Half horse… half another horse… with half-a-tiny-horse poking out top!
Sketching monster ideas with my kids.
Scythe has one of those crazy, young-adult-sci-fi premises that you just have to check out. More unlikely than ‘Uglies,’ more convoluted than ‘The Maze Runner,’ there were several times when the world built by Neal Shusterman had me rolling my eyes and saying ‘There’s no way this would EVER happen!’ But every time that happened, Shusterman quickly amped up the plot with a swerve or kick-ass surprises to overcome my disbelief and keep me chugging along with the story.
Let me go thru the bonkers premise first. The main characters, Citra and Rowan live in a nearly perfect, nearly deathless society. A benevolent AI runs everything (truly benevolent, no twists there, unless they come in the sequel), and death has been ‘cured.’ People are rejuvenated before they can die from old-age. If they fall victim to accidents then they are resurrected. And suicides are not allowed , although there is such a thing as ‘splatting.’ (You might be able to figure out what that is. It’s one of the many cool ideas that Shusterman comes up with while exploring his post-mortal world.)
A society of ‘Scythes’ have been created to control population growth. Although the AI runs everything else in the world, the stakes of human mortality are considered too weighty for its impersonal, computer brain. So the people who are chosen as Scythes have free reign to kill whomever they want, in whatever method they want.
So why would a perfectly utopian AI delegate such a dicey, utterly-permanent task to humans, when it is controlling everything else? If society is concerned about population-control, why wouldn’t they try contraception, as opposed to widespread assassinations?
Listen, you just got to go with it…
OK, but there’s one more weird thing… and if you read a lot of YA, you might be able to predict what it is… The Scythes become fully-legal assassins as teenagers. OK, so they can’t rent a car, but they can kill people with samurai swords and flamethrowers?
Needless to say, there are some Scythes (both younger and older) that let their power go to their heads. And Citra and Rowan quickly get sucked into their schemes. As they struggle against these sinister, blood-thirsty Scythes (and as Rowan struggles against his own emerging blood-thirsty urges), the plot takes some interesting twists, and the story reinvents itself with about three shifts in the status quo before it’s done. Which is pretty impressive, considering the book is only 450 pages long.
I’ll also give the author credit for not pushing his male and female protagonists into a full-blown romance—these teen’s lives are intense enough without everything going hormonal. With that said, there is some romantic tension. But that tension is nothing compared to the fact that Rowan and Citra eventually find themselves forced into a sadistic and arbitrary predicament where, in order for one of them to live, the other must die. How does Neal Shusterman get his two protagonists out of this particular conundrum? If I told you that, I’d be spoiling the ending. But let’s just say Shusteman wraps up his final chapters as deftly and as dramatically as he handles the rest of his book. I’m looking forward to checking out what happens in Book 2!
the third book in my Groundbreakers series. Hooray! The Groundbreaker books have all been shorter than my other novels, but nonetheless, that means I’m on my way to having seven novels finished. (And one novelette—I’m not forgetting about my invisible friends in Shadow Sideways!)
By the way, my tentative title for the Groundbreakers third book is ‘Blades of the Demigod.’ My intent was to always finish the third book Groundbreaker book and then release all the books together in a box set. But halfway through ‘Blades,’ I decided it needed to be more of a conclusion to a trilogy, as opposed to simply the third in a series of interconnected adventures. I thought the box set as a whole would be more satisfying to the reader if there was an underlying thread (or threat) that runs through all three books, which is then wrapped up in Book 3.
That plot point was the Ancient Ones, which were introduced in Book 1, and which are a big presence in the first two books, always there as this incomprehensible, immense threat in the background. You see, it’s revealed in Book 1 that the villainous Issulthraqis want to reunite the Ancient Ones and used their combined powers to re-write the world. My first iteration of Book 3 was a sort of detour adventure, that veered away from the Issulthraqis plot. But I realized with a few minor adjustments, I could rework the plot to intro more stakes in the third and final story, and to help create closure for the three books as a whole.
My original idea was to write six or seven Groundbreakers books, with the Ancient Ones threat always there in the background, but now, if I write a fourth book in the series, I can be completely free to take the story wherever I want. Or, if I move to something completely new, then at least the series has a bit of closure for now.
Which brings me to my next chunk of big news! I’ve already started my next novel. Maybe not the smartest move, considering ‘Blades’ is still in first-draft mode—and also I need to do some post-publication tweaks to Books 1 and 2 to make the story cohesive—but I was too excited about my new idea to hold off!
Fans of Idyll will be happy to know that I’m writing in science fiction again. This time, near-future sci-fi. The story is about what comes next, after iPhones and social media. What will it be like to live in a world with A.I.s and organic upgrades that make us smarter, prettier, and more long-lived. Of course, as in all sci-fi, the world is never as bright and as shiny as it seems.
My working title for this new book is ‘The Fire and the Burned.’ My plan is for it to be a single, standalone novel. If I can finish it (working that third Groundbreakers book in the meantime, here and there) then I will have eight books in my oeuvre! Not quite Stephen King’s, but nothing to sneeze at either! Here’s to making it to double-digits one day!
