Friday, April 30, 2010

The Last Unicorn



The 6th book of the challenge and the 3rd of the B's.

Peter S Beagle is a fantasy author who has been active in the field for over 40 years. He's worked in Hollywood and written fantasy and science fiction, even some non fiction, he he will always been best known for his 3rd book, a whimsical fairy tale fantasy called The Last Unicorn.

It's basically a quest book. The last unicorn in the world (never named) sets out from her lilac grove in an enchanted forest to see if it's true, if she really is the last unicorn and whether or not she can find more of her kind. Joining her on her journey of discovery are the incompetent wizard Schmendrick, the incurable romantic Molly Grue and the heroic and lovesick Prince Lir. Along the way the unicorn encounters the perils of the world beyond her forest. A travelling show of curiousities, a village of hopeless people, a band of roaming bandits and finally the miserable King Haggard who has the secret to her quest.

The characters, aside from the unicorn were very deliberately made generic fantasy quest characters, but then their dialogue and actions gave them depth. The language used by Beagle is extraordinary and very uniquely descriptive, but it works. The entire story has this lovely feel to it that makes you keep reading to discover more about the world and it's inhabitants. You care about what happens to the unicorn and her friends. It takes the known fairytale concepts and ever so subtly and cleverly turns them on their heads.

I can see why it's become a modern classic. It can be read and enjoyed for varying reasons across a number of ages, from children under the age of 10 (although they'd need some help and it may even need to be read to them) to adults who just enjoy a well told tale. Other works in a similar vein are William Goldman's The Princess Bride.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Good Prince



The former Frog Prince, now the Woodlands janitor Flycatcher had been a fringe character in the books up until now, it was about time readers found out the mysteries that were hidden behind that mop of hair and the baseball cap with the frog like eyes.

Ever since turning back into a frog and then being made human again at Christmas Fly has been listless and not doing his job. The Woodlands is a total mess. Ride attenpts to motivate him by slapping him across the face, but even that rather drastic action has no effect on his self pitying state. He even goes to the Farm to see if that will help him. Back in Fabletown the Empire's increasingly militancy and the presence of Hansel nearby is bothering the brains trust of Charming, Beauty, Beast and Frau Totenkinder.

Blue convinces Fly to go back to Fabletown and his arrival coincides with the awakening of the suit of armour that hangs in the Woodlands atrium; The Foresworn Knight. The recent pronouncements had freaked out Bufkin to the extent that he violently disassembled the suit.

The suit reveals itself to Fly as the ghost of Sir Lancelot. I'd been wondering what happened to the Arthur legend, the only one we'd seen previously was Sir Pellinore. Now we knew. Lancelot believes that Fly as Prince Ambrose is the one to wear his armour and go to the Homelands. They travel via the Witching Well, which also gives them access to the ghosts of the Fables that have died and had their bodies put down the Well. Fly instructs the mirror (from the Snow White legend) to stay open so that the people on this side can see him.

The view from the mirror becomes the most watched show in Fabletown and many wonder if Fly is too trusting when he accepts the ghosts of Bluebeard and Shere Khan as part of his 'army'. Despite all the obstacles Fly seems to handle them with impunity and he grows as a man. He establishes a kingdom he calls Haven.

This naturally brings him to the Adversary's attention, who believes he is part of an invasion force. The hordes keep coming and Prince Ambrose keeps finding ways to defeat them. Eventually a huge army of Wooden Soldiers comes. Again Fly finds a way and this time not only does he take one of the Adversary's most potent weapon it also ruins the Sacred Grove, where the wood for the soldiers is sourced from. Ride comes with Blue courtesy of the Witching Cloak and is reunited with who she really loves; Prince Ambrose of Haven.

Along with the main story there was a standalone called The Birthday Secret with artwork by Aaron Alexovich. It was a cub centric story about how Bigby and Snow introduced the rest of the their brood to their brother; Ghost. It was very sweet. I hope Ghost works out with his siblings.

War is on the way.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Elantris



Brandon Sanderson was already regarded as one of fantasy’s rising stars even before Harriet Jordan selected him to complete her late husband’s epic Wheel of Time series and Elantris was the book that started it all for him. I did actually pick the book up when it first came out in 2005, but put it back on the shelf when something shinier attracted my attention. At 600 plus standard paperback sized pages it’s a fairly sizeable debut, in it’s favour is that it is not part one of a trilogy or series, it’s completely self contained.

The city of Elantris was once the pride and joy of the country of Arelon. Elantris was where the lucky people chosen by a mysterious power known as the Dor went. The Dor could choose anyone from the Prince of Arelon to the poorest farmer and elevate them to virtual godhood, the only stipulation was that they had to be living in or near Arelon’s borders at the time of the random choosing. Elantrians were, without exception, beautiful shining people who could create wonders out of thin air. Arelon’s capital city; Kae, profited greatly by being located next to Elantris and having access to it’s godlike population. Ten years ago it all changed, the Sheod (as the choosing was now referred to) turned from a blessing into a curse. Anyone chosen had all their hair fall out and large, unsightly black blotches appeared over their bodies and faces. The afflicted were cast out and sent to Elantris. Once Elantris was a paradise, now it is a living hell, peopled by barely human savages, who are not even allowed to really die. One thing that remained consistent with how things were is the random method of choosing, anyone within Arelon’s borders can become an Elantrian.

Into this world step 3 people, Raoden, the universally loved Prince of Arelon, his recently chosen bride Sarene, formerly Princess of the island nation of Teod and Hrathen, a gyorn from Fjordell, a warlike theocracy determined to enforce their religion on the rest of the world’s populace. The story is told in chapter form from the points of view of the three protagonists. Raoden and Sarene are determined to keep Arelon and Teod free and find the mystery behind Elantris’ fall from grace. Hrathen is equally determined to overthrow Arelon’s leadership and allow his fearsome godlike ruler; the Wyrn, to take control. Gradually the protagonists converge and in the climactic chapters their paths merge as they strive for the same goal in their own ways.

The world that the story takes place on is not particularly complex, think more of David Eddings worldbuilding, rather than say George RR Martin. This isn’t a real issue as most of the action takes place in the Arelish cities of Elantris and Kae, although of the three protagonists only one (Raoden) is actually a native of Arelon. The system of magic that Brandon Sanderson developed was interesting, a lot of it was related to the Dor (his version of the Force or the One Power) and how runes called Aon, could be drawn in the air and use the Dor for a specified purpose by the wielder. Sanderson’s characterisation left a little to be desired. Not one of the three major characters were particularly well developed, with Sarene almost too good to be true: beautiful, intelligent, idealistic, altruistic, witty, the list went on and on. Raoden had a little more depth to him, although he too at times seemed remarkably na├»ve at odds with his wisdom at other times. Hrathen was the most interesting of the three, but the least likeable. A particularly appealing idea to me were the Seons; animated glowing balls of light that were this world’s equivalent of the iPhone, I felt they were rather under utilised and under explained. I’m not a fan of needlessly padding out narratives or unnecessary volumes, but in the case of Elantris an extra 100 or 200 pages may have allowed the author to explore things like the Seon and craft a better ending, as it stood it seemed a little rushed and contrived.

I put the few flaws down to the fact that this was Brandon Sanderson’s first book, it was an ambitious undertaking with some clever and original ideas and overall he carried it off well, in some quarters I’ve seen his prose criticised as being uninspired, if that means it wasn’t overly alliterative and exhaustingly descriptive then more power to the man’s pen, it was solid and smooth. Although the story is self contained, he has given himself a couple of jumping off points if he wishes to write a sequel in the future. It’s a strong debut and has encouraged me to seek out more of his work and I can see why he was chosen by Harriet Jordan to finish Robert Jordan’s much loved Wheel of Time.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Fables: Sons of Empire



There was no way that the Adversary or the Empire would allow Bigby's retaliation and his message to go unanswered and the main story arc of Sons of Empire covers that in 4 chapters.

