Tag Archives: Fantasy

Review: Rat Queens Vol. 1 – Sass & Sorcery

Hey Ben, did you read anything over vacation you actually liked? As a matter of fact, yes…

Rat Queens Vol. 1: Sass & Sorcery

RatQueens

Writer – Kurtis J. Weibe, Artist – Roc Upchurch

One might be tempted to classify Rat Queens as a parody of fantasy adventuring stories, but in reality it’s a character-driven exciting world with some familiar tropes. It isn’t a series that takes itself too seriously, but that serves to elevate the more emotional moments when they happen (more in the second volume than this first outing).

As with most Volume 1’s, Sass & Sorcery introduces us to the eponymous Rat Queens: Hannah (a mage), Dee (a healer), Violet (a female dwarf with a shaved beard, their fighter), and Betty (an over-sexed, violent, tiny elf-like thing called a Smidgen). The Queens are a rabble-rousing bunch who’ve gotten in one bar-fight too many, and have been tasked by the town sheriff to take on a quest, or to get their butts out of town. As it turns out this whole thing is just a setup to get the Queens, and a number of other rowdy adventuring troops, all killed. The Queens and remaining survivors of the other groups must track down who’s trying to kill them, while also fighting off a Goblin horde that threatens to destroy the city.

Honorable mention goes to the Vulcan-like Obsidian Darkness whose quest is to clean the toilets in the Winding Pass barracks. Something about this group’s deadpan delivery and complete acceptance of the dirty task made seeing them all killed kind of sad, but in a funny way.

The comic relies a bit heavily on ultra-violence in this early outing, something that tempers as the series goes along, though this is mostly played to comedic effect. Betty skewers a pair of goblin eyes and offers them to Hannah as fresh ingredients. Hannah gets her arm quite realistically crushed by the aforementioned goblin. An assassin is smashed to giblets by a goblin’s hammer. You get the idea.

The final architect of the Rat Queen’s demise is both someone you’d never expect, and yet that makes a certain kind of sense. The comic does a good job of setting up the next arc, providing closure to the events of this volume, while hinting at bigger and multi-legged threats to come.

The character designs are unique and all say something about the individual women that isn’t revealed up front. The dots under Dees eyes may look cool but they mean something too. And what’s with Hannah’s weird hairdo? What does Violet look like with a beard? For answers to these questions you’ll need to read further. Honorable mention also goes to Orc Dave who has blue birds of healing that live in his beard. It looks adorable.

The jokes are funny, there’s effective use of coarse language and in-universe expressions of surprise. The plot is intriguing while still allowing for many character moments and asides. As a first outing this volume is great fun. And it only gets better from here.

(4 Stars | Only because I want you to think the 5 Stars I’m giving Volume 2 actually mean something)

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Review: Birthright Vol. 1 – Homecoming

Birthright Vol. 1: Homecoming

Writer – Joshua Williamson, Artists – Andrei Bressan and Adriano Lucas

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The Rhodes family suffers one of the most unimaginable tragedies, the loss of a son. On his birthday, Mikey Rhodes wanders into the woods and everything falls apart. It’s a year later and the family has split up, destroyed by the toxic thought the Mikey’s father might have killed him. When their son returns in the form of an adult barbarian hero a year later can the family recover and reunite with their son? And what has come back with him?

This book takes the typical fantasy trope of a young boy wandering into a fantasy world only to learn that he is a hero of destiny, and turns it on its head. We do get scenes of Mikey as young boy as he meets his comrades in arms, and the dangers of the new world of Terrenos, ruled by the evil God King Lore. He is an unwilling hero, only wanting to go home, something he learns he can only do if he defeats the evil Lore.

But early on we learn that decades of fighting have taken their toll on Mikey, and his return may not mean that he has returned victorious.

I like Williamson’s honest treatment of how the loss of a child can affect a family, and how different members of the family accept or reject adult Mikey as their son. This part seems a little rushed but needs must for moving the story forward. An offhand remark later in the book I hope hints at some later development, as someone recognizes the jumpy and uneasy look of Mikey as PTSD. For all of the sprawling fantasy landscapes and creatures, this is a book that has humanity at its core.

The fantasy designs are good, but nothing particularly extraordinary. Some of the creatures seem Labyrinth or Dark Crystal inspired, which is appropriate given the subject matter. Mikey’s adult character design serves as contrast to the young boy we see in flashback, and it will be interesting to see how he changes.

