The Walking Dead: The Road to Woodbury by Robert Kirkman & Jay Bonansinga
There’s no doubt that The Walking Dead has become a bit of a phenomenon. First it was an award-winning comic book, then it was an award-winning TV-show, and now there’s even an award-winning computer game. It makes sense that folks were wanting to keep milking that cash cow, but I don’t see any way that the novels are going to be award-nominated, much less award-winning.
The Road to Woodbury follows The Rise of the Governor, but it doesn’t follow it directly. The Rise of the Governor was about The Governor, but The Road to Woodbury starts off introducing us to a new cast of characters. Sure, they eventually wind up in Woodbury about halfway through the book, but any questions you had about the ending of the previous novel are going to be a long time coming. It felt like a big interruption to the larger story that people are interested in reading, and in better hands, it might have been handled better, but there just wasn’t anything all that interesting happening along the way.
I’ve discovered that Bonansinga has a bad habit of telling too much. There was a paragraph where he was trying to convey the fast panic of a chaotic moment by describing snippets of the action, interrupted with “and things are happening very quickly now around the cargo bay.” It was totally unnecessary, since the rest of the paragraph was telling us that all on its own, and it was just indicative of the author’s lack of faith in the readers to figure it out on their own. I saw it in other places throughout the book, but that was the place where it stood out to me the most.
There was also no real connection with the characters. There’s a lot of death in the book — this is, after all, set in the world of The Walking Dead — but most of them were very unemotional. Even the death of one of the principal characters, which should have been a sort of gut-wrenching affair, read more like a clinical retelling of an event for a historical documentary. It was hard to care about any of the main characters, and in the end, even their victories felt very shallow.
I wasn’t all that impressed with the first book in this trilogy, but it ended on such an unexpected note that I felt like I needed to see what happened next, so here we are. The tone, writing, and plot here were about the same as what I found in the first book, and the “what happened next” part that had me intrigued to read on happened too late in the game to keep me interested. The Road to Woodbury ends in such a way as to compel interested readers on to the last book in the trilogy, but I won’t be reading it. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
Leather Maiden by Joe R. Lansdale
I’m a long-time Lansdale fan. I haven’t read all of his stuff, and I haven’t been reading him “since the beginning,” but I started reading his stuff about 20 years ago, and I always enjoy his stories. He’s a gifted storyteller, and a good writer, to boot. He’s one of those writers who still entertains, even when his stories are a little mediocre, and that’s what keeps me coming back to his novels.
I picked up Leather Maiden from the library because I saw it was set in Camp Rapture, which was the setting for Sunset and Sawdust, Lansdale’s best book so far. I was hoping for a continuation of that story, and I was a little let down because the setting was the current time, and Sunset Jones was only mentioned as an ancestor of the main character, but I was still caught up in Cason Statler’s story. He’s an Iraq War veteran, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, but he has a touchy past, so he moves back to his hometown and starts working for the small-time local newspaper. It’s a good change of pace for him, but he revisits a story about a woman who went missing about eight months before, and of course, revisiting that story upsets some of the locals and sets off another chain of violent events. Cue the start of the plot and the mystery.
One of the things I like about Lansdale’s writing is his dialogue. It’s sharp and witty, and a lot of the story is told through the banter between his main characters. It’s no surprise that his best-selling series is the Hap & Leonard one, since it uses an established pair of characters who can bounce that banter back and forth. The thing is, all of his characters talk like that. In Leather Maiden, we have the banter between Cason and Booger, his war buddy, between Cason and Jimmy, his brother, and between Cason and his boss at the paper, and it all sounds about the same. It’s not bad, it was just something I noticed this time around, and now I wonder if I’m going to start seeing it in all of his writing.
Leather Maiden moves quickly and easily, but it’s not a very memorable story. It’s still a Lansdale novel, which means that it’s going to be pretty dark, so a lot of the imagery will stay with you, but the plot just isn’t anything all that special. There are a couple of moments which are just a little too convenient, and others that will make you question what’s going on in the characters’ heads, but everything that’s presented in the story is necessary. It’s put together well, and it works, it just doesn’t have much resonance. Sunset and Sawdust and A Fine Dark Line had that resonance, and I missed it in this novel. In the end, I think it was just because I couldn’t care about the characters as much as I could with his other novels.