The action takes place on a number of fronts, so I'll try to cover each one separately.

The Empire call a meeting of their best and brightest in order to plan their attack on the Mundy world. They plan to do it in 4 stages. The first stage will be to visit magically created diseases. The second to use their dragons to scorch the world. The third is for the Snow Queen to give the world a never ending winter. They believe the fourth; famine, will follow on from the first 3. Pinnochio (he was left behind when Blue escaped) is the dissenting voice. It won't take the Fables long to work out what's going on and they'll alert the authorities on Earth and help them find a way to the Homelands, the world's military with it's technological advancement can top anything the Empire can throw at it, they will win and they will take over. While seeing the sense of what the puppet says the Empire still believe that they can do something, so they send Hansel to the Mundy world as an envoy and a spy, to carry out political assassination if he has to. Hansel is all grown up, his experiences as a child have given him a pathological hatred of witches and he was actually expelled from Fabletown for a heinous crime caused by his scarred psyche. He actually dresses rather like a member of the Gestapo and has that same menacing air about him.

While all this is going on in the Homelands different things are happening in Fabletown. Riding Hood ventures out of the Fabletown district and gets herself a stylish haircut and some fashionable clothes. She looks like a real knockout. However when she shows Flycatcher, he becomes extremely embarassed, retreats to the depths of the Woodlands building and promptly turns into a frog!

On the Farm Bigby is asserting his rights as the big wolf in Wolf Valley, it's off limits to anyone other than his family and people he invites, that includes other wolves. He's also actively training his cubs.

Hansel makes his presence and his purpose known to Charming, Beauty and Beast. Once he's left Charming orders large scale surveillance of the ambassador. Bigby is going to have to get involved. At the Farm Rose and Blue take the first tentative steps into a relationship.

Each of the chapters had a little vignette about other Fables we had not yet met. There was one about Rapunzel and the 8 hourly haircuts her curse forces her to have. An amusing little tale about Leland, Prescott and Thaddeus, or as they're better known The Three Blind Mice. The devious Porky Pine and how he gets kisses and even a possible 'thorn' in the Fables side, the writer Kevin Thorn, who knows not is all as it seems on the surface in Fabletown.

The vignettes were done by different artists, they all have distinct styles, but no one can do these characters like Mark Buckingham.

The second main story; Jiminy Christmas was the first genuine Fables Christmas story. The Fables celebrate Christmas, in fact Santa Claus IS a Fable. Rose and Blue use a magic carpet to deliver presents to the cubs and stay the night not long before Christmas. The kids are taken by Rose's Santa Claus stories and Ambrose, the shyest of the cubs gets the short straw and has to risk no presents to see and talk to the great man. As he explains how he can be in many places at once we see his gift to Flycatcher, the shade of his long dead wife kisses him and returns him to human form again.

I wasn't too keen on Father & Son, the two part that ended the collection. The story was fine, but the artwork left a lot to be desired. Michael Allred did not capture the spirit of the characters at all, as it was a Bigby, Snow & cubs story this was disappointing. The actual story itself was largely written from Ambrose's point of view and I think Bill Willingham likes him the most. We found out why there was tension between Bigby and his father and how the Beast was going to get the surveillance he required to keep tabs on Hansel.

This was a feature packed collection and as an extra readers were treated to another series of little vignettes that answered their most burning questions, such as: What is Frau Totenkinder knitting?

Bring on collection #10. I say!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Fable: Wolves



While the Fables had been dealing with events in the Homelands and receiving delegations from the Arabian Fables where had Bigby been and what was going on with him and Snow and their brood?

Wolves is a 2 part story which largely concerns Mowgli's efforts to locate Bigby and convince him to come back to Fabletown. His payment for this mission will be the liberty of his friend and mentor Bagheera from captivity on the Farm. The problem is that if Bigby doesn't want to be found he's a damn hard man/wolf to track down. Having been raised by wolves Mowgli is better equipped than any other Fable for the job, though. He does eventually find Bigby living in the Alaskan wilderness. Bigby agrees to come back with Mowgli, leaving Sarah, the woman he's taken up with. We don't find out a lot about the attractive native girl (she looked like an indigene to me), but I sensed that there was more to her than met the eye and maybe more than even Bigby realised. I doubt it's the last we've seen of her.

Back on the Farm the cubs are growing like weeds, they even have names now: Darien, Conner, Ambrose, Blossom, Winter and Therese. The artwork and the writing give the 6 of them very distinct personalities that suit their appearances and you can see definite traits from each of their parents within them. With their help of Auntie Rose they're trying to learn how to control their dual natures and their abilities so that in the future they can leave the Farm and live among the wider Fable community out in the Mundy world. The North Wind decides that it's time he went back to his own domain and once again Snow has to explain to her children why the men in their lives keep walking out, little does she know that a certain scruffy wolf is headed back her way.

The main story acr covers the extravaganza that is the comic's 50th issue. Using one of the magic beanstalks that grow on the Farm Bigby climbs up through the clouds and meets his former agent; Cinderella. With the help of a friendly giant (Cindy has developed an alliance with them) Bigby is taken to a gateway between the Cloudworld and the Homelands. Just like back in the war Bigby drops in behind enemy lines.

He's attacked and retaliates savagely in his wolf form, he's ably assisted by his son. Obviously their seventh child located his father and was assisted with controlling his nature and powers.

The purpose of Bigby's mission is to confront the Adversary and explain that any attack on Fabletown will be met with immediate and devastating retribution and to exact some measure of revenge for what happened when the Adversary's wooden soldiers marched on Fabletown. Mission accomplished Bigby arrives back in Fabletown to a low key heroes welcome and collects his payment.

Rose takes Snow out to the area of the Farm that was previously inhabited by the sleeping giants (they're now the Three Little Pigs) and she sees Bigby there. It's a joyous reunion and shows that whatever their previous relationship they are now deeply in love with each other. As payment for what he did in the Homelands Bigby has been gifted the land on the Farm and if Snow wants to they can move the cubs there and raise a family. The reunion between Snow and Ghost (the zephyr child) is touching and beautifully handled.

Sometimes comic book weddings seem overblown and over the top, not this time. The marriage between Bigby Wolf and Snow White was perfect and didn't overdo anything, including the appearance of many of the Fables that the readers had met on the way. It's going to be a real adventure watching how these two deal with married life and the challenges that raising seven very unusual and talented offspring will bring.

The last story in the collection, entitled appropriately Big and Small was about how Cinderella set up the alliance between the Fables and the Giants. I like this feisty secret agent gal that Willingham has turned the former princess into. Beside Mark Buckingham and Lan Medina atist Shawn McManus has followed the style of the Fables the best. In fact, despite his overdone smiles, if I had to choose another artist besides Mark Buckingham for the series, it would be McManus.

Fables: Arabian Nights (And Days)



I'd been wondering what had happened to all the great Fables from the Arabian Nights tales, people like Aladdin, Sinbad the Sailor and Ali Baba. Blue got information from the Adversary in Homelands that they were on the hit list, but they were yet to appear in the pages of Fables. The Arabian Nights (And Days) collection rectifies that.

During his time in Baghdad, Mowgli made contact with the Arabian Fables, and had tried to set up some sort of meeting between the Western Fables and their Arabian counterparts. The first signal that the 'wolf boy' has been successful is the appearance of a stretch limo out the front of the Woodlands building. As if Charming didn't have enough to deal with as Mayor, now he's got to handle a large delegation from an entirely foreign culture with different customs and a language he can't speak.

