I suspect fellow bibliophiles and reading addicts will identify with this, I certainly do. After a couple of decades as a bookseller, reviewer, editor and writer I generally accrue more books than I can find time to read (let alone review), and I’m in the fortunate position of regularly being sent interesting new ones to look at. And yet I still love a good browse round a decent bookstore, especially second hand and charity ones, where you never know what you’ll find. Couple of weeks ago, despite having a pile of new and forthcoming books waiting on my attentions (and having several on the go at the same time) I still went off with a chum to rummage through the charity bookstores on Edinburgh’s Southside.
I decided since the bulk of my reading recently has been fiction (prose and graphic novel) I would limit myself to only non-fiction (like that matters when you have piles overflowing the shelves into corners, but hey, whatever justification works, right?). And I ambled off after our bookstore troll to the pub with several books – couple of history works, a pop science book and a collection of poetry. Necessary when you have so many other books waiting? Technically, practically, no. On the level of my reading soul though, yes, of course! And it made me feel better.
Most recently my reading has been focused very much on the books of authors I will be talking to next week when I am again chairing a couple of events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, as I read then re-read to try and pick out some relevant questions for the events, but it’s good to vary the reading diet – and for a break – to dip into some other pieces, so I am also taking quick peeks at Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a history of the American West but from the perspective of the Native Americans, a book I have been meaning to read for years, and which I found on the shelves of one of those charity bookstores recently. Which I take as a sign from the literary gods and accordingly grabbed it.
There are certain stories that are, essentially, immortal, which will be told and retold for as long as humans tell each other stories. The Norse Sagas, the Ramayana Cycle, the Epic of Gilgamesh and, of course, Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey; these stories and characters have been passed down through the millennia, they remain in our shared, collective imagination and dreams because they speak of very human elements that we 21st century types still share with our Bronze Age ancestors, of human pride, arrogance, love, hate, of the whims of fate and the struggles of life. And, simply, because they are bloody good stories. And as such they are also endlessly open to re-interpretation in every medium, because their basic elements can be refitted and interpreted to each new generation. And here, as you may infer from the title, Matt Fraction and Christian Ward are taking the Odyssey, the epic Classical tale of Odysseus (also sometimes known as Ulysses), the crafty warrior of Trojan War fame, and the voyage of his vessel home after that decade of war, a voyage wrecked by capricious gods and fates, turned into a long trial of endurance.
“Leaving behind the last century, leaving behind all their dead and their loss: Paris the coward and killer and thief. Here where Keles last stood. Here brave Hekta was bodily disgraced in death. Here where so many great women died. Three ships leave Troiia’s remains. Three adventures now start. Three great heroes begin their last odyssey…”
Except here Fraction and Ward transform Homer’s epic into a great space-faring, science fiction tale, but an SF version of The Odyssey which is also gender-swapped: this is an epic of great women heroes and goddesses. And so instead of the crafty Odysseus we have “cunning Odyssia” and her fellow Achaeans at the sack of the siegeworld of Troiia, the only male visible being He, now on a collar like a dog, “thousands of swiftships once launched in his name”, now but a spoil of war for the victorious captains. The final ships make their sacrifices to the gods – again all female, save for the “mother-father” who partakes a bit of both genders in this female-centric universe – for a safe voyage home after their long, long war. But those familiar with the Odyssey will already know that this is not a voyage that will go smoothly…
“Well, Olympians? What say you now? The war is over. Where shall we find our entertainment?”
Yes, Fraction and Wards’ gods of the stars are as capricious, malicious – and downright mean and childish – as those ancient Greek gods of Homer’s day, less interested in helping mere mortals, more in using them as playthings. The war over, how shall they find their diversions now? Well, there’s this long voyage home, a lot could happen, and these gods are quick to take offence and equally swift to deliver revenge for slights, imagined or real (never hurts to be able to justify your violent actions, even if you’re fooling nobody, a sexed-up dossier is still useful for justifying your actions, eh?). One reprimands the Mother-Father, telling her it is vulgar to find pleasure in creating new tortures for great women like Odyssia, while another declares “why should we let these bloodthirsty wanderers roam our spaceways so freely?” and more talk of punishment for their hubris (and as is often the case in Greek myth, when the gods argue about human arrogance, pride and hubris they epically fail to see that they themselves are displaying exactly the same qualities. Never trust a god). It is quite clear that any excuse will be taken by some of these petty gods to inflict suffering and misery.
I don’t want to spoil the story too much here – yes, it does generally follow the line of the Odyssey’s arc, so if you know your Homer you will already have a fairly good idea where this is going. But that’s part of the joy of it for those of us forever in love with the great Classics, in seeing how Fraction and Ward will tell their version of this ancient tale, of the clever re-imagining and re-workings of those events and characters, such as the gruesome encounter with the vile Cyclops, or the dream-like lure of the lotus eaters. Those not so familiar with the original though, are still in for a treat – there is a reason this story has stayed with us for over two and a half thousand years, after all – and after reading it you really should seek out the original Odyssey, one of the cornerstones of world literature.
The gender and science fiction components of Fraction’s version of the epic are intriguing, a fresh take on an old tale, well-told, and it’s interesting to see crafty Odysseus of legend still being the same clever, devious and brave figure as a woman, a reminder that the both the heroic aspects and our not so fine behavioural traits are not confined to one gender or the other. And Ward’s artwork? Oh, but Ward’s artwork is utterly sublime here, from the curving swiftships (mentally linked to their captains and crews) to the various bickering gods, from scenes of carnal sensuality to cannibalistic horror and vistas of distant stars. And on top of this some quite remarkable use of colour, giving some scenes an amazing, vibrant intensity, sometimes almost a visual cacophony, an overload, like being on a trip, as if someone had taken Brendan McCarthy’s innovative palette and thrown a Psychedelic Bomb into the paint, a riot of colours, forms and unusual page layouts adding to the otherworldly feel of the story and inviting the eye to linger and drink it in – a wonderful reading experience.
This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog
Scott Snyder has really established himself as major comics writing talent in the last few years, not least with his highly regarded Batman run for DC’s New 52, but arguably it was his and Rafael Albuquerque’s American Vampire which first seriously established his credentials as a new writer to watch out for, and the fact that the first volume includes work from no less a literary luminary than Stephen King doesn’t exactly hurt. I’ve a long fascination for vampire and Gothic tales, but it’s not an easy genre to do something new with. Every now and then someone reworks the genre and shakes it up – Stoker took the earlier 19th century tales and crystalised them in Dracula, Anne Rice revamped (pardon the pun) the genre in the 70s with Interview With the Vampire, Twilight brought romantic vamps to a mass teen audience while Niles’ 30 Days of Night made them gut-wrenchingly monstrous and terrifying once more. It’s one of the reasons the genre refuses to lie quietly in its coffin, but always rises again in one form or another, to stalk our nightmares, the vampire mythos is, in the right hands, endlessly elastic and able to be refitted to suit so many cultures and times. And here, these are the right hands.
The first volume is split into two linked tales, switching back and forth between them, and it isn’t titled “American Vampire” for nothing – these two settings are ones which strongly evoke a sense of Americana from their respective eras, periods most of us would associate so strongly with the US, the final decades of the Old West in the 19th Century and the early days of the silent movies as they establish themselves in a booming LA in the Roaring Twenties. Cowboy gangs and vengeful lawmen on horseback (hell, there’s even a train heist thrown in!) on one side, the glitz and sleaze of early Hollywood and Flapper girls trying to make it in the big city on the other. They’re well chosen eras that ooze the sense of the period, even now, and Snyder, King and Albuquerque use them to give their vampires a uniquely American personality and setting. Yes, there are more traditional European vampires here, hiding in dark corners, away from the sun, greedy, decadent, self-satisfied Old World monsters, much like the east coast wealthy elite who, for all the republican nature of the US in the 1800 and 1900s, were Old World style aristocracy in all but name.
“Skinner Sweet, 1850 –1880, Outlaw, Killer, Defiler of Women, Born in Kansas, Burns in Hell,” inscription on Skinner Sweet’s grave in the local Boot Hill, in finest Western tradition.
