Category Archives: fantasy

Manga Man (Barry Lyga) 2 out of 5

mangamanLongtime readers of this blog may suspect that graphic novels always get high ratings.  It’s true: I’m crazy about Sandman and can’t say enough good things about Locke & Key.


Mangaman is a giant meh.  It pains me to say this because I really like Barry Lyga.  I have 3 of his novels in the review queue, all of which I enjoyed, so I found Mangaman confusingly weak.

Basically, Mangaman is a manga character who falls through an “extra-scientific event” and lands in our world.  His stress lines manifest as physical lines that float in mid-air, and his appearance changes completely when he experiences extreme emotion.

Mangaman falls in manga-love with a human girl, blah blah blah.  I can see where Lyga is going with his East-meets-West collision of cultures and graphic styles, but it’s all kind of cardboard.  I don’t even like the texture of the pages on my fingertips.



Horns (Joe Hill) 4*

horns“Ignatius Martin Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things,”  says the first line.  When Ig wakes up with horns on his head, his girlfriend doesn’t seem to see them, yet she stares.

And then she says strange and terrible things.  The horns trigger unexpected honesty in everyone who (doesn’t) see them, and soon Ig is up to his pointy chin in other people’s secrets.  Grandmothers and little kids tell him their ugliest temptations, and he can’t shut them up.

Even worse, everyone tells Ig what they really think about Ig.  It turns out that the whole town thinks Ig murdered his ex-girlfriend.  If the menfolk had any testicles, says Ig’s priest, they’d have lynched Ig properly.  Not even Ig’s mother believes his innocence.  She wants to write Ig a nice letter, on her nicest stationery, explaining that she loves Ig very much and wants him to go away and never come back.

Ig’s father says something much worse.

Horns is stabbingly funny as it flirts with the ugly and the sublime; Flannery O’Connor on acid.  Someone will have to read it and tell me what Hill has repurposed the cross to symbolize, though.  There’s light and dark and crosses all ticking like Morse code (and there’s Morse code too), and there’s something Hill said that I didn’t quite catch.

Locke & Key 3: Crown of Shadows (Joe Hill) 5*

Omega key Animal key Harlequin key Musicbox key Angel keyAmazingly, Joe Hill is sticking to the high standard he set in the very first book of Locke & Key.  Three books in, we circle back to see our very first baddie, the wonderfully named Sam Lesser.

Ah, Sam.  How have you been?  Is death treating you okay?

Kinsey is showing her steel now, and she has two adorable boys (fast-talking Scot Kavanaugh and “I’m not your ethnic sidekick” Jamal Saturday) who are both semi-secretly in love with her.  And they go!  To the drowning cave!  Hooray!

The heart of the book, however, is with Nina in the final pages.  Of all the characters, Nina moves me the most.  She’s a hip and beautiful widow, a not-gonna-talk-about-it rape survivor, and an openly alcoholic mom.  Joe Hill draws flaws with the grace of a master.  The magic is rich, and the artwork is beautiful, but in the end this series is entirely character-driven.

Nina missing the magic

Here’s a snippet:

NINA: [As she catches Kinsey going through her dresser drawers] I turned a blind eye to you tiptoeing into the house the other day after you went for a swim with those boys till almost dark.  I can forgive you being a little wild.  But not being a sneak.

KINSEY: That’s funny, Mom.  I can forgive YOU for being suspicious and mean and angry all the time – after what you went through in Willits, you’ve earned it –

NINA: You don’t know anything about it.

KINSEY: — But I have a harder time forgiving you for being a shitty, irresponsible drunk.  Waking Tyler up in the middle of the night to cry all over him.  Like he isn’t dealing with a few things himself.

NINA: You mouthy little… I ought a –

KINSEY: Christ, you’ve already been drinking.  I can smell it on your breath.  At least you’re only driving YOURSELF.  I can’t imagine you taking Bode in the car.

TYLER: [Appearing in the doorway] Go for a walk, Kinsey.

KINSEY: Or what?  You going to drag me out?  It’s my house too, Tyler, and you can’t scare me into –

TYLER: I know I can’t.  That’s why I’m asking.  Please.  Be done here.