Of the two options Blue was given to make restitution for his crimes (stealing the Witching Cloak and the Vorpal Blade) he chooses two years hard labour at the Farm. Although this will get him out in the fresh air it also means he has to leave Riding Hood behind. He asks his friend Flycatcher (the Frog Prince) to keep an eye on her and there is a growing friendship between the shy girl from the Homelands and the former prince, now janitor.

To Charming's chagrin, the only available Fable that can effectively communicate with the Arabian Fables led by Sinbad, is former Mayor Old King Cole. There are also hints that Charming is planning on adding another notch to his bedpost: Beauty. Fortunately the woman comes to her senses and rebuffs his advances, but Charming never gives up easily. They were also unaware that Bufkin witnessed the entire incident.

Once Cole starts talking to the Arabs things move along, the fly in the ointment is Sinbad's obnoxious vizier; Yusuf. The situation worsens when Frau Totenkinder tells Beast that the Arabs have a WMD (Weapon of Magical Destruction), in the form of a djinn, with them. Being composed of 97% magic djinns are the most powerful magical creature there is. They're also unpredictable and hard to control, in the hands of someone like Yusuf it could spell disaster for Fabletown. The only creature they have access to who could hope to challenge a djinn is the North Wind, who is still on the Farm bonding with his grand children. He's willing to do it, but the consequences of that sort of magical battle could very well destroy the world, so he's not really an option. The scenes at the Farm often involve Snow's cubs. Being werewolves who can also fly the six siblings can create any amount of havoc . The only person who has any real control over them at this point is not Snow, but their Auntie Rose. Her interaction with the cubs is delightfully written and drawn.

Back at Fabletown Yusuf has released the djinn and it takes some pretty swift and sneaky spell casting by Frau Totenkinder to prevent the destruction of Fabletown. Yusuf has unwittingly condemned himself to a slow and painful death at the hands of his own djinn. Frau Totenkinder oversees the death and as with the torture of Baba Yaga, she revels in it too much. She seems to be on the right side for now, but her enjoyment of suffering is concerning, as is the amount of power she has and the knowledge she's gathering. Maybe she'll work out okay, but I find it hard to fully trust someone whose name translates literally as Mrs Dead Children.

At the Farm Blue finds out that his exploits in the Homelands have made him into a hero and Rose's definition of hard labour for heroes is somewhat different to what he initially expected.

Sinbad returns to his base in Baghdad and Cole goes with him in a capacity as Fabletown's ambassador to the Arabian or Easter Fables. The collection ends with Ride developing feelings beyond friendship for a clueless Flycatcher.

There's a standalone at the end of this collection called The Ballad of Rodney and June. It's largely the story of two of the wooden soldiers who develop feelings for one another and the Adversary's method of satisfying both parties. Although the story is standalone it could definitely have implications for the larger story. The artwork for that was provided by Jim Fern. The wooden soldiers were effectively portrayed, but it simply didn't have the life of Mark Buckingham's work.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Fables: Homelands



Homelands is a collection of 7 issues, 5 are the title story. 1 is a one shot featuring Jack and the remaining story is an interlude which helps to set up the next collection.

In Jack Be Nimble readers find out how Jack stole the contents of one of Bluebeard's treasure rooms and what he did with it. The story is actually the creators way of transitioning Jack out of Fabletown and into his own spin off book. The artwork was by David Hahn, it was adequate, but I find that only Lan Medina and Mark Buckingham can do Jack properly.

The interlude features one of Bigby's 'tourists'; Mowgli, from the Jungle Book. He's all grown up now and works for Charming as the new Mayor of Fabletown. He agrees to take on a job for Charming as long as the prince will help his friend Bagheera regarding the panther's part in the uprising on the Farm and involvement in the attempted murder of Snow White.

The title story is set in the Fables Homelands and concentrates mostly on Boy Blue. With the aid of the Witching Cloak and the Vorpal Sword he's set himself up as a Zorroesque avenger. He's out to do two things: kill the Adversary and rescue Riding Hood (the real one this time). The initial view we get of the Homelands confirms the Fables stories about it being a dark place with the people firmly under the thumb of the Adversary. Blue attacks and kills the Adversary's goblin soldiers cum tax collectors.

The masked and cloaked avenger cuts a swathe through the Homelands getting ever closer to the capital and the Adversary. The capital is an interesting contrast. It looks like a fairy tale city and is quite beautiful, the people work hard, but they don't seem cowed, the only real sign of an outward totalarian style dictatorship is the abundance of soldiers on the streets.

Blue gets the drop on the giant armoured figure that he believes is the Adversary, but is unable to make his getaway, being encased in a block of ice by the Adversary's bodyguard; the Snow Queen.

When Blue comes to, he is in an oversized birdcage, he is also face to face with the Adversary. This is a real Oh My God moment. I never saw it coming. The Witching Cloak is armed and because the Adversary wants it and can't use it without Blue he tells Blue what he wants to know and also agrees to bring the real Riding Hood to him. Once Ride is there with the help of Pinocchio (he was hidden in the cloak) Blue makes his escape.

He's put through the wringer back in Fabletown and then it's revealed that he was working for Charming all along. He can provide details about the Adversary's identity and importantly that the Fables from other cultures have not yet been taken over by the Adversary.

Fantastic collection. The unveiling of the Adversary, we got to see a different side of Blue. The only minor criticism is that most of the Fables we've come to know and love weren't shown.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Fables: The Mean Seasons



After the breakneck pace and the many story developments that took place in March of the Wooden Soldiers, Fables readers needed a collection that would allow them to calm down a little, but still advance the plot.

The Mean Seasons is a collection of 7 issues, a one shot featuring Cinderella, a 2 issue story about Bigby and the title story The Mean Seasons which runs over 4 issues, each one representative of one of the seasons of the year, in that it's the Fables story that has taken place over the longest period of time.

The Cinderella story, Cinderella Libertine was something to show that the former princess and now shoe store proprietor is more than just an airhead. She uses her feminine wiles to entrap Ichabod Crane, who was prepared to sell the Fables out to the Adversary if the price was right. Cindy seems to be one of Bigby's 'tourists', special agents that he uses to help him control those Fables that choose to live in the Mundy world. It was a fluffy little piece, it was actually published in the middle of the March of the Wooden Soldiers, but I could see why it had been placed differently, it would have spoiled the continuity of the earlier collection.

The 2 issues featuring Bigby were about one of the missions he undertook for the Allies during WW2 and how he prevented the Nazis from developing an army of Frankenstein monsters to unleash against Allied forces. There was another Fable in it called Harp, I'm not sure if he was a troll or a goblin under a glamour or the Singing Harp from Jack & The Beanstalk. It was written and drawn in the style of a comic war story, see the 40's Captain Americas or Sub Mariners for an example. Sgt Nick Fury's Howling Commandoes are the same sort of thing as well.

The others were entertaining, but I wanted to know how Snow's pregnancy went and who would be elected Mayor of Fabletown.

Snow ended up having a 'litter' of 6 children or 'cubs'. Given the kids unusual parentage on their father's side, part wolf, part North Wind, they were bound to be a little unusual. They look like a hybrid and they float. They were extremely cute, but their appearance meant that Snow would have to raise them on the Farm. Bigby disagreed with this, and after failing to convince Snow to take the kids and raise them in a secluded forest somewhere, he left Fabletown, possibly for good.

