Republic Commando: Order 66

September 27, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

66Republic Commando: Order 66 by Karen Traviss

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As I was reading the Republic Commando novels, seeing the Null troopers bond with Jedi, get married, and sometimes even marry Jedi, I wondered what was going to happen when Order 66 came down. It didn’t hurt that I knew this book was ahead of me, where I would find out, but it set me up with a sense of dread for how this novel would end those relationships. Because, like reading a novel set in Poland during World War II, chances are good that things will not end well for the characters.

It doesn’t help that Traviss telegraphs that future doom by having all of her main characters finally get to settle down to a somewhat normal life. Even if I didn’t know what Order 66 meant in the Expanded Universe, the way she sets the characters up early in the book is a clear indication that it won’t last. She sets up a false sense of security from the start, leaving the reader to wait for the plot to collapse around the characters. Along the way, the characters have their own trials to overcome, making the turn that much more tragic when it comes.

The thing is, it works remarkably well. Traviss is still my favorite of the EU authors so far, not just because she writes stories one wouldn’t expect to find in Star Wars, but also because she’s a fine writer. The tension of the story builds incrementally, moreso because we’ve already spent three books with these characters, knowing what they would ultimately face. In True Colors, we saw the first hints of the ARC troopers uncovering the truth behind the Clone Wars, and here we see them start to figure it all out. Unfortunately, as they get closer to the truth, those on the inside suspect there’s a leak, and as things begin to fall apart for the Republic, so do they fall apart for the troops.

Traviss makes her characters feel human here, which is something unique to the Star Wars novels thus far. Among all the alien species, the superhuman Jedi, and the hyper-evil Sith, it’s easy to lose the humanity of the stories, but Traviss stays focused on her troops and their commanders. Sure, they’re almost perfect in all that they do, but we’ve been with them for three books up to this point, so as the story begins to wind down at the end of the war, we find ourselves connected with them, rooting for them. As such, when tragedy does occur, it hits us hard, and we feel it.

I haven’t had this kind of emotional response to a Star Wars story since Deceived. I know there is one more book left featuring Traviss’ characters, and I’m eager to see how she concludes the arc (as much as it can be; I understand the Imperial Commando series was supposed to be two books long).

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The Walking Dead: Call to Arms

September 26, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

armsThe Walking Dead: Call to Arms by Robert Kirkman, et al.

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I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how well Kirkman has maintained this series. With over 150 issues in the comic, it can’t be easy to keep the story fresh, especially when the premise stays the same through it all. How many different ways can he show us that, in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, the real monsters are still the real people? We’ve had The Governor, Negan, the Scavengers, and now the Whisperers, and each has brought their own style to the title.

Call to Arms shows that maybe — just maybe — Kirkman is going back to the well. Negan has been imprisoned in Alexandria since his defeat, mostly because Rick didn’t want to go back to the old ways of just killing people who were a threat. On the one hand, it was an admirable characteristic; on the other hand, I had the feeling it was going to backfire. In Call to Arms, that’s what happens, and I can’t help but feel like we’ve already seen enough of Negan.

Negan is a good villain, with his own odd sense of loyalty and responsibility, but he’s run his course in the story. Bringing him back is just revisiting a story that’s already been told. It may be a new setting and new circumstances, but it’s still Negan being Negan, with all that entails. The rest of the story — Rick preparing the Alexandrians to go to war against the Whisperers — is interesting, but Kirkman muddles it by bringing Negan into the equation. The way the story is headed, this arc will culminate with Rick and Negan going head-to-head — again — instead of the Alexandrians going up against the Whisperers.

Also, if I’m being honest, I hate the way Negan speaks. His profanity grates on my nerves, as well as his stream-of-consciousness dialogue. When he was imprisoned, he didn’t sound like that, but now that he’s free, he’s in full-on Negan mode. It feels lazy, and sounds annoying.

