Saturday, March 3, 2018

Descender Volume 5: Rise of the Robots (Jeff Lemire)

Descender Volume 5: Rise of the Robots
The Descender series, Issues 22 - 26
Jeff Lemire, illustrations by Dustin Nguyen
Image Comics
Fiction, Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: The ocean planet Mata has long been disregarded, a world without significant land mass or intelligent life - yet it is here that every path seems to lead. It is here where the last surviving ancient robot and Guon's former teacher have found sanctuary... and here where the mystery of the Harvesters might be solved.
It is also here that the forces of Hardwire, the UGC battle fleet, and Andy's ragtag crew will confront each other, even as Hardwire unleashes their fleet of battle robots and wakens sleeper agents across the Megacosm.
At the heart of the conflict remains the childlike companion robot Tim-21, who may be the key to galactic salvation - or destruction.

REVIEW: I get a feeling that the next volume will probably be the last. Appropriately, this one raises the stakes to galaxy-shaking levels, moving all the pieces into place for the upcoming climax and (presumed) grand finale. Many questions remain, but I'm confident that answers will be forthcoming... and can hardly wait for Volume 6 to arrive on Hoopla.

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Descender Volume 4: Orbital Mechanics (Jeff Lemire)

Descender Volume 4: Orbital Mechanics
The Descender series, Issues 17 - 21
Jeff Lemire, illustrated by Dustin Nguyen
Image Comics
Fiction, Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: After being captured by the terrorist robot group Hardwire, Tim-21, his inventor Guon, and UGC operative Telsa manage to escape - or so they believe. Psius, the Hardwire leader, and his "son" Tim-22 have a nasty surprise in store for them as they track down the origins of Guon's inventions, the ancient robot race whose tech he stole.
Meanwhile, ruthless scrapper Andy and his former lover, the half-cyborg Effie, use the robot dog Bandit to track Tim-21 down... only to find themselves in more trouble than they anticipated, complicated when Driller makes a confession about his past and sets out on his own journey of redemption.

REVIEW: The series maintains a fast pace, though I admit I was a little spoiled by the previous deluxe volume; this one seems short by comparison, ending on another cliffhanger with even higher stakes. I'm still enjoying the characters, who are growing in their own directions and all have extra dimensions.

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Monday, February 26, 2018

The Shadow of What Was Lost (James Islington)

The Shadow of What Was Lost
The Licanius Trilogy, Book 1
James Islington
Fiction, Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Twenty years ago, the great Augurs - gifted with foresight and other marvelous abilities - fell from power when their prophecies failed. They were slain by the new king and his Loyalist forces, and their Gifted assistants bound by the Four Tenets of the Treaty. Today, all who wield Essence are marked and taken to the Tols... and those who do not or cannot abide by the strict rules are transformed into Shadows, stripped of power, the lowest of the low. Though it was within the lifetime of many, already the public chooses to forget the days when Augurs and Gifted were honored - and forget, too, the dangers they were meant to guard against, the Boundary to the north they were meant to reinforce.
Davian, Wirr, and Asha were all students at the same Tol, and thought they'd share a similar future... except maybe for Davian. His Essence woke after a brutal attack that left permanent scars - but he hasn't been able to reach it since, despite the lingering mark of the Gifted on his arm. With their trials coming soon, he's sure he'll fail and become another lowly Shadow, but he's too stubborn and honorable to try fleeing. The night before the trials, however, something attacks the school, leaving only the three alive, each set upon a different path to greater destinies than they'd ever dreamed... and greater dangers than they'd ever imagined.

REVIEW: The reviews looked good, and I've been feeling an epic fantasy itch lately, so this seemed like a decent choice. Unfortunately, when the cover reviewers rave how it's perfect for fans of Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, I think they were being too accurate on the former and nowhere near the mark on the latter. This reads very much like the now-dated first book in Jordan's series and other older epic fantasy, with rather generic characters, a male- and white-heavy cast, and the concept of "sprawling epic" kicked over the line into "sprawling mess," not to mention Random Capitalizations of Various People or Things and the return of the wearisome "aesthetic apostrophe," or apostrophes stuck into names and terms to make them look exotic without actually serving a purpose. Add that to an overall sense that I'd read most of it before elsewhere, and I soon realized I was in for one heck of a slog.
Now, I'm not new to the epic fantasy genre. I've read Tolkien, Williams, Martin, and Sanderson, among others. I know such books often take some time to establish a feel, and for names to sort themselves out; that's part of the attraction, the immersion into a full and wonder-filled world. Here, even by the end, I had only mentally sorted about half of the many names, places, eras, entities, and terms Islington threw at me and evidently expected me to keep straight. Too many were brought up with minimal relevance to the plot or the characters, and too many had a similar feel, meaning I had to constantly hold myself up trying to remember if a particular name was someone new or someone I should remember, or even whether they were a person or a place or a city - and even then it wasn't always clear. The capital city has about three different terms to describe various parts of it, all of which tended to be adrift in mental white space for lack of orientation. It was all very distancing, especially as Islington works hard to clutter the plot with glimpses of new tidbits and yet another race or character or ability or twists that were meant to be intriguing. Oh, and there's an unsubtle religion insertion that kicks in roughly halfway through. And the titular "Licanius"? It barely even appears in the storyline, and though it's evidently important enough to name the trilogy after, I still couldn't tell you its significance beyond an overhyped, underused Macguffin. This is what ultimately cost it a half-star; I should not have been that lost that far into the story. (Well, that and too many said-bookisms and other style irritants that just got under my skin after a while... and if that kind of thing's bugging me, something's clearly gone wrong with my suspension of disbelief.)
That said, there are a few nice ideas and scenes glimmering here and there, and some potentially intriguing characters. There are, unfortunately, many more ideas, scenes, and characters that feel stripped from other fantasy works with the serial runes barely filed down. While many people evidently liked it, and I suspect things pick up in future volumes, this simply failed to provide the immersive epic fantasy experience I'd been looking for, and my reading pile's too deep (not to mention my interest level too low, and confusion level too high) to pursue this trilogy.

