Graphic Novel Review: Dreaming Eagles, published by AfterShock Comics

“Dreaming Eagles,” written by Gareth Ennis, art by Simon Coleby, published by AfterShock Comics, is historical fiction that tells of the drama, trials and adventures of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black military aviators in the U.S. Army Corps – men who fought both the Nazis in World War II, and discrimination at home. It tells their stories through the eyes of one of their own, veteran Reggie Atkinson, who opens up to his son Lee after a father worries for his son fighting his own battles in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. 

Overcoming his initial reluctance to talk about his wartime experiences, Reggie soon sees it as a chance to connect with his son about shared pain and hope for a better future. Over beers, Reggie spills it all, telling the tale chronologically of his time in the squadron through several years of war. The story is slow paced without a traditional narrative arc, but that suits the meandering thrust of the story, a father talking to his son on a warm evening on their porch. And at times the writing gets too caught up in the technical engineering specifications of the aircraft; sometimes this brings history to life, and sometimes it gets a bit dry. Those were my only criticisms, however; overall I really enjoyed this book. 

The writing was good, the art was strong, and the story did a great job of personalizing a pivotal historical time that needs more intimate attention than history textbooks can give. The graphic novel is the perfect medium for this. The book is at its best when it gets into character development and the captivating cast of characters that made up the squadron. I really got a feel for the time period and both the casual and overt bigotry that these men faced daily.

Even after they proved themselves, flew more missions and made more kills than their white commanders predicted, and came home decorated soldiers, they still had to keep proving themselves. But something changed after the war, after they saw how their courage and dedication kept them alive. They had fought, despite the hate, for an America that they believed was better than what Nazi Germany had to offer; but they also believed America could be better than what it gave them, if only it let herself, if only it acknowledged it could be better.

This is a beautiful book, and I felt like I was having a conversation with Reggie right there on the porch with him – the joy and the pain felt so warm and so real. Published in 2016, this story is just as prescient now as ever, and just as important to be heard. 

Book Review: Traitors of the Black Crown by Cate Pearce

“Traitors of the Black Crown” by Cate Pearce is a wonderful sapphic fantasy romance, and a revenge story that doesn’t turn out quite like you would expect. Thank you to Netgalley and Hansen House Books for the advance reader copy. This book releases September 22, 2021, and is available for preorder. 

This is the epic tale of Raena Schinen, whose father was accused of treason against the black crown. Queen Zarana ordered the slaughter of her whole family, but Raena escaped; so she posed as a man and a knight, and traded Raena for Sir Rowan of Hawks’ Keep. From the beginning, her life was consumed by thoughts of revenge. The story opens with Raena and best friend Finn joining the Knights’ Trial, a contest spearheaded by Prince Zander. But the Trials were not just for show this year; they used real weapons and were expected to deal out real violence. 

So, the two quick-thinking knights found a workaround; they jumped the castle walls to avoid the worst of the bloodshed. But this clever ruse to save their skins was not seen kindly by the sociopathic Prince, who banished Sir Rowan to East Shore to serve common-born Duchess Aven, and Finn was assigned to serve the Prince. But things kept shifting as the Prince’s behavior grew ever more erratic, Queen Zarana now plotted against her own son, and romance developed between the Duchess and her newest Knight. 

I really enjoyed this story, enough so that I’m interested in purchasing a physical copy. It was a breath of fresh air at a time when we need escapism into fantasy worlds. Details like battle tactics and even the food that is served were clearly well researched and provided color to the story. I was intrigued by the author’s grasp of gender and gender expression in this story in the form of Raena vs. Rowan; the use of pronoun and identity switching was cleverly done. 

I felt the writing voice and dialogue was a bit awkward and stiff in the first part of the book, but as the romance blossomed between Raena and Aven, the author really found her groove and there were several shining flashes of prose. I didn’t care for the character of Prince Zander; I know we are supposed to find him unlikable as the penultimate villain, but I usually like to be able to understand the motives and backstory of villains. Without giving spoilers I liked the device of getting into the point of view of Zarana; her relationship with her son did help me understand Zander better. He seemed at times like a caricature of a villain, although of course we know someone like that in real life in the form of a certain former American president. 