But this is America, the land of opportunity, where you can arrive with only a dollar in your pocket but build yourself up, or at least so the myth that everyone can make it goes. And here that seems to apply to the undead as well. And when a hard-nosed lawman tracks down and captures the infamous Skinner Sweet (a gang leader with a real sweet tooth) at the behest of a wealthy banker (whose banks Skinner robbed), it sets up a chain of events none of them could have foreseen. The wealthy banker is in fact secretly an Old World vampire, here to mine the Western Frontier for new wealth, but when Skinner’s gang ambushes the train carrying him, in a rescue attempt, a fight ensues, and while the lawmen are distracted the vampiric banker attempts to deal with Sweet himself, but Sweet doesn’t die easily and wounds the vampire, his blood falling onto Sweet’s open wounds. Forced to flee he doesn’t realise at first that this has transformed Sweet, but when he does suspect he arranges for a dam to be built and buys up the local town before it is flooded – thus drowning the cemetery in which Sweet lies. Vampire or not, he can never rise now, or so they think…
But this is, as the title implies, a new type of vampire – somehow the alchemy of the change brought on by the vampiric blood causes something different in this New World, creating different vampires, with different powers and weaknesses, and Sweet does eventually rise, and soon discovers his new powers. He doesn’t need a gang anymore, not with his abilities, he can tear a place apart all on his own. And he does. But when he surfaces again in the 1920s, despite still being a killer, he seems to have his own agenda, and he actually warns two naïve young actresses, Pearl and Hattie, about attending a party thrown by one of the major studio heads, but they don’t listen to him, and at the party Pearl is taken to a private room, where it turns out more of those in power are also Old World vampires, eager to use and abuse her before dumping her body in the desert. But like Skinner, she doesn’t die and instead transforms, desperately trying to figure out what has happened to her, what these new impulses and abilities are, and as she comes to terms with them, determining to take vengeance on the powerful men – these smug, wealthy, Old World vampiric elite – who did this to her.
”You, Pearl Jones, are a different kind of vampire… Just picture it in automotive terms, Bloch and his kind, they’re like old, broken-down European clunkers, okay? But you and me, Dolly? We’re like shiny, new 1926 Fords, top of the line, just rolled out onto the showroom floor.” Skinner explains why he and Pearl have different abilities from the Old World vampires.
It’s a hugely compelling read, and a great twist on the old vampire mythos, and it really does give it a truly American identity. Both story arcs plunder their periods for detail and atmosphere, and Albuquerque does art duty on both, handling Old West and Roaring 20s Hollywood with equal dexterity, giving us cowboy raiders attacking a train, or riding into a sunset on one chapter, or a Flapper Girl making her way in this brave, new post-war boom world of the big city, the bright lights (and dangers), and the lure and magic (and hidden darkness and sleaze) of the emerging magic factory that was Hollywood in the 20s, going from a wonderfully demonic grin on Skinner’s face in his Boot Hill coffin to Model T cars chugging along 1920s LA’s boulevards. Both periods, which could so easily have clashed, dovetail nicely, and of course in the real world the tail end of the Old West did indeed overlap with the early years of the movies, with genuine Western characters moving to LA and taking part in Hollywood’s early “horse operas”, so they’re a good choice for linked tales, and they are eras we’re all used to from a thousand films and books (and as I said, also suitably, iconically American), so we instinctively recognise the styles and tropes of those historical periods.
And it mixes well with the great American myth of itself which grew up during that great Westward Expansion and carried into that new modern, 20th century era (building bigger, better, smarter, always upwards, onwards, boudless optimism), but here translated to brash but bright, eager, capable new energies of new kinds of vampires, evolved to suit this New World (and totally vulgar to the sensibilities of the Old World vamps). I’m always impressed when someone can do something fresh with the vampire myth, and here King, Snyder and Albuquerque have done just that, giving horror fiction terrific new characters in Skinner Sweet and Pearl, in a book dripping with period atmosphere and style.
It’s 1944, and after years of desperate struggle, the tide is finally turning in the battle against the once seemingly invincible Nazi hordes – Russians advance in the east, the Allies are working their way up Italy, liberating Rome and then comes D-Day, the greatest amphibious armada in history, the bloody beaches marking the start of the eventual liberation. In Great Britain, endlessly battered by Nazi bombs in the Blitz, there’s a sense of excitement and relief – it’s not the end of the war, but they can feel that end getting closer, perhaps the worst is over… And then something new appears in the world, the first proper guided missiles, the new “vengeance” wonder weapons, in the shape of the V-1, the notorious Doodlebug. And once more bombs shatter homes and lives in the British Isles. A terrifying new robotic weapon, capable of much destruction.
And yet, terrifying as this new technological killer was, it would have been much, much worse, if not for a French man most people in the UK or France have heard of these days, and the brave group he organised. Jed Falby was a wee lad in London when the V-1s started falling on the city, and this book is his record and also his tribute to Michel Hollard and the vital role this unassuming, forty something husband and father took upon himself. Like many of the best heroes Hollard is not some highly-trained superspy, or skilled man of action. He’s just an ordinary man trying to look after his family in a France now occupied by the victorious Nazis. And that’s an aspect of the Second World War we don’t often think of – once the Battle of France was over, what did the ordinary citizens of the defeated France do? Despite everything, despite the occupation of the hated Nazis, life still had to go on – people still had to make a living, go to their jobs, open the schools, run the railways… And against this background Hollard and his family settle in, he gets new work, like many ordinary people they hate what is going on, but what can they do, except keep their heads down and endure?
But this simply won’t suffice for Hollard. He cannot bear the fact that his homeland is now under the rule of the German conquerors, and that while the Allies hold out in nearby Britain (with help from others, including Free French forces helping the RAF resist the onslaught, as Falby makes clear), he has to go on as normal? No, it’s not right, others are fighting and dying for the freedom of all of Europe, and this very ordinary man does that thing which takes them from being an ordinary, everyday person to being that extraordinary thing, the hero – he decides whatever he can do, he will do, despite the enormous risks. His new work for an automative parts company allows his free travel, and like many industries the occupying forces are placing orders with that company for their war effort. Perhaps if he can get that information to the Allies and anything else he can pick up on his travels, it might help? But how?
And that’s a damned good question – I mean, with no training in ‘trade craft’ as intelligence agencies call it, how do you know what information to gather and how do you get it to the right people? Slowly Hollard starts working some ideas out, often having to take a chance and trust to luck, fortunately for him often encountering others who feel as he did – these are not members of the famed Resistance, just normal citizens, all doing little bits here and there to help, some graduating to much more dangerous missions as Hollard not only works out a dangerous but do-able route over the border into neutral Switzerland to pass information to the British Embassy, but starts to prove his worth to British intelligence, so they start requesting he and those he has recruited start trying to gather more information. Naturally every new attempt to gain new information to feed back to the Allies puts them at huge danger of discovery, capture, torture and death at the hands of the Gestapo (not to mention a chance their families may also suffer in retaliation). And yet, despite this, Hollard and his friends start to gather information, fragments at first, of major operations happening all around coastal France.
(cutaway diagram of the V-1 Flying Bomb, borrowed from the Wiki entry)
As they build a larger picture with more and more information, they’re still not sure what they are discovering, and no wonder, because nobody has seen anything like this before in the history of the world. These are launch sites and ramps for the forthcoming V-1 rockets, like something from one of the Flash Gordon movies of the period, science fiction, about to become a horrible, death-dealing science fact. Unsure what they are but knowing they are important, and, worse still, taking compass bearings and realising the ramps for whatever this new device is are all aimed in the direction of London, Hollard and his friends get more information to the Allies, and soon the bombers come, starting with the mighty Lancasters and others, but they are too high to hit these small targets precisely, so in come the remarkable De Havilland Mosquitoes, those amazing balsa-wood framed fighter-bombers with an amazing turn of speed, executing a strategy the RAF would become famous for doing for decades (indeed they still did it during the first Gulf War), low-level, high-speed, precision strikes. Insanely dangerous, of course, roaring across the countryside, practically on the deck, at huge speed with massed enemy fire pouring up at you? But the precision this gave in strikes in the years before laser guided missiles was incredible, and despite casualties the Mossies hit the sites Hollard and his group identified, and hit them again, and again. The Germans rebuild and the RAF strike them once more.
