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Sword Daughter

Sword Daughter is yet another Viking era tale told by Brian Wood of Northlanders fame, this time told by a young girl living in the Scandinavian region who survives a massacre on her village when she is a toddler.

The story picks up ten years later in 991 AD, and we discover that Elsbeth has improbably taken care of her father, who was catatonic with grief, and was the only other survivor besides her. First off- what? Although there is mention of Elsbeth trading with nearby seaside villagers, how did a toddler survive the harsh winters and stay clothed and fed during that decade before her father awakens from his fugue state? It defies logic. Getting past this was impossible, and colored my feelings towards the rest of the story.

Once Dag awakens he vows revenge against the Forty Swords, the group who attacked his village and killed most of his family. This group is made up of a bunch of young radicals who have no fixed ideology, they slaughter simply for the pleasure of it. And off Dag and Elsbeth go in the name of vengeance. And that’s the rest of the story – this father and daughter journeying together to find the Forty Swords and challenge them. Dag tries to connect with his mostly non-verbal daughter due to guilt, with a bit of a Lone Wolf and Cub vibe, but I wasn’t feeling it. Stuff happens and then there is a flash forward with a mystery of what happened in the years between Dag awakening and Elsbeth becoming a young woman that leaves some story line threads for the future.

The art by Mack Chater is sketchy with an earth toned color palette, and it is very reminiscent of his earlier Briggs Land collaboration with Wood.  The only additional color is red, when there is blood spilled, plus the evocative red drenched panels during the attack on the village. There are some interesting choices in his panel placement, with a good flow to the narrative; however, some of the art lacks definition with the landscapes simply drawn.

Considering how much I typically love Wood’s work, this story is a real disappointment. While his Viking saga Northlanders is a real treat and his other Viking story Black Road said something fresh about faith and conversion, this story was lacking. What I really want Wood to do is to revisit Briggs Land with Chater and to also continue Rebels, his American Revolution series. So while this particular story didn’t work for me, I still look forward to future work by Wood and Chater.

-Nancy

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Harrow County: Volumes Seven & Eight

Harrow County’s southern gothic thriller has drawn to a close.  I reviewed all eight volumes within six weeks time as this supernatural series hooked me in and I devoured it. The narrative stayed strong the entire series with no let down in the middle and the conclusion was everything I wanted it to be.

Volume Seven: Dark Times A’Coming

Kammi is back…as if there was any doubt she wouldn’t be! In this penultimate volume, forces are gathering to destroy Emmy and all of Harrow County. Emmy endures two significant losses but has no time to mourn as Kammi is relentless.  Bernice fights right alongside her and the two woman do their best to keep Emmy’s “sister” at bay. We find out why Emmy and Kammi are so important to the witch coven, and who they represent. Just as you think Emmy has scored a hard-won victory at the end, she makes a soul crushing decision and we know her biggest battle is still ahead of her.

As we head into the last volume, I wanted to give a final shout-out to Tyler Crook’s art. His  haint creatures were creative and varied, and I thought of his work and H.P. Lovecraft’s as being similarly inspired. His work came to define Harrow County for me with it’s townspeople, rural landscapes and sinister woods. The only complaint I had is of his giving Emmy and others too much of a red cheeked look- it looked as if they had bad head colds for no discernible reason, although I soon stopped noticing it. The two page spread opening this book was creepy awesomeness, and I will never look at a close up of someone’s teeth without flashing back to this series.

Volume Eight: Done Come Back

Emmy’s decision at the end of the last volume, which she thought would make her stronger, did the opposite. She has corrupted herself and betrayed her goodness by letting evil in willingly. She and the original witch Hester battle for dominance as the lives of everyone in Harrow County hang in the balance. The mythology runs deep in the story with the minotaur haint, The Abandoned, playing a significant role. The ending seemed appropriate to the feel of the series, and it concluded on just the right note. The story was fully told and brought to a fine end, but a whisper of  the narrative could be picked up for further stories if author Cullen Bunn and Crook ever wanted to revisit the series.

