Category Archives: Fantasy

Alternative Alamat edited by Paolo Chikiamco (2011)

Alternative AlamatFlipreads / Amazon / Official Site

5/5 stars

Description:
Philippine mythology is full of images that ignite the imagination: gods of calamity and baldness, of cosmic time and lost things; the many-layered Skyworld, and weapons that fight their own battles; a ship that is pulled to paradise by a chain, and a giant crab that controls the tides… Yet too few of these tales are known and read today. “Alternative Alamat” gathers stories, by contemporary authors of Philippine fantasy, which make innovative use of elements of Philippine mythology. None of these stories are straight re-tellings of the old tales: they build on those stories, or question underlying assumptions; use ancient names as catalysts, or play within the spaces where the myths are silent. What you will find in common in these eleven stories is a love for the myths, epics, and legends which reflect us, contain us, call to us–and it is our hope that, in reading our stories, you may catch a glimpse of, and develop a hunger for, those venerable tales.

“Alternative Alamat” also features a cover and interior illustrations by Mervin Malonzo, a short list of notable Philippine deities, tips for online and offline research, and in-depth interviews with Professors Herminia Meñez Coben and Fernando N. Zialcita.

Review:
Alternative Alamat a fascinating read. I gained more knowledge about certain mythological figures (e.g. Maria Makiling, Tungkung Langit, Alunsina, Bernardo Carpio), but I feel like it’s just the beginning. There’s so much more to explore and retell.

Stories that stood out to me in particular are
-”The Alipin’s Tale” – a mythological retelling of Lapu Lapu’s fate and the changes after the Battle of Mactan. It is told like a folktale from the POV of his alipin (servant) and it concludes with a ballsy ending that’s like a punch in the gut. I also give it props for incorporating the intersection of race and class.
-”Keeper of My Sky” – the post-creation story of Tungkung Langit and Alunsina. This is one of the most bittersweet stories I’ve ever read. It’s simultaneously intimate and epic, both about the fate of two people and of the universe. If you’re prone to moisture in the eyes, maybe you shouldn’t read this in public.
-”Offerings to Aman Sinaya” – about a fishing village, their way of life, and their struggle to survive in the present day. It has moments of joy when young members master their birthright, but also of anguish as they continue to feel the negative impact of industrialization.

There’s also bonus content in the appendix: a list of notable Filipino deities and the region their stories originate from, interviews with two professors (specializing in folklore and anthropology, respectively) and a list of additional resources on Filipino mythology.

As a whole, this is not what I’d consider to be an uplifting or an escapist read. It raises more questions than answers, because many of these stories touch on contemporary issues that we don’t have an answer to yet. It’s unique and thought-provoking, but I’d recommend reading something lighter in alternation with this book when it gets too heavy.

This anthology is a rare gem, and it’s wonderful that it’s available as an ebook. I’d recommend it for those who are curious about Filipino mythology, or interested in mythology and folktales in general.

You might like this if you like…
Mythology and folktales; Philippine speculative fiction; short story anthologies; an intelligent read that is bittersweet, but rewarding

Checking out the city’s first major comicon at Fan Expo Vancouver

FanExpoVancouverAs a sci-fi/fantasy geek in Vancouver B.C., I’ve envied the conventions that take place in the rest of North America.

We have some small scale events here, but they’re pretty low-key and mostly entail browsing through the stock of the local comic book stores. I like them, but I’ve also been craving the big con experience, along with the cosplays, chaos, and big media consumerism. I finally had a taste of it at first Fan Expo Vancouver.

FanExpoVancouverCosplay

Badass Cosplayer. Photo by Rick Chung. (www.rickchung.com)

It took place this past weekend, April 21-22, at the Vancouver Convention Centre. The line-up outside was insane, eventually spanning several blocks. I purchased my ticket in advance, so I was able to go inside immediately, but even then, it still took 45 minutes of lining up inside. It was that packed.

Damn, there were a lot of geeks, so many that I’m sure that many were from outside of Metro Vancouver. The scifi/fantasy media represented were mostly film, TV shows, video games, and comic books. Guests included the original Batmobile, Adam West & Burt Ward (Batman), Kevin Sorbo (Hercules, Andromeda), Marina Sirtis & Michael Dorn (Star Trek: Next Generation), and Kristin Bauer (True Blood). Canadian author Spider Robinson was pretty much the only one repping SF literature. But where was Vancouver homeboy, William Gibson? Perhaps cons aren’t his thing.

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The original Batmobile. Photo by Rick Chung.

Comic artists/writers included Pia Guerra (Y The Last Man), Greg Rucka (The Punisher), and Whilce Portacio (The Hulk, and he’s Filipino-American). English voice actors represented the anime area (none of which I recognize, not my scene, although Anime Revolution hosted some panels), and several folks behind ReBoot were there.

Just some quick background–ReBoot is a 3d animated series from the 1990s, and a favourite amongst many Canadians of my generation. It was the first of its kind and produced from Vancouver, paving the way for the city’s animation industry. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen a single episode. What the heck was I doing back then? I think I was watching Cybersix and reading Dragonlance. Anybody have episodes to lend? I need to fill the hole in my Vancouver geek cred, quick.

I also had a nice chat with comic artist/writer, Nina Matsumoto, i.e. Space Coyote. She’s most well-known for her comic art for The Simpsons. She also illustrated the comic prequel to the Last Airbender film and is the creator of Yōkaiden, an original English manga published through Del Ray.

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Nina Matsumoto/Space Coyote

I actually haven’t read any of her more recent work, because I knew her from her Saturnalia webcomic, before she became famous with her Simpsons art. She’s busy with the Simpsons series, but she said that if she were to return to Saturnalia, she’d like to work on a prequel. Nina is also a Vancouver-based artist. She went to a high school that I know several people from, and we also went to the same art school, but at different times.

My favourite part of Fan Expo was the Artist Alley, checking out the goods by local comic artists. I read indie SF literature all the time, but what about indie SF comics? It’s a scene I’d like to explore further. I procured some merch to facilitate further research.

VancouverFanExpoSwag

My Canadian comic bounty

My research materials into the Canadian comic scene consists of two fancy comic books, and one badass print of a flapper with a Tommy Gun. Awesome. Oh yes, apologies for the bad photo quality. Despite the fact that I am part Frida Kahlo and part cyborg, I still use a Nikon point and shoot from 2005, and I don’t have Instagram pro skills. Consider these previews of the real thing.

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Flapper with a Tommy Gun by Craig Wilson

My photo doesn’t do this art print justice but I swear, it’s gorgeous. I don’t think this lady is in a comic, but she should be. She’d probably fit into Art-Deco-Noir Strange Aeons webcomic. But yes, this print is made by Craig Wilson, who is a Vancouver comic artist man of mystery, who probably likes snowboarding or storyboarding because his online pseudonym is BoardGuy, but that’s all I could find out about him. Craig, where I can I find the rest of your stuff outside of your blog? Do you have an online shop? When’s your next con appearance? And if you’re reading this, can you please make a 1930s action comic where the ladyfolk are armed to the nines? You can collaborate with Jordan Boos of Strange Aeons, or compete against him, I don’t care! I need to see that flapper in an action sequence set inside the Marine Building, and causing the whole thing to collapse unto itself and burst into flames.

