April 2016


The second book in the Prester John series. Apparently, there’s a third book but I’ve no idea when it’s coming out.

Publication year: 2011
Format: print
Page count: 253
Publisher: Night Shade Books

This book follows the same structure as the first one: a priest who is copying and reading three books which are slowly turning to mush. The copying priest isn’t the same as in the first book because priest Hiob sort of lost his mind at the end of the previous book and now his body is growing flowers and vines. Priest Alaric has taken over and he has, sensibly, ordered two other priests to copy the other two books so this time the three books can be read almost fully. I was rather frustrated in the Habitation of the Blessed by the endings which were very spotty. Not so here.

The first book: Prester John has been a king of Pentexore for over a decade and he has a daughter with his blemmye wife Hagia. Unfortunately, the poor girl, Sefalet, was born different: she has a head (unlike her mother) but her head has no features. Instead she has an eye on the back of each hand and a mouth on each hand, too. The right-hand mouth talks like a normal girl but the left-hand mouth curses and says very unkind things. The story starts when John’s illegitimate daughter appears in his court. Anglitora is the daughter of John and the crane Kukyk. She’s considered disabled because while she otherwise looks like a human, she has just one wing.

She comes to the court with a letter from the king of Constantinople, begging for Prester John’s help against the infidels. Of course, John wants to go. The Pentexorans are immortal and it has been thousands of years since they were in a war so they all think it will be just a grand new game and they all want to follow John. But they all can’t go, so a lottery is held to see who will go and who will stay. John, his wife, and Anglitora lead the people to the sand sea and towards the human world.

The book is written by Hagia. Anglitora wanted to write it but she can’t. Instead she supplies commentary from her point-of-view. Hagia is here younger than in the previous book.

The second book: When the others left to war, Sefalet was left in the care of a white lion Vyala who is a scholar of love. John ordered his people to build a cathedral while he was gone. So everyone goes to wake the grand sleeping architect and then to build the cathedral, even though nobody knows what it is or has even seen one. Vyala cares for the child who suffers greatly both because of her strange body and because of the awful things her left-hand mouth says.

The third book is narrated by John Mandeville, a traveler and a great liar who happens to come ashore into a land ruled by two six armed children. He writers about the things he encounters there and also about his previous experiences, which might be lies or not. He wrote The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (although his existence hasn’t been proven).

I enjoyed this book a lot and it’s just as enjoyable as the previous book. The characters don’t understand Christianity or human religions at all. They question the foundations the faiths are based on but innocently, not maliciously. And they discuss about the nature of (Christian) God. We meet a couple of historical characters, too.

Most of the cast from the previous book returns and I think it’s best to read the books close together, unless you have a great memory for characters. For example, Vyala wasn’t seen in the previous book but she was mentioned. She turned out to be a bit different than I expected. Better.

There’s also a very interesting conversation about books and how they influence reality. Unfortunately, it’s also a melancholy book. The characters themselves, for the most part, aren’t sad but there’s an underlying feeling of doom and tragedy, loss of innocence. I suspected that the humans aren’t going to welcome this strange motley crew to their world and world view, and I dreaded what will happen at the end.

While this book doesn’t end as abruptly as the previous one, it doesn’t have a real ending. It just ends and I really want to know what happens next. Oh and this doesn’t stand alone at all. Habitation of the Blessed should be read first.

“How much better if life were more like books, if life lied a little more, and gave up its stubborn and boring adherence to the way things can be, and thought a little more imaginatively about the way things might be.”

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The first hardcover collection.

Writer and artist: Harold Foster
Publisher: Fantagraphics

Prince Valiant is one of the comics I read when I was a kid (along with Asterix, Tintin, Donald Duck, Modesty Blaise, and others). Here in Finland only 9 albums were published in 1976-1979 and I still have them all, although bought from second hand bookstores. However, I was more than a bit surprised to start reading this English collection and find out that the Finnish albums didn’t start at the beginning of the comic but instead at near the beginning of Volume 3. So I was in the delightful position of reading new material from the beginning of Val’s tale. I did know that the Finnish albums don’t follow the whole tale so the final albums are also new to me.

Prince Valiant comic was originally published in newspapers. The first volume includes a brief biography of Foster and a rare interview. The hardcover collection is far larger in size than usual comic collections which allows the art of shine.