The afterword by Bunn and Crook was a bittersweet way to wrap up the series and it truly signified the end, as no storybook of Crook’s art bookend this volume. Bunn told an excellent story and brought it to a close in a satisfying way. A big plus in this series was that Bunn created a lovely friendship between Emmy and Bernice. It is a sad reality that friendships between two females in books often are non–existent, or their interactions revolve around a boy. But in this series the two friends have an authentic and deep friendship and there is nary a romance to be found. I loved that! Thus, this story is so much more than an atmospheric supernatural tale- it touches on friendship, destiny, good vs evil and the choices we make and how they define us.

I am so glad I visited Harrow County. This was a wonderful series that didn’t drag or go on for too long. Bunn and Crook told a strong story from beginning to end, with an epic arc that should satisfy all readers. Go ahead and visit Harrow County yourself- you will be glad you did!

-Nancy

Check out my other Harrow County reviews: Volume OneVolumes Two-Four, Volumes Five-Six

Harrow County: Volumes Five & Six

I’m all in for the Harrow County series, so you have the pleasure of several Harrow County reviews from me in a row. With middle volumes five and six, this story is ramping up the action towards the (hopefully) thrilling conclusion!

Volume Five: Abandoned

Volume four’s back story is continued in volume five with an explanation of who the giant minotaur creature, The Abondoned, is. Some outside hunters come to town to kill this haint, and Emmy does her best to intervene to prevent an epic bloodbath. As I suspected earlier, Emmy’s “twin” Kammi is not completely gone, and her meddling puts everyone in danger.

One of the guest artists and the colorist from volume three is used again for this volume, in the first two chapters. Again, I wish Crook had consistently stayed as the artist for the entire series, but McNeil’s artwork grew on me and was evocative enough to not break the narrative flow. But I was glad to see that even when guest artists are used Crook still draws the covers and the other artists are consistent with the opening two page spreads to each chapter. I continue to adore how Crook incorporates the words Harrow County into each of those pictures.

Volume Six: Hedge Magic

Hedge magic is a term that can mean someone who can use a weaker more informally taught nature type of magic. This comes into play as Bernice who has been taught snake handling magic by Lovey, confronts Emmy. But both Bernice and Emmy have been played the fool by Odessa, one of the witches that seemingly is good but isn’t. When the witch family learn that their plot to turn the friends against each other failed, they turn to an even more sinister way of defeating Emmy…

I have failed to mention that at the end of all the volumes Crook adds a sketchbook of some of his work, showing how the volume develops from storyboards to final inks. This is a fascinating behind the scenes look at how graphic novels develop. Sometimes he shows failed cover art ideas, other times he shows how he develops his characters. Also showcased has been some deviant art by other artists and some little joke drawings.  I look forward to these sketchbooks in each volume to see how Crook and Bunn developed their narrative.

Next week, I will conclude the series with volumes seven and eight!

-Nancy

Check out my other Harrow County reviews: Volume One, Volumes Two-Four, Volumes Seven-Eight

Harrow County: Volumes Two-Four

I just discovered the southern gothic supernatural series Harrow County and loved it! The story recently came to a close with it’s eighth volume, so I have the pleasure of being able to devour the entire series. As such, here are my reviews of volumes two, three and four.

Volume Two: Twice Told

In the first volume, Emmy discovered that she has powers and is somehow connected to witch Hester Beck who was killed by the townsfolk the day Emmy was born. Having survived an attempt of her life, the villagers now respect her and Emmy grows into her powers. She only uses them for good and becomes familiar with the supernatural creatures, called haints, that live in the surrounding area. But Emmy’s “twin” Kammi appears and upends everything. Kammi seems to be the mirror image of Emmy, as she is sophisticated and evil. Emmy’s best friend Bernice is wary of her, but Emmy is desperate for answers and overlooks Kammi’s behavior until Kammi confronts her with an army of evil haints. Emmy has her own coalition, but the ending seemed rushed, and I know this won’t be the last we see of Kammi.

Volume Three: Snake Doctor

In this volume we get some stand alone stories that do some world building for Harrow County. But I most enjoyed the middle story that centered on the appealing Bernice. It turns out Emmy doesn’t have the corner on magic, and Bernice becomes an apprentice of sorts to a snake handling witch who hunts out snakes that are manifestations of evil.  This should lead to Bernice being more of a partner to her best friend, which is a promising direction.

