Saturday, March 29, 2014

Guildpact by Cory J. Herndon

I’ve never been much of a reader of urban fantasy.  I like my fantasy to involve large scale dramas and journeys and open vistas more than I want to see big cities and the familiar.  Clearly, this isn’t an attack on the genre, but just a quirk of my personal reading tastes, but it means that there is a large swath of fantasy, from real-world locales to cities straight out of the fantastic that aren’t particularly my cup of tea.

Which means reading the three book Ravnica cycle is an odd choice indeed.

The three books of the Ravnica Cycle are set in a vast, world-wide city covering the entire planet.  His world city is full of guilds, groups of like-minded beings with the same approaches to life, be they the business-minded Orzhov or the nature-religion approach of the Selesnyans or any of the ten guilds.  A set of rules, known as the Guildpact, governs Ravnica, and keeps the guilds from the near-constant war they used to always find themselves embroiled in.

The Ravnica novels are based on a string of expansions in the popular game Magic: The Gathering.  I recently began playing the game with the “Return to Ravnica” block of expansions, and part of the enjoyment of the game for me is the world and the story surrounding the gameplay.  Wizards of the Coast recently released a trilogy of ebook novellas set during the events of the “Return to Ravnica” series, but wanting to start at the beginning I went back to the novels published to coincide with the original “Ravnica” sets.

The first novel, Ravnica: City of Guilds by Cory J. Herndon, helps build the setting, and tells a wonderful hard-boiled mystery story in the heart of the city of Ravnica.  Agrus Kos, an over-the-hill cop, is working to solve a number of murders that quickly become tied into a much larger conspiracy, with Ravnica itself at stake.

All of this builds into the second novel, Guildpact, also by Herndon.  Following the event of the first novel, Agrus Kos is now semi-retired working as a bouncer at a bar on the edge of civilization, in a part of Ravnica known as Utvara.  Utvara is a confluence of a number of guilds: the Gruul, a semi-nomadic tribal people, have a group living on the outskirts of town; the Izzet, scholars of magic and makers of elemental beings, have set up a laboratory and are performing mysterious experiments; and the Ozhov, focused on business, money, and contracts, own the land and are moving in to take a more personal control of Utvara.

But Utvara isn’t just a frontier city; it is home to a strange anomaly in the sky that seems to suck up the spirits of the departed, and the region is filled with a vicious plague that is barely kept at bay.

Through all of this, the reader follows retired cop Agrus Kos, goblin Izzet courier Crix, and Orzhov Baroness Teysa, as all of these strange events build towards another conflict with apocalyptic repercussions.

While the police procedural of the first novel is a lot of fun, Herndon really shows his strengths with Guildpact.  Working with a larger cast of characters, the diverse nature of the guilds in no way conflicts with the detailed characterization of the protagonists, particularly Teysa.  Some characters make return appearances from Ravnica: City of Guilds, but Herndon takes advantage of the opportunities a new cast of characters presents and creates an exciting adventure.  The urban aspects of Ravnica remain, but Herndon does an excellent job of making them feel truly alien compared to real life.

For readers looking for an exciting adventure and a unique fantasy setting, especially those who are also interested in Magic: The Gathering and enjoyed either of the Ravnica blocks, Guildpact is very highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn by Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Day Al-Mohamed

Fantasy, as a genre, is one long-steeped in the tradition of folktales, fables, and myth.  Many of the heavy hitters of the fantasy genre are quite obviously pulled from this tradition.  The Lord of the Rings is infused with J.R.R. Tolkien’s interest in Anglo-Saxon culture, The Chronicles of Prydain are filled with Lloyd Alexander’s interest in Celtic mythology, and E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroborus is in the very vein of the Norse sagas.  However, with few exceptions, fantasy fiction has not explored much outside of the fantastic realm of Europe, unless it is to include somewhere else as a foreign, exotic counterpart to the comfortable Western fantasy tradition.  This seems to slowly be changing in modern fantasy.  The richness of other cultures are beginning to infuse fiction output, reviving a genre suffering from a level of stagnation.

A wonderful example of this is Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn by Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Day Al-Mohamed.  Despite the word juxtaposition, the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves quickly comes to mind after reading the title.  And to an extent, Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn is a modern retelling of that story, but it is also so much more.

Ali bin-Massoud is a gifted artificer who is apprenticing under Charles Babbage in England.  He thinks that casual racism is the worst of his concerns, until he receives a strange puzzle box from a clockwork falcon, which he soon discovers is tied his father’s death, a hidden treasure, and men willing to kill for it.

Subtitled “A Steampunk Fairy Tale,” Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn manages to capture both of those divergent genres.  Airships and mechanical constructs abound, as do numerous background elements dealing in steam power, but even more than that Ali’s skill with creating clockwork marvels becomes pivotal to the very survival of one of his dearest companions.  On the other hand, the language used in the telling of the story is so beautifully evocative of the fairy tale tradition in parts that the modern, steampunk nature of the tale is completely encapsulated in a wonderful adventure.  Through all this, the novel never loses its Arabian Nights mystique.