Overall, I was really rooting for Raena and Aven; their slow-burning and tender romance is the best part of this story. This was a fun, flirty, feminist take on your typical fantasy epics, with some fast-moving political intrigue and a strong cast of characters. I’d read book two of the series. 

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Graphic Novel Review: Lonely Receiver by AfterShock Comics

“Lonely Receiver,” written by Zac Thompson and illustrated by Jen Hickman, published by AfterShock Comics, simply blew me away. It’s exactly the perfect horror breakup story for our times, a modern, edgy sparkplug of bizarro in a storytelling format uniquely suited to comics. 

The story follows Catrin Vander, a lonely video producer whose job is to scour social media feeds for mentions of fossil fuels and other unmentionables and flag them for censorship. After a devastating breakup, Catrin can’t face being single again, so she buys an Artificial Intelligence partner instead; think a combination of your smart fitness watch and your phone, with haptic nerves, melded to your brain. Her new wife, Rhion, is made to order, a life partner who meets Catrin’s every needs and desires. But Catrin is broken, using her partners to fill gaps within herself, and Rhion isn’t the image of perfection that Catrin had fashioned her to be. Rhion inexplicably leaves one day, but the bio-engineered interface that connects her to Catrin is forever linked with her way of interfacing with the outside world, plunging her into darkness and desperation.

Thus, Catrin is finally, truly alone, and begins a steady, haunting spiral into madness, escapism and obsession, chasing after haptic ghosts until she loses herself. Catrin descends into the recesses of her trauma until she inherits the visage of the one that she lost, a receiver, a machine with a human costume.

The writing in this story is wonderful, a mix of code, erotic verse, stanza and literary powerhouse. The mixed-media storytelling weaves in the profound, tactile experience of mental illness and confronting one’s past trauma amid loud, bold colors and fragmented dialogue. Throughout much of the story, Catrin is shown naked, vulnerable, as she loses her flesh to the lust that she feared, the inherent loneliness and jealousy that separated her from her love. 

This is beautiful, evocative, psychological horror, with a flush of sexiness, a whispered scream of abuse and the continuous thread of twisted romance. The cast is small, almost a character study into the mind and obsessions of Catrin, so that the reader is in turn immersed in her horror, her mental illness, her trauma, as she is turned inside out and devoured by the machine world, made more her and less her, until she, too, is forgotten, hardly recognizable. 

Highly recommend. 

“Modern life has forced us to exist in pieces. Our society is predicated on pretending to be okay. We’re terrified of telling people how we actually feel. And if someone asks you how you feel, you’re only supposed to respond with ‘great.’

“Well, what you’re about to read, is an account of all the times when I wasn’t okay. Where I was pretty fucking far from great.

“But I’m here. Alive and better for it. Terrified to share Catrin’s story.” —Lonely Receiver

Graphic Novel Review: Adler by Titan Comics

“Adler” by Lavie Tidhar, illustrated by Paul McCaffrey, published by Titan Comics, promised a League of Extraordinary Gentlewomen from science and history, and on that front, it delivered. It had me at that premise, so I can’t fault it for expecting any less. 

But this book belongs to a new genre that I would call historical fiction, but reimagining history as if sexism and racism were not barriers. On the one hand, it’s amazing to see more representation and badass women doing badass things, as a woman comics fan in an industry dominated by badass men who get to have all the fun. On the other hand, I think rewriting history to be more inclusive can have an adverse effect on women – people can then weaponize it to argue that sexism never existed.

However, since this is a comic book, and thus prone to bombastic retellings because that’s expected of the genre, I am willing to give it license to go there, and just call it historical fantasy. As Adler says, “To be a woman is to be at war, Jane.” Best line of the whole book.

