Thursday, July 18, 2013

Jay Lake Pre-Mortem Readathon, Review the Fourth: PINION

PINION (Clockwork Earth #3)
Tor Books
$26.99 hardcover, available now
Reviewed by Richard, 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Rejoin the adventure in the third novel of Lake’s Clockwork Earth series. Paolina Barthes, young sorceress, is crossing the Equatorial Wall, attempting to take herself and her magic away from the grasp of powerful men in the empires of the north. Emily Childress is still aboard the renegade Chinese submarine, along with her devoted Captain, and the British chief petty officer Angus al-Wazir. They are all being sought most urgently by the powers that secretly rule the Northern Earth--the Silent Order and the White Birds. And a third power, of the Southern Earth, has its eye on Paolina; she will not be allowed to bring the political turmoil of the North into the more mystical South.

My Review: It's been my habit to put these Jay Lake Pre-Mortem Read-a-thon reviews up early on my appointed blog-posting day. This one's going up almost the next day. It's been very hard to write.

I started this project as a way of making sure that one reader of Lake's novels says a public thank you to the man before he finishes his journey. To my pleased surprise, he's noticed this and graciously acknowledged it. The Jay Wake, his self-hosted funeral festivity, is in the immediate future; I'll have another review before then; but Pinion, the final Clockwork Earth novel, brought home to me just that: Finality.

While the story lines of Boaz, the Brass man from the days of King Solomon's court, Paolina the brash miracle-worker, Emily Childress the librarian-turned-avebianco-Mask, Wang the librarian and traitor whose destiny is at right angles to his desires, and even Hethor, the clockmaker's apprentice who saved the world, are wound into a charming tassel herein this is the last visit we'll pay to this marvelous, blasphemous, gorgeous alternative Universe with its radically different laws of physics.

Oh heavy heavy sigh.

Well, that said, let's get on to the story. The Chinese Empire and the British Raj are, as great empires are wont to be, on the brink of war. The Chinese want to (re)build the Golden Bridge that once connected the industrial and mechanistic Northern Earth to the Edenic, spiritual Southern Earth. The British don't want them to do that before they themselves build a tunnel to accomplish the same purpose.

Both sides want the prize, the booty, the imperial power over the Southern Earth. The avebianco and the Silent Order, opposing mystical societies with special and nonmaterial means of control, don't want the Wall that the Earth's gears travel atop (remember I spoke of the alternative physics of this world) breached for their own reasons. No one takes much account of what the Southern Earth's peoples might want. (This should sound familiar.)

At the heart of this conflict are the actors on our literary stage, the wild Paolina and the librarian/Mask Childress. They spend their efforts to prevent a ridiculous war, release a dead Queen from mechanical bondage to earth, and preserve God's ordered construction against the day that the sides can be brought together without ill will or evil intent.

What a great thing this Wall is! The almost-accidental destruction of colonialism prevented by a physical, insurmountable barrier that is peopled by scary monsters. I love this idea, and the idea of the Brass people created by King Solomon and vivified by his Seal! It's a beautiful Earth, this one. The Seal of Solomon (Place me like a SEAL upon your heart, like a SEAL on your arm. For love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Song of Solomon 8:6) set the Brass into action in the world, and in their immensely long lives the world's peoples benefited from the wisdom of their detached-yet-present perspective. The slow, inevitable decline of any powerful people has come upon them. Now Boaz, a rebel from their midst and an uncontrolled actor in their controlled society, finishes King Solomon's plan for the world:
The threads within his mind were a chaotic stir, not unpleasant, but not simple. He tried to listen, to pick out what they were saying, but just as he'd wanted them quiet before, now he wanted them to speak out.
Was this what it meant to be human? To wish for the impossible, to never clearly hear the tenor of one's own thoughts?
If that was the price of love, he was willing to pay it.
And that, really, is the message of the books of the Clockwork Earth. It's fitting that the series end here, with that clear insight into the murk of having a soul, and that clear acceptance of the price a being pays for being capable of insight. Resistance is, in fact, futile: Run away, hide as best you can, life comes down to that. Do you accept the price of being conscious and aware, or do you dream your life away?

