Alif The Unseen

G. Willow Wilson

Alif The Unseen

Image Credit: ISFDB

Review by Kris

"Metaphors: knowledge existing in several states simultaneously and without contradiction…I think it changes, I mean the book itself, depending on who reads it."
"The words you use, how you use them, how you type them, when you send them. You can’t hide those things…The unseen is unseen. The apparent is inescapable"

Reviewing this book is difficult as this story is so much about meaning and how we read tales, that the book I read may or may not be the one you did, as is highlighted in the above quotes. Not that there isn’t a centre of unchangeable story but what it really means is in the eye of the beholder.

What is in the centre is a tale that blends Islamic traditions, gritty urban fantasy and cyberpunk thriller by way of late 80s Doctor Who. And yet it is not merely a combination of existing traditions, it is part of the current revolution happening in fantastic fiction, with the tools being employed by Wilson here are being picked up to construct the best fantastic works currently written.

The plot, such as it is, largely centres around a young computer hacker in an unnamed Gulf City State (here just known as The City) where he becomes entinwned with the political control of the state and discovers a strange fantastical environment lurking just under the surface.
Whilst much of what is being employed has become commonplace in current science fiction but I feel like this is a relatively recent trend with very few writers I am aware of before 2012 making use of Islamic culture, or focussing on the Jinn, or using thriller elements in order to address questions of colonialism.

Translations are interesting, doubly so in religious texts. Even if a word or idea is directly translatable (which is often not the case) do you go for a literal meaning or an implied meaning? Is the feel and rhythm of a passage more or less important than the sense of it? As it is a text that informs meaning, understanding and action, such a little difference can change an entire world view. The idea of Alf Yeom as a text that changes for the person, that writes itself, makes it so interesting in this context.

It also leads into the power of words and meaning and what is seen and unseen. It leads into the title and the idea of the screenname. I don’t want to go too much into the detail as it becomes very important later on but through this we have to question how our ideas of reality and virtual reality and myth sit side by side with each other and inform our understanding of the universe.

This also works within the science fiction genre in which the novel operates as well as the fantastical. A computer that thinks in metaphor as the next level of computing power (multiple layers of meaning allow for infinite space). I am not sure how realistic this idea is but it wonderfully adds to this space this book operates in where genres and ideas all meld together so you are not sure where one ends and the other begins.

For this book operates in a place of hidden worlds and urban fantasy, with genies but also with computer hackers and cyberpunk straight out of the sprawl, whilst still giving us straight down-to-earth gritty realism. Whilst this is an unnamed gulf-state it clearly takes a lot from the real life struggles and effects of government control of information and how western ideas enter and interact into this space.

Be warned, however, this is not the nice positive family based fantasy you may expect from the writer of Ms. Marvel. This is cynical and brutal, rarely leaving you with a happy and magical feeling. This a dystopia that is unfortunately all too real in many respects.

The Mediator Series

Meg Cabot (also published as Jenny Carroll)

Image credit: Amazon, compiled by Nisha

Additional note to the images: These are the editions that I own and I wanted to pay homage to the original covers, which I love. They have been released in a more uniform format for those who are into that sort of thing.

Review by: Nisha

I was a teenager when I first met Susannah Simon and I followed her journey until the series came to an end. So, naturally, I was absolutely beside myself when I got an alert from Goodreads letting me know that Cabot was releasing a novelette and 7th instalment to the series, joining The Princess Diaries in having an adult follow-up to a YA series. Of course, it’s been a while since I’d read the books and wanted to make sure I was fully updated.


So, I present to you a review of the entirety of the Mediator Series.


For those who are not familiar with Susannah Simon, here’s a brief recap:


We meet her as she is moving in with her new stepfamily after her mother’s remarriage. Moving across the country is already a big enough culture shock for her, then there’s the addition of a stepfather, three stepbrothers and a 150 year old ghost living in her bedroom.

Susannah is a mediator: a person born with the special gift of being able to see and converse with the dead (or, as she later calls them, Non-Compliant Deceased), helping them move onto the next stage of their afterlife. She’s grown up with this ability, so the presence of a ghost in her new room isn’t much of a shock to her, even if she finds him a bit annoying. As the series goes on, Susannah and Jesse develop a friendship and work together to help other Non-Compliant Deceased, sometimes smoothly and other times… really not. She also has the aid of a fellow mediator- Father Dominic, who happens to be her headmaster as well- although she doesn’t always listen to his advice, mostly because he frowns upon the amount of fisticuffs in which her style often results.