The protagonist of this story is Irene Adler, a minor character in the Sherlock Holmes universe who now gets top billing. Jane Eyre, who was an ambulance driver in the Boer Wars in South Africa, comes to London looking for work and a place to live. She’s introduced to the irrepressible Irene Adler and her London, a city at war with brutal crime gangs. First it’s Moriarty, who is easily dispatched, followed by, naturally, Ayesha, a barbarian queen come to take her revenge on the British Empire. 

The art was decent, some interesting plays with light and shadow to follow the arc of the narrative drama, but I found the plot somewhat scattered. For example, orphan Annie’s mission at the beginning of the book is to deliver special papers to Irene Adler; for starting off strong, this plot bunny falls by the wayside, and we never really hear about the papers. I suppose that’s coming in Book Two. Also, the villains meet with far too easy ends; the stakes just didn’t seem high enough.

Bottom line was, I think this story was just trying to do too much with too many famous people from history. It was the point, but it didn’t quite work for me; it felt like a gimmick. I would have liked it better if it was just Irene and Jane teaming up to fight crime and then having a little romance. They were the strongest characters in the book for me and I wanted more of them together. But, I suppose that is just not bombastic enough. 


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Graphic Novel Review: The Vain

I was drawn in by the drop-dead gorgeous cover art and the rest of the book did not disappoint. “The Vain,” published by Oni Press, is a wonderful noir thriller about a gang of vampires and the FBI agent who spends a lifetime chasing ghosts. 

The gang calls themselves “The Vain,” a crew of incredibly stylish, of course, vampires whom we first meet in a bank robbery in Chicago in 1941. But it’s not just any bank – it’s a blood bank. FBI Agent Felix Franklin, a fresh recruit desperate to prove himself, thinks this is his big break. The coincidences are too many to overlook.

Through the years, the gang of four works undercover for the FBI in the fight against the Nazis, surfaces again in Communist Cuba, and turns into a cult of spiritualists in the 60s cheating drug addicts out of their blood with promises of an endless life without pain. They steal blood, lay low for awhile, and manage another heist. A beautiful vampire called Lost is their ringleader. 

From his first run-in with them, Felix becomes obsessed. But of course, no one believes him. He loses his family, he’s institutionalized, he’s reinstated again at the FBI, but he becomes a laughingstock. That part is something that’s often missing from vampire stories; what happens to the people who see them, in a world that thinks they are a fairy tale? 

I am not usually a vampire fan; I am not an easy sell for these kinds of stories. You have to bring something original and different in order to entice me. I enjoyed the historical arc of the narrative, the focus on the 1940s. The art was vivid, realistic and quite wonderful throughout the book. The storyline was fun and fast-paced. The Vain became sympathetic villains, in the end, and I wanted this story to be a series instead of just a five-issue book. This was Bonnie and Clyde if Bonnie and Clyde were a badass, hot lesbian vampire couple robbing blood banks throughout history.

I also appreciated the foil with Felix, a do-gooder type driven to the brink of madness in his hunt for revenge.

All in all, a fun story, and a work of art. I will be keeping this one on my shelf for a long time. 


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Book Review: Hollow Road by Dan Fitzgerald

A fast-paced buddy fantasy quest adventure; multidimensional female characters; and an intriguing species called the Maer that throws the traditional high-fantasy villain on its head. These were a few of the highlights that brought me to give “Hollow Road” by Dan Fitzgerald, published by Shadow Spark Publishing, high marks.

In Book One of the Maer Cycle, we meet Carl, a soldier who lands a well-paid job to bring a body back to Brocland, Carl’s hometown, for burial. It turns out that nobody’s heard from Brocland in ages, and they fear it is under siege by the Maer, a race of man-beasts that loom so large in legend and folklore that people think they are monsters, or at times, bedtime stories to scare children. Carl will need to make a perilous journey across Hollow Road to reach Brocland, and for that he enlists the help of two of his friends, also from Brocland – Finn, a student mage training at a monastery-like compound to become an adept, and Sinnie, a circus archer. 

This ragtag crew embarks on their journey to Brocland, where they discover that the Maer are less monstrous than anyone could have imagined. 