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The Sword of Shannara (Terry Brooks) - My Review
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Sunday, February 25, 2018

Descender: The Deluxe Edition Volume 1 (Jeff Lemire)

Descender: The Deluxe Edition Volume 1
The Descender series, Issues 1 - 16
Jeff Lemire, illustrations by Dustin Nguyen
Image Comics
Fiction, Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: The United Galactic Council used to bring order - or a reasonable cross-species facsimile thereof - to the Megacosm of inhabited worlds... until the day the Harvesters arrived. The massive robots appeared above the nine core UGC worlds mysteriously, and brought untold destruction. Afterwards, most sentients turned on the robots in their midst, giving rise to scrapper bounty hunters and anti-robot cults. Even the most benign of machines found themselves hunted, sent into death arenas or hurled, still active, into melting pits. Meanwhile, the UGC still reels and crumbles, while the violently luddite Gnishian empire grows bolder.
Tim-21 was built as a companion for the boy Andy on a remote mining world. When the Harvesters struck, he was "asleep" - powered down - and left behind. He "wakes" a decade later, alone among corpses... save for Bandit, a robot "dog", and Driller, a relic mining machine with no love for the living. His attempts to find out what happened to Andy alert scrappers to his existence - and alert the UGC to his survival. They've become very interested in the Tim line of robots, ever since their mechanical "fingerprints" were matched to the Harvesters. Did they bring the death machines to the Megacosm... and will a Tim unit bring them back to finish the devastation they started?
This deluxe edition includes issues 1 - 16 of the Descender series, plus bonus cover art.

REVIEW: The exploration of artificial life has been fertile soil for storytellers since before Mary Shelly unleashed Frankenstein's creature on the literary world. These explorations vary in depth and success. Descender counts as a strong success.
Tim-21 straddles a line between machine and human; he is aware of his own artificial nature and programming, aware that much of what he does and says is the result of his inventor, yet his adaptations and exposure to people (good and bad) make him something more, if not quite human then no longer quite machine. Other machines attempt to cope with their nature in their own ways, all disrupted by the Harvesters and subsequent hunting and reacting in different ways. None of them truly aspire to humanity, yet they view their own lives as worthy of preservation, even if they disagree on the worth and best use of that life.
On the living side of the cast are Doctor Guon, once hailed a genius for his work on robotics (particularly the breakthrough Tim line) before being reviled by association, and Telsa, the half-human daughter of the human head of the UGC who has her own reasons for wanting to track down Tim-21, among a host of others. Living or mechanical (or somewhere between), all have deeper characterizations and motivations driving their actions, all scarred to certain degrees... often long before the Harvesters turned the whole galaxy upside down.
With excellent artwork and a fast-paced plot, Descender starts what looks to be an excellent, gritty space opera in a galaxy closer to Mos Eisley than the United Federation of Planets (if I may mix my sci-fi universes.) I look forward to seeing where the tale goes from here... especially if other volumes are also available via Hoopla.

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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Ryan Higa's How To Write Good (Ryan Higa)

Ryan Higa's How To Write Good
Ryan Higa
Little, Brown Books
Nonfiction, YA? Humor/Media Tie-In/Memoir/Writing
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Popular YouTuber Ryan Higa may be the winner of the world's first Nobel Prize for internet videos (not true), but once upon a time he was a bullied preteen misfit struggling to find a reason to live (true.) Here, he presents the story of of his formative years, how he learned to cope with an inherently unfair world and push himself to excellence in unexpected ways, such as sports, comedy, and learning to write good. Or well. Whichever the proofreaders and his ghostwriter companion approve...

REVIEW: I confess I'm not a YouTube connoisseur, more of a light viewer than a binge-watcher or hardcore channel fan. But I saw this book go through the library at work, and it looked fun in the few moments I had to skim it - and, if I'm not much of a YouTube watcher, I am (something of) a writer. So I suppose I'm coming at this one a little backwards. Nevertheless, I've always been of the belief that a media tie-in book ought to stand alone, or it's not a well written book. Thus, despite my lack of familiarity with Higa's work*, I gave it a try.
With humor and frankness, not to mention several illustrated interludes, Higa relates a harrowing tale of childhood alienation and bullying. As someone who went through both and still bears certain mental tics from those days, I could readily relate despite the generational gap. It's not much of a spoiler to say that things did get better - if they hadn't, he probably wouldn't be around to have written this book - though Higa's quite honest about just how useful that "it gets better" advice is to someone going through their own personal hell (read: statistically indistinguishable from zilch.) His illustrated conversations with his ghostwriter and publisher add needed levity, with some surreal details. As for the writing angle, while it's primarily a memoir, there is indeed some talk about how to write a story. On the whole, it's a decent and fast read with some nice humor and a message about hard-won hope. My main complaint is the eBook formatting, which insisted on a locked-in scale and landscape view, not to mention a color screen. Half the benefit of an eBook is the ability to customize font text and choose viewing preferences... but, I digress.
(* - In retrospect, I believe I've seen him in a few older Smosh videos, though I don't watch them much, if at all, anymore. Changing tastes, changing world, and all that...)

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