Reviews by eknapp
Creative and disturbing
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It's a rich, amazing world GRRM has orchestrated. Lowball contains endless cameos for fans of the series--Croyd, Curveball, Earth Witch, Carnifex, Drummer Boy, Tesseract, more--as well as some inventive new characters: Eel, Vaporlock, Wheels, El Monstro, Baba Yaga... As one would expect from a Martin creation, no character is safe so you have to check your expectations at page one.

Stuntman struggles with the failure of his bounceback ability. Frank Black gets promoted young and is shunned by his fellow detectives. His partner Michael Black lives the dream with two cohabiting girlfriends and a wonderful ace toddler daughter. Rustbelt searches for Ghost's missing teacher. IBT and Father Squid lead an effort to find missing jokers. Baba Yaga turns people into living (for a short time) furniture. The satellite plots all fit together to tell the story of a kidnapping ring that forces jokers to fight to the death for the entertainment of the bored sadistic wealthy.

My only complaint is that so much of the story goes unresolved. Typically each Wild Cards installments has a contained story arc, but in this case it ends mid-climax. WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?!
The series was never great, but now it's bad.
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Vol 5 is set in the 50s. Hobbes goes after Dracula, the greatest vampire threat the world has ever known. Pearl confronts Hattie and tries to protect her comatose husband Henry. She hops into bed with Sweet because, grief. We're introduced to the Gray Trader, the greatest vampire threat the world has ever known. Wait, what?

American Vampire was never amazing, but it has devolved into a silly action movie/soap opera of a series. It wants to be politically sophisticated (the organization dedicated to the eradication of all vampires frequently finds itself cutting deals with vamps and even taking them on as agents) but just isn't thoughtful or intelligent enough to pull it off.

It's contrived. Every few issues a new worst-vampire-ever is introduced. When describing the new super-scary Dracula character, Snyder actually ret-cons all other vampires as "having a little bit of good" just so that Dracula can be uniquely "pure evil". Lame. And when Pearl grief-bangs Skinner, her husband conveniently wakes up from his coma on the next page. Very As-the-World-Turns.

The rest of the book is filled with nonstop fight scenes and silly one-liners, like an 80s Schwarzenegger movie. Disappointing.
Smart but not very engaging.
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The Vatican invents time travel and sends an army back to 311AD Constantinople to civilize and Christianize the world, to prevent the Dark Ages, and to eliminate in advance competing world religions. All goes well at first but as time passes the leaders of the expedition find themselves at one another's throats.

Pax Romana is very text heavy for a graphic novel. The art (watercolors?) is pretty but virtually irrelevant. An afterthought, an accent.

The plot is highly intelligent, very dense, heavy on alternate history. It covers the first few decades after the Vatican incursion, focusing on the planning and then the enlistment of the first Christian emperor Constantine, then ends abruptly with a summary of the next thousand years or so. Perhaps the title was canceled and Hickman was given one issue to wrap up?

I had a lot of respect for Pax Romana, found it to be unexpectedly thick with theme and feasibility, but had a hard time getting into it.
I'm never sure how to write up short stories collections. There are only so many ways to say "Well a lot of them sucked but some of them were pretty good". So I'm going to do 21 micro-reviews.

“Tough Times All Over” by Joe Abercrombie - The first story introduces a LOT of rogues, as a mysterious package gets nicked over and over again by a series of different characters. Abercrombie recycles the chained-point-of-view-death structure that he used to great success in The Heroes. Excellent opener to the anthology.

“What Do You Do?” by Gillian Flynn - A fortune teller/prostitute is hired to exorcise a haunted house. Flynn's opening essay on the nature and philosophy of handjobs is hilariously awesome. The twist endings fail the internal logic test and feel stapled on.

“The Inn of the Seven Blessings” by Matt Hughes - A thief is pressed into the service of a minor luck god, rescues strangers from goblins, and attempts to secure his future by selling a powerful artifact to a power-hungry wizard. Hughes' writing is excellent--great vocabulary and he talks UP to the reader (I like a writer that makes me feel smart)--but the characters are strangely lifeless. They don't emote. And I was skeeved out when one of the rescuees hooks up with her would-be rapist.