Overall, an interesting first outing that hopefully will keep its center on family, while still delivering good fantasy.

(4 stars | Last page of this volume is a shocker)

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Morning Manga Madness

For today’s reviews we’ve got some great indie manga (and a manga inspired web-comic). The material here runs the gamut from manga short stories about the nature of life, to a fantasy involving a girl who fell from the sky (or what’d be like to be the wife of a God). Oh, and talking fishes.

Alive

Writer and Artist – Hajime Taguchi

AliveThe people in Alive often aren’t living, at least not well. From a girl who puts on a pair of glasses that hides everything she hates in the world, only to find that she can’t see anymore, to the woman who feels and is, trapped. The author captures the loneliness of relationships, and sex in particular, quite well, but it’s the fantasy pieces that I think are more worth the effort.

Like a lot of short story collections there are going to be some stories that resonate with you, and others that are mostly forgettable. The two best stories are probably “The Wall” and “The Tower” (Neither of these is the official title, some have them, some don’t but you’ll know the ones I’m talking about).

The first (The Wall) involves a young boy’s quest to climb an insurmountable wall around the world. No one who has ever climbed the wall has come back or lived to tell the tale, including the young boy’s father. This is a simple fable about how the pursuit of a dream can change our perceptions of the world, and how what we think is the end of the journey is often the beginning.

The second notable story is The Tower. A young man who isn’t doing too well at school or at life in general encounters a girl living at the top of their apartment building on a small roof barely the size of my home office. For a few magical days they live above the world in a virtual paradise before the limits of their home finally force them back to Earth. This story might suffer a bit from the fantasy pixie dream girl syndrome, but it’s made up for in its frank depiction of teenage emotions and how sometimes it can seem like such a great fantasy to give up the world.

The art varies. Because of the inconsistent titling and some stories having ambiguous or abrupt endings, it can be a little difficult to tell who is who or if we’ve switched stories. This is more a problem in the early part of the book (once you get used to the author’s beats you can usually pick up the changes). There’s definitely some experimentation with technique ranging from the mundane, an entire story from one perspective at a bar, to more fantastical pieces.

This is not really a very happy book, but there are a few pieces to make you smile, and maybe even a few you can relate to. Fair warning, there is a decent amount of nudity in the middle of this book, and some sexual behaviors you might be uncomfortable with.

(3 Stars | Uneven, but a couple of great stories)

Stones of Power

Writer and Artist – Azumi Isora

StonesOfPowerA young tropical fish expert gets drawn into the mysterious Cafe Renard which sells protective stones that can ward off evil spirits. And they have a couple of fish who have started to talk to him in his dreams. Are they just fish or are they gods who can control the rain and have control over the most powerful of old stones?

This is a pretty straightforward supernatural fantasy story with some amusing elements thrown in when communicating with the fish, and exploring the owner and his sister’s past. As a one off this story leaves a little lacking in terms of development, but as the first volume in what is hopefully a longer series, it is a great kicking off point.

Probably my favorite parts are the analogues between how the man takes care of the fish and their offspring, while at the same time communicating to them in his dreams. And we do have your typical “some things are best left undisturbed” and “you may be a chosen one” kind of tropes here, but that’s kind of to be expected.

The exact nature of the owner and why he’s chosen to ply his trade on a small scale is interesting, and we get a hint of a larger and darker past about which we might learn more in the future.

A good start to a story that could have some legs if the author wants to keep going.

(4 stars | You’ll like this one)

Give to the Heart – Volume 1

Writer and Artist  – Wann

GiveToTheHeartIn a devastated future world there are three demons who live as God among men, controlling the essential elements of life. The most powerful of these is the water king, who can save or drown a nation with little effort. We meet a young woman, Sooyi, who is running from the water king and trying to find a way into the dead city to find an artifact to finally kill the man who destroyed her world, the man who she once loved and who jealously wants to keep her as his wife.

Most of this first volume is focused on the relationship between Sooyi and The Water King. There’s a real thread of dominance here that can go from strong and maybe charming, to downright creepy after a while. While the King restrains himself from just taking Sooyi, it’s clear that he considers it an option. And Sooyi’s ultimate method of escape from the fortress in which he holds her is not without physical or emotional consequences.

Maybe I just take this stuff too seriously. Maybe to someone else this stuff is romantic, but to me he definitely seems like the kind of guy who we’ll be glad if Sooyi ever finds a way to kill him. There’s definitely a focus on effeminate male strength (again possibly a bearded man’s bias). Still a better love story than Twilight, but maybe not by much. Personally I hope Sooyi finds that artifact seeker geeky fellow from the beginning and they have a go at the Dead City. Guess we’ll see in Volume 2.