I would rank this novel somewhere between Lost Echoes and A Fine Dark Line; it’s entertaining enough to keep you reading, without it being dumb, so long as you don’t think too hard about what’s going on. But if you like Lansdale and need a fix, Leather Maiden should do you just fine.
Cubs in Toyland, Werewolves of the Heartland, and Fairest: Wide Awake by Bill Willingham, et al.
Ah, yes. More Fables. Earlier this year, I wound up with a lot of time on a Sunday afternoon before I was to meet up with some friends, and I found myself in a Barnes & Noble with three new Fables collections in hand, so I curled up in one of their cushy chairs and got to it. I mean, hey, everyone else sitting in the chairs was reading something that they weren’t buying, and I made sure that I didn’t crack and spines or wear out any pages.
Anyway, I made my way through the latest collection in the ongoing series, Cubs in Toyland, and was pleased to see that Willingham is still working the series for all it’s worth without drying it out in the meantime. The title arc was surprising in its brutality and change, and it reminded me somewhat of Tender Morsels. I can’t say why without giving anything away, and I’d hate to spoil anything for folks who haven’t read the collection yet. Needless to say, though, folks who have stuck with the series this far won’t be disappointed.
Werewolves of the Heartland is a standalone story set in the Fables universe, and Bigby Wolf is the star of the story. He’s searching for a new Fabletown, and stumbles across a town called Storytown (a real place), and what he finds there is a community of werewolves. There’s a convoluted backstory to explain why the werewolves are there, and there’s a whole lot of wolf penis to contend with. In fact, there’s a good bit of material here for the furries, so keep that in mind before you read it. I didn’t think this was a necessary story, and it’s certainly one that fans can skip over without missing anything, but who am I kidding? Fans are going to read it. We’re sheep.
Fairest is the newest series featuring the world of Fables, and this time it centers on the princesses. In Wide Awake, we follow a thief who tries to rouse two sleeping beauties, and contends with a garrulous fairy who just gets annoying after a while. I remember little bits and pieces of the story, but I’ve already forgotten the details of the overall story. I thought the volume was pretty weak. I think the world of Fables is getting diluted with these other series, especially when the main series is already using the better ideas. This volume was written by Willingham, but it looks like the later volumes will be written by other people. But really, I don’t expect to read any more of it, so who’s writing it is irrelevant.
So, I’m caught up with the latest Fables stories, and haven’t really changed my mind about it yet. It’s still intriguing and compelling, and it’s still showing that there’s some life left in all these characters. I can’t really ask for more, can I?
I’ve become a bit of a Walking Dead fanatic, thanks mostly to the show. I knew there was an ongoing comic series, but the show was where I first discovered The Walking Dead, and as I wait between seasons for more stories, I find myself wanting to read more about the characters and the world they inhabit. So, when I found this book, co-written by a guy who wrote a pretty impressive debut novel (The Black Mariah, though I can’t guarantee that it’s held up all that well), I figured this was one way to get more stories between seasons.
I get the feeling that Robert Kirkman’s name is on this book because he created the world and the characters in the novel (and because his name is more likely to draw in potential readers), but that Bonansinga is the real writer of this story. I say that not only because Kirkman is a comic writer and not a novelist, but also because the tone of the writing is very different than that seen in the comic. I’ve always liked the clipped, frantic pacing of the comic, and in the novel, things take a bit more time to develop. In fact, the novel is mostly just character development, since the character is already familiar to readers and viewers, and this story just serves the purpose of giving more of his backstory. There’s a thin plot holding the story together, but beyond that, we’re just here to see what’s going on with the Governor.
Anyone familiar with The Walking Dead knows that the Governor is bad business, but depending on where the reader is starting, the novel will either work or it won’t. The Governor from the comics is far grittier, deadlier, and psychotic than what’s seen on the TV show, and even the look of the character between the comic and the show illustrates this. Comic Governor is wiry, feral, and menacing; Show Governor is puffy, charming, and skeevy. I’m OK with the two variations of the character (what Comic Governor did wouldn’t be very good for TV ratings and/or continuity), but it creates a serious issue when the creator decides to develop that character. Rise of the Governor is about Comic Governor, but the graphic design of the cover suggests that the novel is marketed toward fans of the show. That’s going to create a lot of dissonance in the reader.
