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: 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.

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!

I just read: Dawn of Wonder

As I am currently attempting to write a fantasy series, I’m want to read as many types of fantasy as I can. Dawn of Wonder by Jonathan Renshaw was free through Amazon Prime Reading, so I decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did!

As with any epic fantasy book, this one is going to draw comparisons to Song of Ice and Fire. It definitely has the same, ‘nooks and crannies,’ ‘no particular hurry’ feel to it that you find in George R.R. Martin’s books. And just like the Game of Thrones books, you might get hypnotized by a passage about arrow-fletching, snap to attention, and then suddenly realize that the entire status-quo of the story has changed, and you didn’t even notice. Dawn of Wonder goes through several ‘phases’ in the narrative, and that adds to the epic feel, and keeps the plot moving steadily downstream along, even if some passages diverge into the occasional tributary or lagoon.

Unlike ASOIAF, the 3rd-person narration follows one character through the book’s 800 pages. Aedan is an incredibly smart, brave boy. Poor but with a bright future. HIs one weakness is that he suffers from a severe case of PTSD, brought on my childhood abuse from his father. Can’t say that I’ve ever read a fantasy book that explores PTSD in a medieval setting, but it works pretty well here. And Renshaw does a great job of showing how his protagonist can be exceptionally brave while still suffering from a sudden PTSD-induced panic attack, if the situation hits him just right.

As I mentioned, the story travels through several ‘phases’ as we watch Aedan come of age. We see his pastoral childhood, which ends with a tragic loss. A fugitive period with his family. Then Aedan’s enrollment in a rigorous military academy. This to me was really where the book found its voice, its purpose and differentiated itself from other epic fantasies I have read. Renshaw obviously knows a lot about medieval techniques of warfare. At the same time, Aedan befriends a ragtag cast of recruits, and shows off some really cool out-of-the-box innovations, that add color to his training. This part of the book is sort of a medieval Ender’s Game.

Not only that, but Renshaw even inserts a depressingly realistic portrayal of middle-school romance. This is just another way that the book shows itself to be grounded in interesting ways.

So what is the Dawn of Wonders, you ask? Eventually, Aedan’s brilliance and his brash curiosity get him caught up in palace intrigue. (Yes, this is another phase of the book.) Aedan finds himself pulled into a mission to a mysterious castle—and, yes indeed, this is where the book goes supernatural. Aedan and his adult allies face a unique threat, but to me the fanatical conflict isn’t quite as interesting as Aedan’s drama back at school.

All the plot points and intrigues are not entirely wrapped up by the time Aedan’s mission ends. And the last fifty pages or so are dedicated to gearing up to the next mission that will consume Book 2 in the series. So if you hate cliffhangers, be warned. For me, I kind of like unresolved endings (after all, all of G.R.R. Martin’s book end that way), and I’ll be on the look out for when Renshaw’s sequel hits the electronic shelves!

I just read: Dissolving Classroom

I’m a big fan of two of the Junji Ito’s other two horror comics, Uzumaki and Gyo. So I was excited to try his latest manga.

Ito has a very distinctive style. His ideas feel like they were written by a demented 7th-grader, but that helps him maintain a sort of allegorical mood—and his stories always feel claustrophobic in their dream-time logic. His pen-work can be alternately beautifully dainty and creepily off-kilter, and that also fits the day-dream-to-fever-dream his tone.

Dissolving Classroom is a collection of stories that follow a strangely polite young man, Yuuma, and his gonzo little sister, Chizumi. Both are unique characters, and their both up to some sinister stuff. But I have to say that I found Yuuma much more interesting. He’s a sort of diabolical version of toxic friend. He’s very well-mannered—almost subservient at times—but beneath that bland exterior lurks an ardent devil-worshipper. Literally. Yuuma kills small animals to lure the devil to him. He keeps in constant mental contact with the devil, and those bad vibes he shares can rot away at his new friends, dissolving their brains and their bodies. He’s like a walking Fukushima, and he’s in a continuous state of demonic meltdown.

It’s not entirely clear whether or not Yuuma enjoys the effect that he has on people. He is constantly apologizing for the harm he has done—and will do—but it soon becomes clear that Yuuma’s apologies are his most common M.O. for melting people down. If Yuuma falls to his knees and starts repeating, “I’m sorry… I’m sooo sorry…” you need to run away from him immediately. Early on, it’s revealed that he’s not actually apologizing to the people around him, he’s apologizing to the devil. And those direct transmissions to Hell interact with the human body in the same way a microwave oven reacts with a popsicle.

The concept doesn’t 100% make sense to me. Why is Yuuma apologizing to the devil? Yuuma’s helping to sow death and destruction, and it becomes clear that the devil likes this. But as I mentioned, this is where dream-logic kicks in, and on some gut-level I really synced with this idea of there being something sinister about apologies.

I definitely fall in the camp of people who might say, “Don’t say you’re sorry, do something to prove it.” And of course, no one likes groveling. But Ito shows effusive apologizing to be a passive-aggressive act of self-gratification. Like I said, this idea really struck me as ‘true’ on a gut level. Maybe I needed a Japanese writer to help me grasp this idea—like how the German language helped us define a concept like Schadenfreude, which most Americans had never really thought about before, but innately realized was a real thing.

Anyhoo… The ‘Dissolving’ concept is definitely not a one-trick-pony. With each story, Ito finds new ways to draw out drama—and creeps—from stiff Yuuma and wild Chizumi. The final story is not as disturbing, but it wraps up the saga in a perfect way that left me feeling surprised but also thinking, ‘I should have seen that coming!’

