woman he loves, letting her act as a spy in his sister's camp while he makes careful plans to get her back, plans that involve his old friend Harvey, whom he once fought the agents of the council with, and who warned him of Adrienne being in the country in the first place.

But Adrienne takes Ellen to her home in California, where many of the humans who serve the Shadowspawn as servants (Known as "Renfields") and sources of food and blood ("Lucies") live. There, Ellen begins to realize that while the older Shadowspawn want to kill off all the humans, who they view as annoying as gnats and entirely too numerous, Adrienne and her allies have much the same plan- only they plan to save some of the humans as breeding stock and food. Ellen finds both plans monstrous, so when Adrian contacts her in her dreams, she passes on what Adrienne is planning, where she is and what she is seeing to him. Only Adrian must block her memories of her dreams so that Adrienne can't discover their link.

But Adrienne isn't resting on her laurels with regards to Adrian. As he tries to get closer to Ellen. Adrienne and her friends are doing their best to have Adrian killed by their Renfields. Meanwhile, Ellen is installed in a house on Adrienne's estate, Lucy Lane, with the other Lucies she owns. They seem to be mostly resigned to their fate, while secretly craving Adrienne's bite. Ellen has to wonder how long it will be until she is just like them, but will she be able to escape her fate of being just another one of Adrienne's Lucies, and can Adrian rescue her before she becomes just as crazy as the other Lucies? And how will Adrian kill his sister, who is just as powerful as he is, and has more allies, and more powerful allies, including their parents, to boot?

I've enjoyed S.M. Stirling's writing before, but this book is the start of a new series. The Shadowspawn have some of the characteristics of vampires, but they are *not* vampires, having none of the traditional vampire weaknesses and only a few of the vampire powers (while most of them do bite humans and drink their blood, they don't have to- they just prefer to. Nor must they avoid sunlight, crosses or stakes. In truth, they are an offshoot of humanity (or vice-versa) with specific powers they made stronger by breeding. You can't become a Shadowspawn if you aren't one- not even by being bitten, and most of them seem to rely on manipulation to control people.

Adrian, of course, is unlike most of the Shadowspawn in that he treats humans like humans, rather than something less just because they don't have the powers and abilities he does. His sister, Adrienne, while coming off as quite evil next to Adrian, is somewhere in the middle compared to those older Shadowspawn on her own side, who want to destroy the entire human race. Or maybe she's more evil because she wants to keep some humans to play with like toys- just as she does her Lucies. It's through Ellen that the story explains the world of the Shadowspawn, allowing large sections of the novel to be almost pure exposition on what human life is like working for, or being a toy of the Shadowspawn, and it's a pretty grim picture.

If you are human, you fall into two roles: tool (Renfield, or someone who provides a service, like bringing the Shadowspawn disposable humans as slaves) or toy/sex object (Lucies). And even if you don't work for the Shadowspawn, you are still part of their plot- they control every human government, causing wars, the better to exterminate the humans they view as annoying cattle or insects.

While this novel is uncomfortable to read when you attempt to imagine yourself living in such a world, it's an extremely well-realized world and it wouldn't take a lot to imagine their world being our world. Thankfully it isn't. And the ending makes me think that we'll be hearing from Ellen and Adrian... and Adrienne, in the future. Probably very soon. I enjoyed this book a lot, and it made me think, and cheer for Ellen and Adrian. I hope we will soon see more Shadowspawn novels and meet Shadowspawn on both sides of their conflict. Recommended.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Infinity Gate by Sara Douglas

After the Witch Ravenna killed her husband, Maximillian Persimius. Ishbel Brunel Persimius brought him back from death with the skills and power she inherited from her position as a priestess of the Serpent Coil. Now, ensconced in the fortress known as Elcho Falling, whose power they have raised to deny the victory to an evil power known as "The One", and allied with a people known as the Lealfast, they await the arrival of the One and his army. Little do they know that the Lealfast are already allied with the One, and are working as his double agents within Elcho Falling.

But is it really unknown? Because when the Lealfast rise up on the One's orders and strike out at the Icarii, especially members of the Strikeforce set up by their leader and hero, Axis SunSoar. With the number of Icarii already on the wane, losing any one of them is a hardship, but the Lealfast slaughter many before Isbelle marks them with the blood of her husband and forcibly expels them from Elcho Falling through magic. But the Lealfast have planned for this, and set up armed camps around the lake surrounding Elcho Falling. Only one Lealfast is left behind, Axis' lover, Inardle. Apparently, she has fallen in love with him, truly in love, and betrayed her own people to be with him.

But it hasn't gained her any friend in Axis. He is livid that she didn't see fit to warn him- or any of them, about what her people intended, and he regards her with scorn. Upset with herself, she accepts his scorn for a while, then points out that had she told him what her people intended, he'd still be treating her the same way, which Axis, in his heart of hearts, knows that she is right about, but he continues to reject and scorn her.

Not only have the Lealfast been expelled from Elcho Falling, but so has the one, which he is very upset about. he resolves to take out his rage on the Lord of Elcho Falling, Maximillian Persimius, and completely ignores the Lealfast, who decide to conquer Elcho Falling for themselves, and to deny it to The One. They take up their posts around the fortress and make plans to conquer and destroy it. Abd for that, they need Ravenna, Maximillian's Dream Witch lover, pregnant with his child and cursed by his wife.

Thanks to Ishbelle's curse, she is avoided by everyone, but Eleanon, leader of the Lealfast, can partially alleviate the curse, and make Ravenna practically unseeable by anyone in Elcho Falling. He wants her to implant monster eggs that the Twisted Spire, the artifact of Evil the One implanted in the basement of Elcho Falling, inside the walls of the fortress, and if she will do that for him, he will help her remove the curse entirely after Ishbelle and Maximillian are dead. Ravenna is upset with her own actions, particularly killing her own mother when she was full of the power of being Maxel's lover. Now, all she wants to do is to go back to being what she is, and maybe to have her son be the heir to the power of Elcho Falling. But she'd just settle for the both of them being safe, so she decides to give in to Eleanon.

Meanwhile, the Skraelings have an encounter with the former River God. Isaiah, where he realizes who and what they truly are: they are the former River Angels, a race tied to the waters who long ago decided that they were the pinnacle of creation and tried to destroy all the other races, who they viewed as an abomination since they were not as perfect a creation as the River Angels. Exiled from their watery home and cursed with an extreme fear of water, the only way they can regain their River Angel existence is to voluntarily drown themselves, which Isaiah tells them when they meet with him to parlay. The Skraelings are amazed and must decide for themselves if they want to change their existence.

This also impacts the Lealfast, who are half Skraeling, but the only one who discovers their River Angel ancestry and powers is Inardle, but her actions of killing the Lealfast who try to kill her and Axis is looked on with disappointment by the Skraelings, who hope that becoming River Angels means never having to kill again. They hope the transformation turns them into something better than they have been.

In the end, it comes down to Ravenna to completely finish off the One, by taking him to the land of nightmares, which he cannot escape, and that means that Ishbel must rescind her curse and make Ravenna's yet to be born son the heir to the Lordship of Elcho Falling once more- and Maxel and Ishbel must give up the power that the ownership of Elcho Falling gives them both, as well as destroy the One's source of power in this world. But can Ishbel forgive Ravenna, and will she agree to a life lived in the Lands of Dreams and Nightmares, from which she and her son can never return? And how can the army defeat the camps of the Lealfast, who are destroying Elcho Falling with vibrations, and the eggs of monsters implanted into it? The land may never again be the same, but can Maxel and his wife achieve triumph over their enemies without giving up who they are as people?

When I started this series, I kinda felt that it was almost a retread with what happened earlier in Sara Douglas's series. I had read most of them, and this series showed that they were almost all set in the same world at different points in history. Threshold was set on the same continent as the Wayfarer Redemption books, and here, they come to a big end that sees the One, Ruler of the Void, finally defeated and banished from the world- but not dead by the end, just imprisoned. Okay, there are at least two series of hers that aren't in this book- Her Crucible series, and the Troy Game, but still, reading this at first felt quite disheartening.

