Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites

Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites, written by Evan Dorkin and illustrated by Jill Thompson, was published in 2010 by Dark Horse Comics.

5 star

I started reading Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites on a late cold night in a quiet house knowing it was on my /r/fantasy bingo card, but not remembering which square. There’s a non-human protagonist square and this is a story about talking dogs – it was probably that one!

Imagine my surprise fifteen minutes into the book when OH NO IT’S HORROR.

Beasts of Burden Animal Rites

The horror in Beasts of Burden is slow to develop. For the first few issues it’s not present at all – those stories are purely for character and world-building. But the creepy builds and builds, and by about the halfway point, Beasts of Burden is definitely a spooky book. There is one panel in particular that I can’t seem to shake because of how much it moved me with its haunting and evocative creepiness. (It’s the one of the mother. Trust me, if you read this book you will know what I’m talking about, and I’m willing to bet it will stick in your head too).

I am not a horror fan, especially on a late cold quiet night when it comes up on me in surprise. But the horror in Beasts of Burden is tempered with lighthearted characters and delicate artwork. For me, this book ended up being more moving and moody than scary, which was a great relief.

Other than the creepiness, I absolutely adored Beasts of Burden. The artwork blew me away. The lines are wonderful (particularly the expressions), but the colors steal the show. Thompson’s spectacular watercolors (she won an Eisner for Wonder Woman: The True Amazon) are again on display, and add yet another level of moody depth. The characters are all fun and feel quite special, and the world builds slowly but surely into quite an interesting fantasy setting.

Even if you’re not a fan of horror, I’d highly recommend Beasts of Burden for the story, the characters, and (most of all) the stupendous artwork.

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The Aeronaut’s Windlass

The Aeronaut’s Windlass, written by Jim Butcher, was published in 2015 by Roc. The audiobook was narrated by Euan Morton and published by Penguin Audio.

2 star

As much as I love The Dresden Files and Codex Alera, The Aeronaut’s Windlass doesn’t work for me. I spent the whole time I listened to the book trying to figure out why I wasn’t having fun, but in the end I really have no idea. It seems like a good book. It’s steampunk, which I don’t like, but the steampunk elements are fairly light. There’s a lot of time spent on a ship but that’s certainly not a turn off for me – I adore Liveship Traders! There’s a ton of action – hand-to-hand fighting, fighting with magic, naval/air battles – that keep the story moving very quickly.

The Aeronaut's Windlass

The Aeronaut’s Windlass is a long book, but it also feels very shallow. The characters lack depth and are not backed up by a particularly interesting world or magic system. There is the hint of some really cool political drama, but I didn’t care enough about the world and characters to get invested in the politics. Of course that affects the action as well – without spending time getting to know and love a character, it’s hard to care when they’re engaged in epic fight scenes.

The exception to all of this is the sentient cat. Every scene with Raul was a joy, and of all the characters he had the most depth.

I’m disappointed I didn’t like this one, but I’m still eagerly awaiting the next entry in The Dresden Files. I’m certainly not giving up on Butcher!

The Massive, Vol. 1: Black Pacific

The Massive, Vol. 1: Black Pacific, written by Brian Wood and illustrated by Kristian Donaldson and Garry Brown, was published in 2013 by Dark Horse Comics. 

1 star

In the forward to The Massive Vol. 1, the reader is told that they should not care more about the apocalypse than about what happens after. We then read a story where the apocalypse is a synchronized set of natural disasters that slowly kills most of the planet… and what happens after is a set of mostly-generic people floating about and doing basically nothing in the middle of the ocean. I get that reading about apocalypses is often nothing but a guilty pleasure, but if Wood wants me to care more about the aftermath then he needs to make that aftermath interesting. Cool characters. A steady plot. A gripping mystery. Something. There’s nothing in The Massive – other than the apocalypse – to really interest the reader.

The Massive

Unfortunately, the artwork isn’t anything to write home about, either.

This one was a regrettable dud, for me!

White Sand Volume 1

White Sand Volume 1, written by Brandon Sanderson and Rik Hoskin and illustrated by Julius M. Gopez, was published in 2016 by Dynamic Forces.