We know from history that this did not stop the V-1 menace. That’s not the point of this story. But what the airstrikes on Hollard’s targets did achieve was to identify a mortal threat early and to cause such damage to it that for all the damage those launched did, it was a fraction of what the Nazis could have unleashed, if not for the bravery and inventiveness of Hollard and his friends, and the air crews who acted on their hard-won information. Imagine the carnage if those wonder weapons had been launched en-masse at the D-Day invasion fleet? And as Falby notes, he was a boy when those V-1s started hitting London. For all he knows one of those missiles stopped because of Hollard could have been the one that hit his family home – he himself may have lived to grow up because of this unbelievable bravery and heroism behind the lines.
In a rather touching move Falby uses those personal memories, injecting himself into this history, both as his younger self, out for a picnic with his mother when a Doodlebug attack happens, but also as “Old Jed”, retracing some of Hollard’s routes and locations, talking to locals about the events (often making some good friends who are clearly delighted that this piece of admirable resistance took place on their patch and that it was being honoured and remembered). Remarkably he even finds the barn Hollard used before his hugely dangerous crossing of the border to pass on his latest intelligence, still there (now converted into a friendly auberge). While most of the narrative history here follows Hollard’s growing espionage efforts, with some glimpses of young Jed to show life on the British home front, as the story unfolds Falby also starts to put himself directly into the story “talking” with Hollard, asking him questions, about why he did something so fraught with peril, how he managed it, and these all combine to give this slice of history a very personal quality that’s often lacking from heavier tomes written by professional historians, and it’s that personal quality that makes this not just a slice of history, but a personally engaging tale – Falby makes Hollard not a historical character but a real person we can identify with.
The artwork and the book’s format (looking very much like a Franco-Belgian bande dessinee album) are clearly inspired by the European classics such as Tintin. Falby himself carries sketchbooks and those form the basis of some of Le Train de Michel. The artwork is fairly simple, I think, and the flow of the panels isn’t always quite right – in some ways some parts feel more like sketches lined up than a linear sequence of the art panels that allows a comic story to flow naturally. However, that’s a fairly minor criticism, and in fact I think this slightly more basic art approach works very, very well here – this is a hugely compelling story of immense bravery during desperate times, and frankly a much more detailed, fancier artwork approach would have likely detracted from the story. And Falby takes those simple sketches and in several memorable scenes delivers some powerful moments.
The unmistakable drone of a V-1 overhead, that old adage that “as long as you can hear it, you’re safe” given a starkly simple but powerful visualisation, “a Doodlebug!” goes up the panicked shout”. That distinctive engine noise burbling overhead, then sudden silence. And silence means it is about to drop. It means imminent death. Panel after panel, each a second ticking by as the V-1 drops, each a panicked face, running in fear, trying to reach a shelter, death coming from the skies and nobody can stop it… 10, 9, 8… Each panel ticks down to the inevitable detonation of a one ton bomb among innocent civilians. Or in an earlier case a mother, singing to her baby, unaware of what that engine noise means, thinking it a passing motorbike, but not, it’s one of the brand-new vengeance weapons… It’s simply done and it is powerfully horrifying.
Early on we see older Falby with his family, walking through the St Denis area of Paris. He wants to pause by a cafe which he tells them is a location in the story he is researching (the great Emmanuel Guibert inspired him in this and also contributed a double-page of art), there is a small historic plaque by the cafe, but it is closed and his family see no point in lingering and instead continue to the nearby Gare du Nord for the train home. It’s just a few panels, but it’s a reminder not just of the many hidden histories in our cities that most folk – natives and tourists alike – walk past regularly without every noticing (I know my city well, taken thousands of photos of it, but I am still discovering histories hidden in areas I passed a thousand times), but of how often those almost forgotten histories had a vitally direct impact in shaping the future that became our today. As with all history, this isn’t just about the past, it’s about how the events and people of that past influenced the future; history isn’t a static past, it’s alive and interactive because it breathes directly into today and beyond.
In that respect Falby’s wonderfully personal, highly engaging book isn’t just celebrating the bravery of a much-overlooked hero, it’s reminding us of how many individuals, all but forgotten to the bulk of “big history” and the acts they committed shaped the events that in turn shaped the world. How many of those ordinary people did something extraordinary in those dark days, putting the hope of a better tomorrow when the lamps would be re-lit across Europe ahead of their own safety, giving their today for our tomorrows? An unusual and compelling slice of history, remembering an almost forgotten hero, and a reminder that there are some, like Falby himself (and his children, and their children in turn and so on, a chain of ongoing life), who may only be alive today because of Hollard’s wartime work. No bad thing to remember and honour such courage.
When I first spotted Mike’s Place being solicited by First Second I got that vibe I sometimes get, my bookseller’s Spidey sense, and had a strong feeling I was going to find it interesting. After First Second were kind enough to send over an early copy I found that instinct was again spot on – I sat down in the local on the way home from work thinking I’d have a quick look, wee drink then off, instead I was so drawn in I read the entire book in one sitting. Yes, it was that compelling, I simply couldn’t face putting it down to head home, so I just sat there and finished it. By sheer coincidence I was reading this about the same time as I was also getting into Asaf Hanuka’s The Realist (reviewed here last week), so I found myself reading two quite different graphic novels with an Israeli theme quite by chance.
Mike’s Place is based on actual events and real people (with the exception of some balancing scenes showing the terrorists from the UK entering the Holy Land with blood on their mind, some of which has to be fictionalised, although sadly the results of their travels are all to real). The eponymous Mike’s Place is a seafront bar in Tel Aviv, a happening joint spun off from an equally successful spot in Jerusalem, home to drink, food and good, live music. It’s a place for anyone and everyone to come, to mix with others, to enjoy life and be reminded that there are good things to this life to enjoy. Politics is to be left at the door – Europeans, Israelis, Americans, Arabs, anyone can and does enjoy mixing in Mike’s Place. Like many a fine bar in many a city, it’s a little oasis where anyone can go to relax. Jack is an independent American film-maker, in town to cover an alleged terrorist, but when he discovers another documentary film crew has already been working on the same subject for some months he realises he’s been scooped and plans to return home. Wandering along the seafront one evening he spots Mike’s Place and soon he’s inside, indulging in the time honoured tradition of chatting to the barman, telling him his problems (the kindly bar-tender willing to lend an ear may be a stereotype, but it’s one with a basis in reality).
And as it happens the barman, Gal, is also the owner, and he isn’t just lending a sympathetic ear to a traveller alone in a strange city, he actually has a suggestion for Jack – forget the politics, the terrorism, that’s what everyone shows of the Middle East. Instead why not do something totally different and make a documentary about Mike’s Place? All we ever see on international news or films is politics, war, terrorism, but behind all that there are people, normal, everyday folks just like anywhere else, working, falling in love, arguing, trying to get through life, and that tends to get ignored. And just as the country is a melting pot of different nationalities living there the bar is a microcosm of that. Gal can even introduce him to one of his bar tenders, Joshua, who has only just returned from Europe (with new girlfriend in tow, she rather lost in this new country but the pair so wrapped in each other it doesn’t matter much) after completing his film studies – he has a camera man who will also become the director of the film. Jack thinks about it and realises he has landed in just the right spot to make a different kind of film about the region.
“Just look around! Everybody come here. Israel is more than conflict and politics. Mike’s place is the real Israel – the best part of the Middle East.”
Soon Jack has teamed up with Joshua, Gal’s friend and bouncer Avi sorts them out with transportation and the documentary gets rolling, Jack and Joshua interviewing the staff, an international collection from all corners of the globe, the “Mike’s Place family” as Gal refers to it. And it’s an appropriate label – the first half of the book is especially strong on a theme of family, both the type formed by actual blood relatives (the business is a family affair, Gal’s brother runs the Jerusalem – or J-Town as he calls it – Mike’s Place) and that remarkable extended family that we all, if we’er lucky, form through a disparate group of friends. There’s an overwhelming sense of friendliness and openness here; Jack is making his Indy documentary, but he’s also, quite happily it seems, absorbing the local ambience and fitting in quite easily with the bar staff and their friends and family, from hanging out with them at bar to spending the Passover meal with Gal’s family, everyone happily making this lone stranger warmly welcome.