The book doesn’t get as dark as what was seen in the comic, but I get the feeling that’s coming in future books. The ending clearly makes it part of a larger story, and even though I didn’t think it was a great book, even though I didn’t have much interest in reading the rest of this series of books, the ending was unexpected enough to catch me by surprise. Part of me wants to keep reading out of a morbid curiosity to see if the writers are good enough to make the ending work as a start for the rest of the series, but I’ll be honest: Part of it is just that I want to see what happens. So while I don’t think the book is as strong as either the comic or the show, the authors at least knew how to pull me in and keep me interested.
There are other bits about the concept of expanding the Walking Dead universe that just didn’t work for me. By now, everyone who follows either story knows that it doesn’t take a bite to make someone a Walker. Now, though, I’ve watched characters learn this twist four different times. Not only have I read about it in the comic, seen it on the show, and read it in this novel, but I also watched it happen in the video game, too. It’s a nifty twist, and one that makes the story darker and more hopeless, but if you’re following the story in more than one format, then the emotional impact of learning it again is meaningless. Better writers may have been able to work with that and make it impactful again, but here it just became “Yeah, yeah, we know, move along.”
I wouldn’t recommend this to any but the most rabid fans of the series, but just be aware that if you do start with this volume, you’ll likely find yourself reading the rest of them. But if you’re only a casual fan, or just a fan of the TV show, don’t get suckered in by it. You’re just going to be disappointed.
Tommy Taylor and the War of Words by Mike Carey, et al.
Ever since discovering Sandman in graduate school, I’ve had this weird love affair with comics and graphic novels. I haven’t delved back into them like I did when I was in grade school and junior high, but I’m always looking for comics that tease my imagination and go a bit deeper than the usual superhero comics. I read a lot of stuff in the Vertigo line at that time, but nothing really resonated like Sandman did, and I sort of lost track of comics all together after I graduated. I’ve gone through some phases now and again, but only to catch up on older stuff that I didn’t realize was already out there, like Usagi Yojimbo, or discover the rare treat like Fables. The Unwritten is a new discovery, and one that I like a whole lot more than I expected.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I like the series, since it’s all about how stories endure, and how the more people believe in a story, the more it penetrates the real world and alters the way people think. This isn’t a new idea — I think I’ve mentioned in a previous post that Dan Simmons’ story “Vanni Fucci Is Alive and Well and Living in Hell” uses this theme — but this series takes the idea and makes it a political thing, with an organization that exploits the system in an effort to control the world. It’s fascinating, and really takes on more depth than I would have expected.
This story arc is told in alternating stories, with one issue taking place in the current time, with Tommy Taylor taking on the cabal, followed by an issue that goes further back in time to show how stories affect history. It has a nice reinforcing effect on the main story, and even gives some history into some of the characters in the series. The underlying conflict, though, is that Tommy is trying to take back his life, ironically, by embracing the Tommy Taylor character and using his powers to defeat the cabal. It’s well done, and quite satisfying.
Last night I watched some of the new Doctor Who series, specifically the one that featured Charles Dickens. In the episode, Dickens asks the Doctor if his stories are remembered, and the Doctor tells him yes, that they are remembered forever. I thought it was a nice serendipity to see that episode after finishing this volume.
“Monsters do not die. They must be killed.”
(Dan Simmons, Carrion Comfort)
The Other by Thomas Tryon
I’m not quite finished with my trip down nostalgia lane. I have one more to go after this (Carrion Comfort is the one following The Other, and then I think I’ll be finished, unless I decide I want to re-read Harvest Home, too). When I first read this in graduate school, I had no idea what to expect from it. I had heard that it was a classic horror novel, but a first novel by a B-grade actor written in the 1970s? Pshaw, I said. I didn’t expect it to be very good at all. But whoah, nelly, was I wrong about that.
The book is still an impressive piece of horror fiction — moreso now than when I first read it, I think — but it’s very dark. I mean, I’m accustomed to reading stuff by King and Straub, but this one is far and above much darker than anything they can create. Tryon manages to create his characters so vividly and precisely that it’s impossible not to get inside their heads, and that’s where the true horror lies. It’s not necessarily the bad things that people do; it’s more knowing why they choose to do such things. And The Other is a dark examination of just that.