“Bent Twig” by Joe R. Lansdale - Hap and Leonard are a couple of janitors/country boys who moonlight for a detective agency. (?!?) Hap's girlfriend's prostie daughter disappears and he has to track her down and rescue her from the Dixie Mafia. Reminds me of Elmore Leonard...just a bunch of small timers looking out for number one and screwing up a lot, interesting turns of phrase, matter-of-fact about the dark things in life, cheerful and grim at the same time.

“Tawny Petticoats” by Michael Swanwick - Three grifters (including an anthropomorphized dog) run a con on the power players of future New Orleans, which relies on zombies and pygmy mastodons for cheap labor. Well-written, but the author doesn't seem to have a lot of respect for women. Even the effectual ones are flighty, manipulative, and emotional.

“Provenance” by David W. Ball - Biography of a priceless painting. A shady art dealer drones on about the history of a painting before selling it to multiple shady parties. Meh...fine art bores me. Yeah, I'm a philistine.

“The Roaring Twenties” by Carrie Vaughn - A pair of flapper witches visit a Prohibition era speakeasy that caters to supernatural creatures, seeking an ally against the coming financial meltdown. More uneventful than any story so far; felt like the first chapter of a novel.

“A Year and a Day in Old Theradane” by Scott Lynch - A retired crew of thieves are tasked by a villainous wizard with stealing a street. Failure to do so within a year and a day means eternity as a streetlamp. First of all, NOT a Gentleman Bastards story. But it was fun. Lots of sly humor.

“Bad Brass” by Bradley Denton - A substitute teacher in smalltown Texas moonlights stealing from thieves, like Omar from The Wire but with way less badass and far more smartass. Quick, entertaining, and funny. But why would he steal $1400 one night and then carry it with him several nights later on another job? Logic fail.

“Heavy Metal” by Cherie Priest - Not really a "rogue" story. Cool hero though...Kilgore "Heavy" Jones is like a six-foot-seven 500lb John Constantine. He's hired to perform an exorcism of a mining-country pond. The ending makes no sense; an old woman thanks Heavy for "calling back" her "Old Man" but it's unclear what she means by "calling back" and "Old Man could be the monster, her dead husband, a Patronus, or God Himself.

“The Meaning of Love” by Daniel Abraham - A rather useless fugitive prince thinks he has fallen in love with a slave woman he glimpses from afar. His rogue companion devises a roguishly devious plan to effect her escape. There is much discussion on the nature of love. Fun, clever, and well-written.

“A Better Way to Die” by Paul Cornell - Set in a future England in which technology allows access to parallel Earths--much like The Long Earth. There are vague references to "Foreigners", possibly an irrelevant-to-the-story alien invasion. A secret agent (not much of a "rogue") is tasked with tracking and killing a younger version of himself from one of the parallel realities. "A Better Way to Die" embodies much of what I usually hate about short stories. Cornell appears to have excised a large amount of critical exposition to get in under the short-story word count, leaving a confusing mess. It's a shame, because the confusing mess was thoughtful and intelligent.

“Ill Seen in Tyre” by Steven Saylor - An ancient Roman student and his elderly Greek tutor are suckered into buying a collection of useless magic scrolls. The rather obvious con involves an "invisibility potion" that conveniently only functions against strangers, so the marks can't verify to one another that it works. Amateurishly written. One character is introduced only as "a voluptuous blonde".

“A Cargo of Ivories” by Garth Nix - A knight and an animated puppet/sorcerer break into a wealthy criminal's home to steal a collection of ivory figurines before they can hatch into raging death demon gods. One of the ivories wakes up mid-heist. Short and sweet and satisfying.

“Diamonds From Tequila” by Walter Jon Williams - The rogue here is a scary-looking actor on a movie set in Mexico. When his costar is murdered--threatening his career-making production--he has to solve the murder, placate a homicidal cartel kingpin, and find a way to get the movie back on track. Possibly the best contribution to this point. The protagonist is scoundrel-ish but likeable, the narrative is packed with juicy behind-the-scenes movie production methodology, and the mystery works.

“The Caravan to Nowhere” by Phyllis Eisenstein - A minstrel with the curious ability to teleport joins a desert caravan, seeking inspiration for new songs. After a lot of boring buildup, he stops a plot to murder the caravan leader. Interesting concept, poor execution. Lots of setup with no payoff.

