November 2017

The sixth collection of Busiek’s superhero comics, issues 1-4 of Book one and 1-4 of Book two. It doesn’t require reading the previous collections.

Writer: Kurt Busiek
Artist: Brent Eric Anderson

This is the tale of two brothers who were both greatly influenced by the superheroes and villains around them as well as the social upheaval in 1970s. They’re black and seeing a black superhero had profound impact. Also, an incident which killed their parents when they were young, was also very influential, of course. But that is shown to us slower over the first issues

The comic is divided into two books and both have several storylines. One follows the brothers’ lives and the other shows us the various heroes and what little we see of their adventures.

When they grow up, Charles becomes a police officer who tries to save and help people, especially in the devastating wake of the battles between super groups. But Royal becomes a petty criminal, taking advantage of people in any way he can. Neither of them likes superheroes much; they both cope in their own way with the disasters the heroes (inadvertently) bring to the human bystanders.

In the first book, the other storyline tells us the tale of Silver Agent who appears to have been one of the first superheroes. He’s caught on camera killing a foreign head of state as well as a few US soldiers. The book is set in 1972, so this incident throws the Vietnam peace talks into chaos and the US government arrests the Silver agent. Watergate and the peace talks color people’s perception of super heroes who make ordinary people, as especially their leaders, feel powerless and therefore resentful.

The second book is set in 1977 during a war between various mobster gang in Astro City. Royal gets a chance to climb the mobster ranks and Charles’ integrity gets a mighty blow when he finds out about police corruption.

The superheroes are also grittier. Some of the new heroes kill ordinary criminals, something that the previous wave of heroes didn’t do. The super hero storyline follows Street Angel and his new partner Black Velvet. Street Angel transforms into far more violent hero and Black Velvet can actually rip out people’s souls, so she’s violent to start with. Also, a new superpowered being hunts and kills ordinary criminals. People start to wonder just what is the difference between heroes and villains.

This isn’t a self-contained album, though. The brothers’ tale will continue in the next collection: book 7, Brothers in Arms.
Astro City showcases superheroes in a more ordinary setting than usual. They’re seen through the eyes of normal people who often don’t know what’s going on and are still victims of various large-scale attacks. Their attitude also changes with times and events. Nixon turns attention from Watergate to Silver Agent’s trial and the racial tensions are seen also among the heroes because there are very few non-white heroes and also very few female heroes, usually just one in a team. (yes, I know this book’s style deliberately first shows us the heroes of 60s and then 70s. But we did get Storm and Ms. Marvel in the seventies and I miss heroines like them. Maybe in the next book… Then again, we do get glimpses of several white female heroines while there seems to be only two black heroes in the whole story.) It was fun to compare the idealistic 60s heroes with the “tougher” (seeming) revenge based 70s heroes, though.

Personally, I tend to enjoy the four-color comics more, especially when they have more female and non-white characters. But this is very ambitious and well-told tale of grittier superheroing than usual.

Definitely recommended for people who want more realism in superhero stories.

The first book in a science fiction series but can be read as a stand-alone.

Publication year: 2016
Format: ebook, kindle
Publisher: Parvus Press

Victoria Marlin is the captain of a privateer starship Condor. She and her crew of vultures (as they call themselves) has the task of capturing alien technology from starships crippled in battle (or I assume by accidents but that seems to be very rare). United Earth is the newest player in the very crowed space and it’s also one of the smallest, so they want to get every edge they can get.

Marlin hadn’t had much luck in many months when they suddenly pick up a distress call from a ship which belongs to one of the Big Three alien species: the Malagath. They head for that ship, hoping for a good catch but get more than they bargained for because the commander of the ship is still alive with a handful of his followers. The First Prince Tavram is disdainful of all the lesser races but wants to survive. Trouble is that his enemy is still in ruthless pursuit, and Marlin and her crew will have to use every trick they have to stay alive.

I enjoyed this book very much. It’s fast-paced with multiple POV characters in a very interesting setting. Earth is a definite underdog in space and it’s trying to get their hands on alien tech whenever they can. Humans have spread to many planets but apparently need friendly aliens to vouch for them. But humans have a couple of aces up their sleeves and they’re using every chance they get.

Marlin is a hard-drinking and cursing captain who still has a strong streak of honor. She’s also eager to bed any good looking human man, no matter if he’s married or not. She pushes her crew hard, but she also does everything she can to keep them alive and safe. She doesn’t get much support from United Earth itself. However, she has good relations with a few alien races who deal with the humans regularly. She’s also made one race an enemy, as well.