1 star

As much as I adore Brandon Sanderson’s stories, I don’t think his narratives lend well to the graphic novel format. Yes, his actions scenes and magical systems are amazing, and those obviously make for great artwork, but Sanderson’s best action scenes are backed up by lots of political intrigue, dialogue, and introspection – and none of those make for interesting pictures. Such is the case in White Sand. When magic is on the page the comic works brilliantly, but in-between it lags and gets confusing. I commend Hoskin’s efforts here, but I just don’t think White Sand was the right story to tell.

White Sand

Unfortunately the sketchy, messy artwork style in White Sand doesn’t work for me either. It makes it harder to distinguish between characters, interpret action, and enjoy the setting. ​

I definitely think Cosmere fans should check this one out just because it’s such a short read, but I won’t be continuing it until I hear that it has serious implications for the overarching story. It just didn’t work for me.

Sophie’s World

Sophie’s World, written by Jostein Gaarder and translated by Paulette Møller, was published in 1991 by Phoenix. 

3 star

Sophie’s World was written as an introduction to philosophy for young people. There is a story, but it’s a big book and much of the text is lessons. Because of that, it’s a dense read that’s not easy to absorb, but if you’ve never taken a philosophy course you’ll learn a ton.

I read Sophie’s World as a young adult and absolutely adored it (I even named a cat after the main character). Though my reread as an adult didn’t impress me the same way, I’d still highly recommend the book for young adults. They are the target audience, after all, and I think many kids and teens will find the broad introduction to ALL THE PHILOSOPHY really mind-blowing.

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So what didn’t I like this time around?

Most jarring for me was the translation. The tone shifts from patronizing to dry and academic in sudden, flow-interrupting ways. Some of the vocabulary choices were downright strange, which also kicked me out of the reading flow.

As an adult, the main character drove me nuts. I understand that this book is meant to reflect the traditional question and answer philosophical teaching style, but Sophie is an insufferable student and extremely disrespectful to her teacher and mother. She is constantly interrupting the lecture, making snide remarks about the lessons, and rudely questioning her teacher. She does not act like a fourteen-year-old who is eager and excited to learn. This is related to the tone issue I mentioned above, and I wonder if it’s caused somewhat by the translation.

Finally, the book suffers from a pacing issue that I’m not sure is solvable. In the first half of the book, philosophy lessons share the page with plot and character development. However, once the characters learn more about their situation they rush to finish their philosophy lessons, and, just when we most want to learn more about the mystery of the plot, the lessons take over almost completely. I wish more lesson could have been fit into the first half of the book, so that the second could have been lighter, easier to read, and more exciting. But, really, I’m complaining about the pace of a textbook.

Sophie’s World is still a great book, and one I’d heartily recommend to young people. I’m disappointed it didn’t live up to my memory, but I’m so happy I read it back when it was perfect for me.

2017 Favorites

I had so much fun reading in 2017: 50ish novels, 12 non-fiction prose books, 85 comic books and graphic novels, and an average rating of 3.4 stars. I also completed a big project to read and review every comic book in Civil War II, which was Marvel’s big event of the year. The event itself was bad, but the project was super fun and I learned a lot about criticizing comics.

I also started writing reviews this year, which changed the way I read for the better. Instead of reading something and coming to an intuitive like or dislike, when writing reviews I *have* to decide what worked for me and what didn’t. It’s made me a more critical and picky reader, I think, but also a much more active and attentive one.

Anyway! Here are my top reads of the year. If you have read or decide to read any of these, PLEASE let me know what you think!

Favorite novel: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

I am a fan of YA literature, but recently it’s felt like I’ve been disappointed over and over by the lack of depth in my YA reads. To me, a shallow novel for a young adult shows disturbing disrespect for the customer – an age group that can be more discerning and sensitive than adult readers.

The Scorpio Races does not have that problem.

On the face of it, it’s a very good horse book; I’m used to skimming over incorrect horse details in novels, but there’s no need in this one.  And below the horse-book surface, The Scorpio Races is a lovely, slow story with a gentle and believable romance and a fantastic horror/fantasy element. Stiefvater’s imagery is stunning, particularly when she describes the water horses – who are, truly, horrendous monsters.