I’ll stick with the series to see where Kirkman is taking this — maybe it will end quickly, with more of a “Jon Snow punching the shit out of Ramsey Bolton” catharsis — but I was extremely disappointed with this volume. If it keeps going down this path, it will make it harder and harder to stay with it.

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Harrow County: Snake Doctor

September 23, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

snakeHarrow County: Snake Doctor by Cullen Bunn, et al.

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Harrow County is a fantastic horror comic, full of atmosphere and otherworldliness, preferring to show the disquiet of events instead of close-ups of amputations and mutilations. It’s not for the faint of heart, but neither is it excessive or exploitative. It’s a perfect blend of story and character, and the artwork matches it perfectly.

Until Snake Doctor, that is. Each collection so far has comprised four issues in the main series, covering a single arc in Emmy’s story, but Snake Doctor is made up of one two-part story, bookended by two one-shot stories. The two one-shots are drawn by artists who are not Tyler Crook, who has defined the look of the series. The first one has a style that is close enough to the usual style not to be too intrusive, but the second one is such a divergence that it’s like reading a different title. Even my favorite comic series had different artists, but here it’s almost like sacrilege. I can’t imagine anyone other than Fiona Staples drawing Saga, for example, and I can’t see anyone other than Crook capturing the horror of this title.

The middle story has the usual feel of the title, but it features Emmy only tangentially. I like that the authors are expanding their focus, showing what it means to be in Emmy’s orbit, but it seemed to go in an odd direction. Part of what makes the title unique is how Emmy is the witch, and that’s as far as the supernatural goes. What supernatural does happen in the story orbits Emmy, but here we see that the unusual things happening around her town aren’t necessarily related to her. Plus, the story sets up the reader to believe one thing, and then by the end subverts that idea into something unexpected. I don’t have a problem with that, but Bunn creates that setup and reversal over the course of two issues. It felt rushed, and unsatisfying.

The first three stories in the collection suggest that there’s more to the story than what we get here, and that alone will keep me reading this title. The last one, though, feels like a throwaway story, like it was written to fulfill a deadline. Snake County is the weakest of the series so far, but I hope to see it pick up with the next volume.

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Impact

September 22, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

impactImpact by Rob Boffard

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It’s not really a spoiler that this book takes place on Earth. The title of the book suggests it, and if you read the back cover blurb, you’ll know for certain. It makes sense that the trilogy takes us there — Boffard has been hinting at it since the first book — but it strikes me as odd that the catchphrase on the cover is “In space, there are no second chances…”. Why not “On Earth, there are no second chances…”? It’s not a spoiler, after all.

Impact concludes the story of Riley Hale, who crash-lands on Earth after the events of Zero-G. She crashes apart from her shipmates, and spends part of the story trying to find them. While she’s doing that, her surviving shipmates are finding troubles of their own, after tracing the source of the radio message that drew them back to Earth in the first place.

Boffard utilizes short microchapters in this book, as he did with the two preceding ones. I like this style, since it keeps the story moving forward, and makes it harder to stop reading, since it’s easy to justify reading two or three more pages before, say, going to sleep. I found that the microchapters worked best here, though, since Boffard finally started flitting about among his main characters more equally (though Riley still gets the most attention), shifting from Riley to Okwembu to Prakesh and then back through them again. It keeps the tension high, since the reader will have to wait a few more pages before seeing how a scene will end. In previous books, the chapters would end on a high point, and then jump right into the next chapter with its immediate resolution; Boffard avoids that here, and the story improves because of it.

The story continues to strain credibility with me. I forgot to mention in my Zero-G review that Riley had bombs in her knees, which didn’t prevent her from running, nor did her immediately waking from the surgery and having to run halfway across the station. Within just a few hours, she’s performing high-kicks and breaking people’s jaws with her feet, with freshly-stitched incisions in the backs of her knees providing no problems. Sure, she has painkillers, and suffers a few aches in her knees, but overall she’s moving around as well as Elizabeth Shaw did in Prometheus after having abdominal surgery, and I couldn’t believe it. It happens in Impact, too. In one case, the crew in the escape ship aims for Alaska, and after entering the atmosphere earlier than they expected and losing control of the ship on re-entry, they still manage to hit their target close enough to count.