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Like this.

Next up is Lords of Death and Life, a Mesoamerican historical fantasy comic by Jonathon Dalton.

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Lords of Death and Life by Jonathon Dalton

Jonathon lives in Abbortsford (a city just outside of Metro Vancouver) and he has some ongoing free webcomics on his website. I browsed through them and he seems into historical fantasy set outside of the usual European/Western tradition, and I completely approve.

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Inside

This was the first time I’ve seen his work, but the premise and the beautiful artwork drew me in.

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Lords of Death and Life Back Cover

You can’t really read it, but this is what it says:

Imagine a world with powerful empires, huge cities built on trade, and three thousand years of recorded history, but one in which even the wheel doesn’t exist. It is a world where heroes step in and out of legend and magicians transform themselves at will.

Mol Kupul lives in this world. When he travels to the city of Xicalango in search of someone to interpret his strange dreams, he instead finds trouble brewing between the city’s Mayan and Aztec populations, and supernatural forces at work beyond his worst nightmare.

And with some commentary from Scott McCloud:

Jonathon Dalton’s Lords of Death and Life is an intoxicating fusion of ancient design and modern imagination. A fresh and enjoyable read.

Between those is a scene of a lone person wandering though the underworld, and beyond him is a skeleton with a spear to the skull–sold. I can’t wait to read it. If you can’t wait either, you can purchase the paper book from one of the listed retailers on Jonathon’s website, or as an ebook on The Illustrated Section and Graphicly.

Last but not least is Exploded View, a sci-fi comic anthology from the Vancouver-based Cloudscape Comics.

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Exploded View from Cloudscape Comics

I’ve never read a comic anthology before, but it has stories from 25 different creators, so that should be interesting.

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Inside

Dialogue from Aquanaut Zero by John Christmas:

“Government issued sake sucks. It’s the first thing you learn in Aquanaut training. This still hasn’t stopped Takashi from complaining about it. We’re explorers on imperial science vessel 00119 on a mission to the heart of the ocean.”

And Takashi behind him shouts, “My dog drinks better sake!”

You can buy the ebook and paper copy at the Cloudscape Comics store.

VancouverComicArtsFestival

If you Vancouver folk want more comiccon action, there’s the Calgary Comic & Entertainment Expo next weekend from April 27 to 29 (only a 13 hour roadtrip!) and the Vancouver Comic Arts Festival (VanCAF) from May 26 to 27 (a Skytrain ride away). The latter takes place at the Yaletown Roundhouse and it’s free to attend. I’m totally going to VanCAF. By then I’ll be caught up with my ebooks and comics, and ready to take on more.

I found out all about this awesomeness through Fan Expo Vancouver. So let’s do it all again next year! What say you?

Fistful of Reefer by David Mark Brown (2011)

Fistful of Reefer by David Mark BrownSmashwords / Amazon / Author’s Site

3/5 stars

Description:
In 1918, when Chancho Villarreal and his friends inadvertently create the legend of El Chupacabra, they draw the attention of Texas Ranger J.T. McCutchen to their goat ranch and marijuana farm north of Del Rio, Texas. What follows is an action-packed ride across the wilds of a Texas haunted by rumors of Chupacabras behind every bush.

This double-fisted, dieselpunk weird-Western resides between No Country for Old Men and The Three Amigos.

Review:
Fistful of Reefer has a killer premise. It’s a Weird West/dieselpunk adventure set in Texas about a gadgeteer genius Mexican marijuana farmer who’s on the run from a bordering-on-psychotic prohibitionist Ranger. It’s the first novel in the Reeferpunk series.

The opening scene sucked me in. Ranchers confront Chancho about their dead goats, and one reaches for his pistol and growls, “The goats didn’t die from demon curse or fright, they died from colic–from too much marihuana.” There are shootouts, chili-bombs, and epic chase scenes involving bales of marijuana. What more could one ask for?

The flippant prose is delightful in its old school pulp style, and the action sequences are thrilling. I’d probably re-read some of the fight scenes because they’re that awesome.

For a book that promotes itself as a dieselpunk adventure, there isn’t much dieselpunk machinery, although Chancho makes a pretty epic marijuana harvester that runs on manure. I hope Chancho displays more of his gadgeteer genius skills in the future.

I liked that the protagonists were a Mexican man, indigenous woman, and Black Seminole in a Weird West. But unfortunately, there’s a lot of forced sentiment regarding protagonists, but your mileage may vary. If you like the melodrama and romanticism found in old movies like María Candelaria, then it won’t bother you, but I found it to be dated and uncomfortably bridging on noble savage tropes with its cultural baggage (which requires taking its portrayals of indigeneity with a truckload of salt).

Characterization isn’t Fistful of Reefer‘s strong suit. Everyone can be summed up in two traits. They’re still charming in that pulp fiction way, but I wanted more depth in the protagonists. I still really like that they are the heroes in a Weird West, but I wish they were more often defined by their personality, with their background informing their point of view, rather than being almost nothing more than their background. The story should make it clear that Chancho is a loveable rogue because he’s Chancho, and not because he’s Mexican; Nena is a brave woman because she’s Nena, not because she’s of the Kickapoo people; and Muddy is loyal and dependable because he’s Muddy, not because he’s Black Semiole.

Pages of infodumping about the protagonists’ histories take away the story’s momentum. Along the same lines, there’s a lot of telling instead of showing with regards to their character traits. There’s a disconnect between what their traits are supposed to be, versus what they are actually doing in the story. I can’t say I’m impressed by the protagonists, but in contrast, the villain Ranger McCutchen is an excellent character. His motivations and history are revealed more naturally in smaller segments, and his actions speak for themselves. The narration didn’t have to tell me explicitly that he’s creepy and insane. He just is. This would be a much stronger book if the protagonists’ character traits were laid out in a similar manner.

Chancho’s aspirations grow larger towards the end of the book, instead of merely trying to outrun the ranger, he starts having loftier dreams of liberating the American people. Unfortunately, I was confused as to what this exactly meant. Does liberating the people mean liberating them from prohibition? Is it strictly about marijuana or is it more than that? Even though it’s not clear what Chancho stands for, people turn up in droves to support him, because the narration claims that he’s a Good Guy and stands for Good Things. So at the end of the book, I was left confused and unfulfilled.

Even though I have a number of criticisms with Fistful of Reefer, I commend the author for creating a fun and unique world, and I think that the series has promise.

You might like this if you like…
Weird West; race and chase scenes; liberation from prohibition; pulp fiction; sweet ganja

The sequel, The Austin Job, is now available on Amazon.

