Review: The Old Kingdom Trilogy

Necromancers are usually the bad guys in fantasy. When you can control dead bodies, it’s a given that people might not like you.

But Garth Nix turned that little trope on its head with “The Old Kingdom” trilogy, three interconnected fantasies about a family of necromancers who lay the dead — and forces of evil — to rest. His richly-realized world, elaborate magicks and brilliantly detailed writing give this wry, horrific high-fantasy a special quality that few other fantasy books have. Each of the three books about the Abhorsens is definitely a deserving classic.

“Sabriel” is the story of a teenage girl living happily at a girl’s school, while her necromancer father (the Abhorsen) roams around putting the dead to rest. All that changes when a sending brings her father’s sword and bells, meaning that he is dead or incapacitated. So Sabriel takes on her father’s duties, accompanied by a Free Magic cat and a mysterious young prince, and battles the specter of a horrible evil creature that is reaching out from death to snare her.

“Lirael” takes us to the cold citadel of the Clayr, a race of seers to whom the Sight is everything. Young Lirael is depressed because she doesn’t have the gift of Sight yet, even though everybody else her age does. But things take a sinister turn when she sets a horrifying, bloodthirsty creature loose, and must work — with the help of the mysterious Disreputable Dog — to get rid of it. But what Lirael doesn’t know is that the outside world is in danger too, from a sinister new enemy — and her destiny may take her out of the Clayr glacier, to where Sabriel’s family is struggling to keep their kingdom safe.

“Abhorsen” brings the series to an explosive conclusion. Lirael and her nephew Sameth — along with “cat” Mogget and the Disreputable Dog — are in danger from the invading Dead, and the Destroyer Orannis has escaped from his prison and is being assisted by an evil necromancer and the Dead called Chlorr — and an unfortunate pal of Sameth’s, who was mistaken for the young prince and his now be bespelled. Now Lirael must face her true destiny — not as a Clayr, but as the future Abhorsen.

Garth Nix had only written a couple of books, one of which was an “X-Files” novelization, when the first Old Kingdom book burst onto the fantasy scene. Now he’s one of the most respected, prolific and well-liked fantasy writers in years — and his tales of the Old Kingdom are undoubtedly his best work. They are a perfect example of dark fantasy, with its grotesque dead zombies that occasionally lurch out to attack the heroes, magical bells, and shadowy beasties that can (sometimes) be restrained.

Nix’s invented world is a seamless blend of the modern and the medieval, each ruling one side of the Wall — and he handles this complex world and its magical Charter with the deftness of a master storyteller. He draws everything in exquisite detail, whether it’s the labyrinthine Clayr glacier or the slightly eerie house of the Abhorsen, a bombed-out bunker or a sunny boarding school. And his command of atmosphere is great enough that his depiction of Death’s grey river is enough to chill.

And he comes up with the brilliant concept of the Abhorsen necromancers — who have power over dead and/or magical creatures, manipulate magic with little effort, and bind malignant creatures with Charter marks and a series of magical bells. Got it — binding, not raising.

Virtually all of Nix’s characters are likable, especially the gutsy Sabriel, the strong-willed Touchstone and their nervous teenage son Sameth. Even the annoying Ellimere elicits some smiles. It takes a bit longer to warm up to Lirael, since she spends several chapters in the same-named book moping about her differentness, but once she gets moving she’s unstoppable — and quite likable, once she figures out who she is. And the animal characters are the most brilliant — Mogget and the Disreputable Dog steal the show with their sharp wit and humorous quirks, although we’re constantly reminded that these are magical beings.

Dark fantasy was redefined and reimagined in “The Old Kingdom” trilogy, and these first three books of Garth Nix’s series are a clever, action-packed, magical journey through the Old Kingdom. Definitely a must-read.

Nubia – A Great Character Who Is Neglected

I am what you could call moderately informed about mainstream comics. I know about all the A-list characters, quite a few of the B-list, and a fair number of C-listers. I’m an avid viewer of Linkara’s comic-book review videos, as well as a few other channels that cover comic content, as well as research, TV adaptations… and the comics themselves, of course.

But when it comes to comics, very few things irritate me like taking a magnificent character… and doing them dirty.