I also had some problems believing what some of the characters do in the story. A complaint I had about the previous books was how Boffard had his characters react however was necessary to keep his story moving, and I found that in Impact, as well. I can’t go into specifics without giving too much of the story away, but a critical decision one of the characters makes in the last third of the novel goes against everything they believed in the previous chapter. Boffard makes an effort to give us some of the difficulties the character goes through before making the decision, but it didn’t feel like enough to me. Why create such a principled character if they can waffle like that on such an important choice?

The characterization overall felt weak, but I can let it slide some since the book is more about plot than character. That being said, I’ve read books that have both, so I know it can be done. Even the characters with so much to lose feel flat, when we should have more of a connection to them. Boffard has a habit of glossing over large chunks of the story that seem pretty important, which I think plays into how I feel about his characters. He’ll jump from a riveting scene with a lot of tension to its immediate conclusion, robbing the reader of the chance to feel concern for the characters. How can we make that connection if we never worry for them?

Impact is entertaining, as much as either Tracer or Zero-G was. They don’t break new ground, and they won’t leave a lasting impression on the readers, but for engaging science-fiction thrillers, they work well enough. They lack the emotional impact of books like The Martian, namely because Boffard’s characters don’t quite hit the mark, but they’re compelling. They’re solid beach reads, but not much more than that.

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Zero-G

September 19, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

zeroZero-G by Rob Boffard

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I’ve gotten to where I’m leery of second books in trilogies. Lately, it seems like most of them aren’t really novels, so much as they are a bridge between a self-contained first novel and the conclusion to a larger story tangentially related to the first one. I think The Matrix set this trend, and going into Zero-G, I expected it to be the case with the Outer Earth series, too.

On the bright side, Boffard did a good job of creating a story that’s more-or-less self-contained. It has a distinctive beginning, middle, and end, but it also ends on an incomplete note, since this isn’t the whole story. The plot of Zero-G is about a group of rebels who plan to return to Earth from the space station where humanity has lived for the past 100 years. Riley, the main character from Tracer, the first book, is the main character here, too, and to complicate matters, Boffard includes an unhinged doctor who wants to take revenge on her and Okwembu, the councilperson whose plot from the first book killed a woman he was infatuated with. There’s also a third plot involving a sickness that overtakes Outer Earth, and all of it comes together in a gripping story that kept me reading.

(Spoilers ahead.)

Unfortunately, there are parts of the story that simply don’t make a lot of sense. In my review of Tracer, I wrote about how certain elements of a story are sacrificed for an action story, and those elements are missing from Zero-G, too. Characterization is weak, as is any connection to other characters in the novel. The sickness I mentioned above wipes out 90% of the population of Outer Earth, but we only know this because it’s mentioned in passing late in the novel. We see the effects of it here and there, but we’re never given the scale of it all until then, and the other characters don’t give the threat of it much concern, since it winds up they’re all immune to it. Later, a breach in the hull of Outer Earth presumably wipes out the rest of the population of the station, but the other characters treat it like it’s just any other day. There’s no real emotion or concern over the loss.

Also like TracerZero-G follows an odd structure where Boffard writes from multiple viewpoints in each chapter, though the lion’s share of them go to Riley. I’m fine with him doing that, but what makes it odd is that Riley’s chapters are written in the first person, and the other characters’ are written in third person. He also notes at the start of each chapter who the focus is, so I didn’t understand why he made that jump in voice. He could have made the entire book first person or third person and it would have been fine, but the alternating voices were jarring. Plus, as much as Riley narrates the story, it’s odd that he brought in the other characters at all. I can see why he did it — Boffard wanted to give additional perspectives to the story — but I think it would have been a stronger story had he limited the perspective just to Riley.