The series comes to a dramatic climax when she crosses paths with two siblings who are mediators as well (despite their rarity, they tend to pop up a lot in Carmel): Jack and Paul. Jack is a sweet young boy who originally feared his gift and was withdrawn until Susannah helps him comes to terms with his gift. Paul… is another story. He becomes obsessed with Susannah, to the point of near fatal results and a very dramatic incident involving time travel.


Book 7 picks up several years after the end of the original run- Susannah is engaged (the proposal taking place in the novelette) and working at her old high school as a counselor. Paul resurfaces, somehow even creepier that before, now a real estate tycoon and eager to mow down Susannah’s old house unless she provides… certain favours. In true Mediator style, both book 7 and the novelette have a Ghost-of-the-Week, with Susannah working to solve a mystery around their death and dealing with some rather angry ghosts. Book 7 has the added bonus of a juicy family secret as well. I will not divulge the secret nor the identity of Susannah’s fiance, just in case you haven’t read the series yet. I’d like you to be surprised.


Most people are familiar with Cabot’s most famous YA series: The Princess Diaries. The Mediator has some similarities in writing style since, you know, same author. But, beyond that, The Mediator is much darker and grittier. Obviously, the subject matter is critical in changing the tone, but Mia and Susannah are also very different people. For starters, I doubt Mia Thermopolis would end up in a violent fight (unless you count that thing with the ice cream…) or give insulting-yet-quite-apt nicknames to her (step) siblings.


Susannah is snarky, sarcastic and doesn’t give a damn about what anyone thinks of her. Her personality is somewhat refreshing and I really enjoy her as a character. Even when she’s fawning over Jesse, she does it with some dignity and doesn’t fall apart during setbacks. She’s definitely a very strong female character, one that every teenage girl (and boy) should meet.


Meg Cabot’s writing starts off a little lacking in the beginning of the series although, in my opinion, Cabot even at her worst is still brilliant. She repeats the odd phrase or trope (like when Susannah accidentally calls her stepbrothers by their nicknames and corrects herself partway) a fair bit in the first three books- while this is probably with the aim to establish Susannah’s voice, I found it a little irritating. That being said, I don’t recall noticing it when I read it as a teenager, so perhaps that’s just me being overly critical. As the series progresses, Cabot’s writing matures and becomes even more gripping, although the storylines are enough to keep the reader hooked throughout. Regardless of minor issues in writing, I felt compelled to continue reading to find out what happens to the characters- Cabot has a gift for creating people that you really care about, regardless of how important they are to the overall story.


The plots involving ghosts are great- even though there’s a basic formula of “ghost is there, ghost is mad about something, Susannah and Jesse work to find the reason why and are sometimes wrong, Dom helps them find the reason, ghost is placated and moves on”, Cabot still manages to make it compelling and creates enough differences and subplots to keep the series from getting dry.

The time travel plot that pops up from book 6 onwards takes a lot of mental gymnastics to get around- I definitely had to stop and really think about what happened and how it would make sense based on the existing theories of time travel. I made my peace with it, but I suspect the resolution to the original run of the series might leave some readers unsettled.


On whole, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll pull back in revulsion… but Susannah Simon will set up in your brain and live there forever.

Dozey’s Journeys Through The Meowtiverse – Knights In Shiny Floof

Dozey The Knight

Recommendations From Dozey

Hello, I am Dozey! I am travelling the Meowtiverse having great adventures, exploring great writings. Why should humans have all the fun?

 

I have always like the idea of being a knight. Having another creature take you places, wearing a suit of armour, being applauded for hitting humans…. Ah The Life!

Here are some of the favourite realms of Women Knights I have visited:

Alannna by Tamora Pierce

Source: Amazon

Alanna by Tamora Pierce: Let’s start with the most well-known, the Song of the Lioness series. Alanna is a brilliant lead and I like lionesses, they are fierce like me!

