Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Earth X, a Diatribe

I first read Earth X a few years ago.  I was largely unimpressed and decided not to read the sequels: Universe X and Paradise X.  The whole series spans five large trade paper backs and I didn’t want to invest in the story.  For some reason I decided to pick up Earth X again and give it a shot, and this time I was quickly engrossed… or at least interested.

Earth X places the Marvel universe in the unspecified future.  Captain America is an old man fighting a war against a large metaphor.  Reed Richards, devastated over the deaths of his wife and the Human Torch, lives in seclusion in the remains of Dr. Doom’s mostly abandoned fortress.  Wolverine is a fat, lazy slob who refuses to get off the couch.  Peter Parker is much the same.  In this future, familiar super-heroes are supplanted by a new breed of humanity: everyone has super powers.

In the midst of this, the Watcher pulls the cyborg X-51 to the moon and names him the new Watcher.  The world is ending and the Watcher wants X-51 to tell him everything that’s happening, as the Watcher has been blinded.  There’s also a time machine and about a million side-plots.  And dinosaurs.

The bulk of Earth X is told in a somewhat passive voice through conversation between X-51 and the Watcher.  The Reader sees different events happening on earth, but immersion is mostly omitted, ironically forcing the Reader to take part as a watcher.  Inserted throughout the trade paperback is various info-dumps that basically serve to fill in the Reader on more information about what exactly is going on.  These info-dumps are yawn-inducing at best, largely unimportant and extremely uninteresting.  They’re kind of like deleted scenes on a DVD.

This time around I still felt that Earth X was a bit heavy handed and too philosophical for its own good, but the story was somewhat entertaining.  When I finished the introductory issue I happily picked up the first volume of Universe X to see where the story was heading.  Not where I thought, which was a good thing, but the story turned more ridiculous as the pages depleted.  By the conclusion of Universe X Volume 2 I was ready to quit again, but I hung in there, hoping the concluding volumes would be okay.

Halfway through Volume One of Paradise X I gave up the ghost and quit.  The groans were too loud for me to continue.  I developed a tic and a severe allergy to the Marvel Universe.  I was no longer at all interested.  I flipped through the rest of Volume I and did the same for Volume II, skimming over the artwork and totally ignoring the text.  There were a few cool-looking scenes, and if I could somehow read the comic without the words I might continue, but I could not, and I just didn’t have it in me to start again. 

Maybe I’m just the wrong audience for this kind of mega-comic.  I’ve been a lifelong comic book reader, a lifelong fan of Marvel (albeit niched to really only just Spider-Man and the X-Men for most of my growing years), and I’ve even been known to enjoy an occasional philosophical tangent for no other reason than to wander down different avenues of thought.  But the Earth X saga failed (twice) to live up to expectation.  The writing was terrible and the plot was such a mess that meaning was lost in untranslated psychobabble.  Joss Whedon wrote the introduction for Earth X, praising the series as innovative and entertaining.  I disagree with Mr. Whedon here.  It may have been innovative when it was written, but I cannot imagine it ever being entertaining.

All in all I really cannot recommend the five-volume saga of Earth X.  There were plenty of people who enjoyed it, but count me out on this one.  Sorry.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Magician King, a Review

Can you read a book and dislike the protagonist?  That was the question I pondered while reading Lev Grossman’s immensely successful book The Magicians (my review here).  Because I very much liked the book, at least its worldbuilding and its plot, even if I did very much dislike its protagonist Quentin Coldwater.  I was unsure at the time whether or not I would read the sequel, The Magician King, and on a whim at the library last week I picked it up and gave it a shot.

The Magician King begins a few years after the events of the first book.  In the intermediate time Quentin has matured in his outlook on life.  He’s less of a nihilist, less pessimistic.  Sure, he’s still got a long way to go, but his inner monologue was much more palatable from the get-go.  Quentin is a king of Fillory now, along with King Eliot and Queens Julia and Janet.  They live in a magical world filled with happiness, and through it all Quentin realizes that he’s bored.  Be that as it may, Quentin is relatively happy and satisfied with his life, something new to him.