Zero-G is also written in the present tense, which still throws me. I’ve read plenty of books written in the present tense, and in some cases I didn’t realize it until much later after I had finished them. It doesn’t work as well for me in these stories, though I’ll admit I got used to it the more I read the book. I think doing so is an attempt by the author to give the story a sense of immediacy, but having it written in the past tense wouldn’t remove any of the drama of the story. It just seems like an odd choice.

Speaking of the drama of the story, parts of it were lacking because of the way Boffard structured it. When there were moments where the characters were faced with a dilemma, it was solved by the next paragraph, or sometimes even in the next sentence. It’s not unusual for a character to make a decision, have another character tell him not to, because of some reason, and then the other character to immediately change his mind. There was never a chance to feel the tension of the moment while the reader has to wonder how it’s going to play out. This didn’t happen all the time — there were still key elements of the story that stretched out as one would expect — but it happened often enough to make me question the motivations of the characters and the overuse of coincidence in the plot.

The story is still entertaining and engaging, but it lacks some characteristics which would have made it a great story. As it is, it’s OK, at best (enough so for me to jump straight into the third book in the series), but I can see how, with a little more work, the story could have been extraordinary. For sheer story-telling power, though, the book succeeds.

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Revenge of the Sith

September 15, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

sithRevenge of the Sith by Matthew Stover

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Revenge of the Sith is not my favorite of the prequel trilogy. It left too many questions unanswered while answering too many others. The crux of my disappointment probably ties in to Attack of the Clones, where the entire story arc hinged on a relationship that I couldn’t believe. I wrote about that in my review of that novel, where even an accomplished author like R.A. Salvatore couldn’t rescue what was a trite, unconvincing story. I was eager to see what Stover could do with a marginally better story.

So how do I feel about Anakin and Padmé’s relationship now? Well, I’m still not convinced. I still don’t understand why a poised, mature, sensible, and successful woman like her would fall for an impetuous, juvenile, emotionally stunted man like Anakin. Stover gives us an aside to give us more of a glimpse into her feelings — essentially, she loves him for being able to be true to himself, which, as a senator, she can’t do herself — but it’s not enough. I don’t fault Stover for that, though; it would take another whole novel to give their relationship the depth that Lucas didn’t provide for it.

Regarding Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side, I’m better convinced of it after reading the novelization. Stover captures the devotion Anakin feels to Padmé, even if it feels immature. In a way, that immaturity fits, because at one point, he has to weigh the life of Padmé over the lives of the Jedi, and he selects Padmé, despite all of his Jedi training to value others over self. The novel helped me better understand how Palpatine could have encouraged Anakin to kill all the Jedi at the temple (and thus pick Padmé over them) by convincing him that they were all enemies of the Republic. I still don’t buy that it would push him far enough to kill children (especially with one of his own on the way), but I at least felt like I knew why he supported it.

It never set well with me that Yoda fled from Palpatine during their final battle, but Stover went a long way to make me understand why he did it. Stover delved into how the Sith won the battle, by advancing their own knowledge and techniques over a thousand years, while the Jedi stagnated in doing the same old things during that time. Realizing that their old training could not defeat the newly empowered Sith, he fled the fight, trusting that the Force would bring about new Jedi who would learn new ways of the Force that would defeat the Sith. Given that Yoda has already taken the long view on events — he’s been alive for 900 of the thousand years of peace — it makes sense that he would go into hiding. This alone might be the best reason to read the novel.

Lastly, I was never convinced of Anakin’s loyalty to the Emperor, and this novel did nothing to change my mind about it. It couldn’t, since it’s just showing me the beginning of their relationship, but I always figured that at some point down the line, Anakin had to have learned that Palpatine lied to him about Padmé. Why would he keep supporting the Emperor knowing the truth? Or will it really take until he finally knows his son and seeing the light in him in Return of the Jedi to finally break that loyalty?

