Series Condition: Harrow County

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?

Harrow County
Writer: Cullen Bunn
Artist: Tyler Crook
Publisher: Dark Horse
2015-2018
32 issues (Complete Series)

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!)

Want to read some other of my ‘Series Condition’ posts on comic series?
The Spire
Invincible
Sliver Surfer
Y: The Last Man

 

 

 

 

 

 

I just read: The Scorpio Races

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.

I just read: Three Dark Crowns

Three Dark Crowns has a killer premise. It’s Game of Thrones meets The Hunger Games. Every so often, a set of girl triplets is born on Fennbirn Island, and each sister becomes the champion, or ‘Queen,’ of one of three rival factions on the island. When the Queens turn sixteen, they have to fight it out—assassinate their sisters—to claim the throne. It’s like Battle Royale with real royals. Pretty cool, right?

Author Kendare Blake is working in popular territory here. Luckily, she spices up the mix with intriguing and relatable characters, and several good twists. For one thing, mystical powers are not a rare thing on Fennbirn. Each of the three factions specializes in a different type of supernatural gift. The Elementals can control fire, water, wind, and earth (to varying degrees). The Naturalists can tap into the life energy of plants—and control animal familiars. The Poisoners are immune and ingenious when it come to poisons (duh!). Another surprising twist on the expected tropes: Two of the Queens, Katharine (the Poisoner) and Arsinoe (the Naturalist), start the book with extremely weak, nearly non-existent powers. As the lethal contest approaches, they are big-time underdogs to their Elemental sister Mirabella. Another unexpected surprise: the non-underdog is probably the most noble, most compassionate character of the three.

The novel follows the mostly-isolated plot lines of all three sisters, and it’s fun to pick your favorite sister and watch her story develop. (I liked the Poisoner’s story the best.) At some points, I started to get confused about which supporting character belonged in which sister’s storyline. There are a few ‘best friend’ characters that start to blur together, and all three sisters are dominated by three different matriarchs with questionable intentions. But if you enjoy the intrigues and intricacies of Game of Thrones, then you’ll probably enjoy the challenge of keeping everything straight. The book is written with a Young Adult vibe, so it honestly never gets too complicated.

Despite the homocidal premise, the story never gets too violent, although it gets a little gory in spots. (One of the sisters resorts to ‘low,’ blood magic to attempt to gain an advantage in the upcoming fight.) As I mentioned, there are a few good twists. And although the ending felt a little loosey-goosey to me, it also included two real jaw-dropping surprises that had me clamoring to check out the sequel. Lucky for me, I’m a few years behind on discovering this series, and the sequel, One Dark Throne, is already out!

Idyll Excerpt: The Streets of Belleterre

In honor of Westworld Season 2 premiering this weekend, here is a sample of my own sci-fi Western novel, Idyll. Idyll is now available for $0.99 here on Amazon!

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The afternoon sun descended beneath the bluffs, and the quartz hills wrapped themselves in velveteen shadows. Samuel found a noisy stream, broke down his tack, and scrubbed Titan where a thick scum of lather had gathered around her saddle. The mare wandered down the bank to chew through a stand of tall grass, and Samuel squatted by the water—at a respectful distance—and watched the surface glimmer as it bustled past. Their father owned a high-priced casting net just to fish these streams. Alma Starboard had teased him because there was no place in Glenn County to use such a net, unless he wanted to try chucking it into wells or rain barrels. Samuel warily dipped his hand into the frigid water and watched the current form hillocks as it bulged and rushed around his fingers. For all he knew, Josiah Starboard had stopped at this very spot.

Samuel imagined that he was speaking to him.

“Is that why you told us it took ten days to get to Belleterre? Because you spent a full day fishing? “I’m going to beat you there, Dad. Nine days.”

Within ten minutes, he and Titan were on the move again. As he cleared each ridge Samuel expected to be suddenly staring down at a crowded city of timber, aluminum, and live glass. He remembered his father’s reports of streets covered with pearlescent river stones and three-story houses with foundations of laser-cut rock. Josiah painted pictures of deafening waterfalls powering gigantic mills and propelling water through a webwork of aqueducts and aluminum pipes. Belleterre seemed to be a hectic paradise with its toy stores, puppet-shows, and men selling food or candy on every street corner.