Two other artists are featured in chapters one and four and I did not like it at all. They don’t even try to mimic the style of Tyler Crook, and it is his evocative art that defines the series. I have always liked series that were consistent with their author and artist such as Locke and Key, Revival, The Walking Dead, Manifest Destiny and The Wicked & The Divine. But perhaps that observation should be the subject a future discussion post…

Volume Four: Family Tree

In the fourth volume we finally get some back story on Hester’s powers and meet some magical “family members”. Odessa, who had been referred to in the previous volume, is shown, and while she seems to be a sort of mentor to Emmy, she and the others want to destroy Harrow County and all it’s inhabitants so Emmy will stay with them. Well, Emmy won’t accept that, and it turns out her so-called family underestimated her powers. This was a typical origins story- some answers are given, while raising many more.

Cullen Bunn’s story remains strong, as did Crook’s art. My reviews of the remaining four volumes won’t be far behind, as I am *dying* to find out the rest of Emmy’s story!

-Nancy

Check out my other Harrow County reviews: Volume One, Volumes Five-Six, Volumes Seven-Eight

Harrow County: Countless Haints

Harrow County is an eerie southern gothic fairy tale, and after recently reading Bone Parish and now this, Cullen Bunn is becoming a favorite author of mine.

The opening pages begin with the hanging of suspected witch Hester Beck. As she is hanging from a tree while lit on fire, she swears revenge and tells the surrounding crowd that she will be back.  This old burnt hanging tree is on the edge of the property of teen Emmy and her widowed father. Emmy is about to turn eighteen and is helping her father with a calf’s birth, when a traveling salesman and his granddaughter Bernice arrive on the farm. The two men speak privately about their worries that Emmy could be a reincarnated Hester, and that her birthday will reveal a hidden evil. Later when Emmy is exploring the nearby woods, she discovers her first haint, a skinless boy that speaks to her. It is his later warnings that alert Emmy that danger is near, and her seemingly kind father doesn’t even trust her. A showdown occurs, and secret alliances are revealed. Who can Emmy trust? Her father? Bernice? The skinned boy? Can she even trust herself?

The story has a lot of potential, as Emmy is shown as a young woman who is trying desperately to understand the mysteries of her possible origin and the decades long secrets that the townspeople have. This is a much better adaptation of that sort of story than the disappointing Wytches. The title hints that countless more ghostly haints will be discovered, and how Emmy reacts and utilizes them will certainly be intriguing.

Illustrated by Tyler Crook, he creates an atmospheric southern locale with believable and varied townspeople. His dark woods scenes are my favorite, with his spooky corners that could harbor sinister haints. He opened each new chapter with a two page spread that somehow incorporated the words Harrow County into the background, and I enjoyed looking for how he would do it each time. His artwork is reminiscent of Emily Carroll’s work in Through the Woods, and the comparison holds up because both Carroll and Crook draw their characters young looking with an apple cheeked motif. In this case, Emmy was drawn way too young looking. At eighteen years old, she should have been drawn as a young woman and not so child-like, but other than that complaint, the artwork is a perfect match for the story.

As this was the first of an eight book series, I aim to visit Harrow County more in the future and see what awaits Emmy!

-Nancy

Check out my other Harrow County reviews: Volumes Two-Four, Volumes Five-Six & Volumes Seven-Eight

Bunn, Cullen & Tyler Crook. Harrow County: Countless Haints. 2015.

Best Reads of 2018

It’s that time of year again! Here we’ve compiled our list of the ten best books we’ve read in 2018, and their consequent reviews, in no particular order. Enjoy!

Continue reading “Best Reads of 2018”

The Massive: Black Pacific

Earth has suffered several catastrophic environmental disasters in the space of a year, resulting in mass deaths and a new political order. Two marine conservation boats, part of the group Ninth Wave, survive the chaos but become separated from one another.

Text in yellow boxes detail the many ruinous events that led to environmental and societal collapse. In fact some events truly changed the landscape with coastlines and islands being especially hard hit. In the face of this, Captain Callum Israel of the trawler Kapital searches for sister ship The Massive.  Along with Israel there is mercenary Mag, mysterious Mary and other idealistic but weary crew members. This small crew of hardy environmentalists question if they can keep to their no-violence pledge in the midst of attacks from pirates, assassins and the dangers of changed ecosystems.