David Mark Brown has some free serialized novellas set in the same world. You can read them on his website under “Reeferpunk“.

Voice of the Lost by Andrea K. Host (2011)

Voice of the Lost by Andrea K HostSmashwords / Amazon / Author’s Site

4/5 stars

Description:
Medair an Rynstar wants only to leave.

Five hundred years after the Empire she served fell before the Ibisian invasion, Medair has betrayed her Emperor’s memory by helping the descendants of the invaders. She knows she will be reviled, that to thousands she is hero-become-villain. Her one goal is to return to the hidden cave where she slept out of time, and hope that she wakes in a world where the name Medair an Rynstar has been forgotten.

Assassins, armies, and desperate magic complicate Medair’s plan of escape, leading her inexorably to face the very people her choice has cost the most. She has learned that you can never return to your past, or run from the consequences of your actions, but can she find a way to live in defeat?

Review:
Voice of the Lost is the perfect sequel to The Silence of Medair. The first book is a political fantasy that’s epic in scope, and Voice continues to develop the themes of colonialism, empire, and sacrifice and a controversial romance is set in motion. Medair chooses to side with the descendants of her invaders while facing an oncoming apocalypse brought on by wild magic. Talk about raising the stakes!

I loved this book, and it has the strengths of The Silence of Medair, but with a slightly different focus. It’s still character-driven, but there’s less brooding introspection and more political intrigues. Medair is thrust in the midst of a war and makes tough choices, possibly earning her place as a villain in history. What makes it interesting is how she deals with it, and how she views heroism, sacrifice, and ethics in herself and the colonizers. Medair’s character development is one of the best I’ve seen in the fantasy genre.

I must commend the author for how she handles magic in the world-setting. Magic systems are best explained in some books, while in others, it’s best left as a mysterious force of nature–whichever helps the suspension of disbelief. Höst treats it as the latter, and it works. Magic is a messy thing in this world–it merges parallel worlds, triggers a looming apocalypse, and even changes people’s ethnicity–which is a big deal in a historical reality of heated colonizer vs. colonized dynamics.  While those are all crazy, its believable because the emotional consequences for the characters are so real, and that’s the key achieving verisimilitude in fantastical literature. I don’t know how the author pulled it off, but she deserves mad props.

With sacrifice as a key theme, it mostly reads like a tragedy. Whenever I cheered for the small victories, things became infinitely worse, but none of it came off as melodramatic. I was on the verge of tears in some parts, unable to decide whether it’s best to read on (and feel that screwdriver to the chest) or put the book down (and be unable to think of anything else!).

Medair’s internal dialogue sometimes summarizes what just happened and her reaction to it instead of only the latter, and it’s a little redundant. But other than that minor quibble, there’s nothing I’d change about the book.

It’s rare to find an epic fantasy that’s ambitious in scope and yet ties the story together succinctly. There’s no filler subplots or unnecessary scenes, it hits hard but ends with a satisfying conclusion. The story is emotionally involving and deals with heavy themes, but it’s worth it. I highly recommend this duology if you’re looking for an epic fantasy that’s character-driven, different, and thought-provoking.

You might like this if you like…
Epic fantasy with no filler; epic apocalyptic scenarios; fantastic character development; intelligent themes that you’ll ponder on long after you’ve read the book

If you’re interested in reading this two-book series, you can also purchase it as a single volume on Smashwords or Amazon. It’s a better deal than buying each book separately.

You can also read my interview with Andrea K. Host.

Interview with Speculative Fiction Author Jeff Pearce

Bianca: The Silver Age is sexy superhero/urban fantasy set in the future, and it’s one of the most unique books I’ve encountered recently. I love the world-setting (futuristic urban fantasy with alchemy!) and how it fearlessly tackles themes that other superhero fiction would shy away from. I’m pleased to be  joined here by the author, Jeff Pearce, as he talks about superhero fiction, being a Canadian spec-fic author, and e-publishing.

***

Frida: What was the inspiration for Bianca: The Silver Age?

Bianca: The Silver Age by Jeff PearceJeff: I have to back up, way back, to answer your question.  I grew up reading superhero comics—Batman, Superman, all the DC greats, and I still adore them.  But it’s extremely hard for a writer to break into mainstream comics.  The way to do that is usually to hit the conventions and show your work, but I’ve never had the bucks or days off to do that, and the big companies don’t take unsolicited scripts.  So what do you do when you want to write about superheroes but you can’t write about their superheroes?  Invent your own!

A few years ago, I was writing erotic thriller novels under pseudonyms, and fans responded to my character, Teresa Knight, who’s a sexy sleuth, a gal who’s smart and can handle herself.  One reviewer called her a “feminist icon,” which put me over the moon.  The books are still around through Random House reprints, but my character was “orphaned” because my original publisher went under.   I’ve always wanted to take the best of what worked with Teresa—her brains, her feistiness—but jettison the more gratuitous sex elements I was under pressure from certain editors to add.  I suppose that statement’s kind of ironic in that Bianca is a succubus, but she’s very much the descendant of my original heroine.

In the beginning, Bianca and her whole Paladin world were supposed to go into a graphic novel, but that fell through.  I still wanted to develop the concepts, so my natural instinct was to novelize them.  Now putting heroes in panels is one thing, but a novel doesn’t have that visual shorthand that comic book readers accept.  “Oh, the guy flies,” or “Okay, he shoots his gadget gun.”  In a novel, your suspension of disbelief insists on more.  I wondered how I could get this stuff to make sense, because to me, you need more going on.  It just falls apart if you say: The world is realistic like our own, but you’ve got heroes with it.  Uh-uh.  Bzzzz, wrong.  The world itself has to enable this, and that got me thinking how the urban fantasy genre is perfect for bending the rules of physics and chemistry…

I have to laugh at myself for being such an arrogant idiot in trying to invent a whole new superhero universe as the backdrop to her story and any sequels.  I mean after all, both DC and Marvel developed with multiple contributors over more than half a century.  What the hell was I thinking? The good thing is that with all their creations out there, it forces you to come up with something original or at least a new take on an old theme.  But I’m sure readers can recognize certain archetypes.  Clerfayt’s a detective avenger, and he’s rich.  I know, I know, who does that sound like?  But then you find out how he gets his wealth, and it’s unusual—and it works in urban fantasy.

Frida: I haven’t been exposed to much superhero fiction outside of mainstream comic books (DC, Marvel) and old pulp masked heroes (e.g. Zorro, The Shadow). What struck me about the Paladins, the superheroes in this world, is that their actions have consequences on world politics. It’s not to the same extent as say, the alternate history in The Watchmen (with superheroes getting involved in Vietnam), but it still runs counter to the way mainstream superheroes treat superhero activity as a non-political and non-historical thing.