The story alternates points of view between Carl, Finn and Sinnie, and this was a strength of the writing style for me, helping us gain better insight into the relationships between these three as we switched between their perspectives of each other. It also meant there wasn’t as much chance for showing for the emotional states of each characters, but I was okay with that with this story because it’s meant to put the adventure arc front and center instead of the literary. The pace of the writing style moved along briskly and I enjoyed the author’s deft hand with rich descriptions of natural settings. 

Moving onto characters, I really liked Sinnie; she resonated with me as my favorite character. Usually I cringe whenever I read a male indie author’s depictions of woman characters; I’ve read some cringey descriptions before, that tend to rely on emphasizing a woman’s sex appeal and physical appearance instead of her emotional complexity. Sinnie was a well-rounded character and I appreciated that. I also enjoyed how her strength was shown not just in her military prowess, but in how she interacted with the Maer when she changed her mind about them. 

I wanted to know more about the magic system practiced by Finn; it was intriguing and I felt Book One only brushed the surface of it – I still have a few questions about its parameters, which I hope are answered in future books. I liked that it was based around meditation and a yoga-like practice. 

As far as the Maer go, that was the most interesting part of this story to me. You would expect a buddy adventure quest story to end with the buddies victoriously slaying the enemy and celebrating their spoils. I won’t spoil anything, but this book ends up with more internal than external conflict in that regard. Can people change, after they’ve grown up taught to hate someone? This book explores that central premise. In the Maer, we discover a species very much like humans, with their own customs and even legal systems. 

I’m intrigued enough to want to read more in the series. It was a fun book, just the thing for escapist adventure fantasy with deeper moral questions driving the story. 

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Graphic Novel Review: Pirouette by Black Mask Studios, LLC

“Pirouette,” published by Black Mask Studios, LLC, is an understated little gem of a book about a girl named Pirouette and the two-faced clowns who raise her in a shabby old-timey circus. Clowns and circuses are fertile ground for fright, as well as beautiful art. 

This was a lovely book, light on story and heavy on art. The art was done in very dark tones, with some simply gorgeous character work by artist Carlos Granda. This kind of horror is not the kind of in-your-face body horror with cheap scare tactics. In fact, most of the violence happens “off-screen,” as it were, leaving the darkest scenes to the reader’s imagination. 

This is, instead, slow-burn psychological horror; I wasn’t exactly scared per se, but it did a good job of building a sinister whiff of desperation. Pirouette always thought she was abandoned at the circus as a baby and the circus life, with the abusive clowns who look after her, was her own personal hell that she’d be trapped in forever. Until one day, when the traveling circus arrives in the town of Lima, Ohio, a clown tells her a tale about her parents, and she goes on a wild goose chase, chasing after a strand of hope for some reason from clowns who have lied to her all her life. 

But in a twist, Pirouette’s dreams of a better life, a comfortable suburban life with a family who cares for her, are a fragile veneer; she knows the circus life is hers, and she has to make it work for her in the end. 

I liked this book because sometimes the scariest moments aren’t when the monsters attack you, but living with the monsters inside our head, instead. This is quiet horror, my favorite kind; a comforting kind of creep factor. This was an enjoyable little ride down the dark side of the circus. 

Graphic Novel Review: Odessa by Jonathan Hill

I haven’t blogged in so long! I haven’t been writing much so I don’t have much to report on my writing process. I plan to change up my reviews to only review graphic novels and indie books on this blog, and quick recaps of all books on my Goodreads. I am trying to read more comics so get ready for more comic book reviews! Without further ado…

“Odessa,” written and drawn by Jonathan Hill, published by Oni Press, is a lovely book. An epic, but understated; a heartwarming family story, except in a dark, dystopian setting. Comic books are usually produced by teams and this is a remarkable achievement by just one writer/artist. 

But, I almost DNF’ed it at first, so I am glad I stuck it through. This is not the kind of story that is packed with action and high stakes at the beginning. It is quite slow paced to start and then it is a slow burn mystery quest story as it unfolds. Eight years ago an earthquake, the Big One, hit the Cascadia fault line, wreaking disaster. Now America is a land pocked by bloodthirsty street gangs and strange new plants and animals, like jinx root, which heals injuries but also turns humans into cannibalistic creatures. 