(3 Stars | A lot of romances are kind of creepy when you think about it)

Makeshift Miracle (Book 2)

Writer – Jim Zub, Artist – Shun Hong Chan

MakeshiftMiracleIf you’re worried about missing out on Book One, or about the slightly steep price-tag for a little over 100 page book, then you’re in luck, since the entire Makeshift Miracle story is available as a webcomic. Actually this version of Makeshift Miracle is a retelling of a web-comic Zub created in the early 2000’s with different artwork.

In the first volume Colby is a teenager who feels disconnected from life and is wandering outside the city when a girl named Iris falls from the sky. They get caught out in a storm, and somehow she is able to teleport them back to his house just by thinking of it. Then there’s a mysterious tree that crops up in the living room, Colby falls into a magical world, and Iris fades away.

In the second half Colby reconnects with Iris in the dream realm, running through the discarded pieces of dreams to try to protect Iris from those who are hunting her down. But the dream world exacts a terrible price on those who ask something of it, and the creatures that serve this world are not all as they appear.

There are so many pages of this that would make great posters for your room, or wallpapers for your computer. The artwork is amazing and evocative. Of particular note are the sky-ships over the desert, the final couple of pages parallels to the first volume, the last page, and the use of grays in lonely moments when color is only around the character. There’s a decent amount of humor, and the ending will definitely surprise you, so I don’t want to give too much away.

The price is a little steep for half the story (I think you could collect the whole run in a single volume for maybe $25 at the most), but having seen the first book out in the wild this is a high quality printing. If you’re not sure, read it online.

(5 stars | Can’t stress enough how great some of these pages are)

~4 down, maybe 20 to go 🙂

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Unexpected Heroes

It can be a little tricky to find a theme for these NetGalley comic book review posts, but the four titles I’m talking about today all have very different sorts of heroes, from wooden boys, to demon hybrids, to a homeless guy. And the President.

Glory – The Complete Saga by Joe Keatinge

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The character of Glory has been around since the early 90s, with treatments by such comic’s luminaries as Alan Moore. She’s kind of a Wonder Woman, meets Thor, meets demon kind of super heroine. The original series ran 22 regular issues with a couple of specials and an Issue #0 by Moore.

The new Image series collected here is issues 23-34 and is intended as an extension of the original series but with significant retooling. For starters the character of Glory has been beefed up and scarred, in contrast to her 90s vivacious appearance.

Old Glory

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New Glory

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Glory has gone into hiding after fleeing to Earth, acting as a super-heroine for a while, then getting hurt and putting all of that aside. She’s found by Riley, a young girl who’s grown up on stories of Glory and finally goes around the world looking for her. She’s drawn up into Glory’s cause, protecting Earth from Demon’s and helping Glory to deal with her past (including a parents who are members of the opposing sides of a war and view Glory as a symbol of piece between them). Along the way there are furry funny sidekicks, an honest to God laser cat, and a badass younger sister.

This story ends better than it began but the first few issues are almost painful. The dialog is predictable and the worst comic book cliche, particularly Glory’s reaction to her mother’s apparent death at the hands of her father. The comic is also pretty violent in spots, with jaws being punched off, and Glory’s arm being torn to pieces at one point.

What redeems the book is Riley, who has the gift of seeing potential futures and sees the dangerous path Glory is on and what will happen if she fails to stop her. The humor picks up with a furry monster companion who collects old cameras and loves a good sandwich press. And yes, the laser cats. The ending is actually kind of sweet and ties the series up nicely, the quality of the book steadily improves as you go along (if you can survive those first few chapters). I could’ve done with a little less naked, brawny, scarred Glory, but that’s me. (3 out of 5)

Letter 44 Vol. 1: Escape Velocity by Charles Soule

letter-44-coverPart political thriller and sci-fi drama, Letter 44 kicks off quickly with its alternate present and never lets go. Stephen Blades enters the oval office shortly after being inaugurated 44th President of the United States to find a letter from his predecessor. Aliens are real and are building something just outside the asteroid belt. The Iraq war was a front for money to be shunted to alternative weapon research, and the construction of a spaceship carrying a crew of nine astronauts on a one way trip to find out what the aliens are doing.