Prince Charming predictably won the election. This caused some problems. Cole was evicted from his penthouse atop the Woodlands building and couldn't understand what he had done to the Fables that they wouldn't vote for him and he did not know what to do with himself now. Charming had made some big promises and he would not be able to keep them all. He knew that Snow and Bigby wouldn't work with him so he gave their jobs to Beauty and the Beast. Blue had left after the battle and taken the Vorpal Sword, the Witching Cloak and Pinocchio (now in wooden puppet form) with him to the Homelands to try and find the real Red Riding Hood. This meant Beauty only had Bufkin the flying monkey to show her the ropes. The monkey tries hard, but he's not particularly reliable, nor is he all that bright. The Beast is thrown in the deep end, having to try and track down Jack, who left with billions from one of Bluebeard's treasure rooms, and deal with a series of unexplained murders in the city. To top it off Charming hasn't been able to deliver on the promise he made to 'glamourise' all the non human members of the Fable community.

Snow enjoys herself at the Farm with her flying children and her sister Rose Red. A card she got from Frau Totenkinder mentioning her seven children puzzles her, because she only has 6 'cubs'. The children's grandfather the North Wind comes to visit and that's when the murders migrate from the city to the Farm. After examining one of the victims; Mary's Little Lamb, the North Wond concludes that it's a zephyr, a rogue wind that finds the breath of humans and animals a delicacy. Snow makes the hardest decision of her life. She leaves her brood with their grandfather and goes to her room. There she has a conversation with her seventh 'child', the zephyr. She sends it away to find Bigby, believing he will know how to deal with it, and breaking her own heart in the process. Just about broke mine, too.

Bill Willingham's pencils were right on the money and I loved the little drawings at the top of each page giving you a hint what was happening in the story. Tony Akins, who I had not previously seen work on Fables, provided the artwork for the other 3 stories. The war story was well done, but I felt that the Cinderella one was a little too sketchy.

I'm almost too sad to pick up the next collection. Note: I said ALMOST.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Fables: March of the Wooden Soldiers



This, the 4th of the Fables collections, covers one of the most epic story arcs I've read in any form of graphic novel or comic book.

It begins with Snow White's PA; Little Boy Blue telling her the story about how he escaped from the Homelands. Blue was on the last boat out and was present almost right to the end.

Some of the greatest Fable warriors of all time had gathered at the Far Keep located East of the Sun and West of the Moon, in a last ditch attempt to either hold back the forces of the Adversary or to give those of their people that they could a chance to escape the Homelands and join the other Fables who were setting up in Fabletown in the Mundane world. Robin Hood and his Miry Men were there, along with the warrior woman Britomart. St George the Dragonslayer had come to defend the keep. Tam Lin and old Sir Pellinore were prepared to fight for their home or die in the attempt.

On the no mans land just beyond the keep's walls a pumpkin coach came to grief, a flame haired lass mounted a horse and rode for the keep. Boy Blue helped rescue her and fell instantly in love. Her name was Red Riding Hood and she had only just managed to escape from enforced slavery at the hands of the Adversary's forces. She and Blue spent a night together and intended to rendevous in Fabletown. Unfortunately Red Riding Hood never made it and Blue never forgave himself.

Fabletown is concerned with the upcoming mayoral elections and the two candidates; the incumbent Old King Cole, and Prince Charming are furiously campaigning. Snow White is too concerned with her pregnancy to give the elections a lot of thought. She's carrying Bigby's child or as Doctor Swineheart insists, children and more disconcerting is the fact that Bigby keeps referring to the baby as a cub.

That night something that hasn't happened for over a century occurs. A Fable arrives in town requesting sanctuary. A pretty red haired girl who goes by the name of Red Riding Hood.

When she sees Blue the new arrival bursts into tears and flees the room, accusing him of abandoing her to her fate and saving his own skin. Bigby hasn't had a chance to question Ride as she prefers to be known, but he's suspicious, for him it's all too perfect and he's also sure that the gate she claims she entered our world through in Canada is closed and has been for some time. He explains that he believes she's a plant. To allay Snow's scepticism he tells her that it's a common ploy used by warring forces and he has personal experiences from it when he served in both World War 1 and 2. That's an interesting nugget of information about Bigby, that he cared enough about his adopted home to fight for it. Meanwhile 3 unusual, almost robotic characters have entered Fabletown and are behaving very oddly.

After a number of unsuccessful attempts to sell fake magic beans off, Jack leaves a bar and is waylayed by the 3 newcomers. They offer to buy the beans from him and refuse to believe him when he tells them that it's a scam. They attack him, but hadn't reckoned on him being able to fight back. He takes a beating, but manages to fight them off and take evidence that they're not what they appear to be. One of them lost his wooden leg during the struggle. Jack takes that and himself to Bigby.

Jack has pulled so many scams in his day that it's hard not to believe this is another one, although he's not likely to have had himself beaten up so severely. While Jack is trying to convince Snow and Bigby that something rotten is going on in Fabletown the 3 black suited wooden men have armed themselves with enough firepower to start a small war.

Blue is with his two best friends; Pinocchio (who is to his chagrin forever stuck in the body of a pre adolescent child) and Flycatcher (better known as the Frog Prince), pining for his lost love in Ride, when she comes to see him. She apologizes for her earlier behaviour and asks him to come with her to somewhere private so that they can 'talk'. Both the former puppet and the former frog are concerned for their friend and also think Ride is trouble. After talking things through Ride and Blue spend the night together again. Once he's slept with her Blue knows that Ride is not who she's claiming to be, unfortunately he's come to this realisation too late. The woman professing to be Ride disables him and has her servants, who look like the 3 wooden men take him into custody.

Things are quieter on the Farm, at least until Baba Yaga's chicken footed house goes crazy and tries to escape. The more effective Farm inhabitants do manage to rope it down. Fabletown is wondering what happened to Blue. The musician in question is being tortured by 'Ride' and her henchmen. Bigby calls Snow from the gate in Canada and informs her that the Fable garrison there is dead and the gate has been opened from the other side. The Fables know that they're in a dangerous situation and without Bigby they need someone to take control and make plans for defence. Before anything can be decided 3 of the wooden men dump a bloody and battered Blue in the foyer of the control centre. They deliver a message from the Adversary that if they do not surrender they can expect the reprisals to be swift and deadly.

Snow, Charming, Cole and Jack swing into action. The foul mouthed, obnoxious child that is Pinocchio becomes important. The Adversary's soldiers are wooden puppets like him, this means he knows their strengths and weaknesses, it also means to him that his father the puppet maker Gepetto is alive and the Adversary's slave.

Rose is on her way with the advanced weaponry they keep at the Farm and she's brought some of the Farm's heavy hitters; Weyland Smith and the Three Bears with her. Charming is preparing defences to guard Fabletown's perimeters and using his natural talents to fob off the Mundy authorities. The wooden men are mobilising for battle and Snow has enlisted the witches and wizards of Fabletown to put their not inconsiderable powers to use protecting their home. Against Snow's wishes Blue has had himself patched up and is going into battle, despite most of his fingers being broken. Pinocchio is being guarded by Jack, but he believes he can be of use as the soldiers won't attack him, he's effectively their prototype.

The soldiers march and the battle is joined. As the first wave of defenders falls back luring the soldiers into a trap Fabletown's aerial brigade fly over dropping grenades on the invaders. That's when Fabletown's big boys go into action: the goblin Hobbes and the troll Grimble along with the Beast, on another front Weyland Smith and the Three Bears rip into the wooden men. The Fables retreat and the wooden soldiers give chase, only to run into a wall of high powered weapons manned by the Fables.

