Review: Saga Volume Six

Saga, Volume 6Saga, Volume 6 by Brian K. Vaughan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Man, what I wouldn’t give for a recap page at the start of this volume. Even just a reminder of where everyone was at the end of the last volume, because the plotline has become a thick and tangled web of who wants to kill whom and who is allied with whom to prevent the afore-mentioned killing. But that’s all just a quibble. You can always go back and read volume 5, after all.

Volume 6 is great. It’s a bit lighter than previous ventures, a bit more hopeful, and I think that’s due in large part to the presence of Hazel, now old enough (albeit still in kindergarten) that she has her own voice in the story, not just that of the narrator. There also a few new interesting characters as well, which is great considering how high the body county for this series is.

Otherwise, what is there to say? The art is beautiful and weird, there’s so much non-hetero-normative sexuality that it’s all a delight to my progressive heart, especially when it’s juxtaposed with ideas about family and parenthood.

Mild spoilers for previous volumes: most of all, though, I think I’m happiest to see Alana and Marko working together again. The timeline jumps make it a bit tricky to determine if Hazel’s foreboding narration in a previous volume “that this is the story of how my parents split up” means that the split is still coming or if the troubles they encountered in the previous books were that split; it’s hard to say, but I’m pleased to see them here, working together, even if it’s not going to last.

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Review: Adulthood Is a Myth: A “Sarah’s Scribbles” Collection

Adulthood Is a Myth: A “Sarah’s Scribbles” Collection by Sarah Andersen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fun collection of comic strips that are perfect for the introverted, self-conscious, and generally weird among us (so, you know, basically everyone who bothers to read online book reviews!) The breezy visuals contrast well with the feelings of insecurity and uncertainty that are the topics of most (though not all) of the strips, but this isn’t a “collection of despair.” You’ll laugh at most of them, and there are also several that extol the virtues of being cozy. This is very much a “feel-good” collection. I’ve been a fan of the online version of these comics for a while now and I’m looking forward to more of the author’s work; this collection in particular really gives me a sense that Sarah Andersen is a talent to watch. All in all, highly recommended.

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Review: Tomb Raider Volume 3: Queen of Serpents

Tomb Raider Volume 3: Queen of SerpentsTomb Raider Volume 3: Queen of Serpents by Rhianna Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I continue to be impressed with the comic series since Rhianna Pratchett took over the writing. It should come as no surprise, as she’s the main writer for the new Tomb Raider games, so it makes sense she keeps the storytelling smooth and seamless between graphic novel and game.

I like that this volume focuses on the deteriorating relationship between Lara and the “normal world” as a result of her experiences. One of the best moments of the 2013 Tomb Raider game was Lara’s horrified reaction to her first human kill; it was a deeply traumatizing and emotional moment and an excellent piece of storytelling. Eventually, the needs of the game mean you’re mowing down enemy mooks with all the concern of a video game character (which is to say, none), but that’s the result of it being an action game.

Here we see that Lara’s experiences continue to evolve her as a character. She’s trying to stay connected to the normal world despite the fact that she’s done and seen things that make her more and more removed from it. It sets things up nicely for why she’s continued to, ah, tomb raid and put herself in dangerous situations despite no longer being trapped on the island from the first game.

A very solid read for anyone hungry for more adventures with Lara. If you have a chance to read this one before going into Rise of the Tomb Raider, I recommend it, but even if you’ve already played Rise, Queen of Serpents is a fun, well written graphic novel that manages to have some surprising emotional depth. I quite enjoyed it.

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Review: Tomb Raider Volume Two: Secrets and Lies

Tomb Raider Volume 2: Secrets and LiesTomb Raider Volume 2: Secrets and Lies by Rhianna Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book makes me glad that I stuck with the Tomb Raider comic series. After a rocky start in the first volume, things are looking up with a story that does an excellent job of setting the scene for “Rise of the Tomb Raider.” It’s nice to get away from Yamatai and all the plot tangles that storyline created (even if Yamatai was an excellent plot for the first game). The characterization of Lara here is top notch and the sub-plot with Lara acting in a play at Jonah’s request nicely shows how she’s falling out of sync with “normal life.”

My only major quibble was the Trinity operative who was sent to kill Lara, but sort of falls for her instead? To take as an apprentice? It’s somewhat odd, even though I know it fits into the larger storyline that at least a few members of Trinity want to recruit her, considering how effective she is.

Otherwise, this is a great, enjoyable book. I’m glad that the series found its footing and I’m looking forward to the next volume.

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Review: Snowden

SnowdenSnowden by Ted Rall
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It’s always hard to get a decent review on a book about such a divisive figure, simply because there will be a sizable contingent that will rate based on their feelings about the subject (for or against) rather than the merits of the work itself. With that said, I’d like to note that I’m generally pretty pro-Snowden. I’ve read a few other books about him and I think the revelation of the extent of the surveillance state was an important one.

But this isn’t the book to get a deep or nuanced understanding about the Snowden leaks. Here, we have Snowden the superhero, Snowden the caricature. Snowden is depicted as unambiguously good, while politicians like Obama, Clinton, Feinstein, and others are evil schemers (Rand Paul is the only positively depicted politician, interestingly).

