Technically this is my second update on my book bingo, but this is the first time I got a bingo on my card. I think this line got done first just because I never ended up reading any novels on it. I filled this line with two graphic novels, two novelettes, a novella and a collection. I’ll keep things brief and get into the reviews.
For more information on my book bingo challenge, click here.
Graphic Novel/Comic Book
Monstress Vol. 4: The Chosen
by Marjorie M. Liu and Sana Takeda
Published October 2019 (Image Comics)
I was enjoying Monstress, but after the last issue, I just wasn’t feeling as into the story and wasn’t that excited to read this issue. Fortunately, Vol. 4 rekindled my interest in the series and now I want more.
In Vol. 4, Maika Halfwolf meets her father and learns of his plans for the world and the Monstrum Zinn. There’s less focus on the politics of the world (though there is still a good amount) and more focus on Maika confronting just what she is and what dangers yet to come. There is also a chapter of cute little Kippa meeting a mythical ancient creature and learning about her own magic.
If that made no sense, let me take a second to explain what Monstress is.
Monstress takes place in a high fantasy, matriarchal world of magic, talking cats and ancient monsters. We follow Maika Halfwolf, an Arcanic (person with animal-features) who can pass as Human, and has a demon/ancient one like being called Zinn who occasionally comes out of the stump of her severed left arm to devour people. Maika survived a catastrophic even in the last war between Arcanics and Humans, and is now looking to find the truth about her mother’s death, a strange mask, and the Monstrum within her. Throughout her journey, Maiko encounters racism from both Arcanicas and Humans, is sold as a slave, and sees the horrors of a world gearing up for war. All of this happens while she learns more about Zinn, his people, and the destruction that will happen if they ever return to the world.
The story is epic, but also complex. I found that in the wait between volumes, it’s very easy to forget details of the story. I think this is why I had problems with Vol. 3, because it took me a while to get reorientated in the world. Looking back on the series, it feels like it’s been slow and complicated. I would probably feel a lot better about the story though if I had binged it.
The thing I love most about this series is Sana Takeda’s artwork. Her style for Monstress isn’t quite manga, but looks like it could be the basis for a beautiful anime. The colours are perfect, the characters are distinct and very well designed, and there is just so much detail in every panel. The art is beautiful.
That said, the level of detail in the art can get distracting at times. I found that in some action scenes it was a bit hard to follow what was happening. I feel this may have contributed to my issues with focusing and remembering some details.
Vol 4: The Chosen collects issues #19-#24 and lacked the nitpicks about over-complexity and lack of focus I touched upon above. After finishing this volume, I’m eager to continue the series. Fortunately, the series is continuing, with issues #25-#27 having been released. More information about the series, as well as the entire issue #1, can be found on the Image Comics site.
I tend to read a lot of novelettes. Usually there are a couple in each issue of Analog or Asimov’s, but I didn’t want both novelettes for this tile to be from the same source. I started this year catching up on some recommended short fiction from 2019, and decided to look at a story from Analog and one from Uncanny for this challenge.
A Mate not a Meal
by Sarina Dorie
Published February 2019 (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, March/April 2019)
I’ve really fallen behind on reading short fiction last year, a fact I was reminded of when I realised I was reading the March/April issue of 2019 in 2020. In a few of the Analog issues before this one, I struggled to get through them. Story selection lately just hasn’t been exciting me. This issue though was full of really great stories, and A Mate not a Meal was my favourite.
In this story our protagonist, Malatina, is a giant spider. Giant giant. Big enough to easily eat a human, and she gets that opportunity many times. After seeing her mother and sister killed in a mating attempt gone wrong, and almost being by the trickster male responsible, Malatina is alone and traumatised in her den. One day she hears beautiful music outside her burrow, and her fear and desire to mate are in conflict. It turns out that this ‘male’ is actually a human, but Malatina still sees her as a male of her species. Thus an unlikely friendship is born.
I liked the story. I liked the characters. I don’t think it’s realistic for a species that is so solitary to have language or sentience, and there isn’t enough worldbuilding to even know if Malatina’s people are supposed to be aliens or just giant spiders. Still, I found myself not caring too much about that.
by Ellen Klages
Published May 2019 (Uncanny Issue #28; May/June 2019)
I don’t read Uncanny a lot, but when I do get an issue I’m always impressed. It usually lacks novellas, but the short fiction and essays are always entertaining and informative. The May/June 2019 issue is no exception.
Nice Things wasn’t my favourite piece from this magazine, but it is the piece I know is definitely a novelette. Its a ghost story. Maybe? Its one of those where whether or not there is a fantasy element depends on how the reader interprets certain passages. All that said, I did still enjoy this story. Nice Things is a very hard-hitting character piece, about a daughter sorting out her recently deceased mother’s estate. The two of them had a very strained relationship, so coming back to her childhood home and being reminded of her mother is very painful for our protagonist.
I have a messed-up sense of humour, which caused me to find the ending funny before the darker implications of what I’d just read set in. Judging by other reviews of this story, that is not a normal reaction and there is something deeply wrong with me. All you non-crazy people out there should find the ending to this story quite chilling.
Title Starts with ‘J’
The Jewel of Bas
By Leigh Brackett
Published Spring 1944 (Planet Stories)
A fun but simple golden age romp by the Queen of Space Opera. This is a fun little story, and it has introduced me to Brackett’s writing style, which I enjoyed. Her descriptions of the evil androids and the mind-wiped human slaves were vivid and unsettling, and her description of the Immortal Bas was also rather vivid.