The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley

Source: ISFDB

The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley: Another important coming of age tale from the same time. Harry may not be a traditional knight but she’s an amazing rider who can kick plenty of butt

Jirel of Joiry by C. L. Moore

Source: ISFDB

Jirel of Joiry by C. L. Moore: Just like my black and white floof, the classics are sometimes the best. From the pages of weird tales comes this famous tale of knights and demons.

Silence

Source: Goodreads

Silence (translated by Sarah Roche-Mahdi): Even earlier adventures, this time in King Arthur’s court. We don’t know who wrote this but I enjoyed travelling here and you might too.

Oathbound by Mercedes Lackey

Source: ISFDB

The Oathbound by Mercedes Lackey: Two wonderfully positive women, hacking their way through a fantasy world. Some horrible moments but generally a fun time.

I am now travelling through the portal to a new adventure, women space captains!

I am Dozey! It has been your pleasure to read this!

The Terracotta Bride

Zen Cho

Terracotta Bride Zen Cho

Image Credit: zencho.org

Review by Kris

Note: As this tale is very short, any analysis requires spoilers. Therefore, this will contain spoilers for all parts of the novella

This is a story that is so brilliant I have severe worries about the limits of my abilities to fully review it. One paragraph contains more depth and thought and insight than many books contain in a thousand pages. At the same time I also have to acknowledge my own privileges as a westernised Christian white man. Not only does it cast doubt on my ability to truly analyse the work but the text directly criticises the Western understanding of death.  However, I have tried my best as this novella is a work that deserves much discussion.

In many ways the story resembles the traditional Golem or Robot tales. The titular bride starts out with no name or ideas, simply being brought to life by a script in her head. Designed simply to be an offering for the husband (Junsheng) she moves beyond this: getting a name; learning poetry and music; making her own decisions. In the end, it appears she has found a way to become human but this itself is a false assumption. She was always been as alive as everyone else.

“What passes to the next life is the inexorable force of kamma. Someone like you has no more soul than the terracotta woman did.”

Whilst this central idea is a well-worn one it is a very powerful one: the quest to be human. This story also goes in very interesting directions with the concept.

At one point it is stated:

“We’re dead and things are different”

However, from what we see, Hell is very much the same. This is because of the people that inhabit it. We see corruption, violence, abuse, boredom and annoyance that the young are not as attentive of the old as they believe they should be. People keep trying to stay in hell in order to avoid being reincarnated, they are so determined to avoid the fate they believe may await them. The story is much like The Allegory of the Long Spoons. Jusheng is only trying to feed himself, whilst Siew-Tsin and Ling’En feed each other.

The idea of a terracotta bride is considered to be objectionable to many as it makes the idea of reincarnation obsolete, it allows people to become Buddhas without putting in the work. This is very much harping back to Frankenstein:

"Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs."

In fact it goes even further with these parallels, claiming these are  corrupting European ideas, who put dead people into automatas to do their work and worship at the altar of science. The implication is there this mode of thought is the kind that leads to delusions of grandeur and to horrors like slavery. Just as in Frankenstein, this story brings up the same idea, humans believing themselves to be gods will result in their fall.

 

Given its original appearance in Steam-Powered II: More Lesbian Steampunk Stories it would be remiss of me not to devote more time to the relationship between Siew-Tsin and Ling’En. The best way I would find to describe it would be sweet. A meeting of minds more than one of intense passion. The description of it is a red thread which extends beyond this life. It is a heartwarning tale that is subtle but utterly believable.

Zen Cho continues to show herself as one of the most interesting contemporary fantasy writers with this enthralling novella. In here she mashes together such a dazzling array of ideas in such a small space it is dazzling and rewards multiple readings. Ideas of robotics and Chinese history. Reincarnation and feminism. And so much more. A true delight.

All The Birds In The Sky

Charlie Jane Anders

Charlie Jane Anders - All The Birds In The Sky

Image Credt: MacMillan

Review by Kris

Warning: Reviewing This Requires A Few Unavoidable Minor Spoilers. I Have Tried To Keep These To A Minimum But To Be Completely Unspoiled Do Not Read This, The Book Cover Or Any Promotional Materials As They All Have Similar Levels Of Information

 

If there was an election for Empress of the Geekverse (a post which does not but should exist) I would willingly volunteer in Charlie Jane Anders campaign office. She has proven herself over the years to have a unique understanding of the genre and a marvelous storyteller. For me her gift is in crafting fabulous worlds in order to carefully construct nuanced philosophical messages, yet being able to ground them in characters who can carry us along and never for one moment doubt the secondary reality she weaves around us. In All the Birds in the Sky she absolutely helms all her skills together. 