But it definitely picked up. Part of my dissatisfaction at first was in not realizing those series/books had been set in the same world, and to be honest, you sort of had to have read them to understand where much of this story was coming from. If you don't know who Tirza and Binah were, well, maybe that isn't very important. But if you haven't read the Wayfarer Redemption series, you will find your enjoyment of this series hampered, and you won't understand the character of Axis Sunsoar or why he is important to the Icarii and why he's considered such a hero. If you simply read this series, all you will know is that he's considered a hero, but he has really bad judgement where women are concerned.

But this volume (and the one before, to be honest) more than made up for my initial misgivings about the series. I found it enjoyable to read, even when painful and disturbing things were happening to the characters I cared about, and the ending promised another series for some time in the future (hopefully not with the return of the One- I got more than a little tired of him as a character after finishing the book. Well, I'll caveat that by saying I'd want to see some big changes in his character if he was to return.

Is this a good book? Yes, I would definitely say so. The story may seem a little scattered at first, because the characters who matter are scattered hither and yon over the continent, but the story itself pounds along, carrying the reader with it, until you arrive at the tense and suspense-filled conclusion. It's a triumphant ending for the series, and even though the major characters have changed a lot during the series, yes, I'd like to see them again, which is always my benchmark for something good, because a good writer leaves you wanting more. Highly recommended.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise by Dante Alighieri Adapted by Seymour Chwast

Dante was a poet of the thirteenth Century. Born in Florence, his wife was chosen for him when he was just 13, but his true love was a woman named Beatrice. In the Conflict between the Guelphs and the Ghibilines, Dante was on the side of the Guelphs. But after his side won, they split into the Black Guelphs and White Guelphs and a new civil war erupted between them. This time, Dante was on the losing side and was banished from Florence.

For 19 years, he remained in exile, roaming from city to city in Italy. During this time, he wrote his Divine Commedia, populating heaven, hell and purgatory with people from his own life, both friends and foes. It takes the form of a dream that becomes a real experience for the poet, and takes him through Hell, Purgatory, and on to heaven.

Written as a poem, it can be very difficult to understand, and Seymour Chwast has adapted it into a graphic novel, making it much more understandable, as well as far shorter.

One day, Dante finds himself in a dark and lonely wood. He attempts to find a hill to climb out and see where he is, but is confronted with three large cats who bar his way. The Poet, Virgil, appears, and offers to lead Dante through Hell and Purgatory, and then on to heaven, at the behest of three women from Dante's life, one of whom was his lover, Beatrice, who had died.

Dante returns home to write his last will and testament, and to wonder if he will ever come back, and then is guided by Virgil to Purgatory. First, they must cross the river that leads to the lands of the dead. And even though Dante is still living, the ferryman agrees to take him across. Partway over, there is an earthquake and Dsnte faints. When he wakes, they are on the shores of Hell. Ahead is Limbo, where the virtuous Pagans reside.

They are greeted by Minos, the judge of the Second circle of Hell. Here they witness people being punished for falling to one of the many deadly sins. The last circle of Hell is frozen, while it is only the fifth circle of Hell that is hot. The Ninth Circle of Hell, actually, a pit, is the domain of Lucifer and is the realm of betrayers. Worst and last is betrayal of one's Lord.

Climbing down Lucifer's body, they soon find themselves climbing up- up into purgatory. In Purgatory, Dante is marked with seven P's or Peccatae- sins. He must atone for these as he climbs to Heaven or he will not enter Heaven. Just like Hell, there are those outside Purgatory who cannot enter- those who didn't take a stance on moral issues, who are plagued with flies and bees, and one man of Dante's acquaintance who put off his salvation until the last minute- so God is making him wait to be saved.

Various sins are atoned for as Dante climbs the Mountain, passing those who fell short of the love and perfection of heaven, until he reaches the peak, and the edge of Heaven. Here, Virgil must leave him, as he cannot enter heaven. Instead, his role is taken over by Dante's Love, Beatrice.

At each level and step into heaven until Beatrice can no longer smile, as the radiance would blind Dante. All around them, the souls of heaven dance and sing for the glory of God, surrounded by beauty and light. Dante himself is allowed a glimpse of God and finds him to be love, and his love of God and his faith increases. Several times, he is passed messages to pass to those on earth from sufferers in Hell, Penitents in Purgatory and the Saved or Angels in Heaven- mostly about the corruption in the supposedly Holy Church, who Dante rails against at several points.

Those who have read the Inferno, or the Purgatorio, or the Paradisio, know that getting through this poem (which is truly epic in length), is a struggle. But Seymour Chwast has rendered each scene down to its essence, allowing the reader to understand what is going on and why. Given that, I'm not sure that depicting Dante as a 1930's style "Hardboiled Dick" Detective, complete with trenchcoat and hat, was all that good of a choice, unless he was trying to depict Dante as somewhat cynical and jaded, and perhaps he was, considering all that had happened to him in his life up until that point.

Chwast's style is remarkably the same throughout. He does plenty of nudes, but they are all done very tastefully, whether the naked bodies are being tossed about in the air or lying about in the excrement (yes, that is one of the punishments in Hell). Even the Title page, which has a demon and Virgil, with the demon slowly eating him up until only his shoes remain, fits into the theme.

My biggest problem in the story is that, unless you have read the poem, or are reading it side by side, much of the story's detail and immediacy is lost. And being in black and white is also somewhat limiting (seeing faces drawn by themselves didn't quite suggest "Sticking up out of the ice" to me- drawing it in color would have been better.

This is a great book, but it is really best when you have already struggled with the poem or are reading it side by side with the graphic novel. On it's own, it's okay, but the immediacy of the story, I feel was lost, and the ending seemed a little abrupt. Graphically, the story makes more sense than when reading it as a poem, but unless you have read the poem, you may find the story shallow. Recommended, with caveats.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

King of Thorn, Volume 6 by Yuji Iwahara

Shizuku is heading for the main lab to find Marco and help him defeat Zeus and uncover Patient Zero, but unbeknownst to her, Marco is already dead, and Zeus's creatures, his Pantheon of Monsters, is searching for her to bring her to Zeus. She hides from them by ducking into the ductwork, but one of them is small enough to follow her, while the other goes after the Original Patient Zero, Alice.

But when Kasumi finds her way to the place where Marco tried to fight Zeus, Ron and Tim are already there. And so is Marco's dead body. Thanks to her shock and horror, she's caught, and taken down to confront Zeus. There, he taunts her, telling her that the monster that she sees in front of her *is* her sister, and that her condition as a monster is all Kasumi's fault, that it was her fault that her sister wanted to die.

Kasumi flashes back to her life at home with her sister, and remembers that after she and her sister became infected, they made a pact to live and die together. But Kasumi was naturally more depressive than her sister and didn't want to live without her, so she attempted to cut her own throat with a straight razor in the bath. Shizuku discovered her and stopped her before she could go through with it, and was very angry at Kasumi and refused to speak with her, which drove Kasumi even deeper towards depression.

And Kasumi realizes that he is speaking the truth, and that Shizuku's presence here is all her fault. Worse, he tells her that she has already had a reunion with her sister and doesn't even realize it- the giant monster that has birthed all the monsters around them is her sister- and Kasumi never even realized it. Kazumi is horrified and frightened by this truth, and begs Zeus to end her life, to let her find peace. But Zeus keeps right on taunting her, even as he points a gun at her and plans to kill her. And Tim and Ron are connected to the Shizuku-monster with vast pseudopods that nearly cover their heads

Above the Arena, Alice drags the remains of her body to Marco's, and uses the last of her life and the power of Medusa to bring him back to life. In the Afterlife, where death waits to take him across the tiver, Death asks him if he is ready to go. Marco thinks he is, and then he remembers Kasumi and tells death that no, he isn't ready to go yet. He still has something to do- he has to save Kasumi. Death tells him he is a fool, and the causeway he has walked to get there starts to crumble, but Marco runs back across and makes it to the portal, where Peter, Katherine and the Senator, all of whom died before him, tell him he has their love and support. (Well, the Senator just harrumphs, but he doesn't deny it).