The book is a little like an M. Night Shyamalan story, where there’s a huge build up to a shocking reveal, and I remember, as with The Sixth Sense — just how shocked and surprised I was when I reached that point in the book. Unlike anything that Shyamalan has done, though, The Other continues on, forcing the reader not just to rethink everything that’s come before, but to consider what else there is to come, and how much worse it will be, knowing what the secret really is. And I think that’s honestly why this book succeeds as well as it does.
The tagline at the top of the book reads, “You have never read a novel like this one,” and I have to say, I’ve read something like this before. But that’s like looking back at Citizen Kane and giving Welles crap for borrowing all the tropes that are now common in making movies. I don’t even know if the premise of The Other had been done before Tryon wrote is, but he did such a good job of capturing the story, the characters, and the setting that even if this is a tired trope in horror fiction now, the book is still one worth reading. Shoot, it’s even worth re-reading, since once you know how the story ends, you can see how well Tryon put together the events to drop little hints for you along the way. It’s a little like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in that respect, and believe me, that’s some fine company to be in. One of the neat things about re-reading this book isn’t just that I was able to find the hints and clues along the way; I came across details that I had forgotten about, and which were as surprising to me now as when I had first read the novel. I wonder now if I had forgotten them because I had tried to block them from my memory.
The Other is a brilliant piece of storytelling that suffers a bit from some purply prose, but rest assured, if you want to journey into the darkness of a troubled mind, then this is the book for you. The only other book that I think comes close to capturing that sort of madness is Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. It’s definitely not a book for the squeamish, though.
Shadowland by Peter Straub
Shadowland was the third in the books I enjoyed so much as a kid, but when I read as an adult, I realized that this book wasn’t ever really about looking back on the idylls of youth. In fact, there wasn’t even much of a pretense of putting anything idyllic in this novel at all. The only redeeming quality about childhood from the book was the wide-eyed innocence of Del (which was destroyed by the climactic scene in the novel), and the friendship between him and Tom (which was barely a friendship at all, and more of a dependent relationship on Del’s part). But the magic, the imagery, and the overall premise of the novel had a profound effect on me back in high school. Amazingly, it held up well over the past 20-ish years, but I think I appreciate it now for different reasons.
The entire novel is about the two main characters — Del Nightingale and Tom Flanagan — who are both amateur magicians, and who spend one summer with Del’s uncle, who is a famous and very eccentric magician. The plot starts at their boarding school, which seems like something straight out of David Copperfield, and the horrible things that happened to both characters. From there, it shifts to Del’s uncle’s estate — Shadowland — but what they realize when they get there is that the boarding school had been a part of Shadowland that year, too, and that all of the horrible events were all about Coleman, Del’s uncle, wanting to bring them both to his side of magic. Real magic.
In the first half of the novel, set at the boarding school, a lot of attention is paid to an English course where the instructor is fascinated with fairy tales. The fairy tales are actually the core of the theme of the book, as Straub takes a handful of fairy tales and weaves them together to form the backdrop of the plot. It explains a lot about the tone of the novel — it’s very dark and bleak, with an ending that can hardly be classified as “happy” — but it gives the story a nice depth that I hadn’t recognized before. I’d like to say that I would have figured this out without having to read about it Straub’s new introduction to the latest printing of the book, but who knows? I read it first, and then I started looking for those points.
I remember being fascinated with the character of Rose Armstrong, a live-in helper at Shadowland who is about the same age as Tom and Del, when I was younger, and I still found her to be a fascinating character, though for different reasons. She becomes involved with Tom, all while Del thinks she’s still agog over him, and their three-way relationship takes on a life of its own once all three of them meet. But this time I noticed more how much of a tortured character she was, and understood more the mystery of her origins. Her foolishness and naivete grew a little tiresome, but understanding what her origins were, and what drove her motivations, explained away a lot of her strange behavior. But she still had an odd attraction that went further than her relationship with Tom and Del, and she’s a character that lingers long after you finish the book.
I don’t think the book is perfect — there was at least one major plot point that I felt needed to be explained away to really buy the entire story — but it’s still a damn fine book by a damn fine writer. I find it very curious that, during this period of reminiscence, Simmons’ book improved, King’s slid back a bit, and Straub’s stayed about the same, but for different reasons. I hesitate to call it maturity that’s affected how I view the novels, but it has been about 20 years since I read some of these books, and I suppose I did have to grow up some in that span of time. I highly recommend this novel to any fans of horror, dark fantasy, or even urban fantasy.