(It should come as no surprise that I also have issues with that in Return of the Jedi. I’ll save that for that review, though.)

I was pleased to find that Stover’s style improved between Shatterpoint and this book. Gone are his overuse of colons and what I felt was a misunderstanding of Mace Windu (though he does refer to events in that book more than once), to be replaced with a better skill at characterization and being able to inject more depth to the story. It was an enjoyable read, with some improvements to Lucas’ story, and since those improvements go a long way toward better understanding the entire six-movie arc, I would consider it necessary reading for anyone who wants to know more about that universe.

 

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The Water Knife

September 14, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

knifeThe Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

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I haven’t yet read The Windup Girl. I have it, and plan to read it, but I try to stick to randomly selecting the next book I read, so when this one came up before the other, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to read it first. If he were as good a writer as I had heard, it shouldn’t make a difference, right?

Right?

I have mixed feelings about this book. It has its good moments — he writes action and dialogue well, at least when he’s not having characters give a speech to explain his dystopia more clearly to us — but it also has some issues that don’t sit well with me. Bacigalupi does a fine job creating this near future where climate change has made water scarce in the southwest, and where Nevada, Arizona, and Texas have broken down into nation states trying to protect their own resources. When a heavy working for the mayor of Las Vegas gets wind of a new water resource in Phoenix, shortly after cutting another city off of its water supply in order to keep Las Vegas with enough of its own, the story begins in earnest.

The biggest problem I had with the story was in its characters. Bacigalupi’s female characters aren’t treated well, and two of his main characters in The Water Knife are women. One is a reporter, living well enough to keep herself comfortable, but the other is a living in the poorest region of the state, relying on everything but prostitution to get by. Her region is controlled by a crime boss who wants a cut of everything sold there, meaning that she will never earn enough to escape that kind of life. Bacigalupi shows us everything she has to endure just to survive, and after a while it feels like misery pornography. The reporter, on the other hand, works closely to that field herself (this future is full of tabloids with graphic photos of lurid deaths), so maybe the author is trying to make a point with it. Lucy, the reporter, isn’t quite on that level, but near the end of the novel, as things begin to fall apart, she becomes a part of it herself.

Angel, the heavy, is our bad guy, though he of course is conflicted enough to keep us rooting for his survival. What makes him conflicted isn’t the fact that Phoenix has its own problems and deserves its own water, though; what conflicts him is that he falls for Lucy. And Lucy more or less falls for him, even after she learns what he is, what he’s done, and after being subjected to torture by a colleague of his. I didn’t find either character acting like they had been intended to portray, and their interest in each other served only as a way to draw all three of the characters together for the final moments of the book. Plus, with the number of betrayals and backstabbings that took place along the way, I don’t understand how any of them trusted each other enough to get as far as they did.

The ending came suddenly, as if Bacigalupi ran out of steam once everyone’s stories intersected, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. That’s not a complaint, mind you; stories with ambiguous endings that keep me thinking intrigue me more than those that wrap up everything neatly. But that it happened so quickly was bothersome, mostly because the character who was featured the least in the entire book became the pivot for the entire plot. I understand the motivation there, but it doesn’t feel complete the way the author ends it. Ambiguous is fine; incomplete is not.

It also wasn’t a very hopeful story, which I didn’t expect. The plot develops in such a way as to expect something good to come of all the terrible things that happen to the characters, but things didn’t end the way I expected. Again, this isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but it seems to be at odds with how the story was developing. It reminds me a little of Michael Marshall Smith, with his nihilistic outlook on the world, but the plot didn’t lead me to expect it.