Alice has disappeared. Not even the remains of her body is left, but Marco is alive, and he comes to Kasumi's aid. Zeus taunts him as well, telling him he's a fool for thinking the outcome this time will be any different, but Marco is able to disperse Zeus's body for a bit and tells Kasumi that her sister's pod is inside the monster's body. She has to meet and confront her sister and keep her from her rage. Kasumi agrees, and gets up inside the monster's mouth, and walks inside.

Down in the stomach, she sees Peter's original coldlsleep pod, and she walks towards it, only to be confronted by a Medusa Ghost of her sister telling her to keep back, and not to come any further, Kasumi talks to her, but she is also remembering. She and her sister finally made up on the day she was to come to the facility, and they stopped in a park to talk. But after she finally got her sister to forgive her, she proposed they leap off the cliff in front of them and seek death together, and her sister objected. There was a fight and...

Kasumi continues to walk forward, and finds a dead body on the ground in front of the pod. A dead body with a bandaged throat. Her throat should be bandadged. After all, she cut herself when she tried to commit suicide. But her throat is undamaged. Then, who is she? What is she? And how can she exist when her body is dead? As Kasumi tries to find answers, Marco, realizing that Zeus is just information, sees the one way that Zeus is vulnerable- he can be hacked. But can he do it before Zeus's monsters kill him? And can Kasumi live with the knowledge of who she is and what has become of her sister because of what she did? And what has happened in the outside world, and what will the survivors do to find out?

This was a shocking conclusion to the series. Yuji Iwahara has been playing with the readers all this time, playing with our lack of knowledge about the characters and what knowledge the readers have been given. All the time, we were assuming something- something that turns out not to be true. We do find the real villain of the piece, and although the Venus Group and Ivan Coral Vega set up the situation, it took Zeus to exploit it in a way that would have been very bad for everyone on earth.

Essentially, he wanted to be a god, and to play sick evolutionary games with humanity for his own personal amusement. He thought that Humanity had stopped evolving and growing stronger, and by torturing them with his monsters, he could force the growth he thought humanity needed. But when Kasumi went to confront Shizuku, he grew weaker, which gave Marco an opening to try and destroy him.

I found this entire series thought-provoking and affecting, and the ending is true to the nature and ideas behind the story, which makes the whole thing almost frighteningly good. Okay, it's sci-fi survival horror, and all the elements have been done before, but here they are combined and twisted in such a way that the whole becomes much more than the sum of its parts. In the end, there are only five survivors of the 160 patients in the facility, and only four survive as actual humans (Katherine becomes that harpy-like bird... thing). The series ends on a hopeful but cautionary note, and the rest remains untold. I wish I could say that I would love to read more, but this was a satisfying (in a story way) ending for me. Still Highly recommended.

King of Thorn, Volume 5 by Yuji Iwahara

Trapped in the facility that they once believed to hold the key to their cure, six people infected with the virus known as Medusa were left after a frenzy killed all the other former study patients. Now, the only ones left of the six are the medic Ron, the hacker Marco Owen (the only one not actually infected), a young boy named T, a woman named Katherine who is rapidly succumbing to the disease, and a young girl named Kasumi.

Chased by strange dinosaurs, Jefferson, the boy, Katherine and Kasumi are heading to Marco, who has gone ahead of them to drain the water from the complex so they can enter the dangerous secret level. He has just found out that a former fellow hacker and rival named Zeus is behind the whole thing. Patient Zero of the Medusa virus is still alive as well, a Russian herder girl who manifested her formerly imaginary friend and had to kill it to save her family- who coincidentally died in the fire she set when it burned down their home.

But the strain of Medusa that she caught was not very powerful, and Zeus seeks a new victim, one with enough imagination to remake the world and a strong enough strain of the virus to do so. The person he seeks is one of the survivors... but who? Only Zeus knows, but he laughs at the struggles of the survivors while they try to figure out his plan.

Katherine became very attached to the boy who was a survivor along with her. He reminded her of her son. But now that she dies while he is in peril, she sacrifices herself and her body cracks and falls away to reveal a strange bird-woman body underneath. One strong enough to protect the boy and keep him safe, along with the others. But in protecting them, she is injured, and when they find a locker room, they change their tattered clothes for new ones. Kasumi finds a party-type black dress to wear, and nothing else. Ron lends her a shirt to put on over the dress, and they leave Tim and the transformed Katherine in safety while they look for Marco.

Marco has been talking with Patient Zero, and now that she has the information she needs, she leaves. But Marco is okay with that. He has the information he needs, too. He drains the water and heads down into level 4, finding the Venus Gate. Getting it open, he is confronted face to face by Zeus, and while Marco threatens to kill his fellow hacker, the door clangs shut behind him, leaving the corridor empty and deserted again.

Kasumi and Ron enter level 4 to find it dark and deserted. They find a power box, and Kasumi turns it on, but she's still worried by what her sister, Satsuki, was doing in the complex on the day she entered. it was Kasumi who was chosen for the cold sleep, not Satsuki, so she wonders why her sister would even need to be here. But the light reawakens the thorn vines, and she is cut off from Ron by their growth. Attempting to make her way out of the thorns, she runs into Patient Zero, and follows her to Lab #2 on the fourth floor. The girl who is Patient Zero, named Alice, tells Kasumi more about Medusa, and then shows off her true body. The adultish girl who appears in the complex is not her true body, but a ghost composed of Medusa. Alice's real body is little more than a stump, and still the size she was when her family died.

All that is left of her is part of her upper body, her head, and her arms. She isn't sure how she is still alive, but is sure that Medusa is responsible. The people who built the complex wanted to use Medusa to change the world, and they built a dream machine that could force Alice to dream, and Medusa made the dreams come to life. But the machine was flawed. Dreamers have to wake up sometime, and when they do, the dreams crumbled, as did the constructions of Medusa. But Zeus changed that. He fixed the machine so that the dreamer would never stop dreaming. Even now, both of them are in a dream. The sleep capsules were actually machines to make the people within dream.

Marco, meanwhile, is found by Peter, the Scientist, who is dead but has come back to get revenge on the people who stole his original cold sleep capsule. He's constructed a new body out of Medusa and bugs. But the capsule is inside the monster who lays the eggs that hatch into more monsters. Zeus finds them and calls Marco out for being weak. Zeus has already slipped the bonds of his old body and made a new one from Medusa for himself. He has his new patient Zero inside the monster and plans to remake and rule the world with his powers of Medusa. And he's created monsters from the former medusa patients to help him do it...

Meanwhile, Alice asks Kasumi about her sister Shizuku, and Kasumi fills her in. The two were identical twins in body, but opposites in personality. When they caught Medusa together, they took an oath to die together if they had to. But when Kasumi despaired and tried to end her life because she couldn't live with the idea of her sister dying first without her, Shizuku became very angry and would no longer talk to her. Finally, on the day Kasumi was to go into her cold sleep capsule, they finally talked and made up, agreeing to look for each other after a cure was found.

Alice tells her that Medusa arises out of emotional hurt and pain, and that the thorns seem to grow to find Kasumi and stop growing when they finally find her. Kasumi thinks the thorns are the work of Shizuku and are looking for her, and Alice tells her to find the new Patient Zero and try to calm her down and find out why she is so emotionally damaged. Perhaps she can save them both if this occurs. But as Kasumi heads off to find patient Zero, Marco is fighting, and nearly dying at the hands of Zeus' Pantheon of monsters. Can Kasumi stop the madness in time and save her friends? And who is Patient Zero, anyhow? And what connection does she have to Kasumi and Shizuku?

I love this series. It's like a little ouroboros worm winding around and around and around. occasionally it leads to new information but it's dark and twisty and makes you think about uncomfortable things as it slowly winds around in time. We have gotten more information about Medusa, but now Medusa is a secondary thing. Now that we kind of know how it works, the story winds back around to the problem of what is going on and who is behind all of it.

First we thought it was Venus, and then we thought it was Zeus. But Zeus isn't really behind all of these weird manifestations- he's just using them to get power, and if Kasumi and the others can wake up Patient Zero from the dream that he or she is having, Zeus will lose power and no longer be able to twist the Medusa manifestations to his liking. Given that Zeus's body is now a Medusa manifestation, he could even die when whatever person is powering this whole thing finally wakes up.