I especially liked how the superhero/vigilante in Sudan (the Bandit Queen/Makeda) and the rest of the Paladins actively negotiate their working relationship, because intervention is never a simple non-political thing without ethical dilemmas. As Bianca reflected in a scene, “It bothered her that Makeda Falosade had made them all feel like intruders, not saviors. Maybe they were intruders.”

Did you intentionally set out to explore certain themes in superhero fiction, or did they just develop naturally as you wrote the story?

Jeff: Oh, the intention was always there.  To be honest, I’m not crazy about other attempts at superheroes in novels—they’ve really disappointed me.  Marvel and DC both put out paperback novels that read like shallow film novelizations even when they’re original stories, and that’s ironic, because the actual comics can have real depth.  The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller explores themes that make it literature.  When Marvel did its whole “superhero registration act” storyline, it was a mess, but it aspired to greatness.  But in novels, some writers still treat heroes like Freudian head-cases, or their novels get kitschy and self-referential.  For them, it’s a literary stunt.

I wanted to get back to the tone of superheroes as larger-than-life figures and play it straight, instead of winking at the reader.  If you’re a fan of the Justice League cartoon series, you know that one season had this fantastic story arc about how the U.S. government and ordinary people start to get scared over heroes having all this power with a satellite base in the sky…  Adult themes and issues.  That’s the feel I’m going for.

I see my Paladin world as perfect territory to ask some hard questions.  There are still so many ideas that can be explored in novels, while up to now the comics have been doing the heavy lifting.  The movies only flirt with these issues.  For instance, remember Superman Returns?  I always thought they wimped out on that.  What they should have done is not dance and hint around the issue, but have Superman flat-out in context of 9/11.  Bring it right out in the open, and have him fly over the rubble of Ground Zero.  Have people ask: “Why didn’t you stop this?  Why don’t you go get this guy?”  Of course, he can’t, we know he can’t, and it would be preposterous if you even tried to suggest he’d do it as the end credits roll—and yet he’s Superman, he could and maybe he should.  Or shouldn’t.  Either way, you then have a real story, because you have stakes that really matter.

So the international issues the Paladins struggle with are ones many of us in the real world feel are overwhelming.  You mentioned intervention in Africa, and that’s one. In Bianca’s second book, Mask of Anarchy, which I hope to bring out in the summer or early fall, she’s forced into a no-win situation where she can’t just go in and kick ass.  The country this time is a quasi-Vietnam-Cambodia-Burma nation where the people believe in non-violence.  Okay, what do you do if you’re a superhero?  The strategy of non-violence works on shame.  But the brutal regimes of Syria, of Iran, of Burma today don’t feel shame.  They don’t give a shit.  You have all these powers but if you use them arbitrarily like a god, you’ll undermine the self-determination of the very people you’re supposed to be “saving.”  What do you do?

Frida: I’m really impressed by the world-building in Bianca. I love how the setting is a mash-up between near-future sci-fi and early 20th century-inspired urban fantasy, and some flourishes of Victorian England and earlier with the use of alchemy and such. Could you elaborate more on this? I’m intrigued how the fragmented nation-states came to be, and why everyone is so stylishly dressed.

Jeff: Hmmm… That’s a very difficult question for me because I don’t want to give away a lot.  You’re right in that it’s very much a “ten minutes into the future” mash-up world where you’ve got Maglev float-bikes but also alchemy, which of course is proto-chemistry that goes back to Newton and Paracelsus.  I had to build things that way because the Paladins themselves are a mash-up team, just as superhero teams always are with DC and Marvel.  Here you’ve got Thelonius Minh, a master of combat yoga who has a unique origin, working with Makeda Falosade, who’s brilliant at physics and engineering but who also knows African magic.  And they’ve got to work with Plague Man, a completely bat-shit unstable entity who’s so full of human rage and grief, but who can become a cloud of mustard gas or make himself into a neurotoxin in seconds.  They have to live in a very interesting world.

As for the nation-states… I’ve deliberately kept the political back story a submerged iceberg, at least for now, because this is the one thing to me that readers will go along with in a novel, in terms of suspension of disbelief, in the same way gadgets and powers are often accepted without question for superheroes in film.  If Bianca were a movie, I think we’d have the reverse challenge.  She’d be stronger than most regular humans, and Clerfayt would simply arrive wrapped in mist.  If you wondered how he makes his gadgets, you answer that in a 10-second montage.  But in a 300-plus page novel, you have to go into the actual details.  In a film, we wouldn’t sweat the mechanics—instead, we’d very much care how our guys got into their situation.  It’s why you always get those white-on-black expository intros in SF movies or somber narrations.

Bianca: The Silver Age was always intended to be ambitious, to kick off a multi-strand series of novels, each book featuring one or two individual Paladins, such as say Clerfayt with Hawkwood showing up, or Makeda Falosade on a solo adventure.  I wanted to create a world in which other writers can hopefully contribute when Gallivant Books is in a stronger position to commission talented authors.  So I haven’t locked in too many fine details of how the world got into its mess, and that’s so others can play in my sandbox.  Here’s hoping they will.

As for their outfits…  It’s nice you call them stylish!  I was actually trying to come up with alternatives to the old cape and tights clichés.  I’ve always dreamed (sometimes in a ruthlessly commercial sense) of the franchise possibilities of the Paladins, and if they’re to work some day in comics or by some miracle, wind up in a movie, they need to be distinctive but not ludicrous.  A hot chick in a bolero jacket and a hakama kicking your ass has to be taken seriously.  A guy in a fisherman’s cap and a dark coat in the shadows can still look menacing.  A guy in vagabond rags who suddenly turns into a cloud of disease is fucking scary.

Frida: As a genre writer based in Canada, what are your thoughts on the publishing landscape for genre fiction and for Canadian literature? What do you think of the concept of the Sci-fi Ghetto? I just wanted to bring that up because out of all the Canadian speculative fiction authors I’m aware of, the only one that gets attention from national media is the one that claims that her works aren’t sci-fi (ahem, Margaret Atwood).

Jeff: Yeah, I’m disgusted by the fact that when the BBC asked Atwood about science fiction, she took offense and called it “talking squids in outer space.”  Her comment really captures the snobbery here regarding literature.  The contempt is quite baffling and downright silly—I mean you have Robert J. Sawyer who’s won virtually every SF award you can think of, you have Guy Gavriel Kay, Tanya Huff, so many others.

The truth is that Canada’s literary stars make their living off books sold overseas.  They’d starve if they had to depend on home sales.  The whole publishing industry here is heavily subsidized by the government, and so much of it never has to prove itself commercially.  The really sad thing is that we don’t have a viable SF imprint or mystery imprint that can make a big splash nationally and internationally.  We don’t have a Tor or a Baen Books of our own, which is part of why I started Gallivant Books, though if GB survives and thrives, it’ll be years before it reaches that scale, if ever.