What if Belleterre had recovered since the Lullaby? At this very moment, the market might be teeming with merchants, hawking their wares, roaring to be heard over the river. Samuel imagined boys sluicing horse manure off the curbs. What if these city folk had been living their lives in busy luxury while Samuel and his family had been living in isolation, withering away bit by bit? Logically Samuel knew that this would be the best possible scenario, but the idea made him want to scream. They had waited for three years. Suffered through—and wasted—three years.

He imagined the city folk gaping at him. What would they think of this refugee in a torn shirt and stitched boots? He had expected rough riding through the quartz hills, and he was wearing his dusty chaps, which were discolored and scarred, with flaps of torn fabric hanging off of them. Samuel was certain that he looked like a hermit. He wished he had followed Walt’s example and taken a bath this morning. He had shaved on the day that they left their father’s ranch because he had fully expected to find people at the county seat. Since that disappointment, he hadn’t thought about shaving at all, and now his beard was tight and itchy, a webwork of ivy on his face.

After another fifteen minutes of climbing, Samuel saw the corner of a building emerge from behind a steep slope of rock. The highway crested a hill, and Samuel had his first good look at Belleterre. His notions of loud merchants and busy street cleaners quickly died as he stared down at dozens of dark row houses and empty storefronts. The buildings seemed exhausted somehow. As he looked closer, Samuel realized why: Where wood showed, the timbers were black and sagging. Broken panes of live glass littered the streets—crooked mirrors shining up to the sky.

There had been a huge fire here. Half of the city had been razed.

In a moment of horror, Samuel realized he was very visible on the hilltop. There could be lookouts hidden among the buildings, watching the road for careless travelers. He turned back down the hill and led Titan to a scrubby niche in the rocks, a spot where the highest buildings wouldn’t have an angle to see them. He dismounted and tethered Titan to a deadfall. Then he unlatched his chaps and his jangling spurs. He peeled the bulky water pouch from his back.

A footpath zigzagged from the hidden niche up into the hills. The path was sheltered on both sides by steep embankments and scrubby conifers. Samuel scuttled from one hiding place to another, always watching the burned out buildings for signs of life. Soot-blackened windows stared down at him like the mascara-smeared eyes of world-weary burlesque dancers. But the windows were empty.

Soon he was ducking through an archway and into the city. He saw that someone had chipped pieces off of the arch’s quartz pylons, probably to feed a rock-roller. Samuel reached over his shoulder and shook his own rock-roller carbine. Its ammo of polished pebbles clattered in the stock. Samuel remembered Uncle Warren’s stories of rival militias battling in the chaos that followed the epidemic. Apparently those skirmishes had spread to Belleterre—or perhaps the skirmishes had started here. Either way, the men who had conquered this city were probably still holed up somewhere in these buildings.

Samuel’s heart was pounding high in his chest, threatening to choke him with each beat.
For the next twenty minutes Samuel worked his way past deserted inns, saloons, and barter shops. Several buildings had collapsed, and the aluminum skeletons of porches, roofs, and plumbing systems had been twisted and dragged into the avenue to create ramshackle barricades.

He weaved between shards of live glass, careful to not cut his shoes or make noise. Live glass was one of the Settlement’s most precious commodities. Each square-meter was honeycombed with hundreds of tiny cells that expanded or contracted based on temperature changes. The cells were designed to store and multiply energy that could be transferred to mechanical devices, stoves, or incandescent lights. Even broken panes of live glass were valuable as insulation materials. And yet, here were thousands of square-meters (shattered or not) that had not been salvaged. The survivors in Belleterre must have had more dire priorities. Or perhaps there were no survivors at all.

Samuel crossed a footbridge that resembled two squat staircases fastened together—one going up and the other coming down. Beneath the bridge, a section of the Kepler River foamed through a narrow canal. All around him, the metallic roar of the continent’s second-largest river echoed between buildings, rattled shards of glass, and settled as an uncomfortable weight between Samuel’s ears. He could see the city’s famous mill wheels, but the wheels had ground to a halt. The falls thundered off their useless paddles. Water sloshed over the sides of bent aqueducts, falling and slapping the ground. The clamor of millions of liters shook the city as if it were a gigantic caged creature. But the river raged at no one. The city was empty.

Belleterre was dead. They had trekked for nine days and subjected their mother to stresses that had nearly killed her. All of that suffering had been for nothing.

Samuel was ready to be away from these claustrophobic streets. The oppressive noise and humidity was settling on his shoulders, turning his clothes cold and heavy. The buildings loomed over him. He looked up, and the view made his head swirl. He came to an intersection between four hulking buildings and turned toward the sunset. He was trudging across a wide road that must have been one of the city’s main avenues. He didn’t worry about being seen; there was no one to see him.