This is an unusual manga. It comes closer to being Seinen than Shonen, because the story is almost uncomfortable to read. It's definitely rooted in a sci-fi or fantasy-ish version of the real world, but aside from Medusa and its powers, there aren't that many fantastical elements. And yet, it's that same uncomfortableness that makes it so awesome. It makes you think, and think deeply, when most Shonen manga are little more than puffs of fluff. Other series are meringue, this one is steak- you'll spend a lot more time chewing it over in your head because of all the weird and twisted stuff going on. Highly recommended.

King of Thorn, Volume 4 by Yuji Iwahara

Marco has found the office of the head of the lab, and the cult who used to run it. But the man is dead from a gun shot, the same gun he holds in his hand. He didn't die in vain, however, for he left a videotape behind, and Marco and the other two survivors watch it.

The dead man is Ivan Coral Vega, the head of VENUS. In the video, he calls the other nations of the world fools and idiots, and traces the origin of the disease back to "Patient Zero", a little Siberian girl who caught the disease along with her whole family, of which she was the only survivor. This girl burned the bodies of her family, and when asked why, she revealed it was so that "He wouldn't get out".

The girl was schizophrenic and had an imaginary friend named Laloo, who was like a normal boy, except that he had a tail like a monkey. And in the house, there was an extra body- a small one, with a tail. From this, Ivan concluded that Medusa wasn't a disease like the world understood the term. It was an infectious agent that infected the mind/soul/spirit. The disease is an alien lifeform that hitched a ride to the earth on a comet- and nothing of its original body or form remains except an insatiable hunger. And this disease/whatever it is, can actually create new life from the body of the sufferer of the disease, but it takes a very strong vision on the part of the sufferer and a very strong version of Medusa to bring about the vision. Otherwise, the victim merely has their body turned to stone.

From this, Marco thinks it should be possible to remove Medusa from the body of its sufferers. But he also wants them to trust him and do as he says. Meanwhile, the girl they have seen inside the facility turns out to be the girl who was Patient Zero. She finds the body of Peter, it's just a shell. And the black man who hurt his leg is being stalked by two dinosaur/dragon things. In the midst of the attack, he sees Peter come back, but his voice isn't the same, and when he tells Peter that he died, Peter doesn't believe him, and abruptly vanishes. From this, the other man concludes that Medusa turns you into a zombie.

Marco decides to hack into the Level 4 computers and drain the excess water so they can get through, and discovers that some of the files are encrypted. He tells Kasumi to watch a video from Level 4 and tell him what went on, but she has to watch it all the way through. After a short while, he sends the woman out to see if she is okay, afraid he might have been too hard on her, and he sends the boy in after her. Then, he locks them in the room and heads into Level 4 himself. He tells them that the door will unlock in 45 minutes, and then they should join.

Kasumi feels betrayed by Marco, but Katherine says he did it to protect them, and when Kasumi throws a chair through a window to get out and follow him, Katherine restrains her, saying she shouldn't be upset: he's trying to protect them, and Kasumi most of all. Kasumi, though, is concerned for Marco, and is worried that he will be attacked by a monster and killed without them. The other woman persuades her to sit and watch the rest of the video.

Meanwhile, Marco and the black man have both ended up in Level 4, the other man by fleeing the dinosaur things, and Marco by swimming through the very slowly draining water. Marco encounters the girl again, and she tells him that his true enemy isn't Medusa. And then, even though he turned off all the security there, they re-arm. On a bank of screens, he sees a man, and he knows him, calling him Zeus. Marco and Zeus used to be rival hackers, but Marco went to jail, where he changed, and got all his tattoos.

Meanwhile, on the security tape, Kasumi comes to realize that the attack of the soldiers on the facility happened the same day that they entered the capsules. Meanwhile, Marco remembers how he was recruited by a man who worked for NSA and how the man convinced him to work for them- by showing him that Zeus was working with the former members of Venus Gate. Since Zeus was the one who framed Marco, Marco wanted revenge, so he agreed to pretend to be a sufferer of the virus and join the others going into coldsleep in the castle.

But Zeus had his own plans, and he'd found someone better than Subject Zero in among the patients, someone who could power Medusa almost infinitely. And it was this person who created everything that now runs amok in the facility, including the thorns and dinosaur-like creatures. But who is it? Meanwhile, Kasumi sees her sister on the tape- Shizuku. They are identical twins, and she doesn't know why Shizuku is there. They were both sick, but only Kasumi was selected to be part of the experiment. Knowing that she has lost her sister, Katherine urges Kasumi to let out her feelings and cry for her sister, which she does.

But what happened to Shizuku and who is this patient that is better and more powerful than Patient Zero? And will Marco be able to overcome his enemy, Zeus, and what does Zeus have in mind for this patient? What does he want with him or her and is he the one who betrayed Ivan Coral Vega and the rest of the former Venus Gate-ers?

Well, we have received more information on what is going on, but there are plenty of questions remaining and new ones that have to be asked. I find myself really liking this series. It's more than halfway over now, but it has really managed to keep my interest without resorting to pointless fights or filler material. And to be honest, sometimes it is better to have a smaller, tighter series than listen to legions of fans wanting more, as long, sprawling series sometimes seem looser and not as good as something more tightly plotted that packs a punch in each page.

This series is definitely of the "small, tightly plotted, with punch in every page"-type, and to be honest, it's one kind that I generally prefer. I've mentioned before that endless (or seemingly endless) battles and whatnot bore me silly, because a lot of series become BATTLE- exposition- BATTLE-BATTLE-BATTLE- minor exposition- YET MORE BATTLE. And that is just fatiguing to read on a longterm basis. And this story, which, even in its exploration parts moves the story forward, is ideal.

So not only would I recommend this title, I do. I want to find out more, and since I have the rest of the volumes right in front of me as I type, that is definitely going to happen. I can't recommend this enough. Reading "King of Thorn" may make you rethink your preconceptions about Japanese stories and manga, if you are generally dismissive of them. Highly, Highly recommended.

King of Thorn, Volume 3 by Yuji Iwahara

The Medusa survivors have been reduced to five, Peter, the scientist, is dead, but only his laptop survives, holding the files he downloaded and removed about level 4 from the main computer.

Meanwhile, Tim has opened the door to the corridor and let the blond woman, the black man, and Marco through. Marco and Kasumi have rejoined the others. But the effort has exhausted him, and he's fallen asleep. However, the navigator that Marco gave the kid is no longer working, and the Black man, in his anger, throws it away, while the blond woman says they could have fixed it.

The black man, thinking they are doomed, wants to kill Tim now, but the blond woman holds out some kind of hope, and won't let him. Marco tells Kasumi to drop Tim's computer. If Level Four was as easy to understand as a mere file, he wouldn't have had to infiltrate the place. Kasumi apologizes to Peter and leaves the laptop there.

They find an opening into level four, and all of them except for the black man, enter. His leg is injured, and he won't try to make it down the stairs. Marco points out that all of them have little choice but to go on- the blond woman's indicator bracelet has the strip turned completely black, meaning she has about five hours to live. Marco tells her that she treats Tim like an aunt- not a sister. Why? But he doesn't really want to know. He just points out that finding out what happened, and why they were chosen is the best chance for them to be cured of what is wrong with them.

All of them, except the black man, go down into the fourth level. He stays at the top of the stairs, sitting, thinking that they are heading into certain death. Marco is willing to push on without the others, but Kasumi tries to convince the other ones to go. But it's Tim who convinces the blond Woman to come along, saying he wants to find his mother. Even if he doesn't find her down there, he wants to keep searching.

So he and the blond woman join Marco and Kasumi. As they enter Level 4, Marco gives Kasumi and the blond woman guns to protect themselves. But once inside, the door slams shut behind them, trapping them in a circular corridor filled with a swamp and frogs that spit acid and try to kill them, and turrets on the ceiling that shoot bullets. And though this is the back entrance to the level, the corridor to enter the rest of the level is hidden. But can Kasumi and the others kill or pass the frogs and find the entrance to the rest of Level four, or will they die from bullets or drowning in the quickly-flooding corridor? And even if they survive this, what lies beyond?