The book splits its action between the first hundred days of President Blades term as he deals with meddling cabinet members, attacks on his chief of staff, and the subtle influence of 43 (not W if you’re wondering but close enough).

The crew meanwhile is dealing with a ship that needs constant maintenance, the loss of one crew member before they even reach their target, the unknown threat of whatever thing the aliens are building out there, and a commander who’s pregnant and doesn’t know which of her crew is the father.

Soule’s writing is taught and the artwork superb. I particularly love the characterizations of each of the crew and the scientists on the ground. A little gratuitous with the sex in space, but what ya gonna do? And the humor keeps everything well-balanced. This one is firing on all cylinders.

I devoured this one and can’t wait for more. I think it is already being developed into a TV series for SyFy and it would be a good fit. Kinda The West Wing meets Alien. (5 out of 5)

Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer by Dusty Higgins

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Full disclosure here, this sounded way too weird not to at least give it a look. I am decidedly not a fan of things like Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, or Jack the Giant Slayer but I like to keep an open mind about NetGalley stuff, and I’m glad I did.

So… vampires killed Pinocchio’s father Geppetto (after all of Pinocchio’s adventures from the Italian version if the story, don’t think Disney) and now his son is out to kill the vampires who took his life. With stakes made from his nose. Which grows when he tells a lie. Hilarity ensues.

This book succeeds where others like it might have failed by being both faithful to its original subject manner, and humorous in its application of the story, particularly in the lies Pinocchio must tell to make his nose grow. He’ll say something badass like “I’m going to kill you all.” His nose grows. “Well, maybe not, but I might at least wound some of you.” Etc.

The black and white artwork is charming and looked great on my Kindle. I like have comics to read on my eReader device (like manga) as the eInk is easier on the eyes than an LCD. This is actually a pretty long epic tale (and the NetGalley version only has about the first half of it) so I can’t wait to get the rest. (5 out of 5)

The Maxx: Maxximized Vol. 1 by Sam Kieth

The Maxx MaxximizedAnother Image Comics classic, this time reprinted by IDW. The Maxx is a superhero who lives in a cardboard box, wears a big garish purple costume with some mean looking teeth, and long yellow claws.

This first volume introduces us to The Maxx as well as his social worker Julie and his enemies Mr. Gone and the toothy black creatures known as the Isz. The Maxx combats these foes not only in the real world of New York city but in the fantasy but potentially real world of “The Outback” where The Maxx is a jungle protector, and Julie is his queen.

While this is another comic subject to exaggerations of the male and female form, it makes up for it with a truly unique hero, and foes to match. Exactly how much of this is mental delusion, or reality is unclear. And it’s kind of sweet the way Julie cares for the big guy, even when he thinks he’s taking care of her. The series ran only about 35 issues or so, so another manageable story to get yourself into. (4 out of 5)

What have you been reading lately?

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Parallel Worlds

At the risk of you guys thinking all I do is read comic books these days, here’s another roundup of NetGalley comic and graphic novel titles. Most of these have a deep science fiction or fantasy bent (which is probably why I enjoyed them a little more than last week’s bunch). Half of these titles I actually knocked back during a power outage at work last week (the third this year, thank you AEP). Hopefully you’ll find something to pass the time while you’re sitting in the dark 🙂

Black Science – Volume 1 by Rick Remender

BlackScience_01_Cover_3rdPrinting_If you’re looking for an action packed imaginative space pulp drama, than this title is for you. Grant McKay has done the impossible, created a device called the Pillar that allows him to punch through the barriers of reality and travel through the eververse (nice alternative to the multiverse). Each time a choice is made a new world springs forth from all the possible options for that choice, adding layers to the onion. At the center of the onion may be the very first being in existence, the one who created the universe.

But McKay and company have no time to worry about that when the pillar is sabotaged and sends them jumping at random intervals into all sorts of parallel worlds. As a narrative technique this gives the author the freedom to do just about anything, and he definitely takes that opportunity. From mecha-indians fighting nazis, to frogs with electric tongues, creatures and cultures of all sorts of imaginative sorts are sprung throughout. And of course other versions of our main characters. And believe me, no one is safe. If Remender keeps killing off characters at the rate he has been so far, the title will only be able to run for about six more issues.

The beginning can be a little tough to get your orientation, especially with a number of female character names thrown at you all at once with their relationships to main character unclear. But with a few helpful flashbacks and a lot of color you can get right on track. I tore through this in a single evening and can’t wait for the next installment. Just pure fun and adventure. (5 out of 5)

Gate-Way: A New World by Joe Halpin Sr.