And behind the progress on the actual documentary we’re seeing glimpses of the private lives. Cameraman/director Joshua and his girlfriend Sasha are trying to adapt to being a couple in a country she’s never even visited before (“it sounds like we’ll be in a scene from a Woody Allen film,” she tells Joshua on being invited to dinner to meet his parents, “Middle East style, baby!” he replies), but the nervousness of a new relationship in a new setting is held at bay by that first, big flush of love at the early stage of a relationship, when you can forget the potential pitfalls just with a good kiss. Gal is having his own romantic problems, so obviously in love with the bar’s beautiful French waitress Dominique, who adores him, but not in the same way and he doesn’t know that yet. In short, just as the film was aiming to do, we see regular people going around their everyday lives just like anywhere, albeit one where the worry of a terrorist attack is pretty constant, and yet they just get on with their lives because, what else can you do? As one points out, the weather might keep them in their houses, but terrorism rarely does.
The cumulative effect of this entire first half of the book is to immerse us among this wonderfully welcoming, warm group of characters, and like Jack we feel as if they are going out of their way to be nice to a stranger, to make them welcome, at their ease. We get to know them, the different character quirks, from what they say to the camera in their interviews then the behind-the-scenes gossip of everyday life. Which means when we reach the middle of the book, the attack on the bar is all the more devastating, because the reader has really come to care for these people. And no, that’s not a spoiler, in case you were wondering, the blurb on the book makes it quite clear that partway through making the film, suicide bombers attacked the bar, and indeed the cover showing the back of a man holding a trigger to his suicide vest of explosives in front of a group of happy revellers also tells you that before you read the book. And that knowledge really affects your reading of the first half – the warm feelings I had getting to know these characters was always tempered by the shadow of the looming violence I knew was coming in their future. In a way I suppose that conveys just a little of that sense the film was trying to put across that people still live their lives despite the fact that something awful could suddenly happen, because it’s life and we need to enjoy it while we can.
But for me it really made me invest even more emotionally into the characters. The explosion comes right in the middle of the book, a two-page splash, bisecting the narrative – the first half of a group of friends welcoming a new person into their group and making a film about a side of life away from death and terrorism. The second half, the aftermath, after bloody violence has again shoved its hideous way into people’s lives, our group of characters – and we need to remember these are actual people who really went through these events. And the book doesn’t shy away from showing the horrible, horrible effects, which hurt all the more because the first half so effectively made us love these people and now the reader is metaphorically staggering in shock, much like the characters – what the hell happened, why would someone slaughter civilians like this, what happened to each person, where’s Jack, Avi, Gal, Dominique? And then slowly we get to see it – for a silent medium Shadmi does a remarkable job depicting that moment of uncanny silence after the attack, a shocking stillness for a brief instant before the chaos, survivors rushing to help the wounded, clear the space, check there isn’t another attack coming (there was a second bomber, who for an unknown reason never went through with his attack). Amid the horror as ambulances and police arrive Joshua gets the camera, his instinct to keep filming. But he’s now recording a very different film…
The entire second half deals with the physical and emotional aftermath of the attack and the book doesn’t pull any punches, from the direct, practical aftermath (specialists clearing up body parts, literally scraping pieces from the walls of the bar before any restoration work can be done, the struggle to try and re-open the bar) but more especially to the emotional load placed on the surviving characters. And as with the warmer, welcoming, friendly first half, this is also a deeply emotional experience, but one marred by sadness and grief and loss. Jack’s idea of showing real people leading their real lives now becomes about showing those people trying to help each other through such a shattering experience, trying their best to support one another while trying not to fall apart themselves, all coping in different ways. “We’re alive” becomes something of a theme here – it had surfaced in the first half, on one of the few nights the bar is closed, for Holocaust Memorial Day, and the group get together, having fun, not out of disrespect, but because they are still alive and they can “we party for the six million who can’t” Gal explains. And that “we’re alive” refrain repeats in the more mournful second half, those who are left, like any of us exposed to sudden loss, in a strange place, shadowed by grief, but being reminded that they’re still here and those they lost would want them to keep going. And that extends to the film, the people and the bar, and by extension to all of those innocents, anywhere, of any creed or colour, who get caught in such horrific events by people who are so sure of their beliefs they are willing to spill innocent blood over it (and damn every idiot who does think that way, on any side of a conflict).
But that second half, harrowing though it is in places, as the physical and emotional toll on the characters we’ve come to love also wears on the reader’s senses, is not just some dirge; miraculously, out of the ashes and fire and blood that warm bond of friendship, of family, slowly reasserts itself, even though everyone is damaged in their own way. And that warm sense of love and family and friendship is what I really took from this book. Jack, Josh and Koren touch on plenty of themes that plague the Middle East, but from the street level view of regular folks (the perspective we rarely see on the news), and do so very effectively, and the tragedy of making a film that celebrates the world away from the bombs and hate being caught in a bombing is powerful and awful. And yet despite the horror and sadness, even in the second half after the attack, I still kept feeling that strong bond of friendship, too strong and resilient to be broken by something as crude as a weapon, because its forged from something immaterial yet remarkably strong. And that sense of warmth and comradeship and, yes, again I use the word family, but that’s what I kept feeling throughout the entire book, it’s there right through the aftermath. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s upsetting, it’s inspiring, it has happy moments of laughter and dreadful troughs of despair, just like life, really, but through all of the events here remains that warm, human feeling of inclusion and family, perhaps our only real defence and hope against the hatred in the world.
The film was eventually completed and was entitled Blues by the Beach; each year on the anniversary of the attack they screen it in the rebuilt bar in memory of the friends they lost.
this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog
I first came across Asaf Hanuka’s work several years ago when he worked with respected Israeli writer Etgar Keret on a graphic novel adaptation of one of Keret’s short stories for Pizzeria Kamikaze (the same story was also adapted into the delightfully quirky film Wristcutters) and he was also a contributor to the compelling animated documentary Waltz With Bashir (which I reviewed several years ago here). In between those works and his lecturing and commercial illustration work he has been producing his series The Realist online. An old maxim teaches us we should “write about what we know”, and like many an Indy cartoonist Hanuka does just this, drawing (literally as well as metaphorically) on his own life to produce a series, usually of fairly short, one-page strips (sometimes longer, sometimes though just one single, large panel on the page – economical but very effectively done, a nice display of real skill), giving us a view of little vignettes of his family life, often peppered liberally with flights of fantasy.
Some of the tensions and problems in his life are, thankfully, ones most of us probably don’t have – for example as he and his wife have to knuckle down and start discussing the stressful matter of trying to get a mortgage and buy a place Hanuka intercuts their family finances discussion with the news on the nearby television warning of Iran’s plans for nuclear power and new missile technology and what this could mean for everyone living in Israel. It’s a clever riff on how daunting steps like taking a mortgage can be in your life, but it’s also perhaps alluding to the impermanence of everything; we view mortgages and buying a home as something so solid and lasting, but here he is thinking perhaps what is the point of this stress to buy a home that may be reduced to radioactive ash in a couple of years? This feeling of threat is found in a number of strips, such as when Hanuka notes that many of their friends are moving abroad “till things settle down” (for a war which as he observes, hasn’t actually started yet).
Most of the everyday events and problems here though are ones pretty much every person encounters: life, love, kids, parents, work, money, health… The difference being that most of us when we do vocalise our problems it tends to be in the pub with a good friend, but Hanuka puts it out on display, opening up his head, several times almost literally, using the imagery of opening his own skull or reaching into himself to pull things out, or visualising the little sudden daydreams and fantasies that run through all our heads every day. Oppressed by the mortgage talk and having to move out of their first family home he walks into his young son’s room, gazing at him sleeping contentedly, feeling that terrible responsibility and then looking at his kid’s toy and imagining himself as one of them down there on the floor, a momentary retreat from the relentless pressures of adult life into infancy. Although even childhood isn’t always a warm, welcoming place either, as one flashback to young Hanuka shows, as he gets his eyes tested, reading one of those charts in the opticians where the letters get progressively smaller, except this eye chart tells the boy “Life Isn’t What You Thought”.