That leads into the issue of the Sci-Fi Ghetto.  For us in Canada, the ghetto is all too real, but in the U.S., I wonder if the ghetto really matters or exists anymore.  One of my heroes, Harlan Ellison, has a gem ranked in The Best American Short Stories for 1993.  How many Philip K. Dick movies are there?  I’ll take their ghetto any day!

Here it’s awful, but I’ve realized lately that my defensiveness makes me sound bitter.  Many of us sound like we have a chip on our shoulder.  And we do.  I’m trying to adopt a new attitude this year, because in the end, science fiction and fantasy are called a genre, they’re a “category,” not simply because of their subject matter, but because we have discerning readers.  We may never get massive fan bases, and that’s okay, too.  If we do it right, the work lasts.  When I checked out your link on the “ghetto,” it mentions the old saw about how so much SF is “poorly written rubbish,” and to that, I say, remember Sturgeon’s law.

Read Somerset Maugham.  Stylistically, his stuff can be terrible, full of clichés and sloppy phasing, which is why they won’t put him in literature, only fiction.  I love so much of his work.  His narratives grab you, and they’re still adapting his books for films.

Think of all the literary crap that is so crushingly dull and forgettable—I was forced to read Malamud’s short stories in college.  They’re root canal to me.  Does anyone really believe Updike’s stuff will last?  Ten minutes into the future, we’ll still have Maupassant’s Bel-Ami and Gore Vidal’s Lincoln.  But we’ll also have Shogun and Tigana and The Demolished Man, which is one of the most overlooked fantastic novels ever, and Stranger in a Strange Land.  I have no clue whatsoever if people will be reading Reich TV or The Karma Booth.  I can only hope so.

Frida: What are your experiences with independent e-publishing so far? Are you planning to publish other books through a traditional publisher, or do you plan to go with independent e-publishing all the way? What will the world of publishing look like in future?

Jeff: It’s been a hell of a ride.  I’ve been a magazine editor and a freelance book editor, so I had some experience to help guide me.  Many folks don’t realize e-publishing still involves all the grunt work of regular publishing.  Getting ISBNs, meeting deadlines… I’ve had to commission cover art before, check galleys, etc.  I’ve been lucky enough to have sold novels to a start-up British imprint, but have also had those books sold to a major publishing house for reprints, and I’ve also had success in regular non-fiction.  So I arguably knew more than others going in, but still nothing really prepares you for the slog you’ll take upon yourself with starting your own imprint.  Gallivant was never intended to be just “Jeff’s Novels”—I wanted and still want to make it into an SF, fantasy and thriller version of Ellora’s Cave or Dreamspinner, which are ebook imprints with multiple authors, a whole list of them.

But I’m behind schedule on that.  The print books look quite professional and we’re getting into great online distribution channels, but there’s so much content out there that marketing is the biggest challenge.  I have a cool marketing strategy I want to execute, but we’ve had some setbacks.  My cover artist is taking time off for family this year, which she’s certainly earned, and I love her stuff so much, it’ll be hard to replace her.  And of course, there’s still that snobbery over e-publishing, there’s snobbery if you dare use Lightning Source, which is stupid because they do great work, or you run into attitudes if you dare publish your own work.  Never mind the fact that Kipling did it and Orwell nearly published Animal Farm himself because he got rejected so many times.

It’s funny.  When I did erotica, I’m sure what really drove sales was the word of mouth in reviews, and Random House quoted Coffee Time Romance and one or two others right on the front page and the covers.   There’s only been one review ever of the Teresa Knight novels in a mainstream venue, Publisher’s Weekly; the rest were all online forums.  Well, I’m still doing the same thing, I’m still writing genre novels.  But in e-publishing, you get that whiff of “you’re not real” from some people who don’t bother to read the blurbs, or check out the professional production work or the fact that we’re in Kobo, Kindle, Waterstones, practically everywhere.  The Karma Booth got a critic’s praise in Australia.  So are novels from Gallivant Books “real?” I think they are.

But I’ll always be more of a writer than a business person.  I’m still flogging certain books at traditional publishers.  I even want to get over my bitterness at the Canadian literary scene, so this year I’m trying a new strategy of “If you can’t beat ‘em, infiltrate ‘em.”  I’ve actually applied for a couple of Writer in Residence gigs, which I never thought I’d do because I’ve always associated them with the whole grant dodge.  But Vancouver was smart enough to have Spider Robinson as a Writer in Residence.  That would be good company to be in.

As for publishing in the future: we’ll always have books.  Think of those great Dorling Kindersley volumes on everything from science to gardening.  People will still want those.  They’ll still want beautiful thick tomes with uneven cut cream-cloth pages.  But in the future, maybe we’ll have new technology that can give us the feel of texture while also being multimedia.  Wouldn’t that be cool?  (And oh, yes, I’ve put that into the Paladins’ universe and a couple of other spots).

Frida: What can readers expect in the sequel to Bianca: The Silver Age? Are there upcoming sequels for your other books?

Oh, Mask of Anarchy has a lot going on!  I’ve already mentioned the theme of non-violence, but other ethical issues are explored, too.  And new Paladins are introduced.  The ones in Silver Age—Plague Man, Orson Hawkwood, Clerfayt, Thelonius Minh, the Bandit Queen, Bianca—are the “top guns.”  But now the landscape opens up a little, and you meet other Vigil-ebrities and get a sense of the pecking order of the heroes.  Bianca’s now far more confident in her abilities and much more a leader.  In fact, how she handles leadership is a major through-line of the book.

Initially, I intended to write novels for the other characters after Bianca had three of her own, but I’m anxious to get cracking on a book for Clerfayt, which has the working title, Clerfayt: Arch of Terror.  Each novel in the Paladin series, assuming things go well, won’t be a cookie-cutter pattern.  By that I mean Clerfayt’s novel won’t be a “team” book like Bianca’s—his story is very much a noir-ish detective story where you learn more about the Allied Zones of Paris.  But there will be a team-up, and readers get to discover more about his working collaboration with Orson Hawkwood.

I’ve got a third novel plotted and waiting to be done that focuses on Plague Man, which surprises me because… Well, from how Plague Man is in Silver Age, I wasn’t sure for a while if he should get a book of his own.  Dig into the mystery too much, and you destroy what makes the character interesting.  But I think I’ve figured out how it should work.  In Plague Man: Time Itself Will Burn, Volker Sharf has to really come to terms with his rage and impetuousness because everyone else is counting on him.  That’s a novel where readers will get really juicy back story details on certain Paladins.

Reich TV by Jeff PearceThat should be plenty enough to keep me busy, but I’ve been working as well on a sequel to Reich TV, a book I never thought at first should have one.  For your readers who don’t know it, Reich TV explored how television could have changed the course of Nazi Germany.  When Steve Jobs died, I started to roll around in my head certain themes about early computer tech the same way that early television haunted me, so now anyone who liked the first book has a big hint about the sequel, which has the working title, Nixon’s Web.  George Orwell is back, but this time he’s in America.  And he has a rather interesting supportive cast like last time.

