Saga, Volume One: a review.

Saga, written by Brian K. Vaughan and drawn by Fiona Staples, was one of the major comics sensations of 2012. I was excited to see it on the Hugo nominees list, since this would mean I’d finally have an excuse to make time to read it. The first volume introduces us to Alana and Marko, deserters from opposite sides of a vicious galaxy-spanning war. Despite the long-standing hatred between their peoples – humanoids with wings and horns, respectively – the two have fallen in love. Perhaps the most unusual element of Saga, though, and one that its first pages bring powerfully to the fore, is their baby. Saga is a story about love crossing battle lines, both romantic and parental.

Of course, now I feel a little ridiculous for trying to point out the “most unusual element of Saga“. This is a series that includes hostesses composed of enormous heads on legs. I still think, though, that it’s worth noting the unusual focus on parenthood. Few comics or speculative fiction (or popular culture in general) make raising a child an important part of the plot or thematic concerns, which is strange considering that parenthood is such a common and powerful experience. (I’m inclined to guess that this stems from our cultural tendency to assign parenting to women, and to focus on men’s stories over women’s, but there are undoubtedly other factors.) So the fact that Saga puts child-raising at the very center of its action-adventure story deserves significant notice. Vaughan and Staples are grabbing pop culture by the collar and saying “Hey! Taking care of babies is heroic! LOOK how badass these people are!” That’s basically pretty awesome.

Alana and Marko aren’t the be-all and end-all of Saga, though. They’re the central characters of a story that involves many more people, most of whom are trying to kill them, many of whom are sympathetic. Saga takes an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to speculative fiction, introducing us to robots, ghosts, and more beings who could easily be described as mythical creatures or aliens, but who fit best under the heading of “Saga characters”. (I’m personally especially enamored of The Stalk. You can tell how much fun Staples and Vaughan have with her.) The myriad characters and settings successfully give the impression of a big universe full of amazing things, without worldbuilding being much of a concern. With a few exceptions, nobody’s unilaterally bad; everyone is understandable and everyone is interesting. This is a great example of artist and writer working together as a team: there isn’t a secondary character in Saga whose dialogue and character design combined don’t make me want to know more.

These worthwhile antagonists are pretty important, because without that complexity Saga might be in danger of turning into an anti-war pro-tolerance tract. It’s pretty clear that the war between the wings and the horns is deeply pointless and cruel, and that the two sides’ hatred of each other is completely baseless, but so far there haven’t been any impassioned speeches for peace. (And if there were, you can bet they wouldn’t result in the enemy weeping and laying down arms.) We can tell, because we follow characters with a wide range of different involvements with the war, that there’s far more going on with this conflict than simple refusal to see reason. It’s supported by longstanding social custom and entrenched economic interests, just like wars in the real world. Alana and Marko, being generally practical types, aren’t trying to single-handedly make peace between their people, just to find a place to raise their daughter … but it seems that the two goals may be too entangled to separate.

Locke & Key Volume 5: Clockworks: a review.

Locke & Key Volume 5: Clockworks is a tricky thing to review. It’s the fifth part of what will eventually be a six-volume comics series. It would be completely silly to read Clockworks in isolation, and I would be nuts to try to write a review recommending it as though you were doing that. So I really have to convince you to read Locke & Key in general. But for all that it isn’t a stand-alone volume, Clockworks is a collection for good reason. The issues that comprise it belong in a book together: they’re structurally linked, and they form the intense crescendo that has to happen before the finale. This is really clearly the penultimate volume.

Okay, but what’s it about? Locke & Key tells the story of the Locke family, whose lives are torn apart by the bloody, apparently random murder of Rendell Locke, husband to Nina and father to Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode. In the wake of this tragedy, the family move to Rendell’s childhood home, Keyhouse, in Lovecraft, Massachusetts. (Yes, I know, the town is called Lovecraft. That heavy-handed name may be one of the series’ weakest points, and given what a minor complaint that is, it should indicate how highly I think of this comic.) But they can’t run away from their problems, especially not by going to Keyhouse, where an old and strange foe is hiding in plain sight. Tyler and Kinsey, a high-school aged boy and girl, find themselves having to cope with disasters and figure out what’s going on in some truly desperate situations. All the while, the reader knows where their enemy is and can only wait for them to realize what our omniscient perspective has already shown us.