Although he is quite self-critical about his own perceived faults or failings, I don’t want to give the impression this is a bleak collection, because it really isn’t, and in fact even when he is being hard on himself (too hard, perhaps), Hanuka regularly twists it so that there is a welcome dose of humour throughout most of this collection. His regular flights of fancy or daydreaming, the kind of thing we all do, add colour and humour as well as pathos – Hanuka as a superhero, cape, tights, but a bit dishevelled, workaday hero, carrying the grocery bags home, or in one particularly inspired one, trying to imagine himself as a better man. Not just a better man, better husband, better father, better artist, the whole package re-invented, and here visualised with Hanuka in Steve Jobs pose as if launching a new Apple product – bigger, better, sleeker, faster! It’s the new “iSAF”! Even as he imagines this much upgraded, improved version of himself as if he were a lifestyle product, the faces of family and friends appear around the edges of the daydream, not convinced that his new version is really going to do all it promises on the box (what about that memory upgrade so you can remember things like errands and anniversaries, eh?). The aspirations and dreams we’re sold and think will fulfill us (just like that!) falling short in the face of reality.
Some stories eschew the daydream elements and offer up problems I’m sure so many have encountered, such as taking his wee lad to school. I don’t want to go, daddy, no, daddy, don’t leave me here, daddy, don’t leave me… Tears, wailing, upset child, parent trying to explain they have to do this, it’s for their own good and feeling utterly, wretchedly guilty as their child cries watching them walk away. Cut to the boy two minutes later happily running around with friends at school playing with Lego, the trauma already forgotten for him as he plays, meanwhile unaware of this his father gets to work, sits at his desk, looks at the photo of his wee boy and cries with guilt for leaving him. The emotional hold others can have on us, most especially kids… Or explaining to his son why daddy is darker skinned and mummy is lighter skinned. I’m of Iraqi descent, she’s from Poland he tells him. But why are you different colours? Why am I white like mummy? You’re half white, half coloured, Hanuka tries to explain. His son looks at one of his toy animals, oh, you mean it’s like a zebra, right, as if to say duh, dad, why are you making this issue so complicated in that way only kids can…
And away from the introspection or self-criticism there are also little moments of pure joy – in grown-up mode Hanuka lectures his college class on this history of art, all serious, heavyweight, telling them off for their frivolous approach, that this is a serious subject they are approaching. Then as soon as he gets home he delights in reverting to a happy five-year old scribbling colourful doodles for the sheer pleasure of it because you can only be serious about Big Art for so long then need to remember it is meant to be fun. Or nice little touches comic fans will appreciate, like a visit to the great Angoulême comic art festival in France and observing many other creators and the fans interacting with them, including a lovely cameo by one of my favourites, Guy Delisle, with Delisle drawn in his own distinctive cartooning style.
It’s a lovely collection – if you’ve read some online there is still much more enjoyment to be had in sitting back with this nice hardback edition Archaia have produced, and if you are new to Hanuka’s work then this is a fine introduction to his work. There are so many beautifully observed little moments and clever use of the comics medium to show his thoughts and feelings in a way that other mediums simply cannot do, and also some fourth-wall breaking, as he and his wife argue, Hanaka retorts “at least I am real” as we cut to a pen drawing him, or another scene where he muses on views from their apartment then the view the window cleaner gets and how “he sees everything from the other side, just like you do now.” I thought several times of other creators who do the “slice of life” approach mixed with such well-observed humour (the humour often less the outright joke variety, more the organic humour that just happens, because, well, life is often quite silly in so many ways), notably it put me in mind of the likes of Joe Decie, which is a high compliment as I rate Decie’s work very highly. It can be funny, it can be a little maudlin or introspective, it is a slice of life that we can all recognise; it’s wonderfully, warmly human, wrapped up in some lovely, clever cartoon art.
893 AD, the Icelandic coast. The Norse settlement has been bedevilled by a Frost Giant, and had prayed to their gods for relief; the god of the thunder answered their prayers. Thor, the Odinson has already battled and slain the Frost Giant by the time we pick up this story, and is now drinking and feasting (eating more goats than the rampaging giant did, we are told) with the locals as they tell tales of the battle. But this isn’t the Thor we know, this is a much younger Thor, the Thor before he was worthy enough to wield the mighty hammer Mjölnir. This is a much more cocky, undisciplined Thor, overly sure of his own power and ability, and the praise of the local Vikings isn’t exactly dampening his already large ego. But when they spot wreckage and body parts in the sea nearby, Thor’s self-belief may be shaken by what they uncover…
As they gather to examine the remains, most are pulped beyond recognition, save for a head. And from the head they realise this is not some fellow Viking whose ship was wrecked, this is the head of one of the “feathered” natives of the semi-mystic land to the west of Iceland, across the dark ocean, the Vinland precious few Norsemen claim to have visited. An old, wise woman examines the head, but she sees something else beyond the severed head of a man from a distant land. She asks Thor to look into the eyes and say what he sees there. And suddenly Thor is startled from his complacency (beautiful character art from Ribic here) – he sees a god. This is the head of a dead god; a dead god who died with absolute terror in his eyes. The question is, who or what kills gods? But this is just the first taste of deity murders to come.
We move to the present day, in deep space, the Thor we know today, Mjölnir in hand, answering another prayer, but this time on a distant world. He aids these desperate aliens, bringing a storm to quench their long drought, then asks them (over some of the local ale, naturally) why they didn’t pray to their own gods for help. We have none, they answer, older among them vaguely recall tales from their parents before them of gods, but they are long gone. Curious, since almost all worlds and cultures have stories of gods, Thor investigates, soon finding the sky palace of this world’s gods. And there he finds them butchered inside, every last one. Not just killed, butchered and clearly tortured, their deaths made to last a long time. Thor has a growing sense of unease – he has seen this millennia ago and thought the God Butcher long dead. But this looks like his work, and if he has somehow returned then he knows many more gods – perhaps entire pantheons on every world – will be slaughtered…
Then we glimpse the far future – beyond even the time of Ragnarok itself, towards the end days of the universe. And in a ruined, shattered Asgard only an old and weary Thor remains, grey-haired, one-eyed, slumped upon the throne in the great hall, looking very much like his father Odin once did. His hall besieged by the God Butcher’s creatures, all other gods, even his own kith and kin, gone, fallen. He summons enough energy for one final battle, knowing he probably can’t win, but wanting to die like a Viking, on his feet and in battle. But even this may be denied to him; the God Butcher wants him beaten again and again, but not killed. Much more painful for Thor to live, the very last god in the entire universe of time and space (the Butcher even finds a way to move through time to find and kill more deities), knowing he failed – the God Butcher has kept him till last just to add that extra level of pain upon the Thunder God, to hurt him even more than he could with physical torture. The Butcher has a very “special” relationship with Thor…
The triple timeline viewpoints Aaron constructs here aren’t just a clever narrative device to allow him to give us overlapping events eons apart, or to remind us that Thor and his fellow gods are to all practical purposes immortal, going on age after age, although they certainly function on both those levels. But that three-part structure also allows Aaron and Ribic to indulge both themselves and the reader by giving us not one but three versions of Thor at different ages. We get the not terribly smart and far too damned sure of himself young Thor, certainly powerful, brave and able, but way too cocksure and smug with it. No wonder this version has yet to prove himself worthy of Mjölnir. The thing is that young version of Thor, in a Viking setting, leading longships of Norsemen on a mission, is terrific fun and the closest to the great Norse myths of the sort of Thor who would fly up north when bored just to pick a fight with a few Frost Giants. But that Thor is also, let’s be honest, grating too, so it is perhaps as well that this tripartite story structure means he never outstays his welcome to go from brash fun to annoying. And the triple timeline approach also gives us a nice view of the Thunder God’s life, from youthful boisterousness to more mature, thoughtful, responsible hero to finally the old king, seeing him across his long lifetime, how he changes through his experiences and responsibilities (and what remains the same).
The main plot, despite the clever three-timeline structure, is essentially straightforward, a seemingly unstoppable and truly vile evil being who goes from world to world seeking gods, any gods (gods of war, gods of poetry, he doesn’t care) and who doesn’t just want to kill them, he takes pleasure in it, even more pleasure in drawing out their deaths. And as Thor uncovers more he discovers from an ancient library that records all to do with every god anywhere, gods and entire pantheons have vanished many times over the life of the universe. And yet until Thor encountered the God Butcher nobody has ever bothered to investigate why – not even Thor. Gods are jealous creatures and care little for other gods, the librarian chides him, and Thor knows it to be true and ponders what this says about his fellow deities. And then realising until his battle with the Butcher he had never given the disappeared gods a single thought, he thinks, what does it say about me?