Still, this is a very simple story. Husband and wife gypsies Ciaren and Mouse are taking a shortcut through the mountains, then they see a scary shadow in the sky and are captured by monstrous little aliens with big zappy sticks called Kalds, who put them in a chain gang and march them and other captives across the Forbidden Wasteland towards a mountain where legend says that an Immortal god-like being named Bas lives with a magical jewel that gives him tremendous power. Then they escape, but Mouse gets recaptured and Ciaren must save her, and the world.
To be honest, I don’t have too much to say. It’s a fun little adventure, with nice action. It feels too short and straightforward to truly be called a Planetary Romance though. We get some interesting snippets about the world (It’s the 10th planet in the solar system, and it is always day thanks to artificial suns filling the sky), but the action is confined to a very small part of the world and is over very quickly. I would have liked to see more of the world.
There is one thing that makes this story stand out from other super science romps of the day, and that is the characterisation. Ciaren is not your typical hero. He is a thief and a bard, described as short and bow-legged. He isn’t an infallible hero whose actions and thoughts are always justified. His plans go awry, he is proven wrong, and he even snaps and hits Mouse at one point. Yet when she is in danger, he is crushed, sinks to the depths of despair, then sets out to do the impossible to save her. Mouse is a thief and is small and boyish; not the voluptuous beauty you’d expect from a female lead. Whilst she does get enslaved, that’s about halfway through the story, and by then she has proven to be very tough and resourceful. The two of them are under a lot of stress even before getting kidnapped. They are hungry and lost. They’re in quite a desperate situation and are having trouble getting along. Yet they still love each other.
Ciaren and Mouse aren’t pulp super science archetypes. They are flawed human beings faced with something more dangerous than they could have ever imagined, and their humanity makes what could have been a pretty meh adventure special.
Time Travel Story
Paper Girls Vol.1
By Brian K. Vaughn and Cliff Chiang
Published April 2016 (Image Comics)
It’s going to be hard to review just the first volume of this series, since I have since gone out and completed the entire series. That should serve as an indicator of how good this book was. Paper Girls Vol. 1 is fast paced, instantly gripping, and makes a great hook that will drag you into this insane time travel war. A great start to a great series.
The series Paper Girls is about four 12-year-old girls on their morning paper run after Halloween 1988. All is normal until they get dragged into a war between two different factions of time travellers. The next few days are spent jumping between different years trying to get back to their own time. Along the way, their loose bond becomes a tight friendship, and they all grow so much. There’s even a romance/coming-out aspect in there. It’s a wild ride, full of dinosaurs, mutants, giant tardigrades, cavewomen, interdimensional things, and nostalgia for the 80s, and even for 2000 and Y2K. Yeah a wild ride indeed.
The first volume does a great job at letting you know what you’re in for… by throwing a whole lot of crazy at you with little explanation. It does take a while to figure out what’s going on, but that makes every time a piece of the puzzle click so satisfying.
A lot of the plot complexity is simply because this is a time travel story. The narrative itself is straight forward enough, and everything happens really quickly. This story makes for a real page-turner, but there were some points where I would have liked it to slow down and explore some of the new settings or characters they were encountering a bit more.
I really liked Cliff Chiang’s art in this. Before I picked up the series, the coverart was a turn-off. Seemed way to pink for my liking. But the colours on the page look great, and all the characters are distinct and emotive. We end up seeing a lot of characters at different stages of their lives, and their always recognisable despite being so different, which makes me appreciate the character design a lot.
Translated from Chinese
The Flock of Ba-Hui
By Oobmab. Translated by Arthur Meursault and Akira.
Published February 2020 (Camphor Press)
This collection/fix-up novel links four Lovecraftian stories by Chinese writer Oobmab. These stories were published originally one the Ring of Wonder, a hub within China’s huge online literary scene specialising in weird fiction.
By Lovecraftian, I don’t mean has Lovecraft inspired themes, I mean these stories are set firmly within the Lovecraftian mythos. The title story follows a researcher in the mountains of Sichuan, a place Lovecraft would never have visited, at least not with a Chinese protagonist. However Lovecraft’s snake-god Yig gets a reference.
The title story reminded me a lot of At the Mountains of Madness, especially with the way the history of the place was discovered through murals. The following story, Nadir, is a quick journey through the dreamlands that featured a terrifying trip up a pitch-dark tower and an unfathomable scene at the top. Black Taisui did give me Shadow Over Innsmouth vibes, but the actual monster there is one I haven’t come across before and am not sure what it would be called in English. The final story, The Ancient Tower, again has references that I didn’t get, but it was my favourite of the four. The locations were described vividly and the whole story was full of atmosphere. There were also scenes and a twist there that were actually creepy.
The four stories have been put into a framing story. This frame seems simple and purely functional at first, but after each story we realise that there is more going on here than meets the eye.
The translation of this book is excellent. In the translator’s introduction, they mentioned how Oobmab went to great lengths to convey Lovecraft’s style, and how translating this back into English was a challenge. I think, both author and translators should be congratulated, because this book reads like Lovecraft. Lovecraft with Chinese setting and sensibilities.
The introduction to this book by the translators is also quite interesting. Meursault talks about the online writing community is China, and the affect the Communist Party’s censorship has had on fiction in the country. The most obvious effect is that works of horror are not common over there, which makes this collection something special.
Biggest complaint though is that the cover has a 20c sticker on it, but the kindle edition of this book cost me much more than that lol.
Well, it took me nearly five months to complete my first line on the card, but I have a feeling that the rest will come much quicker. And with that, I can assure you that more reviews will be forthcoming.