First Prince and his enemy Best Wishes are also POV characters and it’s very interesting to see the humans from their POV. They are part of very big and powerful empires and know it. However, the First Prince is a bit of an anomaly among his kind and so is Best Wishes, so they also have enemies among their own kind.

We also get other POV characters, as the story unfolds. One of them is a marine who has become an engineer. However, the characterization was rather light except for the First Prince and Best Wishes. Ironically, I don’t know if they’re going make another appearance.

Still, an interesting crew and a fast-paced story.

A novella in the Diving universe sci-fi series. Set before the series started.

Publication year: 2014
Format: Audio
Running time: 2 and 21 minutes
Narrator: Flora Plumb

Tory Sabin is the captain of the anacapa space ship Geneva. She’s extremely capable and she knows the dangers of the anacapa drive personally: when she was young, her father disappeared into the fold space with his ship.

When Sabin hears the distress call from captain Jonathan “Coop” Cooper from the Ivoire, she knows that he’s in real trouble. Coop is very reluctant to ask for help. She whips the other captains into helping Coop but they arrive just in time to see strange smaller ships firing on the Ivoire which then slips into the fold space. And doesn’t return.

Sabin is a driven character. For many years, she was focused on finding her father and became a fold space specialist because of it. Now, she’s a captain and extremely good with that.

This was a great novella, set among the Fleet. We get to know more about the Fleet itself and about Coop’s background. It’s very short and focused on Sabin’s story.

The sixth book in the Diving universe sci-fi series.

Publication year: 2017
Format: Audio
Running time: 4 and 57 minutes
Narrators: Jennifer Van Dyck

Boss and her crew are exploring the Boneyards, the graveyard of ships which the Fleet left behind years, maybe hundreds of years ago. Many, if not all, of the ships have the dangerous anacapa drives. She and her team are diving one of the ships when they realize that one of the drives on a nearby ships is still in operation. Anacapa drives are unpredictable and this one affects Boss herself and one of the crew very badly. Still, the crew needs to find out more.

As in the previous books focusing on Boss, this book is written in the first person and present tense, which adds to the tension and immediacy of the story. It has a lot of tensions between the crew and highly experienced people trying to anticipate problems. Both are things I really enjoy in this series.

On the other hand, if you’ve read the previous book in the series (the Falls) you already know what the runabout it, so the story has less surprises than in previous books. Still, it was great to return to Boss and her crew. It’s clear that the series will continue and I’m looking forward to their further adventures.

Boss is a very independent character: in the first book she works alone and very reluctantly hires others only when absolutely necessary. Now, she’s the leader of this team and she’s still sometimes rather uncomfortable with all that.

Other reviewers have remarked that it’s possible to start with this book, but personally I recommend starting with the first one “Diving into the Wreck”.

The first book in an epic fantasy series.
I received an ARC copy of The Hidden Face to review.

Publication year: 2017
Format: ebook, kindle
Publisher: the Hive
Page count: 403 at GoodReads, including an excerpt of a prequel

Dayraven is the son of Faustia’s hero Urland who has killed when Dayraven was only six years old. Because his mother was also dead, he was a ward of the emperor. In order to ensure peace, he’s given as a hostage to a potential enemy state. Despites promises of quick return, it’s 15 years later when Dayraven is finally summoned back home. He’s now 30 and lived half his life in an enemy nation. His teacher, a Jaelite scholar Halakh, sent him an urgent message to meet at an abandoned temple. After a meeting with the scatterbrained old emperor in the baths, Dayraven hurries to the temple but too late: someone has murdered Halakh. However, Dayraven meets a possible ally: the young woman Sunniva who has disguised herself as a soldier in order to find her missing father. Together, they have to puzzle out the clues that Halakh and Sunniva’s father have left behind.

Dayraven also meets a couple of enemies: a mysterious hunchback and his old childhood tormentor who is now the emperor’s trusted high priest. He and Sunniva have other enemies as well, who want to get the information that the pair knows.

I liked most of the characters and many of the enemies were great. Unfortunately, I rather disliked the femme fatale, who was a cliché character using her looks to manipulate males, and the story has only two named female characters. I also rather enjoyed the clues and puzzles in the book. The book has several POV characters, most of them bad guys.

Dayraven seems quite a thoughtful fellow. He doesn’t rush into anything, but rather ponders things. This is a rather nice change for all the hot-headed heroes in many books. However, he’s still a great swordsman.

Sunniva is a warrior and an archeologist and something of an architect as well, because her father taught her those things. However, her father has disappeared, and she disguises herself as a soldier to look for him. Unfortunately, men have to rescue her several times in the book.