And if that’s not enough to keep me busy, I’m hoping Gallivant will be able to bring out a hard SF novel, plus a couple of thrillers, plus a young adult fantasy novel in the near future.  Right now they’re each in different editorial stages, and I think I’m going to be busy.  I just hope people like the books.

***

Man, all those sequels look juicy. And I’m really looking forward to Nixon’s Web; I gave Reich TV 5-stars after all. Alternate history George Orwell + political conspiracies + technology on stereoids? Yes please!

Thanks to Jeff for the interview! You can follow Jeff Pearce on Facebook and Goodreads.

The Trident of Merrow by Amber Marshall and Kristopher Lewis (2011)

Smashwords / Amazon / Author’s Site

3/5 stars

Description:
Toshala Flemmish has been waiting for her chance for years. A tomboyish steam mechanic, she has been beneath the notice of Germaine Billings since they were children. Today is different. Today, Tosh has a new dress, a new look, and will not be denied. Unless of course she’s kidnapped by pirates at the behest of a monster from her childhood nightmares. Now Tosh is getting the attention she’s wanted all along as her father sends Germaine in pursuit of the pirates. The race through the seas and skies begins, and unless she can escape, Tosh will be sacrificed to resurrect a demon god who will plunge the island nations of Aquan beneath the ocean.

Review:
Readers who enjoy their adventure stirred with some romance will find much to like in The Trident of Merrow. The story moves swiftly, following two separate crews:  the Sea Drake, where Tosh is imprisoned by the pirate Jebediah Blud and a powerful Strega witch with an agenda, and the Gallows Jig, captained by Tosh’s childhood friend Germaine . From mutiny and sea monsters to airships and ancient rituals, The Trident of Merrow delivers action at a blistering pace.

The first pages immediately throw the reader into Tosh’s world: not just a mapping of the circumstances surrounding her current life but also a taste of the place she inhabits. She and her father live in Kingsport but their lives and trade revolve around the Shardsea. By the end of the chapter (it must be noted that the chapters are relatively short), Tosh’s adventure is already well underway. The action is instinctive. It sweeps the readers from the sea into the air; one can almost hear the John Williams soundtrack.

I liked how the magic elements were handled here. Ships employ a weather mage, with limited but useful abilities to calm huge waves or dispel a fog, but who can also appeal to and negotiate with various elementals to help them with more difficult tasks. I also enjoyed reading about the melding of magic and technology; at one point they even use it to create the Aquan equivalent of a missile.

Another interesting aspect of the story is its mythology. Aquan gods and goddesses are binaries: brothers and sisters are also rivals locked in battle. For instance, the Strega witches worship the Abyssal Lord Merrow as the god of the sea while sailors believe in Tryta, the Harlot Mother of Tides. I thought this framed the other binaries of the narrative quite nicely: magic and technology, the Gallows Jig and the Sea Drake, the Rozinante and the Colossus, Germaine and Massimo.

Unfortunately, Tosh is not as strong a character as she first appears to be. It’s evident that the authors tried to distance her from other literary damsels in distress by making her useful and allowing her attempts to rescue herself from her captors (she’s a steam mechanic, with life skills that come in handy once in a while). But there’s something about her that just falls short of being a compelling and relatable lead. It seemed rather unfortunate that the story’s main conflict revolved around Tosh and Massimo when they could be counted among the weaker characters.

However, that doesn’t diminish the impact of the other characters in the story. The Brinhold twins, Brion and Gage, are colorful members of the team who present interesting perspectives. Their backstory alone paints an intriguing culture and dynamic that I hope can be further explored should the authors choose to expand the book into a series. There is also Ama, the resident Manic Pixie Girl-type, an endearing addition to the story even if she only appears in the latter half of the book. Even Germaine, the knight errant, has moments of conflict and introspection, which surprised me because I had expected him to be a one-dimensional character. They might all fill certain stock roles, but they evade the predictability of their tropes just enough to ensure that the story remains memorable.

Despite the non-stop adventure, readers are constantly reminded that The Trident of Merrow is also a romance. In fact, it ends with a realization on Tosh’s behalf regarding the nature of love: not as a rosy-colored, sugar-coated fantasy [but]… seeing someone at their worst, a filthy keening animal. Wise words, but when concluded by someone whose own romance unfolds like the nautical equivalent of the Stockholm Syndrome, it just doesn’t deliver the desired impact. It’s actually the romances in the story that prevent me from fully enjoying the story; sometimes it can get cloying, other times just plain confusing.

Though The Trident of Merrow winds down to a predictable conclusion (the final confrontation with the Big Bad seems almost anti-climactic), there are a lot of moments in the journey that are exhilarating. Young adult readers will enjoy this alternative to the sword-and-sorcery medieval fantasy, and even older ones won’t regret a brief afternoon spent lost among the waves of the Shardsea.

You might like this if you like…
Pirates, airships, brooding emo boys, krakens as pets

Bianca: The Silver Age by Jeff Pearce (2011)

Bianca: The Silver Age by Jeff PearceSmashwords / Amazon / Barnes and Noble

4/5 stars

Description:
It’s the Age of the Paladins, the age of the so-called “Vigil-ebrities” who fight crime and protect the innocent as the world tries to recover from economic collapse. And on the streets of Bohemia, Bianca is trying to find answers to her unique chemistry. She’s a succubus, forever trapped in a cycle of lust and violence that affects her very survival.

But when she looks into the murder of a chemist responsible for the latest addictive gel, the trail leads to exotic cities, new allies and sinister criminal enemies, and a corporate conspiracy that threatens everyone on Earth. By the end of her journey, Bianca will join the ranks of the most famous Paladins in the world: Orson Hawkwood, the leader of Defenders Without Borders, the enigmatic Clerfayt, detective avenger of Paris, Thelonius Minh, the peculiar “shrink to the stars” and master of combat yoga and the creepy, disturbingly powerful Plague Man.

Enter the Silver Age and join a unique heroine on her first exciting quest!

Review:
Bianca: The Silver Age is a sexy piece of superhero fiction. Bianca is a bisexual succubus, stalking through the streets of Bohemia in hakama pants and a bolero jacket with nothing but a bra beneath. She has super strength, healing powers, and shapeshifting abilities, and she’s on the quest to unravel a corporate conspiracy to find the truth about her origins.

I adore the world; it’s best described as an urban fantasy that takes place in the future. It’s enchanting and cosmopolitan, and this is reflected in both the prose style and the characters. One noteworthy superhero is Orson Hawkwood, who is essentially a cooler Bruce Wayne if he were a famous tech and PR savvy journalist:

Millionaire philanthropist. Muckraking reporter and blogger. Paladin. His working clothes had become almost a signature uniform: the light linen suit with the classic suspenders, the double hourglass of the bowtie never tied around the open collar, as if he were fresh from a formal dinner party.