This isn’t a simple story of good guys and bad guys. It’s not black and white, though this book very much wishes you to think so. Snowden took personal responsibility! The most important thing is personal sovereignty! Seriously, I absolutely hate it when a book assumes that I’m too stupid to understand the important bits, so those important underlying messages need to be spelled out in bold text. Yeah, it’s a cartoon. Doesn’t mean you need to assume I don’t understand the big words.

I was left shaking my head and rolling my eyes, and again, this is from the perspective of being pro-Snowden coming into this book. I assume if you’re in the anti-Snowden camp, you probably couldn’t get through the book without bursting into flame, but that leads to an interesting question; who’s this book for? I didn’t buy into it and I’m actually in agreement with the author’s general premise!

Why did Snowden leak those secrets? This book argues it’s because he’s a fundamentally good person, the only person who spoke up whenever everyone was going along with the crowd. The word “sheeple” doesn’t show up in the text, but I can’t help but imagine previous drafts where it appeared several times.

It’s possible that the author is correct and Snowden did what he did out of patriotic duty and a sense of personal responsibility. Or maybe he had visions of fame and recognition, a hunger for a place in history. Maybe it was both of these things, or neither, or several others. Humans are complicated and messy creatures. We are, all of us, saints and sinners, fallen angels and rising apes. We do things for many, many reasons and I resist the urge to create simplistic heroes and caricatures of complex issues.

Snowden is important. His leaks are important. Discussions about the nature of surveillance are important. But they are not simple and I resist agreeing with any work that seeks to paint them as such. If you’re curious about Snowden’s story, this isn’t a book that I’d recommend, because even though I do agree with the core premise, I don’t buy into its depiction or execution.

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Review: Tomb Raider Volume 1 : Season of the Witch

Tomb Raider Volume 1 : Season of the WitchTomb Raider Volume 1 : Season of the Witch by Gail Simone
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The 2013 Tomb Raider reboot is one of my favorite games. I loved the revised Lara Croft character and I loved the focus on gritty survivalism. There was a bit of mysticism in the game, but it’s fairly subtle, certainly more so than the previous Tomb Raider incarnations. It’s an amazing game and easily the best reboot I’ve ever seen for a character as popular as Lara Croft is.

“Season of the Witch” serves as a sort of inter-quel story set between the events of Tomb Raider 2013 and the new game “Rise of the Tomb Raider.” In this story, Lara and the other survivors of the Endurance are trying to get on with their lives after their horrifying experience on the island of Yamatai. Unfortunately, weird things are happening which draw them back to the island.

The plot, unfortunately, is the biggest problem here. A story about trying to cope with the events of the island could have been pretty cool, but instead we’re drawn into a conspiracy surrounding the Solarii (the antagonists from the game). Wait, why is there a conspiracy about the Solarii? These business suit types are worshippers of Matthias? How is that possible? Based on the game, Matthias was a survivor who was trapped on Yamatai and formed the Solarii as an island cult so he could break free of its supernatural power. The game made it pretty clear that nobody had ever escaped from Yamatai prior to the events of the game. So where did these conspiracy guys come from? How did they know about the events of the island? Why would they worship a guy who, according to the game’s depiction, was really just a sort of feral survivor?

I appreciated how much the story tried not to be obviously supernatural, and the various things that occur are all suggested to be trickery, coincidence, or other artifice. Unfortunately, I could not wrap my mind around the idea that the homeless psycho who was the game’s antagonist was worshiped by a secret cabal. I also felt like “returning to the island” wasn’t really all that compelling.

Despite all that, it’s great getting to see Lara interact with the crew of Endurance more. It helps build on those relationships and makes her connections feel more meaningful. Overall, it’s a decent book with good characters but some deep plot and world building problems. It’s a good read if you’re really hungry for more Tomb Raider stories, especially since it’ll be a few years until the next game (presumably).

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Review: Halo: Initiation

Halo: InitiationHalo: Initiation by Brian Reed

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Based on her role in Halo 4, it seems like Sarah Palmer was intended to be the “face” of the new Halo generation and the Spartan-IVs. And on the surface, she seems like a pretty great character; she’s a Commander, which is cool, and she’s voiced by legendary voice actor and perennial fan favorite Jennifer Hale. Unfortunately, her characterization throughout the game is uneven and even somewhat unlikable, and those problems extend to this book which was meant to serve as an origin story for the character.

Palmer’s character is, for lack of a better term, just flat-out unlikable as a protagonist. It’s always great for characters to have flaws, of course, but those flaws do need to be tempered with characteristics that cause an audience to identify with the main character. Even worse, Palmer is uneven, at first disliking the Spartans for being “superior” and then lording that same superiority when she becomes a Spartan herself. There’s also the odd inconsistency in her rank and promotion: originally, her character was supposedly a lieutenant before she became a Spartan, which would make sense, but here she’s a lowly corporal . . . which means that, by the time of Halo 4, she’s jumped how many ranks in how short a time?