The losses are heavy on both sides, but the wooden men don't care about their 'dead' and the Fables do. They can't put themselves back together the way the Adversary's soldiers can. Snow unleashes her ultimate weapon; fire. Pinocchio goes into hysterics, the soldiers are hardwood like him, they'll burn, but slowly and they'll take a lot of the Fables with them. The former puppet slips Jack and runs out to try and put a stop to his 'brothers' rampage. It doesn't end well. Snow orders the witches and wizards to rain on the soldiers. One of the witches; Frau Totenkinder (the Black Forest Witch who used to live in a gingerbread house) takes exception at how Snow speaks to her and goes to teach an insolent woman a lesson that's been too long in coming. Just when things look impossible a hurricane blows in and behind it comes a huge grey wolf, he's not at all happy. The battle of Fabletown is over, but what happened to 'Ride'?

She's floating above the battle, gleefully watching her plans take place when she's upset by Frau Totenkinder. The wily old witch has put 2 and 2 together and come up with the answer of Baba Yaga. While Bigby cleans up at street level Frau Totenkinder does her job on top of the roof.

The Fables bury their dead and it's a time of sadness in Fabletown. Just as things are at their darkest a glimmer of light shines through when Snow tells Bigby that her waters just broke.

What a ride this was! Mark Buckingham provided the art and it was truly deserving of the story Bill Willingham provided. There are a lot of visual gags in most of the Fables stories and you have to wonder how much of this is off Buckingham's own boot without input from Bill. I felt the Fables pain and rage as they fought and died for their independence against an emotionless unkillable enemy.

This is going to be hard to top.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz



The 2nd of the B’s and the 5th book in the Challenge.

This was the 1st genuine ‘childrens’ book that was recommended. Even as a book for children The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a short book, at just over 100 pages it’s more a novella than a full length novel.

Most people know the book because of the 1939 film that made Judy Garland into a star. It’s written in a very simplistic, easy to read style and there is nothing particularly remarkable about the prose or the story itself, although some of Baum’s ideas such as animated scarecrows and tin men are delightful and were, for the time, (the book came out in 1900) quite original.

The book and the film differ on a number of points. For the most part, the movie follows the novel only in a very general way. Many details are omitted or altered, while some of the perils that Dorothy encountered in the novel are not even mentioned in the movie. The book has the Good Witch of the South, who is not named, and Glinda is the Good Witch of the North, the former did not appear at all in the fim. One of the most noticeable changes is the colour of Dorothy’s shoes. In the movie they were ruby slippers in order to take advantage of the fact that the film was shot in Technicolour. In the book they are silver shoes. Unfortunately the China Country and the Hammerheads were also cut for time reasons. The role of the Wicked Witch of the West was expanded for the film. She only appears briefly in the book and her demise is rather disappointing as she provides scant resistance to Dorothy and her friends and isn’t at all frightening.

It’s hard to pin down why this is a classic. It may be because of the time it was written, possibly some of the original ideas Baum came up with for it, it also could be due to the fact that Baum also wrote 13 follow up books which fleshed Oz out considerably and made it more real in readers minds than the original book would ever have done. The major reason is probably the film, which is a celluloid classic and you would hard put to find someone who hasn’t seen it at least once. The book Wicked and the stage musical of the same name wouldn’t have hurt, either.

If you’ve never read it you probably should. It won’t take long and at times it does give you that sense of wonder that only the very best fantasy provides. If you enjoyed it or want something similar for children to read you could try any of the other 13 Oz books, I’d also recommend Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree and Wishing Chair books, although they’re considered very politically incorrect in this enlightened day and age. Older readers may wish to tackle Gregor Maguire's Wicked.

Sea Robber



Sea Robber is the 3rd of The Adventures of Hector Lynch, Pirate by British novelist and adventurer Tim Severin.

The first 2 books in the series (Corsair and Buccaneer) cover the earlier adventures of Hector Lynch, a young Englishman who is kidnapped from Ireland by Moorish slavers, and becomes a pirate on the high seas in the latter half of the 17th century. In Corsair readers see how Hector befriends the adventurous Miskito Indian Dan, and the wily French pick pocket Jacques Bourdou, and becomes a pirate. Buccaneer introduces the 4th member of Hector’s crew, former British prize fighter Jezreel and the love of Hector’s life, Maria. Buccaneer left Hector in England after a narrow escape with the gallows for piracy, pondering his next move and wondering if he would ever see Maria again.

At the beginning of Sea Robber Hector and his 3 friends are working on a Danish slaver; the Carlsborg, off the coast of Africa. Hector encounters a former ‘acquaintance’, the pirate captain John Cook. Cook forces Hector and his friends to jump ship and work for him by capturing and threatening Jacques.

Cook intends to continue his piracy off the coast of South America and needs a talented navigator like Hector to get him safely around Cape Horn. Hoping to connect with Maria Hector goes ashore in Peru, he and Jezreel are marooned there by Cook, and they learn that Maria moved to the Ladrones, also known as the Thief Islands (near the Philippines) with her mistress and her highly ranked husband.

Hector and Jezreel manage to meet up again with Jacques and Dan and make their way aboard the Nicholas, commanded by Captain Eaton to the waters of the Pacific. They first land on an island near Japan, that is ruled by a samurai warrior, they are allowed to leave only when Jezreel bests a samurai in armed combat.

From there they find the Ladrones, and after encounters with the local indigenes; the Chamorro, Hector does meet with Maria, and to his joy finds that she is still deeply in love with him and happy to steal away with him. After a harrowing journey on a plague ship, they arrive at the court of a Muslim ruler who wishes to keep Maria as part of his harem. Hector wins Maria back from the Muslim, and along with his 3 friends they set off for Malacca, trying to find a place where they can forge a life together.

Sea Robber is a diverting enough historical adventure, and if Corsair and Buccaneer entertained you this would be worth considering. Hector does have other adventures in his life, but for mine they’d need to be better written than this to inspire me to pick them up.

Severin knows his subject and is historically accurate, but he’s written this as if it were a series of basic history lessons loosely linked by a continuing narrative. It’s a largely disjointed story and while it’s readable it’s not all that riveting. The other problem is his two dimensional characterisation. Hector is the typical romantic fiction hero, young, handsome and daring, hardly done by and just happens to have the right skills for whatever situation he finds himself in. Dan is the loyal friend, who like Hector conveniently seems to have abilities that suit what and where the two men are. Jacques is comedy relief and often works on the ships as a cook, although the descriptions of the dishes he can make from the most basic of ingredients make me wonder why he isn’t in the kitchen of a 3 star Michelin restaurant. Jezreel is the muscle of the group. Maria is Hector’s female equivalent. It is possible to write an entertaining historical novel using characters who have depth and move within the confines of a tightly written adventure. Maybe Tim Severin needs to read some Bernard Cornwell or George MacDonald Fraser.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Prisoner

That's about the most straightforward title Dave has had since High Society. It refers to Astoria, who has assassinated the Lion of Serrea, and is being held to account for her crime.

Powers tells Cerebus that there is also some evidence of sorcery. Sensing a brewing explosion, or temper tantrum from Cerebus, Boobah quickly exits the room. Julius says that he wants to accompany Cerebus when he questions Astoria, he claims in typical Lord Julius style that it would be an ideal time to restructure his alimony payments, but I think he still has some affection for Astoria, and he's also curious as to why she would do something so directly, it's just not how she works.

Along the way Cerebus encounters some old 'friends'. His coach runs over the Cockroach, who is still trying to recover from the injuries sustained climbing up the mountain and being kicked off the top by Thrunk. They see Prince Mick and his brother Keef still stranded on the road side and drive right past them, much to Mick's chagrin, who still wants the money Cerebus promised him and of course Keef, who is so desperate for drugs that he's snorting up the gravel from the road.

There are a few panels of darkness as Astoria's blindfold and gag is removed in order to allow Cerebus to question her. Cerebus' former campaign manager is chained to the wall and she looks a little the worse for wear. They look at each other and both say: 'So'.