Circe is sort of an upmarket character-study, by way of classic mythology. I really enjoyed it; to me it really had a ‘literary’ vibe. Because of that, I’m not sure that a hardcore genre-fantasy fan would be as enthused as I was, although there is sorcery and monsters and—of course—gods and goddesses.
Anyone who’s taken Classic Literature in high school probably remembers Circe from The Odyssey. She was the mysterious enchantress who kept Odysseus captive on her island—and who turned his fellow sailors into pigs. Even in the Odyssey, Circe is presented as a complicated character. Both Odysseus’ captor and his mistress. A seductress and a seducee (is that a word?). A ‘dangerous woman’ and also an invaluable advisor. I guess the ancient Greeks were in love with anti-heroes, creating complicated characters like Odysseus, Achilles, and Athena long before we had Tony Soprano, Claire Underwood, or that other Cersei from Game of Thrones.
In this 400-page novel, Madeline Miller expounds upon all of Circe’s life, not just that year she spent with the famous trickster from Ithaca. I was fascinated to see how much of Miller’s story had roots in actual ancient poems or stories. The plot was packed full of palace intrigue and familial drama. Of course, Miller seems to smooth over some parts, or flesh out others with her vivid imagination and a lovely sense of character-work.
The story kicks in shortly after the war of the old gods (the Titans) and the new gods (Zeus’ Olympians). Of course, the Olympians are victorious, and many of the most bellicose Titans are banished to an eternal hell. Circe is the immortal daughter of a Titan, Helios (god of the sun), and a nymph named Perse. Helios is the benefactor of a precarious truce with the Olympians; he is allowed to maintain his court and most of his power. Circe is not extraordinarily beautiful or overwhelmingly charming—which is to say she’s scorned by her divine family.
During her centuries-long coming-of-age, Circe realizes she is extraordinary in a different sort of way. She has powers that make her a new sort immortal—not a Titan or an Olympian, but something else that could upset the balance of the fragile peace. Upon discovering Circe’s new talents, Helios quickly agrees to Zeus’ suggestion that Circe be exiled to a solitary island on Earth.
That’s just the end of the first act. For an exile, Circe certainly gets around. Besides her affair with Odysseus, Circe has encounters with Daedalus (the famous inventor), Medea (her niece), the Minotaur (her nephew!), the six-headed monster Scylla (love the origin story here), Penelope (Odysseus’ wife, gulp!) and many more.
I especially like the last third of the book, when events turn to make Circe’s existence less lonesome, but many-times more perilous. (No spoilers!) I was so intrigued that I had jump on Wikipedia where I found out that once again the crazy events of the book were all partially based on real stories in antiquity. Circe was already a Classic anti-hero with a complicated past—even 2,500 years ago. And Madeline Miller does a fantastic job of bringing the character into the 21st Century and reintroducing her to modern readers in a most enchanting way.
Here’s a sketch of the sorcerer and vizier of the Kritan court, Sessuk. From Jafar to Flagg to Iago (the Shakespearean one, not the feathered one), all viziers eventually turn out to be scheming bastards. And Sessuk is no exception. Read Groundbreakers, Book 1, Myths of the Fallen City to see Sessuk dark side!
Some comic fans seem to really avoid horror comics. It’s like that one genre that they won’t try. The art tends to be too ‘scritchy-scratchy,’ too gritty. The characters are too paper-thin. This is what they would say. I’m not saying I’m the biggest horror comics fan, but I have to say that the comic medium and horror really mesh well together, especially when the creators are top-notch.
With that said, I would recommend Harrow County to any comics fans who aren’t horror fans. It’s a beautifully rendered book, unlike anything I’ve seen out there. With a likable, well-rounded protagonist, an indelible setting, and a unique cast of supporting characters/creatures. If you are a fan of horror in comics, then why aren’t you reading this already?
The art is what really drew me (see what I did there?) to this book. Tyler Crook does the penciling, the beautiful sinuous inking, and the even-more-beautiful watercolor and gauche color-art. While we’re at it, he also does the lettering. How was it that he was able to do this many issues in just __ years?(There were a fill-artists on a few issues.) His artwork is stunning and inviting—cartoonish and yet also emotionally devastating when need-be. HIs art kind of reminds me of David Rubin’s, although more tactile and nuanced. Also—perhaps because of the setting—it kept reminding me of Walt Kelly’s Pogo cartoon. Each watercolored panel is sumptuous—like you’re wading through a collage of classic children’s lit illustrations. Arthur Rackham or Maurice Sendak or even Bill Watterson (when he’d take Calvin and Hobbes out into the jewel-toned forest).
Even when the images are horrifying, there is still an inviting warmth to the pages. It’s a sort of weird, ‘ghost story’ dichotomy that reminds me of those old ‘scary-for-kids’ movies from the 80s, ‘Watcher in the Woods,’ or ‘Lady in White.’