Maybe it takes a Clockwork Earth, a created artifact of a divine mind omnipresent, to make the starkness of the choice we're all required to face this clear and sharp.

Sharp things cut. Never forget that.

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Suffering from Superhero Fatigue? Image Has the Cure for What Ails You!

Does the tidal wave of superhero flicks at the movies, the never ending "Biggest Crossover Event in History!"  comic series specials, or just the nakedly aggressive marketing of the big two publishers in comics have your tights in a bunch?  Never fear--Image is here!  (And, seriously, what the hell were you doing in tights to begin with?)

Now, don't get me wrong, I love the established franchises as much as the next gal, but sometimes I get tired of having a bazillion different titles revolving around the same superheroes, the watered down content to keep the PG-13 crowd dropping coin, and the lack of fresh ideas that comes with trying to keep tried-and-true superheroes relevant to the next generation.  And that's what makes the comics of indie publisher Image so great.  They're not afraid to take chances--just look at writer Brian K. Vaughan and illustrator Fiona Staples's unpredictable space opera Saga (a comic whose praises I sung in a previous review, if you want to look it up).  Image knows the value of a self-contained story, fresh characters, new worlds, and adults-only content (because not everyone who reads comics in 13 years old).  So, without further ado, let's look at some of my recent favorites, available at a comic shop near you:

Jupiter's Legacy
Written by Mark Millar
Illustrated by Frank Quitely

**Issues 1 and 2 now available

A new spin on the superhero tale, Jupiter's Legacy explores the pressures and pitfalls of celebrity when your parents just happen to be the most powerful beings on the planet--and they are uncompromising in their belief that you, too, should be using your powers to protect and defend humanity.  

Brandon and Chloe are the hedonistic and nihilistic (two fancy words for "asshole") children of the Utopian, the leader of the first generation of superheroes (the how and why regarding their acquisition of supernatural power remains cloaked in mystery).  Their privileged upbringing has not come without a price--instant fame and its attendant henchmen: drugs, alcohol, and casual sex; the heavy weight of responsibility to others at the sacrificial cost of the self; and a domineering father whose ethical code is noble, but clearly flawed.  

Jupiter's Legacy does veer dangerously close to soap opera territory (feuding families, ill advised loves, generational power struggles, reckless behavior), but that's part of what makes it fascinating in a reality tv sort of way.  It asks the question of are these bright, shiny, gifted people as happy as they appear to be on the outside?  The answer, of course, is an unequivocal "no."  The Utopian in particular is a fascinating character.  Consistently disappointed in the antics of his children (isn't it embarrassing when your super-strong son gets drunk and decides to lift a cargo ship in a misguided attempt to get it to port more quickly?), he's also at odds with his brother, Walter, whose powers manifested themselves in more psychic/intellectual ways.  The Utopian seems mired in the past, dedicated to the idea of the superhero as the strong arm of the law, while Walter advocates for superheroes who take a more politically active role in changing the world.  Frank Quitely's art is beautiful (although some of his younger characters will inexplicably look like elderly versions of themselves in some panels), and Millar raises some interesting questions about morality, responsibility, and family.

Five Ghosts:  The Haunting of Fabian Gray
Written by Frank J. Barbiere
Illustrated by Chris Mooneyham

**Issues 1 - 4 now available

Part Indiana Jones, part Gambit, part James Bond, and all pulp, Five Ghosts is a fun throwback to the classic adventure narrative of the 30's and 40's.  Fabian Gray is a charming and handsome master thief who has spent his life acquiring some of the world's finest antiquities, with the help of his twin sister.  However, when he and his sister attempt to steal The Dreamstone, things go cockeyed.  Now his sister is in a coma and Fabian has five shards of The Dreamstone lodged in his chest--and within each stone is the essence of an archetypal figure:  the detective, the samurai, the wizard, the archer and the vampire.  Trapped within Gray's body, Gray can draw upon the powers of these "ghosts" to aid him in his newest quest--to find the artifact that will cure his sister.  

