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REVIEW: I Kill Giants

[This touching, character-driven graphic novel is a C4 Great Read.]

Writer: Joe Kellyi kill giants

Artist: JM Ken Niimura

2014, Image

Filed Under: Graphic Novel, Literary, Fantasy

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 9
Art...... 8

I think it might be more difficult for graphic novels to walk the line between the poignant and the maudlin than other media. Or maybe it’s just not something most of us have come to expect from “comics,” even those of us reared on Calvin & Hobbes. They tend to either be primarily fun, or stylish, or serious, or whatever else. My favorite stories are those, like Calvin & Hobbes, that blur the lines between imagination and reality, and if they can push the emotional envelope at the same time–without going too far toward the aforementioned maudlin or shlocky–then I’m enamored.

I Kill Giants is about a young girl named Barbara whose imagination and role playing takes over her waking life. Obsessed with protecting her home from fearsome giants and titans, she sets traps on the nearby beach and carries around in a heart-shaped handbag a tiny rock hammer which she believes capable of transmogrifying into a mighty war hammer (which she has christened Coveleski, after an obscure Phillies pitcher nicknamed “The Giant Killer”).

Barbara wears rabbit ears to school, and prides herself on being a ruthless Dungeons and Dragons dungeon master. She has friends but none particularly close, and so when a friendship buds with the her new neighbor (who is, by default, not a social outcast, and by experience not much of a geek like Barbara), Barbara struggles to know exactly how to approach the relationship. Bullies hound Barbara, and even when her new friend comes to her aid, or the school psychologist offers her authentic compassion, Barbara struggles to concede any real trust in another person.


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REVIEW: The Red Knight

red-knightAuthor: Miles Cameron

2012, Gollancz

Filed under: Fantasy

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 7

[This review contains mild spoilers regarding the premise of the novel.]

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted a review, mainly because I’ve been run ragged working on my new business, Ruskin Woodshop. I have been reading, though, or at least listening to audiobooks while I work. I mentioned my bang-for-the-buck audiobook buying system in my review of Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, which, like The Red Knight, is an epic fantasy novel that I bought primarily because it was long and cheap.

The Way of Kings was an amazing book, and led me to believe that I’d been missing something by not reading fantasy since my dabblings with The Sword of Shannara in seventh grade. As it turns out, I wasn’t. I’ve listened to a handful of other, highly touted fantasy novels in the months between The Way of Kings and now, but none of them have delivered the same punch.
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REVIEW: Words of Radiance

[This high fantasy novel is the latest C4 Great Read. Find the first book in the series here.]

words-of-radiance

Author: Brandon Sanderson

2014, Tor

Filed under: Fantasy

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 10
Depth..... 8

[This review is entirely spoiler-free. Maybe even to a fault.]

I picked up The Way of Kings, the first book in this series, almost at random, looking for a long audiobook. The Way of Kings clocked in at over 45 hours, and after finishing it, I pre-ordered Words of Radiance, and when it came out earlier this month, I ripped through all 48 hours in eighteen days.

Sanderson is a rare talent, and this series is a rare accomplishment even for him—I’ve read the first books of two of his other series, and they don’t compare. In short, I’d recommend this book to just about anybody, but especially to those who like Game of Thrones, or Lord of the Rings, or any other epic fantasy. 
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REVIEW: The Way of Kings

[This elaborate high fantasy is a C4 Great Read.]

way-of-kingsAuthor: Brandon Sanderson

2010, Tor

Filed under: Fantasy

This review refers to the audiobook version of the novel.

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 8
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 9

I don’t read too much high fantasy these days. As a teenager, I read the first few books of the Shannara series, and the first four or so of the Wheel of Time series (which, coincidentally, was finished recently by Brandon Sanderson after the original author’s death). My favorite part of these kinds of books tends to be the initial flush of world-building, and I got bored with the endless twists, reversals, false climaxes, and protracted meanderings that tend to plague these books after their worlds are well established.