This should be an interesting interrogation.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Fables: Storybook Love



Storybook Love, the 3rd of the Fables collections is put together a little bit differently than it’s predecessors. Whereas Legends in Exile and Animal Farm were collections of 4 – 5 issues each that covered a single, largely self contained story arc, Storybook Love was a whopping 8 issues, 2 of which was standalone, 1 2 issue story, 4 issues were the title story.

The 1st story called Bag ‘O Bones, is essentially a retelling of some old legends about cheating the Devil at cards and forcing Death to take a holiday. It’s set during the American Civil War and the Fables connection is that the central character is Jack of the Tales. Aside from being an entertaining story it served to give the reader a greater insight into the character of Jack, who while he had played parts in Legends in Exile and Animal Farm and seemed to be an active member of the Fable community, had not really been covered in any depth.

The double issue story, fittingly called A Two-Part Caper, was exactly that. A caper story that ran over 2 issues. It takes place while Snow White is recuperating from the injuries she sustained during the rebellion at the Farm. In her absence Bigby, Bluebeard and Charming are running the show. An ambitious Mundane reporter approaches Bigby and tells him that he knows what the Fables are and he intends to expose them. It could win him a Pulitzer prize. Admittedly he mistakenly thinks that they are a vampire community, but publicity of this kind could ruin Fabletown and its inhabitants. Along with Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty) the Fables hatch a plan to discredit and silence the journalist. Bigby and Bluebeard clash because Bluebeard wants to kill the 'Mundy', wheras Bigby believes the man can be taken care of without bloodshed. Bigby’s method wins out, but there’s a chilling post script that underlines how ruthless Bluebeard can be.

Storybook Love sees Bigby and Snow missing from Fabletown, having gone on an unexpected camping holiday together. The two most influential members of Fabletown have been enchanted and Bluebeard is taking advantage of this to position himself for a takeover. Charming is rightly suspicious and enlists the Lilliputians to spy on the wife murderer. He was right to do so, Bluebeard is behind the ‘camping trip’, and is trying to have his lover Goldilocks murder the wolf and the former princess. Bigby and Snow wake from their enchantment and it takes every bit of Snow’s ingenuity and resourcefulness along with Bigby’s ‘wolfish’ powers to survive the attacks from the largely unseen, insane assassin. Back in Fabletown Charming end Bluebeard sort out once and for all who will be the community’s next power broker, and Charming launches his bid for mayor of Fabletown. Once back home and on the job again Snow gets some news that could not only impact her, but the entire population of Fabletown.

Barleycorn Brides is a whimsical little fairy tale about how the Lilliputians wound up getting a female population and the ability to reproduce.

The artwork is another difference in this collection. The stories are as always written by Bill Willingham, but regular series artist Mark Buckingham only provides the drawings for Storybook Love. Legends in Exile penciller Lan Medina does A Two-Part Caper, Bryan Talbot's work features in Bag ‘O Bones and Linda Medley works on Barleycorn Bride. There’s not a lot of difference between Buckingham, Medina and the Talbot, but the work of Linda Medley in Barleycorn Bride was rather cartoonish and didn’t suit the rest of the series, it worked (just) for this story, but I wouldn’t like the see this style on a more regular Fables storyline.

During Storybook Love I was struck by how similar Mark Buckingham had made Bigby in his human form to Wolverine. The two characters are not dissimilar, they’re both rough diamonds who have pasts that they’re not proud of, they have heightened animalistic senses, they can heal from almost any mortal wound and there’s a dangerous berserker fury that simmers just beneath the surface. It’s probably not a huge stretch to think that Willingham based Bigby to a certain extent on the X-Men’s Logan.

As with Legends in Exile and Animal Farm I want more!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Weaveworld



The 4th book of the challenge and the 1st of the B's.

I first picked up Weaveworld over 20 years ago when there was a lot of buzz about it. I can remember being captivated by the story and the characters at the time. I sought out other Barker books and read those, but only Imajica really captured the magic of Weaveworld for me.

Rereading it now, I was almost instantly reminded of why I liked it so much the first time I read it. Clive Barker's prose. This man can create magic with words. Barker's writing is achingly beautiful. You get swept up in it and hardly notice time passing and the pages fly by.

Disaffected Liverpudlian Calhoun Mooney meets the feisty Suzanna Parish by accident, while the latter is searching her recently deceased grandmother's house. The 2 twentysomethings find they are both looking for an amazing carpet that was in Mimi Laschenski's derelict house. The carpet isn't just a gateway to another world, it is another world. The Seerkind wove themselves and their world into the carpet to protect it and themselves from a terror they call the Scourge. Unfortunately Cal and Suzanna aren't the only 2 who want the carpet. Also hunting for it are the sleazy salesman Shadwell, with his jacket of illusions, and his mistress Immacolata, one part of the unholy Trinity of sisters, the other 2 being the Magdalene and the Hag.

When Cal and Suzanna manage to release 5 of the Seerkind from the carpet, Immacolata sends her minions to kill them and this attracts the attention of brutal, paranoid detective; Hobart, someone who would have been more at home commanding a detachment of the SS than as a Liverpudlian policeman.

Cal and Suzanna enter the world of the carpet and it eventually unravels. Cal tries to go back to his old life, but can't erase the memories of the 'weaveworld'. Suzanna is forced to go on the run in order to avoid the obsessed Hobart.

Shadwell tries to take control of the 'weaveworld' and enlists Hobart to his cause, they are later joined by the Scourge, an insane spirit who believes itself be the angel Uriel, the Flame of God.

To protect themselves, our world and that of the Seerkind Cal and Suzanna are forced into a tense final battle with Shadwell and Uriel.

Barker's vision of faeryland, because that is what the Weaveworld is a representation of, is at once wondrous, confusing and sinister. His take on Uriel, one of the archangels, was also something unique. Barker's characters are well drawn and complex. To me Cal and Suzanna were very real, the way they spoke, the actions they took all made sense and were something I could see real people doing.

Weaveworld is a classic of the genre and it's not talked about that much now, it seems to have been equated with horror. There are elements of horror in it, and Barker is best known for his horror work, but Weaveworld is better classified as dark fantasy.

If you enjoyed Weaveworld, then another similar work by Barker, Imajica is also worth looking at. Tad Williams War of the Flowers has a similar theme, another disaffected human finding a way into a faery world that is very different from what he expected. Jay Gordon & Robert Scott's Eldarn Sequence is a trilogy in which 3 twentysomething Americans find their way to a fantasy world by means of a tapestry which provides a gateway between our world and that one.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Fables: Animal Farm



After having such a positive reaction to the first Fables collection, Legends in Exile, I could barely wait to start the second collection: Animal Farm, and see if it could live up to the promise shown in Legends in Exile.

Although most of Legends in Exile's main characters return in Animal Farm there are new ones introduced and it largely focusses on a different set of characters. Snow White and her less responsible sister Rose Red are two of the heroes, along with legendary smith Weyland Smith and Reynard the Fox. The villains this time are two of the Three Little Pigs and Goldilocks, aided and abetted by Shere Khan (showing that the cast of characters and the concept can move beyond the nursery rhyme and fairy tale territory), and a host of other non human Fables.

The setting is also different. In order to teach her sister some responsibility and show her that there is a life outside of Fabletown, Snow White takes Rose to their upstate Farm, where the non human Fables live, so as not to arouse suspicion from the Mundane world. It appears that Snow and Rose have stumbled upon a brewing revolution, led by two of the Three Little Pigs and Goldilocks. They are insisting that the non human Fables should leave the Farm and take their homelands back from the Adversary, and they'll stop at nothing to achieve that end, including murder. It was not lost on me that the title of this collection was Animal Farm and that it was the pigs leading the rest of the Farm's inhabitants in a revolt against their more human leaders. Goldilocks was not the sweet little girl from the fairy story either, she is now a grown up, fanatical revolutionary.