Another thrilling and intriguing episode in this series. More questions about the characters, and the nature of their disease are piling up, with little to no resolution in sight. But at the same time, your wanting to know exactly what is going on keeps you interested and reading.

And let's face it- the characters are dying. All of them. And the bracelets they are wearing show they have less and less time left. How much time has passed in the world outside and what happened that all these beasts and physical changes happened to the world?

We haven't learned the answers yet, but with every volume, I am more sure that answers are coming. I find this a intriguing and slightly disturbing series, but I want to read (and see) more. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Calamity Jack by Shannon and Dean Hale, Illustrated by Nathan Hale

This book is a follow-up to Rapunzel's Revenge, following the story of Rapunzel's partner in saving things- Jack.

Jack was born in the town/city of Shyport, the son of two native Americans. From birth, he was a sly and scheming type of guy, but his schemes didn't always turn out well. After his father died, his mother ran a bakery, where she came to the attention of a nasty Giant named Blunderboar.

Blunderboar was rich, powerful and well-connected, and Jack wanted to try and rip him off, especially when Blunderboar caused damage to his mother's bakery. But Blunderboar was more well protected than Jack thought, and even teaming up with his usual partner, a pixie named Prudence, he was unable to pierce Blunderboar's defenses. So he sold his father's jacket, and bought some magic seeds that were supposed to grow immediately. In reality, it took overnight, but using the seeds, he made his way into Blunderboar's floating house and stole the most valuable thing he owned- a goose who laid golden eggs.

The damage that Jack caused from chopping down the beanstalk to escape killed one of Blunderboar's henchgiants and destroyed the tenement in which he and his mother lived. Jack was forced to escape Shytown and leave his mother behind.

Out in the west, Jack met Rapunzel, and the two of them did many good deeds, finally killing her stepmother and becoming heroes. And now, Jack has decided to bring her home to his mother, and introduce the two.

But Shytown isn't the town he left. Blunderboar seems to be in charge, and the city is at war with a bunch of giant ants. Indeed, the train they came into town on was attacked by the ants, and only through the actions of Jack and Rapunzel did they save the train from being destroyed, and the lives of the people on it. However, the crates that were in the train's cargo compartment have disappeared, and the giants who claim to have saved the train from the ants call the people on board "Fools", which Rapunzel overhears.

When they get to the city, they see Jack's mother being taken away by two Giants, and Rapunzel distracts the two long enough for Jack and his mother to talk. But his mother wants nothing to do with Jack, or him getting revenge on Blunderboar. She tells him to leave the city and leave her alone. By that time, the Giants have noticed that she isn't with them and return for her, but Jack is hiding and they don't see him.

Jack finds out from reading the notices on the notice-poles that everything Blunderboar has said is true, and that there is a price on his head for Giant-killing. He and Rapunzel try to take shelter for the night with his aunt, but aside from filling their ears with tales of how the giant ants capture and eat people, she won't take them in because she is afraid of what his being found in her home could mean to her. She throws him and Rapunzel out on the street.

Taking shelter with Jack's old partner in crime, Prudence the Pixie, they sleep in her house at night and find that only one man has been standing up to Blunderboar, a newspaperman named Freddie Sparksmith. Going to find him, they find his publishing company under attack by the ants- and by Blunderboar's Giants. Only the intervention of Jack and Rapunzel saves him, and he's mighty taken with Rapunzel's beauty and fiestiness- something that Jack finds that makes him angry. He likes Rapunzel, too, but every time he tries to talk to her, he finds himself tripping over his own tongue.

In fact, when he tries to compliment her, he ends up pushing her away. But will he, Rapunzel and Freddie be able to take on Blunderboar and win? Or will Jack have to expose his shameful criminal past to the only woman he loves, Rapunzel? And who will win Rapunzel's affections- Freddie or Jack?

I loved this follow up to "Rapunzel's Revenge", where we finally get to see how Jack ended up with the golden egg-laying goose in the Wild West, and now it's up to him and Punzie to bring down the villain that Jack left behind in his calamitous escape.

This Jack is Native American rather than vaguely European, and the legend of Jack is changed- both how he acquires the seeds, and the reason why- and yet these changes make the story better, richer, and deeper.

It was also nice to see Jack get some competition for "Punzie"'s hand, because Jack isn't willing to confront his feelings about her without someone else giving him competition in that area. And Jack's expression when Freddie is being nice to Rapunzel is just priceless. He looks like he swallowed a big, juicy lemon whole.

I really enjoyed this book, and the same readers who enjoyed "Rapunzel's Revenge" will enjoy reading Jack's tale of origins, wickedness, and redemption. Jack thinks of himself as a failed bad guy, but the reality, as Rapunzel points out to him, is that he isn't a "bad man" at all. He's just stepped off the path of righteousness, and once he gets back on it, he'll be fine. It's a path we all want to take with Jack, and now we can. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Salem Brownstone by John Hattis Dunning and Nikhil Singh

Salem Brownstone is a young man who works as a manager at a Laundromat, and is content with his lot, but when he receives notice that his father has died and left him a house and grounds, he's intrigued enough to take a taxi there. But by the time he gets to the house, night has fallen. He discovers a cloak on his father's coat rack and decides to wear it, seeing it has considerably more style and panache than a regular coat.

But he hears a noise upstairs and discovers a woman contorted into a very strange position in the middle of a pentagram on the floor. She's very much alive and in her hands she holds a small crystal ball. She claims his father borrowed it from her and she is merely retrieving it. She introduces herself as "Cassandra Contortionist". Just as Salem tells her to put the globe down, the lights go out, and he hears a gleefully evil snicker from the floor below.

He asks what the Hell that was, and Cassandra tells him that the word "Hell" is delightfully appropriate. Something called the Shadow Boys is in the house and after them. She and Salem throw themselves through the window and into the garden outside, where they land among thorn vines that break their fall. The Shadow Boys, whatever they are, want the scrying crystal, and are willing to kill both of them to get it. There is shelter, across the road in the circus that Cassandra works for- they just have to get there. But the Shadow Boys are fast, and finally, Cassandra passes him the crystal ball that suddenly flares into an intensely bright light when he holds it. Salem passes out and into another space, where he encounters a strange creature that comforts him with his presence.

After seeing brief periods of consciousness, he wakes up in Cassandra's bed, where he meets the other performers of the circus, Roscoe Dillinger- the Tiger Tamer, Jinx Monkeygirl, Cookie Herero, and the master of the Circus, Dr. Kinoshita. The Circus performers seem happy to see him, but Roscoe is certain that his presence will bring harm to the circus. Dr. Kinoshita says that his presence there is an honor, and that having Salem there is necessary.

Salem discovers that his father was a magician, and not the fake, sideshow magic kind, either. He started out trying to protect this world from evil, but it put his wife and son at risk, so he sent Salem and his mother away from him so that the evils he fought could not find or touch them. But he still kept track of his son's every triumph, and felt pride in him. His father, however, had become one of the guardians of the world, and every so often, he had to visit a tower in the otherworld to recharge part of himself that guarded the world. But now that he is dead, Salem must, as his heir, take his place- and his performance with the scrying ball is only one proof of that.

Salem, who had long thought his father abandoned him, is stunned and yet heartened by this evidence of his father's acknowledgement and approval of him and his choices. He resolves to continue on his father's work, and aided by Cassandra and the other circus performers, he must find out how and where to find the Tower his father constructed in the Overworld, and find out how to get there and re-power it, with the help of his familiar, Oosik.

But Salem isn't going to find that easy- the forces of Hell have a vested interest in stopping him and making him fail, and the Shadow Boys aren't the only weapon at their disposal. But when they turn one of the circus employees into their hidden weapon against Salem, can he survive and fight free to win the day?

I picked this up because it looked interesting- from the cloth cover in dark purple to the black figures and black tree limbs intertwining across it. The art inside is definitely strange looking, with very few straight lines or normal-looking people. In one way, it underscores the strangeness of the story, and the occult nature of the storyline. Also, it does really well for expressing the strangeness of the creatures from Hell, the Shadow boys included.