The comic follows the young Prince of Thule, Prince Valiant, and his adventures “in the times of King Arthur”. The comics have very little magic and are mostly a historical adventure tale. While Val is a swordsman and aspiring knight, he uses brains at least at often as brawn to win. This often leads to light-hearted and humorous situations. Since the comic follows Val’s life from a boy to old age, he grows and changes, and so do the people around him.

The tale starts with Valiant’s father who has was the king of Thule but he has just been overthrown by terrible tyrant. The king, along with his wife, son, and twenty loyal soldiers, flee across the sea to England. After battling the locals, the king is given a patch of land at the marches and the group settled down there. As the son of an exiled king, Val doesn’t grow up among luxuries; instead he explores the swamp and becomes an able hunter and learns to use his brains. He also encounters a witch who prophecies that he will have grand adventures but never happiness.

However, as a young man he yearns for adventure and leaves the swamplands after his mother dies. Soon he meets Sir Launcelot and has his heart set on becoming a knight of the Round Table. However, as a penniless exile that’s not easy. Fortunately, Val meets and quickly becomes friends with the young Sir Gawain who takes Val as his squire. Together, they have a couple of adventures until Val’s heart leads him to other places.

Foster established his characters quickly and, of course, uses the reader’s knowledge of the legends of king Arthur, as well. In this first volume the Arthurian characters are prominent but in the coming collections Val leaves Camelot behind and travels to other lands and continents.

While many of the stories are centered on knightly ideals and, one is even a contest between Merlin and Morgan Le Fay, often Val needs to use his brains to overcome obstacles. He also suffers setbacks and even tragedy. I was a bit worried that the stories would feel dated but they’re not, at least to me.

Val has many of the good qualities associated with an Arthurian knight: he’s almost fearless, loyal, good-natured, and defender of women and other less powerful people. On the other hand, he has faults, too: he has a quick temper, especially as a youth, reckless, is so proud that he’s arrogant, and stubborn.

Many of the side characters in the comic can be two-dimensional: the invading Saxons are unthinking horde, some people are conniving evil-doers, and Morgan Le Fay is just an evil sorceress. But sometimes enemies have a nobler side and can even become allies or friends.

Foster’s art is gorgeous. The only fault I can find is that all the women look the same: except for a few old crones, they’re all young, beautiful, and slim. From the facial features alone you can’t distinguish Queen Guinevere, Val’s first love maid Ilene, or Val’s eventual wife from each other, even though they’re supposed to be of different ages. While most males are also young or youngish, there are several prominent older male character, such as Merlin and Val’s father.

The collection ends in the middle of a storyline with two cliffhangers: Val has just started to inspire his father to take back Thule’s throne when he comes upon Saxon invaders and rushes to tell about them to King Arthur.

Fantagraphics has excerpts of the collections on its webpages.

A stand-alone historical fantasy book.

Publication year: 2008
Format: print
Page count: 220
Publisher: TOR

Polyxena is the sister of the queen of Epiros. She has been trained as one of the three priestesses of the Mother but she feels like she’s meant for other things, greater things. Now that her sexuality starts to bloom, she wants a king as her husband. But instead she’s offered a choice among meek men who don’t excite her.

Her aunt Nikandra is also a priestess. When Polyxena was born, there were strong omens that she would bring down the worship of the Mother and make the misogynistic males and their gods the rulers of the world. Nikandra doesn’t want that to happen and she’s determined to keep Polyxena ignorant of her own magical powers and tie her to a man who will keep her from her destiny.

But Polyxena’s destiny leads her forward, to Samothrace where she will participate in the Mysteries and meet the man who is her destiny: the king of Macedon, Philip.

This book has more magical elements than the previous Tarr books I’ve read. It has the Thessalonian witches and priestesses of Mother who have real powers to influence people’s minds but also to fly. The Greek gods aren’t really mentioned at all, just the Mother and the gods whom the males worship.

Sadly, for me the use of magic made the world feel more a generic fantasy world rather than the Ancient Greece it was supposed to be. Polyxena is a very headstrong girl but so is her aunt. They’re both very human and make mistakes along the way.

Polyxena changes her name when she learns something important about herself. Nikandra’s name is also her title so that changes as well.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t as good as the previous books I’ve read from Tarr but it was enjoyable enough.

Collects the first three Girl Genius Collections: the Beetleburg Clank, the Airship City, and the Monster Engine.

