Books read, February 2016

The Wicked + the Divine, vol. 1: The Faust Act, Kieron Gillen (writer) and James McKelvie (artist).
The Wicked + the Divine, vol. 2: Fandemonium, Kieron Gillen (writer) and James McKelvie (artist).
The Wicked + the Divine, vol. 3: Commercial Suicide, Kieron Gillen (writer) and James McKelvie (artist).

(I’m listing them all together for the sake of convenience, but they were interspersed with other things.)

This is a comic book series set in a slightly alternate version of our world, where every 90 years there is a “Recurrence”: twelve gods manifest in twelve mortal hosts (not the same gods every time). They become instant rock stars, or period equivalent, with people falling at their feet in ecstasy; within two years all twelve are dead.

The storytelling here is a little bit disjointed — especially in the third volume, which is basically a collection of one-off issues that go into more detail on a selection of this particular Recurrence’s pantheon. But even when the story is moving forward, it often does so in a fashion that’s a little hard for me to follow; what I thought was the through-line turned out very much not to be. Despite that, I’m enjoying the series. I like the variety of gods: at the start of the series, not all twelve have manifested yet, but you’ve got Amaterasu, Baphomet, Minerva, Lucifer, the Morrigan (and Badb and “Gentle Annie” — she switches between aspects), Inanna, Woden, one of the Baals, and a Tara nobody’s quite sure of — there are several different Taras she could be. The gods appear to be no respecters of detail; Lucifer is a woman, Inanna is a man, and there’s discussion of what it means that Amaterasu showed up in the body of a white Englishwoman.

The main thing I will say — and I don’t think this is a spoiler — is that I don’t trust a single word that comes out of Ananke’s mouth. She is (in some theogonies) the Greek personification of Necessity, and she seems to be some kind of mentor figure to the pantheon each time around. She is also a highly dubious character, and I’m looking forward to seeing what’s really up with her and the whole Recurrence thing.

Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho. A fun romp, though ultimately it didn’t hang together as much as I wanted it to. You’ve got the decline of magic resource in England, the challenges to Zacharias as the Sorcerer Royal, the troubles on Janda Baik, and Prunella’s mysterious legacy — but because all the Janda Baik stuff was offstage, being reported second-hand by characters who mostly didn’t stick around long enough to make much of an impression, it felt more tacked-on than I would have liked. And Prunella’s backstory wound up being wholly unrelated, except insofar as she happened to be involved with the rest of it. Certainly it’s possible to go too far with linking things, tying every narrative strand up in such a neat little bow that it comes across as entirely contrived. But this didn’t link them enough for my taste (a Big Revelation doesn’t mean much if the facts revealed are entirely without context), and the resolution of some of the problems felt much too convenient — all the stuff at the seaside, basically. But I very much liked the complexity of the relationships between the two protagonists and their surrogate parent figures, and the fact that Prunella keeps one very practical eye on the necessity of securing her future by ordinary means.

Yamada Monogatari: To Break the Demon Gate, Richard Parks. Set in the same continuity as his Lord Yamada stories. I mentioned after reading the collection that the last piece felt much less like a short story and much more like setup for the novel; well, it turns out that it’s literally the beginning of the novel. It works much better in that context. Overall, though, I prefer the short stories — not necessarily because there’s anything wrong with this book, but just because I like what the stories are doing better. Each one of them tends to be a bite-sized look at some aspect of Japanese folklore, with Lord Yamada investigating and solving the mystery, then resolving the spiritual problem; here the same thing is generally true, but the additional wordage is almost entirely filled with politics instead of additional supernatural things, and that’s not really what engages me with this series. Plus, I do think Parks leaned overly hard on the “my protagonist and narrator has figured out what’s going on, but you the reader must remain in the dark” trick — which I know is a trope of a certain kind of mystery fiction, but it works better for me in third-person stories, or at shorter lengths. It made the Lady Snow stuff fall kind of flat in the end. Still, I’ll go on to read The War God’s Son at some point.

The Dragon Round, Stephen S. Power. Read for blurbing purposes. This was pitched to me as “the Count of Monte Cristo, with dragons” — which, yes, thank you, I’ll take that. As it turns out, it was less Monte Cristo-ish than I anticipated; it lacks the element of “mysterious and fabulously wealthy nobleman” which I think of as being the defining characteristic of that story type. But it’s a revenge tale, and one with certain kinds of complexity I very much like: for starters, when Jeryon is dumped into a boat by his mutinous crew and set adrift, he’s not alone. There’s an apothecary with him, a woman who refused to go along with the mutiny. And it turns out that the whole survival at sea/on a deserted island narrative feels 300% fresher when it isn’t just a tale of Rugged, Manly Individualism; Jeryon and the poth (as she mostly gets called, though she does have a name) have complementary skills that are both necessary, and along with struggling to survive, they have to figure out how not to kill each other during the lengthy period of time when they’re the only two human beings around.

As for the rest of the story — it doesn’t go the way you expect it to, and knowing not to expect the usual is probably helpful. I didn’t actually realize while I was reading this that it’s the start of a series, and the series is not about Jeryon getting his revenge. According to Power’s website, it’s about changes in the way humans and dragons interrelate — and Jeryon’s quest for revenge is more of an inciting incident than the spine of the tale. So if “revenge story” is not your cuppa, this may still be interesting to you.

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