The book is enjoyable, I like Bacigalupi’s style, and I even found myself racing to reach the end of the story as everything came to a head. The tension became palpable, and I found myself rooting for the main characters even as I couldn’t resolve parts of their motivation. It just wasn’t all I expected it to be. I’m still eager to read The Windup Girl to see what the author did that won him multiple awards, but The Water Knife just feels like a trunk novel, which doesn’t make any sense since The Windup Girl wasn’t even his first novel. Like I said at the beginning: I have mixed feelings about this book.

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Monstress: Awakening

September 13, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

monstressMonstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

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Wow. I’m not sure how this title managed to fly under my radar, but I only recently discovered Invincible, despite it being around for thirteen years. Monstress has only been around for about a year, and this collected edition has only been out for a few months. Either way, I’m glad a friend of mine suggested I read it.

Monstress is a densely-packed story, dedicating itself to world-building and character building, but not at the expense of exposition, and not with any excessive info-dumps. What we learn about the world and its rules is given to us through natural interactions between characters, and the slow reveals of the characters themselves. It’s not the easiest approach to the story, since the reader will have questions as they read, but the payoff is there; you just have to trust in the storytelling to get you there.

The story, as Neil Gaiman puts it on the front cover, is a story of magic and fear, and it’s also about growing up in a harsh world. We learn that through Maika Halfwolf, our main character (the story opens with her being auctioned off as a slave), but Liu doesn’t just reveal the world’s cruelties through Maika alone; she also reveals it through the other characters that orbit Maika. We see the cruelty through her eyes, through the eyes of others who are disadvantaged, and through the eyes of those who are cruel.

As such, Awakening is not an easy read, nor a gentle one. Much of this volume is setting up what is certain to come, and it’s clear that what is to come will be brutal, violent, and unsettling. That the story is still told with beauty and poetry is what makes it distinctive, and I look forward to seeing where Liu will take us in the future.

 

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Labyrinth of Evil

September 12, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

evilLabyrinth of Evil by James Luceno

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I have mixed feeling about James Luceno. His writing style isn’t my favorite: his characters are thin; his plots are weak; and his narrative is dry. What he does well, though, is connecting the dots in the Expanded Universe, namely because he seems to know a lot about it. Labyrinth of Evil is described as the prequel to Revenge of the Sith, and the first in the Dark Lord trilogy, which is a good thing, since the movie opens with a lot of questions. Luceno seems to be the right person to answer those questions, even if the book itself isn’t all that interesting.

The novel serves to introduce General Grievous, as well as provide the story of how Palpatine found himself kidnapped far above Coruscant. We get a brief — brief — look into who Grievous was before becoming a cyborg, and we get a glimpse into the Jedi starting to discover who Sidious really is, which seems like it would make for an exciting story, but it falls flat, over and over again. I think it’s due to his lack of characterization. Most of the characters in his books already exist in the movies, and it seems like he relies on what we already know about the characters for us to relate to them. Even then, though, it’s hard to get too connected, not just because the characters aren’t realized, but also because we know where the story is going. Even on its original release, it came out months after the release of Revenge of the Sith.

As I was reading the book, I wondered why so much of the story didn’t mention much of the Clone Wars, or Asajj Ventress, or Ahsoka, until I looked at the publication history of all the EU books and realized this book was written years before The Clone Wars series began. It was a surprise, and one that reminded me I should have read these books in publication order instead of chronological order, since parts of the story were jarring due to the disconnect. I can’t fault the author for not knowing the future of the series, but it still made for a less-than-perfect reading experience.

As an aside, I’ve noticed that Luceno, Karen Traviss, Drew Karpyshyn and other Star Wars authors like to advertise how they’re “New York Times Bestselling Author”s. I get that it’s a marketing ploy, and I get that it’s technically true, but I feel like it would be better to note that they’re “Authors Who Wrote a New York Times Bestselling Book”, since the real reason the book made the list was due to the license, not the author. I’d feel differently if these authors had books outside of the EU that made the list, but come on; let’s admit to some creative license here. I mean, I think Karen Traviss’ is  great writer, but had she not written some Star Wars books, she wouldn’t be able to make that claim.