For instance, I was livid when Birds of Prey came out, and I saw what they had done to Cassandra Cain. The character in the comics is a complex, well-developed character with a unique backstory, a lot of moral and personal confusion, a likable, good-hearted personality, and some representation for people with learning disabilities. She’s an elite super-assassin who couldn’t bear to kill, and who didn’t speak or read because she was able to read body language so well.

Cassandra Cain in the movie? She’s a mouthy little brat played by a kid who can’t act. It was revolting.

And I sort of feel the same way about Nubia. Now for context, until a few days ago, I had no idea that the character of Nubia even existed, because despite her superhero pedigree – she’s the kidnapped twin sister of Wonder Woman – she’s surprisingly absent from most comic books and not talked about very much. In fact, she’s so obscure that I realized that I had actually read Injustice 2, a comic with her in a small role… and I hadn’t realized that she wasn’t just made up for that comic.

And it’s really a shame, because Nubia is a character that could have a lot of power and resonance.

Unfortunately, her most visible reappearance in recent years… is Nubia: Real One.

This comic book is a perfect microcosm of everything wrong with DC Comics’ young adult stuff at present. They are desperately trying to reach out to younger readers at present, but instead of respectfully making stories about characters like the Teen Titans, Red Robin, Miss Martian, Superboy and other popular young DC characters… they make stories about the woes of being a mostly-ordinary, not-very-dynamic girl living in a crime-ridden rathole of a city, with a little bit of Wonder Woman crammed in there almost as an afterthought.

And yes, they deal with sensitive, painful, complex social issues… with all the subtlety of a wooden club to the nose.

These recent graphic novels are also made by people who are clearly not interested in writing superhero stories. Gotham High is perhaps the most obvious example of this, where it reimagines Bruce Wayne, Selina Kyle and… the Joker… as teenagers going to Gotham’s public schools. Melissa de la Cruz’s take on this concept was absolutely ghastly, and I hated every page of it. Reimagining the Joker as a slightly edgy but good-hearted poor boy in love with Selina absolutely made my blood boil. What they did to Alfred – having him abandon the traumatized Bruce for ten years – was unforgivable.

Just the cover makes me angry

The future releases don’t look promising either. I Am Not Starfire focuses on a dumpy, self-pitying pouty goth teen who seems to detest the popular and beloved Starfire character, her mother, and whose lack of superpowers means she won’t be doing anything heroic. We get to focus on coming-of-age woes, mother-daughter drama, and probably how awful Starfire. How enticing. And the Jessica Cruz graphic novel seems to be abandoning the galaxy-spanning space-cop stuff for Mesoamerican mythology and immigration issues. It’s not impossible to deal with such issues in a Green Lantern title, but you should keep the core of the character intact – you can have space problems and social issues!

I’m not going to go into the politics represented in Nubia: Real One, because they are so polarizing. And I hate politics. What I can tell you is this:

  1. There’s a lot of hate woven into the book. It’s the exact opposite of the Black Panther movie, which drew most people in by both acknowledging the struggles that African-Americans face and the need to help, and the fact that trying to get revenge or use violent means is ultimately self-defeating and wrong. It had a good heart that embraced everyone, and this comic… doesn’t. Whatever your political position, it should not come from a place of hatred, which is unfortunately the position of most people today.
  2. A lot of aspects of it do not make sense when you think about them for more than two seconds (why is a well-connected rich boy going to a crappy inner-city public school?).
  3. There is no zero subtlety. None. You know how the X-Men are often used as analogies for various minorities – black people, Jewish people, LGBTQ people? This allows the reader to examine the core nature and effects of prejudice without getting too tangled up in specific immediate politics, and allows them to be taught lessons in a timeless way. This comic is the exact opposite: it bludgeons you with current-day, extremely polarizing politics in almost every single page.

And really, Nubia deserves better. The Nubia of this book is almost painfully unremarkable in every way but her super-strength. I think we’re supposed to see her as becoming powerful and strong at the end, but it feels so artificial after watching her cower, cringe and cry for the entire book. Basically, someone gives her a pep talk about how great she is, and somehow this causes a complete change in personality. Not that she had much of a personality – she has the dynamic qualities of a wet sock.