“The Curious Affair of the Dead Wives” by Lisa Tuttle - Another not-really-a-rogue story. The protagonist is a young woman in Ye Olde Englande (well, late 1800s maybe) who plays sidekick to a Sherlock Holmes wannabe. The detectives are hired to decode a diary and locate a girl WHO RECENTLY DIED. Gasp! It's interesting...the heroine periodically calls attention to this or that aspect of her society that treats women like bruised fruit and values them about that much, but at the same time she has no problem indulging in the odd swoon or fainting spell. Interesting choice by the author to have her looking ahead yet simultaneously being a sometimes-fluttery product of her environment.

“How the Marquis Got His Coat Back” by Neil Gaiman - Sequel to Gaiman's classic [book:Neverwhere|14497]. His most roguish of rogue characters, the Marquis de Carabas, has recently been returned to life and embarks upon a quest to reacquire his splendid coat from the ruffians who ransacked his body. A jarring blend of quirkiness, whimsy, and blackest peril. Reminiscent of Douglas Adams. (That's intended to be a high compliment.)

“Now Showing” by Connie Willis - A "scoundrel" movie-lover and his cinephile girlfriend uncover a sinister plot by the movie-industrial complex to promote fake movies and trick the public into not seeing them. This was a lot of fun as I'm a cinephile myself and the story was LOADED with movie references. Woefully short on logic though.

“The Lightning Tree” by Patrick Rothfuss - A young man, who is more than he appears, spends a day trading favors, secrets, and knicknacks with the village children and quietly has a tremendous impact on a number of lives. Delightful. Also contains the best quote in the entire book.

"The Rogue Prince, or, a King’s Brother" by George R. R. Martin - The story of the maneuvering of some early Targaryens for control of the Iron Throne. Reads unexpectedly like a dry historical document, but wonderful nevertheless. Kind of an abrupt ending.
A bit heavy-handed with the liberalism, but very satisfying.
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After hundreds of years of brutal subjugation by the Continent and its six bona fide miracle-wielding Divinities, the secular nation of Saypur rose up and slew the gods, turning the tables on its oppressor. 70 years later, Saypur is the dominant world power, the Continent weak, poverty-stricken, and bitter at its change in fortune.

A Saypuri scholar, researching the creation, rule, and fall of the Divinities, is assassinated and his office in the Continental capital is ransacked. A Saypuri intelligence officer investigates his death and is drawn into a web of intrigue, uncovering a plot to restore the beleaguered Continent to its former glory atop the world stage.

City of Stairs is a triumph of world-building, especially given its manageable length. The Divinities have personalities and spheres of influence and Creation stories (can't say "creation myths" in this case because within the context of the book, they really happened). The various countries draw their cultures and histories from India, the Middle East, Scandinavia and eastern Europe, and there may have been other influences that I didn't recognize. The heroes are well-drawn, and in a couple cases even their lineages are relevant.

Plotwise I found CoS to be a bit simplistic. Many of the plot turns were telegraphed, and toward the end the Evil Mastermind literally monologued his entire Evil Plot--including his intentions for the captured heroes--like a '60s Bond villain. I'll be honest, there was a bit of eye-rolling.

The rampant social commentary was fun, if a little heavy-handed. Bennett's clearly not a fan of religion. While some few of the Continental devout were devoted to doing good and being constructive, most were hung up on archaic, arbitrary rules-observance, penitence and punishment, racial superiority, obsessing over the good old days when the Continent had its boot on the world's neck. The lone benevolent Divinity (who's female, natch) described at some length how people outgrew her and are just generally better off without gods anyway. Religion Makes You Bad, you see.

Saypur on the other hand was an Eden of sexual egalitarianism and general tolerance. The heroes include a butch, sexually voracious military woman, a gay civic leader, and a tiny, unattractive but highly intelligent brown woman. Yes, Liberalism and Tolerance Make You Good.

There's a great bit where the mousy little intelligence officer mentions offhand to a frothingly racist bad guy that EVERYONE used to be brown, and that pale people didn't come about until some populations relocated to sunless northern climes. He reacts...predictably.