NINA: I don’t even know who you are anymore, Kinsey.

KINSEY: [Leaving] You got that right.  You don’t know.  You crash the car driving drunk, I’m not going to cry over it.  I’m all cried out these days and you know what you’re doing.  In theory.

TYLER: Christ.  Will you.  Get.  Out?

Next panel: Mom, she didn’t mean –

NINA: [Leaning over the dresser, not looking at Tyler in the doorway.]  She meant every word.

TYLER: You know…we’ve talked about what happened to Dad in Willits but we…we never talk about what happened to…

NINA: Will you leave me alone, Tyler?  I need a second.

[The empty doorway behind her, Nina drinks.]

Locke & Key 2: Head Games (Joe Hill) 5*

giant key ghost key head key anywhere key shadow key echo key gender key healing key

I’ve already enumerated the reasons why this series is just so good.  The story gets even juicier (!) now that Lucas is on the scene.  Who’d have thought that we’d one day look back with nostalgia on the days when Sam Lesser was the worst that could happen.

In addition to being wickedly wicked, Joe Hill is wickedly funny.  At one point, a supernatural evil creature asks for computer help to send “one of those, what are they? I-mails?”

Everything else I have to say involves non-specific spoilers which probably don’t spoil things, but also probably don’t make sense. Continue reading

Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft (Joe Hill) 5*

the girl in the wellBelow: The Ghost Key, the Anywhere Key, the Gender Key, the Head Key, the Shadow Key, the Wind-Up Soldier Key, the Echo Key, the Animal Key, the Mending Key…and last of all the Omega Key: the keys

I can’t decide on my favorite thing about Locke & Key:

–          The utterly badass artwork by Gabriel Rodriguez (seriously, it’s the best I’ve seen in any graphic novel – the angles, the clarity, the expressiveness, the naturalistic creepiness!).  The narrative slides back and forth in time with utter grace, like when Tyler Locke sits in the hallway while funeral guests gather in the living room, and he watches his younger self tiptoe across the hall and eavesdrop on his parents when they were both alive.

–          Joe Hill’s knack for names.  The killer who stalks them is Sam Lesser, a wonderfully fleshed-out baddie who had all the test scores but was denied the privilege that the Locke kids enjoy.  He finds them in their summer home in Willits, California, which is an even better place name than Lovecraft, Massachussetts.

–          The individuality of the three kids, both before and after grief, and the complex cohesiveness of the Locke family.  By the middle of the book, looking at an old family photo of the Locke family in happier times almost brought tears to my eyes.

–          So subtle.  I almost missed the fact that Sam Lesser was doing a sexual favor during one scene.  And nobody even says what Sam and his friend did to the mom.  She’s just becoming an alcoholic, that’s all.

The story starts off with murder.  Sam Lesser knocks on the door of his high school guidance counselor, Mr. Locke, and proceeds to demand a certain key.  Then he kills him.  The narrative rotates amongst the three kids: Tyler, a broad-shouldered 17-year-old whose square jaw and big hands look just like his dad’s; Kinsey, a 15-year-old girl with dreadlocks and piercings; and Bode, a 6-year-old trouble magnet with a knack for finding keys.

Afterward, the family moves from sunny California to their uncle’s drafty old mansion on the island of Lovecraft in Massachussetts.  The house has a name – Key House – and is chock full of shivery secrets that grown-ups can’t see.  Magic keys and magic doors are hidden everywhere, and the house will make sure that the keys are found.

The spirit in the well says at one point, “Kids always think they’re coming into a story at the beginning, when usually they’re coming in at the end.”  Something happened 25 years ago, but Uncle Duncan just can’t remember.  Whatever it was, it had drifted out of Rendell Locke’s memory too, so he didn’t even know why Sam Lesser was waving a gun in his face.  This longstanding mystery adds another layer of drive to the story, when the story already has six pistons of grief, guilt, danger, family, justice, and magic.

Here, have a sample:

GIRL IN THE WELL: I’m glad you came down to see me tonight.  You saved me a step.  I was going to have Sam bring you to me.

BODE: Sam? Oh, no.  Oh, nonono.

