As always, all links lead to the full (and spoiler-free!) reviews. Click through if you're so inclined.
Spontaneous by Joe Harris and Brett Weldelle
Publisher: Oni Press, 2012
Genre: Science Fiction
Sub-genre: Comic book, Contemporary
The premise of a boy investigating Spontaneous Human Combustion after witnessing the sudden death of his father intrigued me, so here I am, reading and reviewing.
The story runs at a quick pace, the book brief enough we tend to have caricatures more than actual characters. Emily is a modernized version of Lois Lane, her job made harder by the fact that print newspapers are dying. Melvin is appropriately tormented, but there isn't much more to him than that. There's even less substance to the secondary characters, each of whom is defined by their role in the comic rather than any personality traits.
Brevity keeps all attention on the unfolding plot and the mystery of the spontaneously combusing people. The tension is relentless, but it's not entirely a grim book; there are moments of humour to break up the dark plotline, which takes a couple of small turns before the big plot twist you're at least half expecting, but it's revealed in such a surprisingly emotional way it ends up working anyway.
The art style is unique, a combination of hard lines rendered in soft watercolours. The sketchy, monochrome drawings create a mood without overshadowing the story they're trying to tell.
Weldele is talented, and a story like this plays to his strengths.
The hardcover price will probably scare off a lot of potential consumers, and I'm not sure I'd be willing to pony up 25$ for it myself, but if you get a chance to read the thing, it's well worth a look.
Publisher: Grand Central, 2005
I was in the market for new-to-me female authors, and Octavia Butler was recommended to me. Who am I to resist?
Butler has very consciously created a different kind of vampire, one who functions in different ways from anything else you may have read. For one thing, the Ina are an entirely different race from humans, and people can't be "turned" into one of them. They drink blood, but when wounded they need to eat meat. There's a lot of politics, ethics, and sexuality explored, which is pretty standard for vampires, but things like the total segregation by gender stand out as new and different.
Shori has the body of a ten-year-old girl. She's fifty-three, but in the eyes of the very long-lived Ina, she's still a child. Since they aren't undead, she has plenty of growing yet to do and will eventually achieve physical maturity. She is, however, a very sexual creature, and unlike other vampire stories, this is not implicit or explored through the feeding. The book is very straightforward about Shori having repeated sexual intercourse with Wright, which made me rather uncomfortable. I'm conflicted about my discomfort. For one thing, I think Butler made some very deliberate decisions here. She doesn't intend for Fledgling to be a comfortable read. She wants to challenge her readers, and making Shori a sexual being in a little girl's body is one way of doing that. On the other hand, this aspect of the book made me like her characters much less than I might have otherwise, and I'm not sure that particular side effect was deliberate on Butler's part. I have an eight-year-old daughter; I know what a ten-year-old girl looks like. Wright's sexual attraction to someone who looks like that is problematic for me, regardless of her mental or emotional age. He's vaguely conflicted over it in the beginning, but him being conflicted involves closely studying her naked body. He's somewhat influenced by her having bitten him, but this is after the first bite, long before he's been properly marked or claimed. Sex with children is not just a cultural taboo, and Shori is still a child by the standards of her own people, not just physically, but emotionally and mentally, even without her missing memories.
Butler also explores issues of race here. The Ina swear they're beyond the human sort of racial discrimination, but Shori is the only one of them with her skin colour, and something bothered someone enough to get her entire family killed. Her skin colour is considered by some to be unnatural, an outward indication of the genetic experiments that made her what she is, but as with humans, her darker skin helps to protect her from the effects of the sun, making her burns painful but not lethal, as they would be for other Ina.
This is a well-written and thoughtful book, an interesting if not comfortable read.
Bitter Angels by CL Anderson
Publisher: Spectra, 2009
Genre: Science Fiction
Initially I was really interested in the setup, since it featured an older, out-of-shape woman, a retired mother of three. She notes her body is now soft and curved in places it used to be hard and lean, that she's out of touch with the friends and resources she used to have, things like that. On its own, this could have been a really interesting aspect to the book, but it's magically done away with when Terese is medically conditioned, her body returned to that of a 30-year-old woman. Oh, and it doesn't matter that she's been retired for decades because she's actually a couple hundred years old, so that's just a drop in the bucket to her. I understand it's easier to work with a protagonist in peak physical condition, but it also eliminates any of the interesting repercussions it could have had.
The same could be said of Terese's husband and children. She's reluctant to leave them after having promised to permanently give up the dangerous and all-consuming work of being one of the Guardians, and when it comes in direct conflict with a mission that not only twigs her sense of duty but is personal, with the loss of a friend. There's a pretty good build-up for it, but once she commits herself to the mission, she rarely thinks of her family. The husband comes up once or twice, primarily because he contacts her, and it's reasonable to assume she'd work hard to keep focused on the task at hand, but according to Bitter Angels it's pretty easy to turn all that family stuff off, even if it means you'll probably lose your husband and children forever. Oh well, there's still a job to do! It's really a shame to just let Terese's baggage fall to the wayside so easily, since it could have been a really different take in what is otherwise a fairly standard military sci-fi storyline.
Bitter Angels doesn't focus solely on Terese, though. The secondary protagonist is Amerand, a spaceship captain who works hard to keep himself unnoticed and his operation running smoothly, but who finds himself an unwitting pawn in the machinations of people working over him. Chapters switch between his viewpoint and Terese's, which is an effective method of giving the readers a bigger picture of what's going on, since Amerand and Terese spend most of the book in different places. Much less effective is the occasional chapter coming from a totally different viewpoint, especially since Terese and Amerand's chapters are written in first person present and the chapters written from the perspective of secondary characters are in third person past tense. The shifting back and forth of narration styles is distracting at best.
Actually, like the choice of narration, this book suffers a lot from trying to do too many things at once and over-complicating itself. There were a number of things that almost went right, but grew unnecessarily complex. Instead of enhancing, the added layers actually diluted what was going on, and in fact confused matters once or twice. When you have to make a few leaps to get to your final plot destination, you've likely missed a few connections, and the extra frills along the way won't bridge that gap for you.