It wouldn’t be inaccurate to describe Locke & Key as supernatural horror, but it would be missing a lot of the point. The supernatural elements are only a small part of what makes the comic disturbing when it’s disturbing, and often it aims for and achieves entirely different emotional tones. At its core, Locke & Key is exploring themes of family tragedy and growing up, and the awful things we do to each other when we’re going through such events. All of the Lockes are traumatized by Rendell’s death in different ways. Though the story primarily focuses on Tyler and Kinsey (and Bode, to a lesser extent), the serial format gives Hill the narrative space to explore other characters’ perceptions of events and their ways of coping. (The single issue that focuses most fully on Nina, “Beyond Repair”, is a piece of virtuosity that will break your heart.) At times the coexistence of supernatural threats and psychological issues gets a little awkward. When the narrative is really interested in the insides of the characters’ heads, the actual dangers that exist outside can seem a bit hokey or heavy-handed. In fact, by the end of volume 4, Keys to the Kingdom, the danger has begun to seem less pressing; the more times a threat shows up in an episodic structure, the more times the main characters have faced it down, after all. But Hill is ready for his readers to grow tired of his villain: the last few issues of Keys to the Kingdom heighten the stakes and change the rules of the game. Everything is clearly building toward a decisive confrontation.

The next issue is set in 1775. Clockworks begins by taking us back to the early days of the Locke family, who apparently can trace their roots to Revolutionary-era Lovecraft. This means that at the moment when dramatic tension is highest, Locke & Key suddenly introduces an entirely new set of characters and leaves the reader to twist in the wind wondering what’s happening to the Lockes we know. And it works. Much of Clockworks is concerned with a series of flashbacks, which fill in desperately needed information about the origins and nature of the strange things the Lockes have found in Keyhouse. What would have felt like stalling or exposition in another work becomes, in Locke & Key, the final few components of a terrible machine slotting into place. I am full of anticipation to see what this creation does in the sixth volume.

I would be greatly remiss to talk about a comic without mentioning the art, of course. Somewhat unusually for a comic published traditionally in print, Locke & Key has had a single artist throughout its publication. Gabriel Rodriguez does an amazing job of making the comic both visually enticing and, at the right moments, repulsive (and in a few extraordinary cases in Clockworks, both at once). The Lockes have a genuine family resemblance – they look alike, but not ridiculously so. In fact, Rodriguez gives all the characters’ faces a lot of individuality and character. I would definitely recognize any of these people on the street, and I doubt I would confuse them with anyone else. The most incredible panels, as in a lot of comics, are those where the writing and art come together to make an idea that could never have been expressed any other way.

The only reason I wouldn’t recommend Locke & Key to someone would be if I thought they would be bothered by the carnage. It’s a pretty bloody comic, from start to beginning. I wouldn’t say that the series glorifies violence or uses it for cheap shocks – the characters’ reactions show that the creators want to explore what actually happens when people whose lives are not violent suddenly have to cope with a lot of death and injury. Still, I know this isn’t for everybody; it definitely wouldn’t have been for me a year ago. But hey: even if you know you don’t like violence, give Locke & Key a try anyway. Seeing the Lockes come together is worth putting up with a lot.

Throne of the Crescent Moon: a review.

For the first review in my series of reviews of Hugo nominees, I’m reading Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed. It’s a good starting point for a few reasons. This is Ahmed’s first novel, so I’m approaching his work totally fresh, which seems good for the beginning of a blog. Also, it was the first file in the Hugo voters’ packet, and I believe in starting at the beginning, so here I go. If you haven’t read it, no fear: the review is spoiler-free.