If you’re a manga fan or a horror fan, I’d say check this out!

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I just read: Habibi

img_1514 Habibi is easily the thickest graphic novel I’ve ever read. The blurbs on the back of this 670-page hardcover do a pretty good job summarizing some of my impressions. A ‘Orientalist fairy tale.’ ‘A modern Dickensian saga.’ ‘A parable about the divide between the first and third worlds.’ If any of that sounds interesting to you I’d say Habibi might be worth trying.

Here are some of my other thoughts:

Despite the book’s length, it is not a dense or a difficult read. In fact the story flies by, flitting between time jumps and Biblical allegories. If anything, I lingered on pages to savor the beautiful art. Craig Thompson fills each page with sinuous, flowing inks or intricately tight hand-drawn patterns. On an art level, the book is truly a black-and-white masterpiece.

img_1515Mostly, we’re following the story of a beautiful young Arabian woman, Dodola, and a younger African slave, Zam, that she takes in and cares for. Both Dodola and Zam have brutal backstories. They’ve both been born into impoverished, third-world cultures that marginalize women and blacks. They essentially have no one else in the world to care for them, and after Dodola escapes from a slave market with Zam, they become each others’ only family. Mother and son. Sister and brother. As Zam reaches puberty, his feelings toward Dodola grow more complicated, and that is the catalyst for the major conflict of the story. That and Zam’s discovery that Dodola has resorted to prostitution to bring them food.

The story is definitely not afraid to ‘go there’ when it shows the readers the brutality of Dodola and Zam’s world. In the first few pages, we are shown the aftermath of the consummation of a child-bride’s marriage. Then we’re seeing white slavery, a medieval attempt at abortion, rape, castration, infanticide, and a harem where women are callously murdered once they’ve lost the interest of the Sultan. Later in the book, Thompson spends a chapter explaining the horrors inflicted on a shantytown when their water supply is tainted by industrial pollution, sewage run-off, and even floating corpses.

img_1516Apparently Thompson chose to set Habibi in an anachronistic, allegorical sort of Arabian world, where skyscrapers and Western tourist co-exist with slave markets straight out of Roots or Game of Thrones. This to me was one of my biggest disconnects from the story. “Wait, was that guy driving a motorcycle? Now he’s throat slit by a nomadic tribesman?” I felt like it cartoonized the book’s depiction of the third-world. Surely there’s enough going on there to be frustrated or shocked by, without adding halberd-bearing assassins or pedophiliac slave traders.

But there are other parts of the book where its epic, allegorical vibe works well, especially when Thompson digresses into explorations of Arabic calligraphy, geometry, and ancient science. I found a lot of this stuff fascinating, in a numerology/astrology sort of way. And it’s always cool when comic artists find ways to work visual concepts or symbolism into their storytelling.

Overall, Habibi is a magnetic, beautiful, if sometimes confusing experience. The strong arc of Dodola and Zam’s relationship throughout the book (and as they come of age) helps to keep the story on track. I haven’t read Craig Thompson’s other graphic novel ’Blankets,’ but I’m looking forward to checking it out in the near future.

 

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I just read: The Steel Seraglio

steel_seraglio   ‘The Steel Seraglio,’ by Mike, Linda, and Louise Carey (a dad, mom, and daughter team), is a wonderful epic story about women changing the world from unlikely origins—a medieval Arabian harem.

Considering its setting, it’s not surprising that the story works in elements of 1,001 Arabian Nights, with storytelling as a strong theme. But the first section of the book is more of a twist on the myth of ‘Lysistrata.’ In ‘Lysistrata,’ the women of Greece go on a sex strike to force their men from going to war. In ‘The Steel Seraglio,’ the protagonists go the opposite way, overindulging the bellicose Sultan (with sex, flattery,  white lies, and any other feminine wile they can muster) to soothe him into not pursuing wars. As a result, the seraglio (another word for  stealthily presides over the most prosperous and enlightened sultanate in the land.

Unfortunately, this ‘Pax Romantica’ is finally shattered by a truly frightening villain in Hakkim Mehdad. Hakkim is a religious extremist who believes all of Earthly existence should be a grinding, joyless slog to achieve perfection in the afterlife. He’s also got a unique origin story and a truly creepy secret totem that he keeps with him.

The protagonists are a savage exile, surrounded by men who see them as objects of gratification or political pawns to be slaughtered. But they work their way through each hardship with wisdom and cunning. These courtesans aren’t just sexpots playing dumb; they’re savvy, talented women.

65_edc02steelseraglioremnimitmalaviaAll except one among them, who wields a sharp knife better than a sharp wit. I won’t give that woman’s name, because it would spoil her sudden introduction to the story. But let’s just say she is the land’s only professional female assassin, and she finds herself throwing in with the Seraglio. Soon she is recruited as the group’s reluctant (and refreshingly gruff) tactician. There are other standouts: the wise and aging matriarch, the snobbish and brilliant diplomat, and the librarian who was granted powers to see the future.

Lastly, there’s the slain Sultan’s last living heir, Jamal. Jamal starts the book as a young, inconsequential prince—far back in the line of succession—so he is both spoiled and essentially ignored. When the Seraglio helps him survive the slaughter of all his brothers and half-brothers, a new world of possibilities opens up for Jamal in exile. But will he choose to follow those possibilities toward good, or toward evil? Jamal has the the strongest character arc in the book. He’s written as a character who is hard to like, but easy to empathize with.

Steel Seraglio also features evocative illustrations by Nimit Malavia.

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