Set in the 1930's, Mooneyham evokes the look and feel of the pulp comics from that time period adding to the overall narrative.  Things won't be easy for Fabian--supernatural forces are working against him, exotic locales must be visited, beautiful women need ravishing, and the "ghosts" are becoming increasingly unhappy over their imprisonment within Gray.  Granted, if you were to just tell me the premise of this comic I would dismiss it for setting off my "that's ridiculous" alarm, and this is one of the advantages of your local comic book shop:  knowing what I enjoy, I was encouraged by the owner to give this a whirl and I'm glad I did.   

Ten Grand
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Illustrated by Ben Templesmith

**Issues 1-3 now available

A supernatural noir, Ten Grand is another title with a ludicrous premise that works beautifully.  A former mob hitman, Joe Fitzgerald's life is turned around when he meets and falls in love with the angelic Laura.  Convincing Joe to leave his life of crime behind, Joe agrees to one final mark before retiring.  Unfortunately, the target of this hit just happens to be engaged in a demonic ceremony when Joe comes for him.  I cannot stress this enough:  if you catch someone in the act of summoning the forces of hell, do not fuck with them.  Because then they track you down, kill the love of your life, and leave you for dead.  

As Joe is drawing his final breath, an angel comes to him with an offer.  Behind curtain A we have:  die now and spend eternity in the fiery pits of hell far away from your Laura.  And behind curtain B we have:  work for us and every time you die a righteous death in our service, we will grant you 5 minutes with Laura.  Joe picks curtain A and is now known for helping people in occult matters.  His fee?  Ten grand.  Just enough to keep the lunatics at bay.

Joe is a traditional pulp/noir anti-hero, having a moral code that's compromised by the life he's led and the understanding that life is painted in shades of grey.  At this point, Joe's been around long enough to become jaded to how the battle between good and evil is played out, but he's about to be surprised  by how the past you thought was dead and buried can come back with a serious grudge.

Straczynski dialogue is witty and full of subtle one-liners and dark humor (I love it when Joe goes to a strip-club to summon forth an angel into the vacant vessel of the bored pole-dancer) and I can't say enough about Templesmith's art.  At first I wasn't sure about his style, but it perfectly suits the gritty, seedy world Joe inhabits and evokes an almost cave-wall primitive simplicity, which is a perfect match for a story that boils down to the battle between angels and demons with man caught in the middle.

Written by Greg Rucka
Illustrated by Michael Lark

**Issue 1 now available

Did I save the best for last?  Oh, hell, yes I did!  Only one issue in and I'm hooked.  Lazarus is set in a dystopian future where traditional political and financial systems have collapsed and from their dust rose The Families.  The Families are futuristic feudal lords who own all of the land and all of the wealth.  While they have pledged to provide every man, woman, and child with the basic necessities, it quickly becomes clear that they mean "basic" in the most literal sense.  Those who do not work on their mega-farms are known as The Waste, who are viewed by The Families as parasites for their inability to live on what little the families provide to them.  As we learned from Marie Antoinette, when people get hungry, they get angry and they apparently want more than cake.

Knowing this, The Families select one person from their line to become the Lazarus.  The Lazarus is given every intellectual, physical, and technological advantage available with the intent of protecting The Family and its assets.  For the Carlyle family, their Lazarus is the literally death-defying woman named Forever.  While kicking ass and taking names, Forever has developed a crippling side-effect for an assassin.  Forever is suffering from a conscience, and The Family (or at least her brother) isn't happy about it.

Larks's artwork is lean and austere, and his rendering of Forever is a mini-miracle.  She's beautiful without being highly sexualized, but you never have any doubt that this is a woman who has the ability to remove your heart from your chest if circumstances demand it.  At this point, there's only one issue of Lazarus, but this is an exciting and intriguing premise.  I can't wait to see where Rucka and Lark take us in future issues.