Through both humour and horror, we follow the story of Patricia and Laurence, two outcasts both so different and yet so similar. They are constantly put down by everyone around them yet they have the power to either save or destroy the world, the former through magic, the latter through technology.

 

What is the solution in the end then? I think there is one very telling passage:

“‘But don’t you get that romance is an essentially bourgeois contrivance? At best, it’s anachronistic. At worst, it’s a distraction for people who aren’t preoccupied with survival. Why would you waste your time helping people find their ‘true love’ instead of doing something worthwhile?’

‘Maybe I’m just doing what I can?”

 

And this is the heart of story for me. Sometimes big bold ideas to change the world can be important but maybe the best solution is through love and just doing the little you can. Both Patricia and Laurence put the weight of the world on their shoulders in order to save it but maybe if everyone was just a little bit kinder to each other, all these disasters would not take place.

 

However, their position is understandable as they are shaped by, not quite horrible people, but certainly unpleasant individuals who react poorly in the face of the unfamiliar. Patricia’s family are so goal-oriented she has to do her own personal research projects at school just in order for them to be convinced she is actually studying and lock her in her room if she acts out of the ordinary. Laurence’s family, conversely dislike his intelligence and want him to spend more time socialising and playing outdoors instead. Neither have any real friends until they meet each other and are able to embrace who they are.

 

Yet when they then meet many years later their lives have diverged to the extent that it is hard to imagine them ever having been friends once. Yet something keeps drawing them together. To the point where you have to hope their shared past can inspire love, not hate. For their situation is mirrored in the world around them. Selfishness and fear have created the disastrous environment in which they inhabit but anger and hate and fear and violence cannot be the solutions. Things need to move in a new direction.

 

The world they inhabit is like a choice fruit salad of current pop-cultural tastes. There are magic schools and wormholes. Rockets and environmental catastrophes. Talking cats, bullying teenagers and evil teachers. East coast hipsters and ambitious tech billionaires. But, it does not feel like Anders is simply jumping on a band-wagon. Instead she has created a melange of science fiction and fantasy world which by the mix of flavours really captures the moment we are in. But yet it is not one that I feel will age. By setting it in the future of now as a historical scene, it becomes crystallised and can be revisited without losing the magic of the original bite.

 

I am very much a stylist and many “great novels” I have failed to finish simply due to linguistic choices of the author. This style here is so unusual I might reasonably have assumed would have taken me out of the plot. It is predominantly just people hanging out in everyday situations and talking about how their lives are going.  And yet, somehow, it never becomes slow or boring, nor does it feel stagey or like a cheap trick. The story ran along at such a pace I wished I could stop work and sleep to keep going. Even the sex scenes, which I skim read in many books due to the tedium of their narration, were a brilliant reflection of the interrelations of the various characters and demonstrated how the lovehate dynamic was developing without stopping the rhythm of the piece or becoming exploitative.

 

Not only has this set a dangerously high watermark for the rest of the year’s releases I think will be continued to be read, discussed and enjoyed for years to come. And if Charlie Jane Anders can continues to write other tales as spellbindingly fabulous as this, I may just have to make her an imperial crown.

Our Favourite Short Fiction – May 2016


by Kris & Nisha

This will be, hopefully, a regular feature. We read a lot of short fiction and we cannot review it all. So here we list some of our favourites from prior months:

The Jaws That Bite The Claws That Catch – Seanan McGuire
http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/jaws-bite-claws-catch/


McGuire - Claws That Bite - Lightspeed  


From Lightspeed Issue #72

We loved the vividness and the imagery contained within this. The story plays brilliantly with the fairytale premise and demonstrates Seanan McGuire’s ability to create a world that is both expansive and self-contained.

Breathe – Cassandra Khaw

http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/khaw_05_16/

   


From Clarkesworld Issue #116

We loved how atmospheric this work is and the deep emotional resonance it has. This also works brilliantly in audio and would make a fascinating choral speaking piece.