I found the art an intriguing change from the usual run of comic art I see in the graphic novels that I read, but others might find it off-putting or "Freaky". It is, perhaps, but that isn't a bad thing- it's different, and change and difference can be good. My only complaint is that the story is relatively short- I'd really like to read more, but considering that this book took them seven years to produce, I'm not holding out much hope for that.

I liked the ideas of the book, and I liked the art, but I realize that this may not be to everyone's taste. This book reminded me a lot of some of the things that Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman have done, and that's not a bad thing. For something different, with a Art Deco twist, you can't go far wrong with this graphic novel. Highly recommended and intriguing.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Mystery at Blackbeard's Cove by Audrey Penn

Billy, Stephanie, Mark and Daniel are friends and siblings who live on Okracoke Island just off of the coast of North Carolina. They live ordinary lives on Okarcoke, but when a woman named Theodora McNemmish tries to pay off diver Zeek Beacon for whelk shells with seeds, he sneers at her, and so she is forced to give him her lone treasure, a ring set with precious rubies that she discovered in an old treasure chest, along with the bones of a Spanish Lady, and she believes that the lady and the treasure once belonged to Edward Teach, or Blackbeard himself.

Zeek takes the ring, but he's not really satisfied, and later he comes back, only to be foiled by Billy, Stephanie, Mark and Daniel, who have come to visit Mrs. McNemmish. She tells them about the chest, and tells them that if she dies, she wants to be buried at sea, dumped into the ocean just like she dumped the bones of the Spanish Lady that she found in Edward Teach's chest.

But when the kids leave, Zeek returns, and once again tries to extort more money and treasure from Mrs. McNemmish. Only this time, he causes her to have a heart attack, and she dies. Nobody else seems to believe that Zeek killed her except the four friends, and they risk their lives to get Mrs. McMennish's body out of her coffin and down to the shore, where they put holes in the coffin and push it out to sea, making sure that she gets the burial at sea she wanted.

Not only have they stolen a body, but caused a fire in the church, and broken the window, which keeps them all petrified with fear about being caught. Stephanie catches a bad cold, and they learn that Mrs. McNemmish's last present to them is a duck made of whelk shells for each of them. When they go to retrieve them, they find a piece of paper with a riddle promising to lead them to Blackbeard's treasure- and Zeek, who has come back to look for the treasure of Blackbeard, with whom he is obsessed.

Stephanie, frustrated herself over not finding gold and Diamonds, kicks the chest, finding a secret doorway down under the cottage. The four friends take shelter there when Zeek returns, only for him to lock them in, hoping that will keep them out of his hair. But when he thinks he's found where the treasure lies, he runs for his boat to get to it before anyone else- leaving the kids imprisoned beneath the island.

In the tunnels, which no one on the island seems to know about, the kids have to find a way out, and Stephanie, even though she is sick, also wants to find treasure. As the hours pass and a huge storm veers towards the island, the kids must try and find a way out of the crumbling tunnels before they are washed away, or die when the tunnels collapse. As their parents organize a desperate search, can the kids find the true secret Blackbeard was hiding, and the treasure that everyone thinks exists? or is it already too late for them?

I loved this book, which was a wonderful adventure in a place that is both very different and yet the same environment in which a lot of kids have grown up in at the shore. But this has the added sting of being different by being set on an island, and one that is pretty far from the coast of North Carolina. Storms at the shore here are fierce, but this almost qualifies as open sea, and is much, much more dangerous.

This is an adventure, but its an adventure with very serious consequences. Many adventures for kids are written like it's a lark- while you may suffer some hunger and thirst and feel you are in danger during the story, once it is over, you are none the worse for wear. This story has actual, real consequences: most of the kids end up in the hospital, and they all nearly died, which adds a sense of real danger to the story- this is not a lark the kids can easily best and recover from.

I found this a fascinating story, and I bet a lot of kids would, too. Pirates and Blackbeard are something a lot of kids find interesting, and even though Stephanie comes off as a whiny token girl to me a lot of the time, I think both boys and girls would find this book interesting. Recommended.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Poison Diaries by Maryrose Wood

Jessamine Luxton lives in the mostly deserted ruin of Hulne Abbey with her father, Thomas Luxton, an apothecary who is both respected and feared. Jessamine has been taught by her father about some of the amazing properties of the plants he grows, but he will not let her into his most prized possession, his poison garden, in which he raises the sorts of plants that can most easily kill.

Jessamine has been pleading with him to be let into the garden for years, but every time she asks he has told her that she isn't old enough- she needs to be more mature before she is ready. And now, even though her father is gone trying to help someone sick, and he is trusting her to prepare the seeds of the Belladonna plant for planting, when he gets home and once more denies her entry into the garden, she is angered enough to run away- only he never notices that she is missing, and she comes back when her anger is diminished.

Soon afterwards, a strange man comes to the Abbey hauling a boy wrapped up in ropes. He tells his story- he runs an asylum for the care of insane people, but after the boy came to work for him, he found his patients were somehow being cured, and when he convinced the boy not to put him out of work, the boy then drove the whole town crazy. So he is determined to be rid of the boy and wants Jessamine's father to take the boy on, as he seems to have some instinctive knowledge of herbs and plants.

Her father is intrigued enough by the story to do so, but he lets Jessamine tend to the boy, whose name is Weed. Her first sight of his open eyes, a deep and beautiful green, convinces her that such a boy couldn't be a monster.

But he is strange. At first he won't eat anything that grows- only eggs and bacon. And because their eggs and bacon are limited, Jessamine convinces him he can eat- as long as he gives thanks for the food he is about to eat- which allows him to eat growing things like potatoes, apples and such without feeling bad about them. The extra food allows him to fill out, and he is soon following Jessamine around as she tends her garden.

As they spend more time in each other's company, Jessamine begins to see how wonderful and special Weed really is, and slowly falls in love with the strange boy. And perhaps he returns her affections, but her father seeks to find out more about Weed's strange abilities with plants. Weed, though, hates Thomas's poison garden, which Thomas lets both Jessamine and Weed into when he hears that Weed can actually talk to the plants.

But Weed finds the poison plants sly and secretive and strange. As he and Jessamine fall deeper in love, Jessamine finds that she would love nothing more than Weed as her husband. Thomas agrees, but Jessamine becomes very sick after their betrothal dinner, and Weed must consult the plants in the poison garden for a cure for her, and their Prince, Oleander.

But, to his shock and surprise, getting a cure for her sickness will require more than just plants- The poisons and their Prince make Weed go against his very principles to find a cure, and give him knowledge of exactly why she got sick that have Weed hating himself and thinking that Jessamine could never love a man who has done what he has done- even if for the love of her. Can Weed live with himself, or will he be forced to leave the woman he loves because of how much he despises himself and what love caused him to do. Is Love the greatest Poison of all?

I found this book interesting and enjoyable. Weed. as a character, is a mystery in human form, and yet, we can empathize with Jessamine as she becomes fascinated with his powers and abilities with plants- because the way he can speak to them (as we get to see when we finally get inside Weed's point of view), is pretty amazing. And when the two of them begin to fall in love with each other, it's heartwarming and wonderful.

But then, Jessamine gets sick, and Weed is beside himself trying to find a cure for her. It's her illness that enables Jessamine's father, Thomas, to get the things he wants out of Weed. We've been receiving hints all along that Jessamine's father is not a nice man, but here he seems like a concerned father. Yes, he wants to know about the properties of the plants in his poison garden, but maybe, you think, he just wants them for healing. Until the twist comes. In a way, I both did and did not see it coming, as I knew he wasn't the nicest guy, I just didn't quite think he'd be that heartless.

By the end of the book, I knew that this would only be the first in a series, or at least, it will have a sequel. Weed may have saved Jessamine (it's actually not quite clear), but the things he's done and the choices he's made have sickened him and made him hate himself- not Jessamine, but he thinks she won't be able to live with him after what he has done. But she never gets the chance to choose, and Weed leaves. Given that Weed may not be human (there is hints that he may be born of faerie or something like that), I think Jessamine herself might have to seek him out.