Soon he was crossing a covered bridge over a large, squared-off canal. He watched the water bluster away under him, foaming angrily over splintered moorings and half-sunken boats, and his stomach roiled because all this water—all these buildings and manmade things so close to it—seemed unnatural. Samuel could not swim; he had never wanted to learn. He had a cattleman’s natural disdain for bodies of moving water. This city’s humidity—all its closeness—felt sickening to him. It was no surprise that the Belleterrans had all been wiped out by a contagion. Maybe their corpses had been swept away by the river, similar to cattle in a flash flood.

Samuel wanted to be in the saddle and racing away, far and fast and riding strong. But he was on foot and probably a full kilometer from his horse. His escape would be so slow, it almost didn’t seem worth it. Belleterre was dead. And Marathon might be dead too.
Samuel made himself walk. With his first step he stumbled on a loose flagstone on the bridge. The flat rock was angled wrongly and obviously out of place—as if someone had set it there specifically to trip him up.

Too late, Samuel realized he had triggered a booby trap.

A beam of wood crashed through the bridge’s aluminum canopy. Samuel flinched, raising his hands to his face to ward off any debris that might be flung up when the huge weight hit the stones before him. But the beam of wood didn’t fall normally; it arced toward Samuel, swooping to meet his knees as it accelerated to a bone-smashing velocity.

Samuel saw thick coils of hempen rope tied to each end of the beam. It was a pendulum. He didn’t have time to bend his legs and jump; he dove forward into the empty air above the hurtling beam. But a splintered edge caught his boot, and his body was flung backward and upward. He landed face first on the stone paving. Samuel stayed there, crumpled, for a split second. Then he remembered that the trap was a pendulum. It was coming back for him. Samuel rolled as fast as he could to avoid the beam’s lethal backswing. He fell off the bridge.

And the river swallowed him, pulling with an instant and nearly irresistible power. Samuel observed his situation with cold detachment, perhaps he was dazed from his fall onto the stone bridge. In some dim corner of his mind, he was considering the fact that he couldn’t swim. Simultaneously, he was absurdly fascinated by the novel sensation of being submerged in moving water.

He felt as if he were being propelled by a hundred mismatched cogs, all greased and moving incredibly fast. He was flung sideways, the current twisting his shoulders. Now he was face-up, now he was plunged headfirst to the cold, dark bottom. Samuel thrust out his hand, and his fingers raked up a slurry of mud. He rolled and plowed his heels into the muck, hopping along the bottom, going with the current, slowing his momentum. He straightened his legs and found that he could hold his head above the surface. Still, he took in a mouthful of frothy water as he tried to gasp for air.

The current pushed him toward a shattered skiff. The stern of the flat-bottomed boat had settled against the side of a broken building so that it formed a ramp out of the canal. Samuel grabbed the boat and clung for his life.

Now that he was within an arm’s length of dry land, his state-of-shock calm quickly flowed away. This new possibility of salvation made the imminent threat of drowning more palpable—more horrifying. His heart was pumping uncontrollably, as if the ferocious current was rushing through his chest. His legs were as flimsy as reeds beneath him. Did he possess the strength to pull himself out of the water?

He did. Samuel heaved himself up onto the slanted planks, which didn’t budge under his weight. Somehow, the strap of his rock-roller had shifted so that the carbine was stationed across his chest, not his back. Water dripped from his nose and from the twin prongs of the weapon. He wondered if water would affect its electromagnetic sling. Samuel climbed until he was teetering on the lip of a ragged hole in the side of a ruined building.

Its interior was dark and expansive. Here and there, damaged columns broke the darkness like jagged teeth. He looked down and saw that this improvised ramp had been tied to the building with ropes, not unlike the cords that had bound the booby trap on the bridge.

“Oh.” Samuel said. A flicker of green fabric moved among the shadows. He pulled the butt of his rock-roller to his shoulder.

An explosion went off in his right leg. He looked down and saw that his knee was wrapped in glittering wire. The wire crackled with blue lightning. Samuel could see and smell the fabric of his dungarees beginning to burn, but he couldn’t move to beat out the flames. He was paralyzed. His brain wouldn’t work. He couldn’t speak—couldn’t scream. The world seemed to spin around the fulcrum of his burning knee. Again he tried to grab it; instead he just pitched forward against the stone floor.

FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. GET THE BOOK!