Snow and Rose have to find their own ways out of the mess they soon become part of. While Rose looks to have thrown her lot in with the revolutionaries, Snow is fighting for her life alongside the cunning Reynard. As in Legends in Exile there is a shock at the end, it's neatly tied up, but there's more scope left.

While Legends in Exile was reminsicent of a 40's detective story, Animal Farm is like a conspiracy thriller, with the obvious twist being the protagonists are characters from nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Again Bill Willingham has taken a character not often considered a hero in Reynard and made him into one, and a noble one at that.

Penciling duties this time were handled by Mark Buckingham, but there was no drop in quality and his pencils complimented Willingham's story telling every bit as well as Lan Medina's had in the first collection.

I'm hooked and will soon be embarking on the third collection.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Audacious Tenacity Tenacious Audacity

Once Powers has told Cerebus exactly what the assassination of the Lion of Serrea means for him personally, the aardvark's megalomania immediately kicks in, and he starts planning conquest. I particularly liked his idea of implementing a draft for all able bodied men over the age of 8, the only exemption being death, and even that would have to be proven.

What snaps Cerebus out of this is the realisation that he's still holding the golden ball in his hands and he has to get that to the top of the tower, he's running out the room when there's a knock on the door.

The bulk of this chapter was Dave parodying Andy Warhol, I felt it was a wasted chapter. It's one of those occasions where Dave dropped the ball, the story made way for one of his self indulgences. I'm sure the Warhol parody seemed like a good idea at the time, but when it didn't turn out to have any legs it was too late to change it and who cared anyway? It would have made someone laugh.

Dave's Warhol is a tall, thin cadaverous, chain smoking artist with a shock of white hair, by the name of Set. He's managed by a foul mouthed, brainless thug who calls himself Bill Mox. He plans to have Set immortalise Cerebus in art. Cerebus paid neither of them any attention until they used the word 'immortalise'. In no particular order Cerebus' interests are: alcohol, sex, money, power and immortality.

Set's quirkiness, and way of working ensure that the painting will never happen, and he and Mox leave hurriedly. The slamming of the door behind them manages to dissolve the gold ball back into a pile of coins, which enrages Cerebus. At this point a furiously perspiring Powers speaks up, saying that Cerebus as the Pope has to pass judgement on the Lion of Serrea's assassin. I don't think he'd mentioned that they caught the assassin before. Julius remarks that it sounds just like his ex-wife, to which Powers whispers: "It is."

Friday, April 9, 2010

Fables: Legends in Exile



Years ago I used to really love graphic novels. I hadn't read many since I stopped collecting comics. Joss Whedon's Fray and the two adaptations of George Martins Dunk & Egg stories were about it. Then I started rereading Cerebus and the medium once again became of interest to me.

I'd heard about Fables and I like the idea of a new twist on familiar stories, so I decided to try the first collection: Legends in Exile. This contains the first 5 issues and it's a self contained story. It may have started life as a limited issue series. The collection also has a prose story at the back which explains some of the background behind the relationship between 2 of the main characters.

The character list reads like a role call from the Brothers Grimm. Our main protagonists are: Snow White, who is now the power suited operations manager for Fabletown. Fabletown is where the fairy tale characters fled when their own lands were invaded. It's located somewhere in New York City, they regularly interact with humans, who they refer to as Mundanes or Mundys (shades of Piers Anthony there). Bigby, the head of Fabletown Security, this is actually the Big Bad Wolf of Three Little Pigs fame (he may have been the same one from Little Red Riding Hood, but that's not made immediately apparent in Legends in Exile, there is a definite Little Pigs connection), these days Big Bad looks and acts like a private eye from a 1940's noir film, although he can call on his inner wolf if he really wants to. Jack of the Tales, a failed entrepreneur (Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack the Giant Killer, they're all one and the same), his girlfriend and sister of Snow White, Rose Red, Fabletown's party girl. Snow's ex-husband Prince Charming, whose title and charm have worn thin in Europe, so he's come back 'home'. The villain of the piece is Bluebeard, serial wife murderer. Various other characters make cameos, and I'm sure they'll be covered in future collections.

The story is one that suits Bigby's incarnation, it's a noirish whodunnit. Rose Red has gone missing and as her apartment was covered in blood she's suspected dead. The cryptic message in blood on her wall suggests that a fable was responsible for the deed. It's up to Bigby to solve the crime. He's assisted/hampered by Snow and at some point nearly every major character becomes a suspect with the smart money being on Bluebeard, although it doesn't really suit his pattern.

It's all brilliantly written and wonderfully illustrated. Bill Willingham (writer) and Lan Medina (artist) deserve every skerrick of praise they've been given for what they have created.

The pages in the middle of the collection that talk about the invasion of their lands and the exodus are things of beauty and the demise of some of fantasy's most loved creations brought a lump to my throat.

The ending of the 5th issue will have you running down to your local comics store for the next collection. I know it made me do exactly that.

Talking To Tarim

Going by the title I had the feeling this may be a sort of Mind Games type chapter. The timeline here is a little tricky. It actually takes place inside Cerebus' head while the events of the previous chapter are going on around him.

He finds himself somewhere in space standing on a stone platform that seems very familiar from previous visits to a similar spacescape. Cerebus' only companion is the glowing ball, which now seems to communicate using words. It's happily talking to itself while Cerebus scowls at it. The ball keeps saying that something is going to happen even after Cerebus asks what is going to happen. In some ways the ball is not unlike the Elf, it's entirely possible that they're created by the same being or maybe even they are the same thing.

The ball tells Cerebus that the Final Ascension is coming, but it doesn't know what that is. It goes on to tell Cerebus that it was supposed to transport a huge gold ball up to the top of the tower, and that was how coins were created, it in fact created coins on Tarim's instruction. I can only assume that the coin that Cerebus picked up after Bran pointed it out was one of those original coins, because that was the one that started the glowing ball's manifestation on this plane.

According to the ball once you can get the gold ball up to the top of the tower you ascend to heaven, or whatever you call your version of the afterlife. Cerebus doesn't really like the idea of what the ball sees as the perfect afterlife, there's no drinking. To placate the aardvark the ball says that there will be drinking, but no hangovers. Cerebus likes the sound of that.

Cerebus tries arguing with the ball when it dares to suggest that he may not be the one to take the gold sphere to the top of the tower, it's hard to argue with the ball, because rather like Bran it simply agrees with everything that Cerebus says, but never actually commits to anything. Cerebus nearly falls off the platform in a huff and only just manages to stay on it and then demands that the ball get him back to the hotel. This is when the ball engulfs his head.

Cerebus comes to where Julius and Co left him, with a gold sphere in his hands. He's looking at Boobah, Julius and the genuflecting Powers. He asks what's up and the Julius looks at Powers and says 'Do you want to tell him, or shall I?'
Beautiful punchline and leads right into the next chapter.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Age Of Wonder



I don’t often read non fiction. All too often non fiction books make even an interesting subject sound dry and boring. The marvelous picture of the Montgolfier balloon on the cover was what caught my eye. Having a browse through the contents of the book reminded me of Bill Bryson’s wonderful A Short History of Nearly Everything, which I would recommend to anyone no matter what their interests were.

Author Richard Holmes is a well known biographer and The Age of Wonder is essentially a series of short biographies of some of the best known British scientists of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, a period that Holmes refers to as The Age of Wonder and has been dubbed Romantic science.