Basically, it’s just hard to root for her, and as this story is entirely focused on introducing us to her character, it drags the entire story down, even though the rest of the book is pretty decent. Fortunately, I’ve also read the next book in the Halo graphic novel line, Escalation Volume 1, and that story does a great deal to redeem Palmer’s character.

Thus, I’d say skip this one entirely. It doesn’t do anything for the character except make you dislike her, which is a huge problem for a backstory book.

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Review: Mass Effect: Foundation Volume 1

Mass Effect: Foundation Volume 1
Mass Effect: Foundation Volume 1 by Mac Walters

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The first issue of the Foundation series plays it safe. We get a few backstories for Kaiden, Ashley, and Wrex, set just before the events of Mass Effect 1. There’s a narrative thread that ties all of these stories together in the form of a Cerberus agent that was involved or at least adjacent to the events of the first game, though she never appeared in the game itself.

I’m conflicted on this book. I enjoyed the art style, with its bold colors and clean look. And it was fun to see more of some of my favorites, particularly Wrex. On the other hand, revisiting the events of Mass Effect 1 . . . again . . . makes the universe feel small to me. It reminds me of how the Star Wars expanded universe had to focus on every single aspect of the things that appeared in the movies, and only rarely deviated enough to create entirely new stories and scenarios. I feel like that’s happening here as well; it’s been a very long time since we dealt with Saren the renegade Spectre.

While it’s nice for a bit of nostalgia, there are absolutely no surprises in store aside from learning a bit about Rasa, the Cerberus agent. We know about Kaiden’s biotic school troubles. We know Ashley loses her squad. It’s a prequel story that just checks off the bullet point that it’s supposed to hit.

Foundation Volume 1 plays it safe, and while it doesn’t commit any blunders or flaws (the action is engaging enough and the characters act and sound like their video game versions), hewing so closely to the foundation (heh) of the first game leaves very little room to grow. I’m not sure who would really relish a book like this; even as a completionist and lore nerd, I found it to be rather unnecessary.

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Review: Mass Effect: Homeworlds

Mass Effect: Homeworlds
Mass Effect: Homeworlds by Mac Walters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After the last few forays into the Mass Effect comic series, I’d started to wonder if they weren’t for me. I’m happy to say that Homeworlds, the fourth entry in the series, is an excellent change of course and gets things moving in a direction that I really enjoyed.

We get some backstory scenes for four of Mass Effect 3’s crewmembers: James Vega, Tali, Garrus, and Liara. It was interesting to see how the game universe handles the incredibly deep number of choices, as depending on how you played through Mass Effect 2, it’s possible that up to two of these characters will be gone by the time Mass Effect 3 starts. The story handles it by varying where in the narrative they take place: one is pre-ME 1, one is pre-ME2, and the others are just before ME3. I won’t specify which are which, to avoid spoilers.

It’s great getting to spend time with these characters. The crew members are my (and I imagine most players’) favorite aspect of the Mass Effect universe. It’s fun getting to spend some time with them and to see them operating on their own, outside of the long shadow cast by Commander Shepard (your player character).

There’s so much going on here, however, that it’d be almost impossible for a non-game fan to piece together what’s happening. Normally, that kind of thing rubs me the wrong way; my rule of thumb is that a video game story should be able to stand on its own. But it was so much fun getting to reconnect with a few of my favorites and I enjoyed the stories so much that I’m willing to overlook it.

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Review: Mass Effect: Invasion

Mass Effect: Invasion
Mass Effect: Invasion by Mac Walters
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Mass Effect graphic novels continue to be interesting, though like book two of the series, I don’t feel like this book is essential reading. The first book set an incredibly high bar with its focus on what happened to Commander Shepard between the prologue of Mass Effect 2 and the main story. It also focused on Liara, one of my favorite characters, and it was just a great story to boot.

This book focuses on Aria and how she lost control of Omega Station, which is something that becomes a sidequest focus in Mass Effect 3. And while Aria herself is an interesting character, the line this story has to follow is basically a tightrope. There’s very little room for deviation. We know Aria’s going to lose the station. We know we’ll help her take it back. It makes it hard to really feel invested in the struggle. This might also be due to a general ‘meh’ feeling that I have towards Omega itself as a plotline, as the Omega downloadable content (DLC) missions were fairly lackluster.

Still, although this book doesn’t excel, it’s good as a straight-up comic book tale of kicking ass and cool battle art. I really love how biotics are depicted in the comics; even with the hard sci-fi approach that the Mass Effect universe takes, biotics are shown as these incredibly cool space wizards. It’s also been one of my laments about the game narrative, that it can’t be more of a plot point if my Commander Shepard is a biotic (which he always is).

In conclusion, we have a solid, serviceable story, but one that won’t go on to impress. It doesn’t meet the high bar set by its first predecessor, but there’s nothing here that’s absolutely wrong either, the way the novel “Mass Effect: Deception” was so horrifically flawed. That’s one of the fascinating things about the Mass Effect story universe; its tie-in materials have ranged from the amazing to the awful. “Invasion” falls solidly in the middle, and so I don’t mind telling diehard Mass Effect lore aficionados to give it a look even as I tell more casual fans that they’re safe giving this one a pass.

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