I just read: The City of Brass

City of Brass starts off about a con-artist named Nahri in Napoleonic-era Cairo. Nahri doesn’t know where she comes from, but wouldn’t you know that she eventually realizes that she’s far more than just a rootless street urchin—she’s descended from a noble family of mythical djinn (they call themselves Daeva). The rest of the story revolves around Nahri coming to terms with this revelation, and how she affects the lives of two djinn men in the far-off, secret city of their ancient race.

I always thought of a djinn (or a Daevas, or an ifrits) as a sort of elemental spirit—or shapeshifting demon. Something inhuman. But the author, S.A. Chakraborty, presents the Daevas as very close to humans, both in their appearance, their politics, and their passions. If anything, the djinni here come off as elves, and their fabled city of Daevabad is Rivendell. One major difference to that is that some tribes of Daeva feel spiritually connected to fire, some to water, etc. The intrigues that run between these different tribes are as fraught and as morally ambiguous as anything you’d see in Game of Thrones. And just as complicated!

Nahri finds herself drawn to two Daeva men who are on opposite sides of this political divide. Nahri feels a romantic spark for both of these men. Dara is a hotheaded outsider—and a deadly warrior—who feels rightfully angry at the city’s current ruling family. Alizayd is the second son of that royal family. He is a devout Muslim, and also secretly entwined with an insurgency fighting for equality of Daevabad’s half-human population.

After a stilted and complicated introduction, Alizayd became my favorite character in the book. Because of his religion, he has chosen to remain chaste. At the same time, Nahri has been forced into an arranged engagement with his older brother, Muntadhir. All the same, Alizayd develops a fierce attachment to Nahri, and the best parts of the books are when he’s clashing with Dara—his political and romantic rival—over Nahri. There’s more than meets the eye to all of these characters, and that includes Muntadhir and Ali’s father, Ghassan.

All in all, an enjoyable fantasy read in a setting that you don’t often see. I look forward to reading the sequel when it is released.

(Ground)Breaking News: Cover reveal!

Here’s the cover for Groundbreakers Book One, which will be released on April 17! Yes, that is a giant echinoid in the bottom half of the image. Spooky and spiny!

“The land of Embhra is ruled by magic—and it’s ruining everything.

Gods and sorcerers jealously hoard their power, and innocent people everywhere are suffering for the cause of those who wield magic. Sygne and Jamal are hoping they can change that. She’s a scientist. He’s a former soldier and aspiring poet-singer.

With her brains and his bravado, they might just make a difference. It also helps that they are on course to find a primordial Ancient One that might hold the key to changing the entire world. Not so helpful: both a war goddess and a love goddess want to see them dead!

The ‘Scientician’ and the Singing Swordsman begin their first groundbreaking adventure in this short-length novel.”

I just read: Sharaz-de

Until about a year ago, I wasn’t familiar with Italian illustrator and comic-artist Sergio Toppi. Which is a shame because his work is brilliant. It reminds me of the fluid abstraction of Bill Sienkiewicz, the bold action and scale of Walt Simonson (who contributes a foreword to this edition), and some of that realist detail that you see in advertising illustrations of the 60s. This last bit is probably not surprising considering that Toppi started off as an advertising illustrator before transition to graphic novels about cowboys and soldiers, historic figures and the icon Arabian Nights mythos—which is what is collected in ‘Sharaz-de.’ Unfortunately Toppis passed away in 2012 at the age of 80.

Toppi was certainly in his element when it comes to illustrating the world of Arabian nights. His rocky desert landscapes are incredible, and just as impressive is the way he arranges his panels to communicate the passage of time and distance.

His pen carves the faces of his kings and shamans in the same sort of weather-worn majesty that he renders sandstone. Sometimes his vizier and chieftain faces blend in with rock formations or Gustav Klimt patterns, and it all creates this beautiful, dynamic texture of pen-and-ink.

I was also impressed with Toppi’s writing. He condenses the stories to as few lines of dialog. Although this descriptions and introductions are a little longer, and dashed an Old World tone. My favorite story was the set-up in the beginning, which mixes infidelity, sibling rivalry and compassion, and a bit of schadenfreude. (Scheherazade, meet Schadenfreude.)

Plot wise, most of the stories are pretty violent morality plays—full of jealous or greedy characters getting their just deserts. Sort of similar to Grimm’s Fairy Tales, if you read the old-school versions. But all the decapitations and demonic punishments are beautifully rendered, at least!