In the Shannara books, I vaguely remember, the main character saves the world, then has to save the universe in the next book, because each false climax much also be more dramatic than the last. Which is not to say that they aren’t still great books, just that I tend to tire of the formula after a few volumes.

I started listening to this audiobook not because of a desire to find another fantasy series (it’s projected to be ten novels long, each weighing in at a thousand pages or more), but because I’m doing a lot of woodworking lately, and I need more than podcasts and radio stations in my ears. I signed up for Audible and I’ve been using the bang-for-your-buck shopping model (with mixed results, I’m quagmired a quarter through the 29-hour version of Booker prize-winning The Luminaries), and I’ve discovered that fantasy novels offer a ton of bang for your buck.

So I waded into The Way of Kings having only heard a couple of tidbits about Sanderson and his massive books. I found exactly what I was looking for: a well-rendered world with enough drive to keep me invested in the story over the course of tens of hours, and enough entertainment that I enjoyed all those hours along the way.
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REVIEW: Divergent

divergentAuthor: Veronica Roth

2011, Katherine Tegen Books

Filed under: Fantasy, Young Adult

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 5
Entertainment..... 9
Depth..... 4

I remember when this book came out, back in 2011. The bookstore I worked at, at the time, got an advance copy and I looked it over briefly. In a dystopian future, a young girl coming of age (Tris) must choose which of five factions she belongs to (and hence which quality she values or sees most in herself): Abengation (selflessness); Candor (honesty); Erudite (intelligence); Dauntless (courage); or Amity (friendliness). But since she’s “Divergent,” this choosing process won’t go smoothly, and later there’s a big fight.

It sounded like the world’s most obvious metaphor for teenage identity crisis, and the cover, featuring a big burning Mockingjay-esque symbol, handily informed you that it was a blatant Hunger Games ripoff. I declined to read it, and in the intervening two and a half years, it’s become the most popular series in the world. The final volume in the trilogy, just released last month, set a record in first-day sales for its publisher, HarperCollins. My question is simple: why is this series so popular?

I’m going to try to figure that out, by reviewing all three Divergent books with an eye toward the greater YA craze. 
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REVIEW: Basewood

Author: Alec Longstrethbasewood

2013, Phase 7

Filed Under: Graphic Novels, Fantasy, Short-Run

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 6
Art.... 9

Here’s yet another Kickstarter graphic novel I backed. Once again, I’m very pleased with the results. Basewood is a compilation of a comics miniseries written and drawn by one artist.

It opens with an amnesiac waking in a forest, with a gash in his head and a shoe missing. He dresses his wounds and follows a friendly dog to the outskirts of the forest, where he marvels at the vast cliffs that tower over the forest. When he sets up camp in the field at the forests’ edge, the dog runs off. For help, it turns out; a giant dragon attacks the man and destroys his camp. Only by the intervention of a old guy named Argus (the dog’s master) do they escape the onslaught.

The man moves in with Argus in a sweet treehouse in the forest, where the monster doesn’t attack. They settle into a pretty nice life, but as he learns more of Argus’s past, and pieces together more about his own situation, he eventually determines to set out on a search for who he is and where he came from, even if it means facing the monster alone.


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REVIEW: Kingdom of the Wicked

Authors: Ian Edginton and D’Israeliwicked kingdom

2004, Dark Horse Books

Filed Under: Graphic Novel, Fantasy, Horror

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 6
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 7
Art.... 9

After reading to the prologue to this slim graphic novel in Titan’s Monster Massacre anthology, I ordered Kingdom of the Wicked right away. That excerpt hit such a perfectly grotesque balance of menace and whimsy that I knew this book would be for me. And while that prologue is still the standout segment of the book, Edginton and D’Israeli’s twisted fantasy most certainly lived up to my expectations.