To me, The Scorpio Races is what YA should be – young, complex characters and beautiful but readable prose layered on a plot relevant to young people.

So I love this one not just because I’m a horse lover. While the horses in The Scorpio Races are superb, they are outclassed by absolutely astounding prose and two extraordinary main characters. I recommend it to horse lovers, fans of YA, or anyone who enjoys audiobooks (the actors for this one really enhance Stiefvater’s gorgeous words).

Favorite novel runner up: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

The Golem and the Jinni features some of the most spectacular characters I’ve ever read in a standalone novel. And I’m not just talking about the titular golem and jinni – but also every other person in the story. There is so much humanity to love in this book. That does mean that the book is fairly light on plot – for example, the villain is mostly just another fascinating character, and does little in terms of intrigue or action. But I’ll trade fight scenes and mysteries for an engrossing character study any day.

You should read The Golem and the Jinni if you are a fan of either character-driven fantasy or magical realism. If you’re a fan of both, like I am, you’re in for a spectacular treat.

Favorite series: Tawny Man, by Robin Hobb

Hobb’s character work is outstanding – I think her creations are the closest to real people I have ever experienced in a piece of fiction. Her skills at manipulating the reader’s emotions are unmatched. Nothing happens in her books and I don’t even care. Or I care too much, really. Sob.

If you are a fan of SFF, I highly highly highly recommend reading Assassin’s Apprentice, the first book in her first trilogy. You may not love it – I didn’t. But if you at least like it, please keep with the series. It gets more beautiful and heart-wrenching with every installment.

Favorite comic: Adventure Time with Fionna and Cake written and drawn by Natasha Allegri 

Adventure Time with Fionna and Cake is a comic based on a one-episode joke from a kid’s cartoon, but it manages to seamlessly combine gripping story, poignant character moments, adorable artwork and hilarious dialogue.

Favorite comic runner up: Captain America: Sam Wilson, Volume 3: Civil War II written by Nick Spencer and drawn by Ángel Unzueta and Daniel Acuna​

This year was a spectacular time for Captain America to be black. Spencer and his team took what’s happening in the country today, made it fit perfectly in the Marvel Universe, and then threw Captain America Sam Wilson at it. The result is timely, disturbing, and the absolute highlight of the Civil War II event.

Oathbringer (The Stormlight Archive #3)

Oathbringer, written by Brandon Sanderson, was published in 2017 by Tor Books. 

5 star

I’ve been putting this review off because I don’t feel like I have anything else to add to the extensive conversation the fantasy community has been having around this book. I loved Oathbringer. I think it’s the weakest of the three books in the series – it has a massive slow section that doesn’t quite pay off the way the other two Stormlight Archive books do – but it also expands the world and the Cosmere in huge ways.

I don’t usually buy books, and very rarely read physical novels anymore, but I am very glad that I bought the paper form of Oathbringer. The book is just impressive: the artwork is gorgeous and the scale of the physical object reflects the scale of the story (they’re both BIG).

Oathbringer

Sanderson continues to level up in his character-development skills. In Oathbringer, I particularly like how he used character weaknesses to slow down the power-progression of some of the more powerful characters – that seems like a clever way to prevent power creep in book three of a ten book series.

I felt like the best parts of Oathbringer were not huge reveals or twists, as I’ve come to expect from a Sanderson novel, but instead shining character and inter-personal moments. If I could just spend the entire book enjoying Adolin, Shallan, and Kaladin exchange banter, I would do it in a heartbeat.

As I mentioned in my review of Edgedancer, I read that novella right after Lift showed up in Oathbringer. I definitely think Edgedancer is best read before or during Oathbringer for the best experience, but I don’t been like the novella is actually necessary. It’s much like Warbreaker – reading it first makes certain moments better, but nothing is going to be confusing if it’s skipped.

I wish we could get a Stormlight Archive every year, but after reading Oathbringer it’s even more obvious why that’s just impossible. These books are immense in literal word count, in character count, and in scope and scale. As much as I want more of the story, I wouldn’t trade more frequent books for less detail or breadth of story. I love them the way they are!