Monday, December 30, 2013


The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects (2010) collects Mike Mignola’s eponymous Eisner-winning one-shot and a number of short stories, including “The Magician and the Snake,” which he co-authored with his daughter Katie, then seven years old. In the title story, President Lincoln enlists Screw-On Head to thwart the plans of the nefarious Emperor Zombie.

In many ways, Screw-On Head is very typical Mignola: great quirky characters, fantastically atmospheric art, and light and minimalist plotting and stories. There are some obvious similarities between numerous Hellboy stories and Screw-On Head, although the latter is decidedly campier. It’s also extremely amusing, and it’s remarkable how effectively Mignola juxtaposes his dark gothic imagery with silly dialogue.

Mignola states in the notes that “There are no untold Screw-On Head stories,” and he’s absolutely right – he does everything he needs to do with the characters, scenarios, and genre in this single comic. In broad strokes, he accomplishes quite a bit, and better this than running the ideas into the ground.

(A note: I picked up this book after seeing the 2006 animated Amazing Screw-On Head pilot, which I found very funny. Good as this book is, and in spite of everything I’ve just written, I think I like it better as a cartoon, what with the fleshed-out backstories and the campiness and the comic delivery.)

The other stories in this volume are only peripherally related, if at all, to Screw-On Head. The heartwarming (and Eisner-winning) “The Magician and the Snake” is popular with fans, but my favorite of the rest of the stories is “The Prisoner of Mars,” which shares the title story’s manically tongue-in-cheek tone. The others are enjoyable, if light on storytelling punch.

Fair warning: this book is 104 pages, but a large chunk of that (close to 20%, maybe) is sketches and pinups. It’s an extraordinarily quick read.

Short as it is, with great atmosphere and entertaining stories, The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects is another solid offering from Mignola.


Monday, December 23, 2013

FORGING THE DARKSWORD by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

Forging the Darksword is a 1987 fantasy novel by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, the first in their Darksword trilogy. Here, in a world where nearly everyone has some sort of magical power, the crown prince is born without it; thus a candidate to fulfill a prophecy of the world’s destruction, he’s sentenced to death.

A world where everyone has magic is reasonably fertile storytelling ground, and to their credit, the authors have created it in such a way that it bears no resemblance whatsoever to Piers Anthony’s Xanth world, which is what the basic premise calls immediately to mind. The authors have also done a thorough job of setting up this world’s society. In spite of their best efforts, however, the characters’ dread of even rudimentary technology feels a little bit silly. I suppose there’s a half-formed commentary on superstition and religious oppression in here that’s scheduled to be born in a later volume.

The plotting is Forging the Darksword’s most serious problem. The first third of the book is bogged down in exposition, as so often happens with fantasy works, but that’s hardly the worst of it. There are too many unnecessary scenes to list, ones that don’t advance the plot or the characters in meaningful ways, and as it plods across a generation, the story is just too meandering: many events seem like little more than everyday life, and although there’s some intrigue after the first third, many story elements that are supposed to be mysterious and suspenseful just aren’t. Overall, the book has very little energy, and the reader very well find himself waiting for something meaningful to happen, something important, but little does, and Forging the Darksword ends up feeling like little more than tedious setup for the second book. It piques the interest here and there, but has trouble ever sustaining it.  

The characters are also problematic. Joram isn’t the slightest bit interesting or sympathetic, which is a major deal-breaker given that the trilogy centers around him. Saryon is certainly both, but he’s too passive to have the story center around him. Simkin is a vaguely amusing caricature of Orczy’s Sir Percy Blakeney, and the sort of deus ex machina character these authors like to keep in their back pocket at all times. No one else is remotely compelling; the authors are so secretive about Vanya’s machinations that it’s hard to stay interested in what he’s actually up to.   

The end result is that Forging the Darksword is a slog. (On the bright side, given the way Bantam Spectra has done the plot summaries, you can pretty much just read the back covers of the first two books and then go straight to the third one.) And this review wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the authors’ repeated and jarring abuse of the word “literally.”

As a fan of the Dragonlance and Death Gate Cycle series, I found Forging the Darksword to be a considerable disappointment. There are sparks of life here, but they aren’t enough for me to continue with this series.


Monday, December 16, 2013


Messiah: Origin is a 2013 graphic novel by Mark Arey, Kai Carpenter, and Matt Dorff. It covers the biblical narrative from the annunciation of the nativity of John the Baptist through the beginning of John’s ministry.

This isn’t a comic book in the conventional sense; the panels are sequential, but all the text is adapted straight from the New Testament (specifically, from John 1, Luke 1–2, Matthew 1–3, and Mark 1). As such, it often feels more like an art book. This is further compounded by the fact that, as Dorff acknowledges, the layouts borrow heavily (read: copy) from various iconic painters and filmmakers.

The unequivocal highlight of Messiah: Origin is Kai Carpenter’s outstanding art. His faces and expressions are fantastic, which is essential given the more static nature of the storytelling here. His use of light and color are also excellent, and the end product is often captivating.

If you’re looking for a comic book version of the Christmas story, Messiah: Origin really isn’t it, but it is a great looking and worthwhile piece of work.