Writers: Phil & Kaja Foglio
Artist: Phil Foglio
If you like at least two of the following, you should do yourself a favor and try Girl Genius: adventure, mad science, humor, female protagonist, steampunk. The comic is available for free at: http://www.girlgeniusonline.com/

What can I say about Girl Genius? It’s just great. It might be confusing at first because we’re just thrown in without explanations to the weird world of Agatha Clay. She’s a student at the Transylvania Polygnostic University but she isn’t doing too well. She’s very interested in all things mechanical but nothing she builds works and she has a lot of trouble concentrating. Still, she’s Dr. Beetle lab assistant. On her way to the uni, she’s mugged. Two soldiers grab her most valuable possession: the locket which she always carries. Then the local tyrant, Baron Wulfenbach, appears and Dr. Beetle is killed. Agatha is sent home. She wakes up in her foster father’s workshop in her underwear holding a wrench and covered in motor oil. Surely she couldn’t have built the new mechanical monstrosity walking on the streets of Beetleburg? Especially in her sleep? (The underwear is in Victorian style so funny rather than seductive.)

The world is kind of an alternate universe but with Sparks who can build machines which can bend the laws of physics. We’re told that many of the Sparks go mad so there are numerous mad scientists running around. In previous times the Heterodyne family kept order with negations when they could and smashing monsters and doomsday devices when they couldn’t. But the Heterodyne boys disappeared years ago. The only person keeping order (at least in Europe) is Baron Klaus Wulfenbach. He was a friend of the Heterodynes but his current methods are far more… bloodthirsty. He tries to talk when he can but he’s not a diplomat and his Jägermonsters are eager to fight.

The comic has lots of interesting characters, like the Emperor of Cats and Bangladesh Dupree who is a former pirate queen but without a crew. She works for the Baron now which makes her no less bloodthirsty and treacherous. Also, the Baron himself and his son Gilgamesh are more complicated than we realize at first glance. I find both quite entertaining. However, some characters do appear quickly and sometimes disappear quickly, as well, especially in the first volume (which was first published 8 years ago).

The only magical elements (if you can call it that) are the Sparks.

Phil Foglio’s art is not very sleek; it’s closer to manga style. But it fits the story well. The first few pages are black and white but the rest of the first collection get more color. About 1/3 through and onwards the real colors are used. There’s a very good in-world reason for this.

The Jägermonsters talk in a quite thick fake German accent which I find sometimes hard to understand but they’re quite entertaining otherwise.

A Modesty Blaise adventure.

Publication year: 1976
Publication year of the Finnish translation: 1998
Translator: Jussi Nousiainen
Format: print
Page count: 300
Publisher of the Finnish translation: Otava

This time Modesty is kayaking in wilderness in US with her lover billionaire John Dall. Suddenly two men appear, heavily armed. They kill Dall’s and Modesty’s guide and try to kidnap them. However, Modesty manages to surprise them and kills them instead. But she doesn’t know who sent them or why.

Meanwhile, Willie’s friend Maude Tiller has gone through a traumatic mission. Maude is a female secret agent, working for Tarrant, and both Modesty and Willie care for her. Tarrant asks Willie to help her but she won’t let him.

But soon Modesty finds out that her old friend Danny Chavasse isn’t dead, like she thought, but was kidnapped three years ago. In fact, Danny and some other people are in a slave plantation in South America, forced to work for the pleasure of a madwoman. Of course, Modesty and Willie have to rescue him and the others. That, of course, is very hard.

It’s a Modesty adventure: lots of fantastic violence, some sex, some humor, and superheroic Modesty and Willie in action. If you like them and the previous adventures, you’re likely to like this one, too. However, this story doesn’t have any new elements so it might feel repetitive. But it does have several recurring characters whom I enjoyed a lot. In addition to John Dall and Maude, there’s Steve Collier and his wife.

Maude is another action heroine but she a more normal person than Modesty. Still, Maude’s loyal, skilled, and determined. What’s not to like?

The treatment of rape is still problematic, tough. Once again, Modesty is put into a situation where she has to allow the enemies to use her body but she’s able to just shrug it off because of her mental powers. This is a trend and change from the comics which I hate. Otherwise, this an enjoyable action book.

A stand-alone SF book, part of the Women in SF bundle I bought last year.

Publication year: 2000
Format: ebook
Page count: 241
Publisher: Spectra

Megan O’Flannery is a robotics expert and quite an insular person. When she’s offered a job at MindSim to develop a human-like, self-aware android, she doesn’t hesitate for long. MindSim has been developing them already but something has always gone wrong with the previous models. The newest, RS-4, also has problems which keep him from functioning fully. Megan starts to unravel them and finds out that while some of them are mechanical, there are also moral and ethical problems. MindSim is funded by the military and they want the android to become an assassin and a saboteur. Is it possible to make an artificial intelligence with a conscious and yet willingness to kill only the enemy?