Furthermore, Nubia is not a superhero in this. She does one vaguely superheroic thing early on, which only occurs in order to establish that all white people hate her because she’s black. But if you hear “Nubia is Wonder Woman’s black twin sister, and she has similar powers!” you expect her to do something… superheroic. Something epic. Something powerful. And it never happens.

Don’t you want to see this woman kick some butt?

In fact, you could probably cut Wonder Woman (who looks awful, by the way) out of the story altogether, and you would just have a rather melodramatic, poorly-written story about a not-very-interesting teenage girl dealing with over-the-top racism.

And that is not what the character of Nubia should be. I don’t know much about the character, but I would expect her to have a lot in common with Diana. And you would expect her story to involve massive threats, gods, monsters, magic, and some kind of epic journey for Nubia that spans both the world of the Amazons and the world of humankind. That is the kind of story that Nubia – the Nubia of the original comics – deserves.

She deserves to be bold, fiery, strong yet compassionate, and confident in her physical and mental power. Not saying she can’t have vulnerabilities – I love doubts and vulnerabilities in powerful characters – but the Nubia of this book is too drippy. I don’t want to see her punch a cop. I want to see her superhero-land on the ground so hard that it leaves a crater, only to rise flawless and indomitable from the dust, and punch some mythic monster in the face.

But it doesn’t happen. Because this book is made for people who don’t read superhero comics, by people who don’t read or write superhero comics.

Don’t ask me why Diana is suddenly speaking Spanish.

I can only speculate on why, because DC seems to be specifically deemphasizing everything superheroic about their superheroes… at a time when superheroes are more popular than they have ever been. I can only wonder why they are making stories that people who don’t like superhero comics won’t pick up because they ostensibly involve superheroes, and people who do like them won’t pick them up because they’re actually all about social issues and bad teen romance, not superheroing.

With a little research, I bet that I could have created a phenomenal story for Nubia. Perhaps one that marries the Grecian origins of the Amazons with some African mythology, for instance, and one that has oodles of action, fantasy and adventure. But for some reason, DC doesn’t want that kind of story to be offered to new readers.

And yet they wonder why My Hero Academia, an unabashed and unashamed superhero story full of action, drama, horror, heart and character development, resonates so strongly.

Oh, and the art in all of these books is horrific. Just the worst. I am shocked that the people who drew these are actually employed at a major comic company rather than posting on Deviantart. DC Comics has access to some of the best comic-book illustrators in the world – see the image at the top of the page – and they keep choosing people whose art is just… ugly and amateurish.

I could perhaps give this art a pass if it were being posted on social media by an enthusiastic self-published person, or someone with a small publisher. But this is DC. It’s one of the Big Two. The art in these books should be polished and sublime, and… are they under the impression that kids only like ugly blobby sloppy artwork in their cartoons and comics? Because when the art of Gotham High is as good as it gets, you have a problem!

Anyway, those are my thoughts on Nubia, Nubia: Real One, and the current slate of DC’s young-adult releases. Ciao!

Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

In the time of Katniss Everdeen, Coriolanus Snow is the tyrannical president of Panem, a cruel man who uses the Hunger Games as a weapon against any who would rebel. But once, long ago, he was just a aristocratic teenage boy in the Capitol, raised in the shadow of a terrifying rebellion that gave birth to the Hunger Games.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a look back at the early days of Panem’s dystopian tyranny, and a glimpse of how Snow turned into the president he would later become. This tale is a very different one from Suzanne Collins’ other Hunger Games tales, whether it’s the third-person narrative, the cold and ambitious protagonist, or the general feeling of hopelessness and ruin that you know is not really going to get any better.

Born to the purple but raised in poverty, Coriolanus Snow is the only hope his grandmother and cousin Tigris have for any kind of comfort and dignity. He has to acquire a university prize and brilliant career in the upper echelons of the Capitol’s society, without ever betraying that he and his family are surviving on boiled cabbage and old outgrown clothes. If not, the Snow family will descend into… well, being ordinary poor people in the Districts, and Snow can’t bear the thought.