To be honest, not a lot happened in this first volume. Author Brian Wood, whom I’ve been reading a lot of, is busy world building so the Kapital just seems to aimlessly travel around the world looking for any clues of The Massive’s location. Just when they seem to have found a signal from the ship, nope, they’re wrong. The repetitiveness got old and I’m questioning Mary’s origins. She seems too good to be true, and her background knowledge and ability to survive catastrophes seems suspicious.

The artwork has an extremely muted color palette, symbolizing the postapocalyptic new world, and has certain color schemes that represent the time shifts in the narrative.  The stylized ways the characters were drawn took some getting used to, but I soon came to appreciate the design format and wondered why I found it problematic at first. There was welcome diversity in the crew and in the ports they visited, with a hipster vibe throughout.

While not bad, this story was underwhelming. Although I liked how Wood made this world seem plausible (except for Mary) and presented real ethical dilemmas, it didn’t grab my attention like much of his other work has. I don’t believe I will continue with this series.

-Nancy

Image result for the massive brian wood black pacific
Wood, Brian, Kristian Donaldson, Garry Brown & Dave Stewert. The Massive. 2013.

Rebels: These Free and Independent States

I am having a love affair with Brian Wood this year! Having discovered Briggs Land last year, this year I have devoured it’s sequel Lone Wolves, volumes one-three of his Viking saga Northlanders, the first Rebels about the Revolutionary War, and now this companion piece about the War of 1812.

In the first volume A Well Regulated Militia, Wood first gives us a lengthy portrait of the fictional character Seth Abbott and his journey from farm boy to one of the well respected leaders of the Green Mountain Boys. Then we are given shorter non-linear vignettes of other loyalists and patriots and their contributions to the war. This second historical fiction graphic novel follows suit.

These Free and Independent States

In this continuation, we revisit Vermont to find that Seth’s son John is a boat-making savant. Spanning the years from 1786 to 1816, John comes to age as the new nation faces several threats and a new Navy is commissioned. John’s parents discover he has a fascination and an aptitude for building ships. Nowadays we might call these traits autism, but despite having no name for it, Seth and Mercy recognize his gifts and apprentice him to a master ship builder out of Boston. His careful work is integral when building the USS Constitution, which was later nicknamed Old Ironsides during the War of 1812. His work is so all consuming he is oblivious to Alice, a young woman he has known since childhood, who has taken a fancy to him. When the ship goes to sea he signs up to be a soldier on it, just so he can remain on the ship he has claimed as his own. His obsession proves to be his downfall, but luckily he has some allies who remain dedicated to him. The story ends with an improbable conclusion.

Image result for rebels these free and independent statesThe Virginian

A short story about George Washington when he was a Lieutenant Colonel and his actions in the Ohio River Valley in 1753. This portrayal shows him an an impulsive young soldier, who was worried about how he would be depicted, and how he was not always a man of his word. This representation certainly does not show him in a good light, as his foolhardy actions don’t match his later reputation as one of our founding fathers and the nation’s first president.

Brooklyn Heights

An orphaned brother and sister cling to their New York homestead from 1777-1783. These two plucky siblings discover a secret stash of gold that the British lost and offer it to the leaders at Valley Forge.The ending with it’s time jump defied logic. I wanted to like this story but couldn’t.

The Green Mountain Boys

Captain Ethan Allen gets the spotlight in this last short story. In 1775 he petitions the Continental Congress for recognition and funds for the soldiers he leads.  But the Battle of Fort Ticonderoga proved the Green Mountain Boys were worth every penny that the government reluctantly gave them.

The artwork throughout the entire novel is strong, although you can tell different artists are utilized in the last two stories. The drawing is sketchy, with a light green and yellow color palette. You can tell much research went into the panels to depict colonial life with impressive details of the ships in the first story. This is yet another example of the excellent historical work that I have come to expect from Wood and his team of artists.  I will absolutely pick up whatever he puts out next in any of the series I mentioned in this post!

-Nancy

Image result for rebels these free and independent states

Rebels: A Well Regulated Militia

“A historical epic of America’s founding” is very accurate in describing this exceptionally good graphic novel with it’s window into the Revolutionary War era based in the NE corner of our new nation in the late 1700’s.

Divided into six chapters, author Brian Wood first gives us a lengthy portrait of the fictional character Seth Abbott and his journey from farm boy to one of the well respected leaders of the Green Mountain Boys. Then we are given shorter non-linear vignettes of other loyalists and patriots and their contributions to the war.