 

How High Your Gods Can Count – Tegan Moore

http://www.strangehorizons.com/2016/20160502/mooregodscancount-f.shtml

How High Your Gods Can Count

From Strange Horizons

One of those stories that unpacks its layers and produces a work that is both thought provoking and poetic. Also we always love stories where the animals’ perspective is given its full weight.

 

 

A Heap of Broken Images – Sunny Moraine

http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/moraine_05_16_reprint/

Reprinted in Clarkesworld Issue #116


An older work that is fascinating in its strangeness. This is one where our perspectives are challenged but we are drawn into it so skilfully we do not notice it.

A Stranger In Olondria

Sofia Samatar

A Stranger In Olondria Sofia Samatar

Image Credit: Small Beer Press

Review by Kris

Like an Iconoclast of the fantasy genre, Samatar tears down the usual trappings of these stories and builds something which is actually much truer to the spirit of the enterprise.


This does not contain the classes and races of a D&D adventure nor the chosen one slicing through a Dark Lord with his magic blade. Instead it is a character driven travelogue discovering the snakes at the heart of Eden. A tale of memory and longing and the connections and divides between us in a world both like and unlike our own. Yet it is the latter not the former that so interested Swift and Morris and Tolkien and Lewis.

Within the tale we are taken on this journey by Levick who is our entrypoint. Although we may not be Pepper Merchant’s children he is the young person in a small town, wanting to go to the big city for adventure. Yet once he arrives he soon doesn’t want to have the magical destiny the different forces want for him. You get the sense that, like Bilbo Baggins, he would rather be at home eating bacon and eggs.


To continue the classics comparison a lot of the adventure is not just in service of great thrills and moral conundrums (but these are in abundance) but also to explore a world like yet so unlike our own. Each chapter is like a new section of society, yet with each one we go through seeing beauty of the exterior and finding the rot beneath the paint.


I am not sure I can give justice to the racial elements of the story without revealing too much of the actual story but it is certainly one of the best pieces of post-colonial fantasy I have ever read. It is absolutely there front and centre but it isn’t an add-on, it is an integral part. It doesn’t descend into otherness or orientalism, it is so ordinary it makes us challenge our preconceptions.


In fact the story excels at ordinariness you could easily disguise this as a work of historical fiction (the Angel being an exception) or a travelogue of the 16th century. For in this the descriptions are so vivid and have such complex reality underneath the concepts. Whilst it does not quite use the same narrative conceits as Katherine Addison it uses the same depth as The Goblin Emperor to convince us of the truth of the world we are reading.


Read this book to really travel to a new world and to remember what you truly loved about fantasy all along.

Landline

Rainbow Rowell

Landline Rainbow Rowell

Image Credit: Goodreads

Review by Nisha

Landline is, at its core, about a marriage that is on the ropes. Georgie is a highly successful TV writer, which means she spends a lot of time in the office and less with her husband Neal and their two daughters. When an opportunity arises to pitch a show to a network, meaning that Georgie would have to work over Christmas, Neal furiously goes on their trip to his mother’s house without her.


In a desperate bid to contact her husband to sort through their problems, she finds herself on the phone to his past self, shortly before he proposed to her. Now she is left with two choices- does she use her link to the past to try and save her marriage or stop it from happening?

This book is truly an emotional rollercoaster. I started off genuinely wondering why Georgie puts up with Neal. She was up for a huge break for her career and her refusing to go for it would also let down her writing partners. Yes, it meant possibly missing Christmas, but a truly supportive partner wouldn’t expect their spouse to turn down an amazing opportunity. In my own experience, I have pondered turning down a gig because it would mean missing this, that or the other and, every single time, my husband has told me to just go for it. He never wants to be the reason why I don’t do something that I really want to do. I would do the same for him. So, to start off, I thought Neal was being a jerk.

Rowell, anticipating this initial opinion, tells the story by going back and forth between past and present. During this rough patch, our protagonist looks back on her life with Neal- how they met, how they started to fall in love. As the reader, you start to understand their deep connection, how their love for each other transcends all of their differences and life goals. You begin to understand why Georgie has chosen Neal, why she loves him so much. You end up falling for him a little bit too.