And I'm looking forward to reading that book when and if it comes out. I really enjoyed this book, even though it isn't the happiest story around and the ending is left very much up in the air. I am hoping that the next book sees Weed and Jessamine reunited and happy, and the villains of the piece punished in some way for their crimes. Highly recommended, if a bit of a downer ending.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Changing the World: All New Tales of Valdemar Edited by Mercedes Lackey

This book collects sixteen stories of the Heralds of Valdemar and their world, by various authors.

"The One Left Behind" by Mercedes Lackey tells of a village weaver with an axe to grind against Heralds- not only was she seduced and abandoned bya man who became one, but so was her mother. But when real Heralds come to ask her help to get her former lover, who is only pretending to be a Herald, taken in so that he can't sully the reputation of the Heralds, will she be inclined to help them?

"For Want of a Nail" by Rosemary Edgehill and Denise Cune tells the story of one of King Valdemar's first companions, a man who had stayed with him on their flight from their homeland and then sent to scout the lands around. When he finally returns to the land claimed by the King, he must deal with the Devil-Horses who seem to have taken over the King and Court. But have they?

"Softly Falling Snow" by Elizabeth A. Vaughn gives us a look into the life of Elspeth the Peacemaker, and her lover whom she cannot marry, a bard named Kyran, as she worries over the succession.

"The Reluctant Herald" by Mickey Zucker Reichert tells of Lubonne, a young man who seems to have everything in life that he desires, a productive life, a woman who loves him and is about to marry him, and satisfaction... until a companion named Carthea comes into his life and shows him how much of that is a lie.

"A Storytelling of Crows" by Elisabeth Waters tells us of an animal healer named Maia who must help and heal not only a wounded companion, but her Herald as well- and then Maia realizes that her brother is the one who hurt them, and a bandit to boot. But is there a place for her to go once her brother is arrested?

"Waiting to Belong" by Kristin Schwengel relates the story of Shia, whose love Teo is taken from her when a companion comes to claim him. Almost no one sees Shia's pain except for Calli, a new wife. Shia, who is the Herbalist of Breyburn feels incomplete without him and can't face him knowing she lost him. But when Bandits come to Breyburn, will Shia find completeness at last?

"The Last Part of the Way" by Brenda Cooper has two sisters, one a bard, one a Healer, escorting, and being escorted by a Herald whose soul has shattered on the death of his entire family. They are trying to help him but have no success until they must deal with an attack on Shelter's End, where many Bards and Healers go to retire and deal with the death of the Healer sister's mentor. Can their shared grief reach Lioran at last?

"Midwinter Gifts" by Stephanie D. Shaver has another pair of twins, a Herald named Lyle and his sister, Lelia, a Bard. Lelia is needed to help infiltrate a noble house so that the Heralds can investigate a noblewoman's many husbands and their suspicious deaths. Lelia is paired with Herald Wil, a man she has feelings for, but who is paralyzed in the presence of a woman- and who has precognition. Can they investigate the mystery without getting killed, and can Lelia get through to Wil that she likes him as more than a friend?

"Wounded Bird" by Michael Z. Williamson tells of Riga, a Kossaki merchant's daughter, and her efforts to rescue an abused servant girl from her master in a distant land. Can she rescue her from captivity and better her lot in life?

"Defending the Heart" by Kate Paulk is set after the time of the mage storms and tells of two boys being raised by an old farmer. Jem is human, but Ree is a Hobgoblin- part human, part cat, part rat, and many people are made uncomfortable by his appearance, so when soldiers come to the farm, he is sent to hide while Jem and Garrad meet the soldiers. They claim the land in the name of a Lord, but accept some furs in exchange for the taxes But when they decide to take Jem as well, it will be up to Ree to rescue him and the other children they have taken before they can be worked to death for soldiers "Lord".

"Matters of the Heart" by Sarah Hoyt continues the story of Ree, Jem and Garrad, and their adopted sister Amelie, who Ree rescued from the soldiers. When Garrad's son, Lenar, who has been a soldier for the Emperor, returns to the farm, he objects to the relationship between Jem and Ree. But is Ree doomed to run off and be a wild Hobgoblin, or can he convince Lenar that he's just as human as Jem is and deserves to stay with Jem, Amelie and Garrad?

"Nothing Better to Do" by Tanya Huff has a Herald discovering a baby out in the woods. It belongs to a woodsman who is dying, and he asks Jors to take the Baby to his sister, who lives in a nearby town. How much work could it be to look after a baby? When you have never done so before?

'The Thief of Anvil's Close" By Fiona Patton tells the story of Hektor Dann, a guardsman of Haven set to find the thief who has been stealing from Master Blacksmith Edzel Smith, a most complainingly cantankerous man who claims that a thief is taking off with items from his shop. He claims to know who the thief is, but can Hektor find the real thief and show Edzel the proof?

"Twice Blessed" bu Judith Tarr is the story of two girls whose families were close friends, but who despised each other in all things. When each girl is chosen by a Companion, each is sure that only she is chosen and is ready to lord it over each other. But when it turns out to be the same companion, can they put aside their dislike for each other to work together to save a missing sheepherd?

"Be Careful What You Wish For" by Nancy Asire takes Doron, a man of Karse who has turned to banditry and crosses him with Tomar, his nephew, whose family fled Karse for Valdemar, and who eventually became a herald. But when the bandits Doron travels with captures Tomar, can the older man keep his nephew safe without revealing who he really is? And can Tomar offer his uncle a way out of the life he is leading and give him a happier future?

"Interview with a Companion" by Ben Ohlander takes a reporter looking for a scoop named Dave Matthews and crosses him with a Companion for an exposé on the racing industry and a look at Valdemar from the eyes of the Magical Horses who defend it.

All of these stories are about literally (in some cases) changing someone's world. From falling in love to complete changes in someone's view or outlook, I could set all of them in the world of Valdemar. Well, except for "Wounded Bird", as I didn't recognize any of the places or peoples in that story as being recognizably of the world of Valdemar. But then, maybe it was from one of the smaller Kingdoms near the Ice Wall from one of the Mage Storms trilogies.

In all I enjoyed all the stories in this collection except for the last one, which was really ho-hum to read. All the other stories at least had points of interest (and all of them much more than that) except for "Be Careful What You Wish For". As the final story in the collection, it left a great deal to be desired. On the other hand, the other stories more than make up for it.

I enjoyed this book a lot, and the stories brought something interesting to the table- some more than others. There's a lot of sorrow and heartache in this collection of tales, and a lot of laughter and joy as well. My favorite story was definitely a toss-up between "The One Left Behind" and "Waiting to Belong". Both told very similar stories (Someone being Chosen causes problems for those left behind in their wake) but each approach it from a different direction and both come to a different, but wonderful conclusion. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Vermonia, Volume 3: Release of the Red Phoenix by Yoyo

Naomi, Jim and Doug have followed their friend Mel who was kidnapped into a strange new world from Earth. Each of them have encountered a guardian from different areas of the world that have taken Jim and Doug under their wings. Now it is Naomi's turn.

Naomi travels with Fly through the secret tunnels to the village of the elder Umnida. But unbeknownst to them, the village has been attacked and is in flames. Jim and Doug are fine, but Jim is injured, and discovers that his totem power, Suiran, can give him the power to heal his own wounds and those of others. However, overusing the power saps his life force and exhausts him.

Meanwhile, Naomi and Fly reach the village and are taken to meet the elder, Umnida. All of the people here are cat-like people, with fur and slit-pupiled eyes. Along with the rest of the villagers, they flee under the village to the secret tunnels, where they hide. But not all of the villagers are happy with Naomi. One young woman, Miko, is angry with Naomi for not getting to the village sooner and defending it against attack.

Naomi can't argue, because she's also angry with herself for the same thing. Miko's twin Khann tries to comfort Naomi, but Naomi falls suddenly asleep, where she has a vision of the supernatural totem Suzaku, who controls the power of fire. He asks Naomi to free him, and she agrees. As a sign of that agreement and their pact, he gifts her with a ring and tells her to seek the dead tree which still drops leaves.