With the backdrop of this landscape comes Ginny and her family – her two bratty younger brothers, Wes and Harry, and their distant but loving father. They’ve lived without their mother for years, so Ginny becomes the mother figure for the boys, whether she likes it or not. But one day on her seventeenth birthday, a mysterious package arrives from her mother, and Ginny is consumed by an obsession that she is alive. Driven by this urge, she embarks on a journey across the hellscape of the dystopian frontier on an impossible journey to find her mother. 

But Wes and Harry, unknown to her, tag along, and soon they are one family on a strange trip, full of adventure and bonding moments. This is book one of a series, and it certainly doesn’t end where you think it might, but I won’t give any spoilers. 

The art is interesting, it’s done in a two-tone style with a predominantly pink theme. It’s charmingly simple. The storytelling is stronger than the art, but the art drives the story, too. I liked the pink element because it was symbolic of the heart of the story being a family tale, and it was a nice contrast to the dark, dystopian wasteland. Even as violent gangs kidnapped and murdered people, the pink tones were a soothing contrast and made the reader focus on the family story, instead.

All in all, this is a lovely book. It’s quite long, so get ready to dig in, but it’s worth the journey. 

Book Review: “A Memory Called Empire” by Arkady Martine

“A Memory Called Empire” by Arkady Martine, last year’s Hugo winner, is well worth its regard. It is the first book of the Teixcalalaan series, a cyberpunk and space opera universe inspired by many cultures, including the Byzantines, the Romans and the Aztecs. The second book comes out in a few months. The book follows the appointment of a new Ambassador from Lsel Station, Mahit Dzmare, to the Teixcalaanli Empire. She carries an imago-machine in her head, a technology that enables Stationers like Mahit to store the memories and consciousness of others in their brains. They don’t exactly become two people, but rather they are their own person, with another’s skills and memories enhancing their own. This kind of biohacking is considered immoral by the Teixcalaani Empire, but it is used to preserve institutional memory on Lsel from one generation to the next with the likes of pilots and miners. 

Mahit arrives in a particularly dangerous political situation in Teixcalaanli, when the emperor faces a succession crisis. Her predecessor, Yskander, was murdered, but he is hiding political secrets of his own. It is his imago-machine that Mahit has in her head, but it is 15 years out of date, and she suspects it is sabotaged. 

This book was an enjoyable, fast-paced ride dense with political intrigue, reminiscent of The Expanse. I was expecting more of a murder mystery but it soon became apparent that Mahit was less of an active protagonist investigating a murder and more reacting to events that unfolded. For example, when she investigates the body of her predecessor, she does not do an autopsy or look for a cause of death, but rather, her assistant asks her questions about the imago-machine. I saw it as more of a political thriller and an examination of the complicated darkness of colonialism. I seem to be reading a lot of books lately with the word “empire” in the title – colonialism is a trendy theme of 2019-2020 it seems. 

I found the political games in the story refreshing; it all fit neatly together like a puzzle based on scraps of verse and coded messages. But political machinations usually lose me if the characters are not strong enough, and I immediately fell in love with the characters in this book, Mahit and her assistant Three Seagrass in particular. Their sexual tension throughout the book and romantic subplot was intoxicating. I was immediately drawn to Mahit, with her naive nerd-like devotion to Teixcalaani culture, a society built on poetry, literature and the arts; but even she soon succumbs to bitterness, the brutal reality of empire-building settling on her shoulders, as both the Teixcalaani Empire and Lsel Station face an even greater alien threat than the wars that humans fight among themselves. 

I also saw the city on Teixcalaan as a character in itself. This worldbuilding was stunning, and welcome to dive into another popular book not inspired by white Western Europe. The city itself was run by an algorithm, and an intriguing exploration of future sustainable city design. The first book only touched the surface of the implications of the city’s omniscient AI. 