In biographing his subjects Holmes also tells the story of the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge or as it is better known simply the Royal Society. Holmes chooses prominent members of the Royal Society; its driving force and president for over 40 years Joseph Banks, William Herschel, Humphry Davy and others.

In the way the book has been written it is almost like a novel, the main characters being the energetic visionary, botanist Joseph Banks, the astronomers, the reserved and driven William Herschel and his formidable and underrated sister; Caroline, the erratic, creative and imaginative inventor with a longing to be a poet; Humphry Davy and the heroic, but tragic African explorer Mungo Parks. There is a large supporting cast of fascinating figures that come and go. To complete the romantic conceit they are mostly poets of the day, Byron, Coleridge, Percy Shelley and his wife Mary; the author of the science fiction classic: Frankenstein, the plucky novelist; Fanny Burney. There are also the daring and flamboyant balloonists: Lunardi, Pilatre de Rozier and the Englishman James Sadler.

The book covers what seems to be the golden days of the Royal Society under the stewardship of the indefatigable Banks, who was always looking for new discoveries in all fields of science and exploration. With Banks’ passing and the less than reliable publicity seeker Davy taking over the Royal Society, and a new breed of more mechanical scientist coming to public attention the Romantic age of science came to a close, but it had paved the way for a world of discovery.

Holmes seemed to idolise Davy to an extent and gave him 2 chapters that could have easily been condensed into one. Richard Holmes is a literary critic and his love of using poetry at times spoils the narrative feel. At times I felt he was using it to make comparisons between science and art that simply wasn’t there, in order to underline the romantic connection.

Overall it was a really well written account of an exciting time in human development about a romantic age, the research was meticulous and for the most part the subjects interesting, it also contained a number of interesting facts and served to remind me that truth is often stranger than fiction.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Five

Yes, that was it, five. No idea why other than it was the opening chapter of Book 5: Astoria, or Dave was just feeling a bit lazy that day.

Boobah features in the opening. He's looking for a midnight snack. His thoughts alternate between food and images of an angry Cerebus. He encounters the latter, only where his head used to be Cerebus now has a glowing ball.

While Boobah is pondering this Lord Julius enters through one of the hotel's many secret doorways, and sets up a curtain and gives Boobah a sandwich board. He intends to market Cerebus, or as Julius is now calling him: The Living Tarim, as a sideshow attraction.

Julius' idiotic, accented cousin, or was it brother? enters. He's based on Chico Marx, so he could very well be Julius' brother, but because of his imbecility Julius prefers people to think it's his cousin. The two of them discuss the finer points of using Cerebus, sorry The Living Tarim, as a moneymaking scheme, and as intended it looks like it was lifted directly from a Marx Bros movie, which it probably was.

While they're talking about this Sophia, in her all chainmail bikinied glory strides in, demanding to see Cerebus. The brothers or cousins want to charge her, but she pays them no notice and opens the curtain. She then closes it and the readers are treated to a one sided conversation with Sophia telling Cerebus off and slapping him repeatedly. The Living Tarim does not reply, probably because his head has been replaced by a glowing ball and he no longer has a mouth. A bawling Sophia leaves believing that Cerebus doesn't even care enough about her to argue with her.

Once again Julius and his brother/cousin (in that family anything is possible) are arguing about their marketing strategy, and this time are interrupted by Powers (he survived the destruction of his cathedral). The Bishop is huffing and puffing, the reason being that he's carried the albatross with him. We get our first really good look at this icon and yes it does look like a duck. I doubt the artist had ever seen an albatross. It's a well made duck and studded with expensive looking gem stones, but it is not an albatross.

Why would Powers carry it all that way? The Lion of Serrea, the head of the other church has been assassinated. The churches are reunited and Cerebus is now the one and only Pope. He was bad enough when he only had half the power, what will he be like now he has absolute power? No Weisshaupt or Thrunk in his way now. Somehow I doubt Lord Julius' bizarre method of bureaucracy can control the power hungry aardvark.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Dead Friends

The rather grim title suits the chapter to a certain extent.

The opening scene is Cerebus laying in bed, sleeping off the meal. The bulk of the chapter is a dream sequence and again there's a rather cinematic feel to it. The reader does not actually see Cerebus until the last few pages, the entire dream is seen from Cerebus point of view. This is a technique film makers have often used to great effect in the past and Dave is one of the few comic artists who could pull it off, of course he is ably assisted by Gerhard's marvelously detailed and atmospheric backgrounds.

Cerebus walks down a long hallway and pushes open the ornate double doors at the end, he enters a large sparsely furnished room, dominated by a massive throne made of skulls.

Bran occupies the throne, he is dressed as Cerebus last saw him and even has the knife that he used to commit suicide jutting from his blood covered chest. He claims that it doesn't really hurt, it's just a temporary set back. There is a knock at the door. Cerebus peers through the keyhole and sees Weisshaupt walking down the hall (getting the idea why the chapter is called Dead Friends?).

Weisshaupt blows a hole through the door that takes off one of Cerebus' ears and leaves him lying on the floor, helpless, blood staining the hand that he holds up in front of himself. Bran tells Weisshaupt that the Prime Minister only needs one ear to beat him and as the statesman approaches the aardvark a tiny Astoria appears on the desk and shouts at him to no great effect. Cerebus' blood stained hands close around Weisshaupt's neck and he starts to throttle his enemy.

Weisshaupt morphs into Thrunk, although he's still wearing Weisshaupt's wig and clothes. As Bran stands up for Cerebus, the aardvark breaks Weisshaupt/Thrunk's leg and Bran and the stone man go crashing to the floor, locked in mortal combat. Cerebus gets to his feet and then floats into space.

In space he encounters the Elf (Yay! I hope she's not dead). As always she has a riddle for Cerebus, he won't play along, she tells him he's and old poop, but throws something at him before she disappears. Cerebus catches it and opens his hand, it's the glowing thing and it grows rapidly.

At this point Cerebus wakes up, lights a lamp and pads down stairs. Sure enough the glowing thing is there and it's getting bigger and bigger.

Out With The In Crowd

Astoria is on her hands and knees in the snow staring after the Roach and shouting Artemis! She gets to her feet and runs after him and then realises with mounting horror that he's going to take on Thrunk by himself. The Roach is bigger and stronger than most normal people, he also appears to be indestructible, but Thrunk is still going to squash him like a bug (the pun was not intended, but I can see how it sounds).

All that Artemis can do against Thrunk; a mountainous being made of rock, is bruise his knuckles and feet. Astoria covers her face with her hand, unable to look at the inevitable annihilation. Thrunk kicks the Roach, still hanging onto Elrod in his ridiculous costume, off the mountain. Somehow I think he'll survive it.

Astoria backs up against the wall, wondering how she'll get out of this, when Cerebus clambers onto the same platform she's standing on. She believes that he is somehow going to ruin everything for her. The aardvark begins to run towards the hotel, ignoring his angry former lover, telling her to go away and as he says it, Astoria loses form and dissolves into bubbles.

Thrunk is issuing challenges, proclaiming himself as Tarim. Cerebus gets to the top of the building across from the hotel he held court in and finds a note reading Good Luck. W. Thrunk sees Cerebus standing next to the cannon and goes over, intending to destroy his enemy once and for all. Cerebus lights and aims the cannon and shoots Thrunk's leg off. Cerebus asks Thrunk who Tarim is. Desperate to avoid destruction Thrunk offers Cerebus the gold and then screams that Cerebus is Tarim. Damn right Cerebus says and then blows Thrunk's head off.

Initially the people are pleased that Cerebus has replaced the false Tarim, but soon realise that he was no better when he was running the show. Cerebus crosses the square and goes back into the hotel. He finds Boobah gorging himself, then sends him to get Cerebus food. Things are back to normal.