One of the problems with The Magician King is that there is a lack of obvious conflict until very late in the book.  There are conflicts for the characters, but nothing seeming to unite them, at least not at first.  Quentin is bored and longs for more excitement in life.  That’s the gist of it.   

Format-wise, The Magician King spends about half of the book continuing the story of Quentin Coldwater.  Concurrently, chapters alternate with a “flashback” style story, developing Julia’s past and how she came to be a magician.  The reasoning for this doesn’t become clear until over halfway through the book, and while it is effective and works at toying with the Reader, it’s also jarring to the pace of the novel at times.  To me, Julia’s journey just wasn’t as wonderful as Quentin’s.

Regardless of these two drawbacks, the sequel was an enjoyable book.  Grossman continued to pull me into the world(s) he’d created, making me somehow care about Quentin this time around in the process.  The latter half of the book was very exciting, with a climax rising up quickly for Quentin’s plot, while Julia’s logically built to an unforgettable-yet-terrible climax.

I have no doubts that there will be a sequel to this book.  The Magician King opens far too many boxes that it doesn’t shut.  Will I be along for the ride whenever the book comes out?  Without a doubt, yes.  Grossman’s universe is too interesting for me to abandon.  I’m drawn to his pop-culture filled fantasy, curious as to how the whole thing will wind up.  The Magician King surpasses its predecessor in every way, but the biggest improvement was the tone of this story compared with that of the first.  Quentin was a more mature protagonist, and for that I was thankful.  He’s still developing as a character, and I look forward to watching Quentin grow.

Friday, February 01, 2013

A Monster Calls, a Review

Stories are wild creatures, the monster said. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?
Conor is a young lad with far too many problems on his plate.  He wakes nearly every night from a recurring nightmare that is too horrible for him to think about.  He’s picked on by a trio of bullies at school.  His home life—living with a single mom whom he loves dearly—is fraught with A Big Problem.  And to make matters even more complicated, a monster shows up outside his house one night at seven minutes after midnight, calling for him.
Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls is definitely one of the most heart-wrenching books I’ve ever read.  The book tackles a serious subject matter—cancer—in a way unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before.  Conor’s monster, a wicked and spiny thing straight from the Wilds, is a vivid beast with an attitude that dares not be trifled with.  A tentative deal is struck between Conor and the monster: the monster will tell Conor three stories and then Conor will tell the monster the truth about his nightmare. 

This is the basic premise of A Monster Calls.  The book is a short, gorgeous thing, filled with illustrations that pull the eyes in for long moments.  The plot is simple, and yet it is not shallow.  The stories from the monster are great to think on, for both the Reader and for Conor.  They’re fantastic cautionary tales worth the read alone. 

I confess that the artwork was enough to pull me into this read.  The detail is wild, easily finding a home in the realm of dream.  Jim Kay, the illustrator, has created several wonderful works of art for this book.  They all fit the tone of the scenes for which they're drawn.  The style reminds me of stuff from the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, only more sketch like.  And, perhaps because of the story, I'm also reminded of Where the Wild Things Are.

One cannot help but feel an overwhelming dread shortly after starting the book.  With each page turned the dread grows thicker, the fate more and more certain.  As I finished up the last several pages I read quickly, hoping to pass the deep punches to the gut unscathed.  I did not.  I closed the book and sighed heavily.  I believe I told Keisha something like, “Oh my gosh I feel like bawling.”  Why do you want to read something like that? she asked.  “Because the emotions make me feel alive.” (Yes, I'm a dork.)

And they do.  And that’s exactly why I recommend Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls.  That's the whole reason to read, is it not?  To feel something?  Ness's words, along with Kay's illustrations, pierced me. 

This book is a great tool for anyone who is losing a loved one to cancer, but one's circumstances need not be so cursed to get something from the novel.  I'm of the opinion that we all need to read something from time to time that makes us appreciate life a little more, that makes us pay attention to those that are hurting around us, that makes us thankful for what we have.  A Monster Calls does just that.  It's not an easy book to read, in terms of emotional impact, but it is a rewarding book.  It is enjoyable.  It is beautiful.  It is tragic.

If you’ve got a few hours (probably around two-ish) to spare and are itching for some quasi-Realism, then look no further than A Monster Calls.  Wow.  That should do it.