STK640914Gate-Way reads a lot like a post-apocalyptic novel, though in this case the barren landscape is purgatory rather than a post-nuclear hell-scape. Our main character is an undercover cop who’s killed in a drug bust gone bad. He awakes to find himself and the dealer’s dog in an alley, seemingly unharmed. But soon it becomes apparent that something is wrong when one of the dealers he shot turns into something called a dark soul, with dark black eyes, and an animalistic nature.

The world of purgatory is tough. All of the buildings and supplies pass into that world through the dead (though the exact method of this is unclear). One group has created a city called Hopetown, designed to protect its citizens from the Dark Soul menace, and to find out whether they all are really dead or just somewhere else. Anyone who has committed suicide, or is into drugs, prostitution or unsavory activity is banished from Hopetown out into the wastes, and Hopetown’s opposite city, Freedomtown. Our cop isn’t really interested in becoming a part of any of these communities, just in finding a younger brother who may have passed over after getting in with the wrong people, and finding out more about the dark souls.

The tone is gritty and fast-paced. Every panel is drawn with muted colors. The artist has a decent command of facial expressions and a variety of diverse characters. The architecture all looks grey and brown and busted out, filled with abandoned warehouses, boarded up windows and busted cars. The most redeeming character in the narrative is the dog, who serves as faithful companion and partner to our main character. Otherwise the tone is grim, and likely to get grimmer. Comic books can serve as an escape, or to highlight an important message about something in today’s society. This story seems to do neither, unless the author things that all of humanity is destined to descend into our baser instincts. In short, violent, dark, grim, etc. (2 out of 5)

The Bunker by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Joe Infurnari

cover47107-mediumWhat if you knew that you and your four friends would bring about the end of the world (or at least the deaths of most of its population)? And what if that future had to happen or everyone would die?

That’s the basic premise of The Bunker. A group of five friends goes into the woods to bury a time capsule, only to find a capsule from 15 years in the future, with messages from their early selves telling of them of the path their lives will take, and how each of them will critically shape the world. The letters also reveal secrets each of the friends has been carrying and forces them to confront some of those challenges earlier in life in the hopes of bringing forth a brighter future (though still one in which most people in the world are dead).

The whole comic is drawn in almost blurry flashback. This can make the characters lack definition and be difficult to tell apart at moments. Also, the lettering of the letters is done in cursive which can be equally difficult to parse, especially given that this is where a lot of the critical details of the story are given. The colors are a lot of pinks and blues contributing to the washed out look of the present and future. As a narrative choice it conveys tone, but also makes the comic harder to actually read.

It does raise some interesting questions though, particularly when one character allows some people to die in an explosion so that he can be seen as a hero saving the others. Should future events be allowed to play out as they already did, or should you fight to change them, given the new knowledge you have. I have a feeling this title will get better as it grows the world. The transition between present and future events is handled well, revealing details at a pleasing pace. (3 out of 5)

Umbral – Volume 1 by Antony Johnston

cover48671-mediumDescribed as “The Dark Crystal meets Saga” (though thankfully not as filthy), Umbral takes you through a dark fantasy world where the kingdom is being invaded by shape-shifting creatures with grins wider than their faces called Umbral. During a rare eclipse a young thief named Rascal attempts to steal a magical artifact called the Occulus and comes upon the Umbral who’ve just killed the king and queen and aim to take their place. Rascal steals the Occulus from out in front of them and finds herself in the world of the Umbral, a dark and dangerous world running parallel to our own. If you ever played either of the Soul Reaper titles in the Legacy of Kain series you’ll get an idea of what this is like.

Rascal then journeys between the Umbral world and the real world to discover the true nature of the Occulus and to expose the Umbral invasion of the kingdom. Along the way she acquires a variety of amusing companions who aim to escape and regroup. She also discovers that people can manifest differently in the Umbral world, and takes her first tentative forays into magic, which she despises.

This title has a good sense of humor, and a great pace for world building. The creatures are dark and creepy but not in a gross way (though they do have a lot of teeth in those grins, kinda reminds me of the rat creatures from Bone). Little by little we find out more about Rascal, and the world in which this drama is unfolding, and the origins and legends of magic. And the end leaves us with a bit of a cliffhanger, not knowing who to trust. An enjoyable fantasy adventure with a diverse and funny cast of characters. (4 out of 5)

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