When she comes to, she is surprised to hear that the General, Uro, who is attacking the village, agreed to stop the attack if Naomi comes out. Even though pretty much everyone knows that he is lying, Naomi agrees to go out to protect the villagers.

The thing attacking the village is a huge, bloated-looking lizard that can breathe fire. But when Naomi tries to fight it, she instead can see into its memories and discovers that it is actually just a little, frightened baby lizard being controlled by Uro. But can she free it from its shackles and find and free Suzaku?

And can the four friends find and free their friend, Mel, before she is corrupted and turned to the side of Uro? Or is it already too late? And is Mel really acting on her own, or is she being controlled like the baby lizard? How can her friends find her and free her before it is too late?

Another volume in the Vermonia series, this one focusing on Naomi. And with this volume, it's become obvious that the series is relying on the old "Guardian Spirits" aspects of the four directions- Suzaku the Pheonix, Genbu the Tortoise, Seiryu the Dragon, and Byakko the White tiger. Even if the names and the animals are slightly different here, calling Naomi's guardian spirit Suzaku is a dead giveaway.

Since the animals so far have been tied to the earth, air and fire, Mel's guardian spirit is going to be water and have ties to Genbu. Not really a big surprise, as I have seen these same ideas in, at the very least, Yu Yu Hakusho and Fushigi Yugi and Fushigi Yugi Genbu Kaiden. So if you have read any of those, you will recognize the characters and concepts.

But this volume has made me anxious to see if (and when) Mel gets to bond with her spirit, and the forthcoming war. I don't know if the upcoming war between the villagers of the four lands will take very long, in story terms, or if the story will be over at the end of the next book, I do want to see it, but so far, the story has seemed almost too easy for the characters. Stuff happens, but they don't seem to have to struggle at it much. I mean, Naomi practically trips over the place where her totem/guardian is imprisoned.

So far, this series has had a lack of feeling of actual accomplishment for its heroes and this book was decidedly worse in that regard the others. It almost seems that the creators are getting tired of writing and drawing the series, which is strange, as it is so short. I'll keep reading, but I hope it gets better. Recommended somewhat.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

King of Thorn, Volume 2 by Yuji Iwahara

Kazumi was once just an ordinary student, along with her twin sister Shizuku. But when they both were infected with Medusa, a disease that changes your cells, turning them to something like stone or dried clay, they knew it was a death sentence. Then, Kazumi was selected to take part in an experiment in cold sleep, keeping the infected alive but in hibernation- until a cure could be found.

When the test subjects woke up, though, the world had changed, and the once pristine lab where they were locked up was overgrown with huge thorned vines, and lizard or dragon-like monsters seem to have taken over the island. Only one man, Marco Owen, seems to know what is going on, and he is trying to lead the others to safety. But he's told Kazumi that they may have a traitor in their midst who is keeping an eye on the others. Why? Marko isn't sure.

Kazumi and the others have managed to escape the room they woke up in, and they have found an underwater tunnel leading away from the island. But the tunnel is partially filled with water, and with huge blind reptiles that hunt through sensing the movement of the water. But how can they escape without disturbing the water, and without being eaten? Well, they can't. The Senator is killed and eaten by the water monsters, but the rest of them escape.

Until they reach the top and realize that one of them- a bespectacled scientist, has locked the door behind him, trapping them within. The only way for them to escape is to send the youngest member of the group, Tim, through the ducts to the other side of the door and escape.

But he also tells them the truth- he's an operative for the CIA and he suspects that the scientists who set up this entire place were actually behind the release of Medusa into the USA and the world. He was sent to find out the truth- and he didn't have much of a choice but to agree, because he was a famous hacker and in jail, and he didn't want to stay in jail for the rest of his life.

Kazumi and the others believe now that the scientist with the glasses was the mole. But was he? When Kazumi gets separated from the rest, she finds out that the scientist was the man who developed the coldsleep capsules, and that he and his friends, who were also his team, were kept out of the loop as to what would be done with them.

So, who is the real traitor, and who is behind the plague known as Medusa? As the last few survivors struggle to keep themselves alive and figure out what is going on, can Kazumi find Marco and the others before anyone else dies, and what is really going on with the disease and the facility? How long have they been asleep and why has this happened to the island. Just what is really going on here? And who is the blonde girl who is keeping watch on the survivors.

An excellent follow-up to the first volume, keeping up the tension and ramping it, and the paranoia, up several notches. It's really getting to the point where I am starting to wonder about the remaining characters. If there is a traitor, who is it? Not the senator- he's dead already. Could it be the black man? Or how about the overly dramatic blonde woman? She certainly seems to be acting somewhat suspiciously.

Or could it be Marco? I mean, we are talking "least likely" suspects here, and Marco is one of the least likely. And now that the scientist has been cleared- I think, it doesn't seem like it might be him. And Kazumi and Tim? Well, they seem very unlikely, too, and we share Kazumi's memories, so not her. And Tim is just too young to be a spy.

I love this manga for keeping me interested in and invested in the story. Every time you turn the page, you learn something new that will keep you interested and longing to learn more and to figure out the mystery. I eagerly await the next volume. Highly recommended.

King of Thorn, Volume 1 by Yuji Iwahara

Kazumi is just an ordinary schoolgirl in Japan, living with her twin, Shizuku. But there is a strange disease running rampant across the globe that changes people to a substance very much like brittle clay or stone, and for that reason, it is called Medusa.

When Kazumi falls ill with Medusa, it is a sure death sentence, and her sister Shizuku has caught it as well. But Kazumi has been selected to go into cold sleep, in hopes that the scientists of the world can find a cure to the disease. She doesn't want to go without Shizuku, but Shizuku tells her she'd be a fool to give up such a chance, and asks her to live for both of them. So Kazumi reluctantly agrees.

On reaching the facility, Kazumi is stripped of all her possessions except for her glasses, is given a set of scrubs to wear, and a special bracelet that will track the course of her disease. The film strip is white, and as it slowly gets spotted with more and more black, the closer she is to dying of Medusa. When it turns completely black, she will die.

Sealed into her capsule, she goes to sleep. But when she wakes... the room is no longer pristine and white. The lab room is a mess, filled with thorn-covered branches and the other people who had been in the pods. Now awake, everyone is aware that something has happened. The question, though, is what? Was there some kind of apocalypse while Kazumi and the others were in cold sleep? Was a cure ever found for Medusa? Nobody knows.

The mass of people storm the elevator, looking for a way out, and Kazumi is nearly trampled, along with another young boy, but most of the people are eaten by a dinosaur-like or dragon-like creature. Only seven are left, including Kazumi- one man who says he was a senator, a burly black man, a tattooed gang-leader type, a young woman, a very young boy and a bespectacled man.

The gang-leader type takes leadership quickly, much to the dismay of the Senator, who has figured out that the man is actually the notorious hacker, Marco Owen. But perhaps his leadership is exactly what the survivors need to survive, as they don't know how much time has passed, and don't exactly have the skills to survive living rough. But can they get off the island without killing each other, and without dying from the many hazards that could take their lives?

This is an extremely interesting manga, with elements of horror, survival and lots of drama. Kazumi is nothing more than an ordinary schoolgirl, introverted and constantly feeling overshadowed by her more vivacious twin. But at the same time, her sister lives the way she wants to- outgoing and liked. Now, she's thrust into a world where her sister may be long dead, and she must struggle to survive.

Though she's mainly stuck with a couple of adults, sometimes it seems that only she is capable of actually being or acting adult- all the adults are too busy accusing each other of things or fighting amongst themselves. She's the one who tells them to stop fighting and makes peace, but can all of them survive the hellhole of an island they are trapped on?

This book is wonderful at setting up a spooky atmosphere in which all the characters feel trapped. They are trapped by the circumstances of the island- which is filled with hostile animal and plant life, they are trapped by not being able to trust each other, trapped by the island itself, which is surrounded on all sides by water, and trapped by their disease, which dooms them to death anyway, even if they manage to escape. Atmospheric and moody, this book promises a gut-wrenching story, and it delivers on its promises. Extremely well done, and amazing to read. Highly recommended.