Some basic information: Throne of the Crescent Moon is the first in a series called The Crescent Moon Kingdoms. It tells the story of Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, the last remaining member of the once-great order of ghul hunters, and his attempts to fight off an undead threat greater than any he has ever seen before. The narration switches off between Adoulla’s point of view and those of the other four major characters: his assistant, the dervish Raseed; Zamia, a young Badawi tribeswoman; and Litaz and Dawoud, wife and husband, old friends of Adoulla’s. This story focuses primarily on Adoulla’s character arc, but it’s also very much an ensemble cast, probably with an eye to focusing on different characters in upcoming sequels. As you may already have guessed, the setting is clearly inspired by the medieval Muslim world, and that’s probably this novel’s most notable feature.

I really like the idea of a fantasy based on a civilization that doesn’t normally get drawn on for fiction very much. Throne of the Crescent Moon is set in the medieval Muslim world in much the same way that lots of sword-and-sorcery novels are set in medieval Europe. Everything has a different name, and plenty of aspects of the setting aren’t simply drawn from history, but you can definitely trace a lot of the locations and cultural ideas to real-life precedents. For example, the Badawi, nomads who live in the desert near the city where the story is set, seem likely to have been inspired by Bedouin tribes. This is, in my opinion, exactly the kind of thing speculative fiction needs to be doing. It’s a pretty big world out there, full of a lot of really fascinating history and culture, and a lot of fiction is just reusing the same Western European stuff over and over again. Writing about Muslim culture, in particular, is a great way to find inspiration that everyone else isn’t using, and has the potential to do vital work in dismantling the Islamophobia that unfortunately persists in American discourse. Every character in Throne of the Crescent Moon is a member of the same faith, one which is never described as “Islam” but clearly draws heavily on it, and the book does a pretty great job of not just showing how that faith pervades the characters’ lives, but also how it means different things to each of them.

Despite the freshness of its setting, however, Throne of the Crescent Moon doesn’t reach impressive heights of originality in plot or characterization. The fundamental plot conflict is extremely simple and familiar: there are some scary undead monsters, called “ghuls”, threatening people in the city of Dhamsawaat, and a ragtag team of unlikely heroes gets together in order to fight this menace. The bad guys are really really bad – their magic involves horrible murder and torture! (Not a spoiler, as the book opens with a scene of some nasty dudes torturing someone and doing magic.) Each character has a clearly outlined personal conflict to struggle with, some of which are incredibly uninspiring. Raseed’s, for example, is “should I let my emotions come before my devotion to duty?” Well, yes. You should, at least once in a while. We have all read that plot a thousand times, and also, every other character tells you to go for it.

Admittedly, other characters’ internal lives are a little more interesting, and there are also moral questions that aren’t that simple. But even when there are open moral questions, the book telegraphs them extremely clearly, usually by having one viewpoint character point out one side and another viewpoint character point out the other. In fact, there’s quite a bit of telling, rather than showing. For example, on page 230: “Adoulla frowned, sensing the subtle edge beneath the alkhemist’s words. ‘Please, my dear, none of your snobbish scorn for the whoremistress, eh?’” In that fairly typical example of this novel’s prose, I count three different ways the readers are told essentially the same thing.

I don’t want to give you the impression there’s nothing to admire about Throne of the Crescent Moon. I did find myself excited to read it and learn about the events of the plot, even though I sometimes found that plot predictable. And even though I think much more could have been done in the way of using the unusual setting to provide plots and characters unlike those we’re familiar with, the setting itself is beautifully drawn. I got a powerful sense of Dhamsawaat as a living city, and not a city just like every other fantasy city I’ve ever visited. Its almost unbelievably crowded streets and its wildly different neighborhoods nestled cheek-by-jowl gave me the sense of exploring a place I’d never been before, a place I would definitely be interested in visiting again. I’d like to see characters and plots in that city that could only have taken place there, not in any fantasy novel where a group of friends takes down an evil threat.