But then he’s dealt a blow. When various young mentors are assigned to the Hunger Games tributes, he’s given the girl tribute from District 12: Lucy Gray Baird, a strange girl with a luscious singing voice and plenty of stage presence. Though he thinks she’s crazy at first, Snow is determined to make the best of his assignment, and he even begins to believe that Lucy Gray’s charm and charisma can somehow help him.

The days before the Tenth Hunger Games are cruel to both the mentors and the tributes – there are bombings, venomous snakes, torture, and the psychopathic Dr. Gaul. But Snow’s efforts to save Lucy Gray from death in the arena, based on both his growing feelings and his desperation for success, will push them both to terrible extremes – revealing to Snow who he truly is, and what he’ll do to save himself.

In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins depicted District 12 as a painfully impoverished place where starvation was only a missed meal away. And in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, she depicts a different kind of poverty in the Capitol – it’s a relatively luxurious place full of wealth and parties, but there’s a rotten layer to this crumbling society, a sense of dark decay that underlies Snow’s world. And she reminds us constantly that the Capitol is still scarred by the war between Panem and the rebels, which got so bad that wealthy people cannibalized their servants in the streets.

Collins also switches up her writing here – rather than the first-person perspective of the Hunger Games trilogy, she relates Snow’s teenage adventures in the third person. Her prose is tense and taut, with moments of horror (the deaths of some of the tributes) or chilling sadness (“Tell her… that we are all so sorry she has to die”) spattered across it. The plot does grow less intense after the Hunger Games, when it seems like Snow has had to embrace a new life, but then takes a sharp twist into tragedy.

And though he’s the protagonist, Coriolanus Snow is never quite a likable person. We know where he’s coming from and what drives him, but he’s still a very chilly, proud, selfish person motivated by a belief that he is genuinely and inherently better than everyone else. When he’s around Lucy Gray, Collins slips in some actual human emotion, which builds up gradually throughout the book… but Collins never lets us forget for long that he’s not a good person, as seen when he talks about killing the mockingjays.

And he’s backed by characters who aren’t necessarily what they seem. While there’s the compassionate and slightly melodramatic Sejanus as a counterpoint to Snow’s more amoral approach, Lucy Gray is an elusive, mercurial presence that is hard to nail down. And Dr. Gaul is genuinely scary, a mad scientist who apparently does mad science entirely because she can.

There’s a deep sadness at the heart of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes – a knowledge that this is a story that can’t have a happy ending, and can’t have a hero. But it is a fine dystopian tale, giving greater depth to the history of Panem.

The Lunar Chronicles: overview and new covers

I absolutely love the overall work of Marissa Meyer. No, not the ex-president of Yahoo!, but the author of assorted sci-fi and fantasy books, most notably the Lunar Chronicles series. I’ve read all her books to date, and I’ve enjoyed them all except for the Alice in Wonderland prequel Heartless. Please let it be noted that I am not saying Heartless is bad, because it’s not. It’s objectively quite good. I just didn’t enjoy it because it’s a very bleak, rather depressing book. If you enjoy that sort of book, by all means, descend upon it like a swarm of locusts and gobble it up.

And like most of her readers, I was first introduced to Marissa Meyer through the Lunar Chronicles’ first volume, Cinder, which is a retelling of the Cinderella fairy tale with an Asian sci-fi twist, with interstellar politics and a plague. I won’t go into too many details about the overall plot, which stretches over four books, a prequel, a collection of short stories, and a sequel two-part graphic novel. But suffice to say that each of the main books focuses on a fairy tale that is reimagined in a sci-fi setting – Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Rapunzel – which is folded into Meyer’s universe of the oppressive Lunar civilization, a plague, futuristic unified versions of Africa, Asia and Europe, and so on.

So if you enjoy science fiction, or if you enjoy fairy tales… or both… this is a good young-adult series. It also has some pretty healthy romances in it, while still including some superficial bad-boy/Prince Charming archetypes.

The original covers were fairly pretty, but I absolutely love the new covers that they’re rereleasing the books with. As in, I might buy the books again so I can possess these beautiful covers.

Also, read the Renegades trilogy. It’s also very good. Maybe I’ll babble about that later.