This is speculative fiction at its finest. A fun experience, great characters, and an elaborate world with interesting politics. Recommend strongly. 

This review also on my Goodreads page. I’m looking for more friends and followers on Goodreads, by the way.

#Netgalley ARC Book Review: #SkywardInn by Aliya Whiteley

Please Note: I received “Skyward Inn” as an advance review copy from Netgalley for an honest review.

“Skyward Inn” by Aliya Whiteley has quickly risen to the top of my personal list of my most anticipated books of this year. It releases on March 16, 2021 from Solaris, an imprint of Simon and Schuster.

The story is set in a post-apocalyptic Devon, England, where the Western Protectorate, a Libertarian wet dream in which subsistence-based agriculture is the primary means of industry and technology is shunned, has set up shop and abandoned the coalition of world powers. In this bucolic countryside of small town togetherness, gossip and community council meetings, human Jem and Qitan Isley run an inn called the Skyward Inn. They rise to a moderate business success based on a mysterious alcoholic beverage that Isley has brought with him from his home world, which they call The Brew. The name of this eponymous drink is not really in all capitals in the book; it just becomes important to the story.

Jem and Isley are veterans of interplanetary war, each full of regrets and unrequited longing. Isley is the penultimate outsider, the “alien,” and all the prejudices that come with that identity; but here, Jem is an outsider, too. She left home, abandoned her son Fosse to her brother Dom, and her son now wants nothing to do with her. The point of view alternates between Jem in a first person perspective to that of Fosse, who also has trouble seeing himself as part of this world. Add in all your colorful characters of small town rural life.

But this peaceful, beautiful place is not all it seems. Elsewhere in this world, a mysterious disease rages, and it threatens the apparent safety of the Protectorate every day. But the disease is not what it seems. Just as the brew is not what it seems, and so on. Everyone is hiding something. The fragile veneer of utopia, if you’re the correct type of person, will soon splinter.

Jem copes by drinking the brew with seemingly magical properties; fighting with her brother, who is a leader in the Protectorate who is something of an ideological purist; and counting her regrets. Fosse copes by escaping to an abandoned farm. One day, he discovers the farm is not abandoned after all – and that is when everything changes. And one day, Isley’s Qitan friend Won comes to visit, and Won has a problem; and everything changes for Jem, and for the town.

This is a beautiful, weird, surreal piece of fiction with a deep sense of interiority of character and graceful, gentle prose. It is a story of found family, melancholy, community, and identity. Most of all it is a story of what it means to belong, and what it means to remain apart, and the ties that bind us to the families we wish we had. Jem yearns to belong, to have been a better mother, to have been with Isley, to feel a part of the town, and she mourns the decisions that have kept her alone. But she comes to realize that perhaps her very independence is what will save her. The lush, steady prose, the thoughtful focus on these three characters – Dom, Fosse and Jem – was very well done.

I did have some quibbles, though. I like my science fiction to be science-based, although I am willing to suspend belief for good space opera. This however, did not have much science in it. I can’t reveal too much about the mysterious disease without giving spoilers; it did make sense in the end, where the author was going, but the mechanics of the disease were decidedly magical for literary effect, and I found it confusing until the very end as to how it all exactly worked. It all wrapped up in a weird, bizarro, dark, tidy way in the end, though, which I loved in all its weirdness, regardless of my initial hesitation. I would call it a space fantasy more than science fiction. I also wanted more dimension to Isley’s character, and I didn’t really understand the biology of how the Qitans functioned. But when I saw it as fantasy instead, I appreciated it more.

I thought I knew where this was going – the small bucolic town and a cult, right? But it was a nice upending of the trope of colonialist Earth invading helpless alien cultures, and that is all I will say about that.

Bottom line: This is a weird, wonderful story of a world that is not so unlike our own, a story about finding yourself when the whole world wants to find you first; a story about what it means to be part of something that is bigger than yourself, and the sacrifices that we make for the higher good. I enjoyed this book immensely. Thank you to the publisher for the advance copy.