It’s a cracking tale, perfect Thor-fodder, mixing high fantasy with ancient myth, just as Thor should. And it’s engrossing, remorseless; we’re driven along, even Thor, by the pace and demands of the relentless God Butcher, chase, pursuit, evasion, battle. But there’s more than hunt and action here, there’s a theme about the nature of gods and those who worship them, and of belief itself, of faith but also hubris. What they are, what mortals think they are and what the gods believe of themselves, and how this shapes the realities of many mortal species on endless worlds.
In one scene we see a brave group of Viking warriors attempt to rescue Thor from the clutches of the God Butcher, who is enraged by the fact that even now these warriors will fight in his name, that they won’t see him as defeated but instead fight to the last to free him. Bravery or faith (real or misplaced)? Both? It’s a fast-paced, visceral (sometimes literally) story, well-constructed, immersive, with both Aaron and Ribic clearly relishing the story (which itself sounds like it belongs in the old Sagas) and in getting to show such different aspects to Thor across the ages. The later volumes expand on this mix of fantasy and myth and draw the reader in even deeper. Thor isn’t always the easiest character to do properly, to balance enough realism against the mythic and fantastical, but here it is done perfectly. One of the finest Thor series in years and, if you’ve been meaning to get back into the Thunder God for a while but were not sure where to start, here is your perfect way in.
(* = okay, he’s not the god of rock and roll, but some of us can’t say line “god of thunder” without adding that line)
this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog
I got a brief chance to catch up with an artist and comics creator I’ve known for years online but never met in person earlier this week. Oli East has created some fascinating and unique works based on his long walks, often following railway lines, and his new project sees him retracing the steps of Maharajah, an elephant from the 1870s. Bought from a circus Maharajah was to travel by train to his new home in a zoo in Manchester, but made his displeasure known in spectacular fashion (wrecking the freight train carriage he was to go in), so he and his keeper had to walk the whole way from Edinburgh to Manchester. I met Oli early in the morning in Edinburgh’s huge Waverley train station where he was getting ready to set out on his journey, creating sketches as he goes on his ten day walk following the same route as the elephant and his keeper, our very own comics Hannibal. The journey is being filmed for a documentary and the finished artwork by Oli will be shown as part of the third Lakes International Comic Art Festival in Kendal this autumn. (more details of Oli’s walk and project over on the FP blog)
Originally published in 1972 as a novella in Again, Dangerous Visions (edited by the great Harlan Ellison, who suggested the title – Le Guin originally called it Little Green Men) then expanded to a novel (albeit a very short one at a mere 128 pages) in ’76, a part of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, the diminutive size of The Word For World is Forest belies its power. To those of you familiar with the works of Le Guin – surely one of our truly great Queens of Words and Stories – that will come as little surprise; others of her works, such as the magnificent Left Hand of Darkness are not long novels either, and yet because of her skill they simply don’t need to be, she makes all her lines count, and the thoughts behind them, to produce work that lingers in the mind, provoking contemplation long after you put the book down.
Several centuries in the future and humans have expanded into space, entering an age of stellar colonisation. There are some changes for the better, not just advancing technologically but it seems by this era Earth people have set aside their differences on race, at least among one another. But the term “human” encompasses more than just homo sapiens – in Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle of novels we have a much older humanoid race, the Hain, who seeded many worlds eons past, leading to a number of different-looking but related human species and biospheres. And while slow progress towards these worlds and different members of a galactic human family working together is moving along, there is an awful lot of negative aspects to human behaviour we’re all to familiar with from our history and, sadly, our present. Earth is denuded of many natural resources, even her once teeming, verdant forests, gobbled up in an insatiable quest for more resources to exploit, and these new worlds offer rich pickings, especially for those with less than honourable morals. And just as with the colonial overlords of the ages of empire, there are men – and they are all men, soldiers, loggers, scientists – who go out to these distant places, with general instructions, but knowing they are far from contact with home and that they can effectively run it like their own private fiefdom.
Such a man is Captain Davidson, in charge of one of the remote logging camps, first glimpsed congratulating himself on being such a manly specimen of the officer class and yelling at his local servant – he and some of the more arrogant Earthers refer to them as “creechies” – in a pidgin tongue which all too clearly recalls the self-important colonial era overlords and their supreme self-assurance that they were entitled to be over other species because, clearly, they were superior. The local intelligent species, the Athsheans, despite being much smaller than Terrans and furry, are part of that galactic human diaspora the Hainish seeded the galaxy with. As such the rules state they must be treated with respect, there can be no coercion and indeed Davidson and the other officers explain there is no such evil as slavery in their colony (New Tahiti at they dub it), just “voluntary” local workers. Voluntary including being marched into the Earth camps and town, being held in pens and treated like lowly animals…
Despite being part of the Hainish human stock, it’s clear many of the Terrans, especially Davidson, simply don’t see them as actual humans, or if they do, they seem them as an inferior breed – smaller, weaker, lazy (why haven’t they stripped all their huge forests for resources and to clear arable land like the “civilised” Earth men?). This distaste at the perceived inferiority of the natives does not, however, stop them having sex with the females – usually by force (again far too many sad echoes of history in those vile acts). Of the Earth team only the scientist, the anthropologist Raj Lyubov, seeks to actually understand the native culture and befriends some of them, notably Selver, who he saves from the brutal Davidson. The Athsheans have a very peaceful culture, aspects of their society and culture shared between the men and women of their groups, the older ones, especially the head woman, holding a place of respect and, most remarkably, they all partake in a regular form of lucid dreaming. In fact they do so to such an extent that they have little distinction between the waking world and the dreamtime, and both play a role in their decision making, with some noted as especially great dreamers. While they hunt and kill forest animals there is no real violence between the Athsheans themselves, and as such they are socially and psychologically ill-prepared for violent, greedy Terrans – a people who don’t really dream properly, who even use hallucinogens (drugs are freely available) to give them what, to the Athsheans appear to be poisoned, deformed dreams. Clearly although they are men, they are not well…
The peaceful Athsheans eventually come to resist the colonial forces oppressing them. With no history or even concept of killing another human, let alone warfare, the change comes when Davidson rapes and kills Selver’s wife, leading to a confrontation. Saved by Lyubov and returned to his people, the beaten Selver dreams for days, deep, dark dreams. The great dreamers of the village listen to his dreams and the message is clear, something has to be done and the dreamtime has shown Selver how, and he must bring this concept from the dreaming into the waking world, becoming a “sha’ab”, a term that means both translator and god. And soon thousands of Athsheans, a people who normally live in small, peaceful, social groups, start to come together to follow his dream, which will lead to bloodshed.
This short novel is redolent with echoes of the many outrages and disgraces any number of colonial, imperialist powers have shown to the locals they come to dominate, and it’s not just historical, those aspects of the book, along with the rapacious desire to plunder the natural world without thought of consequence or responsibility is not unfamiliar to our own present day either. There are more direct allusions though – Le Guin wrote this still cloaked in much anger at the scenes from the Vietnam War, which she had protested through the 60s and early 70s, and while this does give some elements that “of its time” feeling, for the most part it remains far too relevant to the here and now (I wish it didn’t, that we were better than that by now, but it often seems we’re not), with some scenes very reminiscent of the war in Asia (the firebombed clearings in the forest where the Earthmen set up their fortified camps, the Athsheans all but invisible in their great forest, suddenly appearing) and even some direct comparisons – the commanding officer Colonel Dongh orders Davidson to behave, and tells him that people from his part of Earth know that even a technologically advanced force can’t hold down a resistant people dispersed through a concealing landscape.
But this isn’t just a straight story of colonial masters and oppressed natives striking back, or a parable about greed and ecological damage. This is also a psychological and spiritual story, an examination of how their seeming power corrupts those who are in charge (or think they are), but also, crucially, about how having to resist such evil also infect and corrupts the oppressed. Because in having to learn to fight back – to take another human life – the Athsheans will have to change, and even Selver, the god who brought this knowledge from the dreaming, is terrified of what this will do both to him and to his people. Evil acts, like a viral infection, and a fall from grace for these gentle inhabitants of a natural Eden. Learn to fight the Terrans and maybe they have a chance to save their culture and their world, but the cost on their souls may be heavy. It’s not hard to see that also as perhaps an observation of what violence and warfare can do to even the best of people, even those who fight on the side of right and good still often feel revulsion and horror at the acts they have to perpetrate, haunted in their dreams forever after, and for the Athsheans whose dreaming is an essential part of their life, how much worse that must be.