Cullen Bunn is the writer, and Harrow County seems to be set in his native North Carolina. The era seems to be perhaps the thirties or forties (after prohibition, before Mayberry). As I mentioned, the tone of the book feels nearly ‘young-adult’—except when it veers into skin-flaying and cannibalism. It’s a very unique tone, and especially for the first several issues, you really feel for the main character, Emmy.
Emmy emerged as an infant from a tree where a horrible witch was hanged. The people of Harrow County (the people who killed the witch) trepidatiously take in Emmy. There are other strange creatures that live in the woods that surround their town, and they aren’t completely unused to dealings with magic (more on that later in the series). But as Emmy approaches her 18th birthday, there’s more and more dread among her neighbors that she is going to turn into the new incarnation of that evil witch. Emmy herself begins to suspect that their worst fears are true. Throughout the series, we see her battling with her newly emerging powers, and her darker impulses. She’s a fin character.
The series just wrapped with issue 32. It’s interesting that while most comic series tend to segment their stories into 6-issue arcs, Harrow County works in 4-issue arcs. Which makes for shorter trade paperbacks when the arcs are collected, but also tighter, more winnowed-down stories. There isn’t much padding in these issues, and I liked that. Tight and simple and always moving toward and endgame every four issues. Maybe that also helped to contribute to the straight-forward, easily-digestible, ‘young adult’ vibe. I really liked the arcs on Kammi and Emmy’s friend Bernice. I like where Bunn takes her character. Emmy’s ‘family’ is introduced interestingly, but later in the series they don’t live up to their potential. The arcs that focused on their mythology seemed less interesting to me.
Overall, I look forward to seeing what Bunn and Crook do next. Bunn has already written some fine X-Men arcs. I’m also looking forward to checking out Dark Ark (about a version of Noah who rescued mythological beasts from the Flood) and Unholy Grail (Camelot and Lovecraft? Sign me up!)
I’ve never read one of Maggie Stiefvater’s novels before, and I thought The Scorpio Races would be a good place to start. It is a standalone book, and I’ve always been a sucker for books set on beaches.
The setting here is intriguing and quite unique. It’s an island called Thisby that I pictured as being a lot like a British isle in the 1950s. It’s hard to draw a bead on when exactly the story takes place. There’s mention of old beat-up cars and chainsaws, but no mention of TV or phones. So I suppose the story could be taking place at any time between 1930 and 1980. There’s a lot of talk about tradition and ‘women knowing their place,’ which also makes me think it was set in the mid-1900s.
I suppose the murkiness of the era is part of the charm here, because Thisby is unquestionably part of a fantasy world. Its shores are prowled by carnivorous water horses called capaill uisce. For most of their lives, the capaill uisce swim in the sea, but in the Fall, captured water horses are harnessed and raced on land by the island’s bravest men. Racing these oversized, feral horses is very dangerous, and every year men are killed in the race. The winner walks away with an impressive cash prize.
Enter the two main characters. Puck is a young woman who becomes the first female rider in the history of the race. Her family is in desperate straits, and she wants to win that purse. But considering the fact that she’s never been around capaill uisce, and that she’s never trained as a jockey, she seems like an extreme long shot. Add to that the fact that she decides to ride a normal horse in the race (in other words: not as large or technically as fast as a capaill uisce, but more manageable to ride). The other character is Sean—a young racer and trainer who has already won the Scorpio Race several times in his short career. Definitely not an underdog, but he is living under the thumb of the island’s requisite crotchety millionaire.
Sean develops a fascination with Puck as he watches her train. She helps him realize that he doesn’t actually like racing—he just loves the bond he shares with his water horse, a red stallion named Corr. But Sean will lose his stallion forever if he cannot win this year’s race, and therefore obviously crush Puck’s own dreams.
So there’s the conflict. Two protagonists who are friendly with each other (aww, who am I kidding, you know they end up becoming more than ‘friendly’ by the end of the book), but whose aspirations are diametrically opposed. What happens? I was pretty pleased and satisfied with the resolution. So nice to read a fantasy book where you’re introduced to a world, meet friends and villains, establish a conflict, and then see it all wrapped up tidily in 400 pages. And a story about horses… it’s almost not fair, it’s like a story about a loyal dog or a sick toddler… you know eventually it’s going to pull at your heartstrings.
Another interesting aspect of the Thisby world: Even though it’s set in a quasi-modern time, there are still vestiges of a pagan past associated with the Scorpio Races. The riders tie knots and ribbons into their horses’ manes. They seem to cast charms through hand gestures and totems. And they can earn boons or evoke curses using the old gods. These beliefs aren’t explained too much, and there’s a nice ambiguity as to whether they actually work or if they’re just sporting superstitions. Also I have to admit I had a hard time imagining monster horses that could propel themselves underwater like sharks, or bite through a man’s neck in a split second. I know that real horses can swim, and that horses can definitely kill a person. I also know that there is a British tradition of mythical ‘water horses,’ including kelpies, but I was surprised to see an entire fantasy book dedicated to these creatures. But it was definitely a nice departure from the usual fantasy tropes of vampires or dragons or wizards.