The story splits its time between the real world and the fantasy world of Castrovalva we are introduced to in the prologue. Chris Grahame is a wildly successful children’s books author. Castrovalva is the fantasy world he invented as a child, and has since more or less forgotten. Chris starts getting crippling migraines, headaches so bad he blacks out in pain. Soon these migraines induce vivid hallucinations in which Chris is transported back to Castrovalva, only to find his former fantasy escape in ruin, besieged by years of war waged against a ruthless despot who goes by The Dictator.
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REVIEW: Monster Massacre

Monster-Massacre-vol-1_web.jpg.size-600Editor: Dave Elliot

2013, Titan Comics

Filed Under: Graphic Novel, Fantasy, Horror

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 5
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 5
Art... 8

The cover of this anthology doesn’t do the best job of conveying the book’s contents. It reminds me of the cover of an angry electro album I listened to in high school. While plenty of the work in here is muscly “babes and monsters” artwork reminiscent of Heavy Metal–which is something I’m not particularly interested in reading–there are also some quirky stories and plenty of instances of the downright grotesque.

The list of contributors to this volume is a regular who’s-who of comic artists (or so I’m told). Indeed the opening selection, and one of the best storylines on offer here, is by comic patron saints Jacky Kirby and Joe Simon (the inspirations for Chabon’s Kavalier & Clay). It tells of a mysterious “angel of death” terrorizing a French village and the doctor who uncovers the angel’s true identity–a prehistoric predatory insect somehow preserved beneath the earth in the town’s outskirts.
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REVIEW: Lexicon

Author: Max Barry

2013, Penguin Press

Filed under: Thriller, Fantasy, Sci-Fi

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 6
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 7

Max Barry’s last novel, Machine Man, was one of my favorite books of 2011, and while I tried not to expect another favorite book, I was still pretty disappointed by his return to boring cookie-cutter thriller writing in this latest work.

Lexicon’s in-vogue premise—young magicians gone awry—has already been played to death in recent years, since it’s the obvious counterpoint to the Harry Potter phenomenon. And though I’d rather read a Barry thriller than a Ludlum, Barry’s prose alone isn’t good enough to make a book great. Machine Man reached excellence because it focused on a unique (and very funny) character. Lexicon’s characters are neither unique nor funny. They’re barely even rememberable, partly because Barry’s plot devices actually force them to be as boring as possible. There’s simply not enough here to make this better than slightly above average.
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REVIEW: A Once Crowded Sky

Author: Tom King

2012, Touchstone

Filed under: Fantasy, Graphic Novel

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 5
Entertainment..... 6
Depth..... 5

Superhero fiction, as a genre, has flourished in nearly every storytelling medium except prose novels. Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in the spring 1938, and by 1940 there was already a radio program featuring the character, with film serials, cartoons, and television shows to follow. A novel, The Adventures of Superman did appear in 1942, but it would be another 30 years before the next one, Elliott Maggin’s The Last Son of Krypton (though it’s worth noting that superhero progenitors like the Shadow and the Spider first appeared in serialized pulp novels).

There have been several prose novels featuring Marvel and DC characters in the years since, but few stories featuring original characters, particularly in comparison to the glut of movies, live-action TV shows, and cartoons that introduced their own characters and mythologies apart from those owned by the dominant comic book publishers. The reasons aren’t difficult to piece together – superheroes were born in a visual medium, and so bright colors and dynamic action are essential to the genre. Which isn’t to say that a writer couldn’t simply describe a character’s costume, or the burst of energy exploding from a gauntlet, but the impact is somewhat muted in contrast to seeing the same thing rendered by Jack Kirby, or Wally Wood, or Frank Quitely. Novels about established characters work because we know what Superman and Batman look like and aren’t called on to invent so much – the world is established, and these are just more stories to populate it.

Debut novelist Tom King addresses that mismatch in A Once Crowded Sky by having comics veteran Tom Fowler draw comic book pages that illustrate key moments in the characters’ pasts. The pages serve as the prologue and appear at the end of each section, the artifacts of a would-be comic book world. Fowler is in fine form – his clean, bold line work recalls Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez’s era-defining work for DC in the 70s. And the character designs are like little museums of genre history, rich with signifiers that anyone who’s ever enjoyed a superhero comic can decipher. In the hands of a lesser artist it could all feel like a distracting gimmick, but Fowler makes the art necessary to the experience of the novel, even crucial to the plot at times.
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