GIRL IN THE WELL: Poor, brilliant Sam.  Did you know they skipped him over eighth grade, after he finished the entire year’s reading in nine days?  His mother celebrated with her second arrest for drug possession in a year.

BODE: He killed my dad.

GIRL IN THE WELL: That’s not the only thing about him that matters, you know.

BODE: Yes it is.

GIRL IN THE WELL: So what brought you ‘round to see me, Bode?  So late at night? Especially if you decided you didn’t trust me anymore.

BODE: You knew some things about my dad.  So I figured if you really are an echo, you must be an echo of someone who knew him.  I just wanted to know who.

GIRL IN THE WELL: My names are legion, Bode.  But I’ll tell you what.  In a place called once-upon-a-time, your daddy would’ve done anything to make me happy.  And before tonight is over, you’re going to feel the same way.


The Gates (John Connolly) 3*

Have you ever accidentally grabbed an apple from the fruit basket when you had your eye on a peach?  And then you bite into it expecting a juicy, fragrant peach and just…blink.

I was saving this book for a multi-leg travel day because I figured it would take the pain away.  I was looking forward to another deep, dark story from the author of The Book of Lost Things.  I mean, the cover art uses the identical  storybook font and the tagline is “The gates of hell are about to open, want a peek?”

Instead, The Gates is a children’s book.  The Book of Lost Things was glorious because evil was so nuanced and tempting.  In The Gates, there is an actual character known as the Great Malevolence (a.k.a. Satan).  We see a lot from the Great Malevolence’s top lieutenant, Baal, and there are a bunch of slapstick sidekick demons.  Also, there are cute scenes wherein plucky Brits whack at demons with cricket bats and garden rakes.

So is it a good apple?  I don’t even know.  I can’t judge it on apple terms because I was trapped on a plane and so looking forward to my peach.   If you liked Good Omens, perhaps The Gates.  Just know that there are no deep, dark woods in this book.

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer (Lish McBride) 4* out of 4

hold me closer necromancerImagine a cool, refreshing mojito with the perfect blend of top shelf rum, fresh mint muddled by hand, simple syrup, and a fat wedge of lime.  A friendly barkeep would plunk it down in a chunky highball glass, no fucking around with doilies or  umbrellas.

I usually rate out of 5 stars, but this is 4 out of 4 because it’s a perfect mojito.  You know how some action movies try and fail to be Oscar material (Libba Bray, I’m looking at you)?  Hold Me Closer, Necromancer tries to be exactly what it is, and it succeeds perfectly. It’s about a college dropout named Sam who works at a fast food joint until a necromancer spots him.  To everyone’s surprise, Sam is a baby necromancer, and now the baddest necromancer of all is out to kill him.

The characters: Fun!  From Sam on outward, this is a bunch of people who are fun to spend time with.  Sam’s buddies are sweet with a squirt of lime.  Even the baddies are realistically bad.

Exposition: The story is set in Seattle, and the magic makes sense in the way that magic does.  Sam discovers that the world is full of necromancers, seers, weres, and fey, and each category of person operates under a separate set of rules.  They even have a functional system of self-government.  We discover these things at a reasonable pace (i.e., McBride feels no compunction to share every thought she’s ever had, and I’m still looking at you, Libba Bray), and so far everything is coherent.  I often find urban fantasy tiresome in this regard, but here the mint is genuine garden mint, not that gross mint syrup.

Plot: There is one!  McBride smoothly mixes in enough alcohol to get you drunk, but not so much that it tastes nasty.  Also, she uses high quality rum so you don’t have to worry about an ethics hangover in the morning.

Prose: High quality glassware that chimes musically when you toast.  Not the kind of thing that calls attention to itself, but clearly well crafted and intended to give years of service.

Sequels: You don’t need to order three drinks to get buzzed.  The story has a clear beginning, middle, and end.  Plot advances, and then plot resolves.  What a concept.  (I’m looking at you, George R.R. Martin.)  As the story closes, the characters just happen to be well positioned for awesome new adventures and the bartender casually looks your way.

There is not a single thing wrong with this book.  Lish McBride, please bring me another mojito ASAP.  I could drink these all night.