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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, December 9, 2013


Majestic Island Worlds is a 1987 book by the National Geographic Society. It includes pictorial chapters on the Galapagos Islands, Japan, Ireland, Bali, New Zealand, and Seychelles.

Whether or not you’ll enjoy this book will depend primarily on whether you enjoy the National Geographic brand of slice-of-life/vignette travel writing (which, personally, I generally find interesting when I already have some general knowledge about a culture (which this isn’t particularly interested in providing) and somewhat tiresome otherwise).

There are a lot of gorgeous photos here, as you’d expect from National Geographic. In fact, I personally could have done with more pictures and less text. Japan, Bali, and Seychelles are particular highlights.

In short, if you like National Geographic, you’ll like this book. If it doesn’t do much for you, well, this is the internet age, and innumerable fantastic nature photos are just a Google away, and at the risk of sounding like some kind of book-eating savage, you may be better off that way.


Monday, December 2, 2013

CRESCENT by Homer Hickam

Crescent is a 2013 young-adult science fiction novel by Homer Hickam, the second of his Helium-3 books. Here, Crater befriends an enemy mercenary as he gets into various moon shenanigans.

First, a note: I didn’t particularly care for the first book in the series. I only read Crescent because Hickam saw my two-star review of Crater on Amazon and came and found me on this site. He encouraged me to give the series another chance, and I agreed to read the next one. So here we are.

Crescent is a definite improvement over the first book. Crater himself has become a more interesting character. He’s complex and somewhat inscrutable, he isn’t nearly as insecure as he was in Crater, and he has a number of very good moments. Crescent, too, is a sympathetic and engaging character, even if her arc covers well-trod ground. We do less well with many of the one-dimensional supporting characters – the brutal-dictator-turned-small-time-sheriff is tough to take seriously, and the three slacker legionnaires (whose chapters could have been omitted completely) give us four out of four supposedly-fearsome crowhoppers turned cuddly. The romantic tension and conflict between Crater and Maria fails to generate much interest.  

Again, Hickam’s mining and aerospace background shine through, as he provides immersive detail, good science, and reasonable conjecture about all things related to piloting, the moon, and space.

Apart from this, though, the writing has problems. Conversations are frequently stilted; there aren’t enough contractions. Too much dialogue is “growled.” Most damaging, the story is all over the place, meandering and full of detours. Crater is doing everything – plot element after plot element is picked up, only to fall by the wayside, leaving the reader to wonder what, if anything, is really important to whatever the story might turn out to be. It seems as though Hickam had a number of themes he wanted to hit (if you missed any, he recounts them for you in his author’s note), and so in they went.

Crescent also lacks anything remotely resembling a climax – Hickam assembles his ragtag group and the book ends, leaving the reader to feel like the whole thing’s been little more than setup for what surely must be a more interesting third book.

While I feel that the Helium-3 series is definitely trending upward, Crescent has enough problems that I had something of a hard time just getting through it.


Monday, November 25, 2013

KING by R. J. Larson

King is a 2013 young-adult fantasy novel by R. J. Larson, the conclusion to her Books of the Infinite trilogy. Here, King Akabe marries into a pagan family to obtain the land to rebuild the Infinite’s temple.

The Infinite himself sits most of this one out – that’s kind of the point, but without all the prophet business, the first half or so of the book is little more than a bunch of political intrigue and self-indulgent feel-goodery, and it doesn’t feel fresh.

Hand-in-hand with this is the plotting, which is a relatively serious issue here. There’s significant padding, as in the other books; Larson spends time on plots that every reader knows aren’t going anywhere – and then brings sudden and anticlimactic resolution to the series’ ongoing romantic subplot. King has no real overarching plot: the book meanders along without much cohesion, and there’s nothing remotely approximating a climax.

All the threat and doom that hung over the protagonist in the first two books is out the window; it’s obvious to the reader by this point that Larson has no intention of following through on any of it. Never mind the contrivedly feel-good ending; in contrast to the first two, there’s not an iota of suspense in this book.

One of Larson’s strengths is the way she handles her multiple lead characters. King has the largest cast in the trilogy, and Ela, Kien, and Akabe are all, for the most part, sympathetic and compelling. (A number of characters are, from time to time, too stupid to live, particularly in terms of their relationships, and Kien and Ela spend a good portion of the book being nigh-insufferable together, but these aren’t quite deal-breakers.)

While Larson did a pretty good job of not being preachy in Prophet and Judge, King feels a little more sanctimonious as Larson gets her characters proselytizing. Many action scenes are not at all well described, which softens the impact of the book’s events. Larson also continues her annoying tendency to change scene right before the end of a chapter in a cheap attempt to manufacture suspense.

On the balance, though, throughout the trilogy, Larson has done an effective job of executing her premise, managing to incorporate God as a character without beating the reader over the head too badly, without making the story too predictable or unforgivably deus ex machina, and without raising too many theological red flags for the Judeo-Christian readership. In this regard, the Books of the Infinite are noteworthy.

King, then, is the weakest entry in a generally solid series that started fresh and full of potential and was generally satisfying in that regard, even as it was content to cling exasperatingly to the safe and saccharine paths of young-adult storytelling.