One of the most unique characters in the book is the Twister who is a hunchback and quite possibly a madman. He’s a character who can change sides depending on his whims and his unpredictably was great. Another character, a mercenary, was also interesting.

There’s also an obligatory romance and that’s how it felt to me rather than an actual attraction between characters.

The world-building was very interesting. The Faustian Empire feels to me like a Roman Empire -type setting because of the baths and the wax tablets that people use. The Jaelites are apparently modeled after Jewish people, especially considering that they use mystical numbers and writing reminiscent of Kabbalah. There are other cultures as well, but we aren’t shown much of them.

The Hidden Face is a sun god type of deity who is hidden most of the time. But when he (or she) shows his face, or manifests among people, one culture will rise to prominence. This happens every 500 years or so. Not surprisingly, people want to know where the Hidden Face will next manifest and know or even manipulate the events that will follow. The finding of the Hidden Face is the central mystery of the book.

Personally, I would have wanted more details. Now, the cultures feel like sketches which we don’t really know much about. Apparently, women can’t be soldiers because Sunniva has to disguise herself. Yet, she has enough fighting skills that she doesn’t stand out and nobody seem outraged about her disguise, so it doesn’t feel like an enormous taboo.

This is clearly a first book in a series. It doesn’t end in a cliffhanger but the main story is left open at the end.

The fifth book in the fantasy romance series set in the Five Hundred Kingdoms.

Publication year: 2010
Format: Audio
Running time: 11 and 5 minutes
Narrators: Gabra Zackman

Princess Rosamund has just turned 16 and is the sole heir for her father the king of Eltaria. She also knows about the Tradition, which is the power of the fairy tales who steer people into the most, well, traditional paths. Her mother has died recently and she knows that according to Tradition, her father will now marry an evil woman who will hunt down Rosa. So, she runs away. But she’s chased by a murderous huntsman and her fragile plans to out the window. She manages to evade the huntsman but foolhardily promises to seven dwarves to do anything they want in exchange for a place to stay. But these dwarves are mean and evil: they keep Rosa as a slave and expect her to cook, clean, mend, and do everything else too, in exchange for a bit of food and a sleeping place in the kitchen. She’s close to desperation because they’ve chained her to the little, dirty cottage.

She also doesn’t know that the local fairy godmother Lilly already had a plan. She and the king realized the path that the Tradition was likely to take. So, they decide to side-step the Tradition’s demands: Lilly will impersonate an evil sorceress and wed the king. They hastily do that because war is near and the king is forced to go out and defend the kingdom. However, they haven’t told anything about this to Rosa. Lilly manages to find her with her magic mirror and devises a plan to get Rosa away from the dwarves. That plan involves making Rosa appear dead magically and then revive her magically.

However, unbeknownst to Lily or Rosa two princes are nearby. One of them is Siegfried, a Northern prince and a demi-god who grew up with his extended family of gods, goddesses and demi-deities. He’s a sell-sword hero trying to escape his doom: a maiden sleeping in the middle of flames who needs to be kissed awake. That maiden may also be his half-aunt or something… The other is prince Leopold who is more of a roughish prince who laughs and jokes often. He also gambles a lot.

This book mixes up Snow White with a little bit of Sleeping Beauty and a big dose of the Ring of the Nibelung. The beginning was more fun, though, the string of contests for the princes, which takes up most of the book, were fun, too, and riff on the traditional contests in fairy tales, of course.

Like all the other princesses in this series, Rose is quite level-headed. Her mother was a shepherdess and she taught her daughter a lot of useful skills. Lilly has been a godmother for 300 years so she’s also very capable. She has a close friendship with her loyal mirror servant Jimson. Siegfried was also great fun and so was Leopold and their friendship. Not the best of the series for me but quite enjoyable. I’d also love to see the further adventures of the main couple.

I’ve really enjoyed Gabra Zackman’s unhurried narration in this series and this book was no exception.

The next, and the last, book is Beauty and the Werewolf. I might track down the Snow Queen at some point, which is not available through Audible.

The first book in the Eternal sky fantasy trilogy.

Publication year: 2012
Format: print
Publisher: Tor
Page count: 334+ an excerpt of the next book

This series is set in a Mongol-type culture. However, the book has a lot of traveling and introduces us to other cultures as well, Middle Eastern and a couple of others.

Temur is the grandson of the Great Khagan who conquered large parts of the world around the steppe. However, the Khagan has died and his sons and nephews are now fighting over who will rule. They’ve also brought each their own tribes to war. Temur followed her brother to war and at the start of the book, he is all that’s left of the mighty armies. Alone and severely wounded, he still manages to live and even find a loyal horse, the magnificent mare whom he names Bansh (dumpling).