She enlists the help of a reclusive and eccentric robotics genius, Chandrarajan Sundaram or Raj. However, when the android becomes more self-aware, he also seems to develop unhealthy attachments and hostilities. Megan and Raj are alone with RS-4, or Aris, in the secret underground laboratories in Nevada and when things start to go wrong they can’t contact anyone for help.

Aris is a very interesting thought experiment. He (apparently sexbots are female and killbots are male?) is supposed to pass for human but underneath his skin he has lots of mechanical parts and he even bleeds silver liquid which makes it easy to distinguish him from humans. His mind is made of complex programming and it includes a conscious, supposedly so that he wouldn’t kill and steal – except when the military tells him to. He also claims that he can’t feel any emotions and yet is strangely obsessed with sex and develops jealousy. However, at one time it seems that the “emotions” are just programmed responses and he doesn’t even understand them. Unfortunately, this isn’t explored further.

Megan is a workaholic but she has great taste in books; at one point she reads Lois McMaster Bujold’s Civil Campaign! She’s somewhat uncomfortable because she works for the military in order to give them, essentially, self-aware people who are stronger, smarter, and quicker than humans and yet they aren’t going to be given the same rights as humans to choose what to do with their lives. She wants androids to be given those rights, too.

Raj is very eccentric; apparently his mind works in different ways than most humans which makes him hard to understand. Also, he had a tough childhood which made him even more wary of people. Robots he understands and loves to work with them.

Most of the book has an action plot so musings about the android’s self-awareness isn’t the main thing and it could have been explored further. It also has a strong (and obvious) romance plot complete with a triangle which I didn’t care for.

One of the Fairy Tale series of books.

Publication year: 1989
Format: print
Page count: 273
Publisher: TOR

This book is a retelling of the fairy tale Snow White and Rose Red. Apparently this is a Grimm story but I’ve never heard it before. It’s available here: http://www.bartleby.com/17/2/42.html . Indeed, the only time I’ve seen Snow White with a sister is in the Fables comics. This isn’t the traditional Snow White tale; no apples, no stepmothers, no unnatural sleep. In the afterword Wrede admits that the Grimm tale is rather disjointed.

The story is set in Elizabethan England and in a small village called Mortlak, near London. It has a couple of historical people, too: the Queen’s astrologer John Dee and his associate Edward Kelly. The characters also speak in Elizabethan English which seems to trouble some readers quite a lot.

The story has four group of people, working at cross-purposes and mostly ignorant of each other. Two of them are fairies and two mortals. The poor Widow Arden has two daughters, Blanche also called Snow White and Rosamund also called Rose Red. The Widow knows some magic and uses herbs gathered from Faerie lands to make medicines for the villagers. The girls gather the herbs from the forest near the lands of Faerie. Dee and Kelly are sorcerers and intent on getting power from the Fairies. To do that, they prepare a crystal and cast a spell in the All Hallows Night. By accident the two girls see them. But the mixing of mortal and faerie magic has unintended consequences.

The Queen of the Faerie has two half mortal sons. The older one is John whom his father baptized so he has a greater affinity with mortals. Even though he lives in Faerie, he often travels among the humans. The younger is Hugh who takes after his mother who loves him dearly.

A group of human hating faeries know about Dee and Kelly. The three faeries plan to use the sorcerers for their own ends but fail. The spell the two wizards cast, captures part of Hugh’s essence. The poor man starts to transform into a beast and is banished from Faerie. His brother tries to find some way to help him while the evil faeries scheme to separate Faerie from the mortal world forever.

Each chapter starts with a short excerpt from the original tale so it’s easy to compare them. The characters are little flat but that could be from the shortness of the book and from the general fairy tale qualities. Also, The Widow constantly berates her daughters when they show even a little bit of personality. Still, Blanche is timider and quieter than her sister who even (gasp!) talks back to males. Dee is more interested in doing good with his magical abilities while Kelly wants to escape his creditors and get power for himself. John is desperate to help his brother. And there’s a young faery, Robin, who steals every scene he’s in.

This was a fun little book. The evil faeries were very menacing and there’s mystery, danger, inevitable romances, and a happy ending. An excellent retelling which captures the feeling of a fairy tale.

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