A Well-Regulated Militia

We first meet Seth in 1768 as a boy with a gruff father in the New Hampshire (later to become Vermont) wilderness, eking out a homestead.  English soldiers in the region are hated by the settlers, who are there under the New Hampshire grants.  Skipping ahead to 1775, seventeen year old Seth marries teen-aged Mercy after her father is forced off his land by the redcoats. The young couple establish their own household, but local Ethan Allen easily convinces him to join his militia regiment. At first fighting for their region’s independence, he then is willing to fight for the entire colonies’ independence. He ends up being away from his wife for seven years, and while certainly in danger during battles, Seth views his time with the militia as a grand adventure with his best friend Ezekiel, a fellow soldier. In 1783 Seth finally comes home to Mercy discovering a son, as he had been unaware his wife was pregnant when he left.

This narrative was a fascinating look into an average farmer’s life and the threats they faced from the British and the local Loyalists. The battles that Seth participated in and the living conditions of the soldiers were shown in detail, and you could feel the backbreaking labor and fear they lived with. It also showed a nuanced view of the women left behind, as Mercy suffered just as much while being forced to fend for herself in an unforgiving wilderness.

Image result for rebels brian wood

Goodwife, Follower, Patriot, Republican

Ever hear of the iconic folklore story of Molly Pitcher who stepped into battle to keep the canon shooting when her husband was shot? This story focuses on fictional Sarah Hull who in 1777 was the Battle of Saratoga’s “Molly Pitcher”. In later years her dying husband makes a plea for the government to give her a soldier’s pension for the work she provided. How her effort is disregarded by the representatives ties in with how sometimes women of today are also treated with indifference for their invaluable contributions.

Image result for rebels brian wood

Liberty’s Daughter

Silence Bright, a young woman of mixed race, is caught printing and distributing leaflets in Boston that criticize the British in 1768. Thrown into Newgate Prison she is unbowed and the awesome quotes that I shall take to heart- “beware the bookish woman” and “hold fast” are used as she defiantly refuses to submit.

Image result for rebels brian wood libertys daughter

Occupation

In 1775 we are given a brief glimpse of Seth Abbott again in NYC as he holed up in an attic with free black Clayton Freeman. Seth can not understand why Clayton is a Loyalist, and fighting for a corrupt regime for he tries to convince Clayton that he should be fighting for the freedom of the colonies. What he doesn’t understand is that “freedom” will not come for all, and that many blacks made the hard choice of fighting for the Crown that promised them freedom and passage away from the colonies. This vignette made me think of our current president, especially with the quote “…how were the lies of King George (Trump) at all appealing? Was there something we were missing?”

Stone Hoof

A young Shawnee brave, Stone Hoof, helps soldiers build Fort Stalwart in the Ohio River Valley in 1750 and befriends Will Henderson. As his tribe are migrants, he is in and out of the region over the years until 1757 when his tribe attacks the fort, as they have aligned with the French who are fighting the British for this territory.  As both he and Henderson survive the battle, they meet for one last time, and each try to understand why the other believes what they do.

Image result for rebels brian wood stone hoof

 

Bloody Backs

In 1769 a young man in a London is given a choice- go to prison or head to the colonies as a British soldier. He clings to his idealism and loyalty to the Crown as he miserably slogs  through battle after battle. He meets an ignoble end by a Green Mountain Boy at the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780, never having achieved a rank higher than a lowly private, and for what- glory?

Image result for rebels brian wood bloody backs

The artwork throughout all the stories is superb. Several artists contributed to the six stories, and all convey an authentic feel to this era and region. The grittiness of wilderness living and the gore of war are shown in a realistic manner, with coloring that is evocative and helps convey the story even more effectively. I want to give a special shout out to artist Tula Lotay, who created each chapter’s cover art. Each page she creates is a beautiful homage to the coming story. In addition the extras at the end give some insight to the making of the book with some great essays by the author and some of the artists.

With this book, plus his outstanding Briggs Land,  Wood has vaulted onto the list of my top ten favorite authors of graphic novels! I will absolutely be checking out Wood’s Viking saga Northlanders and will pick up all future work in this series.

-Nancy

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