He’s also in charge of Defenders Without Borders, an organization of  “doctors, nurses, lawyers, child psychologists and social workers—all trained by the UN before its collapse—made up a task force of muckraking reporters and investigators.” And these Defenders run around in understated 1920s business suits. I don’t know about you, but I’d take them over Bat Family any day.

Another strength of this book are the links it makes between the criminal and the political. When their investigation leads them to Sudan, Orson resists involvement in internal politics. A local superhero, the Bandit Queen, criticizes him. “Same old Orson. You think you can show up, blow a police whistle and go after a mugger while the real pirates go merrily on with business.” It’s refreshing to see these concepts explored so courageously.

I have a number of criticisms. I was skeptical of the alchemy science (magic) in this book. Magic systems don’t need to be elaborated with overwhelming detail (in most cases, under-explaining is better than over-explaining). I didn’t find the alchemy-related explanations believable and yet they affect large portions of the plot. It sometimes felt arbitrary and it took me out of the story. Bianca’s motivation for her quest could have been more convincing, and it was difficult to follow the investigation—hampering the reading experience.

My favourite part of the book was the beginning when Bianca works solo while meeting the other heroes. Unfortunately, when she begins to work with them, she is often overshadowed by her colleagues. It she didn’t lose out in the superpower lottery and she’s good at beating up the bad guys, but much of the progress of the investigation depends on the deductive skills of others—and she ends up playing an oddly passive role for a book named after her. There’s nothing wrong with that dynamic if this is about a superhero group, but this book is supposed to be focused on her, and she should have sat in the driver’s seat more often.

While Bianca is seductive in some ways, it was an uneven experience and I wasn’t captivated by the main storyline. It’s not the greatest read, but the promising world-setting and the ideas that it explores within the superhero genre makes it stand out. I recommend it to readers who value innovative concepts over a tight plot, and can suspend their disbelief for the fantastical pseudo-science that often comes with superhero fiction. I’d consider checking out the sequel coming out this year.

You might like this if you like…
Highly original superhero fiction, urban fantasy, bisexual succubus action girls, sensual scenes, unique cosmopolitan settings

This is the third book I’ve reviewed by Jeff Pearce, after Reich TV and The Karma Booth.

The Weight of a Crown by Tavish Kaeden (2011)

The Weight of a Crown by Tavish Kaeden (Smashwords not available) / Amazon / Author’s Site

3/5 stars

Description:
THE WEIGHT OF A CROWN
Thousands dream of it; still more die for it. Yet, how many can truly bear it?

After centuries of bitter conflict the realm of Esmoria is at last united under the banner of a single king. On the surface the realm appears to be enjoying its first taste of peace, but lingering resentment and the untimely death of the new ruler threaten to return Esmoria to political chaos.

Meanwhile, in the farthest reaches of the frozen north, a dethroned monarch’s plot for revenge awakens a long-forgotten evil. As darkness and treachery descend upon the realm, a young escapee from a forced labor camp, a disenfranchised soldier, and an epileptic engraver’s apprentice find themselves at the heart of the troubles.

Review:
If you’re looking for an epic fantasy of a respectable doorstopper length, look no further–The Weight of a Crown clocks in at 670 pages. The chapters alternate between characters on opposite sides of a continent-spanning conflict: a young woman who escapes from a forced labour mining camp, a regent who desires to leave the court and become a woodsman again, a warrior whose pair of cursed daggers transforms his fighting skills from mediocre to god-like, and an epileptic apprentice who discovers that he could channel his energies into magic.

I liked the diversity in the characters’ backgrounds, but I felt like their personalities were lacking that extra punch. Not a single character shows humour, irony, or sarcasm—those bits of colour that regular people take part in to make life tolerable. Instead, all the characters play their roles within narrow parameters. This would have been a richer world if the characters expressed a fuller range of emotions and cracked a dirty joke once in a while. Unfortunately this made me unable to connect with them on a deeper level.

Kaeden’s deliberate but fluid prose immediately immerses you into the world, and the situations that the characters face are interesting. There’s court intrigue, gladiator-style fights, medieval drug cartels, demon creatures with mind control powers via orifice invasion–you name it.  For the most part, it feels like reading four unrelated stories, but at the 75% mark, they come together in an surprising way. Their individual plots start connecting into the larger political conflict–making for a promising sequel.

But the reason why I can’t give this book four stars is that this volume is essentially one massive set up for the next book. I know that comes with the territory of epic fantasy, but The Weight of a Crown feels flat somehow. While a lot of things happen, it’s difficult to judge how important some developments are when the big picture is still being woven into place. It didn’t help that I couldn’t get emotionally invested in the characters. So when they were nearly assassinated, or chucked out of their kingdom, or mind-raped by a parasitic demon creature, I just shrugged.

If you’re looking for something easy to read to pass the dreary winter nights, this is a good choice, but I can’t say this is a standout epic fantasy. I’m still interested to see where Kaeden takes the story because he’s working with excellent ingredients and damn, the plot is about to go places. It could be the beginning to a great series once the characters are injected with more colour and the plot starts to really thicken.

You might like this if you like…
Shades of grey fantasy factions (no side is evil–there’s only evil individuals); chapters that jump between characters on opposite sides of the conflict

The next book in the The Azhaion Saga is not out yet, but make sure to check out Tavish Kaeden’s website for announcements.

Reader Review: The Book of Deacon by Joseph R. Lallo (2011)

The Book of Deacon by Joseph R. LalloSmashwords / Amazon / Author’s Site

This is a reader-submitted review written by Rick Taylor.

Reader Rating for The Book of Deacon: 3/5 stars

Description:
Myranda is a young woman more interested in staying alive than being a hero. Orphaned by a continent-spanning war that has gone on for decades too long and shunned for failing to support it, she has been on the move since she was only a child. One can hardly blame her when she thinks that the chance discovery of a fallen soldier’s priceless cargo is the moment that will change her life. No one could predict just how great that change would be. It will lead her through an adventure of rebels and generals, of wizards and warriors, and of beasts both noble and monstrous. Each step of the way will take her closer to the truth of her potential, of the war, and of the fate of her world.

Review:
The Book of Deacon is a very well-written ebook that breaks from the stereotypical model of a leading male hero saving the day. Instead the hero, Myranda, is a young woman who is abandoned by her family and has to make her way in a world that hates what she stands for. She must strive for her very survival at every stage of the story and at the same time is trying to find a way to stop the endless war in her world. This foundation gives Mr. Lallo a platform to explore a harsher side of reality where a person is a generous friend one day and is trying to kill you the next.

Myranda is not exactly innocent as the book starts, but is a bit naive and overly trusting. This slowly begins to change as the book goes on, but these traits are never lost. Her character never seems to grow in wisdom, and is always at the whim of more mature and more forceful characters that steer her direction through life. That being said, she is a very believable character, and one that you really begin to like and to a degree even pity as the story matures. In the beginning of the book she is cast as stereotypically weak girl, but as story progress there are signs of her becoming stronger. I expect in the next book to see more of that growth as Myranda grows into her hero role.