Summer of Night by Dan Simmons
After finishing It, I thought I’d go back and re-read some other “idyllic yet horrific” reflections on childhood, and of course I dug up Dan Simmons’ Summer of Night, the book I read when I was in college thinking it would be the next-best thing to It. At the time, it didn’t have the same effect on me as It did, but then again, I was looking for the book to be another It instead of looking at it on its own terms. But it’s pretty hard to separate them when even the blurbs in the book compare it to King’s opus, and King himself has a big blurb right on the front cover of the book. It’s clear the publishers thought to cash in on that association, and while the similarities are there, the comparison seems a little unjust.
There are a lot of ways that the books are similar — they both have a cast of about seven main characters, all of which are pre-teen kids in the 1950s or ’60s, and they’re fighting against an ancient evil that the adults either can’t or don’t see — but they also differ in major ways. For one thing, King’s novel is very firmly set in its times — the ’50s and the ’80s — but Simmons’ novel has a more timeless feel to it. Sure, there are some anachronisms that set the book in its time, but just by changing the details, the book could easily be set in modern times. That makes the book less immersive than King’s, but only in the details; story-wise, the book blows King’s out of the water.
The book feels more significant, more resonant than King’s, possibly because of that timelessness. The friendship is the central part of the story, and everything relating to the plot flows from the characters and the friendship they have. The same is true of It, but somehow this friendship seemed more relevant, and more real, which seems really weird to me, seeing as how well I used to identify with the characters from It up until this last re-read. Maybe my idea and understanding of friendship has changed; maybe Simmons just manages to create deeper, more realistic characters than King does. Again, that sounds weird for me to say, since I’ve said for years (and still believe) that King’s strongest talent is his effortlessness in creating sympathetic characters. But maybe sympathetic and realistic are two sides of the same coin. It’s interesting to contemplate, at least.
I’ve read some complaints about how the book takes a while to get going, and regarding the plot, I’d have to agree. Simmons takes the time to create his characters first, and set up a string of atmospheric scenes to set the roots of the plot. It’s hard to look back at the book and see how it could have improved — as I mentioned, the characters and their friendship are the real story, so that sort of build up is pretty necessary — but, yes, it does take a little while for the real plot to get going. Once it does, though, things move quickly, though not too quickly. In fact, I hadn’t realized just how short a span of time those events took. In my memory, those events took a couple of weeks, but the real conflict and resolution takes just a matter of days. The final showdown in It was like that, too (what I had through spanned a few days actually took just a few hours), and maybe it’s just that it had been so long since I had read both of the books.
So, the two books are begging comparison by their setting, characters, and plot, but the books couldn’t be more different. It’s just very interesting to me how my appreciation for the two books has flip-flopped over the years.
Grey Magic by Erin Elizabeth Long
This book marks the second time where I can say, “Hey, I know this person!” when I talk about the author. It’s pretty darned exciting, let me tell you. I mean, I’m excited for her, but it’s also a reminder that I could do this, too, if I get around to actually, you know, writing.
Anyway, Grey Magic follows fifteen-year old Grimoire Tobin, who lives in a Medieval world of fantasy and magic. Sorcery divides people, as a big war between sorcerers ended many years ago, with the winners and the heroes living on in posters on teenagers’ walls (so to speak), and the villains are feared even as someone mentions their name. Grimoire studies the history of magic behind her uncle’s back, learning about the war despite his protests, and one night she learns why. She overhears her uncle speaking to someone else, and he reveals that he’s a sorcerer. The revelation, coinciding with her feeling about sorcerers in general, sends her fleeing from her uncle, where she starts a journey of self-discovery that’s fraught with danger.
The story is compelling and readable. Ms. Long has a knack for painting a setting using the fewest details possible. Her secondary characters are also very lively and vivid, sometimes even more so than the main character. She has a skill for highlighting the importance of the small details, and the relationships that exist between the characters. The friendship of Grimoire and Lark, and the tense respect between Grimoire and Oleander, her teacher, were the high points of the book for me, because they felt real and honest.
This book is the first in a trilogy, so what happens in it is really just the setup for the larger story. It left me a little unsatisfied because I wanted to see where the story went from there, but that’s not really a bad thing. Any story that leaves me wanting more is certainly one that was worthwhile to read.