It’s a compact tale, a masterclass by a powerful writer who fashions a lean narrative where others might have produced a much larger, bloated tome, and yet for all the brevity Le Guin delivers not just a narrative but a believable alien world and society in short yet compelling scenes. Some forty years on as this new SF Masterworks edition comes out (as a bonus featuring a thoughtful introduction by the excellent Ken MacLeod, as well as Le Guin’s own intro), this still retains huge power to provoke thoughts and to make the reader reconsider troubling events in our own day and age in a different light.
Ian Tregillis first came to my attention when Orbit published his Milkweed series, starting with Bitter Seed, a fascinating and very well constructed trilogy – or perhaps triptych is a better term, as the books aren’t just sequential but curve back on one another – of an alternate history of World War Two, of an even more bitter struggle for national survival by the UK, mad Nazi scientists, scientifically-created supermen with dangerous abilities and an intriguing magic/science underlying it. It was dark, often bleak, relentless and utterly compelling and addictive. So when The Mechanical arrived on my desk – with its very cool minimalist graphic cover and page edges matching the red of the cover colour, very swish – I was eager to see what he was going to do with the start of a new series. Well, you know how I said his previous trilogy was “compelling and addictive” a moment ago? The Mechanical is that too and even more so. This is the kind of novel you’re reading on the bus or train and you actually resent reaching your destination because it means you have to pause your reading.
There are some common elements this new novel – the first in the Alchemy Wars series – has in common with Tregillis’ previous Milkweed trilogy. Both series feature Tregillis’ own take on one of my favourite forms of science fiction, the alt-history tale, a subgenre which, if handled cleverly – as it is here – can fascinate the reader with “what if?” moments where the fictional history diverge from our own around some turning point which came out a little differently. The second thing it has in common with his previous book is in world-building. And if there is something we geeks really love in our science fiction, it’s some seriously good world-building, the sort which has lovely details we can absorb and well-worked out variances from the actual history, with good supporting reasons as to why this world has developed as it has and how those changes from our history affect everything else rippling forward. And here it is handled brilliantly – Tregillis crafts an alternate history for the world that is as intricate as the clockwork mechanicals – the Clakkers – who feature in the story, fine details adding to the feeling of authenticity of this fictional world. For instance steam power is hardly known – who needs steam locomotives or steamships when you can have them powered by rows of mechanicals? And little, knowing details like Delft being famous not for the lovely Delft ware, but for their antique decorated masks for earlier, vintage models of Clakkers, or, being the Netherlands, there are rumours of an “underground canal” rather than an “underground railroad”.
Of course no matter how wonderfully though-out the world-building and the clever reasons for the alternate versions of history, these are just the stage-dressing; it’s the narrative and the characters that make a novel really work, and I’m glad to report that Tregillis handles this as skilfully as he does his background detail. This is one of those eminently satisfying novels where, by the time you get halfway through it, you will be very emotionally invested in the characters, both human and mechanical. We open with a gathering in the Hague – humans and Clakkers coming together to witness something now fairly rare, a public execution. On the scaffold today, some “papist” French spies trying to undermine the fine, upstanding Protestant Dutch. This isn’t the 17th or 18th century though but the 20th. The religious wars are still ongoing, but in this world the Dutch married the maritime and trading expertise to the creation of their mechanical men – general servitors, specialised units like soldier mechanicals, the dreaded multi-legged Stemwinders (which do the bidding of the Horologist’s guild, which after several centuries is not just a powerful guild but also operates elements akin to a secret police/intelligence unit) or maritime or airship mechanicals. The result is that rather than the British creating their vast empire, it was the Dutch who rose to global domination, aided by their almost unstoppable Clakkers, designed to obey instantly, to work tirelessly. They are still at war with France, but this is New France – what would be Canada in our world – because the Continent belongs to the implacable Dutch and the Brasswork Throne. What’s left of the French kingdom and crown is buried in Marseilles-in-the-West, surrounded by Dutch forces from New Holland, based out of New Amsterdam (obviously with no British empire New York remained Dutch and with no British colonists it was the Dutch and French contesting for North America), where Berenice – known as the Talleyrand (a sobriquet for whoever holds the position of the French spymaster) – is being humiliated in the king’s council because the French about to swing from the gallows in the Hague are the main part of her network in the Netherlands, now blown (it’s almost like something from Tudor times, with Walsingham’s spymaster rounding up Catholic spies).
And there is something else, which has brought out the crowds but also large number of the mechanicals in the Hague – a rogue Clakker is to be executed. A machine which has done the seemingly unthinkable and developed free will, able to simply say no to a human command, to ignore the compelling geas upon geas layered on their systems to make them obey, punishing them with a deep, searing pain inside their mechanical souls if they do not obey right away. Many of the city’s Clakkers are lingering, despite the pain of the command geas pushing them to go about their duties, to witness this, as the Horologists plan to burn away the machine’s hard-won sense of individuality in their glowing forge. These machines are born from both clockwork mechanics and science as well as a rich infusion of alchemy (legend has it the great Huygens purloined some of Newton’s secret alchemical notebooks which, along with his own genius, kickstarted this era). Actually it’s not fair to say this doomed rogue – an extremely rare creature the Horologists take huge pains to prevent happening again – has developed individuality.
As the book progresses and we follow the Clakker servitor Jax and see his interactions with other mechanicals (they click and twang their pulleys and gears to talk secretly to each other, their humans totally unaware), it becomes clear these mechanical creatures are indeed self-aware, but the geasa the Horologists layer on their awareness at creation, like subroutines in a computer programme, bind them, almost the way a magician is said to bind spirits or demons of familiars, to compel them to do what is commanded, aware but unable to refuse. It’s a particular vile form of one of humanity’s scourges, slavery, except this bondage doesn’t just hold the body in thrall but the very being is held in perpetual service. “Clockmakers lie” is the regular secret greeting between the Clakkers, and they dream of emulating the rogue – how did he escape his bonds? Could they do the same? If they did, what would they do, where could they go? Escape to New France and beyond into the north where their own secret legends tell of a place where they can be free? Or is that just comforting folklore for the mechanicals? Circumstances will soon push Jax to find out the answers to these questions rather urgently…
This is an increasingly fascinating book, becoming every more so the deeper you dive into it. The main narrative arcs of Berenice and Jax are well-paced and absorbing, while the superb detailing and world-building I mentioned before flesh this world out into one you can believe in and feel you could explore. Those elements alone would promise you a superb read, but there’s more in here, for those who want to think further, from the more obvious themes revolving around the morality of holding someone – machine or human – in bondage, Tregillis capturing with quiet, emotional intensity the pain of those so enthralled, imprisoned both physically and spiritually, aware but never in control of their own bodies, and the associated philosophical questions of free will – is there really such a thing, or is it only an illusion? There are elements of Frankenstein in here – the creation of new forms of life then not treating them with the respect they should have had, humans dabbling into areas where perhaps only the gods should – and questions of the nature of freedom and the nature of being which will have you thinking long after you finish reading. As with his Milkweed series you cannot take the safety of even lead characters for granted, Tregillis is not afraid to make his characters suffer, some of them quite terribly. All of which makes this one of the sharpest, most intelligent, hugely compelling works I’ve read this year, and I cannot wake to see where Tregillis takes this series next.
This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog
Like all the best Noirs, The Fade Out is set in that strange, twilight realm between night and day, the everyday, normal life and the shadow world’s intrigues and weird ways, forever in the shadow of the War. It’s 1948, and places don’t come much more in-between reality and perverse fantasy than Hollywood, it’s manufactured dreams, carefully designed and polished stars and the powerful moguls behind the studios.
Charlie Parish is a screenwriter, working away on another new film, one designed to finally make Valeria Sommers the huge star the studio owner Victor Thursby thinks she should be, the “next Veronica Lake”. There are only two real problems for them – aside from the usual power plays, deviancy and gender abuse going on in Hollywood’s old studio system – but they’re fairly major problems. Charlie can’t write anymore. He tries, but the bright spark that marked him out as a rising star scriptwriter a few years ago was crushed out during the war. Fortunately his friend Gil works with him – Gil has already been blacklisted in the start of the reds-under-the-beds scare as the Cold War slowly works its way into American life, so no studio will touch him; now he works covertly with Charlie on the scripts he’s meant to be writing but can’t, a delicate but mutually beneficial arrangement.