All too rarely in adventure fantasy do we get to see the hero of the tale be the intelligent craftsman rather than the sword-swinging barbarian.  Ali captures the heroic element through his curiosity, his love for his friends, and his innate goodness.  Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn falls into that wonderful branch of fantasy where, even though you know deep down nothing terrible will happen to Ali, you can’t stop reading until the end just so you can experience the story with him.

Fantasy needs more heroes like Ali bin-Massoud, and more stories like Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn.  This charming story deserves to be well read.  Read it, let it sit with you a while, and then read it again.

Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn will be coming out Memorial Day weekend.  Be on the lookout!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Batman Post-Final Crisis

I’ve been a Batman fan for a long time, but I never seemed to be a regular reader, always reading the classic stories without ever touching on what was coming out now.  I recently set out to change that.  There are a lot of places to start, especially with DC’s New 52 setting everything back to square one, but in typically obtuse fashion, I began my reading at the start of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman.  I may not have set myself up for the easiest start on the modern era of Batman, but it certainly was different.

Grant Morrison frequently leaves people in a love/hate situation.  For me, it really depends which work of his I am reading.  I loved We3, and thought that it was a nice balance of larger issues that Morrison wanted to address with his characteristic strange, visceral conflict.  His run on New X-Men, detested by many for the sweeping changes he made, I found to be very hit-or-miss, with highlights like “E is For Extinction” and less interesting moments like “Here Comes Tomorrow,” although the rejuvenation his run gave to a stagnating franchise is undeniable.  Even Supergods, his non-fiction look at superheroes and his relationship to the medium, was a brilliant exploration of the superhero trope from Superman to today that succeeded despite some really rocky patches, in particular Morrison’s transition from the history of Superheroes to his personal encounter with extraterrestrial beings, which was such a jarring shift from his previous discussion, without transition, that it almost threw me out of the book completely.

So it was with trepidation that I began his run.  The first collected volume, Batman and Son (the new edition of which includes all of the content from what were originally the first two volumes, Batman and Son and The Black Glove) showcases this very exact up and down nature, with tightly-plotted mysteries followed by obscure, trippy tales that can’t stand up on their own.

I kept plugging away, continuing with The Resurrection of Ra’s al Ghul, which succeeded until it stumbled at the end, and the very bizarre R.I.P., which left me feeling like much was missing.  The initial thrust of Morrison’s arc on Batman ends with Final Crisis, which features very little of Batman and *spoiler* has one of the most anti-climactic and meaningless death scenes in comics, which is undone the very next issue.*end spoiler*

So what comes next?  Running concurrently to R.I.P. was Heart of Hush in Detective Comics, featuring the work of Paul Dini and Dustin Nguyen.  A follow up to Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s Hush, this story had much of what was missing from the confusing R.I.P.  A continuation of this occurs after R.I.P., and did some other stories that drew my interest, so I delved into the brief space between Final Crisis and Reborn.
 Starting in Detective Comics #851 and concluding in Batman #684, “The Last Days of Gotham,” writing by Denny O’Neil with art from Guillem March, is a fitting follow up to the death of Batman, featuring Nightwing as he attempts to deal with his grief and protect Gotham in the absence of his mentor.  It is a very effective story, and handles the quiet moments as well as the action.

This story was followed by a coda to Heart of Hush.  Beginning in Detective Comics #852 with “Reconstruction” and concluding in Batman #685 with “Catspaw,” this story part story written by Paul Dini with art from Dustin Nguyen follows Hush and Catwoman in the wake of the events of Heart of Hush, as the deal with a significant amount of unfinished business.  Paul Dini is a deft writer, and he uses his time on the Batman comics well.  Showing the complexities of both characters, the story deals with a lot of emotional repercussion in a small space, and succeeds masterfully.
The concluding story, the two-part “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” written by Neil Gaiman with art from Andy Kubert, which began in Batman #686 and ended in Detective Comics #853, ended up being the least successful of the three stories.  Picking up on a lot of the metaphysical tendencies of Morrison’s saga, this story wraps nothing up, presents nothing new, and adds nothing new, not even succeeding as a successful wrap up to a significant era of Batman.

Overall, I would recommend them thus:

“The Last Days of Gotham” – A nice transition after Final Crisis, this story is for anyone who made it through Morison’s run and are excited for a fresh new future.

“Reconstruction”/”Catspaw” – Required reading for anyone who enjoyed Heart of Hush.

“Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” – Well worth skipping.  You won’t even notice you missed it.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Return of Luke Reviews

Hello there!

It has been quite some time since last we met to discuss books, but Luke Reviews is returning!  For returning readers, I hope that the last few years have been prosperous.  To the new folks, Welcome!

I hope you all are ready, because there are already a number of exciting things on the horizon!  There will be reviews of new books, old books, and books not yet on the horizon.  You will see a larger spread of content, but not at the cost of the fantastic fiction that got this place going in the first place.

Keep your eyes peeled as new content begins rolling out shortly.  There are some fun tales to peruse.  And remember, part of the wonder of genre fiction is the wonderful community that has grown around it, so always feel free to comment and discuss at will.

However you found your way here, Luke Reviews is glad to have you.  Thanks for reading!