Another theme that gets touched on a lot here is the struggle women face in trying to “have it all”. Georgie is constantly in battle between her desire to push her career forward and finally be able to run a show that she’s proud of and her desire to be a better wife and a better mother. There is no question that she adores her family, but she cannot deny her duty to her job. However, whenever she leans more to one aspect of her life, the other starts to fall apart. Due to the nature of this book, Rowell focuses more on how Georgie knows her family is more important. Honestly, that can be a little frustrating as it can come off as a little preachy on the whole “being a wife and mother is the most important thing a woman can be” message. Based on Rowell’s other works, I doubt this was intentional. Landline also has a somewhat open ending, so the reader is left to add on what they think happens in the fallout.

Now, as for the sci-fi aspect of this book… the time travelling phone. While her husband and children are out of state, Georgie cannot bear to go back to her own house, so she ends up sleeping in her childhood bedroom. Since her phone battery is constantly uncharged, she grabs an old rotary phone and plugs it into the phoneline connection under her bed. She gets a surprise when she finally gets through to Neal by calling his mother’s house, but the conversation seems off and so does his voice. When he speaks to someone away from the phone, Georgie becomes convinced that she’s losing her mind because she soon finds herself speaking to her deceased father-in-law. When she finally thinks she’s figured out what’s happening- that she’s calling back through time, she tries to use it to her advantage to reconnect with her soon-to-be husband. There is no explanation as to why the phone rings back into the past. Well, there is one sort-of explanation (which I won’t reveal because I don’t want to give spoilers) but it doesn’t really explain anything. It seems more of an ethereal “you’re getting a second chance” kind of miracle rather than some sort of sciencey explanation behind it. There is also some sort of weird wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey aspect to it as well. Which, again, I won’t go into because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. It does kind of tie your brain in knots a bit, which is what we have all come to expect from a decent time-travel story.

 
To summarise, this is a lovely story with a lot of different facets. The characters are interesting and varied, there’s a good mixture of drama, romance and comedy, and Rowell’s writing is very readable. Not once did I read her work and think ‘argh, just get to the bloody point’, so that’s a tick in my book.

Brightness Falls From The Air

James Tiptree Jr.

Brightness Falls From The Air

Review by Kris

Like most readers, I am a big fan of Tiptree’s short fiction but had not read any of her novels. These do not have a strong reputation but, I feel, in this case at least that they deserve a second look.

To compare them to the genius of her short stories is decidedly unfair when talking of one of the greatest short story writers of the 20th Century. That is not to say it is a novel without problems, but it is one of the most imaginative.


Setting up the world we get the standard science fiction protagonist of Kip and Cory, the captain and their partner (albeit with a gender switch from the standard dynamic). However we are soon introduced to a vast array of disparate people who reflect the fascinating ideas of this Galactic Future:. We have a “light sculptor” who is not all he seems; we have an “Aquaman”, a genetically engineered gilled human the other seem to treat with a degree of awe; the equivalent of acting celebrities are soft porn actors; we even have a prince whose actual name is Prince but also is referred to as Superboy (in a relationship which I won’t go into); and then there are the faery like natives of the world Dameii who are central to the tale. The whole first half of the book is like a gorgeous painting described in bright colourful hues. In each word another element of the world we are creating is built until we have a composition like Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

Georges Seurat La Grand Jatte

Georges Seurat [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

However, like a painting or a tableau I don’t think it is made to be in motion. Once the nova hits it is meant to switch into a dark thriller. There are many interesting ideas about identity and genocide but these are written in a very clichéd manner, like something closer to the pulp novels of old. A good comparison for the book, both in terms of plot and feel, is the Doctor Who episode, The End of the World. There we are introduced to a wide array of aliens which show how obsessed with money, beauty and purity many people in the future still are. Yet they do so little after this introduction that could not be placed in any other story for the most simple of motivations. Take the Moxx of Balhoon:

The Moxx of Balhoon

Image Credit: bbc.co.uk
Brightness Falls From The Air

who was promoted widely and had action figures made as if he would be the next big thing in this rebooted version of the show, yet all he really does is spit on someone. 

Further, the world-building in many ways makes it more confusing. For example, most of the character have multiple names which are relevant as they show different traits and interrelations between the characters. Yet when you have a character called “Prince”, “Pao”, “Prince Pao, “Prince-Prince Pao” and “Superboy”, it is hard to be exchanged in an action sequence when I have to flick back to the appendix to remind myself who exactly is referring to whom.