And the second problem? That’s slightly harder to fix than Charlie’s writer’s block. Valeria is dead, only a few pages into the story. Strangled and left lying on her living room floor. And what’s worse is a hungover Charlie wakes in her bathtub and finds the body, realising he must have come home with her after an out of control party the night before and that whoever murdered her did it while he was drunkenly asleep in the next room, totally unaware. Knowing he would be the prime suspect if discovered he carefully conceals any evidence of his own presence in her house and leaves furtively, later pretending to be shocked when Dottie, one of the studio’s press team, tells him the news of Valeria’s death.
Sick at her sudden, violent death and even sicker at the thought he’s had to lie about it to protect himself, Charlie’s already war-damaged psyche and moral guilt compass is about to be kicked in the head, when the studio’s head of security lets slip to him while talking to the police about the case that Valeria hung herself. But Charlie knows she didn’t – she was strangled, murdered, but he can’t say without admitting that he was there and covered it up. But if he doesn’t then the murderer walks free…
“He looks around and can’t tell whose grief is real and who’s just putting on show in case the press is watching.”
Naturally, in the best Noir tradition there is much more to it than this morally intriguing conundrum for Charlie – as he tries to walk a path around Valeria’s death, trying to keep his increasingly drunken, angry friend Gil on the straight and narrow (and their writing arrangement secret) the seedy, shadowy world of Hollywood draws him deeper into moral turpitude, and his sense of self-loathing and broken innocence, shattered first by his experiences in the war (like so many damaged anti-heroes of Noir fiction) then degraded more by witnessing the sleaze behind the velvet curtain of the movie world, grows, and no amount of parties or drink can still it, and every days seems to simply add more sleaze, more problems, more things he hates himself for being a part of but unable to do anything about or to walk away from, while Valeria’s presence hovers over the story, a ghost with glamour in the way only those great 30s and 40s stars could pull off.
It will surprise no-one who has read Criminal or Fatale to learn that Brubaker and Phillips have fashioned a dark labyrinth peopled by lost, damaged souls, some just slightly damaged, some truly damned, dripping with Noir imagery leavened by that beautiful 40s Hollywood glamour (Phillips creating some truly gorgeous interpretations of the film magazines of the period to show the late Valeria in real period style, pose and lighting, very recognisable to anyone who loves their film history), that beautiful but utterly artificial dream the studios sell to the audiences.
As with Criminal and Fatale, the deeper into the story, the more the moral quagmire deepens, the more the characters become lost in their own late-night labyrinthine maze of the soul, and just like reading Chandler or Hammett we’re pulled in there with them, fascinated and disgusted in equal measure, while, despite the increasing complexity Brubaker maintains a tight, well-paced narrative, perfectly partnered with Phillips’ artwork, which draws heavily on the films of the period, re-creating that perfect Noir atmosphere, be it a late-night city street or a darkened office with feeble light struggling through the slats of the blinds. You feel you ought to be wearing a Fedora while reading it.
Beautifully crafted art by Phillips (with wonderfully moody colouring by Elizabeth Breitweiser) and sharp dialogue and perfectly honed Noir narrative by Brubaker, and that feeling that while one writes and one draws, this is real collaboration, the pair obviously operating on the same wavelength, and oh how it shows to such lovely effect in the finished tale. I could probably just have given you a much shorter review and recommendation: it’s Brubaker and Phillips – you want it.
This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog
I’ve very much been looking forward to reading this book, every since I saw it in IDW’s solicitations a few months ago. Knowing little about it or the creators save what was in the description, it was one of those books that triggered that vibe I get sometimes that tells me I want to check out a particular book. I was also intrigued enough by the idea of a book exploring a long life of an undying Judas Iscariot to ask the author, William Maxwell Prince, if he would like to do one of our guest Director’s Commentary posts (where we give the space to the creators to talk about their new work in their own words, any way they want), and what he said in his guest post just confirmed my bookselling Spidey sense that I really wanted to read this. I was not disappointed; in fact I found Judas delivered rather more than I was expecting.
“He had forgiven me before the first lie even spilled from my lips. And that only makes it worse… There was this just this way… He concentrated on you, loved you, even at your worse.”
When we first meet Judas, it’s fair to say he is not a terribly happy bunny – his immortality weighs heavily on him, along with his infamous betrayal. Two thousand years of wandering the world since he betrayed Christ, lamenting a world and people who don’t really change, who keep making the same awful mistakes again and again. And he himself, despairing, wishing dearly to simply end it, but he can’t – he can’t die, he doesn’t even bleed, as we find out in several flashbacks to parts of his two millennia history, including, notably, one scene with the infamous Doctor Mengele in the death camps of the Third Reich as he experiments on prisoners (also dovetailing nicely with the well-documented Nazi fascination for occult secrets and their eagerness to gain any powers for their own ends). We soon see him entering a secret place, a hidden library, staffed with gnome-like librarians, who keep all the stories of the peoples of the world, including his. Surely they can tell him how he can simply die? But no, his story is fixed.
And so he goes to seek out old friends – very old friends, as it turns out. Judas isn’t alone, each of the apostles is also immortal, and each has found a different way to adapt to their unending lives. And spreading the Word, even if that was what they most wanted in the earliest days, doesn’t really seem to figure in most of their lives today. Matthew is a cross-dressing lover of carnal delights (including pimping for demonic and other supernatural beings) and Paul (the Lesser) is a bloated mountain of a man, gorging on food, drink and drugs. Except with his immortal physique he can swallow, snort or inject as many drugs as he wants but never really gets high. And Paul… Well, let’s not spoil anything, other than to say Paul, by his own admission, “loves a pulpit” and prefers a high place from which to preach. Except these days his preaching seems to be more about remaking things in his own view and boy has he picked a high position indeed… And all of them know Judas wants to end his immortal existence. And some of them know that even among twelve immortal disciples he is rather special…
And I’m not going any deeper into the narrative, partly because I don’t want to spoil things but also because discussing the main plot points here wouldn’t really do the book justice; Judas does indeed have a fascinating narrative, but it is really one of those reads to be experienced rather than just absorbing a story. In fact in many ways this is a story about stories, about the world, faith (religious or in another person, or sometimes both), it’s about how some special peoples – some might call prophets or even extensions of a godhead – become so remarkable because they have learned to start seeing the world in a different way. And not just see it in a different way but realising that their thoughts and beliefs, especially shared with others, can alter and change the world, change people, change reality. And that’s a process that never ends, because this is about the power of stories and ideas, and ideas, the truly good, important ones, are not static, the Word is not just what was inscribed on a tablet millennia ago, never to be changed or deviated from, it’s just a tool, a key, a device to help expand your own doors of perception and develop your own ways of seeing a different world. It’s fascinating.
“What if I told you there was no such thing as a truth? That anything, any idea, can be turned on its head and made into something better… A single loaf of bread can be multiplied into infinite pieces. A man can walk on water. You, me, those men you’re after, we can all live forever. You just have to know how to change a story.”
The story manages an intoxicating mixture of religion, philosophy and fantasy, with an added dab of conspiracy theory, and yet I didn’t think it was disrespectful to the source religion, if anything it highlighted the remarkable nature of Jesus and the love the disciples had for him, but also their feelings of loss when he was removed from their presence (and poor Judas, damning himself for his role in that, but at the same time, wasn’t his role a necessary part of that narrative, a requirement to enable this changing shape of the world to the new, better story that The Word promised, to allow Him to be reborn, even more powerful, transfigured?). John Amor has to handle a huge amount of variety in his artwork – Biblical scenes, various other historical scenes, the present day world and some flights of pure fantasy and changing realities, (and he has to keep the main immortal character recognisable in each of those historical segments), a tall order, but one which he pulls off well. It’s a fascinating work, and one which will demand repeated readings (I’ve already found myself going back over it a couple of times), and one of those intriguing books that plants nice little idea seeds in your brain that will tickle away, tantalising your mind. It’s also one of those books where, because it is about the ideas and concepts it is conjuring up in your mind, maddeningly difficult to do justice to in a review, because each person will see those ideas a bit differently. Judas is a book which, I think, will especially appeal to those who enjoyed works like Gaiman’s Sandman, Mignola’s Hellboy and Carey’s Lucifer. Much recommended.
This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog