Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Avid Reader for August 2011

Darksaber by Kevin J. Andersen

Darksaber is the second part of another trilogy in the Star Wars saga. The first part, Children of the Jedi, was the worst of the Star Wars books I had read so far. Part two was significantly better. Andersen took the story and put it back into the main stream of the extended galaxy. He expands on his creations of Admiral Daala, Kip Durron, and Dorsk 81. I have never liked his character of Kip; he turned evil much too easily, and came back too easily, as well. He has never really connected for me. Admiral Daala has more lives than a cat; it really is amazing how many times she survives. Dorsk 81 becomes a fully developed and likeable character, and then, of course, dies. He also took the Callisto/Luke relationship further, although that is perhaps the least interesting subplot going on. The Imperial PoV through Daala and Zahn’s Palleaon character was probably the most interesting part of the book. I did also enjoy the recollections of Bevel Lemeski, the designer of the Death Star, with the Emperor killing and cloning him so many times, and the Hutts trying to become a third powerful party in the arms race. Overall, Darksaber was an average Star Wars book, and I give it a C+.

The Seeress of Kell by David Eddings

Book 5 of the Mallorean, or book 10 of the world of Belgarion. I do love the series. The whole focus of the story has been Garion and his companions trying get Garion’s son back from the ‘big bad’ Zandramas. The world tour continued as Garion and the others  pick up the last couple of members of the group from the Prophesy. Throughout the book, we see many transformations, but none more than Garion’s opposite number Zakath, the emperor of Mallorea. He goes from a sad, cold man to someone with fire and the ability to love. Is it a perfect book? No. We knew from the beginning that one of the companions was going to die, and it was the one that I really felt the least connection to. Storywise, it made sense, but it didn’t quite have the same punch as when Durnik was killed at the end of the first quintology. (Of course, Durnik came back…) Almost all of the loose ends were tied up, and I found it a very satisfying end to wonderful series. I give The Seeress of Kell an A-.

Inman’s War by Jeffrey S. Copeland
One of the book club books this past summer was Inman’s War. It told the story of an African-American college grad and teacher and his training and service in World War II. The story was garnered from the letters between the main character and his love in St. Louis. Generally, I don’t read a lot of historical novels, but I’m very glad that I did. The story of Perc Inman and the connections  he makes with his  men. It deals with the racism of the army at the time, and how hard they had to work to overcome that prejudice. It reminds me of how far we have come, and at the same time, how far we have to go. Inman’s War was well written, easy to read, and an engrossing read. I give it an A.

The New Titans Archive Volume 1 and 2 by Marv Wolfman and George Perez

It can be a little unnerving when comics that came out when you were a teenager are now considered classics. When the New Teen Titans came out in 1983, I bought issue one. Still have it. It came out during a time when DC was struggling getting decent series out and going. Written by Marv Wolfman and drawn by my favorite artist George Perez, the first 24 issues truly are classics. According to the forwards of the two compilations, Wolfman and Perez didn’t expand the series to last, but the characters that they used and created for the series came to life. Using the sidekicks of many of the ‘adult’ DC heroes – Robin, Kid Flash, and Wonder Girl, another teen hero known as Changeling (Beast Boy), and then three new heroes Cyborg, Raven, and Starfire – they built interesting stories, also creating fascinating villains who are still being used today – Trigon, Deathstroke the Terminator, the Fatal Five. They touch on the Greek myths, reach into the silver age of comics as they deal with the old Doom Patrol. All but one of the stories are penciled by Perez. The final story features Aqualad and Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy. Speedy is also the first major hero who was a drug addict. It was an anti-drug issue, although it is the weakest story in the whole series, both artistically and story-wise. It was obviously a filler issue.  That one story brings the grade for down to an A-.

The Essential X-Men Volume 1 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

The Essential series of Marvel Comics are black and white reprints of some of the earliest Marvel series. This particular series follows the original teenaged X-Men – Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Angel, Iceman, and Beast- through their first set of adventures. It was an interesting read for several different reasons. One reason was that you could see Lee and Kirby try to figure out where these heroes fit into the larger universe they had been creating. At first, the mutant X-Men were like every other superhero group of the time. Eventually, Lee grasped the idea of the unwanted superheroes whose mere existence causes a serious amount of racism against mutants. It was also interesting as they tried to figure out the characters, in particular Beast. In the first couple of issues, the Beast talked like a big dumb jock, and it wasn’t until several issues in that got his unique personality of the smart man stuck in a big apelike body. The X-Men did not fit in well with all the other groups – Iron-Man, Spider-man, the Avengers, Hulk, and so-forth, but the comic did have some great characters and concepts for the world, including the Stranger and the Savage Land. It was also interesting having the X-Men try to mix in with the mainstream Marvel world – battling the Avengers, battling a number of Iron-Man foes. It was an amusing blast from the past, but I can certainly understand why it was considered a B-level book; the character development was spotty, they always had the deus ex machina character Professor X pull them out of the fire, and it always seemed like someone announced that they were leaving the X-Men just to come back in to save the day in the following issue. Is it any better or worse than the comics of the time; probably not. One other thing that lowers the grade of Essential X-Men Volume is that it was black and white. Having the color in a comic book makes a huge difference. The uncolored images just don’t have the same magic that they do in color. Overall, I give the Essential X-Men a B-. 

The Avengers by Brian Michael Bendis and John Romita Jr

It was a real relief to see the Avengers back. I was happy to see that they followed the JLA’s idea with the re-boot: take the most popular characters of the universe and put them into the premier superteam of the world. The Avengers, in its most recent incarnation is made up of Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Spider-Woman, Wolverine, Spider-Man, and a newer character now called the Protector. I still am a little torn about have Wolverine on the team; he’s perhaps my least favorite X-Man – I still don’t fully understand his appeal  - but as he is among the most popular, I can accept it. This storyline takes place right after two of the darkest chapters of the Marvel Universe – Civil War and Siege (i.e. the destruction of Thor’s home Asgard). Steve Rogers, the original Captain America is now the head of the anti-terrorism group known as SHIELD, and these are his Avengers. I enjoyed seeing the two friends Iron-Man and Steve Rogers trying to mend some truly broken fences. There were certainly some very good character pieces in there. Overall storyline I wasn’t that thrilled with in this first compilation. They go to a possible future where Ultron is taking over the world, is opposed by the old Avengers enemy Kang, who then breaks time and waits for the Avengers to come and fix it. Part of the story comes from the direct-to-DVD animated feature the Avengers: Next Gen where the children of the Avengers are featured. To a certain extent, it felt like this was a comic book tie-in so people would go buy the DVD. Something else that bothered me was the treatment of one of my favorite super heroes Wonder Man. They are setting him up as a traitor to the Avengers. He believes that the Avengers do more harm than good, and he attacks them when they reform. He also disintegrates during that attack, which will come back to later, I imagine, but I haven’t seen it yet. John Romita Jr’s artwork has become more and more stylized through the years. It is an okay style, it may be a little too blocky for a group book. The faces looked a little too much alike, and Thor’s face never looked quite right to me; he looked almost alien. The Avengers compilation was an okay read; I’ve always liked the premise of the Avengers. I guess I was hoping for a little more. I give the Avengers a B. 

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie is a masterful author. I do find it reassuring, however, that she did have some misfires. This was one of them. It starts out with what seems to be a random accident. The main character is a former soldier at loose ends who stumbles onto the accident. His best friend is a bored aristocrat woman who pushes him into figuring out the mystery. The story is convoluted, at times doesn’t feel like a mystery but a wild good chase, and then both lead characters should be dead when they are saved by a minor character who has no business being there. Needless to say, I was not that thrilled by the novel. Shockingly, I give an Agatha Christie novel a C-. 

The Butlerian Jihad by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson

The Dune series was started by Frank Herbert, Brian Herbert’s father. Brian has taken the world his father created, the notes that his father worked from, worked with successful author Kevin Anderson and started writing what happened before and after the six books his father wrote. I’ve decided to read them in the ‘chronological’ order of the Dune universe. The Butlerian Jihad was mentioned in as an important historical event in the original Dune novels. Essentially, an artificial intelligence has taken over earth and many of the colonies of Earth. The machines – assisted by a group of ‘Titans,’ human brains preserved in robots – want to destroy humans to make the universe a more ordered place, whereas the humans are being…well…humans. There are many different sects in each side which create interesting politics and scheming. The most interesting juxtaposition was comparing the AI who had human slaves and the human planets who kidnapped people from other planets to be their slaves.  The book does a good job of introducing much of the technology, the noble families and institutions that are important in the later books.  It did feel a little forced at times, and the some of the dialogue and descriptions of location seemed stilted and incomplete. Overall, The Butlerian Jihad was an okay read. I give it a C+.

Star Trek Deep Space 9: Millennium: The Fall of Terok Nor by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens

While I am a fan of Star Trek, and I consider DS9 the best of the Star Trek series, I have not been a Trek book collector. I tried for a little bit in the early 90s, but the novels did not hold as tightly as the Star Wars novels, and were full of contradicting stories. Lucas has had a tight hold on the Star Wars novels, but no one had taken a tight hold over the Trek books, and it showed. I set them aside. My friend Paul was clearing out his collection – downsizing is so much fun – and handed me three DS9 novels, saying that these are among the best of the Trek novels. I read book one, and was entranced. I disappeared into the world of Star Trek once again. It was refreshing to stand on the Promenade and watch the aliens go by, and a wonderful chance to re-visit all the characters. I enjoyed it because I was a pretty close follower of the series, and knew the characters very well. If I didn’t, the story would not make much sense at all. However, since I am a fan, I will concur with Paul and say that this was an excellent Trek book. I really enjoyed the mystery part where the three main characters (Odo, Quark, and Garak) who were on DS9 when the Cardassians left the space station had no memory of that day, and it is Quark who pushes for remembering that day. The action, characterizations, the deepening religious and social pressures that surround the mystery all add together to a very tight, well written book. I give The Fall of Terok Nor an A-.