And yet, there is something fascinating in watching this art being build up and then torn apart. We would assume at the start this may be some hippy utopian society with all these different people living in harmony and art allowed to be as free as possible without censorship. Then we discover the dark secrets at the heart of all these people and it results in many that did not deserve it suffering.

I would not recommend this as a showcase of the best of Tiptree’s work but as another side of a master of their craft or if you enjoy complicated character pieces it is definitely worth checking out.

Constantine: The Hellblazer Vol. 1


Ming Doyle, James Tyrion IV, Riley Rossmo, Chris Visions, Scott Kowalchuk, Ivan Plascencia and Lee Loughridge

 

Review by Kris

Image credit: Goodreads


A brief history first. John Constantine was created during Moore, Bissette and Totleben’s Swamp Thing run in 1985 and soon got his own ongoing series- Hellblazer- which ran for 300 issues. This was a fan favourite and has been critically acclaimed throughout most of its run.

However, following the New 52 relaunch, Constantine joined the new team book Justice League Dark. Whilst Hellblazer continued, initially DC made the decision to cancel the sub-10k order book in 2013 and launch a new story with the New 52 Constantine. Whilst initially successful there was a lot of backlash and sales figures quickly tumbled to similar levels to Hellblazer, meaning it was cancelled just 2 years later. At the same time, the shortlived Constantine TV series had increased some public curiosity in the character so simply putting him on the shelf would have been an illogical choice.

So Tyrion and Doyle’s new book Constantine: The Hellblazer had to try to both bring it back closer to the style of the old Hellblazer days and draw in the interest of the TV crowd. How far do they succeed?

One of the biggest criticisms of the Constantine title is that it all looked too bright and John was far too nice. The opening preview issues attempts to instantly dispel that he lets a young woman get torn apart by demons as a result of deal she made and declares that he’s not a superhero. However, with the exception of the opening and closing issues (which are more of a loose setup of concept) the story is largely about Constantine’s own past catching up to him. So as the story goes on he is not the total bastard either, being torn up by regret and wanting to right the wrongs he has caused. This creates a halfway house which I personally find interesting enough but it does little to distinguish him from a lot of other broody superheroes.

The story also injects copious amounts of violence and sex but whilst I think it would be going too far to declare this juvenile, their introduction seems to be more set-dressing than providing us with a real advancement of Constantine’s character or the mystery. In fact I feel you could easily have ejected all the panels of John naked and it would not have seemed significantly different.

The artwork itself is a much more successful overhaul of tone with all of them giving John’s world a murky and unreal sense. The feeling is like when you pull up a rock and an army of insects run out from under a rock, only this time under the cities unspeakable horrors lurk. The layout is also constantly changing and messy, with many panels intentionally overlaying others, further unnerving us and continuing the promotion of his world as more unknowable and chaotic.

I do have a couple of criticism of the art choices however. Firstly, Rossmo’s facial expressions look too posed for my liking, in many scenes they look less like people are more like dolls in a stock motion film. Whilst this could be argued this creates a sense of the uncanny, to me it just made them seem inanimate and would take me outside of the story flow. As a positive aside the story flow is magnificent throughout and full props to everyone for using the layout, art and storytelling to create a strong pace.

My second criticism is the inconsistency of the art. Now I know this is not to be helped as artist often need to change and doing so in the transition of scene does help to make this interesting. However, my real issue is with Constantine’s proportions. In issues 1-2 and 5-6 John is a complete stick and this fits his character well. However, in issues 3-4 he is as built like a weightlifter and it genuinely confused me who I was looking at first.

On to the final question, how much of a good jumping on piece is this for TV fans? Well it may just be because the TV version was the last time I encountered him but he seems to me to inhabit Ryan’s persona much more than the last two comic book variations. It also provides a good deal of background to the character so you will not be lost at the amount of flashbacks that are taking place. But yet few of trappings are there that a fan might hope to encounter, we get one reference to Papa Midnight and some short scenes of Gaz’s ghosts but otherwise we have a new supporting cast of Oliver, Veronica Delacroix and Georgina Snow. As of these first few issues none of them particularly stand out and are largely confined to stand tropes of supporting comic book cast everywhere.

For me, this is not a series I will need to start rushing out to buy in single issues but will happily check out a new trade every once in a while. But will it succeed in surviving for another 300 issues? Hell only knows.