He finds groups of fleeing civilians, mostly women and children, and managed to tangentially attach himself to one such group because he can guard and hunt a little. One of the young women, Edene, develops an interest to him and they become lovers. However, because Temur’s family is dead, she can’t marry him. After a few weeks, a group of ghosts attacks. They kill some before Edene realizes that they are vulnerable to salt. However, the ghosts capture Edene and carry her off. Temur vows to return her and heads to a city where he thinks he can get help, Qeshqer, which is beyond the Range of Ghosts mountain range.

In far Tsarepheth Samarkar, who was once a princess, makes ready to become a wizard. Because wizards aren’t allowed to procreate, she has been neutered but survived the process. She doesn’t know if she has magical talent and if not, she can become a scholar or something else. But when her magical talent comes to her, she has a lot to learn and she must investigate what is happening in Qeshqer. She and her teacher, who not a lot of about magic but doesn’t have magical talent herself, are sent through the mountain range to the city.

Meanwhile, the head of the cult of the Nameless is planning to further his plans and begin a war. He will use his own assassins, his giant rokh birds, and of course the ghosts to shape the world into what he wants it to be.

The world-building here is just wonderful. People are from somewhat different cultures, with different languages, and different values. The sky is different depending on the dominant culture of the land. Great!

The book has two kinds of magic. Samarkar uses one kind. Apparently she herself powers it. The main villain uses other people’s death and blood to use magic.

Temur is actually something of a cliché but a well-used one: young, an orphan, related to kings, a warrior with a quest. He’s a very capable man, loves horses and tends them before himself. The horses are also a big part of this book which was great.

Samarkar is somewhat different. She’s been trained in court, in the middle of intrigue and was sent as a bride when she was 15 (I think). Her marriage was not horrible but it wasn’t wonderful either, and ended when she asks her brother to kill her husband. She wants to be free of court and not anyone’s pawn. The only way to do that is to become a wizard. However, she still has to do as her masters bid her so she’s not free. She can change substances, conjure things (like make water from the moisture in the air), and she knows healing plant.

They are joined by other people later in the book. I found the tiger-like magical person to be the most interesting one of the lot. They are all very capable and work well together even after just a short time.

The book doesn’t have a conclusion. It just ends and with a twist that will no doubt influence the rest of the series.

Back in 2014, Nathan Barnhart created a weekly feature called ‘Tough Travels’, which he hosted over on Fantasy Review Barn. Inspired by The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones – a tongue-in-cheek parody of the fantasy genre – it would spotlight a different trope every week, and invite other bloggers to compile their own lists of examples. Despite being put to rest eighty-three (83!) weeks later, ‘Tough Travels’ was widely successful, with over fifty blogs participating at one time or another. On April 1, 2017, Fantasy-Faction received Nathan’s permission to revive Tough Travels once more…

This week the topic is mentors!

A Mentor will be at your service until around halfway through the tour of Fantasyland, when you will unaccountably lose him. Before that he will guide you, tell you what to do in the face of strange customs, and even sometimes instruct you in how to perform minor MAGICS. The Tough Guide suggests that the mentor will be several hundred years old, probably with a long white beard, which will give him the right to be bossy, smug, tiresomely philosophical and infuriatingly secretive about all-important facts.

As Archtypes go, a mentor to the main character is pretty old and they can be found in many, many movies, books, comics, and pretty much in every format stories are told.

While Merlin didn’t teach magic to young Arthur, he does teach the boy a lot of things. And keeps secrets, as well.

He also doesn’t teach magic. Rather he gives moral guidance and steers the Fellowship to the right road.

She takes on various guises in different tales to lead the hero for a little while or tell him something important and then vanishes.

Granny Weatherwax
Another mentor who doesn’t teach magic, as such, but rather imparts headology.

Miss Havisham by Jasper Fford
In the Thursday Next, miss Havisham (yes, from Dickens) is an older and more experienced agent and she takes Thursday under her wing.

Comics have a lot of these types:
Professor Charles Xavier
Perhaps the most iconic of the comics mentor types, Xavier gathers young mutants and teaches them to use their powers. He also teaches them want peaceful co-existence with humans.

The Ancient One
A very powerful and old magician, mentor to Dr. Strange.

Perhaps surprisingly the former lone wolf Logan has been the teacher and guide for several younger mutants: Kitty Pryde, Rogue, Jubilee, and others.

Another character who is also a loner but who has taught a lot of people.

Daredevil’s mentor.

And I couldn’t end this list without one of my favorite mentors ever: Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Enterprise-D and E.