The book is told in the third person point of view, but almost exclusively follows Myranda, which gives the book some of the feeling of intimacy that you can only get in first person narratives. It breaks from this pattern in a few key places that seem to be there as a way to get information to the reader that Myranda cannot know, but helps the reader better understand some of what is going on. The problem with them is that they are infrequent enough that the switch to a new perspective is sometimes a tiny bit jarring. He is very good at only telling the reader enough to understand what is going on with out giving too much away that Myranda would not know. In many ways he leaves the reader guessing almost as much as Myranda.

The story itself is falls in the category of fantastic events happen to a downcast person, which turns that downcast person into a mighty hero who will eventually save the world. It does a good job of using this story type in a way that is entertaining and even has some twists in it that can surprise the reader. While the path that Myranda’s story follows fairly predictable in the large sense, it is varied enough in the details to keep it enjoyable. You do not ever seem to have that “wow that was totally unexpected” moment, you do have the “huh, did not see that coming,” moment from time to time.

Most of the story is clean enough that Disney could make a G movie out of it and market it to children. There is no cursing, no sex, and most of the violence is tame. It does touch a little on religion, some people do die, and there is blood spilled, but nothing that would give me pause in recommending this book to any reader.

The world in which the story takes place is fairly bland. Several towns are described in the book, but they all have the same feel making all but one of them hard to keep separate in your mind as you think back on the events in her life. The very last town she stays in is distinctly different and is much more fleshed out then the others. That town shows the beginnings of building a world that is both deep and wide. Mr. Lallo’s style seems to be one that de-emphasizes the world itself in favor of telling the story.

The strength of this book is definitely in the story telling. He keeps you interested with his use of language, emotion and small surprises that largely make up for any weakness in the book itself. I enjoyed reading the book, and while it is longer than most ebooks I did not feel it was too long at all. That being said, it was just a little shy of being great. It is the kind of story that you enjoy picking up and reading, but not the kind that can draw you from across the room and keep you up till the wee hours of morning, turning pages as fast as your eyes can go.

I am not one to care much for perfectly polished grammar, spelling, or syntax but I did not notice anything in the copy I downloaded from Barnes and Noble that gave me any trouble. If there are typos in this book, then they are few enough and far enough between to not be noticeable. I read the book on my Nook Color and had no trouble with the file. Chapter breaks and headings were in place and all seemed to be fine in that respect.

Overall I think the book is great for anyone looking for a female hero in a good clean and fun story that is an enjoyable light read. If you are looking for complex world building, combat, and deep character development–you should probably give this book a pass.

I am giving the book three stars based on Adarna SF’s rating system. The book is good and well-written, but it’s a little shy of great. I would gladly read it again, and will likely read the next book in the trilogy.

High Society by Paolo Chikiamco and Hannah Buena (2011)

High Society by Paolo Chikiamco and Hannah BuenaFlipreads / Amazon / iTunes

4/5 stars

Description:
Take your first step into a world of automata, magic, and alternative history! The year is 1764, and, for the first time in nearly two centuries, the Spanish forces have been repelled from the great walled city of Manila. While the Spaniards are quick to lay the blame at the feet of the invading British and their clockwork machines, the secret to the success of the Filipinos may lie closer to home, with an ally that is both ancient and new, mythical and mechanical. “High Society” is a stand-alone steampunk comic book in the “Wooden War” series.

Review:
High Society is an excellent start to a steampunk comic series set in Spanish colonial era Philippines, an alternate history take on the struggle for independence. The issue is in black and white and only 24 pages long, but it’s packed with adventure, creative world-building, and an inspiring spirit.

Chikiamco’s 18th century setting weaves together steampunk and Filipino mythology in an innovative way, but it’s not done for novelty—they’re part of the post-colonial themes that the series promises to explore. It’s not post-colonial merely in the strict historical sense (in the fight against Spain), but it’s also about reclaiming a people’s humanity and self-determination.

Did you know, that before the Spanish arrived, we had a goddess of lost things? I wonder if everything we’ve ever lost is still out there somewhere…

When the Carpenter whispered that line, my eyes welled up. The last time I had that emotional reaction to a comic was in The Watchmen, during the final conversation between Doctor Manhattan and Laurie Juspeczyk. Maybe High Society has such a strong tug on my heart strings because I am both a Filipina and an immigrant, but I’m confident that readers of all backgrounds will find the characters and their aspirations compelling.HIgh Society by Paolo Chikiamco Hannah Buena page with Rita

Rita is an intriguing heroine, skilled at both courtly intrigue and whoop-their-ass action. It’s delightful that the story is told from her point of view, clearly illustrating how she feels about the Spanish. I’d love to learn more about her.

The comic does a good job of immersing the reader in the setting while still keeping it accessible for readers who aren’t familiar with the Philippines. I love details like the use of Filipino sound effects (e.g “bog!” instead of “wham!”). There are a few Filipino and Spanish terms thrown around, but they’re not used excessively, and you’d be able to infer the meaning from context. What non-Filipino audiences would need some getting used to is the mythology, but that’s what Wikipedia is for. There’s a mini glossary of terms at the end, which is helpful, but not necessary to enjoying this wonderful issue.

Buena’s art is expressive and dynamic, with a subtle manga influence that makes everything extra adorable. It has a bit of of a sketchy feel because some of the pencils are visible, but it I think it’s aesthetically pleasing. I’m not an expert on comic art, but there were a few panels that would have benefited from more value contrast. The art is bursting with life, the composition is great, but there’s a lot of detail which sometimes overwhelms the primary action. Using more contrast would help the reader figure out what to focus on. That’s my only teeny nitpick.

Also, a technical consideration, the Kindle version of the comic is meant to be read for e-readers/tablets with higher resolutions than the Kindle 3. Sample it first to see if you’ll find it readable on your device, but I had a better experience just reading it on my computer.

High Society is a rich alternate history adventure with a dose of post-colonial badass. I’m eager to read the next issue coming out in May 2012!

Other reviews of this comic: One More Page

You might like this if you like…
Steampunk; historical fantasy; mythology and folklore; post-colonial badass

Paolo Chikiamco is a busy chap! Other than being a spec-fic writer, he also runs Rocket Kapre, an independent publisher of speculative fiction from the Philippines. There’s actually a short story anthology coming out this week called Alternative Alamat, featuring contemporary fantasy writers retelling Philippine mythology. Yes, it’s coming out in ebook form, and it’s definitely worth a look.

You can listen to a podcast interview with Paolo about this comic and other projects on Charles Tan’s blog.

FYI: Charles Tan is a famous spec-fic blogger with SF Signal, and has worked hard to put Philippine spec-fic on the map. There’s lots of fascinating stuff coming out of that community. I’m so glad that the ebook revolution is here!

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