So, the book isn’t great, but it’s informative. Folks who want a better understanding of the events that led up to Revenge of the Sith might want to read through it, but that’s about it. I wound up rating the book three stars, two for the quality of the writing, and one for the context it gives to the movie.

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RASL

September 9, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

raslRASL by Jeff Smith

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Everyone knows Jeff Smith, the creative wunderkind behind Bone. I’m not sure if everyone knows what he’s done since then, like this book, RASL. I didn’t, not until a year or so ago, and it still took me until now to get around to reading it. It just seemed like something far different from what Smith did with Bone, so it took me a while to convince myself to read it.

RASL is a surprise, because it’s such a departure from Bone. The premise of the story involves a scientist turned art thief, Robert Johnson, who travels between parallel worlds in order to protect the world from itself. Once he travels between worlds, he realizes the danger the technology poses to all of them, and begins working to undermine his own research. His two associates — his best friend and wife, with whom Robert is also involved — try to work against him, and that forms the conflict of the story.

The story draws on history as much as science fiction. It references Tesla’s inventions and research, and even brings in the fabled Philadelphia Experiment. All of it ties in with the story well enough to feel seamless, but not so much that the story doesn’t have a lot of loose ends. There are several characters who enter the story just to serve a plot point and are then dropped. Smith has given the story a sense of otherworldliness, not just through the plot but via the artwork, but that’s not a justifiable way to discard characters when they’re no longer useful.

In addition, there’s a vein of misogyny to the story that doesn’t rest well with me. Robert is our hero, and all the women who surround him in the story are there simply to move him along. Maya, his old associate, doesn’t appear to be as involved in the research as Robert and her husband, and her disappearance just serves as further motivation for Robert. Later, his new girlfriend is killed, again to give Robert more motivation to move forward. I’ve only recently heard of the “woman in the fridge” trope, but it feels like Smith threw two of them into his story.

The characters also don’t have the amount of depth I would have expected for this kind of work. Robert isn’t a likable character, even if he is somewhat sympathetic, and he’s the only character given any kind of real background. Everyone else in the story is just window dressing, including the protagonist, whose entire background seems to be “Kill Robert”. Aside from working for the government, he doesn’t have any motivation, and while being evil for evil’s sake works for some stories, it doesn’t work here. Plus, as odd as that character looks, I was surprised there wasn’t any attention paid to why he looks that way. at the very least, I thought it would be related to Robert’s research, creating a factor similar to that between Lex Luthor and Superman, but it was never resolved, or even discussed. It seemed like a missed opportunity.

Regarding the artwork, there were several times when it simply didn’t work. I’m willing to give Smith some leeway when it comes to how he portrays his characters here — the shifting between worlds would reasonably explain subtle changes in their looks — but sometimes characters just didn’t look right from one panel to the next. Robert’s forehead sometimes got tremendous, as did his jaw, and other characters had the same kinds of transformations. Add into that the fact that the sweat on their brows (and there’s a lot of it) was drawn as single droplets, and it winds up taking the reader out of the story more often than not.

The main difference between this style and that of Bone is that this one is intended to be realistic, while Bone didn’t. Sure, Smith populated that story with human characters, but with the Bones and the Rat Creatures, he indicated early in the story that this wasn’t our world. RASL is clearly meant to be our world, and when the style deviates from the norm, it’s too distracting.

While I was reading this book, I was fully engaged, but when I stopped to think about it after I finished it, I couldn’t make sense of a lot of it. The story is ambitious and entertaining, but still seems to miss the mark. Fans of Bone probably won’t be able to resist the book, but I can’t help but feel like they’re going to be disappointed, too. It’s just too different in style and tone to capture that same scope of Smith’s first story, and like it or not, it’s the story for which he will always be known.

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